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.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Mountain X Reader Comment Alert

The comments section of the Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress are full of name-calling, bloviating and pontificating. 

And I read them compulsively..

Occasionally there are bits of information that fill in a blank left by the reporter or opinion writer.  Tim Peck added a comment to a letter by Andrew Biazis about the Airport Authority Board's Hawaii junket in the January 20, 2010, Mountain Xpress which gave some colorful detail.

Biazis' letter, incidentally, was almost a repeat of what the Candler resident had written in the January 17 Citizen-Times.  Should MX editors have caught the duplication?  Do they read the Citizen-Times?  Does Macy's tell Gimbel's?

So, while there was nothing new in the letter, Peck gave us a link to Susan Fisher's son's Facebook album of photos from their "Hawaii Family Vaycay, January '10." 

Rep.  Fisher may have thought it was a business trip but the other members of her family saw it differently.  Son got pix of the protesters greeting the family on their return to Asheville but forgot to take any shots of Mom hard at work at conference meetings and brokering deals for the airport.

To access the link, you'll need to register with Facebook.  Free and quick.  And you probably should be quick, before Mom tells Son to either take the pictures down or lock 'em down behind a privacy wall.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Citizen-Times Gets It Right on Haiti, Not So Right on Obama's First Year

The Citizen-Times has been on top of local connections to the disaster in Haiti.  In the January 20 issue was another riveting eyewitness account by Amber Munger, a UNC Asheville graduate who was working in Haiti with an international relief organization before the earthquake hit.  An exemplary way of folding  “citizen journalism” and the power of the Internet into traditional news reporting.

Also exemplary was reporter Mark Vanderhoff’s story on a couple who lived in Black Mountain before going to Haiti as missionaries.  Local human interest connected to a major international story, thoroughly sourced and reported.

Meanwhile, also in the same issue,  “WNC residents sound off on Obama's 1st year”  looked in an online headline like it might be an important A1 enterprise story .  Lots of interviews with officials and politicians of all denominations, interviews with people-on-the-street, maybe a focus group or two, the inevitable quote from UNCA political science professor Bill Sabo, some analysis pulling all these different views together, perhaps a WNC poll showing how Obama is doing in local opinion, maybe a sidebar on how Obama’s programs and policies have directly impacted WNC.

Instead, it turned out to be one of those darn “Staff Reports” that told us very little.  Six tiny no-context quotes from people identified only by place of residence.  Five from Asheville, one from Weaverville.  So much for “WNC” in the headline.  These views could have come in by Twitter.  Maybe they did. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Jon Elliston Patiently Tries to Engage MX Readers in Conversation about Journalism

Several readers of the Mountain Xpress cover story "Tale of a Takedown" commented that it was a "non-story," a "straw-man" and "pseudo-journalism."  A few of them used a little name-calling, as frequently happens in the MountainX comment section: "hipsters who love to talk about themselves," "grandstanding take on censorship."

With his admirable patience and long-suffering willingness to try to engage readers in useful conversation, editor Jon Elliston asks his critics, "can you elaborate? it felt like real journalism when we were working on the story, and it still seems that way to me, for multiple reasons that i  can mention if you like."

How does Elliston find time to do his job, when he takes so much time and care (and good humor) with his replies?  And I'll take his use of a lower case "i" for the personal pronoun as a sign of his humble spirit.

I agreed with the essence of the complaints and perhaps was remiss in only quoting one of the complainers, instead of explaining why I thought the story was "slow news."

Without re-reading the piece in detail, I recall that it was about a dispute between MountainX and a political activist.  Some video got posted on YoutTube and then taken down.  The ultimate outcome?  It was a misunderstanding, there was an apology, the video was restored.  No harm, no foul.  No news.

Here's why I think it was an odd piece for MountainX to devote two reporters and its cover to.  I didn't see a real news hook. It happened back in November.  It only affected MountainX.  Did the general public need all that detail?  Maybe one of those "The Buzz" briefs.  Or a little note from the publisher about MX's vigilance.

Do newspapers often make themselves the subject of extended reporting?  Well, maybe if it's the Pentagon Papers or Jayson Blair or Judith Miller.

If MountainX's tug-of-war with YouTube was the hook to investigate what it called "Flexing Your Digital Rights," make that the story and not relegate it to a sidebar.  (Does anyone have a "right" to have something posted on YouTube?)  Has there been a rash of YouTube takedowns among MountainX readers?  Is YouTube the only offender?  Have other political activists in WNC made efforts to delete Web posts they object to?

Elliston said he can mention some of the reasons it felt like real journalism, if we'd like.  Would we?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Does Watson Sims Have Advice for Asheville's Newspapers?

A week is a long time in the all-news-all-the-time 24-hour cycle of electronic journalism.  Once reporters and editors had to chase the daily 11:00 p.m. or midnight print deadline to get next morning's paper on your doorstep. (Or, more likely, in your driveway).

Now reporters and editors have to chase updates every hour to refresh your computer screen.  With "citizen journalists" twittering from every branch of every tree, it probably seems to news people that they need to update every five minutes.  You can be reading the Citizen-Times online and watch its homepage change before your eyes.

(I hear from tribal elders that there was once something in Asheville called an afternoon newspaper, and it competed to get breaking stories to readers before the morning paper.  But even my media history professor said he doesn't actually remember that.)

So it seems a lot longer than a week ago that I was admiring reporter Mark Barrett for his watchdog story on Susan Fisher and David Gant, et al., leaving the comfort of their snowbound homes in Asheville to trek to Hawaii for some heavy schmoozing and shoulder-rubbing with officials from other small airports.

As this drama morphed into a mini-series, I've tried to keep focused on how the media is handling it, rather than taking potshots at our officials who sacrifice their time to serve the public good.

Instead, I took potshots at our local newspapers.  I asked, "Was Barrett's Mini-Hawaiigate a sign that the Citizen-Times might be trying to become relevant again?  Did 'corporate' send out the word to do some reporting that doesn't come from government press releases?"

