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Archive for the ‘Print media’ Category

Bill Tate, Meadowood Studios
One thing that hasn’t changed about newspapers is errors.

On page 1 of the yellowed, disintegrating copy of the Lenoir Topic, one of the weekly predecessors of the News-Topic, donated by Frank Coffey and recently posted by Bill Tate on the “Lenoir and Caldwell County History” Facebook page, the paper’s publication date appears as Wednesday, Sept. 6, 1905, but on page 2 it says Wednesday, Aug. 30, 1905.

That makes me feel better about the much more recent times the News-Topic has carried the wrong day, date or both.

Nothing on the 1905 front page was about anything in Caldwell County, except for all of the local ads – and there were quite a few. One was a long, text ad for Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, a pill that supposedly protected you against germs:

“It increases the vital power, cleanses the system of clogging impurities, enriches the blood, puts the stomach and organs of digestion and nutrition in working condition, so that the germ finds no weak or tainted spot in which to break. … Only one or two a day will regulate and cleanse and invigorate a bad Stomach, torpid Liver, or sluggish Bowels.”

That was just one of many ads throughout the paper for “cures” of various kinds — Cuticura Soap, Ointment and Pills, Mozley’s Lemon Elixir (another for “torpid liver”), Dyspepsia by Crab Orchard Water, Cascarets Candy Cathartic (for your bowels, “They work while you sleep”), Sloan’s Liniment and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, which pitched itself exclusively to women starting with the headline, “STOP, WOMAN!” by promising confidential advice by mail for health issues that women would not feel comfortable confiding to male doctors.

Page 2 carried in the top left corner, under the incorrect date, two important items of information: The subscription cost, $1 a year, and the Topic’s telephone number, 7.

Page 2 also carried a mix of news, from the newly brokered peace treaty between Russia and Japan to the General Assembly passing a measure for a referendum in Lenoir on issuing $50,000 in bonds for streets, sidewalks, sewer lines or an electrical plant.

Page 3 started with the heading “OF LOCAL INTEREST” and listed people who had been somewhere or were on their way:

“Mrs. Harper Beall has returned from a visit to Chester S.C.

“R.A. Ramseur has been on a trip to Mitchell.

“Carroll Rapp went to Guilford College Monday.

“Mr. J. Gorden Ballew returned to Baltimore last Friday.”

Farther down, under the headline “Sweet Girl Freshmen and Sophomores,” was a short paragraph:

“It was a sad pity that the Topic reporter belongs to the wrong ‘sect’ (to quote Samantha) Tuesday, for a whole carload of sweetness came up billed for Davenport College. It sho’ was a pretty sight to behold all those nice girls at once. The conductor did look so happy.”

Under that was the news of “the terrible damage done by a mad dog” rampaging from Lenoir to Patterson, which was finally shot and killed under the Crisp, Cilly & Co. store in Patterson.

With that news was a message issued by Lenoir Mayor Edgar Allan Poe saying that, because no one knew how many other dogs the rabid dog may have bitten, “Notice is hereby given that all dogs found on the streets of Lenoir unmuzzled for the next thirty days will be shot.”

Ads on this page included one for a 12-room house in Granite Falls for sale for $1,000. “We stake our reputation on the assertion that you cannot duplicate this for $1,500.00,” it said.

Page 4 brought more details on the Russia-Japan peace, including a separate wire story on world leaders crediting Teddy Roosevelt with brokering the peace, and a mix of state, national and international wire items, then some “filler” (the news term for short things used to fill inconvenient space), including some one-liners that also appeared as filler on at least one other page in the same issue, such as, “A woman’s idea of heaven is five parts wavy hair and five parts a good figure,” and, “A useful thing about automobiles is all the new cuss words you learn when they won’t work.”

The news largely petered out by page 5, where there was a long piece of fiction, “Luke Hammond, the Miser,” by Prof. William Henry Peck, and other apparently syndicated specialty feature items. One, “With the Funny Fellows,” relayed short, presumably fictitious anecdotes supplied by papers around the country:

“I was surprised,” said the Rev. Mr. Goodman, sternly, “to see you playing golf last Sabbath. I should think you’d do better –”

“Oh!” replied Hardcase, “I usually do. I was in wretched form last Sunday.” – Philadelphia Press.

Page 6 was what we would call today the religion page, with lots of inspirational messages and lines (“You have no right to elect His work if you reject His word”). Curiously, it also was the home to the highest number of “cure” ads.

