An open letter to Warren Buffett

Dear Mr. Buffett,

I am a 31-year subscriber to my hometown newspaper, the News & Record, which your company, Berkshire-Hathaway, owns. The editor-publisher of the paper, Jeff Gauger, resigned yesterday. This gives you a golden opportunity before it is too late to do a solid for newspapers around the country. No, it’s more than a solid and it’s for more than newspapers. You can throw a lifeline to news consumers everywhere.

In 2012, you said that you love newspapers. I’m hoping that remains true.

You wrote in your annual letter to shareholders: “Charlie and I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly-bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time. We do not believe that success will come from cutting either the news content or frequency of publication. Indeed, skimpy news coverage will almost certainly lead to skimpy readership. …Our goal is to keep our papers loaded with content of interest to our readers and to be paid appropriately by those who find us useful, whether the product they view is in their hands or on the Internet.”

I love that. Right now, your operation here isn’t coming close to your goal. It is cutting staff and page count, reduced subscriber services, and watched readership decline across the region. The paper isn’t serving its readership or contributing what it should to the health of democracy. It isn’t doing what you pledged to shareholders.

So, this is your opportunity: Hire a publisher who is empowered to lead the News & Record into the future rather than one trying to hold onto the past. Use the N&R to try new approaches to news and revenue generation. Adopt the idea that successes by the N&R could be tried in some of the other dozens of newspapers your company owns. And make this not about the printed product, but about how news companies can generate and distribute news and information that serves the community.

My advice for his or her first moves to include:

>>>>Refocus the newspaper’s mission: Right now it seems to be attempting to be intensely local. It’s not a bad mission; it’s one I argued for some years ago. But it isn’t working the way it is being executed. The staff is too small to handle an area this large. In truth, it’s not in the readership’s DNA to want a newspaper that is intensely local to the detriment of everything else. Most of the newspaper’s readership lived in a time in which newspapers were more comprehensive and displayed big national stories on the front page alongside big local stories. Seeing local — no matter how unimportant — trump bigger national stories proves only that the editors can follow a policy but not their own news judgment. It’s not what your readership wants.

>>>>Conduct market research to find out more about why people get the paper…and why people don’t. That would help drive the refocus on the mission. Me, I would emphasize investigative reporting on stories that truly make a difference in people’s lives. Too often the project reporting that gets done doesn’t. Case in point: This week the paper is publishing an eight-part series on a murder that occurred four years ago in a county outside the newspaper’s home county. It’s still unclear to me why the paper has spent the time and multiple pages telling this story.

Instead, focus on stories change readers’ lives for the better or that will right wrongs in the system…those are the stories that make readers notice. Those are the stories readers talk about. And those are the stories that a news organization can point to with pride. (If you’re going down, go out with your head held high.) Consider and adopt – or adapt – all of the possibilities suggested by Jeff Jarvis on service journalism.

>>>>Decide that it’s time to overhaul the paper’s digital presence. Like many newspaper websites, yours is terrible. It’s hard to navigate, it loads slowly and ads are all over the place.  Throughout the day, the content is heavily crime-related. I assume there is data that shows that that brings traffic. It adds little value, though. Plus, you do know that there is evidence suggesting that most people are not going to your home page, at all, right? Your future customer finds the news on his and her phone, either on an app, on social media or from a newsletter like the Skimm. Evaluate your presence on those platforms and you’ll find opportunities galore.

Let the editor and his lieutenants figure these things out. The publisher and her ad staff can figure out how to reinvent the revenue side. That’s well outside my scope.

This is just the beginning. I have other ideas, but I’m no expert. You have smart people working there. There are many smart people who can help. Bring them in. Heck, start with Steve Buttry. He wrote this about the Boston Globe, and it’s a good a starting place for ideas and inspiration as any.

It will cost some money. You have it. In the scheme of Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings, it will be negligible. But it has the potential to boost the earnings of your newspapers and fulfill your stated goal.