Later, I wondered, is this media theater or will readers/voters/taxpayers see this as a public issue worth pursuing?

The answer: a little of both.

The Sunday, January 17, Citizen-Times online told freeloading Web readers they would have to buy the print edition to see the first of a new investigative series: "Print edition exclusive: AdvantageWest officials spent $32,000 in taxpayer-funded travel."

Readers began responding early, even though there was no actual story.  Some slammed the politicians . . .again.  Others slammed the newspaper.

"Just a Congratulations to ACT for beginning to uncover how spending of public funds have [sic] had little if any oversight," one reader said.  "Shame on the Citizen-Times," said another, "for trying to use this non-story to sell a few more papers. This cynical play on the current travel hysteria is deplorable."

One media critic was moved to commit imagery.  "Ladies and gentlemen, step right up! The Asheville Carnival-Times has a sight to behold! Pay your $1.50 and we'll let you stare at dirty politicians! Walk you through their dastardly ploys to steal all your money. Don't give your hard earned money to those crooks! Give it to us! The Asheville Carnival-Times! We will deliver the thrills! The chills! Recipe for things made with mayonnaise! Saucy photos of high school proms, and mug shots of the most dangerous drug fiends in the mountains! Take yet another tour of the obscene and grotesque Biltwhore Mansion! It's all inside the print edition of the Asheville Carnival-Times!

One commenter questioned, as I did, the choice of Advantage West as the Citizen's first culprit.  "Advantage West's mission is to bring business and investment to western NC. That is best done face-to-face in many if not most cases. Those folks would not be doing their jobs if they stayed seated at their desks in Asheville year round. This story line is getting out of hand. Do we really want to be a city of people that freaks out and starts yelling 'slimy bureaucrats' every time an official gets on a plane?"

Curiously, later in the morning, the comments vanished from the Web page.  Maybe you have to buy the print edition, write your comments on the bottom of the page and mail it in.

In the Opinion section were two thoughtful, well-written pieces that should restore journalists' faith that people really are paying attention.  One, "Retired exec examines the Hawaii junket," was a blow-by-blow analysis of how the airport board went wrong.

Did the Citizen solicit this, or did it come in over the (electronic) transom?

The second, "Hawaii travel story shows the value of newspapers," was a letter from veteran print journalist Watson Sims.

Sims could have been answering my question about whether our daily newspaper is becoming relevant again.  "The Citizen-Times story on four members of the Airport Board planning to spend $17,000 of public funds to attend a conference in Hawaii illustrates why newspapers are vital to democracy. . . . How long would we have waited for an Internet source we could count on to disclose this situation? No one I know had heard the news on TV, whereas, directly or indirectly, that AC-T headline rang every bell in the community."

Watson Sims, a frequent and welcome contributor to the Citizen-Times, has had a career local journalists should dream about.  Besides reporting internationally for the AP, he was editor-in-chief of two small-city newspapers and directed media studies for The George H. Gallup International Institute in the United States and Eastern Europe.  He's been a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, a recognition journalists crave almost as much as a Pulitzer Prize.

Is Asheville capitalizing on Watson Sims in our midst?  Has he mentored Asheville journalists and editors?  Has UNC Asheville had him talk to journalism students?  Have Citizen-Times editors heard from him what happened at the Gannett-owned newspaper he was editing?  Has Jeff Fobes discussed with him plans for relying more on twitterers and bloggers in Mountain Xpress?

Take a look at his article "Newspapers Have Met Their Enemy Within."

The experiences he describes at the Battle Creek Enquirer in 1971 sound familiar in 2010: "Pages were reduced in size and number, and some jobs were eliminated.  The Enquirer's circulation declined, but its profit margin increased."

Newspapers' potential for "building and binding communities remains," he says, "but like the golden goose it has been weakened by demand for more eggs."

Is Sims outdated in his belief in the primacy of print?  He asks, "Can the newspaper regain its place in American society? I believe the answer is yes. While the Web provides unlimited detail for the dedicated seeker of information, the average consumer still finds more depth and durability in newspapers than in electronic news sources.  'Look at this' or 'read this' permits a sharing of experience far superior to being shown what has been found on a computer screen."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Citizen-Times Keeps Airport Kerfuffle Going

Reporter Mike McWilliams picked up the torch on the Citizen-Times' continuing coverage of officials traveling at public expense on Saturday, January 16, with "Protesters greet Asheville airport board member Susan Fisher."

"About 18 protesters met Fisher at the airport terminal Friday afternoon," he writes.  He quotes Fisher that "board members met with 'someone who may bring more business to the airport,' along with other officials who could help boost business and funding for the airport." 

McWilliams artfully puts a phrase of Fisher's remarks in  direct quotes(emphasis added) "someone who may bring more business." Yes, readers, he seemd to be saying, Fisher really was that vague.

Did McWilliams have the opportunity to ask Fisher to be more specific?

The story was rapidly gaining comments Saturday morning.  I watched them more than double, from 20 to almost 50, in about an hour.  Readers love this stuff.

Most comments were about the sins of politicians, interspersed with name-calling about the sins of people who make comments. 

One comment, however, tagged the Citizen-Times for its handling of the story: "Another 'report' by the A-CT about this one expense taken out of context of the whole budget of the Asheville Regional Airport. Again, no report on how much time a board member spends fulfilling his or her duties, what those duties are, and how much each board member is paid for his or her services. . . The Citizen Times is creating news, which is really the same as creating entertainment."

The Citizen-Times also announced on Saturday that it will try its stories-in-print-only sales-boosting strategy again with "Print exclusive on taxpayer-funded travel coming Sunday."  The teaser promised to show us how "economic development officials in Western North Carolina are spending tax dollars on travel."

