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nora
I don’t remember who told me I should write about Nora McGee.

I remember it had something to do with the 81-year-old woman’s woodworking, that she had taken it up as a child in an age when grown women rarely did that work. Among other things, she built several floor-to-ceiling cabinets for her kitchen. I remembered the feminist gist of what she told me about growing up as a tomboy in the early 20th century, but until re-reading the story not the wonderful phrasing she used.

“Back in my day, women weren’t supposed to do that,” she said. “I just decided, instead of knitting when I didn’t want to, I would hammer when I wanted to.”

I liked doing stories of women striking out into men’s territory. Around the same time, 1987, I wrote about the only four women in Lenoir who were criminal defense attorneys. It’s still a men’s field – I think I have seen more women at the Caldwell County Courthouse working as prosecutors than defense attorneys in the past three years.

Until a relative of McGee’s sent me a photocopy of her story recently I didn’t remember her name, but when that relative mentioned McGee’s name to me a week or so earlier I wondered if that was the woman I wrote about who did the woodworking. It sounded familiar.

When the photocopy arrived in the mail I recognized it, and yet it differed from my memory.

I shot the photo the News-Topic ran of her moving wood on a saw, but I remembered shooting it at a different angle. I remembered she wore a dress at the time, and I would have described it as sort of dark and plain, yet when I saw the black-and-white image I could tell it must have been gray or, more likely, light blue with a simple floral pattern. As I sat at home Saturday morning thinking about writing about the difference between my memory and the photo, I thought her hair was darker and longer than it actually is in the photo.

We all like to think of our memory as a video recorder. Everything that goes in is played back reliably and the same way every time, unless it gets erased. Then it’s just gone. But what we recall, that’s what was. That happened.

With rare exceptions, though, we have fluid memories. Even in the events we remember, details change. People change. Some things fade out, while new details may emerge.

I remember from that group of women defense attorneys just one name, Nancy Epstein, maybe because that stood out as not a local name. I remember I thought she was attractive. Maybe that’s the only reason she’s the only one I can remember – or maybe I have told myself she was attractive because hers is the only name I remember, and I can’t think of another reason I would forget the other three.

Or was her name Nancy? Google can’t find her.

Were there really four women in that group? Maybe there were three.

I don’t have the newspaper clipping of that story, only the memory of the photo I shot, the women standing together somewhere in front of the courthouse.

Maybe I was meant to work as a reporter because even as a teenager I knew that memories weren’t always reliable. I often said when telling people what I recall, “If I remember accurately …”

In a poetry writing class in college, one of our assignments was to describe our earliest memory. Mine has always been a few moments in a medical setting when I must have been an infant. I wrote my description of it as best I could but couched all of my details with qualifiers, saying that this is how I remember it, and pointing out the gaps that I didn’t remember. The professor read each student’s submission without telling who wrote it, and after reading mine he told the class he knew exactly the procedure being described – one that, as he talked about it, I had no idea existed. Then he declared that the careful insistence that the memory’s details might be flawed clearly indicated that the entire thing was a work of fiction because no one said things like that when describing a memory.

No one knew I had written it, so I could not feel humiliated at being called a fabulist (I should note I got a good grade in the class – lies in poetry are not a bad thing, apparently). Mainly I wondered: Had I learned about that procedure at some point and forgot about it? Had I seen it on TV and internalized the imagery? I’ll never know.

The memory feels as real as my interviews with “Miss Nora” and Nancy Epstein. That’s why I have to couch my words. That’s why we all should.

NOTE: After this was published, a reader emailed me and said I probably was thinking of Nancy Einstein, who now practices law in Morganton. She was correct.

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This is a follow-up to the previous post and was written to run in the News-Topic.

It takes a special kind of jerk to respond to a young person’s exuberance with bitter cynicism and bile.

That would be the kind of person who, seeing a young boy cheerfully walking along with a helium balloon, pulls out something sharp. Best to pop the balloon and make the child cry – after all, life is hard, and you better get used to it.

