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Posts Tagged ‘reporting’

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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A man who called the News-Topic on Friday didn’t dilly dally.

“You ought to send a reporter over,” he said without any preamble. “Ricky Skaggs stayed at the Comfort Inn last night and he’s still there. I just saw him.” Then he hung up.

Skaggs, the famous country and bluegrass musician, performed Thursday night at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, and after the show his tour bus headed up the highway to the hotel. Clearly, he preferred to spend the night in a stationary bed rather than on a bus.

No reporters were available, so I grabbed a camera and headed to the hotel. I thought I might get a photo of Skaggs and his band boarding their bus to leave.

When I got there, the bus was parked at one edge of the parking lot, clearly still in “night” mode – the bus’s sleeper compartment was still extended, and a roll-down shade covered all the windows at the front of the bus. There was no activity. It seemed unlikely anyone would be leaving soon. The deadline for checkout at the hotel was still two hours away.

I briefly contemplated hanging around to wait. It would be a nice shot to have.

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea made me feel like Mayor Pike on “The Andy Griffith Show,” who would lose his mind and all sense of proportion at the mere suggestion of a celebrity showing up in Mayberry.

Did I really want to stake out the Comfort Inn? After all, he probably would be dressed like anyone else in that situation: in casual, comfortable clothes, all set to spend the coming day on a bus.

And that’s what it comes down to. Skaggs is a famous person, but in all the ways that matter he’s a person like anyone else. Yes, it’s notable that he was staying here, and people would like to know – and now you do – but lurking outside hotels is what paparazzi do. Does anyone want a stranger shooting their photo first thing in the morning?

And I had another consideration. There’s a saying in football and other sports that is intended to discourage excessive celebrations over small accomplishments: Act like you’ve been there before. There must be a corollary for situations like this.

If there’s a celebrity in our midst, maybe we should act like we’ve seen a celebrity before. “Oh, hi, Ricky. How’d you sleep? How about some coffee?”

After all, why shouldn’t Ricky Skaggs stay the night in Lenoir after a concert? What’s the alternative? The hotels here are no different than their counterparts in the same chains in Hickory, and after a long, tiring performance would anyone really want to drive an extra 20 to 30 minutes when there’s a perfectly good hotel just 4 miles up the road?

And I’d rather that a famous person decided to stay here rather than felt an urgent desire to get as far away from Lenoir as possible just as soon as he could.

I can think of several reasons a person not only wouldn’t want to avoid Lenoir but might prefer staying the night here. For one, people here are friendlier than they are even just one county over. That’s been my experience, and I’ve heard it from many others. Also, nights here almost always are truly quiet. If what you want is sleep, you are better off trying it in a small town. Maybe one reason he stayed is we don’t have paparazzi here.

I had mostly made up my mind during my one drive around the parking lot. Driving back out onto Blowing Rock Boulevard, I only became more sure.

By the time I got back to my office, I had an answer ready if anyone else called about Ricky Skaggs staying the night.

Well of course he spent the night in Lenoir. Why wouldn’t he?

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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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