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Posts Tagged ‘small-town journalism’

(The city of Lenoir played host last weekend to the first Smoking in the Foothills Barbecue Competition and Festival, a new event sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Though the event overall has been called a success, it was not without its rookie-year hiccups, including a lack of lighting the first night at the tent were people were supposed to sample chicken wings and vote for their favorite.)

The first sign that I had erred was the screaming.

It seems that in the impenetrable darkness of the People’s Choice tent on the first night of the Smoking in the Foothills festival, instead of a chicken wing I had grabbed a woman’s wrist.

I apologized as quickly as I could remove my teeth from her tender flesh, which though lacking sufficient smoke lingered nicely on the palate. As I said, it was extremely dark, so I do not know whom I bit or whether she actually looked like a chicken — though by her springy texture and light flavor I would guess she was in her mid-20s and would pair nicely with a medium-bodied white wine — but I could hear quite clearly, which is how I know my apology was not only not accepted but profanely rejected, despite my also complimenting her repeatedly on her seasoning.

After that, before I bit into any piece of chicken that night I first asked it how it was enjoying the food. If it didn’t answer, I assumed it was a chicken leg.

On the third try, though, I learned I had to listen more closely because that lady was still chewing and unable to answer except by a grunt, and by then my teeth had nearly plunged in. Unable to see how close she was to being a snack, she simply pulled back her arm and moved on.

Casting my hands about in the dark, I listened for the sound of foil, which I knew from the brief glimpse before darkness fell was a sign of where the containers of wings were. “One, please,” I said, and pushed one of my 10 tickets toward a slightly darker area that looked like it perhaps was one of the trick-or-treat pumpkins that had been placed around the table for gathering tickets, though once it turned out to be a man’s rear end. If it were not so dark, that would not have ended well, but he couldn’t find me any better than I could find chicken legs in that abyss.

I stumbled away from him as quickly as I could, bouncing against others who were similarly blind in the dark like we were one large, slow-motion mosh pit, and when I got what I felt was a safe distance, I lifted my last chicken leg and bit into it. It crunched dryly, and my mouth filled with the taste of carbon.

Emerging into light cast by a street lamp, I blinked like a mole and looked in my hand, finding what more closely resembled a charcoal briquette than a piece of meat. Perhaps it had been chicken at one time.

A couple nearby came blinking toward the light, and the man looked down into his hand and said, “No, it’s the white ticket we’re supposed to use for voting, not a red ticket for another chicken wing.”

“Who should we vote for?” the woman said.

The man looked back into the dark mass of people, where amid the bumps and stumbling I could still hear the slurps of eating.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even know how to find the table.”

A woman walked up, rubbing her wrist. She stood directly under the light and held her wrist close to her face.

“I was right!” she yelled, turning to face a large figure in the dark as I started to edge away toward the end of the street. “These are teeth marks!”

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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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My company’s group of NC papers is migrating to a new CMS. I’m the lead for my paper. Within the setup questionnaire that started the process, there was an option for a free “day pass” for non-subscribers. I checked that box. Why not? Let a curious non-reader in. Maybe, best-case scenario, you gain a reader. Worst-case, someone who never reads you leaves that incremental revenue associated with the online ads that displayed with that person’s visit.

Later, I was told, nope, can’t do that. Nothing free is allowed.

How about $1? The iTunes 99 cents? Nope, it’s less than the charges that would be associated with the payment system.

So what is the one-day charge? $5. Read again: FIVE. DOLLARS.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I said.

I have been fortunate in my career that I have had multiple bosses who tolerate being spoken to that way.

“You have lost your f***ing mind,” I repeated. “Who would pay that?”

Still, my objections aside, that’s the plan. Come Aug. 7, at the latest, that’s the cost. Also the cost for a full week. The hope, if not the theory, is people will choose a week — and not, as I maintain, just give up.

I likened it to erecting an admission gate at Sears and saying you couldn’t come in unless you paid $5. I can walk through Sears or any retail store in this country, peruse the wares, pick them up, wack fellow customers in the arm with them, etc., without paying a dime and without any horribly overt ads confronting me.

I lost this argument.

Meanwhile, a free startup website that we had passed in social engagement has switched to a more aggegration-based strategy and has passed us in at least some measures, though it has less actual news content than it did before (its content is entirely social, press release or spot news the poster comes upon). But it’s free. I’m told, by those in the business, its ad rates mean it can’t possibly be making any money. But I’m told, by people in the community, that it’s intending to hire staff.

I don’t know yet who wins that argument.

