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  • Near Miss & A Newsroom Tragedy

    When I was in Reidsville, an angry and grieving man walked into our newsroom, came into my tiny office without warning, and shut the door behind him. His teenaged niece had died in a car accident.

    The Review, like many small-town community newspapers, had covered the fatality in extensive detail. And the man was angry about the story we had published, which quoted the police report that said his niece was at fault. He believed the story had left a “black stain” on his niece and on his family.

    Anxious to take out his anger and grief on someone, the man threatened multiple times to punch me, even as I tried to listen and calmly talk him down. Finally, I said, "Go ahead," with the stipulation that as soon as the punch was thrown I would throw him through the plate glass window that separated my office from the rest of the newsroom.

    Given that I was 5 inches taller and 40 pounds (at least) heavier, he opened my door and left.

    The police were called.

    I was lucky. He never came back.

    This afternoon, at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., five employees were killed when a man with a shotgun opened fire in the newsroom. Details remain sketchy, even though a suspect is in custody and has been identified. A few minutes ago, police said the man had filed a defamation claim against the paper in 2012, but the case was dismissed in 2015.

    Threats and physical violence against journalists have risen in recent years, which comes as no surprise given the shouting over “fake news” and the fragmented nature of our society. When I saw reports of this latest gun-related tragedy, I immediately flashed back to that day in Reidsville, and to my career as a newspaper journalist.

    I worked for community papers in Texas and North Carolina for more than a decade. It is hard, grueling labor, the only constants being long hours and low pay. (You sure as hell don’t do it for the money, the quality of life, or the fame.)

    You do it because you love to write and be part of the community in which you live. You publish, despite what others may think, more good stories than bad ones.

    This horrible news is now up on the Capital Gazette website, and reporters say there will be a print edition tomorrow. Because even in the face of tragedy, that’s what good journalists do.

    Godspeed.

  • Places: American Tobacco Campus

    When my oldest son moved to North Carolina as a toddler, we lived less than a mile from the American Tobacco Company plant. Today, Nicholas still lives in North Carolina, just a mile from the place that was home to the cigarette maker’s primary headquarters.

    But times have changed greatly over the last two decades for everyone involved, in oh so many ways.

    For me, the move from my native Texas to Reidsville, N.C., in 1993 represented a huge personal and career risk. Over the eight years I lived there, life as I knew it took a series of seismic shifts. I got a divorce, met the love of my life, remarried, had three kids in a calendar year, bought a house, changed careers and found lifelong friends.

    I also saw a town and region face a series of seismic shifts of its own, as its economic drivers — mainly textiles and tobacco — left either gradually or almost entirely during that time.

    A few months after I took over as managing editor at The Reidsville Review, the town’s largest employer was sold by its parent company. More than 1,000 employees — almost 10 percent of Reidsville’s population — lost their jobs because the American Tobacco Company was no more. Today, the plant that once employed more than 1,500 people and dominated the northern part of the town is only a shell of itself, with only a handful of workers plying their trade for a company that sells cigarettes in foreign markets.

    ••••••

    Several years earlier, in 1987, American Brands closed the American Tobacco factory on Blackwell Street in downtown Durham. This, combined with declines in the textile industry, was a huge blow to the town on many levels; the company had been founded by the Duke family after which the university nearby is named.

    For more than a decade, the tobacco campus remained vacant, a gigantic hole in the center of town. But in 2004, the Capitol Broadcasting Company started a $200 million renovation effort that has led to both an economic and cultural renaissance in the city’s downtown area.

    The American Tobacco Campus, as it is now known, is home to office space, restaurants, and entertainment venues. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, one of the nicest minor league baseball stadiums in the country, is adjacent to the campus, as is the Durham Performing Arts Center, the largest of its kind in North or South Carolina. The area attracts more than 2 million visitors a year.

    Today, small businesses form a strong restaurant and entertainment district throughout the downtown area, luring back 20-somethings like my oldest son and his girlfriend to Durham, where they live in a converted textile factory about a mile from the American Tobacco campus.

    Durham is cool — not Kool — again.

    ••••••

    The past two decades have not been as kind to Reidsville, located in a rural area just north of Greensboro about 60 miles from Durham. Like many former factory communities across the nation, Rockingham County has struggled economically, and is facing a population decline.

    The tale is all too familiar. Within a decade after the Reidsville plant was sold, The Review was a shell of itself as well. Started in 1888, around the same time that American Tobacco came into being, it has been sold twice since 1997, consolidated with two other community newspapers, and seen its frequency cut from daily to twice a week.

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve gone back through Reidsville during my trips to North Carolina. On one recent trip, I went past The Review building and the former American Tobacco plant and thought again of how their fates — caused by an almost simultaneous explosion of the Internet and the new global economy — seemed intertwined and in some ways interchangeable.

    Say what you will about big tobacco, and there’s plenty to say about that, but there’s no denying that the collateral damage caused by any major industry going through rapid decline has generational impacts. I’ve seen this first hand in journalism, my chosen field, with overworked staffs in small and midsized newspapers being sliced to the bone as the institutions that served communities for decades consolidated or closed entirely. Too many of my colleagues, hard working people with an invested interest in their community’s future, present and past, have found themselves out of work and scrambling to make ends meet.

    When I moved to North Carolina, I took some time to revisit You Can’t Go Home Again by Thomas Wolfe, the state’s most famous author. I thought again of that book as I drove by the three houses and apartment where I lived, marveling at the snail’s pace in which small towns change, and recalling the tumultuous times that so dramatically changed my path.

    It is a place, like my hometown, that will always be part of my history. And my son’s.

    To see more photos from this essay, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Interviewing B.B. King

    In 1991, I was fortunate to have an hour-long, one-on-one interview with BB King at a hotel in Houston. The interview covered much of the terrain you'll see in the various tributes to the blues legend, but I have three random — though distinct — memories from that day.

    First, King had the biggest hands of anyone I've ever met, with the possible exception of Muhammad Ali (that's another story). Just huge, with a diamond on his left hand that could have paid for my college education.

    Speaking of college, I asked King about Charles Brown, a blues pianist from Texas City who started around the same time and was then enjoying a revitalized career thanks to Bonnie Raitt. King said he always wondered why Brown chose the life of a musician. "We were all jealous of him because he went to college," King said. "He had so many more options than the rest of us."

    Finally, King said his only option was to work harder and longer than everyone else. "This is what I do," he said in a matter of fact manner. "I don't play golf. I can't imagine playing golf."