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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

The past year has been a whirlwind.

I’m three weeks away from the anniversary of my arrival in Lenoir. By Jan. 21 I will have been working here four months longer than I did when this place gave me my first reporting job in 1987-88.

The change in my working life from 2012 to 2013 is reflected in part by what you don’t see. Before, I blogged an average of several times a week about news issues, new media and social media. In large part, that reflected my job at Media General – part of my role to was to track trends on things like that and point our newsrooms to what other news organizations were doing.

During 2013, WordPress tells me, my posting dropped to an average of two or three times a month.

Mostly that’s the result of the time-consuming role of running a small, resource-starved newsroom. At a place this small, the editor is not just the editor; he (or she) is also a reporter, tech support, obit clerk, calendar editor, photo editor, editorial page editor and sometimes handyman. If you want your reporters to be reporters, you have little choice but to sweep up those other roles.

Among my frustrations from my job hunt was that editors and publishers often seemed to think my time in the corporate news division of Media General actually was a detour out of news, that the 11-plus years there could only have dulled my instincts for supervising reporters or my willingness to pull long hours. My publisher here would say otherwise.

But one thing I can credit to my time in Media General is learning, by observing nearly two dozen newsrooms, from weeklies up to metro dailies, that when the resources are cut, you have to let something go. I had seen many examples of editors trying to keep doing the same with less. As busy as I am, I could be busier if I weren’t willing to embrace what’s “good enough” and move on to the next battle.

Which brings me to another change in my blog posts. In general, my posts now most often address what confronts me as the editor of a small-town newspaper, or they are personal observances. I haven’t taken time to rethink the “About” portion of the blog, so I blog less.

My main challenge during 2013 was setting expectations for the staff: The main point isn’t to fulfill a byline count but to make sure what you do is interesting to the reader. That has meant shooting down stories that the paper might have done before and sending others back for more work. It has meant learning to use social media to draw attention to stories since fewer people subscribe. We’ve begun getting a little video in as extras, but the emphasis has stayed on the writing.

The staff is smaller than it was in mid-2012, but this paper is better written now, I think it’s more interesting, and the number of local news items in print is about the same.

I could be wrong about our performance. We didn’t do well in the state press awards, and home subscriptions continue their years-long slide (though the most common reason given for canceling is free news online). But single-copy sales are stronger.

My biggest frustrations are things that are out of my control: the budget, and the ability of a paper this size, in this kind of market, to appeal to young talent.

In those, I am sure, I have plenty of company.

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The news coming out of a series of meetings that the new owner of the Washington Post, Amazon founder Jeffrey Bezos, had with the paper’s employees this week sounded both encouraging and discouraging to longtime news people like me.

It was encouraging because so much of it reinforced the values we have always been taught.

For instance, this was the first paragraph of the story by Post writers Paul Farhi and Craig Timberg about the meetings:

“Jeffrey P. Bezos had a simple bit of advice for the staff of the newspaper he’ll soon own: Put readers, not advertisers, first. Don’t write to impress each other. And above all, ‘Don’t be boring.’”

But what’s discouraging is just that: Almost everything that those listening to Bezos found worth repeating was so thoroughly familiar that it ought to have been unremarkable.

For instance, every bit of that Post paragraph above was pretty much from News Writing 101. Many reporters hate the idea that advertising is even IN the newspaper, so you hardly have to tell them not to put advertisers first, but getting a writer to think of his story from the perspective of a reader can take some work. And “Don’t be boring”? Get serious. That falls under the category of advice that my wife calls “Don’t shave the cat,” which means it’s advice you really shouldn’t need to hear in order to do the sensible thing. No editor ever chewed out a reporter for failing to load a story full of six-syllable words, math equations and technical explanations.

“What has been happening over the last several years can’t continue to happen,” Bezos said of seemingly never-ending cuts to news staff. “If every year we cut the newsroom a little more and a little more and a little more, we know where that ends.”

I have yet to hear anyone say otherwise, so while it’s nice to know that Bezos doesn’t think you can cut your way to prosperity, that thought by itself doesn’t mean he can get the revenue moving back in the right direction.

