Speaking of journalism: What I told a civic club in 2014

This is the basic text of a speech I gave to the Burlington Kiwanis Club five years ago — May 29, 2014 — back when I was editor of the Burlington Times-News. I was coming to the end of my journalism career then and I knew it. But I had seen a lot in terms of what’s now called “fake news,” hoaxes, shoddy reporting and reporting inaccurate information too quickly. And we see that the more things change the more they stay the same. (Yes, Lincoln did threaten newspapers during the Civil War). Five years later, we’re about at the same place — only a lot worse.

When I was kindly asked if I would be willing to join you here for a quick speech I reminded the club that I did so about three or four years ago and that I was unsure if I had learned anything new to tell you since that time.

I was assured that wouldn’t be a problem.

So right then I recognized exactly what was going on here – the red light flashed – he was in dire need of a warm body and because I can stand somewhat upright and am reasonably sober at this hour, I fit the bill.

Aside from those qualifications, really, I don’t have that many items I can talk about. I’m an expert on almost nothing. I have no hobbies to speak of. And I don’t know too many people outside of the newspaper business. Not sure I know a whole lot more inside of it either these days. Not as many of us as there used to be.

So when faced with a speaking engagement my topics are pretty limited. In general they would be …

Option 1: The newspaper business past. 
This would involve any old Times-News stories involving Jim Wicker, Jack Sink — or hopefully both. So here goes: I worked with both of them in the 1980s. You couldn’t meet nicer or more professional people if you took out an ad and auditioned them. Little quirky, yes, but great newspapermen and friends.

Both, of course, are legends now retired.

My favorite observation about Jim Wicker is that he could write a story about whatever Jack Sink might take a photo of that day. The tricky part for Jack, was making sure Wicker would be awake to report it.

Wicker liked to catch a little nap when he and Jack rode together on assignments. Jack would drive, and Wicker would nod off within seconds of leaving the parking lot.
The one thing Jack couldn’t figure out, though, is how Wicker knew absolutely when to wake up and tell Jack where to turn next.

So that’s my Jim Wicker-Jack Sink story.

Then there’s Option 2: The newspaper business present, and if you believe the pundits, well, it’s hanging on by a thread.

Which brings us to Option 3: The newspaper future. And if you believe the same pundits, we’re deader than a fried flounder plate with hushpuppies over at Harbor Inn.

Usually, I pick option 3, because it seems to be thing most people have questions about. Lately when I talk about the future of newspapers, though, it becomes more about the future of journalism.

editorI boil it down to journalism because it isn’t just newspapers struggling for purchase in changing times anymore. The new frontiers of digital reporting online or via social media have created a carnival funhouse of media gaffes, laughs, screams and screeds. News moves today too quickly via too many outlets with largely unverified facts that are often corrected later if at all. It’s too littered with opinion, politics and conjecture – that is, of course, when it’s not just about celebrity gossip and interminable lists on the internet.

Really, do we need another list of the “Best Godzilla Movies of All Time that Didn’t Include the Guy from Perry Mason?”

I didn’t have to go very far this week to find an example of what I’m talking about. Just this past weekend, a story with this headline appeared online via CNN on its digital iReport.

“Giant asteroid possibly on collision course with Earth”

That’ll get your attention on a Sunday afternoon. Better clickbait than the “What Kind of Rabid Dog Are You?” quiz on Buzzfeed.

The CNN online story detailed how life on the planet will be imperiled 30 years from now by a huge asteroid headed straight for us! Needless to say such a story via a well-known source created lot of buzz online and via social media. Some picked it up and ran with it – sharing it over and over again.
That is, until this cropped up on CNN in place of the story in about an hour or so.

CNN PRODUCER NOTE NASA has confirmed via email that this story is false. A spokeswoman for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory says that the largest object detected measures 3 km in diameter and poses no risk to Earth. The iReport has been removed.

My first thought: Whew!

My second was about how and why this story came to be published to start with.

It’s about competition on a media landscape now full of self-described reporters and publishers who may not be much of either. It’s about being first among thousands. It’s about drawing and keeping an audience either in print, online or on TV. It’s about clicks on websites that translate into ad dollars and it’s about a lack of common sense by those same inexperienced reporters and publishers who print whatever they hear without checking it out for, you know, truth.

Then all the talking heads you see on TV express the conventional wisdom that this kind of reporting constitutes a major change from the way things were historically done in the world of journalism. Print journalists do their share of hand-wringing too. We’re not immune.

But remember, this is the same bunch that historically calls every election campaign the most negative and contentious in history – conveniently forgetting that in the 1700s and 1800s, politicians shot each other.

So some historic context, please.

It all reminded me that only a couple of weeks ago I saw an online item shared via social media by North Carolina cultural history. The story had this headline:

How One Major Hoax Panicked an Entire Nation

I’ll read the first couple of paragraphs.

As the sun rose over Manhattan on May 18, 1864, thousands of New Yorkers picked up their morning paper to discover that their president was drafting another 400,000 men from their war-torn country to replenish the ranks of the Union Army.
Most believed that the three-year-old Civil War had to be nearing its final chapter, but both the New York World and the New York Journal of Commerce carried the news from Abraham Lincoln that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s new offensive in Virginia was failing and the president was calling for additional troops as well as “a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer” across the nation.
Another dark day in a very somber period, except for one thing: The story was utterly false.
How could two of New York’s largest dailies get such a major announcement — from the president of the United States no less — completely wrong?
It was a question that nobody wanted answered more than a furious Abraham Lincoln, who sent federal troops to shut down both papers and arrest their editors when he learned of the hoax.

Uh-huh.

On the surface I’m not sure what I found more troubling, that a hoax of such magnitude at such a perilous time in history was not only perpetrated but succeeded or that the president scuttled the constitution to shut down a free press.

Now how it happened doesn’t seem far-fetched based on what we know today. Back then, New York had eight daily newspapers and who knows how many weeklies or semi-weeklies. Heck, Alamance County had dozens of weekly newspapers operating in the 1800s at one time or another. Where do you think Walter Boyd finds all that wild historical stuff he writes about.

So, just like today, there was a lot of media outlets scrapping for every piece of news available. Most reporters and editors weren’t very experienced, just people who liked to know what what’s going on and were willing to do it. Or somehow thought they could make a little money at it.

Regarding this hoax, five New York dailies didn’t fall for it. Two did.

The hoax arrived by an overnight dispatch forged with an Associated Press signature. These items were the lifeblood of the morning news cycle in those days. This particular one was timed to arrive at 3:30 a.m. – that time when the night editors had left for the day and before the day shift arrived. A single person was on duty to handle what little usually happened during that time. A night foreman the job was called. He was the only person there.

So two nighttime foremen got duped.

The results were also predictable in light of what happens today: Wall Street panicked, sending stock share prices down and gold soaring. They feared a longer war than expected.

It’s sort of amazing how little has really changed, despite the vast differences now in how news is delivered and how quickly it’s delivered. But one adage remains true and is important to remember for those of us in the media business – but also consumers of news in a market where all are encouraged to share information on Twitter, Facebook or any number of social media outlets today.

As Winston Churchill said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Very true.

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