“Amateur Hour:” Brendan Marks and participatory journalism

My friend Brendan Marks is a sports reporter at the Charlotte Observer, but he’s more than that. He’s becoming Charlotte’s version of George Plimpton, a writer who made his name in participatory journalism. The Observer has started “Amateur Hour,” in which Marks tries out a variety of roles in pro sports. So far, he’s ridden 170 mph around a NASCAR track, stood in the goal as a Charlotte Checkers centerman slapped shots at him, and, most recently, tried out for a NASCAR pit crew. He’s showing how newspapers can effectively use video. (Don’t know how? Kristen Hare at Poynter has some tips.) Brendan’s funny — “100 crunches?” — engaging and self-deprecating. As such, he’s entertaining visitors, building community and, I submit, heightening trust in the Observer.

Brendan was a student of mine at Carolina. I asked him a few questions about what he’s doing.

Me: Whose idea was this, and how did you get stuck with it?

Brendan: I volunteered myself for this after I came up with the idea. Sometimes you forget about how amazing some of the things these athletes are doing. We were talking about that one day and I was like, why don’t we try and do that. Sometimes when I watch Kemba Walker dribble, I’m like that is offensive, that is egregious that a human being can do something like that. Now I’m supposed to try and defend it? If I didn’t appreciate it before, I’m certainly going to now. It’s a good way for the general public to realize how amazing these athletes are. You hear so many people on social media say “Aww, Cam Newton sucks or Cam Newton’s terrible.” OK, you go try to catch a pass from Cam Newton or you go try to make some of the plays that Cam Newton does. Cause you’ll fall over and break every bone in your body.

Do you have any athletic background?

Let me put it this way: I like to think I have an athletic background. I played high school sports — soccer and track — and was not the worst person on the team, but I definitely was not the best. But I feel like that’s the whole purpose of it: For somebody who is truly, truly average — and I know that I am — trying to do these ridiculous things with ridiculous athletes.

Is there any one of these sports where you think, with a little practice, “I can do it, I can probably drive this car at 170 miles per hour?”

I think the only one I would realistically have a shot at is maybe kicking fields goals in the NFL because of my soccer background. I’m pretty confident I could hit – I mean I have friends who are total schlubs who can hit a 25- or 30-yarder, maybe not consistently but they can. So I’d like to think that I could at least do that. I recognize my shortcomings; literally, I’m 5-foot-9. Don’t get me wrong: I go into all of these with the goal of being competitive. My goal when I went into the hockey thing was to stop half the shots, which I obviously did not do. (Me: He stopped one.)

You’ve done NASCAR and hockey. What other sports are coming up?

Just about any dumb, ridiculous thing you can think of. The Charlotte Knights have a pitcher who throws 103 miles per hour. I’m going to try to hit a fastball off him. I’m going to go to the Panthers and try to kick some field goals with Graham Gano. Maybe try and throw some passes to a rookie receiver. We’re going to go over to the Hornets and play one-on-one with Malik Monk or trying to have a free throw contest with Dwight Howard. So that’ll be fun. And then they get kinda weird and wild. There’s a river near here. They’re going to have me go noodling for catfish. Basically they took George Plimpton’s idea and they’re making it redneck, which is fine. It’s been fun so far.

What kind of feedback have you gotten?

I’ve gotten plenty of people making fun of me on Twitter and deservedly so.  But generally the feedback’s been pretty good, actually. I think a lot of people, they usually start out the conversation by saying, “Boy, you were really terrible.” But then the next line is “But hey, at least you can skate. That was impressive enough. Like, I don’t even know how to ice skate.” OK, that’s fair. I think a lot of people are interested in it because they can see themselves doing the same thing. They would love the opportunity to be able to do some of these things. What little kid doesn’t dream about growing up and playing for the Panthers or the Hornets? I’m getting to do that, even if it’s just for 15 minutes. It’s really cool and I try not to forget that, how lucky I am to be able to do that.

