Farewell to the Raleigh Public Record

The Raleigh Public Record is history. The news website officially shut down this week.

In a message on Facebook, the Record signed off this way:

“When we began this project years ago, our goal was to foster more discussion about Raleigh news and make sure someone was covering City Council. We feel our presence made a difference in both areas. Our leaders have moved on to other projects, and it’s time to officially say goodbye.”

The Raleigh Public Record started nearly 10 years ago. It was a nonprofit news organization funded by grants and donations. Its mission: Report news about the politics, communities and development of Raleigh, North Carolina. Its specialty was in-depth coverage of city government.

At its peak, the Record did just that. Its stories were picked up by WRAL.com, and the staff hosted Election Night watch parties.

As a resident of Raleigh, I was a frequent reader of the website. I was also a financial contributor and occasional consultant.

The Record started to lose momentum in 2014 when its founder, Charles Duncan, decided he was ready for a change and left for a job as an investigative reporter in the Cayman Islands in 2014. He is now an editor at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

In recent years, posts on the Record website became less frequent. Money was undoubtedly an issue. In 2017, the site was plagued by domain squatters.

So the Record’s end has come. The good news is the site has been archived, so it may still be a valuable resource about the city’s history.

Thanks to Charles, Ariella Monti, Jennifer Wig Suarez, Laura Fiorilli-Crews and other Raleigh Public Record staffers for their hard work over the years. The city is better informed thanks to your efforts.

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Finding beauty inside an ugly building

Steve Merelman, an editor at Bloomberg, tweeted a link to a Business Insider list of “the ugliest buildings in every state.”

I took the bait and scrolled to what was deemed the most hideous building in North Carolina. The “winner” is an office building in Asheville.

My mind quickly turned to a building in downtown Raleigh, one that Merelman and I both worked in earlier in our careers. I responded on Twitter:

newsobserverbuilding

The News & Observer building, with its brutalist architecture, isn’t much to look at. Built in 1956, the structure is outdated inside and out.

Late last year, the newspaper’s parent company, McClatchy, announced that the property is being sold for $22 million. The building will be demolished, and a mixed-use development, including a hotel, will take its place.

Sometime this year, the N&O offices will move a few blocks away into a skyscraper on Fayetteville Street, with the newsroom at street level. Publisher Sara Glines said: “We are very excited to be moving into downtown Raleigh office space that supports flexibility, collaboration, and makes it easy to engage with the community.”

I agree. It’s time for a change. N&O journalists deserve to work in a contemporary space.

Yet as ugly as the N&O building is, I will always have lovely memories of the 10 years I worked there in various editing roles. As A.C. Snow wrote in a column recently, the people made it beautiful.

Q&A with Suzanne Tobias, reporter at The Wichita Eagle

suzanne-tobias

Suzanne Tobias is a reporter and columnist at The Wichita Eagle. Her primary beat is covering the Wichita public schools. In this interview, Tobias discusses her job and the newspaper’s recent move, and she offers advice to aspiring journalists.

Q. Describe your job at the Eagle. What is your typical day like?

A. I cover education for The Wichita Eagle and Kansas.com, with a primary focus on the Wichita school district, which is the largest and one of the most diverse in our region. School finance has been a huge story in Kansas for the past decade or more, as the Wichita district and others have sued the state over education funding.

I enjoy the variety of stories on the education beat. On any given day, I could write about teacher contract negotiations, concealed-carry guns on campus, discipline in schools, refugee students or a new strategy for teaching math. When the Kansas Legislature is in session, I collaborate with our Statehouse reporters to cover education policy news; during the slower summer months, when teachers and students are out of school, I try to work on big-picture investigative or data-driven stories.

My typical day starts about 7:30 a.m. or earlier – partly because I’m an early riser and need to get my own kids to school, and partly because it meshes well with school schedules and allows me to better reach sources. I generally post at least one story to our website before noon, updating it throughout the day if need be, while also juggling weekend stories and at least one longer-term project. I check in with my editor at least briefly each day, either in person or via email.

Every other Monday I cover the Wichita school board, which meets in the evening, so I start a little later those days. I try to head home by 5 or 5:30 p.m., but I usually take my laptop with me in case news breaks and I have to cover that from home.

