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The Confederate memorial in downtown Lenoir was erected in May 1910, though originally it sat at the middle of the intersection of Main Street and West Avenue. It was paid for by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The Confederate memorial in downtown Lenoir was erected in May 1910, though originally it sat at the middle of the intersection of Main Street and West Avenue. It was paid for by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.


No version of the Confederate flag appears on the memorial obelisk that the United Daughters of the Confederacy paid to have erected at downtown Lenoir’s main intersection in May 1910.

In many ways, it resembles a cemetery memorial. Near the top on the side facing the intersection are the letters CSA, for Confederate States of America, above a bas relief image of a cloth or shroud similar to depictions on many decorative headstones from the early 20th century, and on either side are 1861 and 1865, the short-lived nation’s year of birth and year of death.

On the front of the base of the memorial are four lines from Theodore O’Hara’s poem “Bivouac of the Dead,” written in 1847 in honor of troops killed in the U.S. war with Mexico. Excerpts from that poem appear on both Union and Confederate memorials around the nation, as well as throughout Arlington National Cemetery. Below that it says, “In honor of the men who wore gray.”

On the back of the base are listed the regiments where men from Caldwell County served, and below that is “Erected by the Vance Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy of Caldwell County, N.C. May 1910″ — the only place where either “Confederate” or “Confederacy” appears.

The obelisk is surrounded by a flat lawn and hidden a bit from West Avenue by a row of crape myrtles. It is a small but park-like setting, quiet, spartan and even a bit funereal.

Directly south of that is Lenoir’s veterans memorial, which has a larger obelisk, an eternal flame within a sleek, dark pyramid, the flags of all services with a plaque at the base of each, the state and U.S. flags, and pavers with individual names. This corner commands attention, calling passersby to investigate, and yet it is solumn and stately. It is not just a memorial marker but a tribute to all the generations who helped ensure the survival of the United States of America.

In that context, the Confederate memorial had always struck me as a historical marker honoring the dead, not celebrating the cause for which they fought. Whatever their beliefs or motivation, these were fathers, sons, brothers and neighbors. They had lives before the battlefield, and that is the loss the monument mourns.

But on Thursday a woman from somewhere else in North Carolina — if she gave her name and where she was, it was so briefly that it never registered, but her accent was familiar — asking whether the News-Topic had reported on whether Lenoir was going to dismantle and remove what she called the city’s “Confederate statue.”

I surmised she meant that, in light of the sharp shift of attitudes against the Confederate battle flag since the shootings in Charleston, S.C., all things Confederate may be considered suspect.

I told her that no one to my knowledge had raised the suggestion, that since there is no depiction of the “Stars and Bars” on the monument I had not made a connection with the flag controversy, and that the monument is an obelisk, not a statue depicting a soldier defiantly standing ready to fight, as exist in many other towns.

She then insisted that, yes, the memorial actually is connected to the controversy “because the word Confederate is on it,” and she launched into an explanation of why, “soon,” people “all across the state” will be calling for such monuments to be removed. Without pausing, she said she would put my response “in my paper. Thank you,” and hung up.

I reeled a bit. “My paper”? Had I just been the victim of drive-by advocacy journalism? Or was she writing a research paper on the topic as an academic exercise?

I suppose I’ll find out sooner or later, Google help me.

The Brookings Institution thinks the local community college where I live is doing a great job.

At least I think it does.

But it’s really hard to tell.

Brookings – a Washington, D.C., think tank – evaluated data from hundreds of colleges and universities across the country and came up with Beyond College Rankings, a report only a statistician could love, as hinted at by the secondary headline of the report, “A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools.”

One thing I have always been proud of as a reporter and editor is my ability to read any report, no matter how dense, understand it and translate the main points into plain English for the average reader.

But Brookings has stumped me.

I understand what “value-added” is. That part the report does well enough to explain: “the difference between actual alumni outcomes (like salaries) and the outcomes one would expect given a student’s characteristics and the type of institution.”

