Conversations about news, life and the Winston-Salem Journal

Category: 2008

Wednesday, April 30

Radio daze

I had two radio appearances in the past two days, confirming once again that I have a face for that sort of business.

First, I was interviewed yesterday on WQMG by Busta Brown. He was talking about the photo that went with Day Three of our series on The Murders at Grassy Creek (It’s the 5th photo in the slide show). The shot shows Ron Hudler with First Lady Hillary Clinton when he was presenting the official White House Tree to the Clintons. There were two questions. One, were we making a political statement by running that photo? and Two, what was our intent with the two black men who can be seen in the background? To Busta, there was something a bit demeaning about the servile positions of these men. He’s a nice guy and a good and fair interviewer, so I enjoyed talking with him. My take is that A) the series was in the works long before we knew that there was a primary to worry about or that candidates would be in W-S that day, and B) the photo is about Mr. Hudler and Ms. Clinton. We received two photos from the presidential library, and this was the only usable one. The impression or pereception is bothersome, but not enough to not use the photo.

Second, I was interviewed on Talk of the Nation this afternoon by Neal Conan about the disappearance of local movie critics. As some of you may know or still remember, the Journal’s movie critic was let go during a downsizing several years ago. WFDD didn’t broadcast this half of the show, but it’s available online, although may not be available until later in the day. The summary of my comments: Tough decision, but ultimately the best of several bad scenarios. And movie watching and info about movies keeps changing. Citizen journalism includes criticism.

I received a request for help about archiving newspapers. I asked Julie Harris, our research director and library manager, who is an ace at all things regarding preserving the printed word: Here is her response:

It depends on how much newsprint to save, how often the papers are going to be used, and how elaborate you want to be in preserving the paper. Library of Congress has a discussion on preserving newspapers online. It discusses such things as microfilming and digitization but the main items are about preserving the printed paper itself.

Hope this helps.

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Monday, April 28

Grassy Creek and beyond

I hope that you have had time to read the first two parts of our five-part series, The Murders at Grassy Creek.

It’s an incredible tale of true crime and lives colliding. The multimedia is very impressive and moving. Monte Mitchell, our NW reporter, is especially gifted at pulling these sorts of stories out of folks, and he understands the mountain communities better than anyone.

In many newspapers, the word series has become a dirty word. The idea is that readers are too pressed for time and too self-absorbed with YouTube videos of dancing monkeys and the like to want to devote scarce time to reading a long story, elegantly displayed over several days.

We disagree. We think there is still a place for this sort of journalism and that it still matters to the heart and soul of our readership. That said, there are strains and costs for doing these involved pieces. We pass on other stories or write less about them. It’s not a perfect world or one of endless resouces. But the way I look at it is: You can get information anywhere and everywhere. But news and stories like this, they’re in the paper.

Market watch: A friend sent this story to me, about the stock-market gyrations and the verbs that financial writers love to use.

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Thursday, April 24

The role of a columnist

If you read our Letters to the Editor, you’ve probably seen a fair number criticizing our columnist Scott Sexton. What started the ball rolling was a column about layoffs and executive pay at Hanesbrands and the company’s contributions to the proposed downtown arts complex. The gist of their comments are that corporate philanthropy is worthy, regardless of the giver or the timing of the gift, and that people who don’t recognize the value of downtown arts projects are shortsighted Philistines.

But more to the larger point that I sense in these letters and conversations around town is the idea that a columnist for a newspaper or a TV station (where Jesse Helms earned his stripes) or a Web site should be a cheerleader for and never ask hard questions for the folks in power. That they shouldn’t jab or poke or prod or tease.

That’s precisely what they should do, as well as praise if they think it’s warranted. Interpret facts and state an opinion. It’s not the newspaper’s opinion. It’s their opinion. We provide a columnist a forum (and a paycheck) because we think the voice is worth hearing, if not always agreeing with.

Now Scott works for the Metro Editor, who reports to me, and I report to the Executive Editor who reports to the Publisher. So, yes, there are a lot of people who could tell Scott what to write about (or more likely what NOT to write about.) But it’s a false Eden. The result is pablum. Once you start telling an opinion writer what their opinion has to be, pretty soon the whole thing falls apart. You can’t have a guard dog protect only one half of the yard.

Do I agree with everything Scott writes? Of course not. But that’s not the point. Or my job. It’s to make sure that he plays fair, reports accurately and states his opinion in a way that’s easy to understand and hopefully enjoyable to read.

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Wednesday, April 23

Down the stretch

I’ve gone back and looked at my political entries for the last four months and all I can say is—- I blew it. The idea of North Carolina being the keys to the kingdom, the last dance/waltz/chance, the Alamo, the dagger through the heart, our finest hour (your metaphor goes here.) ... was preposterous. But here we are. Two weeks from a primary that is crucial to both candidates. It’s silly to suggest that at this stage of the game that the whole campaign comes down to Murphy to Manteo, or is it Murphy vs. Manteo. But North Carolina’s mix of urban/rural, black/white/brown, lunch bucket and lab coat, etc. is a true proving ground for Sens. Clinton and Obama.

