Greensboro: most liberal city in N.C.

When I was editor of the News & Record, I would routinely get complaints that the paper’s editorial stands were out of step with the community, that we were too liberal.

It is a matter of debate, course, as all political stands tend to be. No question, though, that the paper’s editorial board was progressive. Because the way Congressional districts are gerrymandered, it’s tough to say which party is dominant in Greensboro. But the city voted for Obama twice. Still, many people outside the city limits in Guilford County are conservative.

Today is one of those rare times in which I wish I were editor again so I could go all Daniel Patrick Moynihan on them. A research company has ranked the most liberal and most conservative cities in each state. In N.C., the most liberal is Greensboro.

I can’t attest to the methodology. Greensboro is home to five institutions of higher educations, which we all know are hotbeds of liberalism. Some examples:

+ We love our trees, and we demand that the city pick up our leaves raked into the street. We also protest when Duke Energy trims the trees near the power lines, and we still demand power when ice storms hit.

Our ministers get arrested protesting in the Moral Monday rallies. But it’s peaceful.

+ We have a first-class, statewide soccer facility.

+We support the International Civil Rights Museum downtown even though it is poorly managed and can’t support itself.

+ We like a lively, vibrant downtown with bars, restaurants and clubs just so long as it isn’t too noisy.

+ Our City Council does not like the Citizens United ruling — what self-respecting liberal does? — and has called for a constitutional amendment stipulating that corporations are NOT people.

+ We give tax money to companies that don’t do what they promised.

Even some of the Republicans on the City Council think the Republicans in the state legislature are bullies.

But I do find the results hard to believe: It’s not Chapel Hill or Carrboro or Asheville?

I was a dupe

“Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes.”

I wish I had read this article in the Atlantic 15 years ago because I was a dupe. It basically says that people lie on surveys attempting to discover what sorts of news people want. They say they want international news, but they actually read entertainment news. The problems in Iraq and Syria dominate the top of newscasts and metro newspapers. But ask people what they think should happen there, and you get a blank look.

We measured the audience, but we didn’t listen to them.

At my newspaper, we inherently knew people didn’t read every word of stories from the Middle East, for instance, but we struggled with the “interest vs. importance” issue. We struggled with the “give them what they need vs. give them what they want.” I had a publisher who liked to say that “we give them want they want so that we can give them what they need.”

But the “what they want” was buried inside, while the “what they need” was on the front page.

Later, as we realized that our wire stories out of Iraq and Washington could not compete with the immediacy of television and the Internet, we adjusted. Surveys told us that readers were interested in local news — news about schools and local government. We responded with a local focus, and local stories dominated the front page.

We wrote about the inner workings of government — meetings and budgets and politicking. Stories were long on information and longer on length. We often followed the “turn of the screw” — journalistic jargon that means a little something happened but not much.

We were following our noblest journalistic instincts. As Kovach and Rosenthiel wrote in The Elements of Journalism,”  the purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.”

But what if this isn’t the information that citizens actually want to read?

My rule should have been: If the news story isn’t reported and written in a way that is automatically compelling, that doesn’t grab readers by the throat, then it’s not going on the front page. It’s a simplistic, subjective approach, but it would have been more effective.

I’ve said before that, were I running a newsroom now, for the daily newspaper now, I would focus on investigative stories and good news stories. It would feed the journalist’s desire for public service and the stories would have a good chance of being compelling. Now I would add a strong editorial and commentary voice.

I am not making the case that this would “save” newspapers. Nothing will save newspapers. But it would make newspapers more interesting.

An open letter to Gov. McCrory, part VI

Dear Gov. McCrory,

As your unsolicited political adviser, I have refrained for some months in giving you advice. After last year, it was clear you needed more time to find your political sea legs. You and the legislature pushed the state to the right. Thousands of people — voters — protested in Raleigh every week. The legislature did whatever it wanted, including overturning your two vetoes. You were even caught in a few moments of misspeaking.

