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Archive for the ‘Print media’ Category

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.

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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.

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Thank your teachers

This is adapted from a column that ran in the Lenoir News-Topic.

My mother was a newspaper reporter, but she’s not the person who was the biggest catalyst in my decision to become a writer.

For a large chunk of my childhood, I intended to become an artist.

When I entered high school, art was still the only thing I had considered pursuing. My mother encouraged me and, trying to help me find a way to make a living at it, even took me to see what commercial artists do.

I drew all the time — when I wasn’t reading comic books or science fiction novels. (I was a nerd. Shocking, I know.)

During my freshman year of high school, I read a novel by a retired general speculating how World War III would start and be conducted, and I wrote a book review on it and left it with the English teacher who was the faculty adviser for the school paper.

The next time I entered her room, she made a bee line for me. I have a clear memory of her locking eyes with me and crossing straight to me, complimenting my writing and encouraging me to submit more writing for the paper. I did. I started with more book reviews, and over time mostly I wrote humor columns, but I did some feature stories, and eventually I signed up to be the school’s teen correspondent for a monthly citywide special section of high school news that the local newspaper published.

By my senior year, I was the editor of the school paper, and my focus had shifted entirely to studying journalism in college and becoming a reporter.

Believe it or not, my mother wasn’t necessarily happy with this change. She told me, “You will never have any money,” because reporters were not paid well. (Some things never change.) But I couldn’t be dissuaded.

I might have become a writer without that teacher’s encouragement, but she certainly nursed the writer that I didn’t yet know was inside of me.

That teacher’s name was Kathy Kochevar. We called her Miss K.

Writing about it now, I wish someone had prompted me at some point over the years to let her know all of this.

There are many other teachers who stand out in my memories.

There’s Mr. Curran, the geometry teacher, whose lessons were punctuated with a superhero he invented: Bisectorman, the Winged Avenger of Angles.

There’s Mrs. Burgess, who taught Spanish II and III and provided great leeway for my sense of humor in my homework. For instance, for an assignment requiring us to submit a list of sentences that demonstrated the proper conjugation of a variety of verbs, I submitted sentences saying such things as, “The river of hamburgers is yellow,” and, “Put it in my eye!” For another assignment requiring two-person teams to write an entire narrative and read it to the class, a friend and I wrote a “Dick and Jane” story in which Spot eventually went on a rampage, killed Dick and Jane, became radioactive, grew to enormous size and destroyed a city. (We got an A and were asked to recite our story for the advanced class.)

Many students feel deeply affected by particular teachers, and in my newspaper in Lenoir I asked for students, parents, graduates, volunteers or anyone else to write in about great teachers and what they have done.

I also will try to get this column to Miss (probably now Mrs.) K.

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Reading is vital to the development of the human brain, but how we read – whether we read words printed on paper or words lit electronically on a digital device – may be more important still. The question is whether you should find that chilling.

Maryanne Wolfe, a professor in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, recently wrote in an article for The Guardian – “Skim reading is the new normal. The effect on society is profound” – about research by her and others that has disturbing implications for the ability of people to comprehend what they are reading, to think critically and to act rationally.

“My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight,” Wolf wrote. “Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential ‘deep reading’ processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.”

Why should it make such a difference whether you are holding a paper book and turning physical pages rather than holding a Kindle and swiping left?

In part, Wolfe wrote, some research suggests that the physical sense of holding a book or newspaper and turning a physical page adds a spatial sense that helps the brain file the information away.

Other research suggests that it may be related to what paper does NOT do: enable you to stop reading and check Facebook, or text messages, or Twitter, or anything else you can do on an internet-connected device. Such multi-tasking trains the brain’s “reading circuit” how to behave, Wolf wrote.

“If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit. As UCLA psychologist Patricia Greenfield writes, the result is that less attention and time will be allocated to slower, time-demanding deep reading processes, like inference, critical analysis and empathy, all of which are indispensable to learning at any age,” she wrote.

This has enormous implications for what people will and won’t be able to do in all spheres of life – at school, at work, in personal interactions, in daily life. As Wolf wrote, people become impatient for quick bites of information and can’t devote the time it takes to understand something complex – including not just literature but such things as wills and contracts.

More disturbing, think of what this means for our ability to maintain a unified and relatively civil society. Consider all we know now about disinformation campaigns on social media. How much worse could things be as the ability to critically analyze information becomes increasingly rare?

“The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery,” Wolfe wrote.

Despite all that, Wolfe sounded a hopeful note: “There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice.”

Cynical journalist that I am, though, I can’t help but see Wolf’s article through the lens of how the innovations of the digital revolution have disrupted my own industry and left it perhaps permanently diminished. My reading brain lingers on this passage:

“As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating.”

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Journalists think journalism is the main point of “The Post.” It seemed kind of secondary to me when I saw the movie earlier this week.

The movie is about events surrounding the publication of what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers, a secret, Pentagon-compiled history of the conflict in Vietnam – which predated the U.S. troop presence there, with U.S. involvement stemming from decisions made during the Truman administration. That history catalogued decades of lies that the U.S. government told the public about what it was doing in Vietnam and how successful those efforts were.