Have the videos gotten a lot of traffic?

The most telling statistic that we found was anybody who watched it was watching it for the entire 5 minutes. Nobody was clicking on it and saying “this is boring” because it’s not. It’s hilarious. If anything people are watching it multiple times.  What that told us was that there’s an interest in this. For me the most telling part of doing the hockey video was, at the very end, I had no idea that I would be so exhausted. I was out there for 3 minutes – 3 minutes- I haven’t sweated that much or been that exhausted since I played in overtime soccer games in high school.

Would you do boxing?

I would, I mean, I’d have to have some good insurance.

Do you have good medical insurance?

The Observer does have good insurance, but I may need a whole separate policy if I’m stepping into a boxing ring.

The front page still matters, part 2

Update: A story by a Charlotte Observer writer about the study made it onto the N&O’s front page Tuesday.

“Students reading A Beka’s textbooks learn that God created the world in six days 6,000 years ago, Noah’s Ark is a true story that happened during the Great Flood around 2500 B.C., and the flood’s runoff formed the Grand Canyon. The textbooks are also laced with critical comments from a deeply conservative perspective.”

The News & Observer published that tidbit Sunday in a story about a League of Women Voters’ report on fundamentalist Christian schools getting tax money from the state. Quoting the N&O, “they’re not providing anything close to the ‘sound basic education’ the state Constitution promises to North Carolina’s children, according to a new report from the League of Women Voters.”

It’s an important story that reflects the values of state legislators, bad education policy and a misuse of tax money.

The story was published on page A16, along with the Letters to the Editor. *

I thought of my colleague Andy Bechtel’s blog post last week titled “The Front Page Still Matters.” He wrote:

“Nowadays, many of us primarily read our news not by turning pages, but by scrolling on smartphones and laptops. We get news in a timeline format on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Algorithms influence what we see there.

“Yet many readers still rely on the front page in print — with stories selected by editors — to reflect the important news of the past day and the day ahead. These readers see the front page as an indicator of a news organization’s values. What does this newspaper care about? What are its priorities? How is it serving the community? ”

I’m one of those readers. The front page has power — it draws attention. It is where newspaper editors place their best stories, stories they think should be read because they are important to the community or they’re interesting.

There’s a reason that people want stories about their successes on A1 and stories about their failures on A16. Readership drops dramatically for pages and stories inside the paper. When I was an editor we had surveys showing that 90 percent of our readers looked at the front page. Fewer than 50 percent looked at the editorial page. I don’t know about A16.

I appreciate Andy’s point that many people get their news from social media. I’m one of those, too. I “found” this story Sunday afternoon on Twitter, although I understand it was on the N&O’s website Saturday afternoon. It seemed as if some people found it worth retweeting.

I’m glad that many newspapers — including the N&O — publish some stories online when they’re ready, rather “saving” the story for the newsprint edition. It’s an understanding that print, web and social are different and that their readers should be served differently.

When I ran a newspaper, I understood that I was a gatekeeper and I took the role of selecting stories seriously. Now that I’m a regular newspaper reader, I pay for and appreciate the role of the gatekeeper.

That said, for social media, I rejoice in the adage that “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Most of the time it does because on Twitter and Facebook, I have thousands of gatekeepers. I cherish their role, too.

* It’s possible the Barnett story is in the editorial section of the paper because he is the assistant opinions editor. News and editorials are different sections and traditionally independent of each other. Some editorial columns should be published on the front page, in my opinion.

** I understand that I sound as if I’m critical of the N&O’s news judgment. I suppose I am, but it’s a mild, mild criticism. Every reader has opinions on the news judgment of editors. Ninety-five percent of the time, I agree with the N&O’s call. In case you’re interested in what was on the Sunday front page, here it is. I don’t quibble with a single selection. In fact, I read the landslide story on Friday, I think.