In other words, Brookings decided to look into how well graduates of different schools do, compare that to the cost, and see whether the students are getting a good deal. Fair enough.

But this is where things start to fly apart.

Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute earned a score of 92 on its graduates’ mid-career earnings, tied for 21st best in the country and the best of all colleges and universities in North Carolina. Awesome, right? Brookings explains that the number means CCC&TI students go on to earn about 10 percent more in the middle of their careers than would be expected based on their characteristics – including their “academic preparation,” ethnicity and family income – and the college’s location and level of degrees offered.

But the college scored only 35 for its graduates’ “occupational earning power,” the average salary of graduates as reported by the website LinkedIn.com, and only 24 for the percentage of graduates repaying their student loans.

So graduates’ mid-career earnings are more than expected, but their average salary is less than expected, and the percentage of students who fail to repay their loans is much worse than expected?

What does all that mean? The college’s graduates earn more but don’t really?

I downloaded the Excel spreadsheet to see whether I could make better sense of that than I could of the summary on the Brookings website.

Big mistake.

I’ve never seen a spreadsheet like it. If you were to try to print the spreadsheet at a normal type size, just the width of each line would go clear across the average office desk and spill down to the floor. With the spreadsheet up on my computer screen, I kept scrolling right, scrolling right, scrolling right, and there were ever more fields. Scores and scores and scores, numbers, percentages, factors, and then I finally hit some fields that had the word “RANK” in the title. But there were so many ranks. Brookings measured and ranked everything, it seemed. And the rankings were all over the map. Good, bad, high, low.

Lex Menz, the reporter who covers CCC&TI, wants to write a story about the Brookings report, but it’s hard to know where to start when you don’t understand what you’re writing about. It’s hard even to come up with questions to help you figure it out.

She called Edward Terry, CCC&TI’s public information officer. He couldn’t translate the report either.

She hopes to interview someone at Brookings who can translate it.

It’s clear, especially from looking at the data in spreadsheet form, that a tremendous amount of work went into this study and the report. It’s equally clear that the report’s findings seem likely to be wasted if no one can drill through the numbers and put them into plain English.

The clearest sentence in the Brookings report may be this: “The choice of whether and where to attend college is among the most important investment decisions individuals and families make, yet people know little about how institutions of higher learning compare along important dimensions of quality.”

And if those people read this report, they will still know little.

Smith fire
I didn’t stay to watch the old Smith family home at the corner of Abington Road and Harper Avenue burn all the way to the ground.

But it was long enough to be reminded that in fire, beauty and horror are siblings.

This is especially true when an old house like this one burns.

The house was a two-story, brick American Foursquare, an architectural style that was especially popular in the early 20th century. It was built in the 1930s. A firefighter on the scene said some of the interior walls and ceilings were beadboard.

I would imagine the interior woodwork remained a sight to behold right up to when the flames touched it, even if the view out the front door had changed significantly since the 1930s, where what must have once been a quiet, two-lane road now is a four-lane bypass.

As someone put it in an understated comment on a Facebook photo of the fire, the house looked like it had a lot of potential.

Unfortunately, the lot it sits on also has a lot of potential, but not for single-family uses such as that house.

The developers who bought it plan to begin work in July to build a three-story apartment complex intended for low-income adults over 55. The house’s footprint is where one end of the L-shaped building will be, said Roy Helm, president of Wesley Community Development, a Methodist-based company that is planning the apartments together with the Western North Carolina Housing Partnership.

The developers let firefighters use the house for training. Battalion Chief Ken Nelson of the Lenoir Fire Department said that nine teams of firefighters from Lenoir, Hudson and Gamewell each had at least two training sessions finding and fighting fires that were set inside the house.

A two-story house like this one is especially valuable for training, Nelson said, because fire behaves differently where there are stairs, which act like a chimney. Fire creates its own weather, and the structure of a house influences it. Firefighters need to be able to see how fire behaves in different kinds of structures.

