Sunday sampler

In case you hadn’t looked outside, it snowed yesterday. But never fear, if you haven’t looked outside, the front pages of the state’s papers told you. And I’m not going to link to any of them. I’ll put the spotlight on these instead:

Carteret County News-Times: The Obama administration denied permits to tests for oil and gas off the East Coast. As a lover of the N.C. coast, this is big news to me. Towns and counties up and down the coast passed resolutions against seismic testing so it is big news for them, too. Of course, it’s an order that Donald Trump can overturn. (That isn’t a link to a story, but is a link to the front page — thank you Newseum — and the front page will be replaced on Monday. I can’t find the story on the News-Times’ website. Here is an AP story about the decision.)

Asheville and Raleigh: Both papers have front-page stories on the new Gov. Cooper administration. The Citizen-Times evaluates how much power the Democratic governor will really have, given the Republican legislature’s actions. Answer: a vague “some.”

The N&O has two stories. One is a straight-up inauguration address story. The other looks at the tone set by Cooper’s first week in office. Money quote: “That’s always been his reputation – cautious,” Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic strategist and former aide to Gov. Jim Hunt, said Saturday. “But he came out swinging before he was even sworn in.”


Read more here:


Sunday sampler, transparency edition

Today begins a few weeks of slim pickings as newspapers — reporting staff already depleted gears up for two weeks of vacations and little news. It sort of shows on today’s front pages, too.

Asheville: I’m used to politicians talking about the importance of transparency in government and then ignoring it whenever they truly need to be transparent. That’s why this story about the DA in Buncombe County caught my attention. The man is walking the walk. And good for him and good government. “Todd Williams also made an unprecedented move during his press conference, in which he walked through the state’s investigation with great detail, giving the media a summary of the facts of the investigation, reading testimonies from key witnesses and displaying a series of a dozen images that support his decision. SBI reports, or even basic facts provided in them, have rarely been released to the public, as sole discretion lies with the district attorneys to make those records public.”

Winston-Salem: Here, for example, is the new head of the State Department of Public Instruction claiming that a law passed by the General Assembly last week “will help usher in an era of greater transparency at DPI by eliminating the more confusing aspects of the relationship between the N.C. superintendent and the N.C. Board of Education.” The best thing you can say about that is, well, we’ll see. What it most assuredly would do — the governor hasn’t signed it yet — is give the new state superintendent more power. He doesn’t mention that.

Raleigh: Then, of course, you have the state legislature, a place where transparency isn’t in the lexicon. The News & Observer looks back on the week in which the General Assembly decided to change the rules when it didn’t like the outcome of the election. The paper examines the strength of a court case challenging the legislators’ actions. “But Cooper could have a hard time making the case that the legislature has improperly intruded on his turf, constitutional experts said. Former state Supreme Court Justice Burley Mitchell said Cooper would have trouble claiming that reducing his appointments is unconstitutional, because those were written into state law, not the constitution.”



Sunday sampler

Raleigh: Both the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer contributed to this story about what the political future holds next for Gov.-elect Roy Cooper. Essentially, he has the power to appoint lots of people; the Republican legislature has the power to override his veto. Nothing is certain, but this is a good, broad look at the possibilities when it comes to voting rights, teacher pay and education, HB2, the environment, Medicaid, jobs and abortion.

Greensboro: The News & Record has a similar story that deals primarily with the political headwinds Cooper will face, rather than the issues.

Winston-Salem: That North Carolina rivals West Virginia for having the nation’s lowest average school principal salary should be embarrassing to everyone, and likely is, except for the state legislature. But members of the General Assembly want to give responsibility to determining principals’ pay to local districts. “While this would give districts more flexibility in how they pay principals in various settings — for example, offering more to principals at struggling schools instead of always paying the most to principals at the largest schools — the proposal wouldn’t improve average principal pay unless the state also threw more money into the pot.”

Fayetteville: It’s been two months since Hurricane Matthew flooded much of Eastern North Carolina. It’s been two months since hundreds of people escaped their homes amid the flooding. Many are still homeless. The Observer hasn’t left the story, either. “Housing is one of several issues that local, state and federal officials are facing in the hurricane’s aftermath. Cleaning up the debris is an immediate problem. Repairing the damaged roads is ongoing and expected to last well into next year. Erosion that damaged land along creeks and streams that flooded in the storm will require long-term research.”

Related: The New York Times has a good video on the travails of Princeville.