Journalistically, it’s incredibly energizing for our newsroom, if somewhat exhausting. The reason is simple: We matter. Yes, candidates can take to the airwaves, and they have blogs and email blasts and Web sites to reach their core supporters and the like, but you will see in the next two weeks a courtship of the NC print press that you haven’t seen in years. My sense in Iowa and New Hampshire is that the candidates are working two crowds. First and most important are the local reporters, whose customers will vote. But second are the national press, whose stories define the race and help drive fundraising. Of course,  you’ll see that here as well. But the national dynamics are largely set. Now, it’s all about the votes here. My guess is that you have to go all the way back to 1976, when Jesse Helms resuscitated Ronald Reagan’s campaign in the NC primary to find a time when our primary vote was ultimately so consequential.

Down the road: A heads up of sorts. This Sunday, we will be starting—in print and online—a special five-part series on the killings at the Christmas Tree Farm in Grayson County in January. It’s the work of many outstanding folks on our team, principally Monte Mitchell, our NW reporter. I hope you will check it out and let me know what you think. It is a heckuva tale.

Jim Crawley, whose byline was a regular feature of our Washington coverage when he covered the military for Media General, died last night. He was 51. Jim was a class act. Smart. Connected. Passionate. Helpful. A journalist’s journalist. And a friend.

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Monday, April 21

Catching up

I am sorry for the haphazard posting the past week. I was in Greensboro at the Center for Creative Leadership, which was an incredible and eye-opening experience. I learned a lot about myself and how what we intend to do and what others perceive us as doing don’t always jibe. And, as with a lot of these group endeavors, you become quick friends with people whose best asset is their willingness to unflinchingly help you be a better leader/manager/person

Now, onto the news.

First, the redesign of JournalNow, the host of OTTERBLOG and the Winston-Salem Journal’s online face. A long time coming. The goal was to create a more graceful site, with a better rotation of news and pictures that is easier to navigate. We’re interested in your thoughts, so please let me know the good, bad and the ugly.

Second, the primaries. Our story this morning on small-town North Carolina highlights the battle for blue-collar votes. We’ve got two weeks before the May 6 primary. It is a scramble out there, particularly if Sen. Clinton wins Pennsylvania tomorrow. What I’ve been pleased with regarding our coverage is that we have worked hard to get into issues, not just the personalities of the candidates. I’m not so naive to think that personality doesn’t matter, but at the end of the day we’re electing a president, not a first friend.

How’d we get that shot: Our photo on Saturday morning that showed Sen. Clinton in Washington Park filming a commercial was the result of luck and hard work. Luck, in that one of our journalists lives on the street where the ad was filmed. Hard work, in that our photo editor Walt Unks is pretty darned good with a long lens.


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Thursday, April 17

What’s in a name

The Hyphens. The I-40s. The Hushpuppies.

Those are my suggestions for what to call the Warthogs when they take the field next year at the new stadium. As our columnist, Scott Sexton, asked, “What’s wrong with keeping the Warthog name?

I don’t mind the Warthogs. A big improvement from the Spirits, but progress marches on.

One of the ticklish things about yesterday’s announcement by the folks who will be running the Winston-Salem MLBTTWCTW* is that the Journal will be one of the funnel points for folks offering their suggestions on what to rename the team.

Me, personally, I’m not crazy when the business side of the house gets involved in issues that we might cover. There’s the potential for conflicts or the appearance of conflicts. But if you think about it, the Journal outside the newsroom is already doing business with many if not most of the institutions we cover. It’s unavoidable. So all we can do is manage it, and by that I mean be upfront and work hard not to let the back side affect the front side.

*Minor-league baseball team that was called the Warthogs.

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Sunday, April 13

Side by each

The story of Eng and Chang Bunker is one for the ages, as our story this morning made clear.

The phrase Siamese twins is now considered pejorative, and rightly so. The preferred word is “conjoined.” But what I find so fascinating about the Bunkers and this history is that the name was appropriate for them. They were twins—of a fashion—and they were from Siam, now Thailand. And their life, from Asia, to the carnival life, to country gentlemen married to sisters in the mountains of North Carolina is an incredible journey.

Historians, writers and filmmakers have been wrestling with the Bunkers—metaphorically speaking—for years. And there is a whole body of work about them. Darin Strauss’s Chang and Eng is an imagined narration by Chang of their life together. I don’t know how much of it is true, but it is a lyrical novel.

Blue Ridge Country wrote about the Bunkers some time back.

