When the social networks beat you to the story

Update below

While this post is about the News & Record, I suspect it applies to news organizations everywhere.

On Saturday, I read a Facebook post by Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad saying that his father had passed away. Ken Conrad was a longtime owner of Libby Hill Seafood and a community leader for years.

A story about his death didn’t make the newspaper until this morning, two days later. (It was published on the paper’s website around noon Monday.)

Also on Saturday, I read a story on Facebook about a local state legislator complaining about being stopped by the state Highway Patrol for, essentially, “driving while black.”  My feed was actually little late to the story; WBTV in Charlotte had posted the story Friday.

That story didn’t make the newspaper until this morning either.

There are several possible reasons for this. Most likely, the paper is staffed too thin on weekends so it couldn’t get to the stories that aren’t preplanned. It’s also possible that no one saw the stories on social media or the web and therefore didn’t know about them. In any case, on Monday, with more reporters on duty, the paper jumped on both. Still, that’s more than 24 hours late.

This all points to a larger problem. When I see something on the social networks, I expect my primary news source to have it. Maybe not immediately — I understand how news is developed — but soon. I expect my primary news source to add perspective and context. I expect it to lend credibility to the subject.

When it doesn’t, when it is silent for two full days, it hurts the paper’s credibility and usefulness.

Imagined Tuesday morning conversation:

Him: “Did you read in the paper that Ken Conrad died?”

Her: “Yes, I saw that a couple days ago. Sad.”

Him: “Oh. Did you see the thing today about the state legislator getting stopped for a seat-belt violation?”

Her: “Yeah, I saw it on Facebook Saturday.”

With reduced staffing, there is a clear need for at least one process to be established. Build a strong social media network and mine it for stories, especially during the times when you don’t have many hands on deck.

The story about the legislator was headlined “Breaking news” even when it wasn’t. Newspapers lost the breaking news advantage years ago. It’s time they understood that. What they shouldn’t do is let go of the role of providing perspective and judgment. When they wait for 48 hours to report a story, they’ve lost it.

The community can help you to find and report the news, particularly when you’re short-staffed. But you’ve got to use it.

UpdateSmart addition from Dave Winer.

Sunday sampler

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(Image courtesy of Newseum.org)

Asheville: The Citizen-Times revisits a mass shooting in its own community in 1995. It’s a sad, compelling story with this important truth, beyond the details of this specific case. “Mass shootings across the country have since become a staple of the evening news, with less “noteworthy” cases reduced to simple reports of death tolls, forgotten as soon as the next tragedy strikes. But for dozens of people today, the pain of what happened at Union Butterfield in Asheville 20 years ago will linger for a lifetime.”

Fayetteville: One of the great stories of our time — a story that only newspapers tackle with consistency — is poverty. The Observer starts its series on poverty in Fayetteville with a simple question: “Why are we among the worst in America?” In an equally compelling editor’s note, executive editor Michael Adams explains why the paper is devoting so much energy to the story. “The children in this story are among the most challenged in our community. They are the children of impoverished families who live in neighborhoods where almost everyone else is poor as well. These are children who lack the opportunities for good preschool, who attend struggling schools, who are most likely to face suspensions, juvenile arrests and, if nothing interrupts their path, eventually prison.”

Greensboro: Blanche Taylor Moore is among the most notorious criminals in the recent history of the Triad. Twenty-five years after being sentenced to death for poisoning to death her boyfriend, she remains on death row. The News & Record didn’t get an interview with her or many of the main characters in the case, yet it is able to tell a fascinating story about the woman who was once known as the Black Widow.

Winston-Salem: The United Way is a huge organization that raises money throughout the community and distributes it throughout. Because so many companies have programs that encourage employees to contribute, its operation of immense public interest. The Journal explains the concerns of agencies that will see reduced contributions from United Way of Forsyth County. There are many. “What has changed, though, is United Way’s spending priorities: United Way has decided to target its spending to tackle the specific issues of health, education, financial stability and basic needs such as food and shelter.”

The civil rights museum sues the News & Record, sorta

I’m disturbed and saddened by a story this morning in Triad City Beat about the defamation lawsuit filed — and withdrawn — by the International Civil Rights Center and Museum against the News & Record. And I am praying I’m wrong about it.