Full disclosure: I was the editor of the paper for 13 years and worked there for 27. I contributed to the smaller staff by laying off more than my fair share of good reporters. I tried various strategies to build readership. I missed opportunities to pursue great investigative projects. I had my chances and didn’t make the most of them.

Let me close by quoting you back to you, from that same 2012 letter: “And people will seek their news – what’s important to them – from whatever sources provide the best combination of immediacy, ease of access, reliability, comprehensiveness and low cost.”

You are exactly right. You have the opportunity right now to put the force of your organization behind that statement and shape the future of journalism. I hope you will.


John Robinson

P.S. You might enjoy the slogan below from the front page of the 1939 Greensboro Daily News, a predecessor of the News & Record. “Adequate News Coverage In All Sections Of The State.”


Sunday sampler

Courtesy of the Boston Globe

Courtesy of the Boston Globe

No, this isn’t a North Carolina paper; it’s not even a front page. It’s a section front of the Globe, and I wish that every paper would do something like this on each candidate. Of course, it would scare the bejesus out of voters. But it wouldn’t be hard to do. Newspapers already create mock — and mocking — front pages when staff members leave.

Here’s a promo to an inside story: “A Trumping to Remember,”  the president’s first romance  novel, was yanked from the  shelves after the publisher acknowledged portions were  cribbed from a May 1986 edition of Penthouse. T9″

OK, on to North Carolina front pages.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times continues its look at how the background of teachers is checked before they are hired…and it’s damning. Using the case of a private school teacher convicted of molesting a student in his class, the paper lays out the case for legislation: “Currently, while Public Instruction licenses teachers, criminal history checks are left to the state’s 115 districts, with no overarching standard in place for delving into an educator’s past. Charter schools are required to follow background policies set by the district where they are located, but are obligated under state law to license only half of their teaching staff.”

Charlotte: It’s never made sense to me why public money is given to private schools, and the Observer’s article confirms my fears, as most of it goes to religious schools. “In Covenant’s science classes, lessons about the origin of Earth start with the premise “In the beginning God created …” then explore a range of interpretations, including evolution, said Head of School Mark Davis.” There’s a place for this, if you ask me, and it is in church, not school. And given the animus toward Muslims, I’m impressed that the legislature hasn’t done something to stop a Muslim school from getting the second most amount of state money.

Raleigh: There is support for HB2 throughout the state, as the News & Observer writes. It’s always good to read differing views to make sure your view is informed. “They agreed with Republican lawmakers that the Charlotte bathroom provision posed a safety risk. They couldn’t recall ever meeting a transgender person. And they weren’t familiar with the law’s other provisions, which include a ban on filing state court lawsuits over employment discrimination claims.” To me, the law — and people’s misunderstanding of it — seems to play on people’s fear of the unknown.

Read more here:


Sunday sampler

It’s not all that common that one non-breaking news story captures the attention of so many of the front pages of the state’s newspapers. Say hello to HB2, which is the state’s new anti-anti-discrimination law.

Raleigh: Gov. McCrory seems to be taking the brunt of the criticism for signing the legislature’s sweeping bill that stops transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with and prevents cities from adopting their own anti-discrimination ordinances. And he’s particularly thin-skinned about it. The N&O puts his position into perspective.

Greensboro: The News & Record takes it down to the personal level with the compelling story of a UNCG transgender student. “If you go into a bathroom and invade someone’s privacy, you’re already a criminal,” said McGarry, 20. “And criminals don’t follow the law — that’s what makes them criminals.“Transgender people aren’t there for that. We just want to use the bathroom.”

Winston-Salem: The Journal examines the repercussions beyond the gender identity issue through the eyes of attorneys. There is a lot of information in the piece. I’ll just exerpt: “He said the law takes away communities’ ability to pursue the best contracts possible since they can no longer require private contractors to pay a wage that’s in line with the local economy. ‘It was essentially a preemptive strike against municipalities who are more liberal than other parts of the state,’ Rainey said.

