Sunday sampler

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Asheville — As you can tell by the front page, there is a lot happening in Asheville. The story is fine, but I really include it here because I like the front page treatment. Eye-catching and helpful.

Monroe — The Enquirer Journal showcases the impact that tuition increases at UNC system schools have and will have on students and families. It’s written by a student reporter for the Daily Tar Heel, Sarah Brown, whom I know and admire but, unfortunately, have not taught. “What’s happening right now is that increasingly, policymakers are substituting tuition and fees for state appropriations,” said Ferrel Guillory, a UNC journalism professor and director of the Program on Public Life. “That is eroding, in my view, the publicness of a public university.”

Raleigh — Today’s News & Observer has two interesting stories. One describes how the state legislature is trying to figure out how to get more money out of the gas tax without saying they’re going to increase the tax. I love to watch politicians struggle when principle bangs its head against reality. The other story is about UNC-Chapel Hill, a campus alive with bright people exploring fascinating topics. They’re going to have a series of campuswide discussions about the issues that divide us, beginning with race, gender, politics and religion.

Wilmington — Simply because a person’s dead doesn’t mean they are disposable. Or maybe it does. The Star News has an excellent package of stories about the dead. One is a piece about an abandoned cemetery, and the other is about the number of unclaimed bodies that the county has to deal with. (Thirteen so far this year.) “I think it’s also people move here and they want to be at the beach – it’s warmer – and they lose contact with their extended family,” Marino said. “Sometimes it’s not that people are just not kind or not being considerate. They really don’t have the resources to take care of their loved one.”

Beautiful journalism: Speaking truth to power

How often do you see a traditional news outlet — not “The Daily Show” — call bullshit on the things politicians do? Better yet, how often do you see a traditional news outlet call bullshit on what local politicians do?

And on the front page of the newspaper, no less!

Let me answer for you: Not often-damn-enough.

I’ll get to that in a moment. Follow the link above. Susan Ladd of the News & Record cites in clear, damning language the hypocrisy, misstatements of fact and outright lies told by politicians who are trying to ram through legislation over the objections of a sizable number of citizens. That’s not particularly new. What is new is that the paper is stating quite clearly on the front page who said what when. One of the things I’ve said to my children when they were growing up was this: If you’re going to be embarrassed that your words or deeds are on the front page of the paper, then don’t say or do them.

Hoisted on his/her own petard comes to mind, in this case

More news organizations should practice this kind of journalism — calling out public officials in a prominent place. I’m talking the front page of the newspaper, not the editorial page. I’m talking a segment on local television newscasts (yes, I know that’s not going to happen.)

But when public servants purposely misrepresent facts, ignore constituents and serve their own vested interests, they should be — must be — called out for it, loudly and publicly.

Let me quote from the Principles of Journalism by Kovach and Rosenthial Rosenthiel.

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” “Democracy depends on citizens having reliable, accurate facts put in a meaningful context. Journalism does not pursue truth in an absolute or philosophical sense, but it can–and must–pursue it in a practical sense. This “journalistic truth” is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation.” 

It’s tough to do that these days when newspapers are losing subscribers and local stations lose viewers at the click of the remote. It’s a strange business model: report news and opinions that anger your customers and expect them to pay for it. But that’s what a good independent news media does.

Sadly, though, it’s not as common as it should be, and so, as a citizen of Greensboro, I thank you, News & Record.

This kind of journalism will not bring back print or appointment news viewing. But it will do two things:

* Alert readers and viewers that their elected officials are not behaving the way that most of us try to behave.

* Fulfill the news media role of speaking truth to power, afflicting the comfortable and giving voice to the voiceless. If you’re going to go down, at least go down fighting.

Sunday sampler

 

(Courtesy of the Newseum)

(Courtesy of the Newseum)

This is the start of Sunshine Week, which celebrates and promotes efforts to keep the public’s business open. (It’s under attack, actually, by small-minded bureaucrats and politicians who think they know better than you what you should know.)

