Sunday sampler

Carteret County: One of the signs of a good local paper is that it follows big stories to the end. The News-Times does just that: “Nearly six months after Hurricane Florence hit the county, several displaced tenants of Crystal Coast Apartments in Morehead City are still unable to move back into their damaged homes.” Meanwhile, FEMA is formally ending its shelter assistance program.

Winston-Salem: The City Council appears ready to allow bow hunting inside the city limits because people say there are too many deer in the city. While the council is discussing regulations, I’m with the council member who said, “I can see where the areas that would be really attractive to a deer herd would be the city parks. I really don’t want folks putting a hunting stand 100 feet off the park, and waiting for something to go over (the line), and maybe their aim is off and they shoot into the park.”

Monroe: The Enquirer-Journal was the newspaper that gave me my start. At the time, it was an afternoon paper delivered five days a week. Now it’s delivered three days; I don’t know if it is still afternoon. It announced today that it is dropping its carriers and contracting with the U.S. Postal Service to deliver it. It’s going to save the paper money, but disrupt its subscribers. I note the change without judgment.  (The website has a paywall. Here is the front page announcement, and the link will rot after today.)

A canary in the coal mine

Back in the late 1980s, a new phone system was installed at the News & Record. It had all the bells and whistles: voicemail, call forwarding and conference calls. Plus, it replaced the traditional phone bell ring with a cooler, softer, pulsing ring tone, similar to this.

Who knew that new phone system would be a symbolic canary in the coal mine for the newspaper industry.

We loved the new phones. The office was quieter, we could smoothly transfer callers to the right phone number, and we had voicemail. When we were on deadline or thinking through an important story, we could let calls go to voicemail.

Eventually, the phone system had the effect of making one of the two administrative assistants in the office unnecessary. We didn’t need someone to answer the phones when they answered themselves.

A year or so later, my boss stuck his head into my office and told me to step into the newsroom.

“What do you see?” he asked.

I hate these types of questions.

“A newsroom?” I said. I knew that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

“People,” he said. “Look at all the people! All working at their desks.”

I was thinking that was a good thing, but I waited.

“I just called up here to see if I could reach someone,” he said. “I called 10 phone numbers and no one picked up!

“What do you think a reader with a story tip would do? What if a source was trying to return a call? What if a reader was calling to compliment us? They’d get frustrated and hang up. We’re in the business to serve our readers. Get your people to do their jobs and answer the damn phones!”

He was right, and I was guilty. I often let voicemail screen my calls. His small sampling indicated I wasn’t alone. If I recall correctly, the phone would ring three times and go to voice mail. Where once the phone would ring until it was answered, now it was simple to ignore.

He reminded me that readers were our life-line to the community. Rather than avoiding them, I should have initiated and embraced the conversation with them.

In the end, the new phone system may have improved our efficiency, and the bean counters would have said it improved our productivity because it reduced personnel costs.

But it hurt hurt our effectiveness in serving our community needs, which, for a local newspaper, was a terrible trade-off.


Journalism: It’s about the people you serve

Madison Forsey, a sharp broadcast student at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, discovered an important truth about journalism the other day when she visited the News Reporter in Whiteville. She wasn’t expecting much when she pulled into the paper’s parking lot. Rural North Carolina. Small town. Print’s dying. You know the drill.

Then she walked in the door.

“It was buzzing. Full of friendly people working on everything from digital advertising content, to what would be in Thursday’s paper.  Each and every person had a smile on their face, and after sitting down with them and meeting almost the entire staff, I knew why.

“They love what they do. They believe in what they do, and who they do it for. They stressed that journalism should never be about the money, but about the people you serve.”

The people you serve. The people who work for a small-town newspaper know who they serve because they talk with them every day. When I was a practicing journalist, I admit that I sometimes forgot about those people. I got caught up in chasing the big story, or I followed the horse race rather than report the issues, or I got distracted by financial problems at the paper.