There is a financial writer named Felix Salmon who is one of those people. He works for a website called Fusion, and last week he wrote an article with the headline To all the young journalists asking for advice …. From the way the article starts, I take it that Salmon regularly receives email from young reporters asking for tips on how to get into the business, or into Fusion itself, and saying how much they would like to talk about it over coffee if they could. That’s the kind of thing that the job-networking website LinkedIn and other places that give job-hunting advice recommend that you try to do – reach out to someone working someplace that you would like to work, ask for advice, try to meet for coffee.

Salmon illustrates two pitfalls of that strategy. One is that the advice is now so widespread that anyone a young job-hunter may contact might just be tired of all the unsolicited attention and requests for advice and coffee. The other is that the person you email out of the clear blue may be a bitter, old fart who’s more likely to insult you than to try to help.

Salmon’s “advice” was discouraging, to say the least. Not only that, it was contradictory.

“In fact, life is not good for journalists. And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse,” he wrote, immediately after a paragraph that ended, “I think this is probably the greatest era for journalism that the world has ever seen. I also think that some of today’s fast-growing digital companies are going to become the media behemoths of tomorrow, making their owners extremely rich in the process.”

In other words, despite all the positive things he sees going on, his takeaway on the world of journalism is “Life stinks and then you die.”

Way to be a Debbie Downer, Felix.

Journalism is changing, which is true of a great many occupations – and always has been. Do you see any businesses around here that sell horse-drawn carts? That used to be one way to make a living. When cars came along, carts and buggies went away. But even cars aren’t constant. A couple of years ago I did an interview at a business that used to be a car dealership – for the Hudson Motor Car Co., a brand of car that most people now have never heard of. Remember when furniture companies started moving jobs to Asia? They’re never coming back, everyone said. Now a number of those jobs are coming back. Things change.

A lot of the upheaval affecting journalism and news organizations is related to the Internet. But the Internet is not a monolithic force. Things change there too. Remember Friendster? Probably not. It was Facebook before there was a Facebook. It got replaced by MySpace, which got replaced by Facebook.

How does the Internet come into your house? It used to be that the only way anyone got online was with a modem that dialed a phone number. Companies that made those modems have had to either quickly adapt as technology changes or go out of business.

Dell Computers built a production plant near Winston-Salem 10 or 15 years ago to make desktop computers – and within a few years it was obsolete because people started buying laptops instead.

Things change. What’s important is what you want to do. What do you like? What sort of work makes you feel creative or productive and fulfilled? In the case of those young people writing to Salmon, it is writing and reporting – telling stories. The technology of doing that is changing, so the details of doing the work is changing. The revenue of some parts of the business, such as newspapers, has declined, and maybe will keep declining – or it might stop. The things that make the work appeal to certain people haven’t changed that much. No one ever got into writing for the money.

Better advice was once given by David Carr, a prominent reporter for the New York Times who died Thursday:

“Being a journalist, I never feel bad talking to journalism students because it’s a grand, grand caper. You get to leave, go talk to strangers, ask them anything, come back, type up their stories, edit the tape. That’s not gonna retire your loans as quickly as it should, and it’s not going to turn you into a person who’s worried about what kind of car they should buy, but that’s kind of as it should be. I mean, it beats working.”

That’s the kind of advice young people deserve to hear.

UPDATE: Another good one to read on this topic. Sample: “I was disappointed about how I had been taken in by someone projecting his own feelings of discouragement onto a group of people younger than himself.”

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I haven’t met Dylan Howlett, but I hope I will because his recent blog post, Advice for Felix Salmon: Stop giving advice, is very well written. In case you don’t have time right now to go read it (find the time eventually, please) or the piece it refers to, here’s a summary:

Salmon wrote an article, To all the young journalists asking for advice …, not only discouraging anyone from trying to pursue a career in journalism but insulting them for thinking of it. Howlett responded smartly and hilariously, calling out Salmon’s bitterness and the massive gaps in his argument.

Howlett aptly sums up why I stay in this business. It’s true that after I was laid off in 2012, I looked for an exit ramp to something else. My thoughts at the time were not as dark as Salmon expresses, but they were in that general path.

