Friday, April 30, 2010

Will you always have your memories?

"You'll always have those memories," I was told. One can hope so, but I'm not so sure.

"Memories are made of this" and "No, no, they can't take that away from me," lyricists write. But I have my doubts. I've lost many things in my life — dear friends, a sister, my parents, other relatives, contests and possessions — but the saddest and most devastating thing to lose is your memories, the ones you thought you'd always have. I've seen too many people, mostly the elderly, who have become disconnected from their memories, like a train that has uncoupled from its engine and is stranded forlornly. A friend told me recently about the death of his father from Alzheimer's disease, surely the saddest malady in all of human life. At the end, he did not know his son or the wife who had refused to move him into a care facility; she cared for him at home, but he did not recognize her. He did not know who that woman was.

I cherish my memories and supplement them with photographs and mementos — useful reminders of events gone by. But I fear the day when those memories fade like old photographs and become so faint that I cannot reconstruct them. Let me die with my memories intact instead of becoming an empty shell without a past.

Oil slick stains political landscape

That gigantic oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is about to crash into more than those pristine tourist beaches and essential estuaries. It's also headed straight toward political headwaters.

It's been a generation since an oil spill off the California coast turned public opinion against offshore drilling, and it's been 21 years since the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. During all that time, America's appetite for oil has increased. Offshore drilling has quietly increased, spreading into deeper waters in the Gulf as the oil industry assured the public that new safety devices eliminated concerns about major oil spills. President Obama and other politicians made the once-unthinkable shift toward allowing more offshore drilling in previously restricted areas along the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Florida. And the public, shell-shocked by $4 a gallon gasoline, didn't seem to mind.

The April 20 explosion and subsequent collapse of a deep-water drilling platform remains an anomaly — just one of scores of offshore drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico dutifully pumping crude oil ashore to be turned into gasoline and other petroleum products. This one spill could undo the good work and goodwill of years of safe operation of other drilling platforms. The potential environmental damage is vast. Not only will white-sand beaches that lure tourists be blackened by crude oil, but the shrimp and oyster beds, water fowl nesting areas and fisheries could be devastated by a thick coating of sticky crude. Oil industry, Coast Guard, Navy and EPA officials are all trying to minimize the damage to the shoreline of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, but the magnitude of this spill makes effective containment nearly impossible.

As bad as the environmental damage might be, America's appetite for oil is unlikely to be diminished, and offshore wells are among the few options left to reduce the importation of foreign oil. The mess in the Gulf should be a warning that more effective safeguards are needed — a blowout valve should have shut off the oil at the wellhead, but it failed. It should not be seen as a need for an absolute prohibition against offshore drilling. Proposals for drilling off North Carolina's coast target natural gas, not oil. Any spill at a natural gas well would result in the release of gas into the atmosphere, not an oil slick.

The risk of environmental damage is the price we pay for our insatiable appetite for oil, particularly in internal combustion engines. Until we control that appetite, we have to accept that risk and be prepared to safeguard against its consequences.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Arizona gets tough on immigration

Arizona has a tough new immigration law, and the United States doesn't. There's the rub.

Opponents are threatening to lead protests and boycotts aimed at forcing Arizona legislators to rescind the law, which charges local law enforcement officials with questioning people about their immigration status whenever officials have "reasonable suspicion" that a person is in the country illegally. Opponents say the law will lead to racial profiling, although the law specifically prohibits basing suspicion on federally protected factors such as race, color or ethnicity. President Obama has called the law "misguided," and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder says he is considering a federal challenge to the law.

The controversial Arizona law exists for two simple reasons: The federal government has failed to secure America's borders, and politicians have lacked the courage to stanch the flood of illegal immigrants coming into this country. Estimates are that about 11 million people are in this country illegally, but, with the exception of a few well-publicized workplace raids, the federal government has not tried very hard to do much about it. In arid, lightly populated Arizona, the long border with Mexico is a favorite of smugglers. State officials have grown tired of trying to house, educate and care for people who, legally, should not be here. Their new law is an attempt to do what the federal government has failed to do — identify and deport or prosecute those people who have broken the nation's laws by crossing an international border without consent or notice.

