Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Message of the Media

RandomAshevile has been given a temporary leave of absence. Thank you for reading and commenting. Your comments are still appreciated. Are there issues and concerns with local print and Web media?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Why Can't Any Reporter Find Out at What's Going on with HandMade?

On January 23, RandomAsheville asked why the Asheville Citizen-Times had two stories in two days about the sudden departure of Geraldine Plato as executive director of HandMade in America.  Then no follow-up to get any deeper into the story.

“Is there more going on with Handmade in America that citizens in this crafts-centric town should know about?,” I asked.  “Should either of our newspapers be telling us?

On February 23, Rebecca Sulock, the features editor of Mountain Xpress, published an article with a semi-tabloid style headline: “Craft community still reeling from HandMade director’s departure.”  While not citing many sources to back up the community-reeling claim, she did quote letters from Rob Pulleyn and Andrew Glasgow to the HandMade board expressing their concerns.  And she did follow-up with Glasgow for further comments.

Pulleyn, the founder of Fiber Arts magazine and Lark Books, and himself a potter, and Andrew Glasgow, former executive director of The Furniture Society and then the American Craft Council, are important figures in crafts locally and nationally, so their views gave weight to Sulock’s story.

But unfortunately she came to a dead end with HandMade’s interim executive director (and former board member) Elizabeth Russell.  As Sulock might have expected, Russell would not - and could not -  comment on the organization’s reasons for personnel action.

So readers are not much further along than we were with the Citizen-Times articles.

Some questions for Sulock and her editors:

Were Pulleyn and Glasgow not able to give you other sources?

Did you try to contact Geraldine Plato?  If she had a “no comment,” why wasn’t that reported in the story?  What is Plato doing now?  Has she taken another position?

Did you contact Becky Anderson?  Another “no comment?”  How many of the board members of HandMade and its separate foundation did you contact to find out if there were any dissenters?  Could you have, should you have asked them to go off the record to give you background and better information?

The Citizen-Times does not use anonymous sources, except in extraordinary circumstances, and then has procedures to vet and verify what they are being told.  So the kind of hard-hitting reporting that might be called “investigative” doesn’t get done.
What is Mountain Xpress’s policy on anonymous sources?  Should they be used more frequently, under clear guidelines, to get at stories the Citizen-Times can’t touch?

Is there any way an enterprising reporter can crack this story?

Mountain Xpress Will Strive Harder

RandomAsheville wasn’t the only reader to notice that the Mountain Xpress Wedding Guide issue depicted white heterosexual couples almost exclusivelyA letter writer in the February 24 issue also took them to task for that and other misdemeanors against diversity:  "As a publication with a stated mission to "honor diversity, build community, and strengthen democracy," I think Mountain Xpress can do better to recognize its journalistic obligation to represent more than one demographic.”

The editors felt chastened and responded: “We agree that we can do a better job of reflecting the full diversity of our community, and we'll strive to do so.

No specifics yet.  Meanwhile, a RandomAsheville leader left this comment:

“Mountain Xpress is ‘white’ in its coverage and that's no surprise. Do they even have any staff that's not white? A single staff writer who's not white?

African Americans are featured if they're musicians or complaining about the police. Entertainers or victims. Not a good mix.

The paper is liberal, but not as bloody liberal as they think they are.”

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Wedding Guide for Young White Couples

Rebecca Sulock, the very capable and energetic features editor of Mountain Xpress, got fussed at the other day by readers for depicting only heterosexual white couples in her Valentine's Day piece on "creative couples."

She asked fussing readers to "watch for our wedding guide in next week's issue, which will highlight more varieties of love in our community."  But apart from a separate-but-equal section called "Love is Love," which pictures an unidentified male couple strolling hand-in-hand at the Biltmore Estate and quoting a female minister (who is apparently married to a female partner), there appears to be no "mainstreaming" of same-sex couples and still no non-white couples.

MountainX  recently ran a story asking its readers to sound-off about Mayor Bellamy's vote against city benefits for same-sex couples.  Maybe it will ask readers to sound-off about not relegating same-sex couples to their own corner.  And what about those non-white folks and those older folks who fall in love and pair up?

Was the print edition more rainbow hued?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Do Real Journalists Read Citizen Journalists?