But my previous job in journalism wasn’t very rewarding, emotionally. The one I have now is. No surprise, I now work directly with reporters and their writing and do a fair amount of writing of my own. And you know what? It’s nice to be in love. It’s true of people and it’s true of whatever you do.

Also, this, from Salmon: “And while a couple of years ago I harbored hopes that things might improve, those hopes have now pretty much evaporated. Things are not only bad; they’re going to get worse.”

That reminds me of this: For more than 20 years, I worked for Media General. When I started, the company’s stock was trading somewhere in the $20- to $30-a-share range. At one point in the early 2000s it got to over $70 a share. But then much of the media world started getting “disrupted,” and the stock dropped. A few years ago it got down to around $1 a share. Along the way, a lot of people decided it was never going to get any better — prodded by some stock analysts who predicted the company was doomed — and they dumped all their stock. Today it’s trading for over $15. Obviously, $70 a share was ridiculous, but so was $1. Yes, Media General is now a TV company with no newspapers, but that’s the point: Who saw that coming? A point that Salmon, oddly enough, makes unintentionally by pointing out developments in journalism that came out of nowhere.

There’s a saying related to stock trading: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Salmon, despite his financial-reporting background, seems to believe otherwise — which is all the more puzzling, given that he admits “I’ve also never really had a career, in the sense of a planned-out sequence of jobs, each one slightly better than the last, working my way up towards some grand ideal position. I arrived where I am randomly, and I could not have replicated it if I tried.”

That pretty much sums up the career of almost everyone I have ever met.

Here’s my advice: If you fall in love, follow your heart.

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Am I necessary?

I am an editor, and the main thing I do every day is change (a little or a lot) what other people have written. That’s not all I do, but that’s the part that other people seem to focus on, such as in discussion of changes like the ones under way in Gannett to reduce the ranks of editors.

Writing for Gawker, Hamilton Nolan seems to make the case that editors do nothing but hurt the writing they touch and make it worse. I’ve heard that before, indirectly. A reporter of mine about 15 years ago was working at the General Assembly in Raleigh, talking casually with other reporters, and the subject of editors came up. One said that he had never written a story that was improved by an editor. Others agreed. My reporter said she didn’t agree, and when talking to me she actually sounded stunned, and saddened, that the sentiment was so widespread.

I wasn’t that surprised.

It’s true that if you are a really good writer, the odds that your editor will improve your writing by much are small.

But it’s also true that if you think you are a really good writer whose work is so good it doesn’t need editing at all, you’re probably wrong. You might be right, but the odds are against it, partly because you probably are not as good as you think and partly because even good writers have blind spots and weaknesses – and if they are lucky, they are aware of that and seek someone else’s perspective.

As an editor, working with a good writer is a pleasure not because there is nothing to do at the end of the day but because from morning to evening you get to focus on what can elevate that person’s work. Maybe that’s in the writing or an angle of the reporting, but maybe it’s in the headline, the presentation, the art, a sidebar that can be drawn from a small but interesting element in the story.

One of the best reporters I ever worked with knew he needed an editor for one simple reason: He couldn’t stop himself. He would write 40 inches of copy because he felt the need to write everything he gathered, but he knew the average reader would never plow through it. Some editors couldn’t trim his stories well. He thought I did and that I made them better. He also liked to have a trusted ear to bounce ideas off of, someone who could challenge them or add to them.

Some of the most important work an editor does is editing the idea for a story, which happens in talking with a reporter about the story before or during the reporting process. I would hope this is not the “looking over their shoulder” that Gannett feels its papers no longer need, but it sure sounds like the part that “listening” to readers and data will replace.

In truth, a good editor – like a good reporter – is always listening to readers, whether or not corporate says to, with whatever tools are available. The question isn’t whether listening is good, it’s what do you mean by “listening.” If it’s, “Stories about neglected dogs get a lot of traffic and comments,” and the intention at corporate is to then produce a lot more stories about neglected dogs, then that isn’t a helpful definition of listening. If the intention instead would be to look seriously not only at neglect but at the issues surrounding, contributing to and spinning off of it, that could be a good thing.