It’s appropriate that she learned that lesson in Whiteville, too, because she and another student went there to report a story about news deserts and how the News Reporter is swimming hard against the tide. Madison pulled together a wonderful story about the News Reporter, and Mary Glen Hatcher wrote about Smithfield, which lost its local paper two years ago.

Madison had the opportunity to talk with Les High, the publisher of the News Reporter, and he taught her a second vital lesson about journalism. “He said something I think should be plastered on the walls of every journalism school across the country: opinions are easy, but facts are hard.”

Serve your community and get the facts. Not a bad day’s lesson.

Read Madison’s entire post. And watch her broadcast piece.


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: The N&O features a three-part series on bail reform. “The law in North Carolina says judges and magistrates must confine people before their trials only if they pose a danger, threaten to flee or might destroy evidence. Yet statewide, 67 percent of people arrested for misdemeanors in 2017 got a secured bond from a judge or magistrate — meaning they had to pay, put up collateral or hire a bail bondsman to go free before their trials.” And, based on this series, this should be addressed and changed.

The News & Observer also features a Charlotte Observer story with a breathtaking lead: “North Carolina paid prison officers more than $45 million in overtime last year, about 10 times more than it did in 2011, data show.” Apparently, the state can’t hire enough guards.

Fayetteville: Readers who like true crime stories will be interested in this story in the Observer about law enforcement’s pursuit and arrest of the man police believe kidnapped and killed a 13-year-old girl. The Observer reviewed hundreds of pages of search warrants and court orders to show some of the inner workings of the investigation. Powerful reporting and writing here.

Charlotte: The Observer writes of developers using shady means to get people to see them their property. “That ends up targeting people that are economically disadvantaged, and may not have the knowledge to say ‘OK, I need to sell my house, I haven’t been able to sell it any other way. Now here’s this guy that showed up on my doorstep — that’s the way I should go,’ ” he said.

Hickory: Because it’s February, the Daily Record asked six people their opinions on why Black History Month matters. Normally I wouldn’t highlight this, except for the annual questions white people raise about “when do we get a White History Month?” Any time we can fight ignorance, we should.

Don’t cede control of your story

A common theme in my writing classes is Barney Kilgore’s admonition: “Remember: The easiest thing for the reader is to quit reading.”

I lecture on how to “kill your darlings.”

But occasionally I encounter a student who thinks his anecdotes are so telling, his writing so compelling, and his style so seamless that he can’t cut the extra 300 words to get it down to the 1,000-word limit. Even when I encourage him to be ruthless.

This is what I say next.

As a journalist, you want to control your story. When you send a story that’s 30 percent longer than the assigned length, you cede control of your story to the editor? Why would you do that? It’s possible she will be impressed with your story and give you the extra space, but it’s not likely. Instead, she’s going to cut it. Maybe she’ll consult you on the cuts; maybe she won’t.
Meanwhile, the editor sees you as THAT guy — the one who doesn’t deliver what’s been asked for and then one she has to fight with over the cuts. She doesn’t have time for that; she has a dozen other things to do. She wants a guy who delivers a story on time within the length limit. She wants a writer who is reliable.
You want to be THAT guy.

Always have an agenda

From today’s Washington Post in a story about President Trump’s phone habits:

“The chatterbox in chief has eschewed the traditional way that presidents communicate with members of Congress, calling lawmakers at all hours of the day without warning and sometimes with no real agenda. Congressional Republicans reciprocate in kind, increasingly dialing up the president directly to gauge his thinking after coming to terms with the fact that ultimately, no one speaks for Trump but Trump himself.”

One day many years ago, I came back from lunch and Cole Campbell was sitting at the desk next to me, scribbling something on a yellow legal pad. Cole was my boss and had an office so I wasn’t used to him sitting in what was, at the time, Stan Swofford’s desk.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Working on the agenda for my trip to Raleigh with the publisher,” he said.

