Sunday sampler

Charlotte — The Observer has done a good job reporting and following the story about Charlotte law enforcement gathering phone data from millions of people in an effort to catch criminals. The program was cloaked in secrecy and, thanks to the Observer’s reporting, is now gaining a bit of visibility.

Gaston — I didn’t know that public school systems send letters to parents warning them their children could be suicidal. From the Gazette: Gaston County Schools sent out 128 such letters last year, more than six times the number handed to parents in 2012. Newton took the letter seriously, but said she couldn’t afford psychiatric treatment for her daughter.
Schools are faced with the challenge of teaching children while looking out for their physical and mental health. But is that too much to ask?

Greensboro — It’s 13 degrees in Greensboro right now. If you’re homeless, where do you seek shelter? If your time limit is up, maybe not at the Urban Ministry’s shelter. When homeless people said they were turned away during cold snaps, it made many local advocates for the needy question the policies of the venerable organization. At the time, Urban Ministry rejected people when there were empty beds at some of its Winter Emergency sites, which provide assigned spaces during the coldest months of the year. Those spaces, though, are given to people who are screened and require minimal supervision.

High Point — The Enterprise joins the chorus of papers reporting on the slowness of the State Crime Lab. Evidence against an accused drug dealer sat for months at the State Crime Lab, waiting to be tested while the man was out of jail on bond.
Weeks before those results were returned, the man became the victim in an apparent drug-related shooting. He was killed.

The Chapel Hill shootings and the news ecosystem

Update: Read Andria’s smart comment. It adds background I didn’t take the time to discover.

Update II: For the record, I’m not updating this post throughout the day. The national media have recognized the story. The local media are over it.

I awoke this morning to tweets about the awful killings of three Chapel Hill people. (link updated at 3:40 p.m. Wednesday.) After I got the gist of the story — information about the shooter was still leaking out — I quickly came upon complaints that the “news media” weren’t treating the deaths of three Muslims with the appropriate importance.

The local papers and TV stations — local being the Triangle area — were all over it. But I looked at Google News and the New York Times, and, in fact, the story didn’t rate much. But it was 5 a.m. so I wasn’t that surprised.

Then, at 9 a.m. the complaints about media coverage continued on Twitter. By that time, the Chapel Hill shootings were the top story on Google News and all of the traditional national news outlets had the story at the top or near the top of their home pages. I mentioned that on Twitter. One response back was that the Charlie Hebdo murders were all over the news immediately.

Two quick takes:

1. Small market + little information + overnight development = slow national media attention.

2. Worldwide market + passionate people on Twitter + enough info for 140 characters = viral attention

The background:

Location: Chapel Hill isn’t Paris. It’s a small market covered by a campus newspaper, and daily newspapers and television stations in nearby cities.

Time: The shootings happened at 5:11 p.m.

Information: Police released information slowly. Even relatives of the victims were begging for information at 8:30. Later in the evening, police were saying that no more information would be available until today. At 2 a.m. police released the names of the victims and suspect.

Social media: Exploded with facts and speculation and concern and sympathy. And questions — about the shooter, about the family, about the news coverage. A hastag #ChapelHillShooting trended worldwide. Still is.

It’s the perfect example of how the news ecosystem works now:

A news event happens outside the major media markets. People — journalists and citizens — on the scene tweet what they know and see. (Yes, some people tweet what they don’t know but guess. Deal with it.) In a city without a TV station or daily newspaper, news reports from traditional sources emerge more slowly.

The event happens in the evening and details — details that form the substance of reports for major media outlets — leak out in the darkest hours of the late night. 2 a.m.? I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that few reporters or editors are working at 2 a.m. Overnight crews at newspapers and TV networks might see them. But it’s tough to get confirmation from official sources at 2 or 3 a.m. And I love my friends at AP, but with staff cuts, it’s not the quickest and most efficient operation sometimes.

Meanwhile, people with interest and passion are following the tweets and retweets. Because it is the worldwide web, they are in different time zones. What’s 4 a.m. to me, could be noon to them. The world there is awake while ours sleeps.

The story spreads and, with the vacuum of real-time information, questions spread. Where’s the information? Why isn’t the media telling us anything? Is this a bias against people of color? Of different religion? Of different nationality?

