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The little town of Rhodhiss lost the businesses and industry that gave the town its name (from cotton mill owners John Rhodes and George Hiss). But it still has a legend that came out of them, the fate of some unusual fabric spun in a now-closed mill.

Four years ago, in July 2015, one of my reporters was doing a more or less routine story related to the legend, and I Googled part of her story and found something that indicated the legend was wrong. I had her look into it.

What she wound up writing made her feel bad because it made the News-Topic a villain in that town, but it didn’t put much of a dent in the legend, which the town is celebrating on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing.

One of the famous movie lines related to journalism, from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” is “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a good line, but it’s not journalism. I don’t know whether many journalists would do what the newspaper editor in the movie did, reject running the real story told by U.S. Sen. Ransom Stoddard, and I don’t think it makes sense to ignore the facts that fly against Rhodhiss’ legend, as satisfying as the legend may feel.


And as the main source in the story said, this doesn’t mean there is nothing at all to the legend, only that some research is needed to find out exactly what was done with that fabric. Maybe, for instance, the bag under the lunar lander …

 

 

 

 

 

Read the story and decide yourself.

Rhodhiss’ point of pride called into question

By Lex Menz

RHODHISS – As you drive into Rhodhiss, the road signs show an astronaut in a space suit over the words “U.S. Moon Flags Woven Here.”

An astronaut also appears on the town seal.

It’s common knowledge throughout town that fabric used to make at least the first flag to go to the moon, if not more, came from Burlington Industrial Fabrics, which once had two factories in town but left in 1983.

A scrap of material sits folded up in a drawer at Town Hall that came, it is said, from the same batch as the moon flag material.

Town Manager Art Delaney never even considered that the story could be wrong until he recently called the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in Raleigh about getting a historical marker for the town about the flag fabric having been made in Rhodhiss. The person he spoke to said that according to information on the Internet, his story was incorrect.

“She said they were pulled off a shelf at a post exchange in Washington, D.C., and just handed off,” Delaney said. “I nearly fell off my chair.”

Delaney wouldn’t be the only one falling off of a chair. Many people around town have personal stories about their connection to the flag fabric.

Carl Compton, who lives on the Caldwell County side of Rhodhiss, worked at Burlington Industrial Fabrics as a weaver right out of high school in 1961 and eventually was promoted to loom fixer. The company made special materials, including material for the Goodyear blimp and fabrics for NASA. Among the fabric made on the 64-inch looms was one that Compton said was extremely heat-resistant and involved Kevlar, a fabric best known for its use in bulletproof vests.

Shortly after the flag was unfurled on the moon in July 1969 by Apollo 11, the mission carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Compton said, Burlington Industrial’s employees were informed of their accomplishment.

“We didn’t know what we had done,” he said. “It really surprised us.”

Compton said the company’s announcement was a proud moment.

“We were just working. That was our job. We weren’t trying to crow about it. But, if I had known, I would have gotten some pictures,” Compton said.

But Rhodhiss’ flag story doesn’t fly, according to Anne Platoff, who wrote a research paper in the early 1990s, when she worked at the Johnson Space Center, about all six of the flags that were taken to the moon.

“It’s an interesting story, but it’s unverified,” Platoff said of Rhodhiss’ story.

Her research paper, “Where No Flag has Gone Before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon,” details considerations that went into the flags and flag poles and where they came from, and no part of that story includes Rhodhiss. Her sources included a press release from NASA in July 1969 stating that the flags were ordinary nylon flags ordered from a catalog.

“I went through the evidence there was at NASA, and the only documentation I found at NASA was that it was purchased from a government stock catalog,” Platoff said. “As a historian, I will only go with what facts I have. I have found absolutely no evidence that points to who made the flag on the moon. I found no indication that it was a specifically made flag.”

However, she said Rhodhiss may have been involved in the Apollo 11 mission, just not in the way residents think. Possibly the material woven there was used for the flag patches on the spacesuits or some part of the ship. But that would take some research to find out.

“Maybe this is one of those cross stories with some truth,” Platoff said.

Delaney said the state will send him an application for a historical marker, which requires a packet of information to back the town’s claim.

“We’re going to send it back and see if we could get something,” Delaney said.

Ansley Wegner, a research historian and the administrator of the Department of Cultural Responses’ historical marker program, said the decisions on applications for historical markers are made by a committee of 10 history professors. Stipulations include that the information supporting the marker request must have a secondary source, such as a historical non-fiction book.