The Citizen is not quite taking what I called the "Ashvegas Challenge" to investigate travel spending by the public boards that Jason Sanford, a.k.a. Ashvegas, mentioned in one of his useful watchdogging posts.   Looking only at "economic development officials" seems peculiar.  How can those people shill for new businesses here if they don't travel?

So there's still room for Sandford and Mountain Xpress to take the Ashvegas Challenge.  Will they?

I don't buy the Sunday Citizen-Times much anymore, but since I've been following this story, I'll probably pick one up.  Even if it's just one that another reader leaves behind at a coffee shop.

Meanwhile, also on Saturday in the Citizen-Times, the estimable Dale Neal had a good business story, "Asheville raises climate profile at weather trade show." He tells us that economic developers, civic and business leaders are going to the Atlanta meeting of the American Meteorological Society to highlight "the city’s growing reputation [and try] to add to the city’s existing 500 jobs in climate research, services and support."

Previous efforts have paid off, he reports, "helping Asheville land the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites . . . which will bring some $32 million over five years and add perhaps as many as 100 scientific jobs to the area."

See, some travel by public officials pays off. 

The story reads like another teaser for the series starting Sunday.  But the Citizen-Times didn't link it to that, so Neal's story, and the added context to the airport board kerfuffle, might get lost.

More to the point of the kerfuffle, there was a kicker at the end of the story, quoting a local businessman headed to the Atlanta meeting: "“Everyone is going on their own nickel to make sure we can support the community,” he said.

No comments on the story from outraged readers.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Slow News, Unlike Slow Food, Not Necessarily Better

Was it a slow news week for Mountain Xpress?

The paper's big story, with the tabloid-style headline "TAKEDOWN" on the cover, turned out to be about the Xpress itself.

Something about an old-news squabble back during the presidential campaign, a defaced billboard, a video of the squabblers that Mountain Xpress posted on YouTube, an objection to the video by one of the squabblers that caused YouTube to "take down" the video.  Then MountainX objected to the objection, the objectioner said it was all a misunderstanding and apologized . . .

As one commenter said, "I mean, really, who cares? It almost comes off like the Xpress created a straw man (or at least a flimsy example) for a story or trend it was looking to write about in a greater context for its own grandstanding take on censorship. The story ended for me when the lady apologized."

In more slow news, Jason Sandford, MX's lovable mashup of Clark Kent, Jimmy Olsen and Ben Urich, tells us - again - about the not-yet-but-soon opening of Urban Outfitters.  He told us back in October, "Construction on the new Urban Outfitters store in downtown Asheville is moving ahead on schedule, with the retailer planning on being open for the holiday shopping season."  And he told us about the January 28 opening back on January 4 on his Ashevegas Web site.

Watching progress on Urban Outfitters across from the MountainX offices must keep this one on Sandford's mind.  Other soon-to-open retailers take note.

Does Sandford ever get confused about what he's posting on Ashvegas and what he's posting on MountainX?  I remember a post on MountainX in which he said no date could be confirmed for the Urban Outfitters opening, when he had already confirmed the date on Ashvegas.

Sandford shared a byline with managing editor Jon Elliston on the "TAKEDOWN" story.  Did that really take two reporters to cover?

And his other story of the week was another not-yet-but-soon story, this one on HATCH Asheville.  That doesn't happen until mid-April.  There was so little to say about the event that even its spokesman wanted to wait on this story: "We're moving ahead. We're pretty far along in programming, and we're looking to make announcements at the first of February," organizer Sean O'Connell reports."

To round out his story, Sandford repeated information from a story he reported after last year's HATCHfest: " 'This is a different model,' Sam Neill, the head of AdvantageWest's Creative Commerce Commission, told Xpress last May."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Our Long Local Nightmare May Not be Over

In a correction comment, Bryan Freeborn says, "Mark Barrett was consistent in the use of 'Public Money'. After conversations with both him and John Boyle I reviewed the articles. He did not use tax dollars."

Perhaps Mr. Freeborn will help us understand Buncombe County's financial involvement with the airport and explain this statement (emphasis added): "While the [airport's] assets are funded by the County, they are owned and utilized by the respective entity and reflected as assets on their financial statements. Therefore, the County has incurred a liability without a corresponding increase in assets. At the end of the fiscal year, approximately $105.4 million of the outstanding debt on the County’s financial statements was related to assets included in the financial statements of the school systems, community college, and the airport authority. "

Something to do with bonds and debt obligations and how bonds are paid?  Are the bonds the county floats for the airport repaid completely from airport user fees?  Or are these general obligation bonds, with the tax payer ultimately responsible?  How does the airport channel user fees to the county, so it doesn't have to show any debt obligations?  The county shows the debt.  The airport shows the asset.  Suppose the airport closes and there are no user fees?  Who pays the bond holders?

Hey, I'm a blogger, not an accountant.

What About That Photo of Senator Inouye?

RandomAsheville is admittedly Webcentric, so I get most of my news, local and national, on the Internet. But I do enjoy picking up Mountain Xpress for free at a coffee spot. The paper seems to still be fat (or pleasingly plump) with advertising, and that's good for its future.

Sadly, the Citizen-Times is thin on both ads and content. There's no incentive to buy a copy and no pleasure in the physical experience of reading it in print. Occasionally a coffee drinker leaves a copy of the Asheville Citizen-Times behind, so I sometimes see how stories are playing out in print.

That's how I came  to see a headline on the inside continuation of Mark Barrett's story on the airport board members' letter justifying their trip: "AIRPORT: Attendees e-mail PR photo." Barrett had already disparaged the photo by describing it as a low-resolution image taken on a cell phone. Now the headline writer is making sure we know how to perceive it.