Arizona's new law is only slightly tougher than a federal program begun under the Bush administration to train local law enforcement agents to identify arrested persons who might be illegal aliens. That federal program has also been hotly criticized and is being used by local deputies in only a few counties in North Carolina. More vigorous use of this program and prosecution of businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens or fail to require proof of legal residency would have made the Arizona law unnecessary.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, worried about his re-election chances and eager to appeal to Hispanic constituents, has made immigration law a priority this year. But if the new legislation is merely a redemption program for the 11 million illegals already here and a welcome mat for millions more to follow, Arizona's problem will not be solved.

Unconstitutional? I don't know. Article I of the Constitution makes immigration and foreign commerce a matter for Congress, but proponents of Arizona's law say it would not change federal immigration law; it would merely assist in the enforcement of the law. Challenges on a racial or civil-rights basis seem doomed. The question here appears to be state-federal jurisdiction, not civil rights, if the law is enforced as its supporters say it will be.

The biggest concern I have about the law concerns appearances. The requirement that everyone who might, on the basis of "reasonable suspicion," be asked to prove his legal immigrant status smacks of totalitarianism. Being asked for one's "papers" by uniformed officers is something that happens in bad movies set in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, not in Arizona.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Museum shows off its art in a new light

The new North Carolina Museum of Art, which opened this weekend, really is spectacular. From the outside, it has all the charm of a tin warehouse, but the architects' use of natural light really does display the art in wonderful ways. After reading about the museum, I was eager to see how the natural light could be used as pervasively as described without creating glare and sun damage. The skylights throughout every gallery direct a muted light into the high-ceilinged galleries, and the floor-to-ceiling windows are covered by sheer fabric, eliminating any glare or hot spots. This lighting shows the familiar art from the permanent collection in, well, a new light and validates the bold and expensive decision to move from the adjacent museum, only about 30 years old, into a new and much larger venue.

For me, the highlight of today's visit was the Rodin collection. I had been fascinated by Rodin since I first saw his "Burghers of Calais" at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington more than 35 years ago. Rodin's depiction of hands, arms and legs give his sculptures a strength and a kinetic feel. The museum has a dozen or so small Rodin sculptures plus a huge "The Thinker," his most famous work, and several life-size or larger sculptures in the Rodin garden.

Today's opening festivities included interpretive dance by students from the N.C. School of the Arts. The dancers provided a bit of "performance art" as they struck poses and synchronized movements in the galleries and in the gardens throughout the afternoon. Larry Wheeler, the museum director who pushed for the new museum building, strolled among the visitors as if he were just another citizen come to see what the artsy crowd had done now.

Two other pieces that caught my eye were glass art from the collection of Lisa and Dudley Anderson of Wilson. Oddly, "Green Eye," on loan from the Andersons, was not identified with a plaque like all the other art was.

This weekend's opening was a grand occasion with entertainment and special events each day, but the new gallery space lived up to its billing as something special.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A marriage that defies the odds

The wedding 39 years ago today could hardly have been less promising. He was a month shy of completing a college degree, and the omen of a low draft number was hanging over his head. She would give up her collegiate ambitions and sublimate her goals to his. They had known each other only a few months. Few would have bet on the longevity of their relationship.

But there was more there than the outward appearances would have shown. "Do you believe in a love at first sight?" the Beatles had sung just a few years before, and neither of this couple would have replied positively. Yet something had clicked between them when they first met. Within days or weeks, they knew. They just knew. They could spend their life — not lives; one singular life — together and be very happy. Or they could spend their lives separately and be miserable.

Here is what the odds that sunny April day that ended in thunderstorms didn't show: A good marriage is the embodiment of divine grace — an undeserved favor. Two people grow into the realization that they don't deserve each other but that they are better as one than they could ever be apart. Now that marriage that began so uncertainly has lasted twice as long as she had lived up to that Friday afternoon in 1971. Today is a wedding anniversary, but it is also the birthday celebration of a new life, one far better and far longer than I could have imagined 39 years ago. We have reared children and welcomed grandchildren; we have survived loss and disappointment; we have comforted each other; we have encouraged each other. We have occasionally disagreed but never fought.

"Grow old along with me" said Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and we have done that. Today, 39 years into this new life, I can only hope to have many more years of sharing a life with the woman who made me whole.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Volcano might affect more than airlines

The cloud of volcanic ash from Iceland that disrupted air travel all over Europe got a lot of attention from the news media, which interviewed folks stranded at airports in Britain and Europe. The ash was so thick that it threatened aircraft. Ash particles, it was feared, could be sucked into the intake of jet engines and cause the engines to stall or rip apart.

