Sunday sampler

I apologize for the slim pickings from the front pages of North Carolina papers. Perhaps they were tired from the strong showing the past couple of Sundays. If I missed one I should have included, let me know.

Raleigh & Charlotte — The two largest papers in the state team up to work on a newspaper chain report on corrupt construction companies who cheat their employees and the government. Complicating matters are state regulators who largely ignored the cheating. You don’t work construction so why should you care? “The costs are staggering, a yearlong investigation by The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer reveals: nearly a half-billion dollars each year in uncollected federal and state tax revenue.” It’s a complicated story told well.


Newspaper paywalls: What is the customer value?

I am a newspaper subscriber. Get it delivered every day to my driveway between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. My newspaper recently established a paywall that goes up each month when visitors hit 20 articles. Seven-day subscribers get unlimited access for free, which is fine. (Irrelevant for me because I rarely visit 20 times per month.)

This morning, Monday, the paper had an interesting story on the front page that I wanted to share on Facebook. At 7 a.m. I went to the newspaper website to find the link. The story wasn’t there, but Sunday morning’s stories on coal ash and baptism were. An hour later, the story I wanted went up, but it was approximately 59 minutes after I got frustrated, lost interest and moved on to something else.

I don’t know if the story was posted late because it was a mistake or because it was part of a strategy. At one time, I know that an online strategy was to post newspaper stories later in the morning so that paying print readers would get them before non-paying digital readers. (For what it’s worth, Friday night’s high school football stories were still getting display position on Sunday morning so there’s that.)

It caused me to think about two things, one small and bigger. Both can apply to all newspapers with paywalls, not just mine:

* The value proposition: You’re offering quantity online, when what I really want is quality.  We shop the same store and pick through the same products, I just get to make more choices, right?

Wouldn’t a customer-first strategy be to give a 7-day print subscriber a rebate if he doesn’t use his free 20 clicks per month. That would make my print subscription feel more valuable. (We’ve already established that you want me to subscribe to print because you’re charging more for the online subscription.)

Is your preference to the print subscriber the reason that that story was posted a couple hours later on the website than when my paper was delivered?

* Feedback — Before the paywall, you could — shouldn’t have, but could — ignore my digital usage and opinion because I was paying nothing. But now that you’re charging for the website, I’ve become a paying customer. Do you value me as a paying customer enough to ask how I use it and what I think could make it more helpful? I would willingly take part in an email survey or SurveyMonkey exercise.

If digital is your future — the statistics would argue it is your present — then customer focus is more important than it has ever been. Many of us want to help.

Sunday sampler

Lots of good journalistic surprises from the front pages of N.C. newspapers today.

Asheville — Robbinsville is experiencing what so many N.C. communities went through years ago: the closing of a furniture plant that employed hundreds of people. The Citizen-Times does a good job explaining the business imperatives, the human cost and the community pain involved.

Burlington — I love it when newspapers call BS on politicians’ comments. The Times-News does just that when the local sheriff testifies in court that his department does not do traffic stops on Sundays. The Times-News says hold on there, partner. We checked and you do. I assume the sheriff was under oath. Oops.

Greensboro — Build it and they will come. For toxic coal ash and the new Randolph County landfill, that could be true. Everyone says it’s too early to tell, but I’m siding with the fears of the environmentalists: if it can be dumped there, it probably will.

Raleigh — The N&O has two good ones today. The first is a story about DNA evidence possibly freeing two men who have been in prison for 30 years, were part of a U.S. Supreme Court argument, and were the subject of a negative political campaign. Shameful all around.

The second is a story about what UNC-Chapel Hill is doing to give context to students’ grades. “Next to a student’s grade, the record will include the median grade of classmates, the percentile range and the number of students in the class section.” Who knew? (Most of the students interviewed didn’t. Nor did I and I teach two classes there.

My 10th anniversary of blogging

I started blogging 10 years ago this month. Supposedly, I was one of the first newspaper editors to do so actively, writing about why we did what we did. I say supposedly because I know that only because people told me so at the time. Because the News & Record had so many blogs, we were written about by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and several other publications. One Greensboro reader of the paper wrote me to say that she saw a story about us in the Hong Kong paper when she was in China.

