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For every situation we face, there are choices with bad outcomes and other corresponding choices with good outcomes. We tell ourselves this all the time.

If a choice turned out to be a bad one, we feel sure that if we had made a different choice, what happened would have been a better result.

But life is more complicated. You can make a choice that turns out to be a mistake, but if you had it to do over there might be more than one choice, and it’s not a given that there is always a choice that brings the result you desire, or that the correct choice is easy to recognize. All of the choices might have outcomes you don’t like – a giant series of chutes that all ultimately feed into a single, spiral slide downward to the same destination, or to a variety of slides and destinations, all of them bad.

That’s where I’m left when thinking about Jack Shafer’s much-shared column in Politico about a paper by H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim of the University of Texas and published in the journal Journalism Practice.

“The paper cracks open the watchworks of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy Web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust,” Shafer writes. “The key to the newspaper future might reside in its past and not in smartphones, iPads and VR. ‘Digital first,’ the authors claim, has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Shafer contends that the newspaper industry “should have stuck with its strengths—the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from—instead of chasing the online chimera.”

I’m generally sympathetic to the argument, but I have trouble seeing how simply not putting content on the web would have done much more than slow the bleed of readers because it assumes news from traditional sources is competing with other news for readers’ attention, not with the larger ecosystem of things that are available to occupy readers’ time, which skyrocketed in number and especially convenience due to the mobile web.

The larger problem for the argument posed by Shafer, who is only the latest to make it, is that the ultimate problem for news is not the bleed of readers leaving print but the bleed of advertisers. As Jim Brady noted in a tweet, “There’s a reason you can put 50 cents in a newspaper machine and take ALL OF THEM. That wasn’t where real revenue was.”

To this day, the Charlotte Observer loses money, when comparing what the subscriber pays to the cost of paper, ink and gasoline, on every paper it delivers to my town. The Observer does it to preserve the size of its print audience, which helps it prop up advertising rates.

Advertising has left print faster than print’s audience has, not because print didn’t serve advertisers’ needs but because online offers shinier, cheaper, easier-to-measure and easier-to-target options in a vastly larger array of attention-getting offerings, even if the measures are bots and smoke and the audiences are diffuse. Put news behind a digital Great Wall of China and it wouldn’t change that.

Defending the idea that print would have been better off keeping the web at arm’s length depends on believing that the departure of advertisers especially not only would have been a great deal less than it has been but also that advertising revenues would – and perhaps still could, if only there were more paywalls – level out at a higher level than they are at now.

You have to consider the possibility that if the newspaper industry had done as Shafer wishes it had, today its overall circulation might be – might be – somewhat higher than it is now, but free online options other than news still would have peeled away many casual subscribers; advertising still would be a fraction of what it once was, which would have driven both staff and content cuts, which would further have driven away readers; and there still would be no end in sight to revenue declines; that the chute might be less steep, but it still would lead the same direction.

Furthermore, there’s also the issue addressed by Steve Buttry that Shafer, Chyi and Tenenboim look at what the news industry has done online and conclude the industry actually strongly pursued a digital strategy, while those like Buttry and Brady who have advocated for a digital-first approach feel the industry pursued less-than-half-hearted measures that were doomed from the start.

“The colossal mistake that the newspaper industry made,” Buttry writes, “was responding to digital challenges and opportunities with defensive measures intended to protect newspapers, and timid experiments with posting print-first content online, rather than truly exploring and pursuing digital possibilities.”

A few, in that view, have actually approached the digital-first chute, including the former Digital First Media that Buttry and Brady worked for.

Buttry again: “When I worked at Digital First, I described our company’s name as an aspiration, rather than an achievement. I applaud our former CEO John Paton and our former Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady for leading us further and faster down the digital path than any other newspaper company. But that barely took us to the outskirts of digital experimentation.”

In other words, most who have even approached the true digital-first chute jumped off, and even those still on it have not yet ridden it all the way. We don’t know where it would end up.

Buttry, Brady and others who see things as they do might still be proven wrong about where that chute goes, but there is less evidence that they are wrong than that Shafer is.

UPDATE: Another view, by Matthew Ingram writing in Fortune:

“As tempting as it is to re-imagine history, however, it’s a virtual certainty that even if most newspapers had focused more of their resources on print and less on digital, the outcome would have been more or less identical.”

