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A different neighborhood watch

Most days, being a good community newspaper is an exercise in neighborliness.

We like to find out about things people in the community have done, or are doing, that are interesting or to find the new businesses they have started. These are happy stories that help people feel connected to their neighbors.

When something tragic happens to someone in the community, we try when we can to bring that person’s life to light so it is not just a story of pain or statistics. These are not happy stories, but they also help people feel connected, and if they are done right they can help people mourn a loss or celebrate a legacy.

Sometimes, though, being a good community newspaper means sticking our necks out and risking what might become a costly fight over an important principle. That happened over the past two months.

The News-Topic found out in September that a civil lawsuit had been filed against the Caldwell County Board of Education and quickly settled. We wanted to tell you, the taxpayers of Caldwell County, who pay for the Caldwell County Schools, what it’s about and what the settlement was. But all sides in the lawsuit agreed to have the entire court file sealed by a judge.

Strictly speaking, this should almost never happen. State law in North Carolina presumes an overriding interest in the public knowing about the actions of their government agencies, including in court. On the topic of court settlements involving agencies and/or their employees and representatives, the law says this:

“Public records … shall include all settlement documents in any suit, administrative proceeding or arbitration instituted against any agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions … in connection with or arising out of such agency’s official actions, duties or responsibilities, except in an action for medical malpractice against a hospital facility. No agency of North Carolina government or its subdivisions, nor any counsel, insurance company or other representative acting on behalf of such agency, shall approve, accept or enter into any settlement of any such suit, arbitration or proceeding if the settlement provides that its terms and conditions shall be confidential, except in an action for medical malpractice against a hospital facility.”

That’s as clear as it could possibly be.

The school system is not a hospital facility, so there would not seem to be any room under the law for sealing this lawsuit or settlement.

Yet this lawsuit and settlement were sealed.

The law allows for a judge to make a determination that there is an interest for secrecy that overrides the presumption that settlements involving a government agency should be public. But we were unable to know whether that was true because the judge also sealed his order saying why the entire court file should be sealed.

That seems counterintuitive to me.

Court orders do not exist solely for other judges to read; they are there also to explain why a particular court document or file is not available to the public as the vast majority of other court documents are. Our court system belongs to the public, and the presumption under the law is that the public has a right to know what is going on in the courts and why.

All anyone could tell from what was publicly available in this particular court file was that a child was involved. That makes it more serious and more urgent for the public to know about, not less. We think the public wants to know what happened in the county’s schools, what the level of responsibility of the Caldwell County Schools was and what it cost the taxpayers to make this lawsuit go away.

The N.C. Court of Appeals ruled just last year that the law allows a student’s name to be redacted from any documents made public but does not allow sealing the entire file.

And so the News-Topic went to work to get everyone to follow the law and unseal the file and settlement.

If you have ever hired a lawyer, you know that this cost us money. If you have ever run a business, you realize that this is an unexpected expense that was not in our budget.

But there is a clear public interest here, laid out plainly in the state law quoted above — and also, ironically, in the settlement. Once it was unsealed, we found a paragraph acknowledging that the settlement could not preclude the school board, “as a public agency,” from legal requirements to “disclose the substantive terms of, or produce a copy of, a public record, or to comply with Open Meeting Laws.”

The News-Topic’s efforts on this case began just before National Newspaper Week, when newspapers across the country try to remind their communities of the vital civic role played by news organizations.

There have been several national stories over the past year about that, including one on a study showing that in communities where the only newspaper closed, the cost of government increased in comparison to communities that still had a newspaper. When no one is watching, eventually people start cutting corners, and the cost to taxpayers goes up.

This court case is as good a reminder as you could have of the things newspapers do on behalf of the public. There is literally no one else in the courthouse every week looking at what is happening in both civil and criminal courts other than the clerks, lawyers and judges — all of whom have their own jobs to do and their own interests to pursue.

When someone asks why they should pay for a newspaper when there are websites that provide some of that information for free, this is yet another answer.