First, some quick background. The News & Record has written about the civil rights museum since its genesis with the founders, Skip Alston and Earl Jones. The paper has cheered it on, criticized its lack of transparency and, notably, contributed $150,000 for its construction. (Full disclosure: I was editor at the paper during part of this time, although not for the past four years.)

That close, in-depth coverage makes sense. The museum represents a proud moment — one of the proudest — in this city’s history.

But the museum has always had trouble raising money. It has had a revolving door of administrators, and it has resisted opening its operations to public scrutiny. It has demanded public support (tax dollars) while criticizing the very elected officials and their questions that it wants money from. I know all this because I read it in the paper.

Two weeks ago, the museum filed a libel suit against the News & Record, saying that “the paper … knew full well that the average reader would believe that the Museum was hopelessly mired in debt and could never climb out. They further believed that the Board of Directors and the leadership of the Museum were hopelessly inept and had cast the Museum into an impossible hole when in fact the true story reflected extremely well on the Board of Directors and the leadership.”

I know about the suit because Courthouse News Service wrote about it. The Courthouse News Service story now is a 404 error page. But Eric Ginsburg with Triad City Beat fills in some details. Basically, the suit was filed in error and was dismissed the following day. Apparently negotiations for some type of settlement are being held between the museum and the paper.

I haven’t read about any of this in the News & Record.

This is Exhibit A in why newspapers cannot cover themselves. Well, more like, an example of what happens when newsrooms don’t have independence from their own business.

A prominent institution in town sues the only news organization that has aggressively reported and editorialized on the institution’s troubles. By any judgment, that’s news given the history of the museum and the history of the newspaper. But not here and not now. The publisher/editor won’t comment on it, referring questions to the paper’s attorney.

I get it. I’ve been on the inside and understand how it works. My guess is that the paper wants this to go away and is holding fire to see if things can be worked out. If true, don’t hold your breath for any skeptical stories about the museum until this plays out. You probably won’t read any stories about the museum at all.

How will this play out once this is resolved? Will the newspaper resume its persistent coverage or it will it back off?

Transparency is an important characteristic for news organizations. It engenders trust. Journalists demand it of public organizations. But this isn’t transparency, and while it’s probably good business, it isn’t good journalism.

Interestingly enough, I did read in the newspaper last week that Earl Jones — the same Earl Jones who is part of the group bringing the suit against the paper — said he filed a complaint with the EEOC, alleging that he had been discriminated against by Downtown Greensboro Inc.

That story was on the front page.

Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O continues to report on the relationship between the McCrory administration and a campaign donor who wanted to make sure his donation meant something. It isn’t a smoking gun, by any means. What it is is a sign that the wishes of political donors get attention. And if it were something to be proud of, there wouldn’t be so many people declining to be interviewed.

Fayetteville: How many times does the smell of improper benefits have to attach itself to someone before agencies keep their distance? At least in one case in Robeson County, it looks like more than three. From the Observer: “On two occasions, Purnell Swett has stepped down from powerful positions in Robeson County amid allegations that he misspent public money.In 1997, Swett resigned as superintendent of Robeson County Schools after an audit found that he had improperly received thousands of dollars in school system money. A dozen years later, Swett was elected chairman of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina only to resign two years later, during a HUD investigation that found he had misspent about $115,000 of the tribe’s money.

“But none of that stopped Swett from getting back on the payroll of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina this year.”

No one seems to want to talk about that, either.

Sunday sampler

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Front page courtesy of the Newseum. I use it because I like the look on the kid’s face.

Asheville and Charlotte: Both the Citizen-Times and the Observer have stories about Robert Dear Jr., the alleged shooter in the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood killings. Both are good and both take the same tack: the guy was not friendly and kind of crazy.