It was a fun time.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your outlook – those early blog posts are buried deep inside the Internet’s mausoleum of broken links. The News & Record has changed content management systems a few times since I left the paper. The blog posts are probably cached somewhere within Google’s vault, but I don’t care about wasting the time to find them.

Since my first blog post in 2004, here are some things I’ve learned:

* It’s important — to me, at least — to think and to write in public. Knowing that people could and would question and improve my work inspired me to up my game. I learned to think beyond my own insular view and consider how others would read my words. Am I saying exactly what I intend? Could I avoid misinterpretation if I rework? Am I prepared for disagreement? Blogging made me appear smarter. It also helps me listen to comments and suggestions more openly and actively.

* It fulfilled one important goal: Readers who cared about newspapers got to know me. Some didn’t like me or the way I ran the newsroom. Some of those had an ax to grind on an issue, and I heard from them often. (I can’t find the citation but someone smart once said there are three things a man thinks he can do better than anyone: build a fire, make love to a woman and edit a newspaper. I assure you that is true.)

But I also heard from people who appreciated learning about me and the paper. Jon Lowder, who lives in Winston-Salem and didn’t read the News & Record, wrote this in January 2005: “I get all of the N&R blogs via RSS.  I don’t get their paper…yet.  But I still feel closer to the N&R, and in a way I feel it is my hometown paper.  And I think it’s going to eat the Journal’s lunch if the folks at the Journal don’t act fast….Anyway, it would probably pain the editor at the Journal (I have no idea what his/her name is) to know that I feel like I’m on a first name basis with the editor of the Greensboro News & Record (Hi John!).  If I happen across a hot story or issue, who do you think I’m going to ping with it?”

* So many commenters on the newspaper site were trolls. I know that’s not news now. At the time, I was told traffic was not the goal, conversation was. But the conversation often turned out to be shouting matches in the cafeteria that turned into food fights. Some, I suspect, spread out into the parking lot for a fistfight. It took me a long time to learn to not to rise to the bait. It’s actually a lesson I still have trouble with. (Commenters on this blog are smart and helpful. Thank you for that.)

Consequently, my contacts on the social networks — Twitter, Facebook and, now, Instagram — are much more civil and constructive. The networks are walled gardens, yes. Some people choose not to join, and therefore can’t comment. I can live with that. As I said about Twitter years ago, it’s like a cocktail party where you can join and leave conversations at will whenever you like.

* My blog posts go nowhere if I don’t link to them on the social networks. When I was blogging for the newspaper, I got a readership boost simply from being on the paper’s website. But once I started on Twitter and Facebook, those mentions brought in more traffic, primarily because people would share, retweet and comment. In essence, the conversation that I wanted occurred on the social networks, rather than the blog. That was fine by me. The conversation was smarter. As an aside, the links from other bloggers — heralded as viral before viral was commonplace terminology — drove conversation, but little traffic.

* While I was blogging at the paper, I was forced to make some hard decisions about coverage, about staffing, about economics and about layoffs. I tried to tell the truth on my blog, even as it embarrassed me or my boss. Two examples: When I eliminated the New York Times news service, I mentioned how much it cost us. (It was a lot of money, and I thought it would be persuasive to readers. It wasn’t.) When I had to lay off journalists, I said it would hurt our coverage. I am proud of that, as many other news executives either don’t acknowledge staff cuts or proclaim that local coverage will not be affected. I don’t have any sense that transparency had any widespread benefit, but it made me sleep better.

* Is blogging dead? I was blogging before I was on Twitter, and I was tweeting before I was on Facebook. I use all three now, using them differently and writing different things on each. I get different reactions, too, which I like. I don’t plan on dropping any of the three platforms, but if I do, blogging will be the first to go. I like the communities that I’m a part of with Twitter and Facebook.

Sunday sampler

Journalism from the front pages of today’s N.C. newspapers.

Charlotte/Raleigh — Both the Observer and the News & Observer centerpiece their joint story on the economic “success” of gambling in Cherokee, and the drive to get approval to build a casino in Kings Mountain. It is a great overview of the impact of gambling casinos in the state. (And it’s surprising that with all that “free” money flowing, the state legislature hasn’t legalized casinos statewide.)