Sunday sampler

Burlington: The Times-News has an exceptional piece citing the ambiguous — if not hypocritical, clueless or purposely ignorant — position of people in Alamance County who want to go back to an earlier time. That time is apparently one in which the Confederate flag was a symbol of goodness. The reporter gently but clearly points out the absurdity of what the organization says and stands for. Read it.

Charlotte: The cynic in me wants to say, “how cute! Trump voters actually believed him when he said he will bring the manufacturing jobs back from overseas!” But that would be mean. Yes, the Observer tracks the North Carolinians who expect Trump to deliver on that promise, although people should know that he won’t because he can’t. (It isn’t how capitalism or present-day needs work.) But those interviewed in Kannapolis say the town lacks the bustle and the job opportunities it had in its heyday, when they worked in the mills or had family members who did…“The mill fed my family,” said Bringle, now 54. “They used to have summer help for the high school kids. I worked there two summers – 1979-80. It was a thriving business here. And it’s gone. China’s got it.

Greensboro: I graduated from an exceptional small college that had terrible budget problems and is fighting its way back. So this piece about Greensboro College’s return interested me. (GC is not my alma mater.) It seems as if the school’s leadership did it right.

Sunday sampler

On a Thanksgiving Saturday, news editors across the land rejoiced at the death of Fidel Castro. No politics behind it, other than the politics of having something to anchor their front pages. That’s what many N.C. newspapers did, too.

I don’t care. What is more interesting to me is that of the good non-Castro stories on the front pages, the ones from the Citizen-Times and from the Charlotte Observer have been available on the web for one or two days already.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times’ story on the impact of a shifting N.C. Supreme Court is actually an AP story. (It was published online Thursday.) Once Morgan takes office in January, a Democratic lawmaker says, the court of four Democrats and three Republicans will provide a stronger safeguard against unconstitutional legislation, since the GOP will continue to have veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly even if Cooper unseats Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Morgan’s victory “was enormous. I don’t know how to say it emphatically enough,” said Rep. Duane Hall, D-Wake. “It’s going to mean a lot, not just to Democrats but to all of North Carolina.”

Charlotte: The Observer’s story on the environmental impact along the coast of a Trump presidency actually comes from McClatchy’s D.C. bureau. (It was published online on Friday.) With Trump’s triumph, many folks along North Carolina’s coast – from fishermen to farmers to hotel operators and restaurateurs who rely on tourism – are nervous. They’re worried about what’s coming from the president-elect, especially after he named a leading global-warming contrarian, Myron Ebell, to handle his transition on environmental matters.

Greensboro: A nice read from the News & Record about a young woman who nearly died in a house fire in 2008, fighting to regain her life.

Raleigh: A second nice read from the N&O, this one about a young man with cancer who gets a “Make A Wish” visit to watch his favorite team, UNC, play basketball in Hawaii.

Sunday sampler

Sadly, it’s all fires all the time. Charlotte, Raleigh and Asheville front pages are dominated by stories about the wildfires raging in the mountains.

Wilmington: If all the fire coverage weren’t enough, swing down to the coast for flooding coverage because the Star-News has an excellent story on the continued aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. “We all need to know that events like Floyd and Matthew are not uncommon. We act like they’re uncommon, ‘They’re 500-year events.’ It’s not that uncommon,” said Burrell Montz, the chair of East Carolina University’s human geography department. That leaves governments and residents in the most-affected areas with a lingering question: What will you do before the next storm comes?

Greensboro: All you need is the first two paragraphs in the News & Record’s story. In Guilford County, 4,177 DWI cases linger in the courts. The county’s average case for driving while intoxicated is more than a year-and-a-half old, but some cases have taken more than three years to wind through the system. Here’s the kicker: That’s not even the highest in the region.


Time to take Trump literally

In a story about Donald Trump’s lies and purposeful misstatements, Atlantic writer Salena Zito wrote in September: “When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” (Bold is mine.)

It’s time his supporters take him literally.

Look at who he has chosen as his closest advisors:

Steve Bannon as White House senior counselor: Mr. Bannon is in some ways a perplexing figure: a far-right ideologue who made his millions investing in “Seinfeld”; a former Goldman Sachs banker who has reportedly called himself a “Leninist” with a goal “to destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down.” He has also called progressive women “a bunch of dykes” and, in a 2014 email to one of his editors, wrote of the Republican leadership, “Let the grassroots turn on the hate because that’s the ONLY thing that will make them do their duty.”

