Sunday sampler

Greensboro: The News & Record tries to answer the question of what Louis DeJoy is doing as Postmaster General and why the multimillionaire even took the position. He may have taken the job because he thinks he can help the Postal Service, but, if so, he’s been tone deaf to the politics. DeJoy, of course, didn’t comment. A good story outlining the issues.

Asheville: No “I voted” sticker? Thanks, Trump. That’s what’s happening in Buncombe County, according to the Citizen-Times. “’We peel the stickers off and actually hand them to voters and we just decided that was an unnecessary thing at the polls, so sadly we decided against those,’” she said. In my county, they don’t peel the stickers. They let you do it because we’re adults.

Welcoming the newest group of rock stars

Back in May, I started what I called a post-grad group with my former students with the express purpose of helping them hone their journalism skills and network. I thought it would lift their spirits as they got out of school facing a job market that was, in many ways, non-existent. And personally, I’d grown attached to them and wasn’t ready to let them go.

Now, 13 weeks later, the time has come to end it.

Starting that group is one of the cooler things I’ve done in teaching. We heard from experts on feature writing, interviewing, branding, investigating, idea generation, free lancing, social media, race and politics. We heard from representatives of Spectrum Sports, Bleacher Report, the N&O, the Charlotte Observer, Twitter, the Athletic, the Panthers, UNC, the Washington Post, Emily’s List and a former columnist with the Detroit Free Press. (And I have one more visit to transcribe and post.) Rock stars, all.

Each of the professionals I asked to join us for 45 minutes answered with an immediate “Yes.” They were all generous with their time and advice. Every one offered their emails so that the students could reach out for advice whenever. (And that has happened.) One of my goals was that students would have a network of professionals who have been where they are and have flourished.

But all good things run their course. Attendance has dwindled because some in the group have gotten jobs or the time is inconvenient or other things — life! –get in the way. The meetings were always casual; people came when the could. And, school has started up again for me.

I may have gotten more out of it than the alums. I mourn every May when my students graduate and go on to seek their fortunes. We’ve worked together in courses, and, in some cases, shared some moments. I miss them. I got to stay connected with my former students for a little longer, and that was fun and fulfilling.

I always say this because I believe it: This generation of journalists will be better than the last. They’re smarter and savvier. I am proud of them all and grateful for the time they gave me.And the 2020 graduating class will be extra special because they graduated in a pandemic and are thriving despite it.

Welcome the newest class of rock stars!

Sunday sampler, newsroom diversity edition

The papers in Wilmington, Fayetteville, New Bern, Jacksonville and Kinston, feature a strong column on their front pages by Pam Sander, regional editor of the Gatehouse newspapers in the southeast, about the papers’ efforts to improve their coverage of the communities they serve.

“At all 260 Gannett publications that make up the USA TODAY Network, we have been shifting priorities to better reflect the communities we serve. Our goal: to be at parity with our communities by 2025. This is not an initiative. It’s not a program. It’s another chance to get it right, by being inclusive, better reflecting and involving the communities we serve, listening to their voices, bringing injustices to light and producing change.”

In Burlington, the Times-News is part of the effort and is reporting on the diversity in its newsroom. “For The Times-News to succeed, we must have an inclusive and diverse workplace where employees are valued and feel empowered. We must build and sustain a newsroom that is reflective of the diversity in the communities we report about. Our effort in Burlington hasn’t been good enough.”

Related: “The newsrooms in New Bern, Jacksonville and Kinston are partnering with local groups for an educational and informational session that focus on the needs of diversity communities.”

Wilmington: When David Zucchino was in Chapel Hill to talk about his book “Wilmington’s Lie,” I asked him what the response was when he was in Wilmington on the book tour. He told me that there weren’t enough seats for everyone who wanted to hear him talk about the 1898 coup. The Star-News takes a look at how it is being taught in Wilmington’s schools. “But the classroom remains one place where the troubling but important story of 1898 has struggled to find a dedicated place. There has been success in recent years in carving out instructional time for it at the public education and higher education levels. But hurdles like funding, time, resources and no consistent directive on how to teach it continue to pose persistent challenges to getting it in front of students like Fuller.”

