Sunday sampler

It’s a disappointing day for the Sampler. A lot of election stories on front pages of N.C. papers today — a lot of local election stories, which are notable for their communities but not for me. Two of my usual go-tos for this feature — the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer — have softer stories on their front pages, and they only vaguely interested me. (Well, that the N&O led the newspaper with a feature story on demolition drivers at the State Fair interested me, but for a different reason.) That leaves me with…

Asheville: The Citizen-Times strips a story about doctors who refer patients to a local hospital getting “lavish rewards” across the top of its front page. But I can’t find the story on its website so….

And that’s it.

Smart politics makes N.C. look stupid


imagesThe News & Observer has an excellent story this morning about the controversy over the search for a president of the UNC system. It would be funny if it weren’t such a sad statement about our political leadership, university system and academic freedom.

Oh, you’re right, you have to laugh at the pouting, the arrogance and the stomping of feet by people old enough to be considered adults. It’s just a shame that they are embarrassing the state. Again.

A quick reminder: The legislature and governor, newly controlled by GOP since 2012, replaced most of the Democrats on the Board of Governors. Then, just certainly coincidentally, the Board of Governors decided it wanted its own person to serve as president of the university system because the current one, Tom Ross, was a Democrat. Everyone on the board said politics had nothing to do with Ross’ ouster, but they give no other logical reason for firing a man who by all accounts has done a good job.

Now, to today. From the N&O’s story:

“The UNC Board of Governors has been called to an emergency meeting Friday to get an update on the UNC presidential search and to talk with leading candidate Margaret Spellings, the former U.S. education secretary in George W. Bush’s administration, according to three people with direct knowledge of the search.

“The meeting has touched off a storm with leaders in the legislature, who wrote to board members Thursday, saying that the gathering could run afoul of new legislation that requires the search committee to bring forward three candidates to the full board for discussion.”

It sure did. The House Speaker and the leader in the Senate couldn’t believe any body would do something they didn’t like, calling it the “Board’s attempt to circumvent the overwhelming will of the elected people of the State of North Carolina.” (Take note: It doesn’t say the overwhelming will of the people, but of the “elected” people. Big difference.)

Thom Goolsby, a former legislator and now member of the Board of Governors, complained that the people of North Carolina has lost trust in the chairman of the board, John Fennebresque. (I agree, but not for this act. For the ouster of Ross in the first place.)

It does seem as if Fennebreque is sticking a finger in the legislature’s eye. Note, however, that the legislation referred to above isn’t yet law because it hasn’t been signed by the governor.

So, let’s do a brief accounting before today’s meeting:

* Freedom to conduct the hiring process the way we want gone? Check.

* Political gameplaying entering the world of the state’s university system? Check.

* Appointees not doing the political bidding of the legislature? Check.

* Citizens of North Carolina embarrassed by the behavior of all involved? Check. And double check.

Carter Wrenn, a Republican, wrote an unrelated blog post yesterday about the political leadership in the state. It rings true here. “Governor McCrory isn’t one of those politicians who lusts after power; he’s more like a genial movie star or an actor who walks onto the stage, speaks his lines, listens to the applause then moves on to the next act.

“The Bull Mooses in the State Senate do lust for power. They bulldoze the Governor. And the House. And don’t allow pesky critters like facts get in their way – they bulldoze them too.”

All of the players in this drama with one exception are members of the same party. The one exception is Ross.

He’s also the only one who has behaved with the dignity of an adult throughout this whole debacle.

A breath-taking Sunday sampler


Last week, I wrote about the declining number of news stories on the front pages of North Carolina newspapers. The News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer — both owned by the same company — routinely have two stories on their Sunday fronts now. This morning the N&O mocks me by publishing only one story on its front. (OK, they likely don’t even read this blog.)

Raleigh: But it’s a humdinger by Mandy Locke. It is the first of a four-part series on the state Labor Department’s inability indifference passivity in representing workers who are trying to get paid by their employers. The N&O “reviewed reports from nearly 50 cases in fiscal year 2014 that resulted in little or no money for workers. If a company owner pleaded poverty or refused to pay, state investigators nearly always gave up, If the employers simply ignored them, the department closed the case.”

A breath-taking dereliction of duty.

