Sunday sampler

Charlotte: The Observer updates us on the state legislature’s latest attempt to tell Charlotte City Council what it can and cannot do. This time, it’s the city’s ordinance on transgender bathroom use. It’s not exactly clear why the General Assembly needs to step in — requiring a $42,000 per day special session — to deal with a local ordinance approved fair and square by the city council, but that’s what this legislature does.

Fayetteville: The Cumberland County sheriff has made it a campaign to get rid of Internet gambling cafes, and he’s been successful. The Observer’s story outlines how the cafes didn’t pay their fair share of taxes, laundered money for drug cartels and had connections to organized crime, at least according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Greensboro: You buy a house and the next thing you know, an interstate goes up next door. The News & Record tells the tale of homeowners who get the run around from their governments on who’s responsible for building a noise buffer. “He displays an exchange of emails that began when he wrote about the need for noise wall protection through his area in a note to Smith, who responded that the DOT could not help because the date of public knowledge is not negotiable and the Lake Jeanette area’s potential noise woes are now ‘the responsibility of the local government, the developers and the owners of the development.’

“So Simmons fired off an email to City Hall. He got a response from the Communications Department that said state DOT policy doesn’t fall under local government’s authority and ‘you will need to be in touch with people at the state level.’”

Raleigh: The News & Observer gives us a primer on the Senate race, mentioning the Trump effect, fund-raising and attack ads. Yes, it’s going to be ugly in N.C. politics this summer and fall. A key factoid: Burr “had $5.31 million in his campaign account at the end of February, while Ross had $292,000.”

Thinking about the North State Journal

Corey Hutchins of CJR emailed me a few days ago asking me to weigh in on North State Journal, the new self-described statewide newspaper. (Right now, it is only published on Sundays and available in Charlotte and Raleigh so….) Corey has more details in his update.

Here is what I told Corey.

“I wish them luck. The state can always use another decent newspaper.
“For me there are three issues: financing, content and ownership.
“I have no clue how they are going to build a sustainable model. In traditional newspapering, the biggest costs are people and paper. Assuming their writers are paid, they have both those costs. It is true that they don’t own a press or trucks, but they will have to pay someone to print the publication and someone else — a lot of someone elses — to deliver it to subscribers’ doors across the state. I can’t imagine that will be an inexpensive undertaking. Perhaps they have enough advertisers to carry that load; I can’t imagine it, but maybe they do.
“I appreciate the content philosophy as you describe it. But so far, everything I’ve seen in its two issues has been old.The General Assembly is going to get involved with the Charlotte anti-discrimination ordinance. Early voting has begun. I know this is just the second issue and they’re getting their feet under them, but I’d think they’d come out strong with enterprise — make an impression. I haven’t seen it, but then, I read metro papers. So, maybe I’m not their audience. Still, I think they need to tell readers things they don’t know and things they want to know. Who really wants recycled stuff that I can get with a quick glance at the web?
“And who is putting up the money for the paper?  This is a huge moral question that they’re skirting. Readers want to know who is talking at them. It’s a; matter of trust. (See Jay Rosen and the Las Vegas paper.)
“What are they doing? I take them at their word…and I doubt they’ll be at it for too long because they’ll run out of money. If I were a suspicious guy, I might think they’re doing it to further the GOP’s causes statewide. This is a hot election year, and some people think McCrory and Burr are vulnerable. The metro papers’ editorial boards routinely attack actions of the General Assembly. And newspaper readers tend to be 60+, and there is a political constituency there that isn’t being served by some newspapers. Starting a conservative voice would serve them.
“A lot of this could be put to rest if they’d reveal their funders.Or, rather, their owners. If they truly want to be a good newspaper, they have to begin by being transparent.
“Written off the top of my head.”
Now that I’ve read Corey’s piece, I see that Neal Robbins is the publisher.
I am charmed by the vision that the staff journalists have about how and what people want from a newspaper, and how they can’t get it cheaper and easier digitally. The demographics of newspaper readership are working against them. (We are dying out.) The intense competition for news and information is working against them. (Every story on the most recent front page was available in many newspapers and across the web sometimes days earlier.) Distribution itself is working against them. (Because the post office will deliver the paper in rural areas, the paper won’t be there at breakfast time.)
I hope they succeed. But their vision seems more like a wishful dream than a smart business decision.