Q. The Eagle recently moved. What is it like to leave a newsroom behind and move into a new one?

Moving to a new building this past spring was exciting, exhausting and a little emotional. The Eagle had been at its previous location since 1961.

As our primary focus evolved from print to digital, we moved our printing operation to a sister paper in Kansas City and downsized significantly. That meant the old place had lots of unused, unneeded space. We moved just a few blocks up the street, but the new office has way more modern amenities and energy. It’s brighter, with balconies off the newsroom that overlook Wichita’s Old Town Square. Television screens throughout the newsroom broadcast breaking news or website analytics.

The move was a great excuse for a lot of us to ditch old junk and start fresh. The old building is being demolished to make room for a new business. While I thought I’d be sad – we posted a huge “-30-” on the out-facing windows when we left – I think the new place means progress for our company and the community.

Q. You are active on Twitter. How do you use social media as part of your work?

A. I began using Twitter in 2008, before most of my editors and colleagues really knew about it or realized what a great tool it could be. I have a loyal cadre of followers – mostly teachers and parents – who thank me for live-tweeting Wichita school board meetings so they can keep track of discussions and debates.

I regularly use Twitter and other social media to find or track down sources, to flesh out tips, to gather input and to share links to my stories. A few years ago, a random tip from one of my Twitter followers – that a Kansas student’s disparaging tweet about Gov. Sam Brownback angered the governor’s staff and landed her in the principal’s office – resulted in The Eagle’s No. 1 story of the year for online page views ().

Q. You have worked at the Eagle since graduating from N.C. State University in 1990. That’s unusual in a highly transient profession. What has kept you in Wichita?

A. It’s funny, because when I moved to Wichita from North Carolina, I swore to friends and family that I would be here for a couple of years and then try to get a job at one of the papers back home. Part of the reason I stayed is that I met my husband (an Eagle photographer) here, and we bought a house and started a family.

But more than that, this newspaper offered so many opportunities to try new things, cover various beats and keep things fresh. Over the years I have covered general-assignment news, city government, military and education. I tried my hand at editing, supervising a seven-member education team. (I learned that I much prefer reporting and writing.) I was part of The Eagle’s first foray into online journalism. I flew with the Blue Angels. And I started a weekly column on parenting and family life, which I still write.

I’ve been here 27 years, and I still love what I do because my job and our industry keeps changing. And have you seen a Kansas sunset? Seriously, they rock.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?

A. First, don’t let the haters get you down. Journalism is a necessary and noble profession, and one that’s just as important now as it ever was.

It’s also a pretty awesome way to make a living – being nosy, getting the scoop, writing it down, telling all your friends and neighbors. No matter what your passion might be – politics, science, sports, movies, books, business, food – there’s some kind of job in journalism that will let you explore it. Also, journalists are some of the smartest, funniest people you’ll ever meet, and working around them every day is good for the soul.

Oh, and READ. That’s my primary advice for aspiring journalists: Read, read, read, read. Readers make the best writers.

Read Suzanne Tobias’s stories at Kansas.com and follow her on Twitter.

The public editor, before and after

The recent news that The New York Times was cutting the position of public editor prompted me to think about my time at The News & Observer. I worked at the Raleigh newspaper twice: from 1992-97 as a copy editor and from 2001-2005 as wire editor.

For most of that time, the N&O did not have a public editor, a role also known as an ombudsman or reader representative. That changed in 2004, when the newspaper added that position and hired Ted Vaden, a longtime journalist who had served as editor of The Chapel Hill News, among other jobs.

Before Vaden’s hiring, I got feedback from readers via email, voicemail and phone calls. Some of these communications were hostile and unproductive, but some led to helpful conversations about how the newspaper operated and what we could do better. I also looked at letters to the editor for responses from readers on how we covered national and international news.

After Vaden was hired, I still received phone calls, voicemail and emails from readers. I also heard from Vaden, asking me why we covered a topic a certain way or why a story had not appeared in the pages of the N&O.