Greensboro: The News & Record reminds us of how far the pandemic’s tentacles reach, in this case to addicts struggling to stay clean and sober. “A month-by-month tally of naloxone doses, the overdose reversal medication, given by Guilford County Emergency Services reveals a startling spike in overdoses between March and April, the same time the pandemic hit — the same time jobs were lost, social isolation began and nearly every facet of everyday life was interrupted.”

Raleigh: In a story close to my heart, the N&O reports on the millions that the pandemic has cost the university system. (I know that adjunct positions are among the first cuts.) “While the coronavirus pandemic is expected to cost the UNC System at least $220 million in lost revenue this semester, universities also spent millions more to get their campuses ready for students on Aug. 10.”

Winston-Salem: I end this dispatch with a good news story from my former student Matthew Audilet in the Journal. It’s the tale of a man given six months to a year to live…and how his love for a woman helps him survive. “Just weeks after the (marriage) proposal, when Nick’s condition was seemingly bleak, things began to turn around. He’s now in stable condition and is expected to survive well past the short time frame his doctors originally set for him.”

Brayden Harrington, ftw

I think the reason this affected me so deeply is because I had a mild speech impediment when I was a kid.

It was nothing like Brayden’s or Biden’s. I simply couldn’t say my “r’s.” They came out as “w’s.” So roar became wore, rocky was wocky, and trouser was twouser, although I doubt I ever said the word trouser when I was 10.

I was self-conscious about it, but don’t remember getting teased for it. Those were the days of neighborhood schools in Tulsa, Okla., and I was with kids I had known my entire life. We were in kindergarten together and they knew me and my funny words. That, plus my natural introversion, helped.

But I was aware of it. And thought about it.

Fortunately for me, my neighborhood school had plenty of resources. In the fifth grade,  I and another student were sent to a speech therapist for an hour twice a week. We met in a room that must have been designed as a broom closet because it was tiny and dark.. But I liked going because the teacher was nice and I got out of class. (Probably the reason it wasn’t until high school that I actually learned grammar rules.) The other student, whom I didn’t know well, had a mild stutter. Watching her frustration with her speech and how hard she worked at it taught me.

The teacher walked me through what was probably simple speech therapy, rolling my tongue in certain ways and speaking each syllable in a word slowly carefully. I was sent home with sentences to read, which my mother, a professional psychologist, helped me with.

I don’t remember how long this went on; my sense is that I corrected my speech relatively quickly, but it could have been weeks. But everything else is as clear as yesterday.

I don’t tell this story to compare myself to Brayden Harrington because there is no comparison. I have the deepest admiration for what he did last night. (Here is the backstory.) I couldn’t have done it at that age. I tell it because it one of the clearer memories of my youth.

Mirin Fader: ‘If you hesitate? Guess what, another person won’t and they’ll get the story’

Last week, Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report spoke with my post-grad group. Fader isn’t much older than the college grads in the group, so she is the perfect representation of what many of them can become if they keep at it, learning and working and refining their skills. I grabbed some of her thoughts here (edited for clarity).

On finding interesting and unique stories:

“You want to write an interesting story that, say, your grandma might want to read. She doesn’t need to know anything about basketball to understand the Brandon Ingram story. The first thing is recognizing that you want your stories to be very human and grounded in the universal. When I think of trying to find ‘the story,’ I don’t say who’s averaging 20 points a game. I say, who’s an interesting personality that maybe I want to know more about? I start with a question like, ‘how can I find an interesting personality to unpack in a different way?’

“One of the main things that I use is actually local news. I’m going to be really sad if all local news disappears for numerous reasons but I will literally read the papers of pretty much every state in America. And sometimes you’ll find like a 300-word blurb about an athlete and you have to ask yourself, is this a national story? Does this deserve more than 300 words.

“You’re fighting for people’s time and memory in long form. Don’t just go after somebody because they’re really successful. I profiled Nassir Little when he was at the end of the bench and everything was going wrong in his life. I found that so much more interesting than profiling Zion Williams. You want to pick topics that are really rich for human themes.”

On interviewing:

“I think the first thing is to frame what an interview is in your mind. I like to go in there thinking that I’m going to have a conversation. It’s just I want it to be a casual conversation where I tell myself lthat I’m just here to learn about the other person. If you psych yourself up and you’re like, ‘oh my god, it’s my interview with a capital I, and we’re sitting here and what’s my next question,’ it’s so unnatural and you’re not going to get anything natural. The first thing is if you want your subject to relax, you’re going to have to go in there a bit relaxed and that’s the hardest thing as a young reporter. You haven’t done it enough to be relaxed.