Page 7 was the business page, aside from a wide column down the left side made up of pseudo-scientific pronouncements, including the headline “Mars Inhabited,” with a short description of what scientists know of Mars “By Camille Flammarion, the Famous Astronomer,” which described a wondrously pleasant climate on Mars and concluded, “We know the globe of Mars perfectly; in fact, far better than the earth.”

Bill said there were a total of only seven pages to be posted. I have yet to figure out how that can be so, since every piece of paper I’ve ever seen from any era has both a front and a back, making two pages. Perhaps that’s one thing about newspapers that has changed.

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Part of me agrees with Teresa Schmedding’s “The news industry can’t cut its way to quality.” After all, I made largely the same point myself in 2012. Schmedding writes about the massive layoff of copy editors at the Bay Area News Group and what it portends for the quality of stories that BANG will be able to produce from here on — and what the likely effect among the reading audience will be:

“When is the last time you paid more for less? Newspapers do not have a monopoly on readers’ eyes. They have a choice, and they’re choosing to not read content they can’t trust because of typos or because it is complete gibberish.”

And she’s right, of course. To a point. I certainly agree that cutting by itself can’t improve the product we are trying to convince people to buy.

My emphasis was different because I focused on the content creators, those who generate the story ideas and/or chase down the stories. People who are not creative or not bright can’t generate interesting stories, so in my view you need to pay enough to get and keep such people. All trends so far seem to show that media employers disagree.

Schmedding’s point is that everyone needs an editor. Even the most creative and intelligent people make mistakes and are blind to their own errors. I am reminded of this constantly at work, most recently this morning as my publisher remarked that in the proof of our big, annual, tourism-focused magazine there were a lot of errors I marked that were in stories I had already edited. “There always are,” I said. The entire reason copy editors are necessary is that all of us are often blind to errors we made.

During my time in the corporate media world, I was surrounded by people with primarily business training. My desk for most of my time in Richmond was alongside desks of accountants. I listened to them talk on the phone to staff at individual newspapers, explaining the rules, and I heard more budget discussions than I could ever wish to for the rest of my life. I understand perfectly well the reaction of cutting — when revenues drop, you cut expenses and seek new ways to raise revenue (I cannot address here whether media companies are adequately trying the latter). That’s why copy editors may be first on the cutting-room floor: A publication HAS to have those who write the stories, because without them there is nothing to edit; so you reduce the editing layer to preserve the content layer, opening the door to more errors in the product.

The ledger-based mindset is reducing not only staff numbers but squeezing pay so that payroll totals are shrinking even when the staff level does not. From that kind of view, it’s positive to maintain staff levels while reducing the cost of that staff.

The idea that any expenses at all need to be protected, even raised, as you cut others is counter-intuitive to this way of thinking. But to me it seems urgent. The smaller you get, the smarter you must be, because there are fewer people making sure all your t’s are crossed and i’s dotted. There are fewer people who know what to do and how to do it, so they ought to be more valuable.

However, the assumption Schmedding and I both make is that there is an audience of sufficient size to support news and that would actually do it if the quality were maintained at a high enough level. Not many local or regional publications have tested this assumption, but the Orange County Register did, to disastrous effect.

Almost every week I receive fresh reminders from current or former subscribers that they do not recognize or appreciate the difference between good work and bad. I get far more complaints when the Sudoku puzzle is left out than when there are grammatical errors in the paper’s lead story. I have been told regularly that the crossword puzzle was the only reason to get the paper.

Those are not the majority, I tell myself, but how can I ever know how many of what is left in our circulation — less than half what it was in the late 1980s — recognize and appreciate it? If I can’t find that, how do I convince the ledger-minders to offer pay to reward work that fosters it?

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During the past nearly 29 years in journalism, I’ve apologized for plenty of errors that appeared in print, most of them my own fault.

One that will forever stick at the top of my memory and still makes me wince was in 1992, when I wrote a story about a court case in Wilkes County, N.C., and not only didn’t spell the assistant district attorney’s name correctly, I called her by the name of a defense attorney I used to write about at my previous job in Florida. My only defense: Both have a first name that starts with B. How do you adequately apologize for that? As soon as I saw it in print I knew it was wrong, but the whole previous evening as I read and re-read the story, I missed it.

During my first few months as editor here in Lenoir in 2013, the News-Topic repeatedly called Lenoir Mayor Joe Gibbons either Joe Gibbs or Bob Gibbons, despite the fact that he clearly is neither a former coach of the Washington Redskins nor his own brother. I edited every one of those stories and never noticed the errors, consumed as I was with things that were not the names of locally known people, so I apologized at a city council meeting, and while he accepted the apology he did not appear amused. Who could blame him? This qualifies as falling under the definition of “getting off on the wrong foot.”