By the time the national mainstream journalism outlets get their boots on 12, 13 hours after the police were first called, many have used this as example of media bias and/or incompetence.

Maybe it is. But I think it’s more of an example of how the news ecosystem works now. Social media runs faster and hotter than traditional media, which is slowed by the need for official information, detail and verification.

It’s ironic to me that people are using the web to communicate throughout the world about the killings via Twitter and social media, but don’t take a moment to search out WRAL or the News & Observer or the Daily Tar Heel to get real-time coverage. They have been on it from the beginning.

But that’s one of the points of the news ecosystem. I want the information from the sources I know. Many people will search for news — but many want it to come to them, to be where they are. And in this case, the big boys — the Times, the Post, the networks — didn’t have it. In effect, they failed their readers, through no real fault of their own.

I don’t know how traditional news outlets address this, and I hope smarter minds figure it out. It’s an issue of trust and of reliability.

Dean Smith remembered on North Carolina front pages

I spent much of yesterday reading about Dean Smith. He was a great man, and, as someone else said, he also coached a little basketball. We all mourn him. Now, let’s put that aside and talk about news judgment.

Newspapers faced a problem. Smith’s passing was announced Sunday morning. The entire world — people who cared and people who didn’t — knew. Newspapers loaded up their websites with commentary, stories and photos about Smith and Carolina basketball. But what about Monday’s newspaper?

Editors consider the importance of the news event, the timeliness and the keepsake value. And, yes, whether it will sell papers. Do you take off the promos at the top of the page? Do you change the newspaper nameplate size or position? Do you clear out the page so that the news event dominates or do you run other stories, too? And if you run other stories, how many and where? Do you use one big photo or a few smaller ones? Or do you use an artist’s version? What does the headline say?

This will be a keepsake edition for many, and it will sell, if done right.

North Carolina front pages did them all. (Images courtesy of the Newseum.) (I would publish the Daily Tar Heel’s but the image reproduces fuzzy for me. Got it corrected, thanks to Bradley Wilson.) For the record, I did not judge special sections or sports sections because I couldn’t see them all. In addition, two of my favorite N.C. papers — Burlington and Wilmington — weren’t on the Newseum site.

I like Charlotte’s. It’s clean with a strong, inviting photo of the coach in Carolina blue. I also think Smith is a significant enough figure in North Carolina to devote the entire page to him.



I also like Greensboro. I’m biased in favor of art by my friend Tim Rickard. It is something of a tradition to make passings of great people with his work.


The Daily Tar Heel took a different approach than any of the city papers. I can’t say it is my favorite photo of Coach Smith, but I like the composition. Update: Now I’m told this isn’t the complete front page. Bottom right corner has his name and dates with this quote: “Everyone on the bench stands for the man coming out of the game.”


The News & Observer surprised me because it didn’t give Smith the entire page. The This Week feature is distracting to me.



Winston-Salem gave the story the entire page, but it feels text heavy, to me.


Asheville and Fayetteville also surprised me because they’re usually among the best designed newspapers in the state. Not today.




Durham gives Smith most of the page, but jams a few other stories at the bottom. (I don’t love the photo the paper selected either.)







Here are others.






Morganton and Statesville and Hickory have the same image.



Sunday sampler

Greensboro and Charlotte — The News & Record has a 16-page section on the Duke Power coal ash spill last year. I haven’t read it all — and likely won’t because it’s more information than I care about. But I’m glad they’re keeping the pressure on. Meanwhile, the Observer doesn’t have as much, but it has this: “A year after a spectacular spill into the Dan River, Duke Energy’s North Carolina ash ponds are apparently still leaking more than 3 million gallons a day near rivers and lakes.”

Fayetteville — The Observer has its own environmental piece about a trace of contaminant in the city’s drinking water. “The cancer risks are most likely at high doses over a long period, and scientists are not warning people to stop drinking their tap water. But, they do want to determine the acceptable levels if the contaminant can’t be eliminated.”

Raleigh – The News & Observer writes about an online database from Blue Cross Blue Shield that “lists prices tied to reimbursement rates it has negotiated with individual providers. The data show tremendous price variation within the state for some procedures. For example, the cost of a hammertoe correction in North Carolina ranges from $404 to $6,864 for doctors and surgery centers. Hospital costs for the procedure range from $4,518 to $13,252.”

