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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?

I don’t usually post here the opinion pieces I write, but this is not just local and in many ways not even just a state issue.

It’s a fact that boycotts are blunt instruments, particularly when aimed at an entire state. Allies as well as foes get hurt.

South Carolina businesses learned that during boycotts over display of the Confederate flag. Indiana businesses learned that during boycotts over that state’s short-lived “religious freedom” law that allowed businesses to refuse service to homosexuals.

A column in the New York Times by Linda-Marie Barrett of Malaprops Bookstore/Café in Asheville illustrates the collateral damage being done now to North Carolina businesses over House Bill 2’s repeal of anti-discrimination protections in various cities and its explicit allowance, by omission from the list of protected classes, of any kind of discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Barrett complains that despite her business’s stance against HB2, “Customers from other states tell us they won’t visit until the law is no more. More threatening to us financially and to our community culturally is the cancellation of events by authors.”

In her column she asks authors to reconsider boycotting North Carolina bookstores because the stores need the revenue that author visits bring, and their local customers need to be lifted up.

She has a point, but the whole point of a statewide boycott is the economic havoc it can wreak, ultimately impacting as many legislators’ districts as possible and the entire state economy as a whole to create a sense of urgency that otherwise would be missing. Appeals to compassion have limited effects, but the power of the purse is strong, which is why boycotts are so often effective.

Senate President Phil Berger, a living blunt instrument who is the ultimate force that would have to be overcome to repeal HB2, is a lawyer from the tiny town of Eden, in Rockingham County. What exactly could anyone boycott that he would care about? Not much. Even if there were something, Berger has proven to be a “my way or the highway” kind of fellow.

That means his political allies in the legislature have to be convinced to change their minds and risk Berger’s wrath. Without a boycott, how would anyone do that? Protests? Sit-ins? The “Moral Mondays” protests have well established that the legislators are utterly immune to such appeals. But many of them are businesspeople or live in districts with businesses that are being affected by the boycott, or else their pet projects will be affected by a decline in state revenue needed to support them.

The question is how many millions of dollars the state’s economy will have to lose — how many hundreds or thousands of new jobs have to be withdrawn by companies canceling plans to grow here — before enough of HB2’s backers are willing to admit the whole thing is a sham.

And that’s what the law is, a sham. There was no enforcement mechanism written into the feature of the law that its backers most vocally defend, the requirement for people to use the public restrooms that correspond with the sex identified on their birth certificate. Politicians have raised the false specter of sexual predation in the restroom, ironically by heterosexual men posing as women, to justify all the rest of the bill’s discriminatory elements (and its completely unrelated prohibition of local minimum-wage rules). Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, told the Washington Post, “Moms want to be able to send their 11-year-old daughters into the bathroom and not worry about grown men being in there.”

Woodhouse is right, mothers do want that — but HB2 does not a single thing to make sure no grown men are in the women’s room. The law puts no police in the restroom and takes no steps to actually control who uses which room. There was no way before HB2 to prevent a sexual predator from entering any restroom, and there remains no way under HB2 to prevent it. There also is no new punishment in HB2 for anyone caught in the act.

In other words, HB2 does nothing more than shout angrily into the wind. That’s why the outside world has heard only anger in its passage.

Passing the law had only one point: Creating passion in a voter base that is perceived as dispirited by the presidential campaign and that may not turn out in large numbers this fall.

But that backfired and made the state the target of national scorn, as did Gov. Pat McCrory’s ham-fisted executive order last week that left all of HB2’s major features intact even as he insisted, falsely, that he was acting to remove the reason for the boycott. All his executive order did was gift-wrap a reason for the national media to do more stories about the boycott, what prompted it and illustrate that McCrory’s order did nothing to change it.

It’s not fair that Malaprops and other businesses are being made to pay the price for a cynical election-year strategy, and it’s not fair that hundreds or thousands of North Carolinians will not be able to seek high-paying jobs with PayPal or Deutsche Bank or any of the other companies canceling their plans here.

But fairness was never the point behind HB2. Damage was. And damage it has wrought.

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During the past nearly 29 years in journalism, I’ve apologized for plenty of errors that appeared in print, most of them my own fault.

One that will forever stick at the top of my memory and still makes me wince was in 1992, when I wrote a story about a court case in Wilkes County, N.C., and not only didn’t spell the assistant district attorney’s name correctly, I called her by the name of a defense attorney I used to write about at my previous job in Florida. My only defense: Both have a first name that starts with B. How do you adequately apologize for that? As soon as I saw it in print I knew it was wrong, but the whole previous evening as I read and re-read the story, I missed it.