However, while I can say that the headline that appeared at the top of the News-Topic’s sports page last Sunday was fairly egregious, and I wish it had never happened, I can’t apologize for it, as at least one reader has demanded.

The headline was on an Associated Press story about the North Carolina Tar Heels defeating the Indiana Hoosiers in the NCAA Tournament, but it got the teams reversed: “Indiana beats N.C., 101-86, in Sweet 16.”

Now, as a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I maintain there are actually two errors in that headline, because you can abbreviate the school’s name as UNC, Tar Heels or, if pressed for space, just Heels, but never N.C. That particular error, however, has drawn no one’s notice.

As soon as I saw the headline, I guessed what had happened, and I was correct. The copy desk was short-staffed in both news and sports, and on deadline a page designer who didn’t usually handle sports was pressed into service and while juggling multiple pages and trying to move on to the next deadline got the score right but reversed the order of the teams, even though the story under the headline was correct.

Such things are supposed to be caught in the proofreading stage, but no matter how apparent an error is, your brain sometimes makes you see something you want to see instead of what’s in front of you, especially when you are in a hurry. That’s how the East Oregonian, the newspaper in Pendleton, Oregon, ran a sports headline last June declaring, “Amphibious pitcher makes debut,” on a story about Pat Venditte, a relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s who actually is ambidextrous, meaning he can pitch with either hand, not amphibious, meaning he can live both on land and in water.

I have no hesitation about running corrections on factual errors that could cause harm/insult or embarrassment or confusion, but no one seemed confused by the “Indiana beats N.C.” headline — we got tons of phone calls telling us it was wrong. The only people embarrassed were the ones who work at the News-Topic. That leaves harm, so I’ll make this pledge:

If UNC Coach Roy Williams has been collecting newspaper headlines to paper his office with, and our bad headline left a gap that has him lying awake at night tossing in his bed, or he actually feels harmed, I will drive to Chapel Hill myself and apologize. I’ll even run laps around the Dean Dome.

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There is no Santa Claus. Many people in the news business know that as a literal fact, but they still believe there may be a kind of Santa Claus who will step into their lives. If they did not, we would not have stories such as this, from Nieman Lab this time, wondering what in the world Warren Buffett (or replace his name with your favorite media-owning billionaire) has in mind for his newspaper(s). The article by Joshua Benton wonders what might be read into the absence of tea leaves about newspapers in Buffett’s most recent letter to shareholders.

I’ll tell you what: Nothing.

In 2013, shortly after getting a new job after being laid off from Media General in the wake of Buffett’s purchase of that company’s newspaper assets, I was called by a reporter (perhaps it was Reuters, but I don’t recall for sure) who was working on a story about what Buffett was really after. I told her that from what I saw from the time of the purchase announcement in May 2012 through the transition period until the final cuts that November, you had to take Buffett at his public word — that he thought that prudent, conservative management would keep the papers viable and profitable for some time, but that he had no plans to experiment or try anything that would surprise people.

So far, Buffett’s company has been completely consistent on its management of the company’s newspapers, which is to say conventional. The managers are budget-minded. Papers have to make their “numbers,” above all. Everything has been consistent with what I saw in my brief exposure to that management structure.

So why the never-ending stream of stories wondering what lies over the rainbow, or whether there is a rainbow?

Because people thought Buffett was Santa Claus.

People in news don’t often think of news as a business. It’s a calling. It’s not a way to make money. People take pride that it doesn’t pay well, as people do when they get great satisfaction from a job that doesn’t pay well. It’s a mission. That makes it personal, to a great extent. But Warren Buffett, like most business owners, approaches his business as a business. This is business, but the news people are taking it very, very personal.

Please stop it, all of you. To the extent that Jeff Bezos or other billionaire-come-latelys to the business are trying new things or talking about new models, please, by all means, spread the word. New ideas need consideration. But please stop waiting for secret plans on how to get out of the quagmire from anyone who steps in and does not enunciate any plans that differ from what you already know or, as in the case of Orange County, require a reality other than the one you know.

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There’s only one sure way to keep your name out of the news: Don’t do anything that is routinely reported by your local news outlets.

Most of the time, that means don’t be arrested for anything serious, and don’t get sued for anything serious. There are some types of public records that my newsroom routinely reports each week inside the paper, such as marriages and property transactions, but as far as avoiding being on the front page or listed as being charged with a crime, you should keep your head down, be a good citizen, and don’t make trouble.

Like most newspapers, the News-Topic reports many arrests, and we try to cover the most serious cases when they go to court.

