Sunday sampler

Fayetteville: The Observer has a good story about the Army Reserve major accused of assault and threats in connection with the Hoke County mosque. It’s scary, really, how people with access to weapons and hate in their hearts and heads can terrorize innocents. The opening anecdote between Mohammed Khan, a retired Army chaplain, and the accused, Russ Langford: “During that time late Thursday afternoon in the parking lot of the Masjid Al-Madina, Khan listened to Russ Langford besmirch the Muslim people living in the United States and abroad. Langford brandished a handgun and told Khan he would kill him and bury him, pointing to a grassy area outside the Hoke County mosque.”

Greensboro: It’s hard to imagine why legislators are against alternative energy sources, but it seems that many in the General Assembly are, given their track record. The News & Record outlines yet another solar energy business being hurt by the lack of support in the legislature. As you might guess, it appears as if the big power companies are obstacles.

Raleigh: I hadn’t paid much attention to NC New Schools, and I’m glad the News & Observer has. NC New Schools provided college-level classes for high school students and got lots of money to do it. After great acclaim and expansion, it suddenly shut down in April and filed for bankruptcy. The leadership knew it was in financial trouble and continued spending anyway. “The bankruptcy filing shows that New Schools owes more than $950,000 to school districts and schools across the state, most of them rural and poor. Some of the owed money is for training the schools never received and some of it is to reimburse schools for positions that were paid for in advance.”

Why news websites suck

Update: Great discussion about this post on my Facebook page.

This was the home screen of the News & Record — my hometown newspaper — Sunday morning.


For good measure, it includes a rollover ad that takes over the entire screen.

So, quick: What’s the big story of the day? I said, quick!

This is the second page of the home screen.


It’s a mess. Who was served by this? A real estate company and the ad salesperson, of course. Anyone else?

The News & Record isn’t alone. Here is the Wilmington Star News Sunday home  page.


I’ll grant you this makes money for the newspapers. Not a whole lot, but it is revenue. I used to work at the News & Record, and I still have friends there. I pray for the newspaper’s future for their sakes and for Greensboro’s. But this ain’t it. Selling your site to one advertiser, overwhelming and obscuring your news content, doesn’t serve your readership, your community or your credibility.

Rich media, flashing banners, pop-ups and rollovers all grab your attention the same way a carnival barker does, trying to get you into a peep show. But that’s not why most people go to a news site. People want pages that load quickly, are easy to navigate and help you find what you’re looking for. How do these do?

There are reasons that people have moved to social media to get their news, to using apps rather than web pages, to avoiding home pages altogether.

On Sunday, I posted a screen shot of the News & Record’s page on Twitter. Some of the responses:

I understand that building websites like these tend to be corporate decisions. In the case of the News & Record, BH Media Group owns the paper. Here is what its chairman and CEO, Warren Buffett, thinks, according to a column last month in USA Today.

“Warren Buffett is hardly a naif, and he bought up his newspapers with his eyes open. The ‘code’ that he likes to allude to involves figuring out how to make much more digital revenue, ‘blending the digital and print model,’ as Buffett puts it. What concerns Buffett is that ‘it’s three years later and we’re still figuring out a solution.’

“He adds, ‘I’ve got to see the answer. Wishful thinking won’t do a thing.'”

I agree with him about wishful thinking. Wishful thinking has contributed mightily to the downward slide newspapers are riding. Now, websites like the News & Record’s and the Star News’ are purposely ignoring what its users want. Newspapers have been down that road before, and they are still reaping the dire results.

In fairness, by Monday, the home page was cleaned up a bit…which simply means that Tate didn’t buy the entire page.

Here is this morning’s screen shot.


For reference, here are the Sunday home pages of a few of the news sites that won 2015 Webby Awards.

guardianThe Week Times


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O has two interesting stories on its front page. The first is a traditional piece marking Memorial Day. Traditional, because it tells the story of a Raleigh man who fought at Iwo Jima. Interesting, because his story is well-told and worth remembering this weekend.

The second story is also, sadly, traditional because it shows our inhumanity to people we incarcerate. In this case, the state’s practice of putting prisoners — particularly those suffering from mental illness — in solitary confinement is held up to the light. “Prolonged isolation is as clinically distressing as physical torture, according to one of the nation’s leading experts on the psychological effects of solitary confinement. ‘Psychological effects can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia and psychosis,’ Dr. Jeffrey Metzner, clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, wrote in 2010 in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.”

Winston-Salem: The Journal tells the story of proposed legislation that will likely – my opinion and others – hurt five state universities by requiring them to lower tuition. The bill’s sponsor says it is intended to make tuition affordable — at four historically black institutions — which it would do. But there is no guarantee that the money that runs the schools would be replaced after the first year. And given this legislature’s four-year attack on public education, it’s hard to believe this is a good bill.

Make way for the new journalists

Margaret Sullivan wrote her first column for the Washington Post the other day, and I agree with it. Take a moment to read it. She encourages college students to go into journalism because it’s fun and important, and they need to save it.