The angle on this story that got almost no attention was the possible impact on global weather. Today's News & Observer carried a column about the catastrophic impact a sixth century volcanic eruption had all over Europe and the Middle East. Enough volcanic dust blown into the upper atmosphere can shade sunlight, leaving a pale, moon-like sun at mid-day, according to historical documents. The sixth century was not the last time a volcano caused weather changes in faraway places. The 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in the western Pacific resulted in a much colder winter and much shorter summer in North America.

I haven't read any comparisons to the Icelandic volcano (whose name no one outside of Iceland can spell or pronounce) to Krakatoa, but surely there must be some analogy. Maybe we won't have a dimmed sun or a ice on rivers that had never frozen before, but the massive dust cloud that grounded airlines for about a week would seem likely to have some impact on temperatures. The scattering of light-reflecting particles in the atmosphere has even been suggested as a solution to global warming. The trick would be getting just the right amount of atmospheric dust — enough to slow global warming but not enough to initiate global freezing.

While travelers are celebrating being able at last to get out of or to Europe, some folks should be thinking about the long-term impact of this volcano, which is reportedly still spewing its innards into the atmosphere. The lack of attention to this important angle baffles me.

Monday, April 19, 2010

What's it worth?

Basic economics says the cost of any item is whatever a willing buyer is willing to pay a willing seller. That being the case, what is the car I've driven for 14 years worth? Is it determined by the 145,000 miles on the odometer or the air bag module that no longer works? Or is determined by the care I've given the car these many years or by the joys it has provided on twisty mountain roads?

All of the above. I've resigned myself to the fact that I will put the car on the market, and I'll seek a fair price for it. But I will also miss it terribly when the sun is bright and warm in the blue sky and the road ahead turns sharply and climbs or falls away.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Space Age" lingers without the excitement

President Obama is younger than I am, so he missed out on the excitement of what was expansively called the "Space Age," when entire schoolhouses full of children would sit for hours to watch a rocket launched with just one man atop the cylindrical bomb. Young people of my generation watched patiently and excitedly as sub-orbital flights gave way to orbiting space capsules with one man crammed tightly inside. President Kennedy issued a challenge: to put a man on the moon and return him safely "before this decade is out." But when that fantastical challenge was met in July 1969, America lost interest in NASA. Space missions had become routine. Only the near-tragic Apollo 13 mission renewed interest in moon missions, and just briefly.

So Obama, having missed out on much of that excitement, has turned a critical eye toward the whole space flight concept. In an announcement last week, Obama killed a fanciful proposal by President George W. Bush to return astronauts to the moon. The back-to-the-moon program offered little in the way of scientific advancement, and return on investment was hard to identify. Obama says we'll go elsewhere, perhaps to an asteroid, perhaps to Mars, and he expects to see it happen in his lifetime. That's expecting a lot, even from a relatively young president.

In fact, it's hard to see how America can continue to invest billions in space exploration as a government project. Kennedy's challenge was prompted by a Cold War competition: We had to beat the Russians, who had beaten us in putting up a satellite and in putting a man in orbit. But there is no longer any competition. What the United States does in way of space exploration is not done out of fear of competitors. Our current space program is designed in part to prevent the loss of jobs in the aerospace industry.

Given the country's $1 trillion-plus budget deficits, it's time to ask whether we can afford an elective program whose benefits rarely trickle down to ordinary taxpayers. Yes, NASA has pioneered many advances, ranging from Tang instant juice mix to heat-resistant ceramics to computer advances. But nearly all of these advances would have come about without the government's investment in manned space flight. The revolution in computers, for example, occurred in the past 30 years, when space advances were largely stagnant.

The International Space Station has been a scientific disappointment and a fiscal boondoggle that has kept NASA preoccupied with orbital construction. The space shuttle, a vehicle designed to haul equipment to a space station, has been hazardous to its crews and limited in its capabilities. NASA needs to refocus, and relying on private sector vehicles to service the space station, as Obama proposes, makes fiscal sense.

Journeys to asteroids and to Mars still seem far distant and outlandishly expensive. Obama will need to shrink a number of outlandishly expensive budget items if he hopes to balance the federal budget again, sometime in his lifetime.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Second appointment will not reshape court

President Obama gets a rare opportunity. He will appoint two Supreme Court justices in the first half of his first term in office. Last year, the nominated Justice Sotomayor to the court. Soon, he will announce his nominee to replace Justice John Paul Stevens.

