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?

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