What the news industry hopes to see from Bezos eventually is a way for the business to thrive in the world of free and instant sharing on the Internet. The closest he got to that was this:

“Should it be as easy to buy the Washington Post as it is to buy diapers on Amazon? I think it should.”

Can’t argue with that. Many of the business practices at a great many newspapers are firmly rooted in the pre-Internet 20th century. But again, that’s hardly a novel realization. People have been talking about this in the industry for years, yet, just like the weather, no one does anything about it.

Then we get to a couple of things the Post reported Bezos saying that are just depressing to journalists.

“You have to figure out: How can we make the new thing? Because you have to acknowledge that the physical print business is in structural decline,” he said. “You can’t pretend that that’s not the case. You have to accept it and move forward. . . . The death knell for any enterprise is to glorify the past, no matter how good it was …”

If that’s the death knell, then we’re dead, baby, because journalists have been glorifying the past for decades – particularly at Pulitzer-winning metropolitan papers such as the Post.

“All businesses need to be forever young. . . . If your customer base ages with you as a company, you’re Woolworth’s.”

All I have to say about that is, welcome to Woolworth’s.

Actually, I’d rather end on a positive note, or as positive as any of Bezos’ comments struck me, which was this on what Bezos said his purchase of the Post shows about his outlook:

“If I thought it was hopeless I’d feel BAD for you guys. But I wouldn’t want to join you.”

So he’s an optimist. Which might just be the surest evidence possible that at heart he isn’t a journalist.

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I want to thank writer Julian Turner for helping not just me but any Lenoir-area work supervisor who sometimes has to place help-wanted ads.

It can be agonizing to come up with the correct wording that both sounds enticing and doesn’t oversell the job or the community.

But Turner, in a business story he wrote for the New Statesman magazine, “How Google is changing small-town America,” provided the perfect words to form the heart of a pitch.

For instance: “Nestled in the shadow of the iconic Blue Ridge mountains is the unassuming backwater of Lenoir, North Carolina.”

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. It sounds a little condescending. But if you analyze the language, it changes your perspective.

Take “backwater.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “water backed up in its course by an obstruction, an opposing current, or the tide,” or else, “a body of water (as an inlet or tributary) that is out of the main current of a larger body.”

Symbolically, Lenoir is a little backed up by an obstruction, otherwise known as the economy. And if you have ever had to bring a job candidate here, it’s hard to deny that we’re a little “out of the main current” of travel.

Besides, backwaters are quiet and tranquil. They gurgle instead of rush. Their gentleness eases your mind. Backwaters are where you find the great blue heron slowly hunting in the grasses. They are where you paddle a canoe lazily and watch for red-shouldered blackbirds stirring in the otherwise still brush nearby.

So “backwater,” though usually used as a pejorative, has some positive connotations, properly defined.

And look on the bright side: He didn’t say “jerkwater,” a term for a place that’s remote and unimportant or trivial. To not be unimportant implies that in some ways you must be important.

Worse still would have been a word such as used in the overwrought opening of Turner’s story, which referred to a fictional Texas town as “flyblown,” a word meaning covered in fly eggs (or maggots).

Not only could backwater be taken as an accurate if sometimes uncomfortable description, he modified that noun with “unassuming,” which the dictionary says is a fancier term for “modest.” That’s a compliment. To be unassuming or modest means the town doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, the people are polite and welcoming, not prideful and off-putting.

To be “assuming” or immodest would mean we’re putting on airs, getting above our raising or being boastful, even brazen. “Immodest” used to be one of the euphemisms used in polite company for a young woman who bared too much of her body as though it were for sale; in impolite company the word used might have been “trollop.” A trollop of a town would be showy, shiny, brassy, loud, painted up and dressed down, in a hurry for action and with a lust for money.

No, if I have a complaint with Mr. Turner’s phrasing, it’s that it’s hackneyed, redundant and cliché. If you tell me a place is a backwater, am I going to envision a mini Las Vegas strip? A downtown filled with gilded 20-story buildings? No. I’m going to assume it’s unassuming. That’s why it’s a backwater.