“It’s hard to say what the committee is going to approve,” Wegner said. “It’s up to them to decide whether it’s state historical importance and not local historical importance.”

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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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I can’t stand weather news.

Of all the kinds of news that can strike, weather is the worst.

The reason I can’t stand it is the same one that causes you to take an umbrella along even if the forecast says it probably won’t rain — everyone knows the forecast is usually at least a little off. Weather is broadly predictable, but in the nitty gritty details it’s still pretty unpredictable.

And when it comes to news, I can’t stand trying to report on things that haven’t happened and might never happen.

Weather is custom-made for television. Forecasters can tell it’s coming, and they can paint colorful maps to show what’s coming, and they can talk about it endlessly before anything ever materializes. Then it gets here, and someone can stand out in the weather and tell the camera what’s happening. Then it goes away, and even if it didn’t amount to much, someone can stand outside next to a puddle and tell the camera what did or didn’t happen.

And that range of unknowns ahead of time, the portion of it that is not predictable, is why TV loves to talk about it. There are multiple scenarios. It takes time to cover them, and you can draw a different map for each one.

I’ve had reporters who ask me, after TV has been hyping a coming storm for two days but the storm is still two days out, “Shouldn’t we do a story?”

I answer, “About what? When the story runs tomorrow, the storm will still be a day away. The forecast could change.”

Forecasters will tell you for several days about a potential weather disaster, such as a winter storm or a potentially tornado-spewing line of thunderstorms, or a hurricane, and what hazards may be involved.

After all that buildup, eventually the weather gets here — or it moves somewhere else. Whether it arrives or moves, the result is almost always less than the worst-case scenario.

WE COULD GET A FOOT OF SNOW! But we get 2 inches.

THE HURRICANE COULD MERGE WITH THIS HUGE STORM! But the hurricane slides off to the east.

Hurricane Joaquin was a Category 3 hurricane heading for the Carolinas, where it would smash together with a giant cold front. Then it was a Category 4 heading for the Outer Banks, Virginia or New York, there to smash with the front. Then it started heading out to sea, to smash with nothing.

Worst is a weather system that arrives with lousy timing. For any newspaper, “lousy timing” means after deadline, when it’s simply too late for us to get anything in the paper.

For a while it looked like the worst of this weekend’s weather might hit Caldwell County on Saturday night, well past the News-Topic’s deadline. I spent a lot of time worrying how to handle that, what I would be able to get on Sunday’s front page, whether I would need to ask an extra reporter to work on the weekend, whether I’d get in trouble for running folks into overtime pay by coming in on Sunday …

But then Joaquin started moving east. By Saturday afternoon, it seemed apparent the worst had passed.

By this morning, with any luck, the only people still excited about the storm will be on TV.

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The Brookings Institution thinks the local community college where I live is doing a great job.

At least I think it does.

But it’s really hard to tell.

Brookings – a Washington, D.C., think tank – evaluated data from hundreds of colleges and universities across the country and came up with Beyond College Rankings, a report only a statistician could love, as hinted at by the secondary headline of the report, “A Value-Added Approach to Assessing Two- and Four-Year Schools.”

One thing I have always been proud of as a reporter and editor is my ability to read any report, no matter how dense, understand it and translate the main points into plain English for the average reader.

But Brookings has stumped me.

I understand what “value-added” is. That part the report does well enough to explain: “the difference between actual alumni outcomes (like salaries) and the outcomes one would expect given a student’s characteristics and the type of institution.”

In other words, Brookings decided to look into how well graduates of different schools do, compare that to the cost, and see whether the students are getting a good deal. Fair enough.

But this is where things start to fly apart.

Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute earned a score of 92 on its graduates’ mid-career earnings, tied for 21st best in the country and the best of all colleges and universities in North Carolina. Awesome, right? Brookings explains that the number means CCC&TI students go on to earn about 10 percent more in the middle of their careers than would be expected based on their characteristics – including their “academic preparation,” ethnicity and family income – and the college’s location and level of degrees offered.

But the college scored only 35 for its graduates’ “occupational earning power,” the average salary of graduates as reported by the website LinkedIn.com, and only 24 for the percentage of graduates repaying their student loans.