A how-to newspaper digital guide that will be ignored

Less than half of Americans (41%) said they might be willing to buy a digital subscription to a newspaper provided that they are presented with a persuasive argument, according to a new survey of 900 U.S. adults conducted by Meclabs, which examined their demands and attitudes toward online news.

Well, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it?  How many newspapers have presented a persuasive argument to subscribe? (Get past the idea that 59 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t pay for access to your online news report, period.)

How many have offered compelling, exclusive content for subscribers? (Compelling being a key qualifier. News of the weird and every single half-assed crime story don’t rate.)

How many have made the subscription process, navigation and reading/viewing seamless and easy? (Rich media isn’t seamless. Unwanted emails about services are irritating. Metered paywall? Please.)

The report is handy in that it offers advice to newspaper executives trying to generate revenue and readers. It is also a handy guide to why newspapers have failed to capture any significant revenue or loyalty from the digital news readers.

The report provides more data, but little news. When I was a newspaper editor, we knew that we needed to generate reasons for people to come to the website beyond shoveling the newspaper content itself. We knew we needed to make the site seamless.

In the end, we failed, primarily because it took money and people that we didn’t have and couldn’t get. We had a profit margin we were expected to make.

Until publishers understand that winning at digital subscriptions takes resources well beyond the newspaper staff, failure will continue.

Here is the full report and here is a quick read of it.

Special Sunday sports sampler

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A newspaper circulation director once told me that when the UNC Tar Heels win, newspaper sales go up the next day. Because the Heels beat Duke and won the ACC regular season, I’m assuming sales went up. It seemed worth it to me to reach deeper into the state’s newspapers to see what the sportswriters were saying. (Gotta say, too, that I’m surprised by the number of newspaper websites that still have their pre-game stories up.)

The Associated Press: A straight-forward game story. “North Carolina rebounded from a loss to its most despised rival by, well, rebounding.”

CarolinaBlue: Tons of stuff.

BlueDevilLair: Same as CarolinaBlue, but with less.

The Daily Tar Heel: A straight-forward game story: “The ghosts of seasons past haunted the North Carolina men’s basketball team entering its regular season finale against Duke.”

The Daily Tar Heel: The campus paper goes to Franklin Street for the celebration.

Duke Chronicle: An excellent game story and analysis. “The Tar Heels grabbed everything Saturday night. They grabbed the ACC regular-season title outright. They grabbed their first win in Durham since 2012. They grabbed back bragging rights in the Tobacco Road rivalry after four straight losses.”

Duke Chronicle: An analysis, pretty much about what happened to Brandon Ingram.

Durham probably has some good coverage, but the paywall stops me.

Fayetteville: A game story, written from Duke’s perspective. Kind of an odd, but interesting, choice. “Emotional senior Marshall Plumlee led Duke’s postgame march toward the home locker room. Injured teammate Amile Jefferson, wearing street clothes and a walking boot, was next in line. The Blue Devils weren’t a vision of prosperity.”

Fayetteville: An excellent piece on Marcus Paige, his mother and the Duke rivalry. Well worth the read. “North Carolina’s Marcus Paige always tried to get his mom, Sherryl, to come to one of his games at Duke. But Sherryl, a longtime high school basketball coach in Iowa, felt like it was a little more than she could handle. ‘I just can’t,’ she said. ‘The atmosphere. It’s too nerve-wracking. It’s too much.’” For Heels fans, you can’t beat J. Adam Lucas. He doesn’t disappoint, either.  “Do you ever stop to think about how lucky we are that we get to watch all these moments and call them ours? And we have not even yet mentioned Danny Green over Paulus or Tyler Hansbrough’s three-pointers or the 2012 team clinching a regular season title with a Cameron whipping. To those, now we can add this one. And even if you couldn’t watch Paige take those free throws, the sounds were plenty telling.”

Greensboro: A column by Ed Hardin. “A long basketball game at the end of a long season ended about the way we thought it would. Both the game and the season.”

Greensboro: An insightful game story that explains why it was OK for Grayson Allen to shoot 3s.  “No. 8 North Carolina did what precious few teams have been able to do this season. It kept No. 17 Duke off the free-throw line in a 76-72 win.”

Inside Carolina: Everything you want on the game from the UNC perspective.