Business North Carolina magazine recently voted downtown Lenoir’s motto as the best in the state.

I had thought that “Together We Create” was a great motto the first time I read it, blending both the area’s focus on the arts and the city’s manufacturing legacy, so it is nice to see it win acknowledgement from the high-powered marketing and communications experts who did the judging for the magazine.

To be fair to most of the rest of the state, though, it seems that most places didn’t have a motto in the running. The magazine says “roughly 20” entries were received, and from those it selected the top five.

And it would seem that many of those that were sent in don’t exactly sing. The motto voted fifth-best was “Well-centered.” I can imagine the session that came up with that:

Group leader: “What does our town have to brag about?”

Member one: “Well, we’re kind of smack in the middle of everything.”

Member two: “The schools are OK. Well, my nephew isn’t, but I think that’s on him.”

Member three: “The meth use seems to be dropping.”

Leader: “Let’s go with the first.”

Maybe most of the towns around the state don’t have a motto. That could be on purpose. Adopting a motto can be a perilous thing. The chances are very good that the motto will come in for ridicule.

I remember nearly 20 years ago when I was living in Winston-Salem and that city adopted the motto “O! Winston-Salem: Now that’s living.” The city spent $65,000 for that, according to an article in the Winston-Salem Journal, but few people liked it, and it mostly faded away.

It didn’t help that around that time a doctor in the city made national news for a medical treatment he developed for women that turned out also to have a genital-stimulating side effect.

Most elected officials don’t want to spend taxpayer money to come up with a motto that everyone may hate anyway.

So in the spirit of the “infinite monkey theorem” – which says that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare – here are some free suggestions for county and municipal officials around the state to consider.

“You could do worse.”

“Our town appears on all quality maps.”

“What you see is what you get.”

“You may not like us now, but wait until you get 20 miles down the road.”

“If that’s your attitude then just keep driving.”

“Misery loves company.”

“At least as honest as the median town.”

“Most likely above average.”

“Better than you’ll remember.”

“Better than good enough.”

“When it’s time to settle, we’re the place.”

“Wake up and smell the coffee.”

“When your dreams fade, we’ll still be here.”

“Keeping up appearances.”

“Closer to paradise than you deserve.”

“Few regret staying.”

I’ll keep working on the list. They may be terrible, but at least no taxpayer money was spent to produce them.

Man with big bus slept here


A man who called the News-Topic on Friday didn’t dilly dally.

“You ought to send a reporter over,” he said without any preamble. “Ricky Skaggs stayed at the Comfort Inn last night and he’s still there. I just saw him.” Then he hung up.

Skaggs, the famous country and bluegrass musician, performed Thursday night at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, and after the show his tour bus headed up the highway to the hotel. Clearly, he preferred to spend the night in a stationary bed rather than on a bus.

No reporters were available, so I grabbed a camera and headed to the hotel. I thought I might get a photo of Skaggs and his band boarding their bus to leave.

When I got there, the bus was parked at one edge of the parking lot, clearly still in “night” mode – the bus’s sleeper compartment was still extended, and a roll-down shade covered all the windows at the front of the bus. There was no activity. It seemed unlikely anyone would be leaving soon. The deadline for checkout at the hotel was still two hours away.

I briefly contemplated hanging around to wait. It would be a nice shot to have.

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea made me feel like Mayor Pike on “The Andy Griffith Show,” who would lose his mind and all sense of proportion at the mere suggestion of a celebrity showing up in Mayberry.

Did I really want to stake out the Comfort Inn? After all, he probably would be dressed like anyone else in that situation: in casual, comfortable clothes, all set to spend the coming day on a bus.

And that’s what it comes down to. Skaggs is a famous person, but in all the ways that matter he’s a person like anyone else. Yes, it’s notable that he was staying here, and people would like to know – and now you do – but lurking outside hotels is what paparazzi do. Does anyone want a stranger shooting their photo first thing in the morning?

