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."


  1. Watson Sims has had an esteemed career, but I see that he has not responded here. I suggest that's because he's focusing on global issues to the detriment of the local. But I'm guessing though. All I have to go on is my memory of asking him years ago (10 or more years, I'm thinking) to contribute to Mountain Xpress, but with the caveat that he'd have to write about local issues — to no avail. He did, however, in the ensuing years write good globally or nationally focused op-eds that appeared in the Citizen-Times.

  2. I think the blogger was asking Fobes if he is getting any mentoring from Watson Sims about where MX is going, especially with citizen journalists, twittering, aggregating news from other sources, etc. Not if he had ever asked Sims to write for him.

  3. As I recall our conversation,I told Jeff Fobes he could find many people more qualified that I to write on local issues in Asheville,a view I still hold. I feel the Mountain Express is a splendid and much needed asset to our community's media.

    Watson Sims