Winston-Salem — Nine students have died at App. State since the 2014-2015 school year started? Not much information here, but it’s sure fair to ask what’s going on in Boone.

Sunday sampler

Coach K is about to hit 1,000 victories, which is the story that made many a newspaper’s skybox. So, I’m not posting any of them, which is fine because there are plenty of other good stories from N.C. newspapers’ front pages.


Asheville — The Citizen-Times explores whether marijuana will become legal in N.C. I say not in my lifetime — did you notice that Republicans control legislation in Raleigh — but some others quoted in the story aren’t as doubtful. Meanwhile: “Against a backdrop of growing public acceptance of marijuana, the illegal marijuana market is thriving in the Asheville area. Buncombe County has seen a spike in large-scale busts starting in early December, with local officers confiscating more than 100 pounds of pot.”

Burlington — The Times-News writes about the efforts that law enforcement agencies in Alamance are making to investigate human trafficking. I don’t know how big of a problem it is in Alamance, but how many cases does it take to make it a big problem? Not many, in my view.

Fayetteville — Speaking of the legislature, the Observer harks back to a time when the partisans in Raleigh knew about compromise. “A wise lawmaker makes friends, Floyd said. ‘The objective’s not to go up there and just be a stubborn elected official,’ he said. “You’re not going to get anything to bring back.’”


Gaston — The people in every city I’ve lived in have created an image of another city so that they can look down upon them. Kudos to the Gazette for writing about Charlotte looking down on Gastonia. And the other cities that look down on and are looked down at. “So, does Gaston have an image problem? It depends on who you ask. Redneck, lint head, backwater — ask around about Gaston County’s public perception and you might not like what you hear. ‘We’ve heard those kinds of terms a lot,’ said Elaine Lyerly, owner of Belmont’s Lyerly Agency public relations firm. ‘Not exactly positive language.’”

Winston-Salem — The Journal writes about a criminal case I don’t know anything about, but that’s not why I’m posting it. It’s here because I get annoyed when elected officials who are paid by and are supposed to represent the public decline to be open about their actions and decisions. More than three years ago, some members of the Winston-Salem City Council who appeared in favor of the city supporting Kalvin Michael Smith’s federal appeal suddenly changed their minds after two closed-door meetings. The public still doesn’t know why.” Happens everywhere.



Who had the French Laundry’s stolen wine?

On Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, 76 bottles of wine worth at least $300,000 were stolen from the French Laundry in Napa Valley, Ca., one of the most famous restaurants in the country.

Sometime this week, the Napa Valley Sheriff’s Department came to get them back from a private cellar in Greensboro. The sheriff’s captain won’t say who had them, telling Robert Lopez of the News & Record: “The person who had it was an unsuspecting or unwitting buyer,”

Is the captain withholding the name of the person who had the wine to protect an innocent, or is the person more a part of the investigation than we know? We don’t know. We do know that the person’s name will come out as the investigation continues, but for now, nada.

It’s the talk of Greensboro, if you’ll allow me that cliche. Who has such an intense interest in rare, expensive wine? What collector would actually receive the wine without knowing that it had been stolen? Or perhaps he or she did know it and alerted the police. And how glamorous this makes Greensboro!

Here’s the question for those who like to think about those things. Say the person is innocent and had nothing to do with the theft and was horrified when he or she discovered it.

Do we have the right to know his or her identity?

If you’re a news editor, the answer is yes. Or, at least, to me, it is yes. It’s of intense public interest, the person has a major role in a crime or the solving of a crime. And yes, it’s one helluva crime story with a Greensboro figure, if not in the middle of it certainly standing close enough to the middle to touch it.

But there is a respectable case to be made to withhold the name. If the person doesn’t want his or her name released. If the person can make the case that doing so will embarrass him or her, or it will put him into some sort of danger. It is an argument that journalists hear all the time.

So, if the person is an innocent in this case, does the public have the right to know his or her identity?