But don't think of this as an opportunity to reshape the court. Sotomayor's legal reasoning is not expected to vary significantly from that of Justice Souter, whom she replaced. Stevens' successor is likewise unlikely to shift the court's ideological center. If reports of the "short list" Obama is considering are accurate, the president will opt for a "safe" nominee whose hearings will avoid a politically damaging fight. It's more likely in this political culture that a nominee will be a centrist than an ideologue, or at least someone who can play the role of centrist in nomination hearings. Obama is not itching for a showdown with conservatives in the Senate, so he's likely to appoint someone who is palatable or at least not nauseating to political antagonists.

Obama's second appointment will not remake the court, but the judicial nomination process has been remade in our lifetime. Steven's resignation is a reminder of how tame judicial nominations used to be. He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate within days of his nomination by President Ford. It's unlikely that the Senate will ever again exercise its advise and consent responsibility in that way. Since Ronald Reagan's 1987 nomination of Judge Robert Bork, the nomination process has changed irreversibly. Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and liberal interest groups rallied against Bork, whose conservative judicial philosophy was ridiculed as contrary to American tradition. Bork and his handlers were taken aback by the vehemence of the attacks and the distortion of his record and never made a coherent defense of his largely mainstream views and legal reasoning.

Since Bork, every Supreme Court nomination has been a fight over judicial philosophy, so nominees have avoided expressing any opinions or revealing any insights into their personalities. Presidential appointments have not changed appreciably. Conservative presidents appoint conservative justices, and liberal presidents appoint liberal justices (except that some nominees surprise their nominators). What has changed is the Senate's interpretation of its role. Whereas the Senate once gave presidents the benefit of the doubt, approving any well-qualified nominee (Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell, nominated by Nixon, had questionable qualifications), now each comment or written word by a nominee is vetted and analyzed. Had modern analysis and political tests been applied to justices such as Felix Frankfurter, William Douglas or Hugo Black, they might not have survived the process.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wait! There's an election coming up?

The telephone call waiting for me on the answering machine was one of those political "robo-calls" — prerecorded messages from political candidates urging me to vote for them. The announcement pointed out that early voting starts tomorrow. I had hardly noticed.

How life has changed since I left journalism! Just as a parent's life revolves around a school calendar, an editor's life revolves around the political calendar. I used to make note not only of the big dates — the beginning and ending of the filing period and the primary and general election dates — but also the little-noticed but newsworthy dates, such as the campaign finance reporting deadlines. Those generated some of our best coverage. And although my life-long interest in politics has barely dimmed, my involvement in the process has fallen off sharply. For the first time in decades, I can't tell you who the candidates are for county commissioner, sheriff and state legislature. When I was with the newspaper, I would be shocked at the number of people who didn't read the paper and would wonder how they functioned, as nearly oblivious as they were, as voters in a democratic society. Unless you read the paper closely, and unless the newspaper takes seriously its obligation to present political news factually and objectively, it's difficult to know whom to vote for or even who's running, especially on the local level.

Before May 4, I'll have to educate myself on the candidates for office in the primary, and I may, for the first time in my life, vote "early." My new job involves a hurricane drill on primary election day, so I may be too busy to get to the polls. But I'm wondering whether the folks at state Emergency Management were making a political statement in scheduling a mock hurricane to strike the N.C. coast on primary day.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The colors of life all around us

Life is short, as these few days of glorious color and refreshingly cool air remind us. All around my back yard the azaleas are in bloom. These burning bushes of bright colors turn border plantings into a forest fire of color, and human eyes find it difficult to consume it all. The dogwoods' spindly limbs are suddenly alive with white blossoms tinged in red. The grass that had been bleak and dull beneath the winter rains and snow now glistens with a hue of green that had not seemed possible just weeks ago. A day of working in the yard leaves you exhausted, sore and inspired. The wild-ness of the plant kingdom has been given order by cutting, trimming and planting. Our creation stories are set in a garden, implying a place that is tended and ordered, not in a wilderness where plants are allowed to thrive and wander without discipline.

Already, however, the daffodils are gone, withered to no more than green stalks. Soon the azaleas will fade; the bright white blossoms will turn dull brown before falling to the ground. Other flowers will take their place. Hydrangeas will burst forth in complex blooms that are like giant snow crystals in their geometric symmetry. The irises and chrysanthemums will flourish and fade. Each beautiful bloom will wither. Our task is to enjoy the flower while it blooms, to breathe in the fresh, pure air before it's gone.