Courtesy of the Newseum

 

Sunday sampler

Asheville: Once I got past answering six questions and deleted out of an autoplay ad, I found the Citizen-Times story on whether the city contributed to the flooding in Biltmore Village interesting. “The flood covered parts of Bitlmore Village, and sent merchants and employees scrambling to protect shops with sandbags. The speed of the rising water surprised even longtime merchants. Some now face cancellations and days, to possibly weeks, of cleanup before being able to reopen or bring business back to normal.”

Raleigh & Charlotte: Both the News & Observer and the Observer feature a long report on floods in Western North Carolina and whether a state project to create landslide hazard maps — which was later cut before completing its work — would have helped.  “People, I think, had the perception that if we had landslide maps everywhere then that means that there would be regulations everywhere, and they were anti-regulation,” Bauer said. “So they just said, ‘Well let’s get rid of the mapping, and then we don’t have to worry about regulations.’ I mean, the landslide hazard still exists. People just don’t know about it.”

Sanford: The Herald has a piece about whether the county commissioners should fund a school resource officers at private schools. It’s password protected so I don’t know the details, but I’m interested. That public tax money may go to support private schools seems to be a Republican thing these days, but it still grates.

The value of a journalism school education

The latest edition of CJR has a pro and con (and maybe) on the value of attending journalism school. Strong arguments on all sides. Now, I have an opinion.

First, my bias: I have never taken a journalism course. I graduated with an English degree from what is now St. Andrews University. My first newspaper job came two years after I graduated. I worked as a reporter and editor for 30+ years, and I did pretty well. Six years ago, I started teaching journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. (I think media literacy should be a required course in high school and college, but that’s a topic for another day.)

With a Smith-Corona, working on a story circa 1980

My first job was at a 5-day a week afternoon paper in Monroe, N.C. I learned at the side of a good, tough editor, who tried to teach me the principles of the trade. But he taught primarily by correcting my mistakes. He didn’t teach me how to interview people, or pick up anecdotes and detail, or how to write with life. For that, I was self-taught and much of my self-teaching was wrong.

I learned new skills from better journalists along the way. One showed me how to peel layers off the onion to try to get to the truth. Another taught me to slow down and find the right word, rather than the almost right one. A third taught me about “gold coins.”

But it took years, dozens of journalists, and hundreds of errors and false starts to get me there.

I teach those skills now in my classes. Other instructors teach data journalism and web design and building a brand and opinion writing. They teach media law and media ethics. Entrepreneurial journalism is on the rise. Students are being prepared for a journalism life even if newspapers and TV aren’t in their future. And, if they’re lucky, they get a few experienced mentors for life.

I came up in journalism at a time in which editors had time to teach, and reporters had time to figure things out. Now, there are fewer editors, fewer reporters and journalism is more complicated. Then I needed a pad, a pencil and a typewriter to report and write. Now, journalists need to know the skills of reporting and writing, but also how to navigate social media, how to write for multiple platforms, how to shoot video…among other things.

Complicating it exponentially is a news environment in which conspiracies are spread by political leaders, lying by the president of the United States is commonplace, Russians manipulate social networks, people will believe the damndest things, journalists chase after the shiny objects, and newspapers are dying.

Journalistic rigor and discipline and high standards are vital now. Can you do all of this without a J-school education? Sure. I don’t regret not attending a journalism school, but it took me way longer to master the trade because I didn’t.

Sunday sampler

Many papers have Memorial Day stories on their front pages. Some have other notable pieces.

Charlotte: I’m not a racin’ fan, but I like Tom Wolfe’s books so I read this fascinating story in the Observer of the meeting of Tom Wolfe, Junior Johnson and NASCAR. My favorite quote that I wish all of my writing students would learn. “Good gracious, that’s the strangest duck I ever met,” Johnson said when told of the encounter, Higgins recounted. “He came to Wilkes County and it was 95 degrees and he was wearing that white suit. He never was interested in talking to me much, but he wanted to talk to some people in Wilkes County and he really picked some doozies. He was in for some culture shock when he went into Pardue’s Grocery.”