“Laura Noble, with The Noble Law Firm of Chapel Hill, said that with HB 2, ‘our representatives inexplicably chose to protect employers who discriminate against their employees from our state’s system of justice.’”

And then one story that’s not about HB2.

Charlotte: The Observer tells the story of a man imprisoned for a murder that the paper suggests he may not have committed. It’s hard to tell because today’s story is the beginning of a multi-part series. It’s written in an unusual style — a mix of first-person and third-person, and because it is written by a masterful reporter and writer – Elizabeth Leland – I’m going to read every word, every day.


Needed course requirement: Media Literacy

With an update at the end

I’m a journalist. It’s in my DNA that government records should be open and easily accessed.

I’m a citizen. I believe that government records should be open and easily accessed.

In this time when trust in government — see Donald Trump — is at a low point, it should be the belief of all government agencies, employees and representatives that government records be open and easily accessed.

Sadly enough, it isn’t. Most recently, some members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees said they want to make members of the public who want records pay more for them. (There is a sizable charge for large requests already.) The board members want the money…or want to discourage citizens from knowing what their appointed representatives have done and are doing.) But I’m not going to prattle on about open records. Anyone in favor of good government should welcome open government rather than build walls to discourage it. (About the only people who don’t like open records are the government officials.)

Instead, this episode — and an earlier one at the UNC Board of Governors — exposes a flaw in the education system and one that a good liberal arts curriculum would fix: widespread media illiteracy.

Imagine requiring every college student learn about media and journalism in the same way they must take an English or a history course. Given how people get, spread and use information — nearly universally coming from media — this could be a game-changer for students and, ultimately, society.

Dan Gillmor introduced me to this idea some years ago. He wrote: “Persuade the president (or chancellor, or whatever the title) and trustees of the university that every student on the campus should learn journalism principles and skills before graduating, preferably during freshman year.”

Imagine if everyone knew the value of journalism and how to sort through all the noise to get to the signal. What if they reflected upon journalism’s independence, its role as a monitor of power, and the ethical decisions made by journalists every day. Imagine if everyone understood the importance of transparency and openness in government. Think about how powerful it would be if everyone knew how to make public record searches and freedom of information requests.

Why, such skills would strengthen citizens ability to stand up, speak their minds and hold the powerful accountable. It would plant, fertilize and nourish new and entrepreneurial journalistic efforts that we old folks haven’t thought of.

I wouldn’t stop there: the course should also include social media, video, viral content, shaming. It could include spamming and trolls.

Because media surrounds us — have you seen people with headphones on looking at their phones? — it’s part of a vital curriculum in the 21st century.

Update: On Facebook, my friend Mark Binker of WRAL suggests correctly that the course should also include education about “the journalism mindset. It is something that people really don’t understand. Why it is we think something is news, place an emphasis on accountability over fluff, etc…”

Sunday sampler


Given that it’s Easter, many of North Carolina newspaper front pages feature stories about Easter or Christianity. Few go quite so far as Hickory’s.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times looks north for a piece on the impact of HB2, the embarrassingly controversial law about LGBT and bathroom use. A Virginia transgender student has filed suit in federal court, fighting to use the boys’ restrooms in his school. He argues that Title IX forbids discrimination in public schools based on sex. I don’t know the law well enough — N.C. legislators scoff at this interpretation of Title IX. Regardless, a ruling is expected any day.

Raleigh: Meanwhile, the News & Observer looks at the legislature’s continued power grab, telling cities and towns what they can and, most often, cannot do. If you really thought that these Republicans believe that local government governs best, then you need to reassess. “Since Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, they’ve curbed zoning powers that allow localities to regulate how land is developed and how homes are designed. They’ve changed how school boards, city councils and county commissioners are elected in a way that favors GOP candidates. And they took control of Asheville’s water system and Charlotte’s airport from those cities’ leaders.”

Read more here:

The dispossessed: When your voice isn’t heard

I am aware this will sound like a white privilege whine. Please bear with me.

