Tuesday, 12 February 2013 23:29

A 'crappy little newspaper'? Not so much

We're not sure how many people read the posts and comments on the web site www.WidenI77.org, nor is that particularly relevant at this time. The group has publicly criticized the Lake Norman Citizen for the way it has covered the proposed I-77 high-occupancy toll lanes story, and all of the reasons behind our philosophy and its objections to it have been well documented in our pages and our web site.

But its members or organizers or figureheads — it's hard to really tell because e-mails from WidenI77.org are largely unsigned — have responded as many who over-reach, over-analyze and over-react often do, and that is threaten to file a lawsuit against the Citizen because, not to oversimplify it, it wrote something they didn't like. That it collectively or individually had already engaged in what be construed as actionable offenses by their own definition of libelous is the subject of another discussion. And now that legal action has been threatened, the Citizen can no longer represent any of the group's views in its pages.

It's impossbe to tell if someone who posts under the name of "Jenna" on WidenI77.org's web site is a member of the organization or a follower, but here is what she posted: "I think this guys is mistaken as to how many people read his crappy little newspaper. I personally use it for our firepit. This proposal absolutely snuck up on me and I read the Charlottle Observer and watch local Charlotte news every night."

What Jenna probably didn't figure out while writing this epistle is that she ... we'll go ahead and call her "she" for now ... essentially made our point for us. And that is, if you want to know what is going on in the Lake Norman area, reading the Charlotte Observer or watching Charlotte TV news is the last thing you want to do. And this "crappy little newspaper" as she describes it has been covering the HOT lanes P3 story from the front lines since mid-2010, when the item first surfaced publicly at a meeting of the Lake Norman Transportation Commission and subsequently on the agendas of special and regular town board meetings a combined dozens of times since.

If the progress toward the HOT lanes, which was played out very much in public, including a well-publicized, three-hour workshop at Cornelius Town Hall, "absolutely snuck up" on her, well then she should have been reading this "crappy little newspaper" with more than 100 years of professional experience and journalistic integrity on its small staff, a duration unmatched in all local newspapers (including online) combined.

Here are a few more things Jenna doesn't know about this "crappy little newspaper."

The Lake Norman Citizen was founded amid the worst recession of our lifetime, and it is, literally, through blood, sweat, tears, 60- to 70-hour work weeks, many 16-hour days that we have survived, and even thrived, over three-and-one-half years. As a result, this "crappy little newspaper" employs 17 professionals in a variety of disciplines, and helps stimulate dozens of other jobs in areas of printing and distributing the paper.

This "crappy little newspaper" is heavily, deeply involved in a number of charitable efforts and through its pages has directly and indirectly supported causes such as Hope House, Ada Jenkins Center, Angels and Sparrows Soup Kitchen, Lydia's Loft, The Bin and many more. We even founded and operate annually our own flag football tournament in partnership with Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville to honor the late Kevin Carosa and help raise money for cancer research.

This "crappy little newspaper" was the only media outlet that took on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities and forced it, reluctantly, to eventually admit it wasn't water leaks or heavy use or any other excuse it labeled on north Mecklenburg customers, but rather its own faulty equipment that resulted in unexplainable hikes in water bills.

This "crappy little newspaper" with only one phone call to a major bank resulted in a policy exception that granted a Huntersville mother forgiveness of the college loan she had continued to pay monthly more than three years after the death of her son, who was never able to complete his college education. The bank's position was he died mere months before it changed its policy about loan forgiveness and she began circulating an electronic petition to present to the bank. We saw it, made one phone call to the correct executive and, within hours, the matter was resolved. 

This "crappy little newspaper" has been credited by several event organizers for drawing large crowds to their events because it was the only outlet providing advance publicity.

And that's only scratching the surface of what this "crappy little newspaper" has contributed to the Lake Norman region.

And one parting thought. If the Citizen is such a "crappy little newspaper" that nobody reads, then there is no reason for anyone to worry about what we write.

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. -- The expected reaction was quick by the organizers and followers of the group WidenI77.org. After enduring a couple of weeks of attacks by some of its members, the Citizen this week decided it was time to further distinguish itself from other media reporting on this subject — and others — and used as an example the brewing controversy over the regional planning organization and state's plan to address 27 miles of the interstate in one project as opposed to three separate projects, and to do it sooner rather than later.

For its efforts, the newspaper has been labeled as a cheerleader for the state and a supporter of the HOT lanes/public-private partnership (P3). From our perspective, we view it as our obligation to lay out the details of the plan, which has been discussed — and covered in our newspaper for more than two years, long before the recent controversy erupted — as completely as possible in order to keep the public apprised of the most salient issues and to allow readers the opportunity to judge for themselves the relative merits of the concept.

We further view it as our obligation to not perpetuate opinion wrapped in the pretense of fact that, indeed, is not. As part of that effort, we have declined to print some letters to the editor and to present some of the arguments of WidenI77.org because of inaccuracies and assumptions disguised as deeply researched absolutes. We are, as we believe all other print media should be on their pages and broadcast media should be on their air, responsible for the veracity of all content we present.