Asheville: Publishing an investigation done by Carolina Public Press, the Citizen Times reports that last year in the 15 Western North Carolina “counties where closed session numbers were made available, boards of commissioners held a total of 294 closed sessions.”  With a strong editorial.

Burlington: The Times-News publishes an AP story that supports my small-minded comment above.  It tells of an effort in September 2013 to get emails sent to and received by the governor’s public safety secretary. “Nearly 19 months later, AP is still waiting.”

Charlotte: The Observer publishes a story done by McClatchy’s Washington staff about the Freedom of Information Act.

Raleigh: The News & Observer has a local story about the access of data, but I can’t find it online.

Now, on to the rest of the show:

Fayetteville: Get ready for the Civil War 150th anniversary stories. The Observer has a good one on the battles of Averasboro and Bentonville, which I was unaware of. 

Greensboro: If you want to be impressed by the hypocrisy and cynicism in state government, this is the story to read. The News & Record examines how it is that the state legislature is meddling in local affairs in areas where they don’t like the local citizens’ decisions. There’s no consistency in their methods, except that it punishes locally elected officials to the benefit of aggrieved Republicans. I suspect George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be ashamed.

Cutting the copy desk

I was at the beach when I saw the notice on Romenesko that eight more people would lose their jobs in the consolidated copy desk operation of the Charlotte Observer and the News & Observer.

Show me a reporter or editor who says they haven’t had their ass saved by an alert copy editor, and I’ll show you a liar.

I was reading the N&O at the time — $1 a copy, which is pretty stiff — so I started paying more attention to the section I read the closest: sports. (It’s ACC Tournament time, after all.) As it turns out, I didn’t have to pay that close of attention.

Wednesday — Two stories, two different ways of spelling Codi Miller-McIntyre’s name. In addition, one story said that a sick Kennedy Meeks would not play, another story said the decision hadn’t been made. (At many papers, when more than one story is being produced out of an event the stories would be read by the same copy editor to make sure the stories are consistent.

Friday — The Duke-N.C. State score in a box on the front page was transposed indicating that State won, rather than Duke. (In fairness, the front page is pretty clear who won: the correct score is at the top of the page above a headline that reads “Duke’s revenge tour continues.”)  Update 1: Madison Taylor, editor of the Times-News in Burlington, quipped on Facebook: “State fans just bought subscriptions.”

photo (30)

Saturday — The lead story in the section said that UNC beat Virginia 69-67. The actual score was 71-67. (Online, it’s now correct, but I have a photo in case you doubt me.)

Maybe these aren’t big deals…but they’re mistakes. And a journalist who doesn’t feel a mistake in his or her gut isn’t worthy of the word journalist. There may be other errors — probably are, given the amount of space the staff is filling under tremendous time constraints. I was alos also (I need a copy editor!) reading the early edition of the paper so I’m guessing that these mistakes may have been corrected by the time the paper was delivered within Wake County.

Caveat: I don’t mean to pick on the N&O, which is, in my opinion, the best newspaper in the state. And I know a lot of people there and I’m sure they hate these errors more than I do.

No, this point is to tell the overseers at McClatchy that what they continue to do to their editing staffs is killing the greatness of two of their better publications. I’ve worked for business people who have looked at org charts, pointed at copy editors and asked, “Why do we have these people? They don’t produce stories, right?” And copy editors get axed, perhaps more than any other part of a newsroom.

But readers can tell the difference when names are misspelled, when scores are transposed — how embarrassing for both Duke and State — and scores are simply wrong. Readers laugh at the paper’s errors, and they shake their heads and wonder what else in the paper’s report is wrong. It not only makes the paper look stupid, but it hurts their credibility — and a paper’s credibility is its primary — perhaps only — asset.

Perhaps the people at McClatchy are OK with that. Perhaps they have seen the savings they were looking for when they combined the two papers’ copy desks in 2011 and figure they can get a bit more.

But you know why there is no report above for Thursday? We decided we didn’t need the paper that morning. Picking up a copy was too much trouble. (I would have had to get four quarters from somewhere.)

I know how errors happen — they aren’t on purpose, there’s no conspiracy, and editors aren’t stupid. They happen because there aren’t enough people to check a story or chart or headline that was written on deadline while 18 other things are happening all at the same time.