High Point: The Enterprise starts a three-part series on the homeless camps in town. The story is behind a paywall so you can only read a few paragraphs, but it looks informative on an important topic that, honestly, most people don’t want to look at.

Sunday sampler

Charlotte: In Greensboro, the hospital system has bought up many of the private doctor practices. In Charlotte, that is the trend, too. Now this: The Observer reports that nearly 100 doctors have signaled they intend to leave the Atrium hospital system there. They say “Atrium’s practices as bad for patients, including a claim that doctors are ordered to make referrals to Atrium-owned or managed facilities. For consumers, experts say that doctors breaking away from hospitals could mean lower costs, because patients often pay less for treatment at an independent practice than a hospital system.”

Raleigh: Three today from the N&O. First, a piece by my former student Camila Molina on Bishop Michael Curry, who rocked the royal wedding yesterday. Curry is a longtime North Carolinian.

Because I am a contract employee of the UNC system, stories about the takeover of the Board of Governors always interest me. This one documents yet another effort to run an institution that isn’t a business like a business. Government isn’t a business. Education isn’t a business. The goals are different. “Smith has said he wants to make the university system “quicker, smarter, faster and better.” He plans to unveil more detailed goals next week, he said, around the themes of efficiency, renovation and collaboration with community colleges. Smith has emphasized keeping student costs down in a state where the median income is about $50,000. ‘It’s going to be totally different than anything you’ve seen in how the UNC system operates,’ he said in a recent interview, adding, ‘I just want to do some really good work.'”

Last, both of my daughters were birthed with the help of a midwife. So this story on midwives who want the state to lighten up on the regulations struck a chord. Read the story to see the hypocrisy of the state legislature, trying to avoid getting involved.

Notes from my graduation address

One of my students, Lidia Davis, wrote this about my last lecture. It’s not a lecture so much as a 10-minute imparting of life lessons and a message about how much I appreciate the honor of teaching the class. Many professors do it. I tend to change the lessons every semester, updating them and refining them. And because I don’t want to be repetitive.

This semester, I geared my comments specifically to graduating seniors.

1. Don’t compare yourselves to your classmates. You’re unique. Screw the B-school students who think they have their lives figured out. I lived with six guys through college. We all had grand hopes on graduation day – doctors, lawyers, business magnates. Three years after graduation, two were in med school, two were in law school, two were in business and one – me – was a reporter in a small town. That year, I mentioned to a professor friend how I considered myself fortunate to be part of this group that was so impressive. He said, “Are you kidding? You belong. You more than belong. You help anchor these guys. Look, people bloom at different times in their lives. They simply bloomed earlier than you. Your time is now.” The truth – and belief in me – in his comment inspires me even today. (I doubt he remembers the conversation; more evidence of the point of the video Lidia references.)

2. Everyone hates their first jobs because first jobs suck. They are supposed to suck. No one falls in love with their first jobs. Their purpose is to calm your parents, add a resume item, provide some money, and give you time to find your second job, which will be a little better.

3. When you get that job, be on time, work hard and be kind to everyone. (I stole this advice from Ashton Kutcher.) Your bosses will notice. It’s also a habit you should practice to live a good life.

4. Listen, listen, listen. Listen better and more actively than you do in class. By listening, you learn. Listening helps you connect the dots and see around corners. And seeing around corners — anticipating the meaning of events and developments that will change your work — is how you make a difference.

5. Embrace change. It’s the obvious one. You think you do now, and you may, but you probably don’t. When Snapchat changed, did you groan or did you adjust and figure it out? You’re about to enter an environment where everything is Snapchat change, for good or worse. Help your business see the future and move ahead of it.

The one thing I never change is this video, which apparently affected Lidia in the same way it affects me. The video by Drew Dudley has nothing to do with journalism and everything to do with realizing your place and your power in the world.

“It’s not about what we do,” Lidia wrote. “It’s not about where we go. It’s about the people we impact along the way—it’s about those in-between moments we don’t even consider relevant half the time.”