Raleigh: A column by Luke DeCock. “Marcus Paige was elated, smiling and jumping across the floor. Brice Johnson couldn’t hold it back. He bent over, crying, held upright by teammate Kennedy Meeks.”

Raleigh: The Duke beat reporter’s story. “At times, it looked like North Carolina was trying to play volleyball. The Tar Heels would throw up a shot, and, 65 percent of the time, it would miss. But more than half the time, UNC would grab the rebound.”

Raleigh: The UNC beat reporter’s story. “North Carolina knew what awaited if it had lost another game like this – if it had allowed another double-digit lead against Duke to melt away and turn into a wrenching defeat, like it did the first time these teams played in mid-February.”
Wilmington: A good game story. “Marcus Paige and his North Carolina basketball teammates heard the good news as they returned to their locker room at Cameron Indoor Stadium following pregame warmups on Saturday.”




Sunday sampler

Many of the state’s newspapers have election stories on their front pages. The one I like the most is in…

Raleigh: The News & Observer focuses on one voting precinct in Mebane which is one of four in the state that has chosen the winners of all races for president, governor and U.S. Senate since 2000. It also closely mirrors the political demographics of the state as a whole. And it seems as if no one there likes any of the candidates for president.

Charlotte: The Observer writes that the fear of Trump that infects the national GOP leadership has trickled down to N.C. The old hands in the party — you might call them has-beens — are clear on their feelings about Trump. The current elected officials — Sen. Burr and Gov. McCrory, for instance — are not taking sides because, you know, Trump could be president and how would THAT look.

Greensboro: When the presidential candidates campaign in the state over the next two weeks, they’ll talk about jobs. The News & Record has a good story to remind you to get some perspective and take what they say with a truckload of salt. “North Carolina’s low- and middle-wage manufacturing jobs drained away so quickly over the last 20 years that nothing has been able to fill the gap. And nothing ever will.”

Fayetteville: This story is too wild. Despite what TV crime dramas make you think, kidnappings by strangers aren’t that common. So not only does one happen to an adult male, but an NFL football player? In Fayetteville? And he was released a short while later and it’s just now coming to light, two weeks later? Lots of questions, not a lot of answers.

Greensboro: In North Carolina, you just don’t have city councils — other than Chapel Hill’s and Carrboro’s maybe — boast about being progressive. But Greensboro’s does. “But for several years now, Greensboro’s council has used that language more often — and more passionately — in describing local government’s role in dealing with inequality, injustice and a host of social ills, including homelessness, hunger, domestic violence and discrimination. That’s not an accident, city leaders say. While they acknowledge that in some ways Greensboro has a long way to go, they say the city is on its way to being one of the most progressive in North Carolina.”

Sunday sampler

Many of the front pages of N.C. newspapers had the news that Hillary Clinton had won the S.C. primary. OK. But many others had good enterprise stories.

Charlotte: Think the Apple-FBI case doesn’t affect you? Wrong again. The Observer reports that law enforcement in North Carolina wants in on the game if the FBI forces Apple to hack the iPhone. And it’s not just terrorism, it is any suspected crime. I understand their desire to have access to whatever information they want, but I also don’t trust government to have access to whatever they want. This one is worth watching…and making sure you don’t root for the wrong winner.

Fayetteville: Everytime you hear a politician in Raleigh crow about their efforts in reducing taxes, you should remember this story in the Observer. Welcome to an increase in the local sales tax. “Starting Tuesday, the new sales tax will drive up the cost to get a car repaired, to have a shoe resoled, to get a piano tuned, to get a tennis racquet restrung, to repair a home appliance, to reupholster a chair or couch, to get a ring engraved or repaired, to get a knife or scissors sharpened, to repair or upgrade a computer and to purchase a variety of other services.”

Raleigh: The N&O profiles Margaret Spelling, the president of the UNC system, and some of the issues she faces. I know two things about how people in controversy are portrayed by the news media. In the midst of the controversy, the news coverage tends to highlight the extremes because the news itself is based on criticism. When things calm down a bit, the news coverage begins to reveal more complexity in its subject. In this case, Spellings comes across as conservative, but not evil. I’m willing to give her a chance.

By the way, the North State Journal debuts today. It advertises itself as the state’s only statewide newspaper, but it isn’t that yet. Its weekly edition is available at a bookstore or two in Raleigh today and Charlotte tomorrow. Here is a photo of the front page that I took off its Facebook page.