The talk at Mountain Xpress about "citizen journalism" makes me curious.  Are the comments sections at both the Xpress and the Citizen-Times read by reporters and editors for leads and insights?.  We all know that Xpress staffers read and sometimes respond to comments.  Do they  pick up on news tips or public trends?

The Citizen-Times, on the other hand, maintains a dignified "no response" policy.  That's probably the only stance possible, given the venting and spewing that goes on in their comments section.

But as a compulsive reader of comments, even  the vent-and-spew variety, I sometimes get a peep at something newsworthy going on that reporters appear to be missing. 

Here's a for-instance.

In the Saturday, January 30, 2010, Citizen-Times, Growth and Development reporter Mark Barrett had a story about financial problems for the Woodfin development Altura.  Down in the story he made this passing reference: "parent company Altura Global announced last year that they were establishing the N.C. Center for Foreign Investment in an attempt to bring in investment funds for Altura, Zona Lofts and another project. The center would take advantage of a process in federal law whereby investors in certain projects that create at least 10 jobs can gain permanent resident status."

An alert reader fussed at the paper for not picking up on problems at Zona Lofts: "ACT, do a standalone story on the failure of the Zona Lofts for all eyes to focus on. It was sloppy journalism on the ACT's part to bury the much beloved concept of the 'Zona Lofts' deep within another unrelated story about a not-so-beloved Woodfin development and underneath a Woodfin headline."

Other commenters offered more details: "The ugly, gaping hole on Coxe Avenue that is 'Zona Lofts' is an eyesore and a health hazard. They are obviously not going to build this project. How long are we going to have to look at this failed pseudo-green monstrosity? . . . Stand on Coxe Avenue and look at the northern 'wall' of the hole in the ground. It looks like the soil is starting to erode from under Banks Street. While I'm thinking about it I'll contact the city."

So will Mark Essig and Mark Barrett, et al., at the Citizen pay attention to one reader's Reagonesque injunction: "ACT, write the story?"

Do MountainX staffers read the Citizen-Times to see where they, with their more extended publication schedule and their space for long-form stories, can plug the sometimes gaping holes our daily leaves?

This sounds like a story for the Xpress's Margaret (Green Scene) Williams. Only last December she gave Zona Lofts a free pass: "'The Adopt-A-Street cleanups have been so much fun for our company!' says Anna DellaGuardia of Zona Lofts.  'It's a time in our day where we can shut down our laptops, stretch our legs and enjoy some fresh air and employee bonding. We chose to adopt Coxe Avenue because of the Zona Lofts project going up right next to our sales center. It is a commitment to our buyers, the city and ourselves that we will take pride in and care for our environment, and it begins right outside our front doorstep — literally.'"

Did Williams interview DellaGuardia by phone and not see the gaping hole and the soil eroding under Banks Street reported by citizen journalists at the Citizen-Times?  Does she have any obligation to follow-up with DellaGuardia?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Updates and Comments

Jeff Fobes, the ever-genial publisher of Mountain Xpress, really does believe the part of his newspaper's mission statement about engaging in community conversation: "We treat our readers as participants in an ongoing civic dialogue."

He sends the following comment on the RandomAsheville post that he seemed annoyed with John Boyle for outing the Fisher Family Hawaii Facebook Photo Album.

He writes, "I agree with Boyle that the Fishers stepped in it, maybe two or three times. (And I also enjoyed the brash frankness of the family members’ replies.) Boyle would surely agree that it was easy pickin’s to ridicule the Fishers when the audience is fully riled."

But he  wants some journalistic depth.  "I find myself wanting some nuances. What sort of trips ARE warranted? What constitutes a junket? How does an agency evaluate whether the conference is worth going to? Who should go? The board members or the paid staff? And so on."

Still, while he agrees the junketeers aren't handling this well, he's for  forbearance:  "I too dislike junkets and waste, and this conference has a wasteful feel. Bryan Freeborn’s explanation of his trip, taken immediately prior to his leaving the board, rang hollow. But both Fisher and Gantt strike me as hard-working government representatives, so I’m wondering if we shouldn’t curb the desire to heckle and give them and the situation a fairer hearing — rather than just stir ourselves into a mood to toss tomatoes first and walk-out while any explanations are forthcoming."

Boyle's humorous opinion columns of course don't offer much depth.  But taking cheap shots at politicians for laughs is a tradition in American newspapers going back to Jonathan Oldstyle and Mark Twain.  Boyle may not be Washington Irving or Samuel Clemens but he's fun to read.  And informative.