AND THIS: A good summary of the debate online from Poynter.

nora
I don’t remember who told me I should write about Nora McGee.

I remember it had something to do with the 81-year-old woman’s woodworking, that she had taken it up as a child in an age when grown women rarely did that work. Among other things, she built several floor-to-ceiling cabinets for her kitchen. I remembered the feminist gist of what she told me about growing up as a tomboy in the early 20th century, but until re-reading the story not the wonderful phrasing she used.

“Back in my day, women weren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “I just decided, instead of knitting when I didn’t want to, I would hammer when I wanted to.”

I liked doing stories of women striking out into men’s territory. Around the same time, 1987, I wrote about the only four women in Lenoir who were criminal defense attorneys. It’s still a men’s field – I think I have seen more women at the Caldwell County Courthouse working as prosecutors than defense attorneys in the past three years.

Until a relative of McGee’s sent me a photocopy of her story recently I didn’t remember her name, but when that relative mentioned McGee’s name to me a week or so earlier I wondered if that was the woman I wrote about who did the woodworking. It sounded familiar.

When the photocopy arrived in the mail I recognized it, and yet it differed from my memory.

I shot the photo the News-Topic ran of her moving wood on a saw, but I remembered shooting it at a different angle. I remembered she wore a dress at the time, and I would have described it as sort of dark and plain, yet when I saw the black-and-white image I could tell it must have been gray or, more likely, light blue with a simple floral pattern. As I sat at home Saturday morning thinking about writing about the difference between my memory and the photo, I thought her hair was darker and longer than it actually is in the photo.

We all like to think of our memory as a video recorder. Everything that goes in is played back reliably and the same way every time, unless it gets erased. Then it’s just gone. But what we recall, that’s what was. That happened.

With rare exceptions, though, we have fluid memories. Even in the events we remember, details change. People change. Some things fade out, while new details may emerge.

I remember from that group of women defense attorneys just one name, Nancy Epstein, maybe because that stood out as not a local name. I remember I thought she was attractive. Maybe that’s the only reason she’s the only one I can remember – or maybe I have told myself she was attractive because hers is the only name I remember, and I can’t think of another reason I would forget the other three.

Or was her name Nancy? Google can’t find her.

Were there really four women in that group? Maybe there were three.

I don’t have the newspaper clipping of that story, only the memory of the photo I shot, the women standing together somewhere in front of the courthouse.

Maybe I was meant to work as a reporter because even as a teenager I knew that memories weren’t always reliable. I often said when telling people what I recall, “If I remember accurately …”

In a poetry writing class in college, one of our assignments was to describe our earliest memory. Mine has always been a few moments in a medical setting when I must have been an infant. I wrote my description of it as best I could but couched all of my details with qualifiers, saying that this is how I remember it, and pointing out the gaps that I didn’t remember. The professor read each student’s submission without telling who wrote it, and after reading mine he told the class he knew exactly the procedure being described – one that, as he talked about it, I had no idea existed. Then he declared that the careful insistence that the memory’s details might be flawed clearly indicated that the entire thing was a work of fiction because no one said things like that when describing a memory.

No one knew I had written it, so I could not feel humiliated at being called a fabulist (I should note I got a good grade in the class – lies in poetry are not a bad thing, apparently). Mainly I wondered: Had I learned about that procedure at some point and forgot about it? Had I seen it on TV and internalized the imagery? I’ll never know.

The memory feels as real as my interviews with “Miss Nora” and Nancy Epstein. That’s why I have to couch my words. That’s why we all should.

NOTE: After this was published, a reader emailed me and said I probably was thinking of Nancy Einstein, who now practices law in Morganton. She was correct.

Bill Tate, Meadowood Studios
One thing that hasn’t changed about newspapers is errors.

On page 1 of the yellowed, disintegrating copy of the Lenoir Topic, one of the weekly predecessors of the News-Topic, donated by Frank Coffey and recently posted by Bill Tate on the “Lenoir and Caldwell County History” Facebook page, the paper’s publication date appears as Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1905, but on page 2 it says Wednesday, Aug. 30, 1905.

That makes me feel better about the much more recent times the News-Topic has carried the wrong day, date or both.