Among the inaccuracies we pointed out in print is a slide in a Powerpoint presentation, something with which the group has taken great exception. Our story is accused of mischaracterizing the data on Slide 13, as pointed out by the group — along with calling us liars and cheerleaders and calling into question our integrity. The group's leader opined in an email that we should be called the "Lake Norman Government" rather than the Lake Norman Citizen, an effort at sarcasm that falls short of clever.

But as shown here, the chart is labeled "Phase 1: Widening I-77 from Exit 23 to Exit 28." It compares a price of $50 million for general purpose lanes to figure of $323.5 million for HOT lanes. As a result of this data, another area newspaper reported the "Total for lake area" in terms of cost is that same $323.5 million. As a footnote, it did say the information was according to WidenI77.org, but once it is in print, it becomes fact to readers whether or not it is.

Our in-depth research shows that figure to be incorrect within the context presented, as was also pointed out by WidenI77.org in its own defense. It may not be what they meant, but it is what they said and — more importantly in terms of the article we prepared this week — exactly what was reported in a story that was hailed by the group as a shining beacon of journalistic excellence, even though it was wrong. And if that $323.5 million figure was truly indicative of the cost of a larger project, it has yet to be corrected on the group's website.

How is a reader who doesn't keep up with this subject on a daily basis supposed to know what is right and what is wrong? Therein lies the rub.

That's why we printed the story we did this week in an attempt to separate reality from the fantasy reported by other media outlets that apparently fail to recognize that what they present to the public can be accepted as fact. While we applaud any citizens' group that becomes involved in the political process — albeit in this case late in what has already been a very long game — we are aware that the manner in which it presents its case is as important as the case itself.

The Citizen experienced a similar phenomenon to this more than a year ago when it was the only media outlet providing in-depth coverage of the discussions over the proposed Red Line Regional Rail Project. We are accused of being a supporter of the project by at least one of the same individuals currently railing about our coverage of the HOT lanes process when we were merely fulfilling our obligation as a community newspaper: educating and informing the readers about every digestible nuance of the discussions.

So why, I wondered as this week's sequence of events played out, do some readers think we're endorsing the state's plan? And then it suddenly hit me. We are in the midst of an era in which it seems all media outlets, print or broadcast, are pandering to somebody. Those of us who do this for a living, especially those trained as journalists to understand it is our obligation to remain fair and impartial, can clearly identify media bias. We can also identify inexperience, laziness or sensationalism.

But not so much can the general public. Many consumers of news trust what they read, hear or view, or they will gravitate toward that coverage which better fits what they believe or want to believe. Our industry by and large has become so sensationalistic that, I suppose, the perception is that every outlet is pushing an agenda, so what would make the Citizen any different? We are presenting the details of what the state and the regional planning authority propose to do, and providing a reality check of what both will not do, so surely we must be on the side of the government and not the people.

I can assure you the government doesn't purchase advertising space, so there would be no need to pander to it.

No, we're just old school. Or just old. Everyone who covers news in the Citizen started in the late 1970s or early 1980s. We were trained by editors who would just as soon throw an IBM Selectric typewriter — once the preferred tool in newsrooms everywhere — at our heads then they would tell us what was wrong with a story we submitted. We take what we do seriously and approach our obligation with passion.

We will continue to inform or readership about what state and local governments are up to, particularly those issues that affect the largest numbers of citizens. If we are accused of promoting or pandering because ... well that's the standard media operating model these days ... it is a burden we must endure.

There's an amusing television commercial in which a woman tries to convince a man that, if something's on the Internet, it has to be true. To punctuate her point, a slovenly, fanny-pack-wearing guy shows up, and she introduces him as her date, whom she met online. "He's a French model," she exclaims.

Smirking, he shrugs his shoulders and makes no attempt at a fake French accent as he says, "bon jour."

We are in an age in which social media reigns supreme and blogs, so-called "news" websites and others spread so much misinformation that the lines between what is true and what is not are blurred. Our information culture has devolved to the point that people are unwilling to research for themselves the "facts" presented to them, as long as what they read and hear in the most convenient manner possible matches what they want to believe, not necessarily what they should believe.

Among the ethical quandaries faced by legitimate media outlets on this never-ending trip down the misinformation super highway is whether we at The Citizen should present commentaries or points of view based on information we know to be incorrect. And, if so, is it the role of legitimate media to contradict those viewpoints, either with those who would present a counterpoint, or by simply providing that counterpoint on our own? How do we eschew activist journalism without being viewed as practicing activism through restraint?

It's easy in our society's quest for immediate gratification for people to simply believe what they hear from one source while dismissing opposing sources out of hand. And whipping a crowd into a frenzy is easy provided the message is compelling, even if it's not entirely grounded in fact or reality.

Just because somebody says it, writes it, prints it or shouts it the loudest doesn't make it true. Practice critical thinking. Research all you can about controversial subjects. Consider all points of view. Then form your own opinion before either joining a movement or deciding it's not worthy of your time and energy.