And I had another consideration. There’s a saying in football and other sports that is intended to discourage excessive celebrations over small accomplishments: Act like you’ve been there before. There must be a corollary for situations like this.

If there’s a celebrity in our midst, maybe we should act like we’ve seen a celebrity before. “Oh, hi, Ricky. How’d you sleep? How about some coffee?”

After all, why shouldn’t Ricky Skaggs stay the night in Lenoir after a concert? What’s the alternative? The hotels here are no different than their counterparts in the same chains in Hickory, and after a long, tiring performance would anyone really want to drive an extra 20 to 30 minutes when there’s a perfectly good hotel just 4 miles up the road?

And I’d rather that a famous person decided to stay here rather than felt an urgent desire to get as far away from Lenoir as possible just as soon as he could.

I can think of several reasons a person not only wouldn’t want to avoid Lenoir but might prefer staying the night here. For one, people here are friendlier than they are even just one county over. That’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from many others. Also, nights here almost always are truly quiet. If what you want is sleep, you are better off trying it in a small town. Maybe one reason he stayed is we don’t have paparazzi here.

I had mostly made up my mind during my one drive around the parking lot. Driving back out onto Blowing Rock Boulevard, I only became more sure.

By the time I got back to my office, I had an answer ready if anyone else called about Ricky Skaggs staying the night.

Well of course he spent the night in Lenoir. Why wouldn’t he?

A Canadian family rocketed across the internet this past week for something I would have thought only an American family would do.

They posted on Facebook the photos from a family photo session, all wearing … well I guess you have to say they were wearing biodegradable costumes.

They posed on hay bales, and among colorful fallen leaves under a tree, and with a rusty old tricycle.

These could be scenes from anyone’s family photo session – if every member of that family were mostly naked.

Not entirely naked. That actually would have been less remarkable. And I bet the photos would not have spread so far.

No, each member of the family – mother, father, elementary-school-age daughter, and infant child – wore a pumpkin. A real pumpkin.

I don’t use the word “wore” as a euphemism. Each one literally wore a pumpkin that had been hollowed out, with leg holes cut through it at the bottom. (Except for the infant, who was placed inside a pumpkin that had just an opening at the top.)

And that’s all any of them wore, so far as you can tell from the photos. Well, the baby had an orange blanket too, and with his head jutting confusedly from a giant hollow gourd, that photo was funny, as was what appeared to be a candid shot between poses of the young girl and the baby, with the young girl looking cranky.

The rest were varying grades of disturbing.

Particularly one photo of the father lying on his side on top of hay bales, seductively eyeing the camera, evoking the famous Joe Namath nude photo from “Playgirl.”

The mother’s hands were full during this photo session – in each hand she held a hollowed-out top of a small pumpkin, one clutched over each breast.

So many questions came to mind as I reviewed the photos. “Why?” was the least among them. For instance:

The pumpkin leg holes are clearly oversized, so did these people take off the pumpkins after each photo, move to the next place, put them back on and pose? Or did they grab their pumpkin-pants with both hands and waddle over?

Whichever way they did it, who helped the mother keep herself covered? She has only two hands, but alone in the family she requires three pumpkins for each shot.

Did they let the pumpkins dry out before wearing them?

Did they wear underwear?

If not, does pumpkin chafe?

Are they the only people who have worn these pumpkins, or are there more photos like this of other people who at least had the sense not to post them publicly to be shared around the world?

If anyone else wore these pumpkins, did they have to be sanitized before the next family arrived?

How much money would it take for me to get naked and wear a pumpkin?

What would my wife do if she came home and found me in the foyer wearing nothing but a pumpkin and smile?

Actually I ran that last one by my wife, with just a little hope that maybe some fun and games would be in our future.

Instead, she said, “All I can think about is the awful smell of pumpkin! I’m glad I didn’t see those pictures.”