Greensboro: The Civil Rights Museum represents a nationally historic moment in time and should be honored as such. And I’m glad the mayor and city manager have done the heavy lifting in trying to get the museum on the path to solvency. (Oh, did I say solvency? I guess we need to take everyone’s word for that.) But I continue to be stunned by the museum board’s stubborn refusal of even a breath of transparency in its actions. “Despite that infusion of the public’s money, neither Deena Hayes-Greene, museum board chairwoman, nor John Swaine, the executive director, will answer basic questions from the public about debt, fundraising or long-term plans for the museum’s survival.”

A breath-taking dereliction of community goodwill.

Winston-Salem: Have a question for your doctor that he or she can likely answer quickly in an email? Expect to pay a fee at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. I can’t say that it’s wrong because email takes time and why should the patient pay. It is an interesting evolution of telemedicine.

Shelby: So let’s end with the Star’s story about a Bible study group that serves beer because, why not?



The decline of the newspaper front page

When I started in the newspaper business 40 years ago, the norm for medium-sized newspapers was six stories on the front page. Then it drifted downward to five, then four, then three. Now in the six of the state’s larger cities, two and three stories on the front are the usual, particularly on Sunday, the largest circulation and revenue day of the week.

Below is a sampling of last Sunday’s front pages, courtesy of the Newseum.








Three main reasons why this is happening:

First, in an effort to save money, newspapers have gradually made their front pages narrower. Starting five stories on the front makes the page looked cramped, and makes it difficult — believe it or not — for readers to find stories.

Second, in an effort to save money, newspapers have gradually cut back their staffs; many newsrooms are half the size they were 10 years ago. Fewer reporters means fewer stories are being produced. Many newspapers can’t afford to allow reporters enough time to produce in-depth Sunday front stories.

Third, in an effort to increase readership, newspapers have been told that readers like large photos and so photos are played larger and, presumably, more dramatically. In addition, many newspapers have increased the space given to promotions to other pages in the paper. Three or four promos seem to be the norm. The result is that they use space that could be used for stories. (Newspaper marketers also know that many many readers look only at the front pages of sections and rarely go to inside pages.)

Let me stop you before before you think this might be for single-copy sales. Sales from the box and the stores are plummeting.

I long for the days of more choices on the front pages. If your two or three stories on the front page don’t interest me, then I’m not likely to buy your newspaper

In Greensboro, if I don’t care about a murder case or the mayor’s primary race — only 4% of potential voters voted yesterday — then I doubt I’ll buy the paper. In Raleigh, I have a choice between a bluegrass festival and gay couple’s anniversary celebration. In Fayetteville, I can read a rainy weather story, a wire story or an odd story about a college no one has heard of. (The college story is fascinating: A “university” that fields a football team, but has no campus, no classes and no accreditation.)

But here’s what makes me scratch my head. Two years ago, 78 percent of newspaper readers were 50 years old and older. Now, I’d wager that to be more like 85 percent. These are people who are sticking with the daily newspaper because they like the ritual or they like the habit or they like the paper.

I suspect they realize they are getting less for their money. Fewer front pages stories of interest — fewer choices — suggest less relevance in their lives. (It seems to me that the trend is also away from hard-edged enterprise stories and toward more feature-ish stories, but I could be wrong about that.)

In a way, I’m mourning the good old days, and I hate to feel that way because that’s not me. I’m really mourning the loss of choice. I’m worried about the stories I’m not getting — the enterprise story that will inspire me to do something or the investigative piece that is important. Are they on the local news front, which has less readership than the front page? Are they moved to another day, which has less readership than a Sunday?

Want to know what’s funny sad ironic? Journalists aren’t actually making these decisions. Business managers are. They’ve got to keep the profit margin high. Cut the number of pages and sections. Cut the newspaper staff. Then try to sell the idea that you’re providing something better or something that readers want.

I don’t think it’s working.

Sunday sampler

The weather dominates many N.C. papers’ front pages. That, coupled with newspapers putting fewer stories on their fronts, means that I have less good enterprise to offer here. But….



(Image courtesy of the Newseum.)

Asheville: The Citizen-Times does what newspapers can still do well: Look at the big picture and help its community figure out and define a future. Today marks the first of a series of stories to “foster ideas and help find solutions. We want to join Asheville in taking charge of our own destiny.” Today the paper takes the reader on an entertaining history tour.