How college students get the news


This is how one of my student’s began the diary of her day’s media interactions:

  • 8:15 a.m.: phone alarm sounds, snooze it
  • 8:30 a.m.: phone alarm sounds again, snooze it
  • 8:45 a.m.: phone alarm sounds again, turn it off
  • 8:50 a.m.: begin checking phone
  • Check text messages, respond
  • Check UNC emails
  • Check personal emails
  • Check Facebook
  • Check Twitter
  • Check Yik Yak
  • 9:05 a.m. Turn on laptop and begin work

That’s pretty much how she ended the day, too, minus the alarm.

I had 35 students in one of my classes record every interaction with media they had over the course of two days. The exercise surprised most of them with how reliant — addicted, in the words of several — they are to their phones and to social media. Putting aside the above student’s wake-up routine, it’s worth noting where her first stops of the day are not: No newspaper, no TV for news or otherwise, no CNN website. If it isn’t on her social media, she’s not going to get it.

That’s not uncommon, either. In fact, it would be more common if you add two more stops: “Check Instagram.” And “Check Snapchat. Respond to Snaps.”

That shouldn’t be news to news organizations; it’s been like that for at least five or six years. But it should be chilling to news organizations because it means that all the efforts they’ve made to try to get the millennials — and there haven’t been all that many — have failed.

83206ae67da70662c246b9cca0b92d2da77cae199a14e8d23e102739d5192b2eBefore you read on, you should go to their blogs, which I’m curating daily here. These aren’t slackers.

There are opportunities — they are a fertile audience for news — but news organizations must change their behaviors and their actions.

Other observations from their media diaries:

* They are swamped with media. One student said she logged one-third of her waking hours interacting – reading, listening, watching or posting – with media. (For the record, I exempted school work from this exercise.) But most of them considered their media diets to be high on fat and carbs and low on nutrition. “My diet is not very balanced. It is missing news sources giving me information-based nutrition.” That statement is from a student who reads the Skimm and checks Google News “incessantly.”

And most of it they used for entertainment. “The most common way I read information-based ‘nutritional’ news was either from short posts from NowThisNews on Instagram or from a front-page story in the Daily Tar Heel. The posts take less than a minute to read usually, and the paper articles take at the most five minutes. At the same time, I spent 45 minutes to an hour watching Beyonce and other artists’ videos on YouTube.”

“This exercise made me consider how much time I would have to take in information-based media if I cut out some entertainment media.”

Truth be told, their media diets aren’t nearly as bad as they think they are. Most of them know what’s going on in the world, either through social media, through discussions with friends or from classes. They simply don’t access a great deal of mainstream news media outlets in their course of the day. They often get the news indirectly. But they still get it. (I was a college student once pre-Internet and they know a lot more about what’s going on in the world than most of my classmates did.)


* Much of them are led to news sites by tweets or Facebook posts. “Then, if I’m interested enough, I will read the entire article at its original location.” But the percentage of times that students click through to news articles is low.

“The first thing that stands out is that I did not look at the news at all in these two days. I spend a lot of time on social media, and sometimes I do get some news from that, but I never seek out and look at news. This is definitely a weakness of mine, and I should probably have been kicked out of the j-school for it.”

* They don’t pay for content. For many, the only subscription-based media they use are Netflix, Spotify or Amazon Prime, and they’re often using the passwords of their parents or their girlfriend’s step-father’s brother or some such. (Note to self: add ethics discussion to syllabus.) Many also say they can’t imagine ever paying for news content. “Why pay for something like a newspaper/magazine subscription or bigger texting packages when we can find ways to find or do it all for free on the Internet?”

On paywalls: “I need to be somewhat judicious with my visits to the Times or the Globe, though, as their arcane paywalls only permit non-subscribers to read 10 monthly articles. This is the most overt instance of moneymaking that I encounter in my daily consumption. It is also the most irritating. Paywalls are the devil’s work. Wouldn’t it make more sense to charge a user after they’ve consumed and enjoyed content rather than immediately erecting barriers to entry and assuming readers will reach for their wallets?”

* They are all over the place on digital advertising.

On Twitter: “They are ineffective as I tend to ignore native ads. When I see a post by someone I don’t follow, I just scroll right past it.”

On Facebook’s targeted ads: “I think it’s better to have something related to my interests on my screen than a random ad.” And another: “I notice that Facebook has started showing me ads of travel agencies and offers in London as it knows that I’m traveling there over Spring Break. I actually like these advertisements because they remind me of my upcoming trip.”