No one actually represents me in Congress or in the state capital. Oh, a number of elected officials will say they do, but they don’t. My voice isn’t heard, and I’m not alone. In North Carolina, there are millions of us. We’re Democrats.

Over the last 40 years, N.C. has usually been represented in the Senate by one Republican and one Democrat. Much of the time, I had confidence that my viewpoint would be registered in Washington. My argument may not have prevailed, but at least it was counted. Now, with the state having two GOP senators, about half of the state’s voters essentially have no reliable voice in Washington with the exception of President Obama. (In 2008, Obama won North Carolina. In 2012, Obama lost the state to Romney, 50-48. But both votes indicate how evenly split the state is.)

Normally, this wouldn’t disturb me because I know how representative civics works. But on the issue of the Supreme Court, it does. Neither of my senators has indicated they care what the state’s people want in terms of the Supreme Court vacancy. Almost as soon as Sen. McConnell handed down the party line, Sen. Burr and Sen. Tillis adopted it. They didn’t consult with their constituents then, and they aren’t listening to them now. (Polls are clear that most North Carolinians want a Senate hearing on the nomination.)

In Mississippi, U.S. Rep. Karl Oliver wrote the words to a constituent that I have to believe are similar to what North Carolina senators must think.

I see you are not a native to the Great State of Mississippi nor do you and I have similar political views. The people of our Great State overwhelmingly share my same or similar views on Government responsibility. I appreciate you going to the trouble to share yours with me, but quite frankly, and with all due respect, I could care less. I would, however, recommend that there are a rather large number of like-minded citizens in Illinois that would love to see you return.”

(For the record, I wasn’t born in N.C., but neither were Sens. Burr or Tillis.)

The lack of representation doesn’t stop with the U.S. Senate. I live in Greensboro, which is a predominantly Democratic city. I have — and have had for years — Republican House members. Fair enough. They rarely vote as I would prefer. Best I can tell, the current House member does exactly what the House GOP leadership wants him to.

So, in Congress, I can get great constituent service and passes to all the sights in D.C. when I visit Washington. But if I want to weigh in on an issue of interest? I may as well be talking to my dog. And I don’t have a dog.

The same holds true in Raleigh, where the governor and both the state House and Senate are controlled by Republicans. OK, thanks to gerrymandering, that’s the way it falls. But there isn’t exactly a contingent of people making decisions in Raleigh that cares about what I or an awful lot of people who have a (D) after their name in the voting rolls think.

So, you might say, you have power at the local level where things that affect you most directly happen. Yes, Greensboro City Council has wonderfully caring and committed representatives. So does the local school board. Yet, the politicians in Raleigh get offended by things the local elected officials do and they start meddling. In my county, the General Assembly has changed the way the local council and school board are elected. Did the General Assembly ask the opinion of the school board or council or residents? No.

And Greensboro is hardly alone in being messed with by the General Assembly. Every sizable city in the state has felt the wrath of the bullies in Raleigh who somehow think that the best government is the one they control, regardless of whether local citizens want it.

Before you say that this is what Republicans faced for years under Democratic control, I’ll make two points:

  1. North Carolina has had at least one Republican U.S. senator since 1973.
  2. National politics didn’t used to be this polarized. Democrats and Republicans would negotiate and compromise. Things got done. Now, not so much.

I’ll say again, I’m a student of government and politics. I know how it works. Elections have consequences. The politicians dance with the ones that brung and fund them. But they represent me, too, and that representation only exists on an organizational diagram. And I crossed party lines and voted for some of them.

Do I have a voice? Of course. Please note, though, that despite dozens of protests and tens of thousands of protesters participating in Moral Mondays in Raleigh, little attention was paid by the legislature or the governor. In fact, at least one influential legislator called them Moron Mondays.

I know minorities have felt for years that their voices weren’t heard. I suspect Republicans have thought that, too. Well, now millions of Democrats in N.C. are right there with them.

The dispossessed.

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.”