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Posts Tagged ‘small-town journalism’

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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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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I need to get this on the record so local law enforcement officials will know what to do if something happens to me: The News-Topic’s photographer, David Prewitt, tried to murder me, and the only thing that stopped him was a hitchhiker.

I was walking down the sidewalk on Main Street in downtown Lenoir after work one day last week, and as I approached West Avenue but was still several paces north of it a blue Honda that I did not initially recognize as David’s pulled up to the intersection, facing west on West Avenue. He had a red light. I had a green light and stepped off the curb to cross.

When I was right in front of it, suddenly the Honda surged forward.

I jumped past the car.

In David’s passenger seat, the hitchhiker screamed, and David hit the brakes.

That’s when I saw it was David who almost killed me.

Later, he tried to pass it off as an accident.

“I couldn’t see you,” he said.

“That’s why you are supposed to look both ways before pulling out,” I said.

“The sun was in my eyes,” he said.

“The sun was west of you. I was north by several paces when you got to the light.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t suspect him. After all, my wife has been telling me for years that most people do not look both ways before turning right on red, they only look to the left to see if there is traffic coming.

But have you met David? Something about him seems shifty.

He also hates old-fashioned country music. I’m not fond of “new country,” much of which to my middle-aged ears sounds like pop with a Southern accent, but it’s hard to trust someone who grew up in the South but won’t give Johnny, Merle and Hank even a chance.

I’ll try to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, we have to work together. And most of the time, he’s kind-hearted to a fault. He has offered a room to co-workers needing a place to stay. He always gives me his chocolate chip cookie when he buys lunch at KFC. He seems to be on friendly terms with most everyone in the county.

But that all may be an act. Maybe he acts nice because he’s trying to get everyone’s guard down so he can kill them just when they least suspect it. Who would suspect such a nice guy? It would be the perfect crime.

Maybe when I stepped into view he saw his chance to be rid of a demanding though brilliant boss and forgot he had picked up the hitchhiker until she screamed, which reminded him there would be a witness to his crime. Maybe that’s the only reason he hit the brakes.

If I turn up dead, someone show this column to Chief Brent Phelps of the Lenoir Police Department. It may help speed the investigation.

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Rarely has anyone asked me a question that I felt more certain about while answering.

Several times in the first week of the month, someone asked me the same question, and each time I felt the confidence swell up like a warm balloon inside of me. How dare they even ask? The answer was so obvious that I all but openly scoffed at the questioner.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked.

Pfft.

My eyes narrowed and the corners of my mouth rose into a slight, cynical grin. My back stiffened. I felt like a sage asked to impart wisdom upon the uneducated masses. I waited a moment, letting the pause settle to the ground between us, before answering in a tone as calm and placid as the surface of a lake on a windless day.

“No,” I said. “Or we might get snow, but there is no way – absolutely no way – we are getting anything like a foot of it.”

I cited the lower end of the forecast, which at the time was around 6 inches, and said I’d be happily surprised if we got that much.

That was all the wiggle room I left myself.

I could easily remember all the times forecasters predicted the possibility of calamity – whether hurricanes, floods or blizzards – that never materialized, and times when predictions of tiny weather events fell disastrously short of what happened, as with last month’s ice storm.

More than that, I remembered all the times I hoped for big snowstorms, only to be disappointed.

Those memories fueled my sense of certainty. Those forecasters. They weren’t going to get my hopes up this time.

Early in the week, the forecast shifted from day to day, and it further fueled my certainty.

The shifting more or less stopped by Thursday, but I was not deterred.

“Do you think we’ll get any snow?” a co-worker asked me on Friday.

My eyes rolled so far back in my head I could see my brain pan.

“No,” I said, trying not to sneer, “certainly not 10 to 16 inches.”

And I added that since the highs were going to be in the 40s in the days before any snow fell, the ground would be warm and it would melt pretty quickly. There was no sense wringing hands about it.

I intentionally avoided the grocery store. I would not be held hostage in long lines of hysterics loading up for Snowmageddon.

My lone concession to the forecast was to agree it would be prudent to send last Sunday’s paper to press earlier than usual Saturday evening, just in case.

I woke after midnight that night and looked outside to see a dusting of snow on the grass, and a steady amount of new snow falling. I retrieved my News-Topic from the front sidewalk, shaking the snow from it, and went back to bed.

Several hours later I woke and looked outside to see that something close to 6 inches had fallen and piled up in the trees, and it was still snowing steadily. I checked my phone’s weather app, and it said there was a 100 percent chance of snow until early afternoon.

It appeared that I might have been wrong.

As the morning went on and the snow grew deeper, I began to worry about the amount of food in the refrigerator.

Around noon, when there clearly was much more than a foot of snow on the back patio, I worried about the power going out.

When the snow finally stopped, I went outside with an 18-inch ruler and pushed it down into the snow on my car. It sank to the tip.

I was wrong. Man, oh man, was I wrong.

You may ask, did I learn a lesson about acting so haughty?

Based on experience, I can answer with nearly absolute certainty, and I will be succinct: No, I learned nothing. No way.

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We have begun election season, and candidates should heed the advice of experienced political consultants that putting out a ton of yard signs doesn’t work.

The only thing it accomplishes is creating lots of visual clutter and post-election litter.

If you want voters to remember your name, there is solid evidence of where candidates get the most bang for their buck: in elevators.

The evidence comes in the form of a recent poll by Elon University testing how well registered voters know who their elected officials are.

Overall, voters’ knowledge is pretty bad.

People generally know the name of the president, vice president, and probably the governor and at least one U.S. senator, but after that, the poll shows, their knowledge goes off a cliff.