Nothing on the 1905 front page was about anything in Caldwell County, except for all of the local ads – and there were quite a few. One was a long, text ad for Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, a pill that supposedly protected you against germs:

“It increases the vital power, cleanses the system of clogging impurities, enriches the blood, puts the stomach and organs of digestion and nutrition in working condition, so that the germ finds no weak or tainted spot in which to break. … Only one or two a day will regulate and cleanse and invigorate a bad Stomach, torpid Liver, or sluggish Bowels.”

That was just one of many ads throughout the paper for “cures” of various kinds — Cuticura Soap, Ointment and Pills, Mozley’s Lemon Elixir (another for “torpid liver”), Dyspepsia by Crab Orchard Water, Cascarets Candy Cathartic (for your bowels, “They work while you sleep”), Sloan’s Liniment and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which pitched itself exclusively to women starting with the headline, “STOP, WOMAN!” by promising confidential advice by mail for health issues that women would not feel comfortable confiding to male doctors.

Page 2 carried in the top left corner, under the incorrect date, two important items of information: The subscription cost, $1 a year, and the Topic’s telephone number, 7.

Page 2 also carried a mix of news, from the newly brokered peace treaty between Russia and Japan to the General Assembly passing a measure for a referendum in Lenoir on issuing $50,000 in bonds for streets, sidewalks, sewer lines or an electrical plant.

Page 3 started with the heading “OF LOCAL INTEREST” and listed people who had been somewhere or were on their way:

“Mrs. Harper Beall has returned from a visit to Chester S.C.

“R.A. Ramseur has been on a trip to Mitchell.

“Carroll Rapp went to Guilford College Monday.

“Mr. J. Gorden Ballew returned to Baltimore last Friday.”

Farther down, under the headline “Sweet Girl Freshmen and Sophomores,” was a short paragraph:

“It was a sad pity that the Topic reporter belongs to the wrong ‘sect’ (to quote Samantha) Tuesday, for a whole carload of sweetness came up billed for Davenport College. It sho’ was a pretty sight to behold all those nice girls at once. The conductor did look so happy.”

Under that was the news of “the terrible damage done by a mad dog” rampaging from Lenoir to Patterson, which was finally shot and killed under the Crisp, Cilly & Co. store in Patterson.

With that news was a message issued by Lenoir Mayor Edgar Allan Poe saying that, because no one knew how many other dogs the rabid dog may have bitten, “Notice is hereby given that all dogs found on the streets of Lenoir unmuzzled for the next thirty days will be shot.”

Ads on this page included one for a 12-room house in Granite Falls for sale for $1,000. “We stake our reputation on the assertion that you cannot duplicate this for $1,500.00,” it said.

Page 4 brought more details on the Russia-Japan peace, including a separate wire story on world leaders crediting Teddy Roosevelt with brokering the peace, and a mix of state, national and international wire items, then some “filler” (the news term for short things used to fill inconvenient space), including some one-liners that also appeared as filler on at least one other page in the same issue, such as, “A woman’s idea of heaven is five parts wavy hair and five parts a good figure,” and, “A useful thing about automobiles is all the new cuss words you learn when they won’t work.”

The news largely petered out by page 5, where there was a long piece of fiction, “Luke Hammond, the Miser,” by Prof. William Henry Peck, and other apparently syndicated specialty feature items. One, “With the Funny Fellows,” relayed short, presumably fictitious anecdotes supplied by papers around the country:

“I was surprised,” said the Rev. Mr. Goodman, sternly, “to see you playing golf last Sabbath. I should think you’d do better –”

“Oh!” replied Hardcase, “I usually do. I was in wretched form last Sunday.” – Philadelphia Press.

Page 6 was what we would call today the religion page, with lots of inspirational messages and lines (“You have no right to elect His work if you reject His word”). Curiously, it also was the home to the highest number of “cure” ads.

Page 7 was the business page, aside from a wide column down the left side made up of pseudo-scientific pronouncements, including the headline “Mars Inhabited,” with a short description of what scientists know of Mars “By Camille Flammarion, the Famous Astronomer,” which described a wondrously pleasant climate on Mars and concluded, “We know the globe of Mars perfectly; in fact, far better than the earth.”

Bill said there were a total of only seven pages to be posted. I have yet to figure out how that can be so, since every piece of paper I’ve ever seen from any era has both a front and a back, making two pages. Perhaps that’s one thing about newspapers that has changed.

When they asked me to speak at the convention, they told me I should tell a story about the candidate. It should be something with real emotion, the candidate’s campaign manager said as we stood at my front door, the limousine parked with its engine running in my driveway. It should be something that would humanize the candidate.