Sometimes people call and ask whether we would keep someone’s arrest out of the paper. Sorry, no. We have to try to treat everyone the same. If we start making exceptions because someone’s mother or children will be embarrassed, we would have to stop printing all of the arrests.

Last May, I received a letter from an inmate at the Caldwell County Detention Center asking me “to please not put my name in the paper for any reason. Or any thing concerning my case.”

He complained that a story we ran last January about a court hearing that had been called for him to enter a plea deal, pleading guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence, only to have him back out at the last minute, was not accurate, though what was in the story was exactly what both his lawyer and the prosecutor said in open court had happened.

“That (story) vilated my rights,” he wrote. “I haven’t even gone to trial and that made me sound guilty before I could get a fair trial. You embaresed me and my family.”

The legal process in the United States is not set up to shield everyone’s identity, just in case someone is not guilty, until the outcome of a case has been decided. It is set up to be open to the public so that members of the public can look up any information they want, observe legal proceedings and therefore be assured that the legal system strives to be just. The jury selection process, however, has steps for lawyers to be able to exclude from a jury anyone whose mind was made up by previous news coverage.

The News-Topic, like any news organization, chooses the cases it covers based on a judgment of which cases are serious enough or unusual enough that we think many people will want to know what happened. In those cases, we do exactly what any member of the public is welcome to do: We go to the courthouse, sit in the audience and listen. You can do it too, if you are quiet and obey the rules of the courthouse. Your friends, neighbors and co-workers can do it too. No one needs to make reservations. Leave your cellphone and pocketknife in the car, but you can show up unannounced, pass through the metal detector and walk right in. The state even maintains a website where you can see whose cases are tentatively scheduled to be heard in each term of court. Literally anyone on Earth with an Internet connection can read those names and see what the charges are.

Before a case has a court hearing, if there is something about the case that we want to find out, we go to the clerk of court’s office and ask to see particular public records on the case. The term “public records” includes the word “public” for a reason. It means those are records that are open to any member of the public, not just reporters. You can go read them yourself, but in some cases, depending on what you want, you might have to pay to get a copy instead of seeing the original file.

The letter from the inmate last May concluded: “I don’t wont my name in the paper period. I will take legal actions if my name is in the paper again. Thank you.”

No thanks were necessary, because we didn’t comply, and wouldn’t. We can’t. I’d get fired if I were to.

And any lawyer in the country will tell you that you can’t win a lawsuit accusing a news organization of violating your privacy because it reported on your arrest, criminal case, court hearing, court records and/or trial.

The inmate’s name wasn’t in the paper for the past few months, but that particular case came to trial last week, and Allen Duane Parlier, 44, of Hudson was convicted as charged (linked story is behind a paywall) of statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child, who in this case was a 15-year-old girl at the time of the events in question. By going to trial, Parlier caused far more details embarrassing to his family to become public than would have if he had taken the plea that prosecutors offered, so we don’t think he was motivated to write to us to protect his family, and he appeared to admit just before his sentencing that he lied under oath during his trial, so we can’t really put a lot of stock in the assertions of the letter he sent to us anyway. But we didn’t cover his case to spite him. We just covered it, the same as we did for dozens of cases last year and will for dozens more this year.

If you happen to be arrested and you wish to minimize further damage to your reputation, the two best things for that are a good lawyer and sincere prayer, but there are limits to what even those can accomplish.

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The Facebook tease from Poynter said, “This study suggests some lingering sentiment that millennials feel digital news ought to be available for free.”

But the actual post by Rick Edmonds, Millennials will pay for content, but news not high on their list, did not say that. The headline of the post is accurate. As the post says, millennials are willing to pay for content that they enjoy spending time with. For some, that includes news, but for many it does not.

Why this would surprise anyone is beyond me. News, no matter the form it is delivered in, has had a declining share of the public’s attention as the types of media and availability of various categories of content have expanded over the decades. You used to get a newspaper as a matter of course because after work you read a book, a magazine or a newspaper. There was not much else to do. When radio came along, there was something else to do. When TV came along, there were more things to do. When cable TV came along, there were a lot more things to do. It just keeps going.

News is a niche. We can argue all day that it shouldn’t be, that awareness of what is going on in the world is a basic element necessary for citizens of a democracy, but people have freedom of choice. They can drink Coca-Cola instead of water even if the dentist says it gives them cavities and their doctor says they are verging on diabetes. No one can stop them. If they choose to limit their exposure to stories that they consider to be downers, what can we do? We can “dumb down” or fun-up the news, but why dilute our niche?

Rather than worry about what part of the audience we have lost because they were never really that interested in the news, maybe we should worry about the part that has stuck around, including among the portion of the population that is youngest and most digitally oriented, and has a hunger for news. Give those people something that is worthwhile.