I’m a newspaper lover. If I were a McClatchy shareholder, I’d be thinking that it’s about time to sell because when you start to lose newspaper lovers, you’re in serious trouble.

By the way, here is a fine list of what happens when you pare a copy desk down beyond its limits.

Update 2: In the comments, Andy Bechtel points out this link on the value of copy editing.

Headless body in topless bar

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Skip Foster, publisher of the Tallahassee Democrat, wrote on Facebook of that cover:  “Oh my gosh — politics aside, this is the best headline in the history of everything.”

It struck me that newspapers have missed an opportunity to make their headlines leap off the page, to make headlines alone worth the price of the paper.

I asked Skip about whether he would use such a headline in his newspaper. “I could see this on an op-ed page. I guess my faith that people could divorce the politics from the exquisite intersection of word play and story content is not very high. That is, can Dems appreciate this and would Republicans appreciate the equivalent on their side? Maybe.”

front-cover-02-26-2015But probably not. I understand his reluctance. Many readers see conspiracies everywhere. Publish a photo of a historic Selma anniversary without President Bush and people think he was purposely cropped out. My own newspaper has been bombarded with complaining letters to the editor because a columnist has the audacity of voicing an opinion on the front page.

But using provocative headlines to attract readers to the paper would be ballsy. It would make the newspaper more interesting. It would make the newspaper more fun to read.

Would a newspaper other than a tabloid take up the challenge — or opportunity — even if it’s just one headline a day? Even if they avoided political stories? It would take three things:

* A good writer: Most newspapers have clever wordsmiths. In my experience, copy desks have the most clever, droll writers at papers. They could pull off the requisite attitude.

* Boundaries: Taste is important, as is an understanding of how far to go.

* Editors and publishers who have the ability to take their publications with a little less seriousness. Editors and publishers who understand that they must do things differently to remain relevant. Editors and publishers who can explain to readers what they’re doing. Editors and publishers who have courage.

front-cover-312-copy It’s a challenge, I know. Newspapers are still trying to learn the lessons of digital headline writing.

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute wrote a piece last year on the strategies of how the viral Upworthy headlines work. His lessons could well apply to effective newspaper headlines — and tabloid heads.

Most newspapers are boring. It’s a big challenge to make City Council, school board and Washington stories interesting. Writing fun, outrageous, pun-filled headlines won’t fix that.

But they’d be a start.

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If it bleeds, it leads

downloadAs I write this three of the five stories on the rotating billboard leading the website for WFMY are about accidental death or criminal death.

The top 5 stories on the website for WGHP are death or crime-related.

The lead story on JournalNow.com, the site of the Winston-Salem Journal, is about a boy hit and killed by an SUV.

Only one of the five stories on the rotating billboard of the News & Record’s site is about a murder, but three of the first five stories under “latest news” are about death or injury.

Why is this relevant? Because it tells people that the world is more dangerous than it is.

One result of the Elon University Poll is that 56.5% of N.C. respondents think there is more crime in the U.S. than a year ago.** The majority opinion, however, doesn’t reflect the reality. In fact, most research indicates there is less crime — or at least serious crime.

The news media bear a great deal of responsibility for this perception. By reporting crime with such prominence, it distorts the actual problem. And distorting reality is not part of the journalist’s job. (It actually contradicts the journalist’s job.)

Websites emphasize crime for two primary reasons:

* Crime stories draw traffic. People want to know where a homicide occurred. It’s possible they know the person, but more likely it’s for prurient interests.

* Crime stories are easy to produce. Many law enforcement agencies send the information directly to the media outlet. Rewrite them in the proper style and you’ve got new information for the site.

I headlined this post with a cliches of the TV news business. It seems it has taken over the news web business, too. I understand the importance of drawing traffic. It’s a metric of most sites. But civic service should be a metric, too, as should journalistic principles.

And as such, here is the operational journalistic principle, according to “The Elements of Journalism:” “It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.”

