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Archive for January, 2013

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If you had told me I’d be back editing the Lenoir News-Topic 25 years after I left, I would have laughed. It’s not the direction I saw my career going. But Warren Buffett intervened, and in the process of saving modern journalism (if that didn’t sound sarcastic in your head, you have to read it over again) he put me and 104 other people out of jobs. Long story short, here I am, and here, in the Jan. 27 News-Topic, I make my version of Charles Foster Kane’s “declaration of principles.” If you don’t want to follow the link, here’s a summary:

I want to get the website into the 21st century, and with any luck not too long after that it might actually catch up to the current date.

I want to get the staff engaged online with the audience. In a small town, that may be a little bit redundant, but the early returns on our very embryonic start look good.

But mostly, with two new hires — one made, one in process — I’m putting good writing front and center in my reclamation project. I’ve long maintained and made the argument that in the long run, as more and more data and nuggets of information can be found for free online, good writing and creativity can make a site stand out and get readers to keep coming back. Now, in a small way, I have a chance to try it myself.

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This week I began work at the Lenoir (N.C.) News-Topic. I had hoped to remain pretty close to Richmond, Va. This is definitely not that. It’s a six-hour drive, counting bathroom and food breaks. The money isn’t great. But I have an editor’s publisher, and in my experience those are pretty rare.

The News-Topic happens to be the place where I got my first reporting job, in 1987. In fact, when I interviewed for the editor’s job in December, I was appalled to see that the newsroom desks and partitions were the same ones that the New York Times had put in place after buying the paper in 1982. (The current owner is Paxton.) We now are gradually replacing them with new desks. (Cheap ones,but new.) The editor’s desk, however, will remain. I had thought that the desk predated the New York Times’ ownership because it appeared to be a solid, oak desk of spartan, utilitarian design — but I just noticed a couple of places where the oak veneer is chipped off, revealing a pressed-fiber interior. It may still date back to before 1982, but it also may just have lived a rough life.

I was hired here just in time to get the final say on the finalists for one reporting job. One candidate’s writing was at a different level of the atmosphere, and I’m happy to say she will start here in a little more than a week. I just learned that I’ll soon have another hire to make. This is a big deal. This paper is so small that I will have had the chance to hire two-thirds of my news reporters. It’s a little exciting. The staff is about half the size it was when I worked here 25 years ago. It’s so small, I don’t have great hope of ever being able to cover nearly all the ground we once did. Some editors I respect say that a key to driving readership in a small town is getting all the public records you can. I know such things gain readership, but I’m not so sure how heavy I want to push them all to focus on that. I could have all of them chase public records and whatnot until they drop dead, but that doesn’t seem like much fun — for them, me or especially for the readers on days when the records didn’t hold much of interest. And I remember from my first time here, the job was fun. What I really want to do is get some really good writing in the paper.

I may yet be proven wrong, but as the newest captain of this dinky little ship, that’s the course I’ve set. How excited am I? Here’s the ad I’ve placed to fill that job:

New editor remaking a paper in a small, quirky town in the Appalachian foothills seeks an experienced writer who can be a watchdog, likes traveling country roads in search of stories and plays well with a close team of storytellers. On any given day you may cover a government meeting, run out to a fire, spend a couple of hours on a feature, and/or wander the nearby mountains for a day-trip travel story. Part of your day is shaped by events; part of your day is shaped by your interests. Characters please apply, but do it with style (and grammar). A good writer in a big town is a still, small voice, but in a small town that voice thunders in the night. A good writer in a big town is a watchdog, but in a small town that watchdog is the only one howling against the wolves. This is the ideal opportunity for a writer who wants to dip a toe in management to see how that water feels – everyone is in the order of succession, so you learn fast. Send cover letter, résumé and whatever you feel shows you at your best to Guy Lucas at guylucas@newstopic.net or 123 Pennton Ave. NW, Lenoir, NC 28645.

If a low-paying job with long hours in a small town isn’t fun, what the hell is the point of doing it? Why not be a bank teller or something, and get better money for shorter hours? You want to write your ass off, come see me.

On Sunday’s A1, I publish my equivalent to Charles Foster Kane’s “Declaration of Principles” in “Citizen Kane.” I won’t leak the document here first, but I’ll add it here after it’s published.

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Mike Fourcher, a publisher of hyperlocal news sites in Chicago, has written up the things he learned from the experience. It’s instructive, and I particularly recommend that other journalists read it so they better appreciate the economic forces confronting the industry. As Mike notes as his 18th thing he learned, big publications and small publications have the same problems.

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Very funny ad. Nicely done. The setup is that three people each are given a driver for the day, and a newspaper is left in the back seat for the person to read. While the person reads, the car passes various odd sights, and the driver takes off his pants. The reader doesn’t notice because he/she is too engrossed in the paper. That much is true — once you get a person reading, that person’s attention is engaged and isn’t easily pried away. The increasing problem newspapers face, though, is getting people to use the paper instead of their computer or phone, where their attention might be just as focused but the advertising is much less lucrative.

But still, give the ad-makers credit. An A for creativity.

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