The article essentially is an over-intellectualized journal entry about the pace of change and what that is doing to small towns. In his very first sentence, Turner uses “elegiac,” meaning “expressing sorrow, often for something now past.” It’s a word I would rather writers not use if they want to be understood, since most folks have to look it up, but it certainly applies to how many residents feel about what the economy has done to this area’s major employers.

Turner concludes: “Google is … transforming the town of Lenoir into a living monument to the accelerated pace of technological change that has characterized post-war American life and industry.”

Well, maybe.

That change is happening everywhere, backwaters and main currents alike. I saw it in Richmond too – it even took my job.

Maybe it’s just more noticeable here because the waters are still enough that you can see what’s changing.

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As the warm weather pushed in here again last week, it reminded me of one duty of a small-town newspaper editor I learned about during my first stint at the News-Topic 25 years ago that I have not yet begun to prepare for.

At some point I have to designate a Big Bug and Weird Fruit Editor.

It’s more an honorary title than an official one. Certainly there’s no money attached.

My first editor, Lee Barnes, introduced me to the concept. When the weather gets warm, things start growing. Things that are able to move start moving.

Sometimes the growing things grow into odd shapes that perhaps look like Lyndon Baines Johnson, or Buddha, or Jim Nabors. They might not look like anything more than lumpy plant material to you, but to the one who grew it, it could practically start speaking.

Things that move are liable at some point to move into the path of a human who has never seen such a thing before. Maybe it looks like a Transformer, if those were only 2 inches long. Or a tank. Maybe the person just wants to know what it is but thought of us before thinking of the Cooperative Extension Service.

Or maybe it’s just that whenever people encounter vegetables that look like dead celebrities, fruit the size of a human head or insects that look like shrunken alien war machines, they all have one thought: If I don’t get a picture of this in the paper, something will happen to it and everyone will just say I’ve started drinking again.

So they come into the newspaper, often with a shoebox under one arm (for a big bug) or something large, ripe and maybe red in one hand (weird fruit). Sometimes the thing they brought is out in the pickup.

The job of the Big Bug and Weird Fruit Editor is to take a few photos of the Phenomenon of Nature presented and write down all the relevant information so we can run a photo in the paper. (We probably are not going to write a story, but you never know until you see what comes in the door.)

There actually is not a single person designated as Big Bug and Weird Fruit Editor (so you can relax, Kim), the duty falls to whomever is in the office. Back when I was a rookie, it often was the editor himself. But editors are well known as capricious despots, so one person might get picked on the most if I get tired of doing it (Kim).

I don’t know what the News-Topic’s policy previously has been on misshapen vegetables or scary bugs, but I plan to have an open door policy: Bring it here, but if it can fly then don’t open the door. I’ll come outside.

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Until the ceremonial announcement April 19 that Google is going to expand its data center in Lenoir, I didn’t even realize where the data center was.

I had driven past it at least a dozen times since arriving here in January.

I don’t think anyone at Google intended for it to be poignant when they selected a site within Lenoir for the company’s data center, but that’s what happened. When you leave Google and turn left to Morganton Boulevard, you face Bernhardt Furniture’s Plant 3. There at the traffic light, you sit smack between looming symbols of this area’s past and what may be its future.

When I worked here as a reporter 25 years ago and furniture was at something close to its height, every afternoon around 3, black smoke poured from the smokestack at that Bernhardt plant. At least in my memory, a thick plume boiled against the sky for 20 or 30 minutes, and then it gradually eased. People I knew who had worked there or knew people who did said it was from workers clearing the scraps from their work area at the end of the shift, tossing everything into the incinerator.

I haven’t seen smoke like that since returning.

Out of curiosity, last Saturday morning I drove up Lynnhaven Drive past Google’s entrance and into the old neighborhood there. The juxtapositions can be striking. In certain places, it can feel as though a spaceship has landed and altered the landscape.