The New York Times obtained that history and found itself in the legal crosshairs of the Nixon administration after it began publishing stories detailing the lies.

The movie, though, is about what key figures at the Washington Post did after that.

Some, including journalists at the Times, complain that the movie should have focused on the Times and how it got the papers. But the movie doesn’t focus on the journalism surrounding the Pentagon Papers. There would be good drama to be found there, but that’s not what this story is.

The primary story “The Post” tells is that of Katharine Graham, her struggle to grow into the role of publisher and the decisions she had to make that could have destroyed her and, perhaps most significantly in her mind, her children’s inheritance.

The movie takes some license with the reality of Graham, portraying her as a much more fragile person than she was, and also with the reality of how extensive the pushback was against publishing the story, so the situation portrayed is largely accurate, but the drama is ramped up markedly — as often happens with movies.

If this is a movie primarily about journalism, then why is there so little actual journalism portrayed? The initial act that led to the Pentagon Papers coming into the Times’ possession is portrayed as that of a whistleblower, with no involvement of any journalist — the movie viewer doesn’t even know, at that point, where the documents land. Later, the Post reporter Ben Bagdikian is shown tracking down the whistleblower, but there is less of him in the movie than Graham as either the lone woman in a room full of male bankers and lawyers or the lone businesswoman in a room full of housewives or secretaries.

Time after time, there are scenes contrasting Graham’s roles – the socialite, publisher’s wife role into which she was raised, and the business owner/publisher role into which she was thrust. The scenes illustrate the man’s world of 1971, where a woman making important decisions was treated by men like, to borrow a phrase of Graham’s from one scene, the sight of a dog walking upright.

And other than the scene of the socialite housewives, in all the other scenes the woman all are young. They are the next generation. They are the ones following, looking to the example of Graham’s generation of women.

To be sure, this is a movie partly about journalism as a necessary means of holding government accountable – thus director Steven Spielberg’s emphasis on a key part of the Supreme Court decision: “In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

But if this is not a movie primarily about Graham, why so much emphasis on scenes where Graham is an object of obvious veneration by young women? This happens in crowds of women twice, and both times the young women part for her like the Red Sea for Moses, all of the young women gazing upon her in open admiration, and it happens once with a young woman working for the U.S. attorney general. The movie hammers the point, as Spielberg movies tend to do with their points, that Graham was a trailblazer for women.

And as if to further drive home the point for all of the men who still think it’s a story about journalism, Spielberg has editor Ben Bradlee’s wife explain to Bradlee why Graham had the most to lose and showed the greatest bravery. Bradlee does not argue with her.

So, for the question, why does the movie focus on the Post rather than the Times? Precisely because Graham found herself in a crucible like no one else did (or at least, since in reality it all happened so quickly that she didn’t have time to agonize over the decision, Graham’s situation posed for the movie makers an irresistible potential for a crucible). That her crucible was a key moment in journalistic history would be beside the point if there were not powerful people who today believe the government should control what the media can publish.

This is a movie about women, and more than anything else this is a movie made for this new “Year of the Woman.”

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NOTE: One thing I’ve not read about “The Post,” anywhere: If the Post had only 4,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers, as stated in the movie, there’s no way it would fill two giant boxes, not unless paper in 1971 was many times thicker than it is now. Pick up a ream (500 pages) of paper. You are talking 8 of those. That’s less than one box.

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I am not at all sure what to think of the announcement that McClatchy is changing its leadership structure and appointing regional editors, including one over its properties in North and South Carolina, with the goal of speeding newsroom innovation.

Mainly that’s because of the emphasis in the Raleigh News & Observer story on one particular quote in the company’s announcement:

“Our current system, with each newsroom operating separately from the others, discourages cooperation in favor of competition and duplication,” the company said in announcing the changes. “By working together, we will marshal all the resources and talents and expertise from each region, and across the company, to produce local journalism that is ever more essential to the communities we serve.”

Any veteran of the former Media General newspapers, among some others, would recognize that description of working together to marshal regional resources and talent. Such a thing used to be called synergy. It’s hardly a new concept, and the word hasn’t been in favor for at least 10 years. Even if that’s what was being described, McClatchy officials doubtless would dismiss the suggestion that it’s what was intended because it wouldn’t sit well with investors to revive a term that no one uses anymore.

Time will tell what McClatchy’s intent actually is, but I am hard-pressed to reconcile the talk of “competition and duplication” among its N.C. and S.C. properties with the company’s footprint. There aren’t that many properties, they don’t have that much overlap, and McClatchy already combined its page design and state capital reporting operations, or at least announced it had. Are the newsrooms still, to this day, so resistant to the idea of working together that management had to be shoved aside and new blood brought in? Or is the emphasis on that one paragraph misplaced — bad reporting? Or is it company misdirection?

It was just a few months ago that Poynter reported on McClatchy’s “reinvention teams,” which the company said at the time were “picking up the pace” of innovation.

But that’s what the new regional editors are supposed to do.

It’s hard to know where things are really going. I look forward to seeing what happens.

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I regret to inform all my friends in news, and family so inclined, that whatever soul I had left is gone. Starting Jan. 1 I will be the publisher of the Lenoir News-Topic.

At a company announcement, an editor friend said, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

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