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I spent most of the 12 years before coming to Lenoir trying to translate the national discussions about new media and news transformation for small newsrooms. Everyone talks in terms of big newsrooms and metro papers. But in terms of the national media scene, those are a minority of news organizations. The things that are of top importance in their newsrooms are luxurious daydreams for most newsrooms in the country.

In that sense, I was amply prepared for my current job. Yet I remain frustrated that smaller newsrooms, even those much larger than mine, seem to be less than an afterthought in journalism-discussion circles.

Take, as just one example, the Denver Post memo about the paper’s newsroom reorganization, much publicized and much discussed. “As part of the public meetings starting later in July, think about what The Post should cover, how should we be organized, what beats would you start and which would you eliminate,” it says.

It is the latest of many news conversations focused on rethinking what newspapers do cover versus what we should.

Good. I agree. Let’s rethink it.

I have four reporters in my newsroom, with these beats: sports (all), justice (cops and courts, countywide), city-county (Lenoir city government plus county government), and education plus the other five and a half (one is on the county line) small towns throughout the county.

I have no idea how I might reconstruct things to get better coverage. Literally everyone is a generalist. Half of all stories, at least, are what the city folk would call general assignment.

Do I stop having people cover the small towns in the county? That one reporter would like having Monday and Tuesday nights back, but the town leaders would view it as abandoning coverage, which would feed the negative narrative in the towns about our coverage. They are small towns. The average citizen in Charlotte may not give much weight to what his or her city council member thinks of the Observer’s coverage, but in Gamewell the elected officials are authorities, to many, and if they go around saying the newspaper doesn’t care, that carries significant weight.

Or maybe there should be no beats based on government structure at all. Except that my reporting staff is entirely under the age of 25 and from places other than here. Where would they begin? Beats, lets remember, are structure and help a new reporter figure out where to begin.

Or perhaps everyone would agree with me, that my newsroom is smaller than anyone would contemplate trying to reorganize beat structures.

Yes, well, move on, then, but it won’t mean I am less affected by the restructuring of media habits, advertising and news consumption patterns than you are.

The national discussion in journalism is divorced from the reality that the majority of papers face. Yet I know it is what the people on my staff will face if and when they decide to seek a job at a larger newsroom. And I know, from experience, that whatever larger newsrooms confront now will manifest themselves eventually in smaller newsrooms. Except it will be different, and no one will talk much about it then.

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Smith fire
I didn’t stay to watch the old Smith family home at the corner of Abington Road and Harper Avenue burn all the way to the ground.

But it was long enough to be reminded that in fire, beauty and horror are siblings.

This is especially true when an old house like this one burns.

The house was a two-story, brick American Foursquare, an architectural style that was especially popular in the early 20th century. It was built in the 1930s. A firefighter on the scene said some of the interior walls and ceilings were beadboard.

I would imagine the interior woodwork remained a sight to behold right up to when the flames touched it, even if the view out the front door had changed significantly since the 1930s, where what must have once been a quiet, two-lane road now is a four-lane bypass.

As someone put it in an understated comment on a Facebook photo of the fire, the house looked like it had a lot of potential.

Unfortunately, the lot it sits on also has a lot of potential, but not for single-family uses such as that house.

The developers who bought it plan to begin work in July to build a three-story apartment complex intended for low-income adults over 55. The house’s footprint is where one end of the L-shaped building will be, said Roy Helm, president of Wesley Community Development, a Methodist-based company that is planning the apartments together with the Western North Carolina Housing Partnership.

The developers let firefighters use the house for training. Battalion Chief Ken Nelson of the Lenoir Fire Department said that nine teams of firefighters from Lenoir, Hudson and Gamewell each had at least two training sessions finding and fighting fires that were set inside the house.

A two-story house like this one is especially valuable for training, Nelson said, because fire behaves differently where there are stairs, which act like a chimney. Fire creates its own weather, and the structure of a house influences it. Firefighters need to be able to see how fire behaves in different kinds of structures.

By about noon, after setting and putting out 20 or more fires, the firefighters set the final one, then stepped back.

Eventually I had to step back too. I kept stepping back. Once the flames burned through the roof, the heat emanating into the front yard — even against the wind — felt uncomfortably hot. I wondered whether the lenses in my glasses would warp, even as I watched Chief Ken Briscoe, wearing glasses, stand his ground 20 feet closer than I was.

Many of the firefighters, standing in T-shirts, remained closer to the fire than I could bear. Perhaps that’s good training too. They get used to the heat.

One things I’m not sure I could get used to is the burning. That beautiful wood, those stately bricks, that old, crinkled glass. The things that would evoke memories and provoke stories from those who grew up here.