And maybe that will be what Gannett’s “content editors” do — Kate Marymont, Gannett’s VP of news, told CJR’s Ryan Chittum: “We certainly are not looking for clickbait. We’re not trying to drive empty clicks. We’re trying to build loyal returning customers by giving content we know they want by following over period of time.” — which would make the elimination of assignment editors just another bit of corporate double-talk to justify cutting the editing ranks.

But whatever you call it, can fewer editors improve more reporters’ storytelling skills across platforms? It doesn’t seem likely.

Coaching is actually more time-consuming than simple editing. That’s why any discussion of coaching usually starts at the assigning stage. If you are going to coach-up someone’s storytelling skills, that person has to enter the reporting process with a sense of what exactly he or she is after; otherwise the coach can only point out after the fact what would have been nice to have so that next time the reporter gets it.

No, by sharply cutting editors to maintain reporting strength the calculation clearly is that content by itself is the main value and that the value-added benefit of most editing is, considering continuing decreases in advertising revenue, expendable; that you have to maintain your content level, but you have to cut expenses, so you keep the content-creators and cut those who enhance it. Then you hope that whatever errors and omissions result don’t undercut too seriously the perceived value of your product.

This line of thinking would be equivalent to a furniture company keeping the factory workers who produce the furniture but no longer selling it stained and finished; it’s still sturdy furniture, just as well made, but more raw. (The thinking is incorrect, because editors do some of the furniture making, not just the polishing, but that would be the equivalent.)

And to some extent, especially in larger markets, that kind of thinking may work out for a while.

But good writers (or content creators) do not just appear in a publication’s newsroom like driftwood carried in on the tide. If they did, no one would need editors at all. Someone hires them. And while some very good writers may truly believe their talent is self-evident to all, that would tell me they haven’t spent enough time around people who don’t know good writing when they see it.

Thinning the ranks of editors necessarily increases the dependence on the talent-evaluation skills of whoever is left.

All the way around, it’s a thinner margin for error.

Ideally, that higher dependence on more talented individuals – each reporter standing more on his or her own, each of the remaining editors or coaches responsible for that much more – should translate into higher pay in order to retain and reward those who are capable of maintaining quality in a more high-stakes environment.

But it won’t. Don’t get me started on that.

UPDATE 8/25/14: From a related post by Ken Doctor:

“Sure, we can add in coaching — mentoring has always been a key ingredient in the best newsroom cultures. Coaching and editing, though, don’t equate, especially in newsrooms increasingly populated by underpaid, relatively inexperienced younger journalists. Even as we recognize the value of the more amorphous community intelligence, and attempt to add it to the news report, greatly diminishing editorial intelligence is a recipe for disaster — and business failure.

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July 16, 2014, wreck in Lenoir
I’ve mentioned before that when I am coaching writers one of the main things I focus on is derived from advice that Ernest Hemingway gave to a young writer and described in a portion of “Monologue to the Maestro: A High Seas Letter,” which he wrote in 1935 for Esquire. It involves making use of what you observe wherever you are reporting.

A few days ago I had a perfect example of the difference this can make in even routine reporting. There was a very bad head-on collision here in Lenoir, and the only reporter who was in the office at the time was our sports reporter. He and our photographer rushed out to the scene, got what was available and came back to the office. The reporter had not done news before and was nervous, which accounted for a few holes in what he first turned in, but he had the basics:

A two-car, head-on collision in front of the Gamewell fire department on Morganton Blvd. resulted in three fatalities on Wednesday evening.

According to Sgt. Dawson of the Highway Patrol, a witness stated that the vehicle traveling southwest on Morganton Blvd. was “driving at high speeds and recklessly.” The vehicle then collided head-on with a silver Lexus traveling northeast in the left lane of the two-lane road. The unidentified vehicle rolled down a hill into a ravine and was not visible due to tall bushes and weeds. The driver and two other passengers of the unidentified vehicle were pronounced dead on the scene.