OK. It’s a new year, and things are coming to a head. A quick review:

* You proposed a budget, and the Senate proposed another, pretty much ignoring yours. The Senate’s proposes cutting coverage for thousands of elderly and disabled citizens. These are voters.

* You proposed a teacher pay increase, which the Senate budget ignored. Its Senate budget gives sizable raises to teachers, but at the cost of teacher assistants, which, in my county means: “In Guilford County, that cut would mean about $10.5 million and 333 positions for teacher assistants and other paraprofessionals.

* Your budget plan for some Medicaid money was busted by the feds so you’re left with a $60 million shortfall, almost out of the gate. (Angering the legislature, which is starting to realize you have a Department of Health and Human Services that doesn’t know which end is up.)

* Moral Monday rallies have begun again, as have arrests of clergy from throughout the state. Meanwhile, religious groups are challenging the state’s same-sex marriage ban. Courts have struck down similar bans almost with routine. While this isn’t your law, these types of protests all seem to run together in the public’s mind.

* The General Assembly has abolished business-privilege license fees, meaning that cities throughout the state will lose a good portion of revenue. In my county, it is $3.2 million. I haven’t been able to find any civic purpose behind this cut except that it makes things easier for business. No promise of new jobs or cut costs.

Don’t you think enough is enough? Haven’t you been pushed around long enough? Your poll numbers are not strong. (They’re lower than President Obama’s and about the same as Sen. Kay Hagan’s.) Presumably, you want a second term. While it isn’t your nature to be combative, it’s time to move beyond speeches to civic clubs and exert the power of your office.

Say no to the legislature. You’re trying to get along with a group of people who don’t seem to want to get along with you. You are the only one who is elected statewide. You know N.C. is a more moderate state than the General Assembly (and you) represented last year. This is the year to straighten that right turn.

Use the bully pulpit of your office to make the case to North Carolina.

> North Carolinians want their kids in good schools taught by good teachers. And they want those teachers paid more than they are now. Worry about tenure later. Focus on the additional salary.

> North Carolinians don’t like seeing the poor and the elderly going without Medicaid coverage. Take the federal funding.

> Watching ministers of all faiths being cited as part of peacefully protesting the state’s policies is bad for business. Begin meeting with the protesters. Invite members of the legislature to meet with you. Listening and talking to your opponents shows strength, not weakness.

> You’re a former mayor. You know the importance of the business license fees. You know it means cities will either raise property taxes or cuts services. Veto it and explain it to voters. They’ll support you.

These are small steps, but important ones for the state to stop digging. As Rob Schofield points out, had you stood firm on your tax reform plan outlined in 2013, the state would be much better off than it is now.

You can take bolder actions when you see how positively these are greeted. I appreciate your concern about balancing the budget. (I wish you had shown that same concern when the state slashed taxes.) So I won’t propose additional funding needs, although slashing state higher education budgets is unwise.

North Carolinians want strong leadership from the office they all voted for. We didn’t elect Phil Berger or Thom Tillis. We elected you. Embrace your moderate self.

“Getting it first” doesn’t matter

For journalists, “getting it first” doesn’t mean anything anymore.

Maya Angelou died this morning. My guess is that no one would know which media outlet first reported it; they would only know where they first heard/read it.

I asked Facebook and Twitter where they first heard the news. Answers ranged from Facebook and Twitter to WGHP-TV and Time-Warner 14 to CNN and BBC.

Meredith Clark urged Wikipedia to get it together. It listed, briefly, the date of death to have been March 28.

One respondent — Madison Taylor, editor of the Times-News in Burlington, N.C. — said that AP filed its alert at 9:47 a.m., about 45 minutes after TV stations around the state reported the story.

(From AP reporter Michael Biesecker in a Facebook comment: “I would point out for the sake of debate that different news outlets have different standards for what is considered verification that someone has died. The first stories out either had no attribution or were attributed to the mayor of Winston-Salem. AP typically requires verification from someone with first-hand knowledge, such as a immediate family member or designated family spokesperson.”)