So graduates’ mid-career earnings are more than expected, but their average salary is less than expected, and the percentage of students who fail to repay their loans is much worse than expected?

What does all that mean? The college’s graduates earn more but don’t really?

I downloaded the Excel spreadsheet to see whether I could make better sense of that than I could of the summary on the Brookings website.

Big mistake.

I’ve never seen a spreadsheet like it. If you were to try to print the spreadsheet at a normal type size, just the width of each line would go clear across the average office desk and spill down to the floor. With the spreadsheet up on my computer screen, I kept scrolling right, scrolling right, scrolling right, and there were ever more fields. Scores and scores and scores, numbers, percentages, factors, and then I finally hit some fields that had the word “RANK” in the title. But there were so many ranks. Brookings measured and ranked everything, it seemed. And the rankings were all over the map. Good, bad, high, low.

Lex Menz, the reporter who covers CCC&TI, wants to write a story about the Brookings report, but it’s hard to know where to start when you don’t understand what you’re writing about. It’s hard even to come up with questions to help you figure it out.

She called Edward Terry, CCC&TI’s public information officer. He couldn’t translate the report either.

She hopes to interview someone at Brookings who can translate it.

It’s clear, especially from looking at the data in spreadsheet form, that a tremendous amount of work went into this study and the report. It’s equally clear that the report’s findings seem likely to be wasted if no one can drill through the numbers and put them into plain English.

The clearest sentence in the Brookings report may be this: “The choice of whether and where to attend college is among the most important investment decisions individuals and families make, yet people know little about how institutions of higher learning compare along important dimensions of quality.”

And if those people read this report, they will still know little.

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Why is the governor picking on me?

Well, Gov. Pat McCrory’s not picking on me personally, but he says he wants journalists to go away. That’s already happening at a fast enough pace without any outside wishing.

“We’ve frankly got enough psychologists and sociologists and political science majors and journalists. With all due respect to journalism, we’ve got enough. We have way too many,” McCrory said Thursday in Greensboro while announcing a plan to visit businesses in every county in the state to learn what skills high-demand industries need.

His line got laughs, the Triad Business Journal reported. He also mentioned lawyers as being too numerous.

“And journalists, did I say journalists?”

Yes, sir, you did. A real comedy machine, you are.

The Business Journal also quoted McCrory on the importance of raising the prestige of industries such as trucking, which incidentally is one of the Lenoir region’s higher-paying and faster-growing employment sectors.

“I’m very impressed with the people who can drive trucks and are qualified to drive trucks,” McCrory said. “I don’t know how you back it up, I don’t know how you go forward, I don’t know how you park it, I don’t know how you drive such long distances.”

I’m sure McCrory enjoys tweaking journalists because they so often catch him or his appointees saying or doing things he probably wishes could be said or done over again, but if not understanding how to do something is what it takes for him to hold a profession in high regard, then he needs to rethink his wish for there to be fewer journalists.

It was journalists from the McClatchy newspaper chain, including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, who recently uncovered what no one in state government had – that the construction industry has been improperly misclassifying workers as independent contractors, which not only robs those workers of benefits and protections but allows the companies to avoid payroll taxes. The journalists found that if the level of misclassification at only 64 government-backed housing developments they examined in North Carolina extends to the construction industry as a whole in this state, the state and federal government are losing $467 million a year in taxes, the newspapers reported.

You might think it’s a fine thing for businesses to avoid taxes wherever possible, but what this reporting found is illegal cheating. If you want your taxes cut, do it the legal way – buy a politician. Otherwise you are leaving tax obligations for the rest of society to pick up. Those avoided taxes include money that otherwise would help Social Security and Medicare stay solvent.

Journalists found that.

If it’s not difficult to find places where tax cheaters are blowing half-billion-dollar holes in the budget, why didn’t anyone else find that?

On the other hand, maybe McCrory wasn’t really knocking journalists. Before mentioning journalists, he said there are too many political science majors. Since McCrory himself has a degree in political science from Catawba College, maybe his speech actually was an expression of existential angst – to be, or not to be? – and his own yearning for a job that made him feel more fulfilled and less constantly under attack, perhaps tooling down the road in a big rig as little boys in the backs of SUVs passing on the highway make the tug-down gesture, the universal plea for a trucker to blast his horn.

No one criticizes a trucker when he blows his horn. Not even journalists.

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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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