I’m a little tempted to try to get answers to some of the other questions myself, but I’m afraid I’d smell like pumpkin for the rest of the day and my wife would make me sit outside, drawing fruit flies and frightening the neighbors.

Young life unfolds in essays

While clearing out emails about a week ago, most of them spam, an unexpected name popped up.

It was a young cousin – very young, a high school senior, making her about 37 years my junior. I had seen her in person perhaps 10 times since she was born, and other than exchanging “hi,” I’m not sure we ever spoke. She and the other cousins about her age popped into the room, awkwardly said their hellos and ran outside to play. I knew her primarily as a young girl, and now a young woman, with movie-star good looks in her mother’s photos on Facebook.

She emailed to ask me to review the drafts of her college application essays and make suggestions. I had done the same for her older brother a couple of years ago.

The experience was not quite like reading a young woman’s personal journal, but her conversational writing style felt almost like hearing her speak, and the essays in many ways fleshed out a picture of someone I would not have recognized as matching the Facebook photos.

This beautiful, dainty-looking girl turns out to love power tools and construction, things she was introduced to on church youth group mission trips.

“I happened to have a knack for the power tools!” she wrote. “I became proficient in using the table saw, circular saw, nail gun, and my personal favorite, the chop saw.”

I pictured her in goggles, heavy gloves and a hard hat, her blonde hair tied up tight in the back while she – petite and thin, perhaps weighing 100 pounds, perhaps not – wields a nail gun.

On one mission trip to Laredo, Texas, she chose to work outside on construction with the boys, the only girl not to choose indoor work teaching Vacation Bible School. Outdoors, in summer heat reaching over 100 degrees, her group nailed siding to a building and drilled a new well.

Now I added to my mental picture dirt streaks on her cheeks and sweat soaking her shirt and hair. Such a different look than I saw on Facebook last spring, when her mother showed off her prom dress.

Her construction work on mission trips got her interested in taking drafting classes in high school. She took all three that her school offered – the only girl in all three classes. Before long she realized she knew about as much about construction and drafting as the boys. She also experienced the sexism that women in a man’s world so easily still find.

Further running counter to all the girly images from Facebook, I learned she has been working as an intern at a veterinary hospital. But this is no pet-the-kitties gig.

“I have learned how to squeeze anal glands, conduct heartworm tests, analyze fecal samples, etc.,” she wrote, and now I may never be able to unsee the mental pictures that sentence brought to mind. “In addition to this, I have gotten to watch surgeries, including spays and neuters.”

Of course, what these essays really showed me was a series of snapshots of the blossoming of a soon-to-be-adult, full of complexities and experiences that defy your expectations. She’s not fully there yet, but she’s well on the way.

I recently read the most thoroughly detailed proposal I had ever seen for ensuring that local journalism survives the audience disruption and advertising decline created by the rapid growth of the internet.

It came under the sure-to-be-recipient of the Worst Headline of the Year Award on an article on the website of the journalism-research-oriented Poynter Institute: “Academics craft a plan to infuse billions into journalism: Give every American $50 to donate to news orgs.”

Least among my complaints is the use of the term “orgs” instead of organizations. The headline is already longer than the Amazon River, and the place the writer decides to economize is the last word?

Anyway, quickly: Horrible idea.

If you want the details, this is the idea, developed by a panel led by Guy Rolnik of the Stigler Center of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business: There would be a checkoff on your income tax form, much like the current federal checkoff for election funds and the state checkoff for wildlife conservation projects, and $50 is either added to your tax bill or deducted from your refund to go to news organizations that you choose.

The report estimates that this structure could raise $13 billion to help ensure the continuation of “accountability and investigative journalism,” which it justifiably calls vital to an informed electorate and a functioning democracy.

I think that number is way high. The report posits that there are 260 million adults who would pay the $50 each, but the Tax Foundation says that in 2018 there were fewer than 141 million taxpayers, which would yield about $7 billion.

Regardless of the figure, the proposal has significant problems.