My guess is that getting it first — I think it was WGHP that was first — basically meant that other news organizations that monitor websites more closely than real people were alerted that a big story was happening. But the nature of how news is spread is so different than it was five or 10 years ago that getting it first matters only to the journalists.

Readers and viewers don’t know and don’t care who has it first, a point echoed by Mark Potts on Twitter. “Who cares? It’s an interesting story, but timeliness doesn’t affect anybody’s view of it. Newsies care too much about this. Amazing we get so hung up on this. Unless news directly affects you, i.e. “Get out of the way!”, being first matters little.”

Yet, many in the news media rush to be first, putting aside certain verification until later. And of course, examples of errors big and small are abundant.

I like the AP’s cautiousness in this age of Twitter. But I also enjoy watching the wildfire of news spread on Twitter. My personal river of news, as Dave Winer calls it, has been right much more often than it’s been wrong.

Travis Fain speculated — correctly, I think — on the strategy: “I don’t think it’s about being definitively first so much as it’s about being early enough to get a good slot on the Twitter / Facebook share train. It’s also important to be early consistently enough to generate a following for the same end. I don’t even know how you tell after the fact these days who broke something that everyone has soon after.”

I hope news organizations are having conversations about being first and being right. I particularly hope they have them with the people who market their station or paper. But trying to be first for the sake of being first no longer tracks. It’s another longtime journalistic tradition that has become archaic.

I personally think the same applies to the “exclusive” label for the same reason, but that’s another blog post.

Sunday sampler

It’s Memorial Day weekend and, as a matter of course, the state’s newspapers front pages are filled with Memorial Day stories. Still, there is other strong journalism, too.

Asheville: I miss all the fun. When I lived in Asheville, it was a sleepy, beautiful mountain town, home to thousands of retirees and the memory of Thomas Wolfe. Now, according to the Citizen-Times, it’s Beer City, U.S.A. But even bigger crowds are expected this summer with the opening of the new Sierra Nevada brewery in Mills River and several notable new beer festivals. Next year, New Belgium will open its massive $175 million brewery in West Asheville along the French Broad River, likely revving up even more beer tourism.

Charlotte: Last week, the Observer wrote a five-part series on the incompetence and inefficiencies of the state medical examiner system, which was also published on the front page of its sister paper in Raleigh. Today, it publishes a story saying the governor and legislators plan to do something about it. Well, the story says that they’ll review it, which could mean anything from nothing to an overhaul.

Raleigh: Many newspapers have written about the resegregation of public schools. The N&O goes against the grain and features Franklin County schools, which has maintained its integrated classrooms. The point: Communities can maintain racial balance….if they want to make the effort.

Lenoir: NPR featured a series this week on people who were jailed because they were too poor to pay court fines, which the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional years ago. The News-Topic has another angle on that. A service aimed at providing legal service to indigent clients actually could put them further in debt. (Story not on the website yet.)

Sunday sampler

Some great journalism from the front pages today.

Charlotte: The first part of the Observer’s five-part series on incompetence among medical examiners around the state dominates it’s front page and Raleigh’s. It’s exceptional and must reading. From editor Rick Thames: “Our team of reporters documented many troubles. But the bottom line is this: Our state stands out nationally for trying to investigate unexplained deaths on the cheap. Each year about 75,000 North Carolinians die. A medical examiner is called in to investigate about 10,000 of those deaths because the circumstances are suspicious, violent, accidental or unattended.
That’s where the trouble begins. The state requires no training for its medical examiners. And it pays them a paltry $100 per case. As a result, many deaths get little attention.”