I blinked and tried to think of something. “It would be a lot easier,” I said, “if the candidate were a human.”

“Ha ha,” the manager said. “You’re only the … (pausing while flipping through a small notebook) eighth person today to tell me that.”

The limousine driver honked. The manager raised a finger toward the car and told me, “You’ll go on the middle of the second night, with other old friends.”

“Who else?” I asked.

The limousine driver honked. The manager looked over, and a back window in the car rolled down a tiny crack, enough to shoot a look at the manager.

I knew that eye. “Oh, hey!” I waved. The window rolled up.

The manager began to turn. “We’ll be in touch. Think of a story.”

I watched the limousine pull away, my mind a blank. A story with real emotion.

I went inside. My wife was waiting in the kitchen. “What was that about?” she said.

“I’ve been asked to speak at the convention.”

“Won’t that get you in trouble at work? What will your boss say?”

“I don’t know, but I don’t see how I could turn it down.”

She poured me a cup of coffee. “What are you supposed to talk about?”

“I’m supposed to tell a story with real emotion that would humanize the candidate.”

She looked at me blankly, then crossed her arms. “That would be easier if you were talking about a human.”

“Yeah.” I sat down with my coffee.

She looked concerned and brushed my arm. “Do you have a story?”

I shrugged.

I thought and thought about it. I thought all day, and when I went to bed that night I stared at the ceiling thinking. That’s when I thought of something. I got up, went to my laptop and wrote the whole thing down, with much more detail than I thought would be needed in a speech, but I wanted to be sure I got everything down.

A couple of days later the manager called to check on my progress, and I said I had a story that I thought would do a lot to humanize the candidate. I told the whole thing.

Silence on the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

“That’s a terrible story.”

“Why is that a terrible story?” I asked.

“You end up bleeding all over a police officer. It sounds like a testimonial for the police officer.”

“But it’s very emotional.”

“Only because you’re crying almost the whole time.”

“But –”

“Nevermind. We’re running out of time anyway, so we won’t need you. Thanks very much for your efforts, though. We need your vote.”

And that was that.

I really should call to check on that police officer again. She was so kind.

When I first heard that the local Republican Party was moving into the vacant space beside Lenoir City Hall that most recently was the Azteca Burrito restaurant, I had a thought.

Perhaps, I thought, the party is one-upping the Democrats, who lately have been having a number of functions at Howard Brewing. When Azteca Burrito was open, its owners built a bar, so that space not only has a bar to match Howard Brewing, it also has a kitchen!

“The Democrats have beer, but so do we, AND we have freshly grilled burgers,” the Republicans could say.

The Democrats then would have to raise the ante and find a way to provide food too, and probably more variety if they wanted to lure people their way.

Of course, I know the idea is too good to be true.

The result would be another bidding war between the parties, except the kind they have now tends to benefit lobbyists and interest groups, while the average person feels forgotten and left behind, as any supporter of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders will tell you.

But how much better would it be if, instead of pandering by promising trade wars or free college or other trinkets costing trillions, what the parties provided was an ever-expanding list of options on an actual menu?

“Don’t go to McDonald’s, now GOP stands for ‘Get your Order Personalized,’ and we won’t make you use a kiosk either!”

The Republican menu might lean toward the bold, the barbecue, the Tex-Mex and brisket and steak.

The Democratic menu might have more ethnic specialties, more unusual spices and ingredients, plus vegetarian options.

Or maybe I’m exposing my preconceptions.

What they would cook would be less important than the fact that everyone would have no doubt at all what the effect of their political preference was. It wouldn’t be an idea or policy, it would be on a plate, right there in front of them.

“Make America Great Again”? Make America’s steaks, man. We’ll decide whether they’re great, and if they’re not we’ll go across the street and see if the other guys do better “Fighting For Us” against indigestion.

I’d work in the slogans of the Libertarian and Green Party candidates too if I could find them.

I think this is the ideal recipe, so to speak, for political reform.

When I first heard that the local Republican Party was moving into the vacant space beside Lenoir City Hall that most recently was the Azteca Burrito restaurant, I had a thought.

Perhaps, I thought, the party is one-upping the Democrats, who lately have been having a number of functions at Howard Brewing. When Azteca Burrito was open, its owners built a bar, so that space not only has a bar to match Howard Brewing, it also has a kitchen!