“I’m especially drawn to the need for journalism that is transparent, honest, aggressive and deep, using all the new tools and with a great sense of openness on how to present the work to an ever-more-digital audience.

“As for the question of just how imprudent you need to be to get into this radically transformed business, I’ll say this much: Given the challenges, what’s needed most are journalists — of every age — who are willing to help figure out the future with passion, smarts and integrity.”

Yet, among the obstacles in their path are owners, publishers and editors who persist on milking everything they can out of the old models without investing any of it toward figuring out the future.

Is your daily newspaper better today than it was five or 10 years ago? Is it spending any money developing new ways to serve customers in ways the customers want or need? Or are the managers holding on to the idea that people will come back or that paywalls are the answer?

If 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,” then many newspapers – and their bosses – are failing.

Today, Poynter published what it suggests is a blueprint for reinventing legacy newsrooms. It’s a good list based on actions taken by a few innovative newspapers. The items on the list aren’t new, however. Most have been around for years in one form or another. I’m glad it’s out there, and I hope that newspaper leaders will embrace the learning others are doing.

What keeps newspapers from making more progress? People have too much to do with too many competing priorities, of course. But too often people within the organizations don’t want to change, even now after a decade of declining readership and revenue. You’ll note in the Poynter story, editors talk about journalists being uncomfortable with change and of “letting go” of old routines. And these are at cool places that are creating the future. Imagine what’s happening where essentially no effort is being made to do anything more than produce a newspaper delivered to people’s driveways.

Want to help invent journalism for tomorrow? Hire the smart, passionate journalists with integrity to take the places of those who are comfortable with today.

Sunday sampler

For the first time in the four years of compiling the Sunday sampler, I find nothing to recommend. That doesn’t mean there aren’t notable stories on the front pages of North Carolina newspapers today. I’m sure readers in their communities will enjoy them. It’s simply that none of them particularly interest me.

I thought of pointing out the story on the front page of the News & Observer, in which the GOP candidates for the 2nd Congressional District show how out of touch they are with most of the people in the district by trying to out-right-wing Jesse Helms. But in the end, it is par for the course for the GOP these days.

I read the Charlotte Observer’s story about a Union County woman handcuffed in Oak Island, but the story is long and overplayed in what seemed to be a “first-world, white people problem.”

Greensboro and Winston have informative stories advancing the congressional elections in their readership area, but they’re typical election advance stories.

The Daily Reflector of Greenville has a fine story about what could happen at Pitt County educational institutions if the feds withhold money because of HB2. But other than the amount of money involved, the story doesn’t advance the discussion much.

When can you believe Trump?

I wasn’t going to write about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton because there are smarter, more informed people doing that endlessly. But I finally came to what, for me, was a stunning conclusion:

Donald Trump doesn’t mean or doesn’t believe anything he says.

In 40 years of voting, I’ve never thought this about a presidential nominee. I’ve always thought that candidates, while I may disagree with them, had a fundamental mooring in truth. Yes, I know they make promises they don’t plan to keep, they weasel, and they sell out to big donors. But they had core political positions, tested over time.

With Trump, I have no clue where he stands on anything of substance, except for pretty women and money. I don’t believe you do, either. I mean, how can you?

Here is what’s driven me to this point, in no particular order:

  • He says no one has more respect for women than he, yet his definition of respect seems to include consistent sexist, boorish behavior toward them.
  • He says the Hispanics love him, yet he wants to export 11 million of them and build a wall to keep them in Mexico.
  • His firmest political positions — for instance, that wall — won’t get done.
  • He flip-flops on so many other things, such as releasing his tax returns, who should be punished for abortions, blocking Muslims from entering the country, support for Planned Parenthood, whether he was John Miller and John Barron, and, of course, HB2.
  • He’s the original birther, despite all evidence to the contrary.
  • He has created a new enemy: the leaders of our closest ally, England.
  • He wants to return us to a time when America was great, although it’s unclear when or how he’s going to get us there.

If you were to design a man to be president, would he even come close to resembling one who is sexist, mean-spirited, narcissistic, insulting and thin-skinned. One who has no experience with government, other than figuring out ways to make it work in his favor and paying as little in taxes as possible. One who considers the truth to be negotiable, and consistency to be weak. One who talks tough, yet whines about every slight.

These do not seem to be core Republican values. Yet, none of this has stopped the vast majority of the Republican establishment from supporting him, after it got over being against him. As the New York Times notes about one niche: “Many religious and evangelical voters are taking what amounts to a leap of faith: willingly looking past Mr. Trump’s three marriages, his irreverence in referring to the Holy Communion as having “my little cracker” and even his apparent inability to ask God for forgiveness, which he said he had never done.”

But the other candidate is a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, so apparently, the devil we don’t know is better than the Democratic devil we know.

I get that. But damn, where are your core values?

Sunday sampler

Greensboro: Building good schools takes money. It’s not only paying teachers well and providing good curriculum and up-to-date tools, it’s making sure that students are safe. The News & Record takes on what seems to be an annual problem. “At Grimsley High, the lack of locker room space forces some female athletes to change clothes in their cars. At Page High, crowding forces some students to eat lunch in hallways. Parents and school officials cite those as just two examples of conditions tied to crowded and aging buildings that they say threatens the health and safety of students.”