Burlington: Everyone knows the wheels of justice grind slowly. The Times-News documents a murder case in which the suspects have been in jail since December 2011 and won’t go on trial until 2015. Five years of innocent until proved guilty. Five years of no speedy trial. I have no idea if they are guilty or not, but five years without a trial?

Fayetteville : Do you know that there is a school in Fayetteville called the University of God’s Chosen? And that their football team’s name — yes, they have a football team — is the Disciples? Oh, it doesn’t have a campus or hold any classes and it isn’t accredited. In fact, the 45 people – I’m not calling them students — on the football team is the entire student body. Well, you have to read the Observer’s wonderful story about this university football team.


Sunday sampler

Asheville: I would not be surprised to learn that this story on online shaming is the best read story in the Citizen-Times. Two guys, owners of a popular West Asheville coffee shop, wrote anonymous misogynist online posts about their sexual conquests, and they were outed. And the Internet does what the Internet does. It responded and then doubled back on itself. A fascinating story of online shaming.

Greensboro: Remember when the GOP was the fiscally conservative party? Because the Republicans, which control both houses of the legislature in Raleigh, couldn’t finish their legislative session on time, it cost taxpayers an extra $2 million. You won’t be surprised to hear that the Republicans think it was money well spent. You also won’t be surprised to know that the polls don’t think much of the legislators’ performance.

High Point: The Enterprise reports that the City Council is going to pay more attention to the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Traditionally, CVB’s aren’t watched closely.  “Council members said they’re concerned about the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau’s use of $437,000 from its reserves on items that included expenditures associated with its new offices and its regional visitors center. According to the city, some of the expenditures were not listed in the CVB’s annual budgets, which the council approves each June.”

And not on the front page, but how I could not include the best letter to the editor ever in the News & Observer today.

Sunday sampler


Greensboro: “Driving while black.” Doubt it? Don’t. The News & Record is sponsoring a community forum on the state of the young black male this week. Consequently, it has several stories and columns in the runup. The best is on the front page, which only makes sense. It starts with the story of a UNCG student who carries a book bag on campus whether he needs it or not. “But he thought the sight of him and his bag put others at ease — and might prevent him from being singled out by police.

I wish everyone would read this story with an open mind about how so many of our fellow citizens feel…and must act to survive.

Raleigh: Whoa. The N&O reports that Tony Tata, retired General, former N.C. transportation secretary and regular guest on Fox News, had extramarital affairs with two women in his Army career. And there is some mystery around a forged document in the Army’s investigation of him.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times reports that some high schools are no longer recognizing valedictorian or salutatorians. (The reasons don’t really make a lot of sense to me. They want to “recognize more students.” And a new grading scale makes it hard to designate a No. 1.) I, of course, never had to worry about it one way or the other.

Gaston: The Gazette does what only newspapers seem to do in towns — examine whether government agencies are operating in public or conducting business it shouldn’t in private. You won’t be surprised to learn that many of the public bodies in Gaston County hold an awful lot of closed meetings in which minutes aren’t available.

Sunday sampler

Both Asheville and Fayetteville have interesting stories about military vets who took the wrong path. I like the Asheville Citizen-Times’ in particular because of the way it starts.

“CLYDE – We want him to be a bad man, a lunatic even, this unbalanced man who holed up in a church and died after a shootout with police.

“But the truth, as it often does, lies much deeper. Finding it requires a journey through combat zones, a brain injury, lost memories and layers of self-loathing and inner turmoil brought on by post-traumatic stress.

“Nothing is simple about the case of Wade Allen Baker, the 44-year-old Army veteran who drove to Maple Grove Baptist Church in Haywood County on Aug. 19 and then apparentlycalled 911 to lure police there, claiming four people had been shot and killed. Police responded in force, and after a brief standoff, Baker lay dead.”

It’s a powerful beginning and addresses head-on the complexity these cases take. Read it all.

The Fayetteville Observer’s starts slower and takes a while for you to see what post-traumatic stress led a soldier to end up in prison for shooting at police and firefighters. The story is equally sad and compelling.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Charlotte: The Observer has a fine story about border children that are fleeing gang violence in Central America and seeking shelter in the U.S. (I featured its first story about the child who is the subject of today’s story in a July 2014 Sampler.) As Washington discusses how many Syrian refugees the country will accept, states are already trying to figure out how to absorb immigrants from the south. “Charlotte CAN members say they’ve had many victories in the past year, including successful court petitions that permanently reunited families. But there have been heartbreaking moments, too, including kids who brought report cards to legal meetings, desperate to believe good grades would win them a right to stay with their parents.”