“Keeping news in proportion and not leaving important things out are also cornerstones of truthfulness. Journalism is a form of cartography: it creates a map for citizens to navigate society. Inflating events for sensation, neglecting others, stereotyping or being disproportionately negative all make a less reliable map.” (Italics mine).

** Full disclosure: I work with the Elon University Poll.

Sunday sampler

A lot of Selma coverage – mostly wires – on the front pages of N.C. newspapers today, and that’s a good thing. But it’s not going to be the focus here.

Charlotte — The Observer profiles in a way Samir Khan, an al-Qaida blogger killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. Khan, who lived in Charlotte until he disappeared in 2009, was under intense FBI surveillance. The FBI has refused to answer questions about what happened between January 2009, when Charlotte FBI agents contacted the Hostage Rescue Team, and Khan’s subsequent disappearance. But hundreds of pages of heavily redacted investigation files document the FBI’s dogged pursuit of Khan, talk of turning him into an informant, and apparent frustration that they couldn’t find enough evidence to justify an arrest.

Raleigh — The state’s new tax structure is coming home to roost. The N&O describes some of the reaction to people who are seeing the changes. Brandon Britt, who owns three Liberty Tax Service franchises in Johnston County, said many of his lower-income customers have just one question about their income taxes: “How much am I getting back?” But this year many, of those customers are experiencing what Britt describes as “sticker shock” when it comes to their state taxes.

Monroe — When you’re 16, the world is a wonderful place full of adventure and possibility. It’s also a place where terrible things can happen and you can react in terrible ways. The Enquirer-Journal tells one such compelling story of a 16-year-old who killed herself, possibly over bullying.  Around the eighth grade, Ash started to express her sexual identity more, Quick said. While Ash did not come out to her directly, Quick knew that she had started a new relationship with a girl and told Ash she knew. “I will not love you any differently,” Quick said she told her child. “I will not look at you any differently.” 

Fayetteville — The Observer tells the story of a 15-year-old sentenced to life without parole for murder. It’s a sympathetic story of a man who has apparently turned his life around, and it’s likely to get the Observer criticism for making the murderer appear, well, human. But it’s a good, interesting story centered around the conflict of whether anyone should get life without chance of parole.

Sunday sampler

 

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Image courtesy of the Newseum.

Good stuff from the front pages of North Carolina’s newspapers attempting to hold government accountable in its role of serving the public.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times puts the lie to the General Assembly’s efforts to allow magistrates and registers of deed not do their jobs. Of course, the state House’s legislation to allow state officials to opt out of facillitating marriages on religious grounds is rife with legal problems that many opponents have pointed out. No matter because our conservative legislature is going to fight social progress, no matter the cost. I’m glad the Citizen-Times continues to raise questions.

Greensboro: When I covered education for the News & Observer 30 years ago, I wrote innumerable stories about overcrowded schools. Now that I read the News & Record, I’m not surprised that school administrators are still struggling with how to balance fluctuating enrollment with stationary school buildings. And how money need to keep up isn’t there. The N&R does a fine job showing how crowded classrooms hurt kids.

Raleigh: The News & Observer continues its deep dive into the UNC-Chapel Hill athletics scandal, once again showing how many balls were dropped by people who should have known better. The tale of Michael Waddell, a football player who was admitted to UNC grad school so that he could play one more year of football, is particularly embarrassing for the university. How’d he do that one more year: He played in 10 games…and earned four F’s in his grad courses.

Wilmington: The economy may be improving for some, but not for all. The Star-News puts the spotlight on housing. During the 2000s, area median income in Wilmington rose by 27 percent, according to the coalition. Housing costs increased by 94 percent. The federal government considers housing affordable if it costs 30 percent or less of household income. Yet 54 percent of renters and nearly 40 percent of homeowners in the Wilmington region spend more than that to keep a roof over their heads.

The Rhino Daily News

Sept. 22, 1013

Allen Johnson, editorial page editor of the News & Record, wrote about a conversation he had with developer Roy Carroll, who had just bought and resurrected the conservative weekly, the Rhino Times.