Sanford — So, 100 people at a public meeting told members of the Mining and Energy Commission what they thought about fracking and what they wanted done when it came to fracking in their community. What was the response from a member of the commission, which is charged with coming up with the fracking rules? “Very little of substance comes out of these meetings,” he said, noting that many speakers advocated for a moratorium, or an outright ban, on fracking instead of offering commentary on the draft rules. If you don’t think the fix is in…. (News & Record alert: the next hearing is tomorrow in Reidsville.)

Greensboro — The News & Record continues tracking Duke’s coal ash spill — how it started, how slow Duke was in responding and what the result has been. Given the lukewarm response from Raleigh on the issue, this continues to be a big deal, even six months after the spill.

Fayetteville – Several newspapers featured “back-to-school” stories that basically served the purpose of reminding readers that school starts Monday. The Observer gave its story a welcome edge: Not all is right with the world of public education; it is being attacked on virtually every front. What’s a teacher to do? Good question well-answered in this story.

Wilmington — Speaking of education under attack, the Star-News gives a local school superintendent the voice to argue for transparency in charter school funding and accountability. Charter schools get public money, why shouldn’t the public get to see how it is spent? It’s a good follow to a story the paper has written about recently: a local businessman who founded some charter schools which now have exclusive contracts with his private businesses.

Hendersonville — Ten people have died on the roads in the Times-News’ three-county region in the past two months. The Times-News examines causes. Be careful out there.



Sunday sampler

A good day to read some N.C. newspapers. Stories from their front pages:

Asheville — The march to dilute education continues with the legislature’s mandate for something called “virtual charter schools.” The Citizen-Times describe these schools, which allow online learning for K-12 students provided by private companies. Do they work? Evidence from Tennessee suggests they don’t. “The ratio of students to teachers would be one teacher for 50 students in kindergarten through eighth grades and one teacher to 150 students in ninth through 12th grade classes.” Sounds good!

The Citizen-Times also has a tough-minded story that starts: “North Carolina will miss $51 billion in federal payments over the next decade unless lawmakers expand Medicaid under Obamacare, according to a new report.” Naturally, in their wisdom, N.C. lawmakers say they won’t expand Medicaid.

Raleigh — When you get legislative power, you pass the laws you want. When the courts rule against those laws, you stymie the courts. Welcome to N.C. GOP rule. The News & Observer describes the latest attempt by the legislature to make sure it gets its way. “Beginning in September, all constitutional challenges to laws will be heard by three-judge trial court panels appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court. The move takes those cases out of the hands of individual Superior Court judges and sends them to be heard in Wake County, where the panels of judges from across the state will assemble when needed.”

Charlotte — The Tony Stewart-Kevin Ward II incident was quickly overshadowed in the news by Robin Williams’ death and Ferguson. But the Observer rightly swings back through with a good story about deaths at short tracks. More than 520 people have died in the past 25 years at tracks, and safety regulations have been slow coming. “‘Short track racing is usually mayhem, hopefully controlled. That’s what people want. It’s like ice hockey with cars.’”

Gaston — I am so out of the drug culture. The Gazette introduces its readers to “spice,” a synthetic marijuana sold over the counter as potpourri or incense. And it can be dangerous.

A brief argument for transparency


First, let it be known that I and most people support the local police. They have a tough job, and, on the whole, do it well. This isn’t about what they do on the street.

This is about governments being transparent…and what happens when they aren’t.

Exhibit 1: Ferguson, Mo., where police decline to release the name of the officer involved in the shooting death of a Ferguson citizen. The police and District Attorney also decline to discuss details of a planned investigation. Protests ensue, police are threatened and attacked, police respond with tear gas, shooting dummy bullets into the crowd and arrests. Damn.

Exhibit 2: Raleigh, N.C., where the News & Observer reports that “Gov. Pat McCrory failed to disclose his ownership of Duke Energy stock this year in two state ethics filings and sold the stock after a torrent of bad publicity about the company’s coal-ash spill, the governor’s office acknowledged Wednesday.”

Exhibit 3: Greensboro, N.C., where a police officer shot and killed a Vietnamese immigrant who approached him with a knife and ignored his orders to stop. The incident occurred in March, the department and the SBI investigated and the officer returned to duty in May. But police declined to release details of the shooting or its investigation. Finally, on July 30, the assistant district attorney discussed the shooting with the news media.