“The Democrats have beer, but so do we, AND we have freshly grilled burgers,” the Republicans could say.

The Democrats then would have to raise the ante and find a way to provide food too, and probably more variety if they wanted to lure people their way.

Of course, I know the idea is too good to be true.

The result would be another bidding war between the parties, except the kind they have now tends to benefit lobbyists and interest groups, while the average person feels forgotten and left behind, as any supporter of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders will tell you.

But how much better would it be if, instead of pandering by promising trade wars or free college or other trinkets costing trillions, what the parties provided was an ever-expanding list of options on an actual menu?

“Don’t go to McDonald’s, now GOP stands for ‘Get your Order Personalized,’ and we won’t make you use a kiosk either!”

The Republican menu might lean toward the bold, the barbecue, the Tex-Mex and brisket and steak.

The Democratic menu might have more ethnic specialties, more unusual spices and ingredients, plus vegetarian options.

Or maybe I’m exposing my preconceptions.

What they would cook would be less important than the fact that everyone would have no doubt at all what the effect of their political preference was. It wouldn’t be an idea or policy, it would be on a plate, right there in front of them.

“Make America Great Again”? Make America’s steaks, man. We’ll decide whether they’re great, and if they’re not we’ll go across the street and see if the other guys do better “Fighting For Us” against indigestion.

I’d work in the slogans of the Libertarian and Green Party candidates too if I could find them.

I think this is the ideal recipe, so to speak, for political reform.

Part of me agrees with Teresa Schmedding’s “The news industry can’t cut its way to quality.” After all, I made largely the same point myself in 2012. Schmedding writes about the massive layoff of copy editors at the Bay Area News Group and what it portends for the quality of stories that BANG will be able to produce from here on — and what the likely effect among the reading audience will be:

“When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.”

And she’s right, of course. To a point. I certainly agree that cutting by itself can’t improve the product we are trying to convince people to buy.

My emphasis was different because I focused on the content creators, those who generate the story ideas and/or chase down the stories. People who are not creative or not bright can’t generate interesting stories, so in my view you need to pay enough to get and keep such people. All trends so far seem to show that media employers disagree.

Schmedding’s point is that everyone needs an editor. Even the most creative and intelligent people make mistakes and are blind to their own errors. I am reminded of this constantly at work, most recently this morning as my publisher remarked that in the proof of our big, annual, tourism-focused magazine there were a lot of errors I marked that were in stories I had already edited. “There always are,” I said. The entire reason copy editors are necessary is that all of us are often blind to errors we made.

During my time in the corporate media world, I was surrounded by people with primarily business training. My desk for most of my time in Richmond was alongside desks of accountants. I listened to them talk on the phone to staff at individual newspapers, explaining the rules, and I heard more budget discussions than I could ever wish to for the rest of my life. I understand perfectly well the reaction of cutting — when revenues drop, you cut expenses and seek new ways to raise revenue (I cannot address here whether media companies are adequately trying the latter). That’s why copy editors may be first on the cutting-room floor: A publication HAS to have those who write the stories, because without them there is nothing to edit; so you reduce the editing layer to preserve the content layer, opening the door to more errors in the product.

The ledger-based mindset is reducing not only staff numbers but squeezing pay so that payroll totals are shrinking even when the staff level does not. From that kind of view, it’s positive to maintain staff levels while reducing the cost of that staff.

The idea that any expenses at all need to be protected, even raised, as you cut others is counter-intuitive to this way of thinking. But to me it seems urgent. The smaller you get, the smarter you must be, because there are fewer people making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. There are fewer people who know what to do and how to do it, so they ought to be more valuable.

However, the assumption Schmedding and I both make is that there is an audience of sufficient size to support news and that would actually do it if the quality were maintained at a high enough level. Not many local or regional publications have tested this assumption, but the Orange County Register did, to disastrous effect.

Almost every week I receive fresh reminders from current or former subscribers that they do not recognize or appreciate the difference between good work and bad. I get far more complaints when the Sudoku puzzle is left out than when there are grammatical errors in the paper’s lead story. I have been told regularly that the crossword puzzle was the only reason to get the paper.

Those are not the majority, I tell myself, but how can I ever know how many of what is left in our circulation — less than half what it was in the late 1980s — recognize and appreciate it? If I can’t find that, how do I convince the ledger-minders to offer pay to reward work that fosters it?