Fayetteville: The first part of the Observer’s six-part series on fracking, it’s benefits and problems, starts today.  North Carolina lawmakers intend to allow fracking, and they are expected to move swiftly this year to enact proposed rules for how the industry will operate. Republican leaders, who have campaigned on domestic energy drilling, are touting natural gas production as the next new industry to sustain an economy that once relied on tobacco, textiles and furniture. Legislators also seem to be willing to allow secrecy around the process, which is unforgivable. I’ll be following this closely.

High Point: The first part of the Enterprise’s three-part series on the death of a young High Point man who leapt to his death at Niagara Falls. It’s a compelling, sad story of a talented young man with a mental illness.

Greensboro: Segregation is back in Guilford County schools as it is in school across the country. The News & Record revisits the issue on the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. Today, minorities make up 90 percent or more of enrollment at about one-fourth of the Guilford system’s schools, according to state data. That’s what UCLA researchers describe as “intensely segregated.

What will it take to fix news?

A friend of mine in summer school at UNC-Chapel Hill tweeted that she was learning more about religion in her philosophy class than she ever has in church.

I responded that that’s the difference in teaching and preaching.

That thought coincided with one I’ve been having more and more frequently, and I’m going to do some preaching: What will it take for news leadership to move more aggressively into the future? How much research into where the audience is and what it wants will it take? How many reports on what news organizations need to do to stride into the future will it take? How many financial spreadsheets on the decline of readership, audience share and profit will it take?

No question there have been efforts. When I was editor of the News & Record, we made attempts to go where the readers are, but ultimately they failed because of an unfocused strategy, weak leadership and an emphasis on the wrong things. Other outlets are pushing into the 21st century, and pockets of journalists are embracing the culture.

But they’re the minority. Newspapers have cut costs, eliminated coverage, reduced newsprint and laid off staff. They have cut circulation areas and replaced customer service with voicemail. They have ignored readership interests and needs. They have installed paywalls, littered home pages with banner ads, pop-ups, pop-unders and rich media that grab the visitor’s attention with the tenacity of a panhandler begging for spare change.

I understand the financial incentive. Owners and shareholders want profits to climb. It’s the American way. But something more important is at stake: the future of the business. And as the cartoon posted by Dave Winer points out, it’s not happen by hoping “something magical just happens.

There is no one universal answer. Each news organization needs to determine where its future lies and how to get there. I keep coming back to the idea that they must do a better job of finding out where their audience is and what it wants. I don’t think they actually know. My sense, though, is that most are moving too slowly, too conservatively and without clear direction.

Many newspapers, including the one in my hometown, have gone intensely local. But because there are fewer reporters, the tendency is to cover a lot of crime and government meetings because those are served up and they fill the paper. I’m pretty sure that that isn’t what readers want to dominate their community newspapers. People don’t live their lives around government and crime. News organizations need to redefine their vision of local.

Months ago, I suggested that investigative reporting and good news stories would be my focus if I were still running a news organization. It would, I think, cover the journalists’  public service responsibility and appeal to readers’ better selves.

But that’s just me. There many roadmaps providing direction. I’ve posted links in the third paragraph above. Here is one from the New York Times. Don’t like any of those, business writer Jim Collins has written several books that outline a course of action for business. So has Clayton Christensen. (And here’s a thought from Dave Winer, and a plea from Doc Searls.) 

Perhaps more is happening that I don’t see. I hope so. There is still time, but it keeps getting shorter.

P.S. I find myself thinking more and more about Started by two people, it debunks myths, legends, lies and BS. Journalists consider themselves truth tellers. Yet, so much is published and aired that tries to obscure the truth. Jay Rosen has written about false equivalency for years, as he does most recently here. And news organizations have set up sites that fact-check political claims. But it’s not just politics; it’s in science, environment, math, religion, heath, etc.

Could newspapers carve out their own fact-checking mechanisms that debunk the crap that goes on in their own communities?

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro

I find fringe politics both baffling and absurdist. Let’s recap the last two days.