By about noon, after setting and putting out 20 or more fires, the firefighters set the final one, then stepped back.

Eventually I had to step back too. I kept stepping back. Once the flames burned through the roof, the heat emanating into the front yard — even against the wind — felt uncomfortably hot. I wondered whether the lenses in my glasses would warp, even as I watched Chief Ken Briscoe, wearing glasses, stand his ground 20 feet closer than I was.

Many of the firefighters, standing in T-shirts, remained closer to the fire than I could bear. Perhaps that’s good training too. They get used to the heat.

One things I’m not sure I could get used to is the burning. That beautiful wood, those stately bricks, that old, crinkled glass. The things that would evoke memories and provoke stories from those who grew up here.

In a couple of months, even the ashes will be gone.

Actress Jayne Mansfield, right, feels the belly of pregnant reporter Gail Tabor in 1965 in Columbus, Ohio.

Actress Jayne Mansfield, right, feels the belly of pregnant reporter Gail Tabor in 1965 in Columbus, Ohio.


My dead mother is more successful on the Internet than I am. It happened Thursday.

She had a little help.

But that doesn’t lessen my bemusement. It only seems to show how capricious the online audience is and how difficult it can be for a writer to be heard in the digital cacophony of the Internet.

I should explain.

I’m a second-generation journalist. My mother, Gail Tabor, was a reporter for the Citizen-Journal in Columbus, Ohio, when she met my father, Steve Lucas, who was pursuing a PhD in business at Ohio State.

She kept reporting right up through her pregnancy with me. She left reporting when she had me, but 12 or 15 years later, after her divorce and a move to Phoenix, Arizona, she got a job at the Arizona Republic. She worked as a features reporter, fashion editor, gossip columnist and news reporter, in roughly that order, until being forced into early retirement in the mid-1990s.

At the time she left the newspaper, the Internet was barely a thing most people had even heard of, and like most people she didn’t own a computer.

A few years after she retired, I took a job in Richmond, Virginia, that among other things called for me to be a daily advocate to the company’s newspaper editors for adopting various “new media” practices – video, blogs, social media, and on and on. As part of that work, I started a blog nearly 10 years ago devoted to those things.

The original blog was behind a company firewall and couldn’t be viewed by the larger world of the Internet, but in 2011 I migrated it here to WordPress.

Despite my clearly brilliant insights, however, the blog has never gained much of an audience – except for one post in 2012 that called for media companies (including but not limited to newspapers) to recognize that the people who produce their “content” are their most valuable commodity and need to be paid like it. That post drew a favorable comment on Steve Buttry’s blog, which got it noticed and linked to by All Things D, and traffic to my blog spiked to an all-time high. Nothing else I wrote ever came close to achieving that kind of audience. (Despite that post’s popularity, no one ever adopted my recommendation. Journalists, and content-providers in general, remain paid like dirt.)

Earlier in 2012, my mother died. Among her things were a good many of her newspaper stories and columns. One was a column she wrote in 1983 about a candy treat called Buckeye balls, which are rolled peanut butter balls dipped in chocolate, but not totally covered in chocolate so they look like Ohio buckeye nuts. Making Buckeye balls was a fall tradition for my family, usually done on the day of the Ohio State-Michigan game.

I loved that column and typed it, in its entirety, into a post on my blog.

Over time, that post became the second-best-read item on my blog. Pretty much every day, at least a couple of people searched the Internet for “buckeye balls,” “buckeye candies” or some variation and followed a link to that post.

And then on Thursday a slideshow online called United States of Food: Official State Foods mentioned “buckeye candies” in its Ohio entry and linked to my mother’s column on my blog.

The traffic blew away my previous one-day record. So now my mother, who never blogged a day in her life, has both the best-read post on my blog and the biggest single-day audience. If it were anyone but Mom, I’d be upset.

My mother, who has been dead three years and never lived in Lenoir, received an offer in the mail at my house this week to get a free hearing exam.