And although I semi-promised no more posts on Hawaiigate, a commenter on the Citizen-Times Web site sent me to the Web site of the American Association of Airport Executives, the sponsor of the conference. It seems the AAAE doesn't want the media reporting on who says what there:

"MEDIA ACCESS: Because of the open-discussion format of this conference, all sessions are off-the-record for members of the media. No audio recordings, still or video photography will be permitted. Media members wishing to attend the conference must register with AAAE in advance. Media registrations will not be accepted on-site. Interviews with delegates can be arranged through AAAE. For information, please contact Sean Broderick at or 703 824 0504."

And it isn't just local media that is figuring out the conference is a junket-boondoogle.  Here's what the Washington Post's Al Kamen had to say in an article titled "Hawaii offers warmer weather, yet less hot air" on January 8.  I've added some emphases.

"Freezing cold driving you to distraction? Time to head to Hawaii for the annual American Association of Airport Executives conference for some intensive golf and beach time! . . .

Back in the good old pre-Abramoff days, eight or so lawmakers, dozens of Hill staffers and a contingent of administration officials would attend the conclave, which thoughtfully scheduled its "working" sessions to end before lunch to leave plenty of time for touring and for golf and sun at the spectacular Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel.

In recent years, very few government folks have showed up and some even paid for themselves -- at the government rate. A preliminary schedule, which no longer appears on the association Web site, listed no administration or congressional officials participating in the sessions, even the exceptionally timely one on airport security concerns.

Unclear how many, if any, Hill staffers will be there. Early indications are that Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), who, after all, lives there, and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who will be in Hawaii en route to his trip with Inouye to Japan, will attend. You might see Rep. John Mica, (R-Fla.) former chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, who has gone on his own dime in the past.

Also, the venue has changed to the Westin Maui Resort and Spa, but that appears to be an excellent place to ponder aviation issues, so the event retains its Loop Five-Star rating. Casual dress strongly recommended."

Now what about that picture  with Sen.  Inouye the Asheville contingent sent back?  And what was that about government officials going on their own dime?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Is Sports Coming to Mountain Xpress?

Mountain Xpress has an article on the new owner of the Asheville Tourists by Rick Goldstein, who is identified as " Xpress sports correspondent."  Is this the same Rick Goldstein who is also in the advertising department as a "Real Estate Specialist?"

The sale of the Asheville Tourists was covered previously by other MX staffers.  Is this the first time they've identified someone as "sports correspondent?"   Are they expanding sports coverage?  Is this something their marketing surveys have told them their current readers want?  Are they reaching out to a new readership segment?

And  does having a writer also work in advertising cross the usual "bright line" between advertising and editorial?

Our Long Local Nighmare About Hawaiigate

The Citizen-Times has yet another story about Asheville Airport board members in Hawaii. In the January 13 issue. Mark Barrett reports that the three board members accused of junketeering  - Susan Fisher, David Gantt and Dave Hillier - rebut with a “536-word statement” explaining how they have interacted “with other airport representatives, key national leaders  and attended formal sessions where valuable information is presented and discussed.”

They also explain that the approximately $13.000 cost of the trip is within the airport’s overall budget of about $56,000 for executive travel.  And other small airports have sent more than one representative, they say.

To prove they are really working, Barrett reports, “the board members included a photo - a low-resolution shot sent via e-mail - showing Fisher and Gantt meeting U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

The Citizen-Times posted the full statement on the Web. It did not  post the photo.

Comments seemed to be running predominantly against the Asheville conference attendees. One comment defended the trip, although not the number of people who went.  Another comment expressed the "cons" nicely and had a good suggestion for the media:  ask Fisher and Gant,, to write a comment piece for the paper, summing up what tangible benefits they gained for Asheville: "When these three freeloaders return to Asheville with their families and suntans I look forward to the ACT giving them the guest commentray [sic]space for a full detailed report on what we citizens got for our money to send them on this luxury vacation. Each one of them has an obligation to us taxpayers to inform us how we benefitted [sic] from this extravgance [sic]. Short of a full report as to value received for this trip they owe it to us to reimburse every dime. My husband and I went on line to the conference website asking for a copy of the agenda for each day of this conference and were told we could not get one. Guess they don't want us to know how the days were spent, like Monday's early dismissal of business sessions so all attendees could have an afternoon of golf. And, if this was indeed an all business trip, where did they find the time to be with their accompaning [sic] family members?"

The Citizen-Times offered its own comprehensive opinion as well.

I’ve been interested in what I grandiosely labeled Hawaiigate more for how the Citizen-Times and Mountain Xpress are doing their journalistic duties than for the shenanigans of politicians.  Although political shenanigans are fun and deserve some fun-poking. So this may be the last post on this matter, unless there is more real news.

Note Barrett’s description of the photo quoted above.  Why “a low-resolution shot sent via e-mail?”  And why count the 536 words of the statement?

So, to repeat previous questions, will Hawaiigate die down?  Was this just media theater?  Will a mild-mannered reporter investigate travel spending by other agencies for Mountain Xpress?

On a sidenote, our non-junketeering, hardworking representatives in Hawaii say in their statement that the Asheville Regional Airport Authority is “an independent authority which receives no local or state tax dollars. ARAA is a self sufficient and fiscally sound entity.”  If this is accurate, perhaps a reader who understands government budets can explain the following from the Buncombe County Budget, which seems to suggest that the county is fiscally responsible for the AARA.  Emphases added.

“In previous years, the County has reported net deficits in governmental unrestricted net assets as part of its legal obligation to provide capital funding for the two local school systems, a community college, and the airport authority. While the assets are funded by the County, they are owned and utilized by the respective entity and reflected as assets on their financial statements. Therefore, the County has incurred a liability without a corresponding increase in assets. At the end of the fiscal year, approximately $105.4 million of the outstanding debt on the County’s financial statements was related to assets included in the financial statements of the school systems, community college, and the airport authority.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Updates and Corrections

Mountain Xpress publisher Jeff Forbes gives a good reply to RandomAsheville in a comment on the Nelda Holder post and catches us in a misspelling: "The name is Mountain Xpress, not Express. You might call this a detail, but attention to detail is one of the hallmarks of good journalism." He's absolutely right, of course. And his advice to RandomAsheville is right-on. Older, wiser heads (OWHs) should always prevail.