Sen. Jeff Sessions for AG: For starters, forget about aggressive protection of civil rights, and of voting rights in particular. Mr. Sessions has called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation.” Under him, the department would most likely focus less on prosecutions of minority voter suppression and more on rooting out voter fraud, that hallowed conservative myth.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn for national security adviser: Americans of all political backgrounds should be alarmed that General Flynn will be President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser. It’s likely, given his record, that he will encourage Mr. Trump’s worst impulses, fuel suspicions of Muslims and bring to the job conflicts of interest from his international consulting work.

Rep. Mike Pompeo for CIA director: More disturbingly, he has claimed that the U.S. government’s surveillance powers have been critically weakened by reforms designed to prevent abuses. He has called for the creation of a large database combining phone records with “publicly available financial and lifestyle information.” Mr. Pompeo also has suggested that foreign terrorism suspects should be held for prolonged periods for interrogation by the military or CIA — a policy that would likely revive the Bush administration’s disastrous misuse of the Guantanamo Bay prison.

Sunday sampler

I had planned to avoid politics this week because I’ve read enough to be sick of it. But newspapers — seemingly unaware that most people are sick of it, too — just can’t stop. There were a few stories that took a slightly different angle.

Charlotte: The Observer examines the impact of the election on HB2, and, sadly, suggests that HB2 will be here to stay, despite it likely being the cause of Gov. Pat McCrory’s election loss. (Yes, I know he’s holding out for the recount.) With a Trump appointed Department of Justice, it is doubtful that it will be as aggressive fighting the law in court as the Obama administration. And the General Assembly, safely gerrymandered into Republican control, certainly won’t do anything, despite millions of revenue losses.

Fayetteville: What will a Gov. Roy Cooper administration look like? The Observer peers into its crystal ball and guesses. Most insightful are the comments of former Gov. Jim Martin, who served during a time when the opposing party controlled the General Assembly. “The governor has leverage through job appointments and other powers, Martin said. ‘You find out what’s needed in their district and what we need. And yes, sometimes you do some horse-trading. But that would be true even if it was your own party.’ Any new governor should avoid picking a fight with the lawmakers, Martin said, because the legislature has more power than the governor does.”

Greensboro: I’m not sure how to succinctly describe this compelling story in the News & Record about the jumpsuit project. An African American grad student/teacher at UNCG is arrested and imprisoned for something he didn’t do. A judge throws out the conviction a year or so later. The teacher returns to UNCG and wears an orange jumpsuit every day as performance art to illustration injustice. “My mom was worried about my safety,” Roland said. “These days in this world, you don’t have to wear an orange suit being an African American male to get attention in the wrong way.” All you need to say.

High Point: I always hesitate to include the Enterprise as its stories are hidden by its paywall. This piece about the housing blight in the city being partly the cause of the inefficient and politicized code enforcement program is pretty good, though.

Sunday sampler: all election, all the time

Finally, and the newspapers are giving it one good final push

Charlotte: The Observer says that N.C. has been elevated to a super battleground state, which it seems to be, given the number of visits the candidates and their surrogates have made here in the last three weeks. “Democrats see the election as a turning point, a rapidly urbanizing state where the influx of young people and outsiders is having a moderating effect on a traditionally conservative state. No Republican has won the White House without North Carolina since 1956….Republicans, whose presidential candidates used to carry North Carolina without much sweat, say the state is just now more competitive. Conservative John Hood, president of the Pope Foundation, warns about drawing too many conclusions from an election that has see-sawed.”

Asheville: The Citizen-Times outlines the races for governor and Senate, and adds the interesting perspective of what impact the outcome of the races have nationally. “A McCrory victory would allow the move to the right to continue and would be seen as a vote of confidence in the direction already taken. It would also keep state government in Republican hands for another four years….Cooper might have limited ability to block significant Republican initiatives from the General Assembly if he’s elected, depending on whether Democrats pick up enough legislative seats to allow them to uphold a Cooper veto.”

Fayetteville: The Observer focused on the Senate contest between Sen. Richard Burr and Deborah Ross. The paper makes the mistake of suggesting in its headlines that Burr is ahead, which means that they misread the meaning of the latest poll. Regardless, the most telling part of it is that Burr declined to talk with the newspaper. Read into that what you will, given his staff’s earlier erasing the News & Observer from its mailing list.

Greensboro: The front page features a piece on the stands of each candidate, as if voters are still undecided. More interesting was an article on the political opinions of college students. “The college students interviewed for this article fell into at least one of a handful of baskets, none of them deplorable: They’re generally backing Hillary Clinton; many college students, including Republicans, really don’t like Donald Trump; and there are still a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters out there.”