On at least a couple of occasions, I was interviewed by Vaden for columns that he wrote for the N&O addressing concerns from readers. One that I recall was about how the N&O had covered the Terri Schiavo “right to die” controversy. Some readers complained that we had approached it as a political story rather than a medical one. I told Vaden that I saw it as both and that our coverage had tried to address each angle.

His column suggested that we had fallen short. I disagreed with that assessment, but I appreciated how Vaden went about his work. He asked good questions and came up with conclusions based on evidence and analysis.

Vaden left the N&O in 2009, taking a communications job at the state Department of Transportation. The role of public editor at the N&O was lost amid a wave of layoffs.

I recently caught up with Vaden, who has left the DOT and has written columns on various topics for The Chapel Hill News in the past few years. In light of the news from The New York Times, I wondered what he thought about his time as public editor in Raleigh. Here are my questions and his responses:

Q. How did you approach the job of public editor at the N&O?

A. I suppose I tried to assume the role of “honest broker” between the readers and the paper, serving as intermediary to hear readers’ concerns, communicate them to the people inside the paper and explain the journalism of The N&O to the public. I felt that my first obligation was to the readers – to ascertain their concerns about the issues shoved into their consciousness by the paper, and to hold the paper accountable in areas of fairness, taste, ethics and professionalism.

I tried to do this in two ways – in a Sunday op-ed column that usually focused on the most controversial coverage of the preceding week and in a weekly report (I can’t remember what I called it) that I distributed by email inside the building relaying the issues large and small raised by readers during that week.

That inside column was distributed not just to the newsroom but to all 900-plus employees of the paper. I thought it was valuable for the entire enterprise to hear what the readers were saying about The N&O, and I was gratified to get a good deal of response, questions and ideas from non-editorial employees.

Q. You were public editor for five years. What did you learn doing that time?

A. I learned that it is a very difficult balancing act to straddle the divide between people out in Readerland and the journalists inside the paper. Journalists as a breed are very defensive about their work, and it was quite ticklish to bring the same kind of watchdogging to them as they did to the public.

I tried to rely on my instincts, but if anything, I erred on the side of being too critical of the paper, in order to maintain credibility with readers. Nevertheless, I’m sure I let my bias and identity as a journalist creep into my opinionating.

I believed independence was the most critical asset of a public editor, and I was fortunate that I was in the position of reporting directly and only to the publisher (Orage Quarles III), who created and appointed me to the position in the first place. He read every column before it was published. He occasionally disagreed with my conclusions, but in five years there was only one instance in which he directed me to change my column. Even then, we ended with a compromise (which I still didn’t like).

I felt that if there were not always some journalists inside the paper who were not happy with my columns, then I was not doing my job. I’m proudest that I took a critical stand early on over the N&O’s coverage of the Duke lacrosse case, even when that angered some editors.

But there were also instances of which I was less proud, when I wasn’t forceful enough. I still remember a comment from one reader that I wasn’t “tough-minded” enough. Ouch!

I thought it was very important for the public editor to stay in close touch with readers. Over those years, I developed a database of 300-400 readers whom I would survey regularly to get a sense of broader opinion of coverage that I could relay to the newsroom and discuss in the column. The newspaper also created a Reader Advisory Panel that met every month with me and different journalists from the newsroom. Both the journalists and the readers learned from those interactions. I think it still functions.

Finally, it’s a mixed legacy to say that I was the first and (presumably) last ombudsman of The News & Observer. It was bold of Quarles to create the position – to open the paper to regular criticism. But it was a sad commentary on the state of journalism even as early as 2009 that the role of in-house critic was one of the first positions to be determined to be dispensable.

I agree with Vaden that the role of the public editor was valuable. His presence in the N&O building was a reminder that it was the readers that mattered most. Unlike their emails or voicemails, he could not be ignored.

In lieu of a public editor, The New York Times says it will look to social media for reader feedback. It will certainly find plenty of it there, starting with tweets from the president. But how will journalists hear signals amid the noise? Will they fail to hear alarm bells as they tune out the trolls?

Remembering Mark Binker

One of North Carolina’s best journalists, Mark Binker, has died at age 43.

For a dozen years, Binker covered state government and the General Assembly for the Greensboro News & Record, WRAL and The Insider, a newsletter affiliated with The News & Observer. His Twitter feed was an essential follow for anyone interested in North Carolina politics.