Life is short. Enjoy it while you can.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

One American's love affair with cars

My problem is, I keep cars too long and get too attached to them.

Take the 1971 Toyota Corona my wife and I bought to replace the Chevy II that had gotten me through three years of college. I kept the Toyota for 16 years. It brought my oldest child home from the hospital. I carpooled in it into Washington, D.C., for three years. It took us on many a long and exhausting trip between D.C. and North Carolina. Before I got rid of it, my daughter, the one who rode home from the hospital in it, drove it (legally) after getting her learner's permit. When I traded it in with 120-some-thousand miles on it, it had a rusting dent in the front fender, some missing rubber molding around the door and its fourth water pump. I still hated to let it go. It had hauled too many memories over too many years.

My latest dilemma involves a 1994 Honda del Sol, which I've driven for 14 years. I had persuaded myself that it was it was time to replace the car. After the module that controls the air bags died (a little $735 computer chip), my wife no longer wanted to ride with me. And there was the little problem with what sailors call watertight integrity. The Targa-roof roadster had always been prone to a little leaking around the windows, but recently it had begun leaking in the trunk too, and the entire car had developed a musty aroma. It really was time to pass it on to someone else who might be willing to fix the flaws. I looked around for a while, uncertain what kind of car I wanted — another fun-to-drive roadster? A practical sedan? Something in between, such as a coupe with a manual transmission? I finally settled on the third option and found a well-cared-for but aging Honda Accord coupe that fit the criteria.

Now it's time to find a new owner for the del Sol. After cleaning out the car and driving it to work on a warm, sunny day, I found myself falling in love with it all over again. Its nimble handling and five-speed transmission made every corner an adventure, and I recalled the several times I got the car on twisty mountain roads, its top removed and open to the sky as autumn leaves whirled in the breeze stirred by the little black car's acceleration as I worked the shifter between second and fourth gears and punched the accelerator for all the speed the little engine could muster. It's the most fun I'm likely to have in a car. The newer coupe that was meant to replace the del Sol does not have the same gear ratios. Its six gears are more tightly spaced and geared more for economy than for acceleration, and its open moon roof does not give the same airy feeling as the removable roof in the older car.

So here I am with an extra car in the driveway, an extra expense on my auto insurance and a reluctance to turn loose of a car that has given me great enjoyment (and relatively few problems) for 14 years. When I was debating whether to buy the del Sol in 1996, my wife put an end to my indecision by telling me frankly, "If you don't buy it now, the next time you buy a car, you'll be too old." She was right. Now I just have to convince myself that I'm too old for it.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Too many escape federal income tax

An Associated Press story this week reported that about half of all Americans escape the income tax, but we're not talking about well-heeled tax dodgers with creative accountants and tax lawyers. Recent changes in tax laws make it possible for couples with children and a fairly middle-class income to avoid paying any federal income tax. Thanks to lower tax rates and higher exemptions, plus tax write-offs for dependents and child care, a family of four with $50,000 in annual income might pay no income tax.

There are two things wrong here: First, these people, along with those of even lower income, do pay federal taxes. They pay payroll taxes, contributing to Social Security and Medicare via some of the most regressive tax systems in the country. The $10,000 wage earner pays the same tax rate of about 6.5 percent as the $90,000 manager, and this tax is collected based on gross income with no deductions considered. The payroll tax is clearly one that has a greater impact on lower-income taxpayers. The poor also pay federal gasoline taxes if they drive.

The second problem is that lower-income citizens who pay no income tax have no stake in the country's fiscal future. For them, the federal government is merely a rich uncle who provides earned income tax credits, free school lunches, food stamps and other benefits, all paid for by people who, yes, do make more money than they do but who may not be significantly better off. The non-payers do not contribute to the vast responsibilities for national defense, food safety, transportation improvements, regulation and the rest. In a healthy democracy, everyone has a stake in the future, and everyone contributes to the nation's fiscal health.