Only 22 percent can identify who represents them in the N.C. House of Representatives. Around here, that could be understandable. Destin Hall was first elected only a year and a half ago, and he’s young enough (31) that he hadn’t had much time to make a public impression before he ran for office.

Only 17 percent can identify who represents them in the state Senate. Again, around here that could be understandable, but for different reasons. Caldwell County keeps getting shifted to different Senate districts as the legislature and the courts tussle over redistricting maps. Until a few weeks ago, our senator was Deanna Ballard, who is from Watauga County and like Hall was first elected in 2016. Ballard replaced another Watauga County resident who resigned. (Nothing against Watauga County residents, but people are less likely to recognize the name of out-of-towners who show up mainly for ribbon-cuttings and ceremonies.) For the past few weeks our senator has been Warren Daniel of Burke County – who had been our senator before a previous round of redistricting.

Only 11 percent know the name of the president of the state Senate, who many observers convincingly argue is the most powerful politician in North Carolina at the moment. His name is Phil Berger, he is from Rockingham County, and if you were on the email list to receive his press releases you surely wouldn’t forget him because almost everything issued by his office is like digital napalm employed in a constant political war.

A big exception to this lack of knowledge about the state’s elected leaders, Elon’s poll said, is that 49 percent can identify the state’s commissioner of labor. That’s a slightly higher percentage than can identify their local sheriff.

But the reason people stand about a 50-50 chance of identifying her is the unofficial title people give her: “Elevator Lady.”

Cherie Berry’s name and photograph appear in the little window every elevator in the state has for displaying its inspection certificate.

Berry was the first N.C. labor commissioner to put her photo with her signature on the certificates. Critics complained, but clearly the tactic worked. She has now been in office for 25 years.

The conclusion we can draw, then, is that constant exposure to a candidate’s name on signs displayed in residential yards and in the medians of heavily traveled roads does little to sway voters. But putting a person’s name and face in the line of sight where people will spend a few quiet moments riding in awkward silence, scanning the walls for anything to divert their attention from the strangers around them, creates a lasting impression.

Unfortunately, Caldwell County does not have many elevators. This leaves local candidates with just one real option: Spend most of the campaign riding up and down inside Caldwell Memorial Hospital.

I promise you, candidates, it will have an effect: The hospital has the county’s highest elevator, therefore the longest rides, and the added awkwardness of the hospital setting will make you and your steady smile truly unforgettable to each voter you encounter.

And those of us who don’t visit the hospital will appreciate the respite from campaigning.

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Poor Mrs. Jarvis will be sweating it out in these final hours before Christmas. I can imagine the questions tumbling through her head that will keep her awake.

Do elves get angry?

If so, how angry?

Are elves snitches?

How protective of his elves is Santa Claus?

Does Santa hold grudges?

Could an otherwise well behaved, nice teacher wind up on the naughty list because of a single day’s unfortunate interactions with an elf?

If you read the letters to Santa that the News-Topic published in Thursday’s paper, you may have noticed a thread through a number of the letters that came from children in a Gamewell Elementary School classroom. Apparently there was a mishap with an Elf on the Shelf who was helping the teacher, Mrs. Jarvis, watch over the children. The details weren’t clear, but it seems that Mrs. Jarvis went to get a map, and the elf was knocked to the floor — the first of at least two elf-involved incidents that day.

Some of the children seemed concerned that Santa would blame Mrs. Jarvis and eke out some form of punishment — perhaps no presents, or even coal in her stocking.

One girl wrote (and this is the actual pre-school spelling), “Mrs Jarvis atditl nock the elf on the shelf ples dot be mad at her She wus geted a big map owt but the elf wus on the map She is so so so sorry it wus a crasy day but we mae it work the elf she sorry.”

One even took collective responsibility for the whole class to protect Mrs. Jarvis: “I am so sorry that weve been droping your elf.”

But some of the children, while seeming to ask Santa for understanding, didn’t seem to have their heart in it, plunging straight from saying it was an accident into what was really on their minds.

“Mrs. Jarvis is Sorry for nocking your elf down and I want a iphone8 for Christmas and can I pretty please have it. I think I can have it. Here is how I’ve been good I’ve helped people I’ve sometimes been good and at home I’ve helped my sister and feed the cats,” one boy wrote.

Another wrote, “Mrs. Jarvis did not mean to make the elf fall of the shelf. She said she is really sorry and this is what I want a PS4 for chrismas I help my brother clean the house.”

But one girl seemed to relish playing informant. She didn’t even ask Santa for anything, she just dished on the elf’s mistreatment: “It was Mrs. Jarvis who kept on droping our elf on the shelf. Before lunch Mrs. Jarvis hung our elf with a wooden cloths pin. When we was at lunch me and Jaylyn had a prediction that the elf would be getting ready crawl out the door or already be out of the room.”

Another girl added the detail that Mrs. Jarvis tried at one point to use two clothes pins to hold the elf “so he would not go away and Leave a note.”

Elf, held against his will, pinned so he can’t escape. Elf-napping!

If, in fact, elves get mad and Santa holds grudges, whether that happens in this case probably hangs on such details of the elf’s treatment. It would not be because Mrs. Jarvis “axidintly droped the Elf” in the first place, it would be because she double-pinned him, or (as a couple of others wrote) after the first drop she pinned him up by his hat alone, the hat being insufficiently attached to his head to bear his weight, so that during lunch break the elf tumbled again to the floor.

The indignity.

Do elves feel pride? Humiliation?

Mrs. Jarvis, as she lies in bed tonight listening for sleigh bells and reindeer hooves on the roof, surely will wonder.

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

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

I said, “I’m kind of corporate now.”

“You sold out!”

“It’s not the first time.”

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