Here’s a sampling of reaction to his sudden passing:

  • “Mark Binker was an outstanding journalist who uniquely understood complex issues and explained to viewers and readers why they should care.” — Gov. Roy Cooper
  • “Binker always called himself a ‘scruffy old reporter,’ but his humility couldn’t hide his sharp intellect – he was a policy wonk at heart who always did his homework.” — Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger
  • “In many ways he represented the very best of North Carolina, and no one knew or covered the General Assembly better than Mark Binker.” — House Speaker Tim Moore
  • “Binker would be laughing at all these politicians praising him. ‘That’s not what they said before. They want something.’ ” — John Robinson, former editor at the News & Record

I never met Mark Binker in real life, but we did communicate via social media on occasion. He was helpful, humble and humorous.

I’ve also mentioned Binker to journalism students interested in covering politics. Whether in print or on screen, he exemplified the best of journalism: careful, thorough, ethical and open-minded. Binker was a role model and mentor to many.

On Twitter, political strategist Alfredo Rodriguez suggested that the North Carolina Press Association create a Mark Binker Award “to honor journalists for their dogged and honorable pursuit of truth.” I support that idea and hope that the NCPA will consider it.

In the meantime, I offer my condolences to Binker’s family, friends and colleagues. We will all miss him.

My election forecast

2016-electoralmap

My forecast for the presidential race, created with this interactive map at CNN’s site.

The campaign of 2016 is about to come to a close. It feels like everyone, including journalists, is ready for it to end.

Free pizza for the newsroom was one of the traditions of election night at newspapers where I worked. An “election pool” was another one. Those of us who chose to participate predicted the outcome of various races. The winner claimed bragging rights of being politically astute, although dumb luck may have been involved too.

I won’t join one of those pools this time, but I will offer my predictions here. To be clear, this is who I think will win, not who should win. My voting preferences are between me and my ballot.

Here we go:

PRESIDENT

Clinton, with 323 electoral votes

CONGRESS

House: Republicans, 235-200

Senate: Tied, 50-50

N.C. RACES

Governor: Cooper

Lt. Governor: Coleman

U.S. Senate: Burr

Q&A with Mary Miller of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.

The N.C. Newsroom Cooperative is part of The Frontier, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park.

Mary Miller is president and co-founder of the N.C. Newsroom Cooperative, a co-working space in Research Triangle Park. She previously worked as a reporter and columnist at The News & Observer and as special assistant to the provost at Clemson University. In this interview, conducted by email, Miller discusses the objectives of the cooperative, her role there and the outlook for journalism in North Carolina.

Q. What is the North Carolina Newsroom Cooperative? What is its purpose?

A. Our mission is to support and promote the work of independent journalists and nonfiction storytellers, and the way that we are doing that is by creating a nonprofit business cooperative with a newsroom co-working space.

The idea of co-working spaces and business incubators is popular these days. We see this as a new twist on what makes a newsroom such a fun and vital place: a space and support system to serve all the kinds of people with the differing skills required to produce and publish a fact-based story. The reality is that a lot of journalists these days don’t work out of a newsroom anymore, or if they do, the newsroom is a much emptier place than it used to be.

So the co-working component provides camaraderie and mentorship that we miss so much when we work in isolation. It’s a place to work and improve your work, to bounce ideas, acquire on-the-job training, collaborate and given the ever-interesting cast of characters, learn to navigate the rest of the world.

We see that people who are not employed by traditional media outlets are actually producing high-quality and essential journalism that deserves wider reach. Together we’re attempting to define and nurture this evolving media and communications ecosystem, to widen the tent and promote collaboration while preserving integrity, transparency and accountability.

That’s why we’ve organized in the cooperative model: because every member must adhere to the SPJ code of ethics and must be willing to give of their time and talents. How do we improve the quality and reach of nonfiction storytelling? That question is our North Star.

We’re a diverse group of professionals coming from the realms of media, academia, tech, nonprofit and corporate who value the necessity of a vibrant free press and ethically produced fact-based storytelling. Our group took a look at North Carolina and the Triangle in particular and realized that we have not only a large and diverse class of professional storytellers, but we’re so lucky to have the kinds of people in the tech industry and in academia who are forging these new frontiers in the gathering, telling and dissemination of information.