In a couple of months, even the ashes will be gone.

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My heart ached as the sixth-graders walked one by one to the microphone at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, gave their first name and said what they want to be when they grow up.

Most appeared nervous. In some, that translated into a stiff gait, gaze locked forward. Some walked as if they were on a high wire, so conscious of the eyes on them that they perhaps feared tripping or stumbling. One skinny, gangly girl’s nerves made her long limbs jiggle as she walked, and she flashed a broad, self-conscious smile.

Some, like that girl, had begun the physical growth spurt that soon will make their parents feel suddenly much older. But most, even the taller ones, still had a child’s voice.

As each one, still brimming with a child’s energy but not yet a teenager’s bravado, spoke into the microphone, that child’s voice announcing a career ambition stabbed at the place in my heart where I keep sentimentality locked away.

“I want to be a technology designer,” a boy said, and the sweet earnestness bored into me.

These 41 children were this year’s recipients of Dream Awards from the Foundation of Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute. They were nominated by their teachers and guidance counselors because they show great potential to achieve these goals – or others that may replace them in the coming years.

“I want to be a paleontologist, vet or author,” a girl said, and the broad range of options she is considering swept me along like a river. She believes in these, I saw it in her eyes, she believes she can do it, and hearing that child’s voice speaking it, I wanted to pick her up and help her along.

These are all children who could become the first members of their families to attend college. Sixth-graders surely don’t realize what a barrier that is, but it is one, as adults come to understand. The understanding is part of what creates the ache when you look into a young face full of life and energy and dreams. An adult knows how many obstacles will come along.

A lack of money to pay tuition may be the least of the problems a child will confront before graduating high school, but unlike so many of those problems, it’s one that is easily addressed.

Not easily enough, of course. The 41 recipients of this year’s awards are not the only students who would be worthy of this attention. The money the foundation has raised goes only so far.

“I want to be a pediatrician,” a girl said, and I thought how many other girls might have said that but weren’t lucky enough to be chosen and brought to this room.

During their 25 years the Dream Awards have helped hundreds of students take a critical step closer to achieving their dreams.

It’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

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The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That became evident to me recently as I examined, out of curiosity, some of the earliest news reports in the Caldwell County Public Library’s collection that you can find from the Lenoir, N.C., area, from the weekly Caldwell Messenger, which began publication in September 1875.

For instance, an item in the Dec. 2, 1875, edition reported on “a slight runaway” of a horse team on Main Street in downtown Lenoir:

“Cause – too many fire crackers in the rear. No damage. Moral – don’t leave your team standing without someone to look after the horses when the school boys have holiday. They will celebrate.”

We all can recall our father’s warning, if your father was like mine, about firecrackers in the rear, and while you won’t find any teams of horses downtown anymore, visit and you might find a fair share of horse’s rears, or you might at least run into me.

An item in the Nov. 18, 1875, edition commented, “It is well that our hog law has been repealed, or our town dogs would be immensely idle, nowadays. As it is, it keeps them pretty busy between meals playing with friend Johnson’s pigs on the public square.”

This was followed a week later by Mr. Johnson’s objection to that commentary:

“Friend Johnson says it isn’t his hogs that afford so much amusement for the town dogs. The hogs, he says, belong to various other parties, principal among whom are the Town Commissioners.”

I have not researched it, but the hog law must have been reinstated at some point, for hogs seldom are seen around the public square anymore. Perhaps Mr. Johnson shamed the commissioners into keeping their hogs penned and re-enacting the ban.

And then, as now, one of the chief functions of the local newspaper has been to shine a spotlight on local residents, particularly those who are active in civil affairs, such as this resident noted in the Nov. 25, 1875, edition:

“The most vigilant and persevering inhabitant of Lenoir is a certain cow we know of. She seems to regard herself as the miller of the town, from the way she takes toll of every wagon that is stopped on the square – or anywhere in smelling distance. She would have made a capital collector of tithes during the war. She has a determined energy unequaled by Grant himself.”

One thing that has changed is in the advertising. Newspapers have always been vehicles for local merchants to get their messages out to the public through advertisements, but many of the ones in those old papers would baffle young people now, selling such things as “tinware,” turbine water wheels and “dry goods.” (I have not yet seen an old ad for “wet goods,” but one presumes such things must have existed.)

But one that local pharmacist W.W. Gaither ran repeatedly in late 1875 and early 1876 is as relevant now as the day he penned it:

Drugs! Drugs!

I cannot afford to sell any more of them without pay. All who owe me are invited to settle without further notice. No more credit.

All kinds of country produce received.

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