In further updating and corrections . . .

MX publisher catches RandomAsheville in yet another misspelling. See comment and entertaining story to go with it.

Mark Barrett continues to pursue Hawaiigate in the Citizen-Times, with a story on January 12 that former city council member and airport board appointee Bryan Freeborn attended an airport industry conference in Hawaii "just days before he left the board in January 2008."

Freeborn told Barrett he knew this might happen but attended anyway. "“So I lose the election," he said, "I'm going to stop doing my job? That's stupid."

Barrett had already revealed in a previous story that board members  do not report back to the full board about what they  learned at conferences. He might have followed up to Freeborn: "And did you attend any meetings of the board as a private citizen after losing the election, to give the board the benefit of your trip?"

Airport board junketeers are turning mush-mouthed as they try to talk their way out of this one. Barrett quoted Susan Fisher that being in Hawaii while Asheville was in a blizzard made her feel for the people back home. Freeborn's quote to Barrett got his foot further down his throat: “I know that the airport got a tremendous value out of every day I served as a board member."

As one commenter noted, "This trip appears to be a way for Brian to reward himself."

Can boondooglers Fisher and Gant, who must still face the voters, regain any credibility by offering to reimburse their Hawaiigate expenses? Will they make the offer?

Will Hawaiigate escalate or die down? Will the media watchdogs keep on the story? Is this story big enough to have consequences in the real world? Or is it just media theater?

One commenter suggested one real world consequence: "I would like to attend the next board meeting. Can anyone help out with where and when the meeting is? It is time to move beyond simply talking to each other and talk to the major players involved."

Another commenter liked the notion that citizens could be their own watchdogs: "It would certainly be interesting to see the reaction of that bunch if several Buncombe county citizens showed up at their meetings, just to monitor what was going on."

And he or she had some advice for the media: "It seems to me the Airport Board is playing fast and loose with the taxpayers' money as no news media attend their meetings on a regular basis. They may feel they can do what they please. The media, both newspaper and electronic, needs to be at each and every Airport Board meeting and report on it."

Meanwhile, Mountain Xpress has covered this story in its Blogwire links to other media. Their news gathering team is lean, and there may not be anything new to say. Maybe they are saving themselves for other, bigger investigations.

Are some in the works? On his independent Ashvegas blog , MountainX reporter Jason Sandford points the finger at a number of boards that oversee millions of taxpayer dollars. "Here's my question: have our other local boards been good stewards of taxpayers' money?"

Here's my question: can we expect some digging and reporting by MountainX into the boards that Sandford names? While Sandford/Ashvegas (or his readers) uncovered dark doings at Mission Hospitals, MountainX editor Jon Elliston seemed to be promising an investigation on Aug 28, 2009, ". . . the hospital story is an important one. I’m happy to report that we are indeed working on a story about the matter. Stay tuned ... "

Nothing further apparently until Oct. 27, 2009, when Sandford quoted his own AshVegas blog in MountainX: "Here’s the unconfirmed report, from the Ashvegas blog: Three separate sources have reported to me that Mission Hospitals’ CEO Joe Damore has tendered his resignation. ..."

Is Sandford Clark Kent at MountainX but unleashes Superman at Ashvegas? Will MountainX take the Ashvegas challenge? "Buncombe County commissioners and Asheville City Council members, as well as their top managers, might have traveled in the past year. Perhaps we could have a little government transparency and post, on a Web site, all the taxpayer money spent on travel for these two entities. . . I think we're talking about the tip of the iceberg here, folks."

Go get'em, Clark.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Nelda Holder, Part I, in Mountain Express; Gabriel Shaffer, Part III

In a comment below, the publisher of Mountain Xpress, points out the misspelling of his publication's name in this post.

Nelda Holder, a former associate editor of Mountain Express and now a freelancer, had an intriguing story called "Home for the holidays" in the Express's January 6 issue. It portrayed a Black Mountain family's entanglement in the legal and social services system after a son was removed from the home and the parents were charged with medical neglect.

The case was based on a complaint to DSS from an unidentified source, so apparently the parents' Sixth Amendment right to be confronted with a witness against them does not apply in this case.

Mountain Express may be the only local newspaper that can regularly devote any of the precious "news hole" to these long-form stories. But since Mountain Express uncaped crusader-reporter Cecil Bothwell, it seems even it can't afford long-form staff time for digging deeply. So we should be grateful to Holder for using her presumably unpaid time and grateful to the Express for giving her the space.

According to the editor's note, the reporter followed the "complex child-custody case" over nine months, attending court sessions and interviewing the family. The note makes clear that the current article "outlines" the family's experience and that a "subsequent article" will give more details. So perhaps we can overlook the fact that only one side of the story, the family's, gets told. Will Holder be able to get facts and quotes from medical, legal and DSS personnel beyond their testimony in court. Or will privacy laws prevent them from answering her questions?

Holder says, "The family is due to return to court in January, and after that hearing, Xpress will report in more detail on the medical, legal and governmental aspects of the case."

Holder's story was absorbing and full of human drama, but some readers (including this one) were frustrated by the reporter's inability to give more information.

One commenter asked, "What were the results of the psych. evaluations? Has lack of a primary care physician become a reason to snatch a child from it’s [sic] parents? What about folks who are in transition? Can they lose their child due to not having a primary care physician? Something is screwy here." Another asked, "Why did the pediatrician terminate services, and did the DSS have access to those records?"

Holder's answer was a little alarming: "Good questions. And the answers are illusive, but we’re working on it." Working on it?  And I hope she meant the answers are elusive, not illusive.  What happens to this story if she runs into a brick wall of "That's a confidential medical issue?" Even Mountain Express managed to dodge questions about the firing of the Caped Crusader with "That's a personnel issue."