The most dangerous form of activism is uninformed activism.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012 20:05

Newtown is our town

I wrote this as a "Talk of the Towns" item for this week. As a primer, "Talkers" can be anyone from our writing staff and the term is sometmes used to refer to others. This section is where we provide editorial-type obsevations for the Citizen, in addition to the "Final Thoughts" columns at the back of the paper. Talk of the Towns items — or TOTs, as we like to call them internally — are usually brief and humorous if not pointed in nature, but not so much this week:

Talkers ordinarily reserve this space for often tongue-in-cheek observations of goings-on in our region, but they're not feeling so smarmy this week. For in the midst of holiday preparations and the merriment of the season, evil found yet another heinous manner in which to shatter the lives of 26 families, the innocence of a school full of children, the tranquility of a small New England town and the security of a nation.

This is my Final Thoughts column for this week, but I think the message is important enough to get it out early.

It was the 1973-74 school year when I was at the pinnacle of my short and undistinguished basketball career. Back before multiple ankle injuries rendered my vertical jump to something that can be measured by a few sheets of paper and a growth spurt began to taper off, I was, for a brief and shining moment, a BMOC (big man on campus).

I have written in recent weeks about the Connect Our Future planning initiative that involves 14 counties around Charlotte. I have maintained that, because the source of the grant money funding the initiative is the Housing and Urban Development that there is a larger agenda present. Here is a link to material that supports that supposition:

http://www.sedgwickcounty.org/commissioners/Ranzau%20Readings/Sustainable%20Planning%20Grants%20and%20UN%20Agenda%2021.pdf

In this week's Citizen, we introduce the expanded Third Annual Live Awesome Flag Football Tourament, sponsored by the Lake Norman Citizen, Presbyterian Hosptial, Huntersville Parks and Recreation Department and the Huntersville Family Fitness and Aquatics Center. If you want read about the inspiration for this event — and it is a great read — the story about the life, death and legacy of North Mecklenburg High School graduate Kevin Carosa is available on our website.

Why a flag football tournament? Carosa was perhaps best known for the sophisticated back yard football league he ran in, of course, his back yard. He was diagnosed while attending North Carolina State University with a rare germ cell cancer that would take his life within a year. Why call it "Live Awesome?" That was his mantra durig his battle, and what he wants us all to do.

This year, the event will include a football-themed 5K and one mile fun run, The staff of the HFFA will be providing their expertise in running this event, which will feature four fun football skills stations that must be completed before continuing along the course. The football tournament itself at Huntersville Athletic Park will feature more of a festival atmosphere with fun actvities, food vendors, cornhole games and more.

It all goes down on Saturday, Sept. 29. Registrations forms are available on our website as well at our office, at Presbyterian Hospital Huntersville, and at HFFA. All proceeds will benefit cancer research and we're hoping for our biggest year yet. Also in the planning stages is a pre-event party at a local restaurant, also to benefit cancer research. We hope to see you at one of our Live Awesome events.

It appears as though the Cornelius Town Board of Commissioners is set tonight to approve participation in the  14-county, two-state, "Connect Our Future" planning consortium, funded to the tune of nearly $5 million in a federal Housing and Urban Development grant money plus about $2 million more contributions from "private partners." That's nearly $7 million, mostly courtesy of the federal government, for what is presented to be a voluntary, information-sharing group that will exchange ideas about how the region should develop.

It seems that most elected officials in the north Mecklenburg towns and in Iredell County have no concerns over this, dismissing it as yet another feel-good, hand-holding, Kumbaya-singing group that will meet a few times a year, produce a document that will sit on shelves and never be heard from again. But one must ask, why in the world is a HUD even remotely interested in how a 14-county region that is mostly rural and urban develops? And why is the federal government involved in the first place? 

I'll not venture to answer those questions here. Mine is but to question why. The timing of all this comes on the heels of Charlotte, the urban core of the region, once again bringing up the issue of city/county consolidation, a move that is presented as cost-saving, but actually dilutes the accountability of local government by giving the citizenry fewer and farther between elected officials to be held accountable to them. 

Don't be surprised some year down the road when you seek a rezoning in your town and your request is forwarded by your local planning board, planning staff and town board to the regional consortium ... or higher than that ... for consideration.

Note: The Cornelius Town Board of Commissioners did discuss the reaffirmation of the memorandum of understanding regarding Connect Our Future Monday night but took no action. The board will consider the matter at an upcoming meeting after Town Attorney Bill Brown reviews and amends some of the language contained in the document.

This morning, we had another organization meeting for the third annual Live Awesome Flag Football Tourmanent. It's going to be a great event with the addition of a 5K run and a true festival atmosphere.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012 19:14

As usual, this week's Citizen surprises me

Another issue of the Lake Norman Citizen has just been put to bed and, as usual, I marvel at the quality of product this little band of journalism professionals produces each week. News is a funny thing: No matter how meticulously you plan a week's content, by Tuesday afternoon the issue you thought you were going to produce bears little resemblance to what you put on a page.