“You have received this invitation today because you best represent the segment of the population which is most likely to experience hearing loss and tinnitus,” it said.

I would not have thought of the dead as the segment of the population most likely to suffer from hearing loss, but in hindsight I should have known better. If nothing else, all the dirt muffling sounds from the surface would make that person keenly aware of how much better his hearing could be.

Anyway, my mother was cremated. Surely that process cleared up any problems with her ears.

But as I thought about it I realized there are other possibilities.

What if the afterlife is more like the Catholics envision it, or used to (do they still believe in limbo and purgatory?), and when you die it isn’t a clear-cut case of going to heaven or hell? There could be intermediate steps. Maybe not limbo as the Catholic church described it, but something hung in the middle between heaven and hell.

My mother lived a good life and was kind to helpless animals, but she was no saint — she was a journalist, after all — so perhaps she escaped hell but is condemned to an eternity of tinnitus, a constant ringing sensation in the ears.

It would be like the afterlife was portrayed in the comedy-horror movie “An American Werewolf in London,” where the victims of a werewolf are cursed souls and must roam the earth as ghosts until the werewolf’s blood line is severed.

This would make being bitten by the journalism bug a curse similar to being bitten by a werewolf. (If you don’t think being a journalist is a curse, come spend a day with my boss.) I’m sure this idea would strike any journalist as uncomfortably familiar in the same way as looking into a mirror at a big, formal gathering and seeing yourself with a severe case of bedhead.

Except in the movie, the ghosts of the werewolf’s victims looked just like their physical corpses – bloodied and mauled, and gradually decaying.

In the case of the cursed journalist, the ghost would walk the earth forever, constantly sticking a finger in his ear and wiggling it, or lying in bed in the dark trying to ignore the ringing. And of course, the curse for a journalist is doubled because the dead can’t drink.

I can see it now, and probably will the next time I belly up to a bar. I’ll look down at the row of seats and imagine dead journalists at each one, all looking longingly at my beer while they wiggle an index finger in their ears. All except Mom. She was a scotch drinker.

This is a follow-up to the previous post and was written to run in the News-Topic.

It takes a special kind of jerk to respond to a young person’s exuberance with bitter cynicism and bile.

That would be the kind of person who, seeing a young boy cheerfully walking along with a helium balloon, pulls out something sharp. Best to pop the balloon and make the child cry – after all, life is hard, and you better get used to it.

There is a financial writer named Felix Salmon who is one of those people. He works for a website called Fusion, and last week he wrote an article with the headline To all the young journalists asking for advice …. From the way the article starts, I take it that Salmon regularly receives email from young reporters asking for tips on how to get into the business, or into Fusion itself, and saying how much they would like to talk about it over coffee if they could. That’s the kind of thing that the job-networking website LinkedIn and other places that give job-hunting advice recommend that you try to do – reach out to someone working someplace that you would like to work, ask for advice, try to meet for coffee.

Salmon illustrates two pitfalls of that strategy. One is that the advice is now so widespread that anyone a young job-hunter may contact might just be tired of all the unsolicited attention and requests for advice and coffee. The other is that the person you email out of the clear blue may be a bitter, old fart who’s more likely to insult you than to try to help.

Salmon’s “advice” was discouraging, to say the least. Not only that, it was contradictory.

“In fact, life is not good for journalists. And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse,” he wrote, immediately after a paragraph that ended, “I think this is probably the greatest era for journalism that the world has ever seen. I also think that some of today’s fast-growing digital companies are going to become the media behemoths of tomorrow, making their owners extremely rich in the process.”

In other words, despite all the positive things he sees going on, his takeaway on the world of journalism is “Life stinks and then you die.”

Way to be a Debbie Downer, Felix.