Nobody in Washington wants to talk about raising taxes, but with a deficit of $1 trillion-plus, it's a topic that needs attention, along with some serious cuts in spending. Tax exemptions should be adjusted so that only the poorest Americans pay no income tax. Half the nation's tax filers now pay 97 percent of the income tax. If we changed that figure to just 90 percent, more people would have a stake in the country.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

New York paper gets it right about Vollis

The New York Times has done a terrific feature on Vollis Simpson, the "outdoor artist" who was recognized about 20 years ago by the N.C. Museum of Art, where one of his tall whirligigs stands. He's also been noticed by a number of other museums and arts aficianodos around the country. His big whirligigs are on permanent exhibit in Baltimore, Atlanta, New York, London and Wilson, plus some other places, I suppose. One of his smaller whirligigs is in my back yard, a birthday gift to my wife several years ago (it was one of the most appreciated gifts I ever gave her).

I was glad the Times article did not mention the urban legends that have surrounded Vollis' work, and in some instances overpowered the truth behind what he had created. Numerous times over the years of my work at the local newspaper, I fielded calls and e-mails from people — a great many of the East Carolina University students — who wanted the low-down on this farmer outside of Wilson who had gone crazy after his daughter was killed in a car wreck on his farm. Driven by his grief, the legend claimed, he built his monstrosities in his pasture as a tribute to this daughter. "None of that is true," I told my callers, though I think many of them didn't believe me. I made a habit of referring them to a Web site created by the Minnesota Science Museum, which was, at the time, the best explanation of Vollis' work.

I also cringed every time I heard someone (usually a longtime Wilson resident) refer to Simpson's whirligig field off Willing Worker Road as "Acid Park." Supposedly, the twirling reflectors put on quite a show if you're stoned, but that moniker disrespects and belittles Simpson's amazing achievement. The New York Times never mentioned "Acid Park." Let's bury that whole line of thought.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Print has a role in national championship

Who says print new can't keep up? I was astounded this morning to pick up the Raleigh News & Observer and find the front page dominated by the results of the NCAA men's basketball championship game and the Sports section wrapped in an eight-page tribute to Duke's championship. I knew the game ended long after my bedtime, around 11:30 or so, and well past the deadline for the N&O edition that is trucked 50 miles to Wilson to be tossed in my driveway. But there it was, the big news of the day for many sports fans, delivered to doorsteps despite what must have seemed like impossibly tight deadlines.

Few people who have not worked for a newspaper can appreciate the amount of work and anxiety that goes into getting a paper out. When events are transpiring right on deadline, or right after deadline, editors and publishers have to make some tough decisions: Do we hold for the news, pushing back deadlines and forcing press crews and delivery personnel to work later with more rushing and tension, or do we stick with the proven and familiar deadlines and hope to report the news a day late in the next edition? It's always a tough call that happens more often than most readers imagine.

When I was editing The Wilson Daily Times, we decided to postpone our deadline until President George H.W. Bush was sworn in at noon — an hour past our final deadline. We waited for the photo of the swearing in until well past noon, and the circulation department fumed. In retrospect, it was an unwise decision. About a year later, we begged Atlantic Christian College to release its new name to the newspaper just a few minutes before the official declaration at 11:30 (or thereabouts). We promised to keep the name secret until after the announcement, and we could not get the name into print (because pages aren't built and presses aren't run instantaneously) until after the announcement, anyway. College officials refused to help us out, and we decided not to hold up the paper for their announcement. We reported the celebration of the name "Barton" a day later.

So the N&O's decision to hold a couple of hours for the championship last night was not an easy one. Some overtime, jangled nerves and unkind words were probably involved. It was a tough decision but a smart one, a decision that affirms the role of print journalism in an age of instantaneous communication. Although die-hard basketball fans stayed up late to watch the nail-biter on TV, they still hungered for the fine details that only the newspaper could provide. I was reminded of the late Vermont Royster's comments about his worries that upstart television might make newspapers obsolete. It was the late 1940s, and Princess Elizabeth of Britain was marrying Philip Mountbatten. Royster's two daughters watched the filmed ceremony on the new-fangled video box, and their father worried about what their fascination would mean for his print journalism career. Then he saw his daughters' excitement again as they fought over the morning newspaper with its detailed descriptions of the fuzzy, black-and-white images they had just seen. Print would survive after all, he surmised.

Even in a video world, print has a solid place. The N&O decision-makers and sports fans know it. Now someone just has to convince advertisers, who have been abandoning print for "new media."

Monday, April 5, 2010

April turns up the heat

Yes, I was tired of winter and eager for spring, but I never asked for 90-degree weather in April! That's what the forecasters are predicting for Tuesday in eastern North Carolina. The sudden heat wave (I don't think I've ever turned on the air conditioning in April) is compounded by that fine powdering of yellow tree pollen that has turned everything around me into a caution light.

