Sunday sampler

It’s always fun to be surprised by the interesting journalism on the front pages of the state’s newspapers. Today wasn’t bad.

Raleigh — The News & Observer gives us two stories, which isn’t that unusual for the N&O. One is on Faith Hedgepeth, the 19-year-old UNC-Chapel Hill student found dead in her apartment last month. It’s a write-through on her and the crime. Whenever a college student is killed, it’s a big story on campus. This is no different.

The second N&O story is about the decline in juvenile crime in the state.”The state is now locking up far fewer teens than it did a decade ago, finding treatment alternatives to its former system of training schools.” Of course, the laws that addressed this were passed 15 years ago, when the state legislature worked together to solve problems.

 

Winston-Salem — The Journal revisits the gay marriage debate by focusing on a gay couple — married in Vermont — that wants to keep its marriage intact. One partner is awaiting a green card so that he can remain in the United States. A Supreme Court ruling could resolve the issue.

 

 

 

 

 

Gastonia — The Gazette focuses on the bureaucratic nightmare that is apparently the Gaston County DSS when it comes to foster children. It is powerful stuff. “The Buchanans are highly regarded foster parents who began fostering a newborn child through DSS in November 2010. They were on a path to adoption when the 21-month-old was suddenly taken from them and placed in a different foster home with no valid explanation Aug. 31….During ensuing discussions, it was revealed that the child had been removed from the Buchanans’ home in part because they are white, and the child is biracial. After Aug. 31, the child was moved to the home of a biracial foster couple, according to the Gaston County official.”

Sunday sampler

Most of the state’s newspaper front pages I saw continued with stories about either the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte or the presidential race in general. (The Observer, which did a wonderful job covering the convention, can be forgiven with one more front-page centerpiece on how the city dealt with the influx of Democrats. The Statesville Record & Landmark, maybe, but the Winston-Salem Journal? Not sure about that call.)  But there was room for other good enterprising journalism.

Raleigh — Many parents depend on the school bus to get their children to school. Safety is first, of course, but reliability is a close second. And when the bus doesn’t come? The N&O explores what it calls the nightmare of missed routes, no buses or overfilled ones.

Fayetteville — The Observer examines what’s being done — not much — about concussions among high school football players. “They’re missing them,” said Dr. Josh Bloom, a former college football player and team physician for the Carolina Hurricanes and USA Baseball. “. I would expect virtually any decent-sized high school team to have likely multiple concussions in a season.”

Sunday sampler, campaign edition

Virtually every front page in the state features a post-Republican National Convention story or a preview of the Democratic National Convention. Some, such as Wilmington, have them both. Those stories have effectively sucked everything else out of the news agenda this Sunday. Evidence of A1 enterprise outside of politics is slim. So today will be the campaign edition.

Charlotte — The newspaper of the DNC host city is filled with stories about the convention and is doing its usual bang-up job.

Asheville — The Citizen-Times puts some local faces on part of the Republican Party platform.

Winston-Salem — The Journal puts some faces on the local delegates to the DNC. So does the Star News in Wilmington.

Raleigh — The N&O discusses issues before the middle class.

Gaston — The Gazette provides a DNC guide for dummies, although I don’t think it means to call its readers that.

Sunday sampler

The lull in big news during Fourth of July week — yes, I know it’s hot — must have inspired editors because this Sunday’s newspaper front pages are filled with interesting stories that surprised me and demanded that I read them.

Two from Charlotte — Things aren’t great on the attendance and revenue end of NASCAR, and the Observer digs past the anecdotes to show just what’s happening. The Observer also previews the head-shaking embarrassment that has become the Duke-Progress Energy merger. (I hope our state regulators stand tall on this one.)

Fayetteville — The Observer continues its superb coverage of the troubles of troubled soldiers, this time looking closely at what the military is doing about suicides. The paper tells the compelling story of one private who took his own life. The Star-News in Wilmington has a similar story, equally compelling.

Raleigh — The News & Observer continues its superb coverage of the UNC academic scandal in the Afro-American Studies program. Citizens of the state should be pleased that the N&O is keeping the spotlight on the scandal and UNC’s reaction to it. (Wouldn’t you love to get an interview with the man at the center of it, Julius Nyang’oro?)

Two from Asheville — The Citizen-Times writes about crime — fights, actually — in downtown Asheville. I used to work at the Citizen-Times and like to return to Asheville on occasion so this is really my bias coming through. The story isn’t special, but the topic is. I’m glad the paper told me to be careful (and I suspect the Chamber of Commerce is cringing this morning). Not only that, the Citizen updates readers on Ghost Town in the Sky, which was pretty cool back in the day.