During my first few months as editor here in Lenoir in 2013, the News-Topic repeatedly called Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons either Joe Gibbs or Bob Gibbons, despite the fact that he clearly is neither a former coach of the Washington Redskins nor his own brother. I edited every one of those stories and never noticed the errors, consumed as I was with things that were not the names of locally known people, so I apologized at a city council meeting, and while he accepted the apology he did not appear amused. Who could blame him? This qualifies as falling under the definition of “getting off on the wrong foot.”

However, while I can say that the headline that appeared at the top of the News-Topic’s sports page last Sunday was fairly egregious, and I wish it had never happened, I can’t apologize for it, as at least one reader has demanded.

The headline was on an Associated Press story about the North Carolina Tar Heels defeating the Indiana Hoosiers in the NCAA Tournament, but it got the teams reversed: “Indiana beats N.C., 101-86, in Sweet 16.”

Now, as a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I maintain there are actually two errors in that headline, because you can abbreviate the school’s name as UNC, Tar Heels or, if pressed for space, just Heels, but never N.C. That particular error, however, has drawn no one’s notice.

As soon as I saw the headline, I guessed what had happened, and I was correct. The copy desk was short-staffed in both news and sports, and on deadline a page designer who didn’t usually handle sports was pressed into service and while juggling multiple pages and trying to move on to the next deadline got the score right but reversed the order of the teams, even though the story under the headline was correct.

Such things are supposed to be caught in the proofreading stage, but no matter how apparent an error is, your brain sometimes makes you see something you want to see instead of what’s in front of you, especially when you are in a hurry. That’s how the East Oregonian, the newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon, ran a sports headline last June declaring, “Amphibious pitcher makes debut,” on a story about Pat Venditte, a relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s who actually is ambidextrous, meaning he can pitch with either hand, not amphibious, meaning he can live both on land and in water.

I have no hesitation about running corrections on factual errors that could cause harm/insult or embarrassment or confusion, but no one seemed confused by the “Indiana beats N.C.” headline — we got tons of phone calls telling us it was wrong. The only people embarrassed were the ones who work at the News-Topic. That leaves harm, so I’ll make this pledge:

If UNC Coach Roy Williams has been collecting newspaper headlines to paper his office with, and our bad headline left a gap that has him lying awake at night tossing in his bed, or he actually feels harmed, I will drive to Chapel Hill myself and apologize. I’ll even run laps around the Dean Dome.

There is no Santa Claus. Many people in the news business know that as a literal fact, but they still believe there may be a kind of Santa Claus who will step into their lives. If they did not, we would not have stories such as this, from Nieman Lab this time, wondering what in the world Warren Buffett (or replace his name with your favorite media-owning billionaire) has in mind for his newspaper(s). The article by Joshua Benton wonders what might be read into the absence of tea leaves about newspapers in Buffett’s most recent letter to shareholders.

I’ll tell you what: Nothing.

In 2013, shortly after getting a new job after being laid off from Media General in the wake of Buffett’s purchase of that company’s newspaper assets, I was called by a reporter (perhaps it was Reuters, but I don’t recall for sure) who was working on a story about what Buffett was really after. I told her that from what I saw from the time of the purchase announcement in May 2012 through the transition period until the final cuts that November, you had to take Buffett at his public word — that he thought that prudent, conservative management would keep the papers viable and profitable for some time, but that he had no plans to experiment or try anything that would surprise people.

So far, Buffett’s company has been completely consistent on its management of the company’s newspapers, which is to say conventional. The managers are budget-minded. Papers have to make their “numbers,” above all. Everything has been consistent with what I saw in my brief exposure to that management structure.

So why the never-ending stream of stories wondering what lies over the rainbow, or whether there is a rainbow?

Because people thought Buffett was Santa Claus.

People in news don’t often think of news as a business. It’s a calling. It’s not a way to make money. People take pride that it doesn’t pay well, as people do when they get great satisfaction from a job that doesn’t pay well. It’s a mission. That makes it personal, to a great extent. But Warren Buffett, like most business owners, approaches his business as a business. This is business, but the news people are taking it very, very personal.

Please stop it, all of you. To the extent that Jeff Bezos or other billionaire-come-latelys to the business are trying new things or talking about new models, please, by all means, spread the word. New ideas need consideration. But please stop waiting for secret plans on how to get out of the quagmire from anyone who steps in and does not enunciate any plans that differ from what you already know or, as in the case of Orange County, require a reality other than the one you know.