But for my money, the best thing I’ve seen recently was a piece in June 2006 in National Geographic on the Bunkers and their descendants, who now live in and around Mount Airy.

Getting some recognition
: Our Raleigh correspondent, James Romoser, scored an exclusive yesterday, with an interview of Barack Obama and his regret over remarks that seemed to denigrate small-town, rural America. The story went viral, and we’ve got something like 5 pages of comments on JournalNow. Incredible. Another example of how the Web is changing politics and political reporting.

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Tuesday, April 08

Spouse in the house

Michelle Obama is just leaving Winston-Salem State as we speak/write/blog. Pretty powerful speaker. I’m not sure when the sea change happened with spouses campaigning so actively for their better? halves. I guess to some extent it’s been going on for years. Nina Totenberg of NPR fame has a book out about first ladies and their value to the team, but my sense is that the overt and persistent politicking is a fairly recent phenomenon.

It raises some interesting coverage issues. Our approach so far has been that the candidates themselves are bigger news than their spouses. No surprise there. But with essentially four weeks until primary day, we could see numerous trips to Winston-Salem from the candidates and their spouses. One of the things that I find interesting is how much attention Winston-Salem is getting. I think that’s a bit unusual. In the past, many candidates were content to hit Greensboro and let that be it for the Triad, the idea being that PTIA was a convenient gathering place for the TV trucks and press types and you could hit several birds with one stone. I’ve often thought that Winston-Salem/Forsyth County is politically different than Greensboro/Guilford, and the candidates apparently think so as well.

Good read: On an unrelated topic, the Pulitzer prizes were announced yesterday. Lots of good stories/articles. For sheer enjoyment, here’s the winning features entry, about an experiment involving a world-class violinist and a DC train station. It’s looooong, but very funny and meaningful.

Update: OTTERBLOG was wrong. It’s Cokie Roberts, not Nina Totenberg who has the new book out about first ladies. Sorry about that.

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Friday, April 04

The inbox

Email-retention policies are not the sexiest three words in the English language. They’re not even the sexiest words in the English language of bureaucrats, but there’s a battle/skirmish being waged in Raleigh about how the government stores and keeps email. Here’s the link to Gov. Easley’s release on the matter. The background is that a press person at DHHS was fired after a series in the N&O about woeful mental health care. On her way out she said that the Easley administration was telling folks to delete their email. Easley folks said no, then others came forward to say yeah, sort of.

Email has become a treasure trove of sorts for reporters. Most newspapers have set up systems with local governments where they routinely get the email of city manager or the like just forwarded to their inboxes. We love it. Public officials don’t. Lots of reasons why. First, it’s a pain separating out email that is considered a public record and those that aren’t (such as email involving personnel). Second, the use of email is too pervasive. It is the way we communicate, and so the amount of email on a particular subject can be huge. Third, people say things in email that they wouldn’t say over the phone or in person or in an OFL (old-fashioned letter).

I think that everybody in the state has conceded that emails are public records, so the real question is how to manage and disseminate them to the public (whether the press or otherwise). It’s costly (both time and money). Nobody probably wants to read every email that Gov. Easley writes, but the idea of having 10 mm state of north carolina emails flood your inbox everyday is a little overwhelming as well. As with all large amounts of data, if you can’t sort, you’re lost in the woods.

If I was a betting person, I would look for legislation on this in the 2009 session, when a new governor and a new General Assembly try to figure out what makes sense in a digital age with a public looking for transparency in government.

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Thursday, April 03

Civic duty

Yesterday, I did my civic duty and answered the call for jury duty. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Right in the middle of spring break. But what are you going to do? Everybody I told I was doing this said essentially the same thing? They’d let you be on a jury? I tried not to take that as an insult on my impartiality/intellect/independence. The conventional wisdom is that journalists never get picked for juries. Lots of reasons/speculation: We’re anti-authority. We don’t believe what anybody says. We know too many lawyers. We’ve written about the plaintiffs/defense/prosecutors etc. Take your pick. But times have changed. I know several journalists who have been picked to serve on juries in recent years. My guess is it’s a function of several things. First, that the jury pool is more shallow than we care to admit. Second, a realization that we’re good at sifting through complicated matters and rendering fair decisions.

Now, civic duty takes many forms. For me, it was this. Sitting in a room about as cold as a meat locker for seven hours reading magazines and doing some work. In the background, reruns of Sanford and Son and the Jeffersons. Sort of an interesting dynamic there. The TV was off for the first 90 minutes. Then somebody turned it on. At first, it was a big annoyance, but slowly our group’s attention turned to the rantings of George and Louise, Fred and LaMonte. Even the most hard-boiled of us was laughing by the end of it all. And so, if most of us didn’t get to serve on a jury, I’d like to think there was a little bit of bonding and good will formed through the day that will carry over into our daily lives. That and the $12.

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