“I always tell the subject, ‘I really want this to be informal. I just want to understand your story better.’ I find that saying that at the beginning kind of lets them let their guard down. You have to understand that you’re never going to know the person. You’re just trying to create a snapshot for the reader of who somebody is in a certain time and space. So however you can, come as close to understanding who somebody is. That’s your job.

“I ask a billion followup questions. If somebody in the interview tells me, ‘Yeah, I was feeling really sad,’ and they end there, you have to keep digging. Say, ‘you know how like when you say sad, do you mean like depressed or can you help me understand a bit more how you were feeling?’ And then they give you more. You say, ‘well, what was your worst moment? What was your lowest moment?’

“Sometimes you just have to ask for the anecdote because subjects don’t think in terms of anecdotes. They’re not like ‘Yeah, so one time when I was 7, I was in the car. The car is red, and it had a holder for this. And by the way, my mom and I used to listen to the song in the car and that has sentimental value.’ That’s literally not how it goes. You can’t be afraid to ask, ‘What color was the car?’

“And I was like, ‘Look, I just really need an anecdote from your childhood that illustrates blah, blah, blah.’ They were like, oh, and then they gave that to me.

“So, the rich anecdotes come from follow up after follow up and not being afraid to look stupid. Half of being a sportswriter, I feel, is making a fool of yourself. If you’re ever embarrassed to ask a followup, just make fun of it. ‘I know it’s just a stupid journalism question but what song was playing in the background?’ And we know it’s not stupid, but they don’t think like us. So that’s sort of how I go about it.

“If you hesitate, guess what? Another person won’t and they will get the story and you’ll be mad at yourself. And they will keep getting the jobs and you will be in your apartment wishing you would have gone there. You’ve got a job to do and if you don’t want to look stupid or not make the extra call or don’t ask the question, I’m telling you, somebody else is and you’re going to be mad at yourself for being too afraid.

“It’s not that you’re not going to have fear throughout your career. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned is, like, I’m always nervous, I’m always fearful, but I’m going to push past it. That’s how you get better. That’s really all this is.”


Sunday sampler

Most papers featured stories about school openings. Papers connected to the USA Today News Network — Kinston, Jacksonville, Hendersonville, New Bern, Fayetteville, Asheville, Burlington and Wilmington — published what they declared as the 10 most influential women of the past century, tied to the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Smarter people than I can debate the choices.

Wilmington: In 1898, white supremacists took over Wilmington’s government – a coup – and shot dead at least 60 Black people. So, if anywhere, reparations would be justified in Wilmington. And it’s being debated, sort of. The president of the local NAACP: “She also doubts New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington is ready to have a productive conversation about reparations. ‘We can’t even get a mural up and you’re talking about getting reparations written? Come on,’ she said.”


An apology to my students

It’s too late now, but I’m sorry I started teaching in-person classes last week. I apologize to my students for putting them in danger in a classroom, however slight.

I want to teach students in-person. I want to look at them in the eye when I talk to them, and sit with them to go over their stories. I want to have those idle few moments before class starts where we share a laugh or a story. And I want to have the 15 minutes after class when several of them line up to talk about assignments. I’ve written about my plans for this semester here and here. I wanted to do what my colleague Andy Bechtel described here.

I met in person with my classes this week. Carroll Hall, where I teach, was a virtual ghost town. Over the course of seven hours, I saw two other instructors, and only one other class besides my two. (I’m sure there were others.) Normally, Carroll is full of students wandering the halls, lurking outside of classrooms and offices, and sitting in public spaces, it was eerily quiet.

Because there are 30 minutes between classes – there were normally 15 – I could get in my classroom and prepare with no problem. And I could linger if I wished.

Wearing a mask was uncomfortable because it got hot and fogged my glasses. Listening to soft-spoken students wearing a mask was difficult at times. Keeping a six-foot distance from them was constraining because I am used to walking around the class. In one class, where the students work in five-person teams, social distancing was next to impossible.

I could have managed all that. But by Wednesday it didn’t seem worth it. And I woke up to this today, which may or may not have been at a UNC gathering.

I’m going to start next week with remote, online classes. And I want to apologize to the students who want to learn in person. I will do everything I can to make this semester valuable and worthwhile.

