Archive for June, 2013

I want to thank writer Julian Turner for helping not just me but any Lenoir-area work supervisor who sometimes has to place help-wanted ads.

It can be agonizing to come up with the correct wording that both sounds enticing and doesn’t oversell the job or the community.

But Turner, in a business story he wrote for the New Statesman magazine, “How Google is changing small-town America,” provided the perfect words to form the heart of a pitch.

For instance: “Nestled in the shadow of the iconic Blue Ridge mountains is the unassuming backwater of Lenoir, North Carolina.”

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. It sounds a little condescending. But if you analyze the language, it changes your perspective.

Take “backwater.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “water backed up in its course by an obstruction, an opposing current, or the tide,” or else, “a body of water (as an inlet or tributary) that is out of the main current of a larger body.”

Symbolically, Lenoir is a little backed up by an obstruction, otherwise known as the economy. And if you have ever had to bring a job candidate here, it’s hard to deny that we’re a little “out of the main current” of travel.

Besides, backwaters are quiet and tranquil. They gurgle instead of rush. Their gentleness eases your mind. Backwaters are where you find the great blue heron slowly hunting in the grasses. They are where you paddle a canoe lazily and watch for red-shouldered blackbirds stirring in the otherwise still brush nearby.

So “backwater,” though usually used as a pejorative, has some positive connotations, properly defined.

And look on the bright side: He didn’t say “jerkwater,” a term for a place that’s remote and unimportant or trivial. To not be unimportant implies that in some ways you must be important.

Worse still would have been a word such as used in the overwrought opening of Turner’s story, which referred to a fictional Texas town as “flyblown,” a word meaning covered in fly eggs (or maggots).

Not only could backwater be taken as an accurate if sometimes uncomfortable description, he modified that noun with “unassuming,” which the dictionary says is a fancier term for “modest.” That’s a compliment. To be unassuming or modest means the town doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, the people are polite and welcoming, not prideful and off-putting.

To be “assuming” or immodest would mean we’re putting on airs, getting above our raising or being boastful, even brazen. “Immodest” used to be one of the euphemisms used in polite company for a young woman who bared too much of her body as though it were for sale; in impolite company the word used might have been “trollop.” A trollop of a town would be showy, shiny, brassy, loud, painted up and dressed down, in a hurry for action and with a lust for money.

No, if I have a complaint with Mr. Turner’s phrasing, it’s that it’s hackneyed, redundant and cliché. If you tell me a place is a backwater, am I going to envision a mini Las Vegas strip? A downtown filled with gilded 20-story buildings? No. I’m going to assume it’s unassuming. That’s why it’s a backwater.

The article essentially is an over-intellectualized journal entry about the pace of change and what that is doing to small towns. In his very first sentence, Turner uses “elegiac,” meaning “expressing sorrow, often for something now past.” It’s a word I would rather writers not use if they want to be understood, since most folks have to look it up, but it certainly applies to how many residents feel about what the economy has done to this area’s major employers.

Turner concludes: “Google is … transforming the town of Lenoir into a living monument to the accelerated pace of technological change that has characterized post-war American life and industry.”

Well, maybe.

That change is happening everywhere, backwaters and main currents alike. I saw it in Richmond too – it even took my job.

Maybe it’s just more noticeable here because the waters are still enough that you can see what’s changing.

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I was exasperated the other day at the latest entry in the “No, come on, what is Warren Buffet really up to?” genre of columns. There are two things these things seem to have in common: One, the writers all believe Buffett is a genius who can’t make a bad call; two, they think that he can’t possibly be telling the whole truth about why he is buying newspapers. I am not remotely qualified to judge the first, but I’m willing to bet he’s telling the truth about his newspaper plans, which is merely that he wants them run prudently and well, and he thinks that under the right conditions, considering the markets they are in, they will be profitable quite a while. That seems to meet with a lot of skepticism. I certainly was among the skeptics, but since going to work in January in the kind of market Buffett seems to favor, my perspective is changing, at least some.

There’s a saying in medicine, “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” It’s the Occam’s Razor principle: When multiple explanations are available, the simplest version is preferred. In other words, I think too many people are overthinking this situation and skipping the simple answer. When people look at the papers Buffett has bought and notice that most of them are in North Carolina and Virginia, and deduce from that some kind of grand plan, I have to shake my head. When he bought Virginia-based Media General’s newspapers in 2012, that accounted for all but two of his current NC/Va papers, and those other two (Greensboro and Roanoke) came from one Virginia-based company, Landmark, this year. Essentially that’s two points (MG and Landmark) on a graph. But before buying MG he bought Omaha in 2011, and after buying the MG papers he bought two in Texas (Waco and College Station). And before he bought Omaha, he owned only Buffalo. Plot all those points on a graph and it’s not as tidy.

One argument that has been made is that with all of those papers in a relatively tight geographic area, there’s potential for pooling resources and eliminating duplicate costs. Indeed. Or, indeed there used to be. MG and Landmark each did quite a bit of that; putting the two groups together will allow a bit more, but I would bet not a huge amount. And on the news side, I can say as one of the two people who had been at MG in charge of encouraging the sharing of news resources and responsibilities, those who bet for moves on that front again are ignoring what Buffett has said. Editors are reluctant to give up control of their own resources, or to turn over traditional areas of coverage to other publications, even within the same company, or even just to stop doing things that duplicate what sister newspapers are doing if they view the topic being duplicated as important to them. It can be done — see what Digital First Media is doing — but to make that part of the company strategy would go against Buffett’s stated intention of letting editors run their newsrooms independently, without central direction of what their coverage should be.

With all of the above rolling around in my head, this morning Steve Buttry pointed to a column about a parallel situation of basic psychology. In the column Are you mad at me? Adam Bryant talks about how people are constantly reading their bosses, often reading too much into little things and misinterpreting the situation. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing going on in the news business with Buffett. He’s not the boss of most of us, but in a way — he has the money and he’s calling the shots, at a time when no one else seems willing to — he really is.

But I’m going to treat Buffett the way I wish my employees would treat me: I’m taking him at his word.

So, are you willing to say Warren Buffett is a big, fat liar?

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