Burlington — The Times-News localizes a state story — originally reported by the Winston-Salem Journal — on eugenics. How the actions of the government hurt citizens’ lives are always worth telling readers.

Sunday Sampler

I’m pleased that today’s front pages aren’t filled with “beat the heat” photos and stories! (I and thousands of other readers knew it was hot yesterday.) And that absence provided room for these good stories from some of the state’s front pages.

Winston-Salem – The Journal revisits resegregation and its effects in Forsyth County schools, reminding me how sad it is that we’re still having this discussion 40 years later. It’s a good study for every paper to do. (The paper determined that Winston is the state’s most segregated major population center.)

Shelby — I can’t get the Star’s site to load, but the paper’s front page has an interesting piece on teen drug use in Cleveland County. It’s well above the national average. Seems as if people, including kids, think marijuana use is no big deal.

Greensboro — The N&R has a tragic tale of the death of an Eden 5-month-old who was apparently hit in the head hard enough to kill him. Now the investigation is on to figure out who did it.

Raleigh — The N&O updates us on Scotty McCreery. Yes, the American Idol. It’s a good, fun piece about Garner’s latest star and how he’s making it. Singing star, yes. But he’s N.C. State freshman in two months.

Now, go outside and see how hot it is so you’ll know it first hand.

Sunday Sampler

With last week’s all-Father’s-Day-all-the-time front pages, I took a break. They were all fine, but nothing special worth noting. Back at it now with some good stuff from the state’s front pages.

Charlotte — The Observer looked at the salaries at the state’s 50 top publicly traded companies and concluded: Some of North Carolina’s biggest companies gave their CEOs higher pay last year even as their shareholders saw lower returns. (Raleigh ran the same story.) My thought? Ten mugshots of the CEOS on the front — it’s an all-middle-aged-white-male club.

Asheville — The Citizen-Times stripped a good piece on the AIDS epidemic across the top of its front page. In case we have forgotten about the tragedy of AIDS: The truth is that North Carolina is one of about 10 Southern states experiencing a crisis that has earned the Southeast a reputation as “ground zero” for HIV/AIDS rates in the United States.

Winston-Salem & Gastonia — Both the Journal and the Gaston Gazette have reaction stories from the immigrant community to President Obama’s announcement last week. Good timely pieces with plenty of voices.

Fayetteville — The Observer continues its series on the war with its reporter and photographer writing about the country’s efforts in Afghanistan. As I have said before, this is some powerful journalism.

Whitney Houston on the front page

It was a little after 10 last night that we got home and I checked my phone. I had a New York Times email alert saying that Whitney Houston had died. I clicked on the TV, heard the talking heads talking about what a shock it was, that the details of her death weren’t known and that she was the voice of a generation.

Little there to learn; only songs to remember.

I figured I’d catch up in the morning. And because I was a newspaper editor for 27 years, I thought, “Is this a front page story?” Yes, I decided, given who she was and that it became public on the East Coast in the evening; it would still be news to many people in the morning when the paper hit the streets.

To my surprise — and honestly, delight – most of the North Carolina papers I looked at published Houston’s photo and a blurb on the front page, but sent readers inside for the story. Charlotte and Raleigh were the only two major papers with front-page stories.

Whitney, as good as she was, is no Michael Jackson in death.

Front-page news judgment seems to have a circulation size dividing line. On this story, larger papers on the East Coast, playing to a large, diverse audience, published her death on their front pages, generally in a big way. Smaller papers, being more local in their focus, force national stories to fight harder to make their way onto front page display. Papers the size of Greensboro and Winston-Salem, hovering around 90,000-100,000 circulation, seem to straddle that line.

I wouldn’t have been disappointed to see Whitney Houston’s news obit on the front page in my hometown paper. But I was delighted to read four local stories that told me things I didn’t know and that I wouldn’t see on television.

 

Sunday sampler

When I look at newspaper front pages, I’m seeking a surprise — something that tells me something I don’t know and that I want to know. (I fully expect to see tomorrow’s front pages dominated by an event we all know about — the Super Bowl. Is it worth it? But I digress.) Today:

From the N&O: More work for less pay? An legislative effort that will save jobs? Who knows, but Sen. Kay Hagan has introduced a bill “to expand the kind of technology workers who currently are not automatically entitled to overtime.” High-tech workers across North Carolina could see smaller paychecks under an industry-led campaign to revise labor laws to limit overtime benefits.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: In 20 years, there will be more Latinos in Forsyth County than African Americans. That’s hardly news. But the story countered my stereotype of Mexicans sneaking over the U.S. border. One big reason for the influx – according to the Journal — are calamities in other parts of the world. Just as the Great Famine pushed a large wave of Irish immigrants to the U.S., natural and man-made disasters in Latin America have been one of the drivers of Hispanic migration.