First, the News & Record publishes a column by Charles Davenport arguing for a 21st century literacy test to make sure that only informed voters can cast a ballot. He writes:

In an ideal world, the ignorant and the oblivious would be prohibited from voting. Their participation would be actively suppressed. How so? Prospective voters would not only have to provide a photo ID, but also have to pass an exam on American history, civics and current events.

I, too, mourn the lack of informed voters. If people were more informed then the candidates I support would always win. I assume Davenport thinks the same way or else he wouldn’t propose it. But what if that’s wrong?

Let’s not even address the racist memories or oligarchical overtones in his idea. The imagination leaps at the confusion.

“Wait. Why did you mark No. 3 wrong? Bill Clinton was impeached because of a vast right-wing conspiracy. President Hillary Clinton said it.”

“I got No. 4 wrong, too? No, it’s right. I saw an ad that said he routinely lets child molesters out of jail!”

“Well, first Tillis said they resigned and then he said he fired them? How I am to know whether it’s A or B?”

Now, had he paired his proposal with the elimination of political parties, that would have been worth talking about. As so many people base their voting decisions on the party, just think of the possibilities for ignorance!

Then yesterday Yes! Weekly publishes a story about defamation lawsuit brought by members of the high-profile Conservatives for Guilford County against an over-the-top blogger.

I won’t get into the merits of the suit because, frankly, I don’t care enough. However, the most interesting part of the story is this line about one of the suit’s plaintiffs: “Douglas Adkins is the owner of gentlemen’s clubs in Greensboro where women perform seminude in return for cash.”

I admit I’m surprised. I thought that this whole ruse about rampant voting fraud was just an attempt to limit the people we don’t agree with. Now I know that ultra-conservative groups truly do have a big-tent mentality.

(It is such an interestingly worded sentence. “Gentlemen’s clubs?” Really? Are we back in the 50s? “Perform seminude in return for cash?” What does perform mean? What is seminude? Do we actually think they do it for fun?)

These are the days when I wonder if those on the political fringe — right and left — actually hear themselves. Are they thinking fast or slow? Do they ever think, do I actually want to say or write this? How will I sound if this is printed in the newspaper?

The level of cluelessness and cognitive dissonance is not up to Donald Sterling levels, but it seems to be getting there.

I can’t wait to see what happens today.

Sunday sampler

Happy Mother’s Day! A good story about moms and their role from the Citizen-Times.

Beyond that:

Fayetteville: The Observer has the traditional preview of the legislative session that begins this week. The headline says it all: “Big bills, little money for N.C. legislature.” A good primer.

Charlotte: The Observer previews this week’s “short” session of the legislature, and it’s kind of scary. Gov. McCrory plans to be more assertive. “We will probably be more assertive than in our first year, which I frankly thought was extremely assertive,” McCrory says. “We had a heck of a good first year, but now I think we can take even more initiatives.” I’m not sure who the “we” is, but for those of us who were not impressed with the actions “they” took last year, being more assertive is not what we want. But it’s a good piece outlining similarities and tensions between the governor and legislative leaders.

Raleigh: The N&O has profiles of the Rev. William Barber and State Senate Pro Tem Phil Berger. Both are full appraisals and generally positive of both men.

Read more here:


The future is right here

I’ve had a good experience in every class. I’ve tried to connect with the students in the way that my teachers at St. Andrews connected with me. (Small schools rock; screw this poll.)

But I have to say that “Current issues in mass media” was the best course I’ve taught with the most engaged class. 32 students. Three hours once a week. At night!

We talked about net neutrality, privacy, network, disruption, bias, ethics and Kransberg’s First Law. I tried to give them the underpinning of the current state of media disruption, and then enough shiny objects to keep them interested. That wasn’t hard. Never have I had such a class as engaged and aware and fun. They were a joy to teach.

As I’ve said, they blogged about media, which some thought was a pain in the ass, but most of them got into it and actually enjoyed it. I learned as much from them as they from me. Read their blogs.

Take a look at the picture: There are future media innovators there.