The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming, and the grass is growing. Surely, summer has set in for a long visit. But I suspect we'll see a cold snap or two before June arrives. A frigid bluster greeted a family beach trip last May, forcing us all to bundle up in sweatshirts and heavy coats. By the end of the week, though, I was riding waves, and the sun was warm enough for extended tanning. If the weather were the same every day, weather forecasters wouldn't have much to do (see Steve Martin's hilarious "L.A. Story"). So we check the forecasts and hope for a weekend with weather much like yesterday, when someone drove past my house in a classic MG TC roadster. I wouldn't argue for a few degrees warmer, but I'd love to see that MG again.

Abuse allegations and church doctrine

Holy Week services at the Vatican included some spirited and defensive rebuttals of accusations against Pope Benedict's handling of pedophile priests. Some critics have claimed that Benedict, when he was an archbishop and later as a member of the Vatican inner circle, addressed clergy sex abuse accusations as a damage-control issue rather than a pastoral matter of caring for the victims and potential victims of pedophiles. Some critics are even accusing the beloved Pope John Paul II of ignoring credible accusations of child sexual abuse by priests.

Church doctrine is a major impediment to the church's resolution of this problem, now that it has reached the papal palace itself. The pope is God's representative on Earth, the direct, chosen successor of St. Peter, and, as such, he is infallible, according to church doctrine. When the pope speaks for the church, he cannot be wrong. If the pope is infallible, therefore, he could not have mishandled the issue that is now roiling the church. This doctrine prevents any high church official from asking the Watergate question: "What did the pope know and when did he know it?" If Benedict or John Paul are directly implicated by documentary evidence of covering up pedophilia in the priesthood, the church will be faced with either ignoring the evidence or ignoring doctrine. The infallible cannot fail.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

E-readers won't save newspapers

Cover stories in The Atlantic and Newsweek tout the new Apple iPad, which went on sale Saturday. I've written before about the iPad, but that was before Apple's latest product went on sale and before it got such great exposure in the mainstream press. Like other Apple products, the iPad is a great leap ahead of the competition. Other manufacturers have tried their hand at slate computers, but none have caught on. The iPad might catch on as a platform for Web browsing, but the Apple iPhone and other "smart" phones also do a pretty good job of Web browsing, albeit on a much smaller screen.

What intrigues many analysts is the iPad's potential as an electronic reader to compete with Amazon's Kindle. Each product has its advantages and disadvantages — the Kindle is better in sunlight, but the iPad allows full-color illustrations. Some magazines and newspapers have signed up subscribers to their iPad versions of their publications. In this sense, the iPad is the fulfillment of that pie-in-the-sky dream from when I was in journalism school 40 years ago — a device that would automatically deliver the day's news to subscribers without the expense of massive presses and newspaper carriers. (What many of these dreamers had in mind at that time was closer to a fax machine than to an electronic reader.) That pipe dream from long ago is now possible and practical with the iPad or the Kindle — you can get your complete newspaper each day on a small, portable electronic device.

But, as analysts have pointed out, it will take a lot of online subscriptions to make up for the print industry's loss of advertising. Traditionally in the newspaper business, circulation revenue barely covered the costs of delivery. Eighty percent or more of a newspaper's revenue came from print advertising. Even if consumers are willing to pay premium rates for the convenience of electronic delivery of news, their e-circulation payments will not replace the lost ad revenues. If newspapers are going to survive in some form, then some way must be found to lure advertisers back into the newspaper format. Subscription revenue, whether print or online, cannot replace ad sales, which provide the overwhelming bulk of total newspaper revenue. So it's unlikely the iPad, no matter how wonderful it is, will be the savior of the newspaper business.

Besides, a majority of readers say they prefer he experience of reading a book in print, the old fashioned way. This is a process — ink on paper — that has survived in some form for thousands of years. Many people enjoy reading a book who will not enjoy reading items, including this blog post, off of a computer screen. No matter how ingenious the technology is (iPad readers "flip" the pages with a brush of a finger, just as they do with a book), no electronic device can fully replicate the experience of holding a book, carrying it to secret hiding places and immersing one's self inside the cover of that book. Just as movies did not eliminate the novel, and television did not eliminate radio or the movies, e-readers will not eliminate traditional books, magazines and newspapers. If print publications die, it will because they could not generate enough advertising revenue to support news reporting, not because of the new e-readers.