Writing as superpower

Writing is a superpower, I tell students. It changes lives in big ways and small. And anyone can do it, as long as they write in public.

A personal example of a big way:

Our younger daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes last month. It was a harrowing time for her (and us). She was in intensive care at Rex Hospital for nearly a week before she could go home. She wrote a piece on her blog about “The Day Her Life Changed Forever.”

Last week, she heard from the mother of a friend of a friend. I’m omitting her name. The mother is writing to my daughter’s friend about my daughter’s blog post:

im_a_writer_whats_your_superpower_t_shirts-r0c428f4f8e4d4577b2243bb672c2b725_8n2rw_1024“My daughter read this article three weeks ago, and I am incredibly grateful because she called the doctor right then and made an appointment. Her symptoms were eerily similar to this girl’s, and thanks to this article, she was likely spared the time in ICU as they were able to diagnose her in the office and begin treatment immediately.

“We are still reeling as a family from her Type 1 diagnosis, but reading this article makes us so aware of what we were spared!! She had read it on Facebook and had no idea how it appeared in her newsfeed.

“Please let this girl know that we are praying for her, too. I am crying as I write this because I owe her so much. Her account made my daughter realize how serious her symptoms were. Reading this article, we realize she may have just been days away from a critical situation.”

This is wonderful — wonderful for my daughter and this family.

Now, here’s the other thing: She likely would have never seen it had my daughter not posted it on Facebook, where I and others shared it. Not seen it. Not diagnosed until she turned up in the ER.

There is speculation by me and others that some people are moving away from the public social networks. That’s unfortunate. Yes, social networks can be irritating and overwhelming. But by following the right people, they can be informative and uplifting.

And they can change lives, too.

Sunday sampler

(Image courtesy of

(Image courtesy of

























For a Valentine’s Day newspaper, there were several outstanding enterprise stories on the front pages of N.C. newspapers today.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times has a scary – but excellent – story about incompetent, possibly criminal, teachers being able to move from state to state without much oversight. “The patchwork system of laws and regulations, combined with inconsistent execution and flawed information sharing between states and school districts, fails to keep teachers with histories of serious misconduct out of classrooms. In reviewing states, the USA TODAY NETWORK handed North Carolina an F, ranking it among the worst states in the country for screening teachers.”

Charlotte: The Observer tells a story as old as time, yet some people continue to act as if it is appropriate. “Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested blacks found with less than a half-ounce of marijuana at about three times the rate of whites, or 28 percent of the time compared to 10 percent.” Sadly, the police chief has declined to discuss the disparity.

Durham: When Thom Goolsby was a state legislator, he called the protests known as Moral Monday “Moron Monday.” Then he had to stop working as an investment adviser after his practice came under investigation for defrauding investors. For that, he was appointed to the UNC Board of Governors. Now he wants the board to be even more controlled by the legislature. Because, I guess, he doesn’t think that board members can think for themselves? Hard to say because the Herald-Sun has a pay wall. Still, it makes you wonder if he thinks the board he’s on is made up of puppets.

Greensboro: The News & Record tells the story of a killer who is colder than is outside this morning (17 degrees). Writer Nancy McLaughlin describes his eyes as “dark and vacant” and her telling of the story shows it. Horrifying.

Raleigh: Ten years ago, the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup. Now, the Carolina who? The N&O reminds us how fickle fans can be with a piece on the lack of interest in the state’s only NHL franchise. (True. I’m a bandwagon fan, only when they are in the playoffs.)



Remembering my mother, Marguerite Brendlinger Robinson

It was snowing when my mother died. It had snowed all day Friday, Jan. 22, and into Saturday. Roads in Raleigh, where she was, and Greensboro, where I was, were impassable. I stayed at home, talking with my two sisters and my brother, making arrangements, calling her friends and her sisters, and doing the things that you do when your mother dies. What else was I going to do?

It’s funny what you remember about your mother when she dies. I don’t remember much about her as her when I was growing up. She was Mom, doing what I figured mothers did. I was focused on ME.

I also didn’t think much about her last month alive. She came down with bronchitis before Christmas and was unable to come to our house for our extended family’s holiday celebration. It occurs to me only now that that was the first Christmas in MY LIFE that I didn’t spend with her.  She went into the hospital with bronchitis and, while she was released after a week, well, she may as well not have been.