How will a publication that always reveled in tweaking the establishment operate now that it’s part of that establishment? How independent will it be now that the man who signs the checks is one of the most powerful businessmen in the city — and a frequent newsmaker in his own right?

Carroll insists will leave the news content to Hammer. “John’s not going to work under a format where there’s editorial control by Roy Carroll or anyone else,” Carroll said over lunch last week. “And I wouldn’t respect him if he did.”

Feb. 26, 2015

Roy Carroll takes the cover of the Rhino Times to publicize his offer to buy the News & Record because it is too liberal.

Under my business plan, I would prune back some of the writers that have gone so far left of center and hire writers that were less dogmatic in their far left of center news coverage and opinions. 

Well.

On Aug. 16, 2013, I suggested that the Carroll was buying the Rhino for the influence it offered. After all, he dealt with local government all the time in his business. And, since then, it has become clear that he likes wielding political influence without actually running for office. I suggested the News & Record take a look at his ties to local government, just to see what the relationships were.

He didn’t like that much and told Allen so. And even though some people he knows have questioned the purchase of the paper, he said that’s OK. “I’m thick-skinned.” But he was not pleased with an August blog post from former News & Record Editor John Robinson that suggested that the N&R should “investigate government aggressively, and you should start with Carroll.”

“This is vindictive stuff,” Carroll said. “That’s malicious. I was a little disappointed with that.”

I responded at the time.

I don’t know whether Carroll is serious about buying the News & Record. I don’t know that Berkshire Hathaway is interested. I don’t know that $16 million is a fair price.

I do know that the local daily, for all of its faults, shouldn’t be owned by a local businessman whose sole vision apparently is to make the paper reflect his political world view. It’s not good for civic discourse.

Now, if he wants to take the Rhino Times daily, that WOULD be good for civic discourse. Competition never hurt.

 

Sunday sampler

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Asheville — The Citizen-Times has a fascinating story — with compelling art — about the rise of student activism. Or maybe after so many years, it’s the return of student activism. “I don’t want to be left out or have people around me look back and say, ‘Where was I?'” The words may seem out of place coming from someone of the millennial generation, a group often criticized as being self-absorbed and holding an air of entitlement. But the scholar behind www.studentactivism.net, Angus Johnston, argues civic organizing among students and youth is on the rise.

Burlington — Do the police have enough weaponry? Some cops say no. The Times-News takes a fascinating look at how much is enough.  If money was no issue, he’d have two dozen extra officers and any number of bells and whistles at their disposal; much more than the pistol, Taser, pepper spray and nightsticks available to them now. It calls to mind an arms race against the bogeyman. In an era of mass shooters, post-9-11 terrorism hypervigilance and an armed criminal sub-element, police walk into the unknown every day. The higher-ups who outfit them plan and hope budget constraints won’t leave those officers outgunned.

Charlotte — The Observer has two good stories today. One, on the local non-profit hospital suing to collect unpaid bills, despite laws to temper aggressive bill collection efforts. The second, a scary one about two judges and one city attorney who are getting police protection because their photographs were found in the jail cell of an inmate who seems to be a truly bad guy.

Monroe — Is there any driver who doesn’t know that it’s against the law to pass stopped school buses? The Enquirer-Journal stunned me with a fact: More than 3,000 drivers pass stopped school buses every DAY. And few are cited. School districts and bus drivers across the state struggle to identify these drivers, who cannot be prosecuted unless someone can look at their face and get their name. Stop arm cameras are armed with facial recognition technology, which could make it easier for police officers to charge these drivers.

Raleigh — The national news media has left the #ChapelHillShooting, but the News & Observer hasn’t. Mandy Locke looks deeper into what I consider the mental illness of Craig Stephen Hicks, the guy who shot and killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill.  One thing seems indisputable: Hicks was angry. His admonitions to neighbors about parking led to a community meeting last year, where residents such as Samantha Maness discussed how Hicks’ behavior made them feel “unsafe and uncomfortable.” At a news conference after the shootings, Karen Haggerty Hicks, Hicks’ wife, suggested that some sort of mental illness was plaguing Hicks; she is divorcing him.