I posted the Observer’s front page to note that this is the only full story on the page. Everything else promotes stories inside the paper. Nothing philosophically wrong with it, but it’s hard for the content to make an impact when it’s not on a front page. This is part of the new design of both the Observer and the News & Observer. With respect, I don’t care for it.


Getting into the new friend zone

YouTube Preview Image

The above clip, from “Tombstone,” is classic. Val Kilmer is Doc Holliday, dying from TB, is resting after a gun battle alongside Wyatt Earp against the Cowboys. The key scene is dialogue with his friend Jack Johnson

Johnson: Doc, you oughta be in bed, what the hell you doin this for anyway?

Holliday: Wyatt Earp is my friend.

Johnson: Hell, I got lots of friends.

Holliday: I don’t.

Like Johnson, I got lots of friends. Thousands, if you count social media.

I was thinking about that last week. I was writing an email to a faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I included a link to a Q&A with Mathew Ingram. I started a sentence with “Ingram is a virtual friend of mine” and then I paused. Virtual friend? What the hell is a virtual friend?

He’s either a friend or he’s not.

I’ve not met Ingram, but we’ve “talked” on Twitter. He has flattered me by retweeting some things I’ve written, and I once said that I could build entire lessons based on his articles for GigaOM. But I know little about him other than what he writes. There’s maybe a 25 percent chance I’d recognize him on the street.

I know him on the busy streets and dark alleys of the Internet.

So I asked him if we were friends.

That pleases me, and I deleted the word “virtual” in the email.  But it also got me thinking that I have more friends I’ve never physically met than those I know in real life.

I have 4,800 followers on Twitter and 15,000 on Facebook. I don’t follow them all back because I have to manage my time somehow. Do I know them all? Of course not. Do I consider them all friends? No. Does Taylor Swift consider her 63 million Twitter followers friends? Maybe a handful. The rest, I suspect, she considers them “the audience.”

Two anecdotes:

A few years ago on Facebook, I engaged in regular political discussions/debates/arguments with a half dozen people I’d never met before. They were all smart and civil and personable, but when one of them suggested a meetup at a restaurant, I begged off. I enjoyed talking politics with them but I didn’t want to actually meet any of them in real life. I’m an introvert.

On the other hand, a few days ago I contributed money to Driven Media, a website dedicated to journalism for women by women. I gave because I like the cause, but mostly because a student  I follow on Twitter– Samantha Harrington —  is involved. We’ve never met in person, although we’ve walked the same halls at UNC-Chapel Hill. I can tell from her Twitter feed that she’s smart and sassy, and her efforts are worth nourishing.

Twenty years ago, I wasn’t friends with anyone I didn’t know personally and in the flesh. Now? That’s flipped on its head, thanks to the networks provided by social media. My friends help me, teach me and make me laugh. I know many of my “virtual” friends better than I know most of my own neighbors.

It’s a different kind of friend zone, and I like it.

Sunday sampler


Wilmington: The Star-News has an interesting piece on what liquors we buy in North Carolina. “Statewide, drinking habits do tend to follow patterns, sometimes unexpected ones. Rural counties like Bertie, Greene and Hertford have an outsized appetite for gin, while communities in Dare, Currituck, Onslow and other coastal counties imbibe rum at an accelerated rate. Local bias also emerges — Tennessee whiskey sells better in communities closer to North Carolina’s western boundary with that state. In the Triangle area, it’s the hip rye whiskey splashing into tumblers a lot these days.”

Asheville: You might think that agencies that get millions of dollars of public money should be an open book on how that money is spent, but no. The Citizen-Times highlights a continued problem with government transparency. “The area’s most important tourism promoter, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, is run on public money. But details on how the bureau spends a large part of that cash is kept private.” It’s apparently legal, but bad government management. The bonus in the Citizen-Times story is the inclusion of emails in which the Convention and Visitors Bureau try to disguise the bonuses employees get.

Charlotte: Did U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger improperly transferred the money from his former real estate company to his 2012 campaign? He says no, of course, and now the FBI and the IRS are investigating.