From the Fayetteville Observer: Some veterans returning home come back with emotional problems. Again, no big surprise. But in Fayetteville and elsewhere, it remains a big deal. During a speech Thursday to members of the 18th Airborne Corps headquarters who returned to Fort Bragg after concluding the mission in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick cited concerns. He said that six Fort Bragg soldiers had committed suicide in the past six weeks, and that there were at least 25 cases of spousal abuse at the installation in the past 30 days.

Who represents the public’s interests?

One of the great divides between journalists and public officials is over access to public information. Stated simplistically, journalists want more access; public officials want less.

Journalists represent the public when they attend meetings and seek information. They do that, not because it’s fun, but so they can pass the information onto readers and viewers. Obviously, voters put elected officials into office to represent their interests.

Who’s right? Let’s look and you decide. Courtesy of the N.C. Press Association, here are a few of the recent skirmishes between the press and elected officials.

From the Winston-Salem Journal: When the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board agrees to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle a lawsuit, it does so in closed session.

From the News & Record: Greensboro City Council voted to NOT notify the public when small groups of council members meet with city staff members to discuss policy.

From the Asheville Citizen-Times: The paper sues the Henderson County sheriff, the board of commissioners and the county’s insurance carrier in an effort to force them to release details of a settlement involving the sheriff and a female employee.

From the Lincoln Times-News: The Lincolnton City Council met privately and decided to threaten to sue a local website for libel.

From the Brunswick Beacon:  The chairman of the Board of Social Services may be removed from his chairmanship for repeatedly violating the state’s open meetings law.

From the Alamance News: Burlington City Council met behind closed doors to order up a new city incentives policy.

Don’t get me wrong; some of the actions above are allowed under state law. That doesn’t mean, though, that they represent the best interests of the public. When people can’t see what’s going on they lose trust in government, and trust is a precious commodity these days.

The publisher of the Asheville Citizen-Times said it best in the story about its lawsuit.

“This isn’t the county’s money or the sheriff’s money,” Randy Hammer said. “We are going to court because this is money that belongs to people who live, work and pay taxes in Henderson County. It’s their money. And they have a right to know how it’s being spent, especially if the county is having to pay extra money because the sheriff mismanaged his responsibilities as a public servant.”

 

 

 

 

Newspapers: Looking back to move forward

The biggest threats to newspapers aren’t just their familiar revenue problems and ever-proliferating competitors, but also the opportunity costs of failing to innovate more boldly — to be transformative, not incremental, in moving forward.

Melanie Sill’s insightful post about former editors wishing they had done things differently got me thinking about current editors.

Have they learned anything from the past five years of layoffs and cutbacks? To find out, I asked several North Carolina editors to address that with these questions: What if you could go back to 2004 with the budget, resources and FTEs you had then, but knowing what you know now? What would you do with the additional people and money? What would you do differently?

To focus on the critical few, I asked them to list three changes. Three editors responded, and I included my own “wishes.” The answers were remarkably similar, and none was earth-shattering.

Here’s a summary. (Full responses at the end.)

1. A smokin’ hot active digital presence. “They would cover breaking news maniacally, create interactive databases and do more video,” Carol Hanner, ME of the Winston-Salem Journal. “I would have challenged them to design a website that’s not modeled after the organization of the newspaper’s content.”

Robyn Tomlin, executive editor the Wilmington Star-News, would create a community engagement team. “Their goal would be to engage the community in a constant conversation, wherever they are. They would focus on social media, aggregation and curation along with doing a better job of promoting our content and staff in the community.”

2. Reorganized coverage. I said reorganize reporting around enterprise, especially focused on investigative and community. Tomlin agreed. “I would create a watchdog reporting team focused on doing investigative and public service journalism. I mean day-in-day-out political fact-checking, creating online databases of public records, doing local consumer reporting and sometimes just chasing our tails in an effort to tell important stories that seem to get missed along the way.”

In addition to a “watchdog team,” Hanner added: “I’d have a breaking news team that covers the heck out of everything that moves in the community and put it online. I would have a team that does nothing but focus on feature stories about local people, community organizations’ work and the acknowledgements of worthy and fascinating efforts.”