First problem: Even if the tax form is electronic, there is no practical way to list every news outlet in the entire country, and if there were, no one would read the full list. The choice or choices would be whatever news outlets come to mind quickly.

The panel’s report does not address the issue of whether a selection of news outlets would be presented to the taxpayer or it would simply be a fill-in-the-blank process. If it’s the latter, Fox News, MSNBC and NPR would do well. The News-Topic? Probably not.

That almost certainly means the money that any newspaper would get would come from people who already buy the paper. If you buy only the Sunday paper but get it every week, you already are paying the News-Topic $104 a year. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt that those who don’t buy the paper at all would like to send us $50.

The report addresses the issue of a few large, popular organizations getting the lion’s share of designations: No organization would be able to receive more than 1 percent of the total amount to be allocated. All money that taxpayers designate for those outlets already getting 1 percent would go to other outlets, more or less proportionally according to everyone else’s selections – although if 75 percent of all choices made were organizations that have already maxed out, putting the majority of the money to 25 percent of the choices doesn’t sound like it can be proportional.

That also sounds pretty complicated.

You might ask, what if most people don’t make any selection at all?

The report says the money would get allocated anyway, divided according to the choices of those who filled in the blank, subject again to that 1 percent limit.

So, you hate the media and don’t want to fund it at all? Tough, you have to.

Which brings me to another problem: Who would be eligible to receive the money? Does Infowars.com count as a news site? Most people don’t think so, but some people do. The president and at least some of his supporters, on the other hand, would say CNN shouldn’t be eligible.

The report says an independent panel would decide who qualifies to receive money:

“Key is the independence of this body; we believe that it should include representatives of journalists and of media owners, as well as scholars.”

Who appoints the panel members? It doesn’t say. One assumes it has to be the government. This is taxpayer money.

Anyone paying attention over the years knows that the “independence” of any body whose members are appointed by politicians is in the eye of the beholder. Regardless of the criteria that are on paper for that body to use, all it would take is one radical change in direction of the administration in control, and many once-qualified news organizations could find themselves on the outs.

This possibility seems to have eluded the report’s writers.

“Any policy to preserve the free press should try to reduce or eliminate the news media’s reliance on politicians, governments, advertisers, large business groups or billionaires,” it says.

The motives behind the report are good – maintaining a functioning democracy, independent watchdogs on local government and independent voices.

“Recent events across the Western world have demonstrated the fragility of the liberal democratic order,” the report says in its conclusion, “and we believe that waiting longer to see if market forces alone can maintain the free press in the 21st century may be a risky choice.”

In other words, “Eat your spinach, taxpayer!” You’ll support the local news and like it.

The report notes that, despite research demonstrating the good that local journalism does and the negative effects that follow when local news dries up, “for the most part citizens are not willing to pay for this public good,” which is why it recommends a mandatory funding source.

I’m all for maintaining local news sources. I just have trouble endorsing something that’s mandatory and ultimately controlled by the government in the name of saving democracy.

“When John Smith stopped at the convenience store with two friends, he never thought he’d be hit with a rock.”

That’s a type of lead I try to beat out of reporters (figuratively) early on. It reminds me of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch. It is never news that someone never expected the unexpected. That’s why it’s unexpected. “NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!” If that’s the best you’ve got, you don’t have a story. And it’s never the best you’ve got.

The true news would be if he had a suspicion he was going to be hit with a rock but went to the store anyway. That would be a story.

Same story, another bad practice: The first quote in the story is not from John Smith. John Smith is the only person named so far. Who is it then? What voice should the reader hear? The reader doesn’t know until two sentences into the quote. Oh, it’s John Smith’s wife. Now the reader goes back (if the writer is lucky) and re-reads the quote now that there is context and at least the mental version of a voice to go with the words; it’s a woman’s voice, someone close to John Smith. (If the writer is not lucky, the reader gives up on the story and moves on. Every time you present a bump in the road to reading comprehension, you set up an off-ramp where the reader can veer away from your story.)