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What’s wrong with news companies? Do they have a strategy for surviving past the age of print? Why aren’t they executing it? Why do they only cut expenses? Why don’t the billionaires build the digital news business model?

The questions have been asked for so long that they grow tiresome.

After Ken Doctor’s recent piece on whether newspaper companies are even trying to build a sustainable digital business model, I had a Facebook discussion with a friend who has a digitally based job with a television station. He said, in part:

“Big Media print organization wont last much longer. If warren buffet cant figure out a business model for you – who will? My guess is they will milk as much as they can until it isnt profitable any more and then the papers will have to buy the rights back to their names. My advice would be just to start a blog, hire some stringers per piece and get a good, small digital sales team together.”

And that’s what so many people say, in a nutshell. Chuck the paper now, the legacy costs as well as the legacy revenue, and just go whole hog into digital.

That might seem like a slam dunk to those in the digital business, but it makes a giant assumption: that the people running news companies are primarily interested in journalism.

I have argued increasingly what is implied in Doctor’s new article for Nieman Lab, that those running the news business by and large are not in it to serve the community, which is why there is not great concern with making sure there is a future news model that works.

The idea of retooling and refocusing, of giving up some — or, to be more accurate, most of — your current revenue to build a currently less profitable kind of business that has more legs, so that local journalism survives matters only if what is of top importance to you is local journalism. If you don’t care about journalism, if you are first and foremost a business person, your decisions are based on current revenue. Why would you cut your profit on purpose to pursue a theory that may, possibly, bring you more money in 20 years than your current path is likely to bring? That’s 20 years away — and it’s a theory.

Take my friend’s example, Warren Buffett. People keep pointing to him and saying he hasn’t “figured out” a business model. But look back at his statements. He never said he would reinvent the industry. What he has said is that if someone else finds something that actually works, he would evaluate it, but in the meantime he thinks small, locally focused papers can be profitable for some time.

And that’s what made Buffett a billionaire — looking for places where there is money to be made with minimal investment. He isn’t a venture capitalist.

We keep waiting for someone with deep pockets to rescue journalism. Charles Foster Kane existed only in the movies, but even there he was losing $1 million a year.

News people will not stop feeling screwed around by the people on the business side until there are no more business people left, and they will have left because there was no more money to be made.

When journalists move on from newspapers, it feels different. It’s personal. It’s more than a career shift and a mindset change.

When business people leave newspapers, they don’t change careers, they just move on to the next job. It isn’t personal. It’s ledgers, assets, liabilities and margins — money in, money out.

That’s why it feels like such a betrayal to journalists, and why journalists never seem to understand why everyone seems only to want to break their hearts.

My company’s group of NC papers is migrating to a new CMS. I’m the lead for my paper. Within the setup questionnaire that started the process, there was an option for a free “day pass” for non-subscribers. I checked that box. Why not? Let a curious non-reader in. Maybe, best-case scenario, you gain a reader. Worst-case, someone who never reads you leaves that incremental revenue associated with the online ads that displayed with that person’s visit.

Later, I was told, nope, can’t do that. Nothing free is allowed.

How about $1? The iTunes 99 cents? Nope, it’s less than the charges that would be associated with the payment system.

So what is the one-day charge? $5. Read again: FIVE. DOLLARS.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I said.

I have been fortunate in my career that I have had multiple bosses who tolerate being spoken to that way.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I repeated. “Who would pay that?”

Still, my objections aside, that’s the plan. Come Aug. 7, at the latest, that’s the cost. Also the cost for a full week. The hope, if not the theory, is people will choose a week — and not, as I maintain, just give up.

I likened it to erecting an admission gate at Sears and saying you couldn’t come in unless you paid $5. I can walk through Sears or any retail store in this country, peruse the wares, pick them up, wack fellow customers in the arm with them, etc., without paying a dime and without any horribly overt ads confronting me.

I lost this argument.

Meanwhile, a free startup website that we had passed in social engagement has switched to a more aggegration-based strategy and has passed us in at least some measures, though it has less actual news content than it did before (its content is entirely social, press release or spot news the poster comes upon). But it’s free. I’m told, by those in the business, its ad rates mean it can’t possibly be making any money. But I’m told, by people in the community, that it’s intending to hire staff.

I don’t know yet who wins that argument.

I spent most of the 12 years before coming to Lenoir trying to translate the national discussions about new media and news transformation for small newsrooms. Everyone talks in terms of big newsrooms and metro papers. But in terms of the national media scene, those are a minority of news organizations. The things that are of top importance in their newsrooms are luxurious daydreams for most newsrooms in the country.

In that sense, I was amply prepared for my current job. Yet I remain frustrated that smaller newsrooms, even those much larger than mine, seem to be less than an afterthought in journalism-discussion circles.

Take, as just one example, the Denver Post memo about the paper’s newsroom reorganization, much publicized and much discussed. “As part of the public meetings starting later in July, think about what The Post should cover, how should we be organized, what beats would you start and which would you eliminate,” it says.

It is the latest of many news conversations focused on rethinking what newspapers do cover versus what we should.

Good. I agree. Let’s rethink it.

I have four reporters in my newsroom, with these beats: sports (all), justice (cops and courts, countywide), city-county (Lenoir city government plus county government), and education plus the other five and a half (one is on the county line) small towns throughout the county.

I have no idea how I might reconstruct things to get better coverage. Literally everyone is a generalist. Half of all stories, at least, are what the city folk would call general assignment.

Do I stop having people cover the small towns in the county? That one reporter would like having Monday and Tuesday nights back, but the town leaders would view it as abandoning coverage, which would feed the negative narrative in the towns about our coverage. They are small towns. The average citizen in Charlotte may not give much weight to what his or her city council member thinks of the Observer’s coverage, but in Gamewell the elected officials are authorities, to many, and if they go around saying the newspaper doesn’t care, that carries significant weight.

Or maybe there should be no beats based on government structure at all. Except that my reporting staff is entirely under the age of 25 and from places other than here. Where would they begin? Beats, lets remember, are structure and help a new reporter figure out where to begin.

Or perhaps everyone would agree with me, that my newsroom is smaller than anyone would contemplate trying to reorganize beat structures.

Yes, well, move on, then, but it won’t mean I am less affected by the restructuring of media habits, advertising and news consumption patterns than you are.

The national discussion in journalism is divorced from the reality that the majority of papers face. Yet I know it is what the people on my staff will face if and when they decide to seek a job at a larger newsroom. And I know, from experience, that whatever larger newsrooms confront now will manifest themselves eventually in smaller newsrooms. Except it will be different, and no one will talk much about it then.

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.

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