3. Idea incubator. Robyn and I had similar ideas; not surprisingly, hers was more expansive. I wanted to take three bright, creative people and tell them to come up with the next YouTube, eBay, or Craigslist based on giving people something they didn’t even know they needed or wanted. She said: “I would hire an innovations editor and obtain other resources necessary to create a Google-like idea incubation initiative where every news employee devotes a percentage of their time to working on a project of their choice. The projects would need to meet certain criteria, like audience growth, innovation in storytelling, improvements to existing processes or products that make them emasurably more effective, efficient or profitable.”

The responses raised two questions in my mind: First, did we go far enough, and, second, can the editors do any of those things now? The answer to the first is probably something like: If it is 2004, that’s a fine start: media watchers would call you bold and daring. But what have you done for me lately?

The answer to the second has to be yes.

As Melanie writes: Thing is, there’s still plenty of time. We’re not at the end of change, we’re in the midst of it. Even for print newspapers, there’s plenty of upside (and plenty of audience) — not for a shrunken version of the newspaper format of 1992 to be valuable in 2012, but for contemporary approaches to print to serve readers well as part of a menu of options in the digital era.

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The full responses:

Mike Arhholt, editor of the Fayetteville Observer

1.  I would put in place a newsroom restructuring plan like the ones we’ve had to institute by necessity given cutbacks and online growth. I know that 2004 resources focused through more streamlined and coordinated systems would have had impressive results for growth of local content both in print and online.

2.  I would develop an online strategy sooner and put a pay plan in place for the website off the bat. The industry’s belief that advertising could pay the bills for all the work that goes into innovation and management of websites simply didn’t pan out.

3.  I would have spent more resources on developing new local niche products for both print and online, and I would have done a better job of working across the hall with advertising to help that department better understand our online goals.

Carol Hanner, managing editor of the Winston-Salem Journal

1. I would create a Web team led by a few veteran journalists and executed by a young staff that has grown up with the Internet. they do, They would cover breaking news maniacally, create interactive databases and do more video. I would have challenged them to design a web site that’s not modeled after the organization of the newspaper’s content. I would have two or three creative Web developers as part of that staff. The team would include a staffer devoted to nothing but researching what’s cool on the web and examining the much larger pool of market research we would have, with the idea that social media and mobile would emerge more quickly as a focus than it did.

2. I would create jobs that play to people’s strengths instead of expecting journalists to become even more generalized than they already are. I’d have a breaking news team that covers the heck out of everything that moves in the community and put it online. I would have a team that does nothing but focus on feature stories about local people, community organizations’ work, and the acknowledgements of worthy and fascinating efforts. I would have a watchdog team for the people who always have a nose for something fishy and don’t mind obstacles to getting information. Every story would have multiple layers.

3. I would focus much more on business in two ways- understanding it myself more, and reporting on the local business community much more extensively.

4. Bonus question. I would use staff to create more niche publications and web sites and get as close to customizing what kinds of news people get as tecnology allows, with the goal of getting away from an expensively produced and distributed print mainstream paper trying to reach a mass audience.

Robyn Tomlin, executive editor, Wilmington Star-News

1. I would create a watchdog reporting team focused on doing investigative and public service journalism. I’m not talking about the yearlong project kind of stuff, although there might be a little of that. I mean day-in-day-out political fact-checking, creating online databases of public records, doing local consumer reporting and sometimes just chasing our tails in an effort to tell important stories that seem to get missed along the way. One piece of this initiative would be to hire a general assignment reporter (or some paid interns) who can fill in on other reporters’ beats when there’s a big project that is going to take more than a week or so to develop.

2. I would create a community engagement team (we have a community engagement editor, but he’s just one guy) focused on both digital and in-person community engagement. Their goal would be to engage the community in a constant conversation — wherever they are. They would focus on social media, aggregation and curation along with doing a better job of promoting our content and staff in the community. They would also organize more events like public forums and community conversations “in real life.”  The run regular contests and do other fun things to make our print and digital products more interactive and engaging.

3. I would hire an innovations editor and obtain other resources necessary to create a Google-like idea incubation initiative where every news employee devotes a percentage of their time to working on a project of their choic. The projects would need to meet certain criteria, like audience growth, innovation in storytelling, improvements to existing processes or products that make them measurably more effective, efficient or profitable.

Moi

1. I would reorganize the reporting staff almost entirely around enterprise. Anything I could get from the wires, I would — which includes many of the non-Guilford County sports. By enterprise I mean stories and photos that people can’t get anywhere else, especially investigative and community. I’d look for the “wow” content.

2. I would take 25% of the people that I am getting and put them on the digital report, creating a different site than a newspaper site, curating, aggregating and building a large social media presence.

3. I would find the three brightest, most creative people I could and tell them to come up with the next youtube, ebay, facebook, groupon or craigslist. I’d tell them not to worry about the technology. Give me something that will give people something they want and need.