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Friday, November 4, 2011

The inaugural edition of the Indy editor's blog

Posted by on Fri, Nov 4, 2011 at 11:09 AM

It's 6:30 a.m. and I feel like it's the first day of school. Lunch packed. Teeth brushed. Hair more or less combed, like that would do any good.

And here's the inaugural edition of For What It's Worth, the Indy editor's blog.

By nature, I'm a news reporter, not a columnist, which is why I've been tarrying about starting a blog. But I'm into it now and I imagine it to accurately reflect my personality: informal, conversational, irreverent and occasionally vulgar. You've been warned.

In FWIW, my goal is to demystify the Indy by explaining how the editorial department chooses stories, writes headlines, etc. I'll discuss how we approach ethical dilemmas and, of course, try to answer the ultimate question: How does someone get in the paper?

In doing this, I hope to elicit (civil) conversations between me and you, the reader—and among readers.
I'll also comment on the news of the day and, as a voracious reader and media consumer, try to turn you on to good reads, films and music.


So first, a few words about this week's cover story:

The article came about when writer/ photographer Anna Blackshaw, who is new to the Indy pages, pitched me a piece about the Sanitation Two. The plight of these men had been studiously noted in the mainstream media, and for the Indy, the piece had to be different. We needed to anchor an intensely researched story in public documents while answering the deeper questions of Who are these men? What motivates them?

Anna admirably achieved that, and as a result we have a story that relies heavily on public documents and shows that Clyde Clark and the Rev. Kerry Bigelow are more than activists and union guys: They're fully fleshed out men with hopes, dreams and disappointments. Just like the rest of us.

We did have an ethical question in the story in that the women complainants are named in the lawsuits but are given anonymity in town documents and at a town hearing. Should we name the women in the story or not? My first instinct was yes, to provide transparency that the Town of Chapel Hill did not; but after Anna and I talked further, we agreed not to because it was difficult from the documents to know what each woman said and did. It seemed that we would achieve no greater clarity for having named them. For the record, Anna tried to reach one of the women several times but received no response. We also vetted this story through a media lawyer.

We did leave their names in the lawsuit documents, which are available to download on the story (see Documents in the sidebar). We redacted all home addresses of the women and the Rev. Bigelow to protect their privacy. Roger Stancil's address is in the documents, but it is for Town Hall.


Another ethical question arose on indyweek.com today about City Council candidate Steve Schewel, who also owns the Indy. Teri Beckman asks how we will cover city council if Schewel is elected. My answer: We will cover city council in the same way we have covered it before, with the same scrutiny of elected officials' decisions and policies.

I can assure you the Indy's independence will not be compromised; the editorial staff demonstrated that independence by choosing not to endorse in the city council race.


Ask and you shall receive: Is the Orange County Republican Party that desperate?

WCHL reported earlier this week that the Orange County GOP endorsed Kevin Wolff for mayor, simply because he asked for it. Apparently, that's the only qualification the party demands and, for Wolff, the only one he has.

This is the same guy whose campaign recently has been connected to issuing a fake flyer about the alleged dangers of locating a men's homeless shelter near Homestead Park:

"Three hours ago a 4 year old girl was reported missing," the flyer reads in large letters. "The parents said the girl was last seen playing on the playground in Homestead Park. The parents also said that there was an unknown man talking with the little girl before she vanished. ... No, this did not actually happen today, but it will if a Men's Homeless Shelter is put next to Homestead Park."

Wolff has mistaken fear-mongering for leadership. This flyer was irresponsible and baseless; in effect, it profiles homeless people—men, in this case—as kidnappers and pedophiles, while ignoring the fact that many such predators live in their own homes and hold "respectable" jobs.

Here are some statistics from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services from 2008, before homelessness started to significantly affect the middle class:

  • More than 12,000 people in North Carolina identified themselves as homeless.

  • Of those, about 1,000 were veterans and 2,200 were children.

  • Roughly 6.5 percent—780—identified themselves as having been released from the criminal justice system.

The study goes on to say that about a third of homeless people have a mental illness; that means two-thirds don't. However, having a mental illness doesn't necessarily make one a kidnapper or a pedophile, and mental illness is not unique to the homeless.

The guy at the homeless shelter whom the flyer has already pegged as a child molester? He could just be one of the thousands of public employees laid off in the latest round of Republican-led budget cuts. Or he could be broke because of mounting unpaid medical bills. Or sure, he could be a criminal, but so could the guy next door with the two-car garage and the picket fence.

Readers often want to know why the Indy doesn't endorse more Republicans. Well, I would say the GOP has to give us someone worth endorsing. And you have to do more than just ask.


Good reads:

I went to the Regulator in Durham and picked up Pulphead, a collection of nonfiction essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan, who was featured in an Indy article a couple of weeks ago. Sullivan's writing is smart, vibrant and funny: "Do you want to know what it's like to drive a windmill with tires down the Pennsylvania Turnpike ..." he describes steering a 29-foot RV to a Christian rock festival. Yet the language doesn't draw attention to itself. This is because Sullivan never forsakes the ideas underpinning his work. Clarity always trumps poetry; Sullivan has mastered both.

Up next on the reading list: a book published about a year ago, Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown (h/t to @BoraZ, a prolific science blogger whom I follow on Twitter, for making me aware of the book).

Until it was demoted to a dwarf planet, Pluto was my favorite full-fledged member of our solar system. Pluto reminds me of my brother, no great athlete, who as a kid was regularly exiled to distant right field where, in his own orbit, he sat in the grass and picked dandelions, dimly aware of the ballet of baseball happening around him. An outlier in the outfield, just like Pluto.


Tomorrow: Rep. David Price's ties to Rapiscan, manufacturer of airport passenger X-ray scanners, which are subject to little, if any, safety oversight. Plus, my thoughts on the safety issues with the American Tobacco Trail.


Now playing: The Jayhawks, Mockingbird Time


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Ethics, the Sanitation Two, Kevin Wolff and the dwarf planet Pluto

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