She had told us for years that she was ready to join my father, who died the day that President Obama was elected in 2008. (We like to say that he lived long enough to live in an America that would have the decency to elect an African American to the highest office in the land.) A few years later, she began to tell us she was ready to die. She wasn’t, of course; she had grandchildren to dote over. But in her way, she was preparing us for the time in which death would come. She was providing us comfort in advance.

What I think about now — remember, really — is what we talked about in her final years. She told me about her time growing up in Norristown, Pa., with four sisters, all daughters of an upper-middle-class small business owner. About her feeling the moral obligation to join the WAVES because her father was the chairman of the Selective Service Board in Norristown. He was sending men to serve in World War II, and he had no sons. She decided she needed to step up. (That’s the kind of woman she was her entire life.) She was proud of her service in Washington, D.C., helping to keep records. She talked about being called before a Congressional committee asking about communications involving the attack on Pearl Harbor.

MB Robinson WAVE

She loved to tell the story of her father who wanted to expand into pesticides. About how he took a suitcase packed full of cockroaches on a train to a demonstration, opened the suitcase…and it was empty. No more pesticide business.

As we grew up, Dad usually traveled Monday through Thursday. Mom was our rock. They both gave us freedom to be kids, to make mistakes and to learn from them, to find our own way. We were normal kids, I suppose, coming of age in the 60s and 70s. Except that mom was a psychologist who worked for Wake County’s Division of Social Services, and she routinely brought home harrowing stories of abused and neglected children. I remember learning that life was unfair, that we had an abundance of blessings, and that we needed to give back in multiples of kindness. I think that was her point.

My sister Louise sent me a copy of a newsletter that announced a volunteer award she won in 1989. I shake my head now at all she did so much for the poor and needy that I wasn’t aware of. It reminded me of a constant at our house as I grew up. Every Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, as we gathered in celebration around our dinner table, we were always joined by one or two or four extra people, people my mother had invited because they needed to be part of a family.

In that announcement was a photo of my mother with Ferrel Guillory, with whom I worked at the News & Observer in the 1980’s and now work with at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. Ferrel wrote:

“I can’t overstate how much I admired her, and welcomed the opportunity to work with her during the years I spent on the board of Pan Lutheran Ministries. Just as she became a Protestant on the Catholic Social Ministries board,  I became the Catholic on the Lutheran board, which is how I got to know your Mom and Dad. Remind me to tell you how we ‘conspired’’ to put the issue of homelessness on the Raleigh city agenda during the mid- to late-80s.

“The Pan Lutheran board ended its meetings by singing the Doxology: ‘Praise God from whom as blessings flow…’ I sing it to myself to reflect from time to time. I’m singing it to myself now in memory of Margy, a real blessing to our community. ”

That note, noting on Mom’s service, her religious commitment and her importance to what is important, touched me deeply. Mom was disappointed that none of her children shared her devotion to the church. But I think she knew that what we learned from her was what the church taught: kindness and virtue and goodness.

Every time I spoke to Mom, she told me she was proud of me. I realize now that I’ve spent all of my life trying to live up to that.


Sunday sampler

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Lots of Carolina Panthers stories on the front pages today. Here’s a sampling from Wilmington about a couple going to the game; Winston-Salem about WFU research that was used by a Super Bowl advertiser; Greensboro with a column on how the Panthers got here; Raleigh with a story on Bobby Bell who used to play football; Fayetteville with a profile on Jerry Richardson; and, of course, Charlotte, which is all Panthers all the time.

But, as I often say, there are other good stories on N.C. newspaper front pages.

Charlotte: The Observer has a good piece on how Charlotteans like to open their wallets for visiting presidential candidates. “For Democrats and Republicans running for president, the Queen City has become an ATM. Instead of speaking at rallies and appearing in TV ads, like they are in South Carolina, the candidates coming to Charlotte headline fundraisers that are closed to the public and the press.”

Gaston: The Gazette performs a real public service by showing how much money Rep. Patrick McHenry has raised and, more important, where it’s come from. Fortunately, there are a lot of facts. Unfortunately, there is no commentary to put the facts into any context.

Raleigh: The News & Observer provides a fascinating look at how lawyers and the State Bar operates — or at least, operated — in one case. It’s too complicated for me to describe well here. Go read it.