King for a day, or so

As I stooped over this morning, a plastic scoop in my hand and the smell of cat pee and poop rising from the litter box in front of me, I couldn’t help but think this was no job for a king.

And that’s what they called me less than 48 hours earlier – king.

I blame them.

They gave me what folks call “the big head.”

When I decided a few weeks ago to enter the Caldwell County Rotary Club’s annual chili cookoff, it had been partly just to get it out of my system. I love to cook chili, I have been to over a dozen chili cookoffs, from small affairs like Rotary’s to large events alongside Richmond International Raceway sponsored by a rock station and drawing professional teams, and I always thought my own chili stacked up relatively well. Finally, when Rotary sent out its cookoff entry deadline, I kept reading over it and I decided I should put up or shut up. Enter that chili or stop humble-bragging about it.

There were 12 other entries in Rotary’s cookoff. I stuck around to watch the judging, and as the minutes ticked by I noticed that the four judges seemed to keep going back for second or third tastes from other pots, but not mine.

After Rotary member Charles Beck told the judges that their time was up and they needed to make a decision, the judges huddled at their table, whispered a few things, and I prepared for disappointment. Then they straightened and looked at Beck, and I heard them say the number assigned to my pot of chili. My chili won.

It felt pretty good. It was my first-ever cookoff, and I joked that I ought to never enter another cookoff so I could say I am undefeated in chili cookoffs.

But people kept coming up to shake my hand. “What’s your secret?” I was asked under a spotlight on the stage. Praise washed over me, and it felt good.

My wife texted me, “Congratulations, chili king!”

Later that day at work, my boss came out of her office as I walked past. She smiled broadly and said, “There’s the chili king!”

“Chili king.” It had a nice ring. I called my mom and left a message starting, “This is the Chili King of Caldwell County …”

I got home before my wife. When I saw her walking to the door, I opened it to greet her and bellowed, “BOW BEFORE YOUR CHILI KING!”

She gave a half-smile, stepped slightly to one side and said, “’kay.” But she didn’t bow. Not even a curtsy.

It all went downhill from there, and at the bottom of the hill was a litter box.

Mel Brooks was right, “It’s good to be the king.” But it doesn’t last long.

There’s only one sure way to keep your name out of the news: Don’t do anything that is routinely reported by your local news outlets.

Most of the time, that means don’t be arrested for anything serious, and don’t get sued for anything serious. There are some types of public records that my newsroom routinely reports each week inside the paper, such as marriages and property transactions, but as far as avoiding being on the front page or listed as being charged with a crime, you should keep your head down, be a good citizen, and don’t make trouble.

Like most newspapers, the News-Topic reports many arrests, and we try to cover the most serious cases when they go to court.

Sometimes people call and ask whether we would keep someone’s arrest out of the paper. Sorry, no. We have to try to treat everyone the same. If we start making exceptions because someone’s mother or children will be embarrassed, we would have to stop printing all of the arrests.

Last May, I received a letter from an inmate at the Caldwell County Detention Center asking me “to please not put my name in the paper for any reason. Or any thing concerning my case.”

He complained that a story we ran last January about a court hearing that had been called for him to enter a plea deal, pleading guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence, only to have him back out at the last minute, was not accurate, though what was in the story was exactly what both his lawyer and the prosecutor said in open court had happened.

“That (story) vilated my rights,” he wrote. “I haven’t even gone to trial and that made me sound guilty before I could get a fair trial. You embaresed me and my family.”

The legal process in the United States is not set up to shield everyone’s identity, just in case someone is not guilty, until the outcome of a case has been decided. It is set up to be open to the public so that members of the public can look up any information they want, observe legal proceedings and therefore be assured that the legal system strives to be just. The jury selection process, however, has steps for lawyers to be able to exclude from a jury anyone whose mind was made up by previous news coverage.

The News-Topic, like any news organization, chooses the cases it covers based on a judgment of which cases are serious enough or unusual enough that we think many people will want to know what happened. In those cases, we do exactly what any member of the public is welcome to do: We go to the courthouse, sit in the audience and listen. You can do it too, if you are quiet and obey the rules of the courthouse. Your friends, neighbors and co-workers can do it too. No one needs to make reservations. Leave your cellphone and pocketknife in the car, but you can show up unannounced, pass through the metal detector and walk right in. The state even maintains a website where you can see whose cases are tentatively scheduled to be heard in each term of court. Literally anyone on Earth with an Internet connection can read those names and see what the charges are.