UPDATE: Thinking about this now, I want to make clear that I make no judgment about my peers who are teaching in-person. This is just me. I trust them to know what is best for themselves and their students.

Doing good by doing nothing

One of my former students made me a meme last month. Who knew there were so many goofy photos of me out there? It was frightening and embarrassing at the same time. I had to unfollow the site because photos of me kept popping up on my own Instagram feed!

The Instagram site was created anonymously at first. Some people thought I created it, which shows they don’t really know the intense introvert that is me. Others correctly saw the merry prankster Caroline Bass behind it.

When Caroline saw the meme take off, she realized that she could use it to raise money for pandemic care. She asked for a donation of $1 to create a personalized meme from one of my photos with the donor’s name on it. She told me yesterday that some people contributed more than a dollar, and that others, who had gotten the meme before she began asking for donations, circled back and Venmo’d her money.

$100 later she sent a check to Healing Transitions, an organization that provides help to COVID-19 patients. Thank you, everyone, who gave money.

I love it when something good happens in my name and I don’t have to do a thing!

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: The Wyndham golf championship starts Thursday in Greensboro and will be played without fans lining the fairways. It is a strange time here in Tourney Town. The News & Record previews it, looking at its strong field. “As we all know and saw (in 2015), Tiger brings another level of stardom,” tournament director Mark Brazil said Saturday. “But I think this is probably our second-best field that we have seen in probably the past 20 years.”

New Bern: The New Bern police department is the proud owner of a bullet-proof, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. Mine-resistant. It was built for the military, of course, and originally cost between $500,000 and $1 million. When people talk about defunding police, they aren’t talking about getting rid of police departments; they are talking about this. “It is not an offensive weapon,” he said. “We’re not using it for that purpose at all. If they’re stranded in their car in a flood and see that vehicle coming, they’re going to be happy to see us.”

Wilmington: The Star-News (and a few other Gatehouse newspapers) asks, Did N.C. underestimate Hurricane Isaias? Pretty much, yeah. “Holden Beach was one of only a few communities along the coast — one of the others being the neighboring town of Ocean Isle Beach — to order a mandatory evacuation of non-residents as Isaias approached the Tar Heel State.”

Raleigh: Dennis Rogers was my friend. We weren’t close; we were work acquaintances. He was a bigshot columnist known around the state. I was a young beat reporter. But you couldn’t tell it by the way he welcomed me. His passing is on the front page of his home newspaper, the News & Observer, as it should be. “Jerry Allegood, a 35-year roving state desk reporter for the paper, often rolled into small towns on assignment, introduced himself as being from The N&O and was immediately asked, ‘Do you know Dennis Rogers?’”

The calm before the storm at UNC

I went to campus yesterday. It was six days before classes start, and the campus was virtually empty. The sky was clear, the campus green, and everything looked serene and, well, normal. I passed one or two students — all masked, as was I — and a few UNC yard crews, some without masks, which was unsettling.

I went into Carroll Hall, the building in which I teach. Signs tell me which door to use for entering and exiting, and that I must wear a mask. Inside each entrance is a pump bottle of disinfectant, and out of habit, I squirt some on my hands. Decals on the floor  show me which direction I’m supposed to walk. Seats and tables in the hallways where students used to work between classes have been removed; congregating is discouraged.

In the classrooms, decals are on the floor designate where students can sit; six-foot distancing is the rule.

It’s unsettling.

I didn’t encounter a single person but I walked around with a mask on to get the feel. I imagined myself in a classroom talking. My glasses fogged, and the mask was hot. I’m worried I won’t be able to understand students because the mask does muffle voices, mine included. And it takes more energy to speak up; I’m worried discussion will be blunted.

That’s unsettling, too.

Because some students chose to be taught remotely, my workload increases, effectively meaning that I will teach some students in person and some separately on Zoom. I’m worried that the additional time and work will get old quickly, though. (No, our pay didn’t increase even as the work has.)

Still, I left campus excited about the possibilities. It’s an interesting pedagogical challenge. How can I adapt to the pandemic and changing teaching and reporting modes and be effective? How can I keep nervous students (and myself) safe, and energized to learn? It’s been fun to think through new methods that will breakthrough the obstacles.

Then, I see this, posted last night:

I wonder how many students, staff and faculty will have to get sick before the Board of Governors decides to close the campus.