Tall chain-link fencing draped with concealing green fabric lines Google’s perimeter, but you can still glimpse the large, white buildings lined with towering cooling equipment, with an empty field between them and the fence. At one point along Overlook Drive, which has no overlooks, there is a sheer earthworks wall at least 50 feet high where a holler was filled in. It too is topped with fencing.

On the opposite side of the road, meanwhile, are woods or modest houses of the kind you might find on any country drive.

Before long the road passes out of range of Google, and you could be in any hilly spot in Caldwell County, if you didn’t know where you are.

I’m left with the lingering images of old and new. Old neighborhoods on one side of a winding residential road, new hillside and fencing on the other. Old Caldwell industry and new, almost face to face across a city thoroughfare.

The former Broyhill Furniture Industries headquarters on U.S. 321, soon to be home to a growing pharmaceutical company, still seems to me the greatest single symbol of the local economy’s transformation.

But there on the street outside Google’s gate you get a greater sense of the sweep of change. From the Google sign you can look at the company’s guarded, high-security gate and the almost-new buildings beyond them, look to one side at the Bernhardt smokestack, and then look to the other up the hill to houses where some people have lived since before the founder of Google was born.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov said: “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

Who could have foreseen this world?

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Before moving to Lenoir, N.C., I lived almost 12 years in Richmond, Va. Richmond is a beautiful city, a mix of Old South and mid-Atlantic, accents from hither and yon, a wonderful array of exceptionally good but reasonably priced restaurants, tons of historic sites, a city that can feel big, mid-sized or small depending on exactly where you are and who you’re with. In every positive way, it’s not Charlotte. It has a sense of place and history. And yet parts of it also are like so much of Charlotte — all sprawl and no sense of place.

Living there was a great experience.

But one thing I definitely will not miss from Richmond is the result of what I can only assume is the thrill that newspaper writers there get from referring to the region’s residents — everyone in the entire nearly-1-million-person region, not just in the fewer-than-200,000-person city — as Richmonders. Richmonders Richmonders Richmonders. You would think they earned money from every appearance of the word in an article.

Unlike “New Yorkers,” it does not roll off the tongue. I never once in 12 years there, as best I can recall, heard a single person in conversation use the term “Richmonder.”

I was reminded of this one day recently while reading a story a friend had forwarded to me from Richmond’s main alternative weekly newspaper, Style, about Virginia’s attorney general. Because I have been in Lenoir almost the entire time since Jan. 20 and don’t seek out news from Virginia, it was the first time I had seen the word “Richmonder” in nearly three months, and it struck me: In many other towns, including most of the ones where I have lived, no one even has a word for local residents. State residents, sure — North Carolinians, Virginians, Floridians, Oklahomans. But not so much the residents of most cities and towns.

What in the world would Lenoir residents be? I wondered.

Lenoirites? Lenoirians? Probably not Lenoirons, except to people from somewhere else trying to make fun of them. Lenoirlings? Nah.

If I were Hudson’s mayor, I might try to get people to adopt “Hudsonians.” It sounds like “Smithsonian.”

Sawmills would pose a particular challenge because of the s on the name. Sawmillsers? Sawmillsions? Sawmillsites? I’m not sure any of the usual endings for such things were intended for denoting residents of a place with a name that itself is a plural.

Similarly, what do you do with Granite Falls residents? Granite Fallsers?

Maybe Cajah’s Mountain residents are Cajah’s Mountaineers, although that sounds like a sports team.

The issue abounds in the larger region.

Consider Rhodhiss.

Blowing Rock.

Drexel.

Connelly Springs.

There are so many place names that don’t lend themselves to labels for who lives there.

Here’s this editor’s riddle and answer:

Question: What do you call residents of (fill in the blank)?

Answer: People.

That much has generally proven to be true everywhere.