Before a case has a court hearing, if there is something about the case that we want to find out, we go to the clerk of court’s office and ask to see particular public records on the case. The term “public records” includes the word “public” for a reason. It means those are records that are open to any member of the public, not just reporters. You can go read them yourself, but in some cases, depending on what you want, you might have to pay to get a copy instead of seeing the original file.

The letter from the inmate last May concluded: “I don’t wont my name in the paper period. I will take legal actions if my name is in the paper again. Thank you.”

No thanks were necessary, because we didn’t comply, and wouldn’t. We can’t. I’d get fired if I were to.

And any lawyer in the country will tell you that you can’t win a lawsuit accusing a news organization of violating your privacy because it reported on your arrest, criminal case, court hearing, court records and/or trial.

The inmate’s name wasn’t in the paper for the past few months, but that particular case came to trial last week, and Allen Duane Parlier, 44, of Hudson was convicted as charged (linked story is behind a paywall) of statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child, who in this case was a 15-year-old girl at the time of the events in question. By going to trial, Parlier caused far more details embarrassing to his family to become public than would have if he had taken the plea that prosecutors offered, so we don’t think he was motivated to write to us to protect his family, and he appeared to admit just before his sentencing that he lied under oath during his trial, so we can’t really put a lot of stock in the assertions of the letter he sent to us anyway. But we didn’t cover his case to spite him. We just covered it, the same as we did for dozens of cases last year and will for dozens more this year.

If you happen to be arrested and you wish to minimize further damage to your reputation, the two best things for that are a good lawyer and sincere prayer, but there are limits to what even those can accomplish.

A column earlier this week by Eric Frazier of the Charlotte Observer raised the idea of moderates banding together to form a third major political party based on their shared interests “in safe, incremental social change, protecting business and the economy, a strong defense and pragmatism in foreign affairs. They want the trains to run on time and the stock market to rise while everybody more or less gets along.”

I can see them now, gathering for their first national convention in Peoria, or perhaps Omaha, a place the party leadership feels is representative of middle America. Some perhaps suggested St. Louis, but that has been too much in the news for all the wrong reasons. Why remind people of all that? Phoenix would have been out because others feel that its vast sprawl and congested freeways seem a bit too much California Lite. Indianapolis would be too urban and gritty.

The party chooses a medium-sized convention hall, nothing grandiose, and fills it with beige banners emblazoned with the party’s interim motto — a temporary selection made as a compromise — printed in a plain, unadorned font, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The first day’s convention action item: Choose a party symbol.

Suggestions for the party symbol, the iconic image that would be the party’s visual counter to the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey, range from the mythic phoenix and griffin to the more prosaic bald eagle.

As sensible moderates, party delegates agree to hold a series of votes to winnow the selection. Eliminated in the first round are all mythical animals, which are deemed to carry an implication that the party is not realistic, which is, if nothing else, the main thing moderates are all about.

Eliminated in the second are such African animals as the hippo, which many feel would appear to be just a blob when reduced to red-and-blue iconography at the presidential debates, and the rhino, which the moderate former Democrats object is too reminiscent of a Republican elephant. The moderate former Republicans don’t quite agree but want to be reasonable.

Everyone kind of likes the eagle, but the eagle is everywhere already. It adorns sales flyers as much as political pamphlets. Stephen Colbert has helped cement it as the symbol of pistachio nuts, and the moderates agree they should avoid that association.

A large plurality then backs choosing an American wild stallion reared up on its hind legs.

But the moderate former Republicans object that a horse is awfully close to the Democratic donkey. If you reject the rhino, it’s only fair to sideline the stallion. The stallion-backers mildly try to make the case to keep it, but then others also object about the stallion being wild. The party is supposed to be for moderates who favor reason and practicality. “Wild” is another thing. Let the Republicans and Democrats be wild.

Finally the voting narrows to the only proposal not eliminated: a black lab. No one’s particularly enthused about it, but no one hates it either, and isn’t that the essence of compromise? Plus, black labs are tremendously loyal and reliable dogs, and unfailingly friendly to everyone – no decent person would hate a black lab.

That settled, the delegates break for the day and head for an evening at Applebee’s to toss back a few light beers and prepare for the second day’s action item: considering an alternative to the temporary motto. Among the options: “Half a loaf is better than none,” and “If no one ever settled, your mother would still be single.”

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