Raleigh: I no longer have children in public schools so I haven’t experienced Common Core, which is good because I was the go-to on math homework, back in the day. But as most people with children in school know, Common Core is controversial. The News & Observer explains the issues. Me, apparently like most old people, I stumble on the problems.  Elementary math problems that students were once taught to solve in one or two steps today may look like a collection of multilayered and sometimes confusing tasks involving grids,drawings and models.For example, fifth-graders are taught to multiply whole numbers with decimals using 100-block grids. Finding the product of 1.45 x 2 involves shading two full grids then shading 45 of the smaller blocks twice, with each of those representing .45. The two .45 drawings are combined to get .9.

Jobs to be done, newspaper style

Image courtesy of Newseum.org

Image courtesy of Newseum.org

Ten years ago, the Newspaper Next project released a plan to transform the newspaper business. It used Harvard’s Clay Christensen’s research as one of its tenets, saying newspapers should “understand the job the customer wants to get done, and design products and brands that fill that need.”

Today begins the season in which you can tell if your newspaper and TV station understands what jobs you want done.

If it tells you how to get the best shopping deals today and tomorrow, good. If you’re planning to shop, the paper or TV station can tell you where the deals are, how to navigate the crowds and what shopping scams to avoid.

If, on Friday, it tells you how crowded the stores were today, not good. If Saturday’s paper tells you about Black Friday crowds, it is wasting your time and its space.

Think about what you want to know this holiday season. Shopping tips? Present ideas? Reminders to make your donations for tax writeoffs? Special holiday shows? New Year’s Eve party plans?

Does your paper provide it?

Or does the paper tell you about events that happened yesterday when, really, nothing happened? Crowded malls? Check. Special meals for the homeless? Check. People who have to work on the holidays? Check.

These are stories that are published every year — I know; I assigned them — and they don’t tell you anything that you wouldn’t expect, didn’t already know, and they don’t address any “jobs to be done.”

They aren’t bad. They’re there because they’re easy to do and they fill space. But when reporters are in short supply, is this how you want your paper to deploy them?

Is it helping you with the jobs you want done?

Journalistic courage under fire

“Courage is grace under fire.” — Ernest Hemingway

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” — “The Elements of Journalism’ by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel

 

The most important — and least talked about — characteristic of a good journalist is courage. I’m not talking about physical courage in the sense of the bravery required of a soldier or cop or firefighter. I’m speaking of professional courage.

Once you get past the ability to think, report and write, courage is vital to do good journalism.

I started thinking about it after the Republican presidential candidates felt so free to defame the news media in their debate.

I started thinking about it after the Republican presidential candidates felt so free to defame the news media in their debate.

Then, yesterday, there was this:

112315-CNNI know that it takes courage to say publicly that a popular politician doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. It takes courage to say that, rather than transcending the truth, he is telling a lie. (Remember: this isn’t a simple mistake. Trump has been confronted with the facts. His memory is playing tricks on him and, by this time, he knows it. His insistence that he’s never wrong and will never apologize gets the best of him.)

So here we are. Protesters ban the news media from public and private property. Leading politicians spout things that are not true, whether about themselves, another candidate, or a reporter.

The news media isn’t admired much these days — although they have a ways to go before they reach the level of hatred reserved for politicians. People don’t like journalists and trust them even less. It’s not that hard to imagine a reporter getting the same treatment that a heckler got at a Trump rally.

Journalists have always needed courage to get the story. But there are fewer of reporters today. Publications and networks are smaller and weaker. Who wants to risk the wrath of readers and viewers, or the withdrawal of advertisers? People seem angrier at the news media than any time since the civil rights protests of the 60’s.

But as Glenn Greenwald points out:  “The two most respected American television journalists in the history of the medium are almost certainly Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. The legacies of both were shaped by their raising their voices in times of creeping radicalism and government overreach.”

We don’t talk much about the courage it takes to try to get at the truth and to tell it. We don’t talk much about the courage it takes to speak truth to power. We don’t talk much about the courage it takes to stand tall when that power mocks you and calls you names.

We should. We need journalists who do those things.

And we need publications and networks that will stand by them.

Sunday sampler

In the pre-Thanksgiving rush, not a ton of new stuff that catches my eye this morning, but there are these.

Charlotte: Years ago when I worked for the News & Observer, I wrote about a school superintendent who awarded contracts to a company that then hired him as a consultant. Today’s Observer story about a former Mecklenburg sheriff who granted a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract to a company that contributed money to his campaign and later paid him as a consultant reminded me of that. No laws were broken in either case, but neither case passes the smell test.