My students give me “those in-between moments” every day, and I’m enriched by them. It’s a big reason why I teach.

Sunday sampler

Asheville: The Citizen-Times is staying on top of two stories that I suspect are of interest to Asheville: the police beating of an unarmed black man and the investigation of the former county manager on embezzlement charges. Today, the paper explains to readers, as best it can, how Wanda Greene became an accused thief. “As county manager, Greene was never regularly evaluated as county manager. And she never provided a detailed, line-item budget to commissioners — meaning the board for years approved ordinances that provided only summaries of the county’s annual spending plans.”

The outrage over political spending continues with the News & Observer’s reporting….

Raleigh: Bad enough that millions of donations to the president go toward paying lawyers to defend him in court. At the state level, donations to politicians go toward new clothes and expensive food, including a $600 bar tab at the Players’ Retreat, a longtime Raleigh sports bar. “That was for a reception after a basketball game that takes place every other year between members of the North Carolina and South Carolina legislatures. Dobson said he has taken on a leadership role in that game, which includes paying for the reception. As part of those responsibilities, Dobson also paid $450 to outfit the North Carolina team with jerseys.” (The story ran on the front page of the N&O and the Charlotte Observer.)

Sunday sampler

Asheville: It’s an interesting development in which good-hearted citizens help people hiding from the law. Makes you wonder who’s right — the people or the government. The Citizen-Times writes of the efforts of a small community of volunteers to feed and inform people hiding from Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. “I’ve been getting messages that immigration is checking West Asheville, in Hendersonville, in Flat Rock, in Arden and Candler,” he said. “There is a lot of fear in the community that I’ve never seen in the 14 years that I’ve been here.”

Fayetteville: Every city has panhandlers, and certainly some are truly in need and some are scammers. The Observer takes a look at a new law in Fayetteville which it says is aimed at banning roadside panhandling. The ACLU says it is unconstitutional. The city says it is aimed at safety and keeping traffic moving. And the panhandler? They say it’s bad for business.

Greensboro: A week ago, a tornado cut a swath through the city. “Thirty-seven structures destroyed, another 162 nearly so. Hundreds of people displaced, including students from three elementary schools who will finish out the school year in unfamiliar classrooms.” News & Record writer Margaret Moffett channels her inner-Jim Schlosser to write about the mood and spirit of the city a.k.a. “Greensboro Strong.”

Raleigh: The N&O runs a compelling Charlotte Observer story about prison employees charged with crimes — and how they tend to get off or get lenient treatment. “From 2013 through 2017, 57 prison employees were charged with crimes while on duty, according to the state Department of Public Safety’s review. Four of the 57 employees got prison time. Thirty got probation. And most of the criminal charges — about 60 percent — were dismissed.”

Sunday sampler

Many North Carolina newspaper featured the gun control rallies on their front pages. There were also other interesting pieces.

Asheville: I can’t read this story in full because I’ve reached my limit of free articles at the Citizen-Times. However, the paper has gotten hold of some Snapchat videos of a boy shooting his pistol into the woods and making threats against his high school. He was arrested months later. The Times says the videos “show how obvious warning signs can go unreported for so long. The videos also illustrate how threats of school shootings have become pervasive in the age of social media.”

Charlotte: I wasn’t going to read this story about a Charlotte woman anguishing over having her foot amputated; I have enough sadness in my world. But I got sucked in. And inspired. “I Move for Jenn.” “The fact that I went out in public over the weekend twice like this,” Jenn Andrews says, sweeping her hand across legs dressed in capri sweatpants, “without a maxi dress, that is like not who I thought that I would be. But in a good way. … I went into this depressed – this sad, broken person – and I’ve come out this stronger version of the old me.”

Raleigh: The story in the News & Observer starts this way: “Some rural North Carolina counties are planning to have former law enforcement and military police officers serve as armed volunteers at schools….” Armed volunteers. What could go wrong?