Obviously, Ferguson is the most urgent problem. No one knows if more police transparency would have prevented the violence and arrests. But I believe that more openness about what happened and what the police planned to do about it would have calmed the city. Information is power. When I have it and won’t give it to you, it signals that I don’t trust you to know what to do with it. In turn, it erodes your trust in me.

No question that government transparency is complicated. A lot of moving parts. Delicate balance of public records with the right to privacy. Will information damage a criminal investigation? But the inclination should always be to release information. The discussion should revolved around this: “We work for the people. This is being done in their name for their benefit. Why shouldn’t we release the information?”

Most crisis management experts advise transparency rather than secrecy. And as a practical matter, details eventually come out. I heard on the news that many citizens of Ferguson know the name of the officer involved in the shooting. Or they think they do. How can that certainty/uncertainty be good?

This excellent first-person piece in the New Yorker doesn’t suggest that transparency was a guiding principle: “Police, some outfitted in riot gear, others in military fatigues, barricaded the streets. At least one of them draped a black bandana over his face; others covered their badges.” 

From a good New York Times story that discusses the issue: “Mr. Harris said that while it was understandable that police officials would try to protect their officers from threats and unfair accusations, silence also had its risks. ‘This case is not being tried yet, but the narrative is being forged in the public arena,’ he said of the Ferguson shooting. ‘When that goes on, information is put out selectively and withheld selectively.’

“’There is real danger in that,’ he said, ‘because ultimately law enforcement depends on the trust of the people they serve.’”

It is difficult to regain trust once you lose it.

Sunday sampler

It’s a good day for journalism on the front pages of NC. newspapers.

Charlotte — What would inspire someone to go into a danger zone where war, disease and pestilence reign? The question is timely in Charlotte and the world, as one of the Ebola infected Americans is from Charlotte and connected with SIM USA. The Observer answers the question. (It’s about missionary service.)

But the more fun — and less important story — on the front of the Observer is this one about Adam & Eve boutique. But maybe that’s just me.

Fayetteville — We’re back in Iraq, and the Observer tells us Ft. Bragg’s role in an interesting story about humanitarian aid. A good reminder that we’re doing more than bombing.

Greensboro — As the News & Record’s headline says, heroin is “cheap, devastating and readily available,” and for the first six months of this year, nine people in High Point have died from ODs. And the High Point police are still trying to get their handle on it. Good overview of the problem that is back and growing.

Raleigh — If you need any further evidence that the discussion about fracking is political as opposed to scientific, the News & Observer provides it with a story by Duke researchers who are not invited into the discussion about how to proceed with fracking. The questions about the impact of pumping chemicals into the ground remain: poison groundwater? cause earthquakes? The state should try to answer them first, rather than second.

Hickory — The Daily Record has what looks like an interesting story about how police piece together evidence to solve a murder, but I can’t find that story on the website. Instead, there is a story about a suspect’s arrest.

Paywall content: Is it worth paying for?

The other day, I was following the tweets of a newspaper reporter who was reporting on a city council meeting. I wasn’t following the action on purpose; the tweets just came fast and furious in my stream. The council was arguing, and he recorded it well. So, I made a note to myself to read his story when it was filed. (I’m wonky in that way.) So far, so good.

A few hours later, a Google Alert in my email pointed me to his story. It was a good story and satisfied me. I doubt it satisfied the powers to be at the paper, though. It came via, not from (I never got a Google Alert about the story on the News & Record’s website.)

If I were thinking about erecting a paywall, as the News & Record has done, I would test the market. (And perhaps the paper has done it.) A few things I’d do:

*Set up a variety of Google Alerts for the topics you cover. In this case, “Greensboro City Council” and “Guilford schools” and “UNCG” and “A&T” and the like. See who is on the web covering the same issues you are. Compare what they do with what you’re doing. With ice in your veins, decide whether a reader needs your story if they can read the other.

*Cross tab what you write about with the TV stations and other news media. If the police chief holds a news conference about say, what to do if you see a child locked in a car, it’s pretty likely at least one other news outlet will cover it, too. Again, does a reader need your version if TV’s version is good enough? *Each day, Google your primary content to find if others have scraped it off your site or have imitated it or if you can find similar stories elsewhere.