So, today's Journalism 101 take-home questions:
Was there a pressing news reason to print the story now?
Should Mountain Express editors have held Holder's story until after the January hearing or beyond, making sure she could get the answers she needs?
Should a nine-month investigative story been a ten-month story, with Part II published immediately after Part I?

In the same issue of Mountain Express, features reporter Ali Marshall had a piece on local self-taught artist Gabriel Shaffer, who also adorned the cover.

The art critics in town (are there any?) will have to evaluate Shaffer's art, but media critics might wonder why the Express is featuring Shaffer again, after Ursula Gullow's profile of him last August. Shaffer himself also wrote an article for the paper last May. Is Mountain Express in some conspiracy to be kind to Mr. Shaffer?

Shaffer's work is being shown at Blue Spiral 1's Showcase Gallery. Marshall indicates he is part of the gallery's "New X Three: New Works, New Artists, New Year!" show, but Shaffer's name does not appear among the eight artists the gallery includes in that group. That's a picky distinction that her editor probably didn't catch.

The only other artist Marshall writes about from this show -in a sidebar - is Phil Blank, a Carrboro artist. "Blank and his wife are fans of Asheville and actually winter here," Marshall tells us.

For a newspaper whose motto is "Local matters!," the local painters in the show beside Shaffer - Luke Allsbrook, Robert Dunning and Mitchell Lonas - might wonder why they don't matter to Mountain Express. Do Allsbrook, Dunning and Lonas actually winter, spring, summer and fall here?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Updates and Corrections

In the Sunday, January 10 Citizen-Times, Carol Motsinger updates her story on artist Kenneth Noland with information about his burial and portions of an interview he did (presumably with John Boyle, although not credited by Motsinger) at the time he and his wife built their mausoleum at Riverside Cemetery.  Mostsinger, or her editors, used this opportunity to publish on the Web a color image of one of Noland's paintings in the Asheville Art Museum, as was suggested here.  No image of the mausoleum or any indication if any Noland family members are local.  Mountain Express reporter Jason Sandford links to the story on the Mountain Express site.  Artist Barbara Fisher has an image of the mausoleum here.

RandomAsheville reader Anonymous points out in a comment that WLOS-TV scooped Mark Barrett's coverage of Airport Hawiigate, thus busting RandomAsheville for being Webcentric and not following broadcast media. Perhaps Mr or Ms Anonymous will keep us posted on other broadcast hits and misses.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Mark Barrett Doesn't Get to Go to Hawaii to Interview Susan Fisher

The Citizen-Times calls Mark Barrett its "Growth and Development Reporter," but he seems to be one of those old-fashioned, highly capable, highly productive general assignment reporters who covers whatever his editors throw at him.  Recently he's handled bridge closings in bad weather, county commission meetings and a N.C. Department of Transportation press release about roadside wildflower displays. 

On January 7, he came up with a top notch "watchdog" story that caught local airport board members treating themselves  to a $17,000 Hawaii trip at tax-payer expense. The story was thoroughly sourced, with quotes from three of the officials involved - Susan Fisher, David Gantt and Rhett Grotzinger - all scrambling to justify the trip.

Barrett didn't need to use the words "boondoggle" or "junket" when he was able to get such a juicy quote from Grotzinger as "A very valid question is why the heck are four members going?"

He also got intelligence from Grotzinger that "board members typically do not report back on what they learn at conferences."  Barrett's reporter's heart must have sung when he heard Grotzinger say, “When you go, bring back something of value to your fellow board member, not just a sun tan.”

Barrett filled the piece with telling detail.  He quoted the Web site of the fancy hotel where the junketeers were staying as located “along a breathtaking stretch of the gorgeous, white-sand Ka'anapali Beach where you'll find windsurfers and humpback whales frolicking in the warm Pacific Ocean.”

Three of the boondogglers were sleeping in pricey rooms in the mid-$200 per night range.  Grotzinger told Barrett that he is staying at a different hotel for about $135 a night.  “I have an issue with staying in fancy resorts," he said.  Could it have been Grotzinger who tipped Barrett off about this story?

Barrett's "kicker" quote at the end was from Susan Fisher.  Fisher had already arrived in Maui with her husband and daughter, Barrett told us (presumably he was interviewing her by telephone).  She handed him another quote to make a reporter's heart sing: “It makes me feel for people who have to deal with 17-degree weather,” she said.

Barrett signed off with the dry statement, "The temperature just before 1 p.m. local time Wednesday on the western end of Maui, where the conference is being held, was 81 degrees."

If David Gantt and Susan Fisher haven't already scheduled statements to announce they are reimbursing the taxpayers for the complete cost of their trips, their ears are even more tin than this article shows.

Barrett's article received 63 comments from outraged taxpayers, not quite as many as the 90 outraged taxpray-ers who commented on the story about the Buncombe County Commissioners debating whether to begin their meetings with a prayer.

Barrett followed up the next day with two more stories on the airport board junket ("Asheville Regional Airport Board eyes travel limits" and "Asheville Regional Airport Board sends the largest contingent among area airports to Hawaii conference").  Both made the airport board look even more inept and tone-deaf, especially when Barrett called around to other airports and reported that Greenville-Spartanburg International  was sending only one representative and Charlotte Douglas International Airport was sending none.

All three stories could probably have been collapsed into one big "exposing government ineptitude" story for the Sunday edition, but spreading it over two weekdays gave Barrett maximum mileage and might have sold more papers.  Even John Boyle got to join in with one of his  "politicians and bureaucrats do the darndest things" columns. 

One letter writer complained, "If the AC-T keeps churning the Airport Board trip to Hawaii, we may have a real brouhaha on our hands." Did the Citizen-Times milk the story for more than the $17,000 it was worth?  Should we expect an editorial next, "Susan and David, Give the Taxpayers Their Money Back, Go to Hawaii on Your Own Dime?"