* They don’t go to the movies much. Certainly not on the days they monitored, but in discussions, they said they are more likely to go to Netflix or Google-Plus or Amazon than out to the multiplex. And cable. “The only reason my house buys it is because it comes in a package with our Wi-Fi and costs us each $11 a month. If it didn’t come relatively inexpensively with the wi-fi, which is a social necessity, there is no way we would still subscribe to it.”

* They aren’t reading books. I don’t make too much of this, given most of their book reading is school related, which I exempted.

* Like the Boomer Generation, they waste a lot of time. “We now waste away huge chunks of time perusing the Internet because it’s easier to lie on the couch and look at something in your hand than to actually get up and do something.”

We had a good discussion about who is responsible to add news information to balance their diets that are heavy on carbs and sugars. They disagreed over whether it was their responsibility to seek out more whole foods, or whether it was the industry’s responsibility to serve it up.

They appreciated the efforts that advertisers were taking to personalize products and to slyly position ads so that they would, at least, be noticed subconsciously. While many thought the collection of personal data was intrusive, an equal number accept it as the price of being on the grid.

The challenge to news organizations is to be as aggressive and innovative as advertisers and marketers. Personalization. Branding. Positioning. All strategies that news organizations have been trying to figure out.



Social media: Where to find college students

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Andrew Watts, a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas-Austin, wrote a well-circulated piece about how he and his friends use social media. In brief, he says that his peers gladly use Instagram and Snapchat, but only tolerate Facebook because they must. Twitter, he says, is overrated and not used by many. Yik Yak is on the rise. Pinterest is female-dominant. It’s worth a full read.

Much of what he says coincides with what most of my students believe about their own social media use. Last week, I asked 60 UNC-Chapel Hill students a series of questions about their social media habits. * Their biggest disagreement with Watts’ piece is that Twitter isn’t a mystery to them. They use it as a news wire service, a place to muse, a way to connect with celebs, and a way to broadcast conversations with friends.


I asked them to rate 12 different social networking sites on a 1-to-5 scale with 1 meaning “sucks” and 5 meaning “love it.” A zero meant you weren’t on it or didn’t use it. The results:

* Instagram got the most love, with 33 students giving it 5s, followed by Snapchat (28), Youtube (24), Twitter (18) and Facebook (3).


* Coinciding with Watts’ position that students are on Facebook because of its omnipotence, virtually every respondent (58 of 60) was on Facebook. The same number of students had an opinion of Youtube. Twitter was listed by 56, Snapchat (54), Instagram (53), Vine (43), LinkedIn (41), Pinterest (39), Yik Yak (38), Tumbler (27), Tinder (21) and Google+ (20).

* In the end, the top three places by average evaluation were close. Snapchat rated 4.1, Youtube 3.9 and Instagram 3.8. And note that Facebook — which all students except two used — had a lower average rating.

* They easily spend the most time on Instagram, which was followed at some distance by Facebook and Twitter. Snapchat, at 4th, was farther back.

* They create the most content on Instagram and Snapchat. Twitter and Facebook are in their dust. There is some national speculation that Snapchat has peaked, but that doesn’t show up in this group of students.

Both Instagram and Snapchat are photo/video social networks. Draw whatever conclusions you may. Mine is that taking a photo is more fun, easier and more enticing (it’s visual) than primarily text-based services such as Twitter and Facebook.


One expert on teen use of social networks, danah boyd, in response to the online discussion of Watts’ piece, notes that Watts is a white, college student. His experience does not reflect the millions of Twitter users that age who aren’t in college and who are of color. Most of the students in my classes are white and female; this group of 60 had 10 males and six African Americans.

Despite her concern, news organizations continue to face the challenge of how to speak with this audience. I do not have a bead yet on how much of the news of the world these students follow and where they get it. My experience is that they follow the news relatively closely. Where they get it, though, is probably from everywhere. We will have that discussion later this week. I’ll update this post.

News organizations are relatively active on Twitter and Facebook. But my observation is that many of them still use it the old-fashioned way, which is to broadcast their own stories, but not to interact with followers or to discuss competitors content. Individual journalists tend to be better, although many stick to the straight and narrow when it comes to traditional objectivity. Fine, except none of that resonates well with college-age folks on social media.