Raleigh: The News & Observer brings the HB2 issue down to a human level by talking with Martine Rothblatt who had sexual reassignment surgery 22 years ago. (It’s difficult to put a human face on the other side of the issue because it’s difficult to find someone who has been assaulted by a transgender person in a restroom.)  “Of course I think that the law is misplaced because I personally believe that there is no problem here and I’m kind of a limited government person – don’t make a problem where there’s no problem,” Rothblatt said.

Read more here:

Teacher. I’m a teacher

YouTube Preview Image

On the first day of the semester, a student always asks what they should call me. The answer is always the same: Whatever you like.

And they do. I’m John to some. Mr. Robinson to some. Prof to others. There are likely other names they call me when I’m not around.

Titles, like so much else in the academic world, are stuffy and complicated. I’m certainly not Dr. Robinson, as I don’t have a Ph.D. Hell, I am in debt to generous professors who helped me squeak through to a B.A. I’m not a professor because UNC-Chapel Hill hasn’t given me that designation nor have I earned it.

There is a distinct pecking order in higher education. I refer you to the UNC School of Media and Journalism stylebook. “Members of the teaching faculty are ranked as follows:professors, associate professors, assistant professors, instructors, lecturers, teaching assistants.”

I’m what is called an adjunct. Merriam-Webster defines adjunct as “something that is joined or added to another thing but is not an essential part of it.” (“…not an essential part of it.” Can you disrespect the people who teach millions of students a little more?) We adjuncts are, as the Media and Journalism stylebook says, part-time faculty. An administrator at another university told me that adjuncts rank between administrative assistants and custodians, but I think he might have been joking.

I prefer being called a teacher. It’s simple, without the academic barnacles, and it’s accurate.

And because it’s awkward to call me “teacher Robinson,” I will go by anything so long as they spell my name correctly.

Sunday sampler

Most front pages have college graduations and Mother’s Day. Cool.

Greensboro: Nancy McLaughlin has a wonderfully sweet story about the love between a young widowed father of two and the woman he fell in love with. Make it your Mother’s Day read.

Charlotte: The Observer goes inside the HB2 meeting last week of the Charlotte mayor, the house speaker and the senate president pro tem. Compromise doesn’t seem on the immediate horizon, which makes sense, given the public statements each has made. “We cannot write discrimination back into our laws,” (Charlotte Mayor) Roberts said. “The General Assembly and Governor must comply with the Department of Justice and repeal HB2 immediately.”

Raleigh: Jane Jan Boxill, one of the UNC professors in the middle of the academic scandal, has finally gone public with the N&O. Based on three hours of interviews, it’s a significant piece of the puzzle to understanding what happened. “Boxill maintains she was not part of the fake class scheme in African and Afro-American Studies, led by former department chairman, Julius Nyang’oro, though she often recommended AFAM courses to her students. She said she had no idea the office manager, Deborah Crowder, was grading students’ papers, though Boxill emailed Crowder about students’ work and Crowder referred to ‘favors.’”

Winston-Salem: The Journal looks at the state’s growth through its largest cities. Raleigh and Charlotte dominate the state’s population increase. One in 5 N.C. residents live in Wake or Mecklenburg counties, which is stunning, if you think about it. “Both of them will grow, but Raleigh may have a tad of an advantage — its economy is so much 21st-century stuff,” McCoy said, mentioning the Triangle’s Research Triangle Park. “Charlotte is a little more risky because its economy is based more on the traditional economy of finance and transportation.”

The myth of story quotas

I continue to hear that more and more newspapers requiring reporters to hit story quotas, writing five, six, seven and more stories per week to fill the paper, in addition to posting to the web throughout the day.

Editors and publishers, here’s the deal: you’re measuring the wrong thing. Providing a lot of stories is not the same as providing service to readers.

Here is the real impact of quotas:

Reporters often subvert their good news judgment to reach an artificial number. Consequently, news items that merit all of three paragraphs (or no coverage whatsoever) get turned into eight or nine paragraphs so that the reporter gets a byline and meets the day’s quota.

Meanwhile, as reporters focus on that relatively inconsequential story, important stories, stories that have the potential to affect a large number of people, go unreported. They take too much time, require too much digging and too many interviews. Spend one day reporting a story without writing means you’re in the hole — you must write two or three stories the next day to catch up to your quota.

There’s no relief.

The result: The newspaper staff is worn out and demoralized. But editors can crow that the paper is community-based and filled with local stories.

But that’s the spin based on the wrong measurement. What really happens too often is that readers page through the paper, shopping for a story that interests them. They find little and wonder why the paper isn’t writing about important things, or at least, interesting ones. Readers lose trust in the paper, and they turn to other sources.

You know, the Internet has all the stories any person could ever want.

It is true that every marketing survey of news content I’ve seen says that readers want “more.” But it’s not more “stuff.” It’s more content that affects their lives. Story quotas provide one side of that equation but not the other.