Raleigh: The News & Observer has an excellent story on the number of people opting out of health insurance because the rates have jumped for 2016 coverage. “North Carolina’s health insurance rates under the ACA are going up as much as 50 percent on some policies next year, and most of the nearly half-million residents insured through the federal program will see double-digit increases.

Sunday sampler

Here because I like the photo of Groot. Courtesy of Newseum.org.

Here because I like the photo of Groot. Courtesy of Newseum.org.

Many N.C. newspaper front pages are dominated by the attacks in Paris. There are still some good enterprise pieces.

Raleigh: If you missed the memo that being a campaign donor to a politician gets you special favors, the News & Observer reminds you with a story on the strict enforcement of the intolerable offense of illegal parking on the shoulder of an interstate ramp. Thank you, Gov. McCrory and one of his campaign donors who thought it was unsightly. I’m going to think about the use of State Highway Patrol time on that as I get passed on I-40 by cars going 85 and cutting in and out of traffic.

Greensboro: Three weeks ago, the New York Times featured Greensboro on its front page with a story about the disportionate number of police stops of black motorists. The News & Record did its own analysis of police stop and found the same thing. Plus: “The same could be said about Fayetteville. In Charlotte and Raleigh, black drivers accounted for about 60 percent of such stops in those five years. In Durham — more than 70 percent.”

Winston-Salem: One thing that’s different — and not better — from when I was in school is the number of standardized tests students are required to take. All in the name of accountability, of course. “Students take, on average, more than 112 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12, a recent report found,” the Journal reports. It quotes a student. “Diemel estimates that in six of her courses this year, she’ll take about 10 end-of-unit tests on top the mandated end-of-quarter and end-of-course exams. Each of those will take about one class period. By the end of the year, that’s nearly three weeks worth of class time spent testing.

“The sheer amount of tests that high students have to take, I don’t really see the benefit of it,” Diemel said. “Tests do make you study and cram to understand concepts, but usually after the test you’re done. Once I’m done with a test that information is done.”

Sunday sampler

Image courtesy of Newseum.org

Image courtesy of Newseum.org

Welcome to a special edition of the Sampler focusing on the results of budget cuts throughout the state.

Burlington: You think you’re busy? “Last year, the four judges for District 15A, Alamance County, heard all or parts of 30,426 criminal and traffic cases. Another 2,562 civil District Court cases were filed. Those figures yield an average of 8,247 cases per judge.” The Times-News doesn’t bother to speculate on the possibility of a fifth judge assigned to the county — ain’t gonna happen. But it needs to.

Fayetteville: People in the county jail get sick, right? So, you know who takes care of them? “Jail health care is the most expensive Health Department program funded by the (Cumberland) county. It accounts for more than 12 percent of the department’s budget. Those costs have risen dramatically, from $1.6 million in 2012 to a budget of more than $2.6 million for the current fiscal year ending June 30.” The Observer does a good job of detailing the problems facing the county and how it is trying to cope.

Greensboro: Every community of any size has a section of town that is wracked by poverty, unemployment and undereducated citizens. Zipcode 27406 is that one in Greensboro. The News & Record details both the problems and writes about a United Way program that aims at helping the residents of that zip get the services they need.

Wilmington: The Star-News has what looks like a good piece on the reshaping of the North Carolina coast. Groins, replenishing, sandbags — we do what we can to keep what we got. Most don’t work for long, but we keep at it. I say that it “looks like a good piece” because I hit my limit of complimentary page views and can’t read it beyond the front page. (The Star-News has an annoying site that divides each story into four or five pages so that each time you click to continue reading, it counts as a visit.)

Charlotte: I have a fondness for libraries and librarians so this Observer story about the elimination of librarians in the Charlotte-Meck public schools caught my eye. The superintendent has a justifiable reason for using staff members rather than librarians to run school libraries. It reminds me of the reason that newspapers layoff the most experienced journalists, too, with the justification that less experienced people can do the job. (It’s about the money and to hell with the experience and institutional knowledge.)