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A Nieman Lab article by Joshua Benton, “As giant platforms rise, local news is getting crushed,” captures many of the things I’ve been thinking about since coming to the News-Topic more than two and a half years ago, but I struggled all day to articulate it, beyond simply agreeing.

The underlying situation: The collapse of advertising in recent years, and the unwillingness of newspaper companies to be straight with readers about what they are actually paying for, led to the collapse of staff and features, the unbundling of the something-for-everyone package that newspapers grew over decades to become. That package of varied news, features, comics, puzzles and anything else you could think of grew in order to attract the most readers possible, thereby creating a juicy target for advertisers. When advertisers began peeling away, newspapers unilaterally dropped parts of the bundle, gambling they could hold onto more readers than each of those dropped parts attracted. (Personally, I would have tried asking readers to vote with their cash and pay for what they want rather than trying to convince them to keep paying for what I unilaterally decided without any input that they needed, but I’m a writer, so what do I know?)

What we have doubled down on is “the franchise,” local news. But what “local news” means varies. Some readers want the local high school sports to get blanket coverage, and they couldn’t care less about anything else — in fact once their own kids leave school they will lose interest even in local sports. Some just want features on local people and places. Name anything — someone wants it. But almost no one wants just exactly, and only, what the reduced staff produces, or can produce. Yet they can find a good bit of what they do want in various other places, here and there, mostly for free.

And so even the hardcore traditional readers, the ones so committed to local news that the industry has virtually staked its survival on them, question their commitment. Some peel away. Sometimes we get lucky and have a story that prompts a reader to call us and say that story convinced them to renew for another year.

The thing is, though, we could double or triple our readership and we still could be in trouble.

In the back of my head as I read Benton’s article was another, by Clay Shirky, that predicted the kicking out of the last leg keeping the stool standing, Sunday advertising inserts. Whether or not Shirky is right that they will collapse, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that inserts are in steep decline.

So where are we? “Everyone” says that local news is an inherent good, necessary for a functioning electorate and good governance. And yet is there a market for it? In big metro markets, it seems, maybe there is, if only because there are enough online eyeballs to be drawn. But in a town of 18,000? A county of 80,000? Or places with fewer yet?

What if where we are heading is a time when the survival of local journalism parallels the way that small markets first gained electricity, except instead of gaining something it’s the only way a small market can keep something? That is, either the government does it, or local residents agree it’s necessary and pool their resources.

Here in Caldwell County, for instance, the entire region was too sparsely populated to get privately held electric companies to extend electric service. To get power up into the hills, what is now Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. began when farmers got together and agreed, with help from the government, to help foot the cost themselves, collectively.

During the Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal transformed the “Tennessee Valley” — the name given to a multi-state region of 9 million people, failing farms and depleted forests — through one of the largest hydropower construction programs in history.

Caldwell County’s government already runs its own sort of news service. There is a local-access channel with regularly scheduled shows produced by a county-paid team, some of it CSPAN-style broadcasts of government meetings, some of it shows related to news, some of it features. The county public information officer routinely puts out not just press releases but ready-to-run news stories, not always quite what a mainstream news editor would OK but often as good, and they show up on news websites throughout western North Carolina.

There are also locally a couple of sites that fill, in a “good enough” kind of minimal way, local news needs, including a website and associated Facebook page devoted to police scanner traffic and a mom-and-pop startup site with almost no original reporting but every news release and public announcement in the area as well as aggregation of various stories from the web. OH, and free local obituaries!

A government news service, of course, produces news that the government approves. A startup site may survive, but financial results for such sites even in metro areas are mixed so far. I don’t know how many in rural areas have been tried or how they are doing. Even sites in metros that make enough to survive can collapse when one person gets a serious illness.

Could the solution be a cooperative news startup? It would be a membership model, like public radio. Unlike the daily paper, or news websites selling subscriptions, it would not be sold explicitly as a product but as a communal necessity. You wouldn’t pay for what you get every day but for what the existence of the news service means for the good of the community over the long run.

The difference between journalism now and electricity then, of course, is no one had electricity in the early 20th century, and everyone wanted it. It brought lights at night, fans to move the stifling summer air, power to pump water up a hill. In contrast, everyone now has had journalism, ample helpings of it, for many years. It brings both Watergate exposure and Kim Kardashian, bringing justice for some who are wrongfully imprisoned but also fame to despicable people. It’s an open question how many people, having never faced the kinds of things that people in authoritarian countries face when there is no independent press, believe journalism is something they need.

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