I can’t stand weather news.

Of all the kinds of news that can strike, weather is the worst.

The reason I can’t stand it is the same one that causes you to take an umbrella along even if the forecast says it probably won’t rain — everyone knows the forecast is usually at least a little off. Weather is broadly predictable, but in the nitty gritty details it’s still pretty unpredictable.

And when it comes to news, I can’t stand trying to report on things that haven’t happened and might never happen.

Weather is custom-made for television. Forecasters can tell it’s coming, and they can paint colorful maps to show what’s coming, and they can talk about it endlessly before anything ever materializes. Then it gets here, and someone can stand out in the weather and tell the camera what’s happening. Then it goes away, and even if it didn’t amount to much, someone can stand outside next to a puddle and tell the camera what did or didn’t happen.

And that range of unknowns ahead of time, the portion of it that is not predictable, is why TV loves to talk about it. There are multiple scenarios. It takes time to cover them, and you can draw a different map for each one.

I’ve had reporters who ask me, after TV has been hyping a coming storm for two days but the storm is still two days out, “Shouldn’t we do a story?”

I answer, “About what? When the story runs tomorrow, the storm will still be a day away. The forecast could change.”

Forecasters will tell you for several days about a potential weather disaster, such as a winter storm or a potentially tornado-spewing line of thunderstorms, or a hurricane, and what hazards may be involved.

After all that buildup, eventually the weather gets here — or it moves somewhere else. Whether it arrives or moves, the result is almost always less than the worst-case scenario.

WE COULD GET A FOOT OF SNOW! But we get 2 inches.

THE HURRICANE COULD MERGE WITH THIS HUGE STORM! But the hurricane slides off to the east.

Hurricane Joaquin was a Category 3 hurricane heading for the Carolinas, where it would smash together with a giant cold front. Then it was a Category 4 heading for the Outer Banks, Virginia or New York, there to smash with the front. Then it started heading out to sea, to smash with nothing.

Worst is a weather system that arrives with lousy timing. For any newspaper, “lousy timing” means after deadline, when it’s simply too late for us to get anything in the paper.

For a while it looked like the worst of this weekend’s weather might hit Caldwell County on Saturday night, well past the News-Topic’s deadline. I spent a lot of time worrying how to handle that, what I would be able to get on Sunday’s front page, whether I would need to ask an extra reporter to work on the weekend, whether I’d get in trouble for running folks into overtime pay by coming in on Sunday …

But then Joaquin started moving east. By Saturday afternoon, it seemed apparent the worst had passed.

By this morning, with any luck, the only people still excited about the storm will be on TV.

The Facebook tease from Poynter said, “This study suggests some lingering sentiment that millennials feel digital news ought to be available for free.”

But the actual post by Rick Edmonds, Millennials will pay for content, but news not high on their list, did not say that. The headline of the post is accurate. As the post says, millennials are willing to pay for content that they enjoy spending time with. For some, that includes news, but for many it does not.

Why this would surprise anyone is beyond me. News, no matter the form it is delivered in, has had a declining share of the public’s attention as the types of media and availability of various categories of content have expanded over the decades. You used to get a newspaper as a matter of course because after work you read a book, a magazine or a newspaper. There was not much else to do. When radio came along, there was something else to do. When TV came along, there were more things to do. When cable TV came along, there were a lot more things to do. It just keeps going.

News is a niche. We can argue all day that it shouldn’t be, that awareness of what is going on in the world is a basic element necessary for citizens of a democracy, but people have freedom of choice. They can drink Coca-Cola instead of water even if the dentist says it gives them cavities and their doctor says they are verging on diabetes. No one can stop them. If they choose to limit their exposure to stories that they consider to be downers, what can we do? We can “dumb down” or fun-up the news, but why dilute our niche?

Rather than worry about what part of the audience we have lost because they were never really that interested in the news, maybe we should worry about the part that has stuck around, including among the portion of the population that is youngest and most digitally oriented, and has a hunger for news. Give those people something that is worthwhile.

A Nieman Lab article by Joshua Benton, “As giant platforms rise, local news is getting crushed,” captures many of the things I’ve been thinking about since coming to the News-Topic more than two and a half years ago, but I struggled all day to articulate it, beyond simply agreeing.