We had an opportunity to move forward with the idea thanks to the generous support of The Research Triangle Foundation (disclosure: I am married to CEO and President Bob Geolas), which grants us space and basic furnishings at The Frontier, a co-working space in RTP, in exchange for programming.

The programming we’re working on will help people be better journalists, more facile at technology that allows them to cross platforms to further their work, as well as programming that helps them to be better business entrepreneurs. We are looking at ways to offer bundled tech support to drive down the cost of digital publishing and most importantly, to free up their time to do the actual work of gathering and telling stories. And we’ll offer ways to market and promote their work on our website, as well as partner with strategic partners seeking quality content.

One striking difference from a traditional newsroom is that we host events to bring the public to The Frontier to raise the level of civic conversation. For instance, we had presidential historian William Leuchtenburg, William Rand Kenan Jr. professor emeritus of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, out on Super Tuesday to talk about the press’s relationship with American presidents this century. We are also working on screening some documentaries about important North Carolina stories this fall.

Q. Describe your role at the cooperative as co-founder and president.

A. Fancy titles, but as anyone with startup experience knows, the job description is “do what needs to be done.” This is a large group effort.

I am main point of contact. Our co-founders are veteran journalist Seth Effron, a digital pioneer who has recently taken a new position with Capitol Broadcasting Company, leading the web-based opinion section on WRAL.com, and media lawyer Hugh Stevens.

Our board includes Brett Chambers, who teaches journalism at N.C. Central University and is president of the Triangle chapter of National Association of Black Journalists; Teri Saylor who owns Open Water Communications; News & Observer columnist J. Peder Zane; Fiona Morgan, a former Indy Week staff writer who’s now journalism program director at the nonprofit Free Press; Joe Dew, a former political reporter for The News & Observer who also has experience in nonprofit management; and Ryan Stancil, one of the founders of the digital magazine Bit & Grain.

Beyond that, we have a core group of about a dozen more colleagues who have put in some money and time to get this off the ground. They are photographers, information designers, documentarians, established publishers of niche news websites like The Carolina Mercury and North Carolina Health News, startups like and Broken Toilets, which covers global and local development issues. Our members include freelance reporters, editors, photographers, copy editors, publishers of online magazines, documentarians, documentary filmmakers, information design specialists, and social media managers.

Q. How can someone get involved with cooperative?

A. We are in the process of defining membership and benefits, and officially kick off our membership drive in October. Don’t wait to make contact! Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter at @CoopNewsroomNC. Check out www.ncnewsroom.org.

But by all means, come visit. We’re at The Frontier, 800 Park Offices Drive, Durham. To do that, email maryemiller@ncnewsroom.com, or call me on my cell at 919-607-4069.

While we are always looking for people who identify as journalists and communicators, we are also in need of the talents of design and data visualization specialists, researchers, app developers, even social media managers. Diversity of skills will make us stronger.

Q. What’s your sense of where journalism is going, in North Carolina and beyond?

A. Storytelling has always been the most powerful means of communication. The question is whether it will ever become the most financially valuable. That I doubt.

Technology has democratized the telling of stories in ways that most people could barely imagine even six or seven years ago. Look at how Facebook livestream has changed news just this summer.

Having a smartphone and rolling video doesn’t really make you a journalist. Content isn’t context. And instant information, as we so often see, can be misleading.

Audiences are more sophisticated. So are businesses. They understand that they are best served by factual information because it’s getting easier to fact-check claims. People expect transparency.

Newspapers and other forms of media may falter, and some will die. Nonfiction storytelling won’t. I am amazed and heartened at the number of young professionals who, out of passion for story and community are launching projects and gathering stories, becoming multimedia publishers with a cellphone and technology that can fit in a knapsack. Their flexibility to absorb information and post in varying platforms is impressive, but even more so is their innate understanding of what makes a story and what might be the best form of telling.

Our youngest child, Josephine, is 8. She makes a movie trailer almost every time she gets her hands on my iPhone. She knows more about structure and plot than I did going into college. That tells me we are on the right course.