Journalism is changing, which is true of a great many occupations – and always has been. Do you see any businesses around here that sell horse-drawn carts? That used to be one way to make a living. When cars came along, carts and buggies went away. But even cars aren’t constant. A couple of years ago I did an interview at a business that used to be a car dealership – for the Hudson Motor Car Co., a brand of car that most people now have never heard of. Remember when furniture companies started moving jobs to Asia? They’re never coming back, everyone said. Now a number of those jobs are coming back. Things change.

A lot of the upheaval affecting journalism and news organizations is related to the Internet. But the Internet is not a monolithic force. Things change there too. Remember Friendster? Probably not. It was Facebook before there was a Facebook. It got replaced by MySpace, which got replaced by Facebook.

How does the Internet come into your house? It used to be that the only way anyone got online was with a modem that dialed a phone number. Companies that made those modems have had to either quickly adapt as technology changes or go out of business.

Dell Computers built a production plant near Winston-Salem 10 or 15 years ago to make desktop computers – and within a few years it was obsolete because people started buying laptops instead.

Things change. What’s important is what you want to do. What do you like? What sort of work makes you feel creative or productive and fulfilled? In the case of those young people writing to Salmon, it is writing and reporting – telling stories. The technology of doing that is changing, so the details of doing the work is changing. The revenue of some parts of the business, such as newspapers, has declined, and maybe will keep declining – or it might stop. The things that make the work appeal to certain people haven’t changed that much. No one ever got into writing for the money.

Better advice was once given by David Carr, a prominent reporter for the New York Times who died Thursday:

“Being a journalist, I never feel bad talking to journalism students because it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. That’s not gonna retire your loans as quickly as it should, and it’s not going to turn you into a person who’s worried about what kind of car they should buy, but that’s kind of as it should be. I mean, it beats working.”

That’s the kind of advice young people deserve to hear.

UPDATE: Another good one to read on this topic. Sample: “I was disappointed about how I had been taken in by someone projecting his own feelings of discouragement onto a group of people younger than himself.”

I haven’t met Dylan Howlett, but I hope I will because his recent blog post, Advice for Felix Salmon: Stop giving advice, is very well written. In case you don’t have time right now to go read it (find the time eventually, please) or the piece it refers to, here’s a summary:

Salmon wrote an article, To all the young journalists asking for advice …, not only discouraging anyone from trying to pursue a career in journalism but insulting them for thinking of it. Howlett responded smartly and hilariously, calling out Salmon’s bitterness and the massive gaps in his argument.

Howlett aptly sums up why I stay in this business. It’s true that after I was laid off in 2012, I looked for an exit ramp to something else. My thoughts at the time were not as dark as Salmon expresses, but they were in that general path.

But my previous job in journalism wasn’t very rewarding, emotionally. The one I have now is. No surprise, I now work directly with reporters and their writing and do a fair amount of writing of my own. And you know what? It’s nice to be in love. It’s true of people and it’s true of whatever you do.

Also, this, from Salmon: “And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.”

That reminds me of this: For more than 20 years, I worked for Media General. When I started, the company’s stock was trading somewhere in the $20- to $30-a-share range. At one point in the early 2000s it got to over $70 a share. But then much of the media world started getting “disrupted,” and the stock dropped. A few years ago it got down to around $1 a share. Along the way, a lot of people decided it was never going to get any better — prodded by some stock analysts who predicted the company was doomed — and they dumped all their stock. Today it’s trading for over $15. Obviously, $70 a share was ridiculous, but so was $1. Yes, Media General is now a TV company with no newspapers, but that’s the point: Who saw that coming? A point that Salmon, oddly enough, makes unintentionally by pointing out developments in journalism that came out of nowhere.

There’s a saying related to stock trading: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Salmon, despite his financial-reporting background, seems to believe otherwise — which is all the more puzzling, given that he admits “I’ve also never really had a career, in the sense of a planned-out sequence of jobs, each one slightly better than the last, working my way up towards some grand ideal position. I arrived where I am randomly, and I could not have replicated it if I tried.”

That pretty much sums up the career of almost everyone I have ever met.

Here’s my advice: If you fall in love, follow your heart.

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