Was Barrett's Mini-Hawaiigate a sign that the Citizen-Times might be trying to become relevant again?  Did "corporate" send out the word to do some reporting that doesn't come from government press releases?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Motsinger Gets The Goods on Kenneth Noland

Arts (and food/restaurant) reporter Carol Motsinger had a timely and interesting story in the January 6 Citizen-Times on the death of artist Kenneth Noland, an Asheville native who attended Black Mountain College("Asheville abstract artist Kenneth Noland dies; Painter with local ties to be buried at Riverside").

Motsinger built the first part of her story, almost verbatim, on a earlier AP story and probably should have credited it.  She added the newsworthy detail that Noland is to be buried in Asheville's Riverside Cemetery.

She began her own reporting with a good, generic quote from Pam Myers, executive director of the Asheville Art Museum ("Mr. Noland, with some other artists ...  changed the way we looked at painting and color in the world.”)

Motsinger also reported that the Art Museum owns three of Noland's paintings.  Noland was known as a "color field" painter, so it would have been a nice touch for the reporter to ask Myers for a color image of at least one of the paintings to go with the story. Should her editor have told her to go back and get one?  Also helpful would have been a phrase telling us if any of the Noland paintings are currently on display.

Motsinger's substantial contributions were the details about Noland from Bob Godfrey, a painter who lives in Asheville and headed the art department at Western Carolina University.  As recounted by Godfrey, Noland's recollections of his mother's jazz club and the influence of Asheville on his art would make good additions to any standard Noland biography.  The New York Times, in its obituary written by William Grimes, credits only his father's influence: "His father, a pathologist and Sunday painter, lent the boy his art materials after a visit to the National Gallery in Washington, where Kenneth, then 14, was awe-struck by the Monets."

Motsinger's real coup was a funny and revealing anecdote from Godfrey about his drinking contest with Noland that netted a Noland painting for the fine arts museum at Western Carolina.  Her editor might have suggested she save it for a "kicker" at the end.  Grimes of The Times likes those "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits" endings for his obituaries and would have killed to get the one Godfrey handed Motsinger on a plate.

Meanwhile, features reporter Ali Marshall posts links on the Mountain Express Web site to The New York Times obituary and to Motsinger's story in the Citizen-Times.  Does it seem curious for Mountain Express to be pointing readers to another Asheville newspaper rather than doing any original reporting?  Marshall also notes that the Citizen-Times story reports "Xpress contributor Connie Bostic hosted an exhibit of Noland’s lesser-known ceramic works at her Zone one contemporary gallery during the 1990s."  Has anyone seen any of Bostic's articles in Mountain Express recently?  She was indeed a frequent, almost weekly contributor.  Has she stopped writing to concentrate on painting?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Barbara Blake is Smokin' on Not Smoking; Tony Kiss Doesn't Give Us The Good News

An article in the Sunday, Jan. 3, Citizen-Times about the new state ban on smoking in bars and restaurants was thoroughly reported and nicely written by veteran C-T staffer Barbara Blake.
She starts out at a celebration by smoking-ban proponents at Star Lanes bowling alley on Kenilworth Road.  Then she makes a smooth "meanwhile" transition to a smoker "huddled in a sub-freezing wind" outside Mack Kells restaurant on Tunnel Road.  She also stops by a Charlotte Street pub.  She finishes "back" at Star Lanes, giving the story a lot of energy by taking the reader on a metaphorical circle around town.   

Blake also gives the story energy with ample back-and-forth between pro-ban and anti-ban voices.  The ban proponents get their say in the strongest spots, at the top and bottom.  They were the winners, after all.

Blake makes their case even stronger by giving the opening quote to a pro-ban Asheville High School member of Teens Against Tobacco.  She ends with a quote from Rep. Susan Fisher praising teens for their involvement: "They are so enthusiastic, and they know the cost in terms of health and well-being all over this state.”  If the kids are against smoking, the smokers seem even more out of step with the times.

Still, Blake treats the smokers with good humor, and she humanizes them with telling detail.  At the Charlotte Street establishment, they are sitting "glumly at the bar, looking longingly at a lone, empty ashtray in a corner that had yet to be discarded after the ban went into effect at midnight."  One patron says, "No comment — we're cranky,” then flashes "a grin to show he was mostly kidding."

Blake asks if he will come back to the now-smoke-free pub.  He gives her the endearing grin again: "We'll probably come more — we're so cranky we'll need to drink more."  Maybe those smokers aren't such tobacco-stained wretches after all.

Blake gives no background on the new law, its rationale, the history of efforts to pass anti-smoking legislation in North Carolina (a tobacco-cigarette producing state), earlier local anti-smoking ordinances in Asheville or similar legislation in neighboring states and across the U.S.

She does give a nod to the anti-ban argument that such laws hurt restaurants economically.  One restaurant owner speculates that he will "lose business as his customers decide to enjoy their cigarettes and beverages at home rather than paying for drinks in a smoke-free establishment."  An employee of the other restaurant believes the opposite: "the smoking ban will ultimately result in more customers." People who stayed away from the smoky environment may now come, the employee says, and her establishment's outdoor dining (and smoking) patio will be a competitive advantage.

Should the reporter have given us more background and context?  Scientific studies on the economic impact of smoking bans show they don't hurt business.  Wait, they do hurt businesses.  Well, it depends on how the studies are constructed.  Perhaps just as importantly, it depends on what the study's authors are trying to prove. 

Since the reporter raised the issue, should she have tried to get some authoritative data?  Do we want more than speculation from a local owner and an employee?  Should she follow up and see how these and other establishments are faring post smoking-ban?

More context was probably not a detriment to Blake's entertaining and informative story.  Lack of context could be a problem, however, for parents reading entertainment editor Tony Kiss's story on a new downtown arts school in the same issue of the Citizen-Times ("New Elevate Life and Art school opens this week in Asheville"). 