“Agenda?” I asked. We were big on holding efficient meetings in those days.

“I’m working on my version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Cole said. “We need three news positions — two on the state desk and one on the city desk. I want to talk about how our paper will pursue civic journalism, and I plan to talk about my future with Landmark.”

He gathered the legal pad and stood up. “When you get private time with the big boss, you should be active, not passive. I have his ear for the 90-minute drive to Raleigh. I’m not going to waste it. So you have an agenda. Always have an agenda.”


Sunday sampler

Raleigh: Both the News & Observer feature stories pegged to the one-year anniversary of the Parkland murders. (Published five days ago, it was part of a national project tracing what’s happened since. Hint, 1,157 young people have been killed by gunfire.) It’s a huge project, impressive in scope and reporting. “The fatal shootings involve a variety of situations, including children playing with unsecured guns, family members who set out to kill loved ones and then themselves, and teens settling conflicts with guns. But the killings don’t tell the whole story. In 2016 and 2017, at least another 672 teens and kids in North Carolina visited a hospital for a firearm-related injury and 242 were hospitalized.” Read it all.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times follows on the detention of more than 200 people in the state by federal immigration agents. Mayors of the larger cities in the state have released a statement of protest. I hit the paywall on the Citizen-Times site and cannot read the story on pages inside the paper. Today you can see the front page here.

Hell hath no fury like a newspaper comics reader scorned

Early in my stint as editor of the News & Record, I decided the comics pages needed updating. We ran an in-paper readership survey and replaced three or four old, tired strips with fresher ones. Two we dropped were Gasoline Alley and Mark Trail.

I spent much of the next week listening to angry readers who wondered how the publisher could have hired such an idiot. Seriously: I’m old now and Gasoline Alley and Mark Trail are still terrible.

One time I pulled a comic strip because a character referred to being SOL. I tried to imagine a parent explain to an 8-year-old what that meant. But at about the same time, I watched my own children quickly toss aside the comics page without reading it. Cartoons on TV were more interesting. What I had always heard —  comics were a gateway for young people to get into the newspaper habit — had run its course.

I soon decided that messing with the comics was a fool’s game; there’s nothing to gain. And newspapers still haven’t learned this lesson. Want some current reader reaction?  Here are two letters published in today’s News & Record relating to this. The first line of one: “Read my lips: Just leave the comics pages alone.”

In my day,  I did. I didn’t change a comic strip again unless the strip itself stopped publishing.

So I was intrigued by a tweet earlier this week from my colleague Andy Bechtel.

Hilarity ensued. Well, a long thread did, ending with twitterati promoting or trashing specific strips, games and puzzles. But some light pierced through the fog.

Robyn Tomlin, the editor of the N&O, has had the same experience with comic strips as I.

Brooke Cain, a reporter for the N&O, responded to a comment I made with a smart observation that hadn’t occurred to me.

That’s exactly why my neighbor subscribes. She needs the Sudoku. If my paper canceled the Jumble and bridge column — and Carolina has a bad season — my wife would be finished with the paper.

I don’t read the comics page. I saw Andy’s tweet and instinctively agreed. But that was me wearing my private citizen hat. Brooke reminded me that editors wear a different one. And readers value comics and puzzles in the same way that they prefer ice cream to broccoli.

Mess with the comics at your own peril.

You want a high gpa or you want a reporter

Speaking of Howard Troxler, he and I joined the News & Observer about the same time. He came straight from UNC-Chapel Hill while I had wandered a bit at other newspapers.

We were at lunch one day, and he talked about his hiring interview at the N&O.

“They asked me why my GPA was so low,” he said. “I said, ‘Because I had a full-time job working at the Daily Tar Heel. Do you want someone with a high GPA or do you want someone who’s already been a reporter for a daily newspaper for three years?'”

The N&O made the right choice. Howard eventually became a popular columnist for the St. Petersburg Times in Florida.