The underlying situation: The collapse of advertising in recent years, and the unwillingness of newspaper companies to be straight with readers about what they are actually paying for, led to the collapse of staff and features, the unbundling of the something-for-everyone package that newspapers grew over decades to become. That package of varied news, features, comics, puzzles and anything else you could think of grew in order to attract the most readers possible, thereby creating a juicy target for advertisers. When advertisers began peeling away, newspapers unilaterally dropped parts of the bundle, gambling they could hold onto more readers than each of those dropped parts attracted. (Personally, I would have tried asking readers to vote with their cash and pay for what they want rather than trying to convince them to keep paying for what I unilaterally decided without any input that they needed, but I’m a writer, so what do I know?)

What we have doubled down on is “the franchise,” local news. But what “local news” means varies. Some readers want the local high school sports to get blanket coverage, and they couldn’t care less about anything else — in fact once their own kids leave school they will lose interest even in local sports. Some just want features on local people and places. Name anything — someone wants it. But almost no one wants just exactly, and only, what the reduced staff produces, or can produce. Yet they can find a good bit of what they do want in various other places, here and there, mostly for free.

And so even the hardcore traditional readers, the ones so committed to local news that the industry has virtually staked its survival on them, question their commitment. Some peel away. Sometimes we get lucky and have a story that prompts a reader to call us and say that story convinced them to renew for another year.

The thing is, though, we could double or triple our readership and we still could be in trouble.

In the back of my head as I read Benton’s article was another, by Clay Shirky, that predicted the kicking out of the last leg keeping the stool standing, Sunday advertising inserts. Whether or not Shirky is right that they will collapse, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that inserts are in steep decline.

So where are we? “Everyone” says that local news is an inherent good, necessary for a functioning electorate and good governance. And yet is there a market for it? In big metro markets, it seems, maybe there is, if only because there are enough online eyeballs to be drawn. But in a town of 18,000? A county of 80,000? Or places with fewer yet?

What if where we are heading is a time when the survival of local journalism parallels the way that small markets first gained electricity, except instead of gaining something it’s the only way a small market can keep something? That is, either the government does it, or local residents agree it’s necessary and pool their resources.

Here in Caldwell County, for instance, the entire region was too sparsely populated to get privately held electric companies to extend electric service. To get power up into the hills, what is now Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. began when farmers got together and agreed, with help from the government, to help foot the cost themselves, collectively.

During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the “Tennessee Valley” — the name given to a multi-state region of 9 million people, failing farms and depleted forests — through one of the largest hydropower construction programs in history.

Caldwell County’s government already runs its own sort of news service. There is a local-access channel with regularly scheduled shows produced by a county-paid team, some of it CSPAN-style broadcasts of government meetings, some of it shows related to news, some of it features. The county public information officer routinely puts out not just press releases but ready-to-run news stories, not always quite what a mainstream news editor would OK but often as good, and they show up on news websites throughout western North Carolina.

There are also locally a couple of sites that fill, in a “good enough” kind of minimal way, local news needs, including a website and associated Facebook page devoted to police scanner traffic and a mom-and-pop startup site with almost no original reporting but every news release and public announcement in the area as well as aggregation of various stories from the web. OH, and free local obituaries!

A government news service, of course, produces news that the government approves. A startup site may survive, but financial results for such sites even in metro areas are mixed so far. I don’t know how many in rural areas have been tried or how they are doing. Even sites in metros that make enough to survive can collapse when one person gets a serious illness.

Could the solution be a cooperative news startup? It would be a membership model, like public radio. Unlike the daily paper, or news websites selling subscriptions, it would not be sold explicitly as a product but as a communal necessity. You wouldn’t pay for what you get every day but for what the existence of the news service means for the good of the community over the long run.

The difference between journalism now and electricity then, of course, is no one had electricity in the early 20th century, and everyone wanted it. It brought lights at night, fans to move the stifling summer air, power to pump water up a hill. In contrast, everyone now has had journalism, ample helpings of it, for many years. It brings both Watergate exposure and Kim Kardashian, bringing justice for some who are wrongfully imprisoned but also fame to despicable people. It’s an open question how many people, having never faced the kinds of things that people in authoritarian countries face when there is no independent press, believe journalism is something they need.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 38 other followers