The silver Lexus was left in the turning lane with the front end being unrecognizable. The street was littered with pieces from both cars as first responders investigated the scene. Police officers secured the area and directed traffic as about 10 citizens stood outside watching the horrific scene.

No further details of the incident were available at press time.

From here, we needed to draw out the rest of what he saw there. What is described above is a collision, then one car “rolled down a hill.” That’s not what happened. When cars collide at high speed, what happens? Use words that describe it. This is what we ended up with:

The Toyota caromed off and went down a steep bank roughly 20 feet deep and into a field of weeds so tall that the car couldn’t be seen from the road.

As for the car that didn’t go down the hill, we start with “the front end being unrecognizable.” What does that mean? How will the reader see “unrecognizable” in his or her head? It’s an abstract term, not a concrete one. You need to be concrete and visual. We also have the street “littered with pieces from both cars,” but listening to the photographer and reporter talk about it, and seeing a photo of the wrecked Lexus, made clear that we could do better:

The wreckage of the silver Lexus sat in the turning lane of Morganton Boulevard, the front end destroyed, the hood looking like a piece of crumpled paper. So much debris littered the street that Dawson and rescue crews could scarcely take a step without it crunching underfoot.

Finally, no official information was released on the occupants of the other car, but the reporter saw the rescue effort, so we had that to add:

At least two passengers were removed from the Lexus and taken away in ambulances, but no information was released about how many people were in the car or how badly they were hurt.

Outside the lines set up by Caldwell County sheriff’s deputies and Lenoir police, about 10 people stood watching the horrific scene.

Just making use of the details the reporter observed, not relying solely on what official sources had to say, turned a 5-inch news brief into a much more vivid, 9- or 10-inch story. It won’t win awards, but it surely engaged the readers’ imaginations much better than the original, and that’s the daily battle we face.

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A rose is a rose is a rose.

But a rose is not a daisy or an iris or a pansy.

More is not less, and over is not under.

At least not yet.

The Associated Press hasn’t changed its mind on how journalists should use those words, but I wonder whether it’s only a matter of time.

This week the Associated Press changed a rule in the AP Stylebook. And the change was met with howls of disgust and outrage – mine. But I wasn’t the only one howling.

The rule in question governed the use of “more than” versus “over” when talking about quantity or volume. The rule has been essentially that you use “more than” for things you can count, and you use “over” for things that can be measured but not counted. For instance, “more than 12 items,” and “over a quart.”

But AP now says you don’t have to bother with the distinction anymore. Whatever works. It’s all good.

Why?

Because “it has become common usage.”

You know why it has become common usage? Because not enough people have bothered to learn what’s correct. That isn’t a good reason to lower your standards. It’s like the language equivalent of grade inflation — if no one can earn an A anymore, just lower the bar so what used to get a B grade is now worth an A.

One of the more amusing reactions to AP’s decision that “over” and “more than” were interchangeable came from Mike Shor on Twitter: “More than my dead body!”

Once upon a time, when you wanted to express the idea that something didn’t matter to you, you said, “I couldn’t care less.”

But it has been years since I heard anyone say that. What they say now is, “I could care less.”

Why would anyone say that? If you “could care less,” it means you care. If you care, it bothers you. It makes no sense to say that if you mean that it doesn’t bother you.

But because so many people now say it, it’s “common usage,” the same theory AP has used to say that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable.

And so it goes.

Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass” said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.” And that’s exactly how we get to this point.

There used to be a difference between the meanings of “composed” and “comprised.” But some people didn’t learn it, others couldn’t remember it, some of each didn’t bother to check before they used one of the words, and after a while the dictionary started listing both definitions as correct for each.

“Common usage” doesn’t make it right.

And no, I don’t propose that those who know the difference go around correcting everyone publicly when people use words incorrectly. But if the people who use words for a living give in to the incorrect uses, then what?

If enough people say blue and yellow are the same color, eventually the words for them will come to have the same meaning, but that will mean only that the words have lost their usefulness.

If we keep rounding the edges off of words because we let people who don’t bother to learn the correct definitions rewrite the definitions, all we will be left with eventually is, “Well, you knew what I meant.”

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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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