Wilmington: The Star News had Donald Trump in town, and that’s what dominates its front. Apparently Trump didn’t leave the airport, giving his stump speech in a hangar.The only notable thing in the story was the predominance of Gov. McCrory, finally giving his full-throated endorsement of Trump and what he stands for.

Winston-Salem: The Journal features the last day of early voting on its front page. (Many newspapers wrote similar stories, but published them elsewhere in the paper.)

“No way to run a news organization that wants to grow”

The News & Record published a letter to the editor Sunday in which a reader attempted to school the paper on how to build its business. Well, not exactly: the writer was criticizing what he perceived as the paper’s liberal outlook on the world.

“Commercial media, especially newspapers and magazines, are losing subscribers and advertisers to the Internet. So what is the News & Record doing to survive? Not what a smart business would do.

“Instead of trying to build the base of subscribers, the paper seems determined to irritate and criticize them with feature stories and editorials that are totally biased and unbalanced.”

I’ve read dozens of letters similar to this during my time in the editor’s office. I wish I had responded to each one because they are based on a false assumption about newspapers. And any time spent explaining journalism’s role in democracy is time well spent. Here is the letter I would have written back. (Journalists, feel free to steal it without attribution, if you like.)

Dear sir,

Thank you for writing. We always like to hear from our readers. We especially like to hear from readers who think we get it wrong because it gives us a chance to improve.

It’s true that the newspaper business model is in disruption. I’ll even go further: it’s gotten half-assed crazy.

The news department prints the news as it sees fit, hewing the best that it can to the idea that it selects news that will help people live a productive, interesting and fruitful lives. The news department sees its customers as the community as a whole. At its core we believe that the purpose of journalism is, as defined by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel, “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” More on that in a bit.

The advertising department sells placement in the newspaper to businesses, promising to deliver their message to tens of thousands of newspaper customers in the area. Its primary customer is the advertiser. Advertisers have no say in the news that surrounds their ads, which occasionally upsets some of them, but not that often. They simply want our customers to frequent their businesses. We do, too, because it means their advertising in our paper works.

Our circulation department sells subscriptions based on the premise that the newspaper delivers value for a reasonably cheap price: You  get news from the neighborhood and the world, information about shopping, and sports and puzzles and comics, all delivered to your home every day. Its primary customer is the person who buys the paper. And, oh my goodness, yes, it has to help readers upset about the paper’s content.

Our editorial department offers reasoned opinion on its page or pages every day. It attempts to offer a mix of opinion and analysis up and down the spectrum from conservative to liberal. It publishes nearly every letter it receives regardless of whether it agrees or whether the letter is critical, just as it published yours. The editorial pages often publish opinions from local and national writers it doesn’t agree with, as it should. It’s a place which embraces John Milton’s and John Stuart Mill’s idea of being a “marketplace of ideas.”

So, each department’s customers are different, and each department’s measures of customer satisfaction are different. Crazy business model, huh? However, it has worked for hundreds of years. It’s just not working that well anymore.

Back to the purpose of journalism and the idea of publishing information citizens need to be free and self-governing. That occasionally means that some people will not like to read that, say, their favorite candidate is being criticized by his opponent on the front page. Some might disagree with the opinions espoused on the editorial pages. But it’s what independent newspapers do. We follow the news where it leads us, and, like you, the editorial board voices its opinion. Unlike television news, we offer readers like you the opportunity to publish their opinions on the editorial page right next to our editorials.

You mention that you believe our readership is conservative; best we can tell our readership is balanced, although it frequently acts like a seesaw, moving back and forth. Regardless, we take pride in our independence and resist pandering to one particular political viewpoint. For instance, while we tend to be progressive, we have endorsed many conservative politicians. When we write about local people and issues, we try to be thorough, accurate and fair. When we fail, it’s not purposeful. I hope that when you see specific instances when we’re unfair or biased on our news pages, you let me know.

A final note just between us: We aren’t really trying to “grow” the business. That bird has flown, thanks to the internet and our industry’s short-sighted strategies. We, along with most other newspapers, are just hanging on as we try to figure out a workable business model. Yet we still value your business, and I hope you value the commitment we have.

Thank you again for taking the time to write. We will continue to publish a variety of news and opinion, and I hope you’ll continue to read us even as we raise your blood pressure on occasion.

Best wishes,

The editor