Then, once you have that data, use it to determine what you have to offer potential subscribers that is relevant, unique and worth paying for. Stating the obvious, if I can find most of what I need to know without any trouble and without any cost, why would I pay to get into your site?

Be careful, though, in deciding what you have that is worth paying for. Don’t be easy on yourself: Is it a strong editorial voice? I can get a lot of those elsewhere. Is it indepth college sports coverage? I can get a lot of that elsewhere. Is it broad entertainment news? Doesn’t the free weekly tab cover that? Is it intensely local news and information? Great — but it needs to be intensely local news and information I care about. If, for instance, it’s high school sports — you’ve lost me.

Be ruthless with yourself. Chances are the exercise will not only give you pause about what you’re offering online, it will cause you to re-evaluate what you write about in the first place. My advice is to put the emphasis on unique and relevant.

Robert G. Picard raises the ante with a story of his own about trying to find original reporting, but only finding journalists building on each other. “As this case shows, they are doing nothing new, adding nothing or little, and essentially copying each other and themselves. This gives readers nothing they cannot get elsewhere, so how can they expect people to see it as valuable.

“This value creation deficit is especially a challenge if news organizations want readers to pay for journalism, but it is increasingly a problem even in asking them to spend time reading free content.”

The only reading guide you need*

* Well, in truth, that I need


John Kroll published his list of the 100 books every journalist must read. It’s an outstanding list, filled with books of intelligence, insight and wonder, and books that I will never read, must or not.

I have only two book titles on my must read list. Let’s face it — only the most devoted journalists will read 100 books about the craft they practice every day. Time, interest and life get in the way. My reading list should appeal to those of us with the shorter attention spans.

The books:

* Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style.” – It should be read and reread by every journalist because it will make you a better writer. And it foretells the Internet’s fascination with lists. From the Wikipedia entry: It “comprising eight ‘elementary rules of usage’, ten ‘elementary principles of composition’, ‘a few matters of form’, a list of forty-nine ‘words and expressions commonly misused’, and a list of fifty-seven ‘words often misspelled’.”

* Roy Peter Clark’s  “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer” —  Again, short. Again, a list. And again, every single tool in Clark’s toolkit fits a need. Study them, experiment with them, and they will improve your work.

Both provide advice to improve the journalist’s skills. But I have other non-books on my every-journalist-should-read list. These are more about expanding your knowledge and your thinking.

* Create a strong Twitter list full of journalists who are trailblazing, trying to find a journalistic future. People such as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, Stacy Kramer, Clay Shirky, Steve Buttry, Dan Kennedy, Mindy McAdams, Dave Winer, Mathew Ingram. And, of course, John Kroll. Here’s a list I created a few years ago, but it’s inadequate. Most of them have equally valuable blogs. Creating a list of journalists and thinkers – people that you want to have in your stream to challenge you when you need challenging — keeps you ahead of the game where the rules change quickly.

* Create an RSS feed that delivers to you the websites you like. I have many sites on my reader, but on my “must” list — primarily for their range — are Mashable, Gigaom, Nieman Journalism Lab and Mediagazer. I mention these because they’re filled with links to interesting stories, some of which may interest you and others won’t. But it’s about choice. And these links will send you in unexpected directions so that you can discover stories and information that you didn’t know that you wanted to know. (Sorta like the serendipity of turning a newspaper page.)

* Sign up for the American Press Institute’s daily email newsletter. Compiled by Millie Tran, it’s filled with links to important developments in journalism and media. Need a quick guide to what’s happening and what thought leaders are writing before you leave in the morning? (The answer is yes.) This is that.

This is a terribly incomplete list. I’m sure I’ve left out some of my favorites. It’s intended as a beginning. It may seem like a lot, but it’s not difficult to manage, and once you get used to it, it’s easy to spend as much or as little time as you have. I have many more sites I like to visit because I personally like the writer or his or her style. You can find your own. Like Kroll, I welcome additions.

And now, without all those must-read books on journalism to read, you can read books of fiction or history or political science or religion and truly expand your horizons.

Update: Lex adds “The Reporter’s Handbook: An Investigator’s Guide to Documents and Techniques.”