Archive for December, 2013

The past year has been a whirlwind.

I’m three weeks away from the anniversary of my arrival in Lenoir. By Jan. 21 I will have been working here four months longer than I did when this place gave me my first reporting job in 1987-88.

The change in my working life from 2012 to 2013 is reflected in part by what you don’t see. Before, I blogged an average of several times a week about news issues, new media and social media. In large part, that reflected my job at Media General – part of my role to was to track trends on things like that and point our newsrooms to what other news organizations were doing.

During 2013, WordPress tells me, my posting dropped to an average of two or three times a month.

Mostly that’s the result of the time-consuming role of running a small, resource-starved newsroom. At a place this small, the editor is not just the editor; he (or she) is also a reporter, tech support, obit clerk, calendar editor, photo editor, editorial page editor and sometimes handyman. If you want your reporters to be reporters, you have little choice but to sweep up those other roles.

Among my frustrations from my job hunt was that editors and publishers often seemed to think my time in the corporate news division of Media General actually was a detour out of news, that the 11-plus years there could only have dulled my instincts for supervising reporters or my willingness to pull long hours. My publisher here would say otherwise.

But one thing I can credit to my time in Media General is learning, by observing nearly two dozen newsrooms, from weeklies up to metro dailies, that when the resources are cut, you have to let something go. I had seen many examples of editors trying to keep doing the same with less. As busy as I am, I could be busier if I weren’t willing to embrace what’s “good enough” and move on to the next battle.

Which brings me to another change in my blog posts. In general, my posts now most often address what confronts me as the editor of a small-town newspaper, or they are personal observances. I haven’t taken time to rethink the “About” portion of the blog, so I blog less.

My main challenge during 2013 was setting expectations for the staff: The main point isn’t to fulfill a byline count but to make sure what you do is interesting to the reader. That has meant shooting down stories that the paper might have done before and sending others back for more work. It has meant learning to use social media to draw attention to stories since fewer people subscribe. We’ve begun getting a little video in as extras, but the emphasis has stayed on the writing.

The staff is smaller than it was in mid-2012, but this paper is better written now, I think it’s more interesting, and the number of local news items in print is about the same.

I could be wrong about our performance. We didn’t do well in the state press awards, and home subscriptions continue their years-long slide (though the most common reason given for canceling is free news online). But single-copy sales are stronger.

My biggest frustrations are things that are out of my control: the budget, and the ability of a paper this size, in this kind of market, to appeal to young talent.

In those, I am sure, I have plenty of company.

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Santa letter
Santa may be coming on Tuesday night with a sleigh loaded down with toys, but he’s leaving with enough cookies and milk to choke the U.S. Army, if the letters to Santa printed in my newspaper’s special section this weekend are any indication.

(I was able to get an early peek because one of the little-known duties of local newspaper editors is to serve as a temp administrative assistant for Santa, sorting his mail and typing.)

Most everyone plans to leave out cookies and milk, kind of a quid pro quo: Here are all the toys I want, and since you do such a good job there’s a little something extra that will be waiting for you by the tree.

Except one kid who was going to leave out some cheesecake. Santa probably appreciates a break from all the cookies and milk (one child said he was leaving out some water because he thinks Santa doesn’t like milk – and after the first few hundred gallons, he probably doesn’t).

If you don’t have young children, the letters give you a glimpse into a world you didn’t know existed: the world of what children in 2013 play with. Ever hear of Lalaloopsy dolls? I hadn’t, but they appear to be THE thing for many girls – almost as big a deal as Monster High dolls, which I would have assumed were based on a cartoon, but Wikipedia says I’m mistaken: “The characters are inspired by monster movies, sci-fi horror, thriller fiction, and various demons therefore distinguishing them from most fashion dolls.”

Skimming through the letters, you see a lot of things multiple times. The iPod, iPad and iPhone, for instance, all come in for repeat mentions.

Every now and then, though, something pops out: “I would like a castle and a jail.”

That’s all, just a castle and jail. Everyone knows Santa can read children’s minds, so he’ll know what that means, but I can’t shake the image of a 4-year-old boy in a stone fortress ordering his guards to toss his older siblings into his private dungeon.

“I would want two coloring books for my brother and sister. And two big Christmas hats. And three medium hats.”

Somebody really likes hats.

Another thing the kids say is how good they have been this year. Most of them say that. Some toss in qualifiers:

“I’ve been very good cause I didnt do nothing.”

“I been good this week.”

“I think I have been pretty good this year. Last year I deserved coal for being bad.”

“I was gonna be a good boy but I dont know what happened.”

One turned the issue around: “Hey Santa, have I been a good boy?”

A few slipped in what I took to be pleas for justice that the children feel is not being adequately dispensed at home:

“I have already written what I want so can you please get my mom some earrings and my brother dustin some coal and he is sixteen!”

“I been good this year my brother has not been good.”

“I’ve been very good but Isaiah aint.”

I haven’t written to Santa in something like 45 years, but all together, the letters inspired me.

Dear Santa,

I have pretty much everything I really need already, but there is one thing I really want for Christmas this year, and you wouldn’t even have to leave it at my house. What I really want is a solution to the news industry’s declining revenue. I know that I haven’t always been good this year, but surely somewhere in the country is a journalist who has been good all year and deserves to have this solution first. … Well, maybe that’s expecting too much.

In that case, could you just send me an easygoing billionaire who likes reading and will buy my newspaper and let me hire another 10 or 12 reporters?

If not that, then at least how about some nice hats?

Thank you, Santa. I know you’ll do your best. I don’t have any cookies in the house, but there’s beer in the fridge.



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Paywall? What paywall?

I had forgotten that back in February I wrote a post about my new employer having a paywall going up as of April 1. If you have visited newstopic.net, you may have noticed there is no paywall. Don’t get my publisher started on the subject. This has been another episode you can file under “Tech companies always overpromise and underdeliver.” (Although who knew that paywall technology was something that took many months to implement?) We have a pool going among managers in the office on when the paywall will go up. We made the bets in the summer, and the most optimistic among us already have lost. I still expect to win: I bet on March 2014.

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