Does your organization have a strong Instagram presence, posting photos on the service with snappy cutlines and a healthy dose of hashtags? (Check out @mynytimes.) What better use of your professionally produced photos and videos? You have to have some fun with it, though. (It’s always been a disconnect for me: while many journalists are hilarious; most news organizations make the No Fun League look like Chris Rock.)

I didn’t think there is anything mainstream journalists could do with Snapchat, an ephemeral one-to-some social network. But then I Googled it and found lots of experiments news organizations are doing or have done.

This isn’t about saving print; it’s about going where the people are gathering. If you believe digital is your future, then social is the biggest play.

* I stole the idea of asking students to measure this from someone I follow on Twitter. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who so I can’t properly give him credit. I apologize for that.

Sunday sampler

With Martin Luther King Jr. holiday tomorrow (his birth date was Jan. 15), several N.C. front pages had stories about him or civil rights. That’s fine and appropriate and browse them (High Point, Charlotte and Asheville) as you like. I show the front page of the Citizen-Times because I like the design of the story.


Meanwhile, on to a few other front page stories.

Raleigh — The week’s story with the biggest, long-term repercussions for the state was the firing Friday of the president of the UNC system, Tom Ross. Surprising to me, only the News & Observer followed it up with another story today. Everyone — except the Board of Governors — sees the firing as political. No one on the board commented except the chairman who said it wasn’t political. Even the staunchly Republican man who just gave UNC-Chapel Hill $100 million said he thinks Ross is a great leader. Sad performance by the people supposedly looking after the university system.

Fayetteville — As the Raleigh politicians begin to argue – again – about Medicaid in N.C., the Observer dives deeper into to show what happens to people who fall into the gap of coverage. “Denise Johnson works six days a week in the laundry room of a hotel on U.S. 301. The 58-year-old Fayetteville resident doesn’t work enough hours to be considered full-time and doesn’t receive health benefits. Johnson applied for Medicaid at the Department of Social Services, but she was ineligible because she made too much money. Then she tried signing up for subsidized health insurance coverage under Obamacare. Turns out she doesn’t make enough money to qualify for subsidies.” Tough, says, Sen. Phil Berger.

Greensboro — The News & Record has a fine outrage column about court overreach by editorial writer Doug Clark, but I can’t find it on the website. Maybe it will go up later.


When you want to call a commenter an asshole

Truth: A lot of people don’t understand what newspapers do or why they do it. It’s as if they were absent the day the First Amendment was discussed in high school history.

Axiom: Most newspapers don’t explain what they do or why they do it worth a damn. It’s as if they don’t pay attention to their own editorials about transparency.

Truth: A lot of people hate newspapers. I used to deal with them all the time.

Axiom: Consequently, a lot of people hate newspaper editors. I used to deal with them all the time.

Truth: Newspaper editors have to make hard, ethical decisions every day that are bound to piss off some people. What stories to cover, how to cover them, where to play them in the paper, what will the headline say, what will the photo look like, do we get all sides, do we quote people who say things that are simply untrue and, if so, how do we frame that, etc.

Axiom: Editors hate to acknowledge that they made the wrong decision, but it happens less often than people who write letters to the editor think.

Truth: Newspapers are expected to be a big tent where diversity of views are welcomed. I mean, it’s not like they’re turning prospective customers away at the door.

Axiom: I was always taught that it was expected that reasonable people can disagree.

Truth: Newspapers, trying to carry their 18th century role as the village square into the digital world, continue to juggle story comments and social media.

Axiom: Most of them don’t do it well because sometimes the world turns into a sewer, and despite what a lot of people think, most journalists aren’t sewer rats.

Truth: Social media policies at most newspapers mandate civility in dealings with people, regardless of the tone or content of what is being thrown your way.

Axiom: Journalists know how to swear well enough to make Charlie Sheen blush.

Truth: Many commenters know how to get under the skin of editors.

Axiom: Many journalists tend to be thin-skinned, particularly now when so many people distrust you and talk smack.

Truth: No matter what, newspaper editors should always be the adult in the conversation.

Axiom: That means you don’t call people assholes, even if they are and you want to. It never, ever, turns out well.

Full disclosure: As an editor, I don’t think I ever called anyone an asshole to his face. As a private citizen, yes. I have invited people to not read the damned newspaper for all I cared.