Boyle may be more in the line of Gail Collins of The New York Times, who writes very funny op-ed columns skewering politicians. Here's an excerpt from a recent one:

"[Arlen] Specter, you will remember, switched parties last year. Democrats must be asking themselves why they wanted him. Oh, yes, the 60th vote. Well, that’s all over. The good news is that Joseph Lieberman is only about one-tenth as important as he was on Monday. The bad news is the remaining 59 includes a self-important 79-year-old who makes wildly patronizing remarks about his female opponent during a radio debate.

"To be fair, [Michelle] Bachmann does have a terrific talent for driving people nuts. When you ask a person what legislation she’s supported and the answer is 'prosperity,' you can assume this is not going to be a day for meaningful dialogue."

No nuance, no context.  Just chuckles.

Fobes, and other readers of the Citizen-Times, may have found more depth on tax-payer funded travel in the Joel Burgess-Mark Barrett detailed investigative "Travel budgets for WNC public boards detailed."

It was published "in print only" on Sunday.  Then, inexplicably, it appeared online on Monday.  If the purpose of these "in print only" pieces is to entice non-subscribers to buy the print edition, why give it away on the Web the next day?

I haven't read the Burgess-Barrett piece thoroughly yet.  On a quick look, it doesn't appear to ask a simple question.  Why do the amounts reimbursed exceed the standard IRS per diem reimbursement rates for travel?  For Greensboro, for example, the total daily rate for meals and incidentals is $44, way under the $57.71 per person cost for that one $404 evening dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House.

The State of North Carolina also has per diem guidelines for government travelers.  Why are the local boards not limiting themselves to those amounts?

And is anyone looking to see if administrators and board members at local state agencies and universities are following the guidelines?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

At Random

Why is the Citizen-Times giving such thorough coverage to the sudden departure of Geraldine Plato as executive director of Handmade in AmericaTwo stories in two days, the first by Sandra Rodriquez, the second by the ubiquitous "Staff Reports."  Both suggest some problems with the organization.  If this organization is important to the community, can the Citizen-Times assign someone other than "Staff Reports" to look into what's going on and please give us some background and context?

And why does Handmade in America rate the semi-investigative slant("But some in the crafts community are frustrated at the board's silence concerning the departure of Plato. . . . 'This was a shock to the staff and craft community, in fact, all over the community we serve, as well as a huge shock to our donors . . .'”) when the abrupt departure of Angela Martinez as executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council got barely a mention?

Martinez's departure seems to have triggered a departure of almost all AAAC staff.  Is there something going on with the Arts Council that citizens in this arts destination town should know about?

Is there more going on with Handmade in America that citizens in this crafts-centric town should know about?

Should either of our newspapers be telling us?

Mountain Xpress isn't in Facebook Heaven because John Boyle is

Mountain Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes seems annoyed that Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle scored another hit with his column exposing the tone-deaf tin-ears of Susan Fisher and her family.  (80 comments, up from 54 yesterday.)

Fobes writes, "Rep. Susan Fisher and family just made Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle’s day. Boyle was already in hog heaven taking Asheville Airport board members to task for their Shangrila [sic]-like working conference in Hawaii."

He seems to be taking Boyle to task for taking Fisher to task.  "Inexplicably, Boyle takes Susan Fisher to task for letting her family stay in her room with her, on the Airport’s dime — even though the room rate didn’t increase because of the increased occupancy, according to her. But Boyle’s column is a fun read. . ."

Maybe Fobes is annoyed at himself for missing the scoop for MountainX.  At least a day before Boyle revealed the Fisher family Facebook photos, citizen journalist Tim Peck had revealed it in a comment on Mountain Xpress.  Did the MX staffer who moderated that comment miss an opportunity?  Or does Fobes' tone with Boyle suggest that the Xpress is too high-minded to do whatever it is that Boyle may be guilty of?

RandomAsheville gave the Tim Peck post a heads-up a day before Boyle's column and urged readers to see the Fisher Family Facebook Album before Susan Fisher realized her daughter's indiscretion.  (We got it wrong and attributed the Facebook page to her son.) 

Friday, January 22, 2010

John Boyle Gets It, Susan Fisher Doesn't

John Boyle explains to Susan Fisher and her family why it isn't a good idea to post photographs of your family vacation in Hawaii on the Web.