In a lot of arts reporting in the Citizen-Times (and Mountain Express), the reporter interviews only the subject of the story and digs no further than the subject's own assessment of his or her accomplishment.  Here, Kiss reports that the organizer of a production of "Godspell" by the Highland Acting Company, "which had two very successful runs at Asheville's Orange Peel" and will tour to Wichita, Kan., has decided to build a "community center downtown . . . to offer affordable art and life classes."

Many groups and individuals in town offer arts classes for young people.  Some groups call themselves arts centers.  A recent Citizen-Times story even reported "Asheville City Council approves new arts and community center" for $2 million.  Could the reader get confused? 

And what about this Highland Acting Company?  Is that anything like the North Carolina Stage Company?  The Highland Repertory Company?  Without more background from the reporter, how are Mom and Dad to know if this is for their kids?

It turns out the Highland Acting Company is a church theater group affiliated with Highland Christian Church, which meets at the Orange Peel.  Its new venture, called Elevate School of Life and Art, meets in what it calls Highland Prayer Gallery, described as "a studio for expressions of prayer to the Father, Son, & Holy Spirit."

Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, if this is what you want your children to be involved with.  But the reporter might let us know that this is not just another after school arts program but one connected to a church. 

He might also tell us at least as much about the founder of the school and the church theater group as she does herself on various Web sites. She's very up-front that her experience started in "High School through an excellent fine arts department and continued briefly through a brief stop at two colleges where she was first a Vocal major and second, a Ballet major." And she's charmingly self-deprecating enough to call herself "the reigning Queen of Kitchen performances- as her Husband of 20 years and 4 children can attest."

Tony Kiss may be the hardest working and busiest reporter in Asheville journalism.   He covers not only an astonishingly varied and busy entertainment-performing arts scene but also the equally varied-busy beer scene.  Does this beer-music-and arts destination town deserve more beer-music-and arts reporters? Would the Citizen-Times have only one reporter to cover all of high school and college sports in the area?

So Tony Kiss should be forgiven for not telling us what we need to know about Elevate Art and Life School.  But should his editors be forgiven?  Does this article belong on the Saturday religion page (if there is still such a thing), instead of the Sunday arts page?

And while we're beating up on editors, should we forgive them for allowing Carol Motsinger to say that Asheville Symphony Orchestra members are "surefire fun" and that these "talented folks" will be "trying their hand" at Handel, Gershwin and Shostakovich.  Ah, who knows what those talented, fun folks at ASO will try their hands at next.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Ashley Wilson's Busy Week

Reporter Ashley Wilson had four stories in quick succession in this week's Asheville Citizen-Times, starting with "A tradition reborn: New City Christian carries on mission of long-closed school" on December 28, followed by two on December 30, "Buncombe County Early College's first class nears graduation" and "Lineman survives on soda, candy bars and concentration" and another two on December 31, "Downtown Asheville welcomes spike in activity," written with Jordan Schrader (apparently home from covering the legislature in Raleigh), and "T-shirt campaign touts 'buy local' message."

All were written with Wilson's usual straightforward efficiency. The story on the New City Christian School was a nice glimpse into the city's African-American past and present but did not appear to have a strong news hook.  Similarly, the story on the first graduating class of Buncombe County Schools' Early College seemed about five months premature.

Also lacking news value was Wilson and Schrader's story on downtown business and Wilson's story about a Lexington Ave merchant's idea to print "Buy Local" t-shirts.  Both looked like two staffers getting out of their downtown office for a walk on the first sunny afternoon of a wintry week.

Wilson's "Lineman survives on soda, candy bars and concentration," however, was especially newsworthy during the area's massive snowstorm.  Given the number of households affected by the power outage, it should have appealed to a large readership.  If 41 reader comments are an indication, it did.

Whether it was Wilson or her editors who thought to seek out  one of the men who was out restoring power lines or whether they were prompted by a savvy Progress Energy public relations person, the story gave a human face to dangerous and difficult work.  And Progress Energy's public relations team must have been gratified at the heartfelt support from reader comments.  The few commenters who were critical of Progress Energy or the linemen were quickly smacked down.

Wilson's story was a welcome complement to earlier (and thin) "staff reports," such as "Western North Carolina power woes linger" and "Hundreds still without power in Western North Carolina."  "Staff reports" is usually code that the story has been written from a press release without much or any original reporting.

As usual with most Citizen-Times stories, even Wilson's admirable profile of lineman Ryan Whitson did not dig deeply.  The photograph of Whitson and his daughter was contributed by his wife, suggesting that Wilson did not talk to him in person or on the job.  There were no quotes from his wife or colleagues.  No eyewitness accounts of Whitson and other crew at work.  No mention by name of any of the other 800 crew members at work.

Other photographs of the storm and crews dealing with it were by John Fletcher, so at least one Citizen-Times staffer left the downtown offices to cover this major story.  Some of the best "color" for the story came in the reader comments, like the reader who anonymously bought breakfast for a crew he observed at a restaurant or the reader who stopped to shake hands and thank a crew set up in a church parking lot.

The thinness of Citizen-Times stories must be due in part to the small amount of space in the ever-shrinking print edition.  But some of it must come from editors (if there are such things anymore) who don't push reporters to ask more questions, get more details.

The common complaint about the Citizen-Times is that "there isn't anything to read."  Would it be feasible to add more depth and substance to the online versions of the stories that appear in print?  That might further diminish the sales of the print edition.  Would it attract more readers (followed by more advertisers) to the Web edition?

On the other hand, a recent series in the Citizen-Times started both in print and on the Web and then continued "in print only," as a way of driving "traffic" to the print product.  Did the experiment work?  Was there a spike in newsstand sales? Was a three-article, in-depth piece about the Canton paper mill compelling  to a large segment of Citizen-Times readers?