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News-Topic  -2004 logo
If you had told me I’d be back editing the Lenoir News-Topic 25 years after I left, I would have laughed. It’s not the direction I saw my career going. But Warren Buffett intervened, and in the process of saving modern journalism (if that didn’t sound sarcastic in your head, you have to read it over again) he put me and 104 other people out of jobs. Long story short, here I am, and here, in the Jan. 27 News-Topic, I make my version of Charles Foster Kane’s “declaration of principles.” If you don’t want to follow the link, here’s a summary:

I want to get the website into the 21st century, and with any luck not too long after that it might actually catch up to the current date.

I want to get the staff engaged online with the audience. In a small town, that may be a little bit redundant, but the early returns on our very embryonic start look good.

But mostly, with two new hires — one made, one in process — I’m putting good writing front and center in my reclamation project. I’ve long maintained and made the argument that in the long run, as more and more data and nuggets of information can be found for free online, good writing and creativity can make a site stand out and get readers to keep coming back. Now, in a small way, I have a chance to try it myself.

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This week I began work at the Lenoir (N.C.) News-Topic. I had hoped to remain pretty close to Richmond, Va. This is definitely not that. It’s a six-hour drive, counting bathroom and food breaks. The money isn’t great. But I have an editor’s publisher, and in my experience those are pretty rare.

The News-Topic happens to be the place where I got my first reporting job, in 1987. In fact, when I interviewed for the editor’s job in December, I was appalled to see that the newsroom desks and partitions were the same ones that the New York Times had put in place after buying the paper in 1982. (The current owner is Paxton.) We now are gradually replacing them with new desks. (Cheap ones,but new.) The editor’s desk, however, will remain. I had thought that the desk predated the New York Times’ ownership because it appeared to be a solid, oak desk of spartan, utilitarian design — but I just noticed a couple of places where the oak veneer is chipped off, revealing a pressed-fiber interior. It may still date back to before 1982, but it also may just have lived a rough life.

I was hired here just in time to get the final say on the finalists for one reporting job. One candidate’s writing was at a different level of the atmosphere, and I’m happy to say she will start here in a little more than a week. I just learned that I’ll soon have another hire to make. This is a big deal. This paper is so small that I will have had the chance to hire two-thirds of my news reporters. It’s a little exciting. The staff is about half the size it was when I worked here 25 years ago. It’s so small, I don’t have great hope of ever being able to cover nearly all the ground we once did. Some editors I respect say that a key to driving readership in a small town is getting all the public records you can. I know such things gain readership, but I’m not so sure how heavy I want to push them all to focus on that. I could have all of them chase public records and whatnot until they drop dead, but that doesn’t seem like much fun — for them, me or especially for the readers on days when the records didn’t hold much of interest. And I remember from my first time here, the job was fun. What I really want to do is get some really good writing in the paper.

I may yet be proven wrong, but as the newest captain of this dinky little ship, that’s the course I’ve set. How excited am I? Here’s the ad I’ve placed to fill that job:

New editor remaking a paper in a small, quirky town in the Appalachian foothills seeks an experienced writer who can be a watchdog, likes traveling country roads in search of stories and plays well with a close team of storytellers. On any given day you may cover a government meeting, run out to a fire, spend a couple of hours on a feature, and/or wander the nearby mountains for a day-trip travel story. Part of your day is shaped by events; part of your day is shaped by your interests. Characters please apply, but do it with style (and grammar). A good writer in a big town is a still, small voice, but in a small town that voice thunders in the night. A good writer in a big town is a watchdog, but in a small town that watchdog is the only one howling against the wolves. This is the ideal opportunity for a writer who wants to dip a toe in management to see how that water feels – everyone is in the order of succession, so you learn fast. Send cover letter, résumé and whatever you feel shows you at your best to Guy Lucas at guylucas@newstopic.net or 123 Pennton Ave. NW, Lenoir, NC 28645.

If a low-paying job with long hours in a small town isn’t fun, what the hell is the point of doing it? Why not be a bank teller or something, and get better money for shorter hours? You want to write your ass off, come see me.

On Sunday’s A1, I publish my equivalent to Charles Foster Kane’s “Declaration of Principles” in “Citizen Kane.” I won’t leak the document here first, but I’ll add it here after it’s published.

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