Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Newspapers are selling off their real estate

Sometimes newspapers make the news, not just report it. So it was this morning when the News & Observer reported that its owners were accepting proposals to sell the N&O's landmark building in downtown Raleigh.

Other tidbits could be found in the story: The N&O now employs about half the number of people in the downtown building as it did in 2008. The Charlotte Observer is also considering selling its downtown offices.

All of this reminds us of the sad state of American newspapers. All — or nearly all — have sharply curtailed staffing. News isn't being reported. The newspapers' heft is a fraction of what it once was. Classified advertising is almost completely gone. Fat newspaper profits ("a license to print money," it was said) have dwindled. Esteemed newspapers have found their real estate more valuable than their business. The Washington Post has sold its iconic headquarters, lovingly reproduced in the movie "All the President's Men." Now North Carolina's largest papers are looking for real estate developers to give them an infusion of cash they can no longer get from advertisers.

I've been in the N&O building in downtown Raleigh a couple of times, never able to figure out the labyrinthine layout. I'm more familiar with the Charlotte Observer building. In 1970, the summer I interned at the Observer, the big, modernist building was half built. The production department and presses had moved into the new facility. News was holed up across the street in offices that had housed a fraternal organization. One of my jobs, as the lowest on the department's totem pole, was to run "copy" — the typewritten paper news articles — across the street, where each letter would be typeset in lead for the gargantuan presses.

Later, after I had resigned as editor of the Danville Register, I talked to the city editor and editor in the expansive newsroom one Saturday morning about possibly working for the Observer. Nothing came of the interview, but I saw the newspaper office completed nine years after I had couriered paper into the building, which had become a downtown landmark.

The sad state of American newspapers has been recognized since the sudden collapse began about 10 years ago, but the sale of newspaper real estate clarifies just how low once-great newspapers have sunk. Downtown real estate is the seed corn of journalism, the monuments to once-powerful empires now up for sale like an empty Kmart.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Policy toward Cuba needs to grow up

The United States has been trying to run the Castro regime out of Cuba for longer than President Obama has been alive. It hasn't worked. Now Obama wants to try something different — and more sensible.

Obama announced Wednesday a relaxation of restrictions against Cuba and the opening of diplomatic relations, which were severed in 1960 in response to Fidel Castro's coup and his embrace of communism. A year later, President Kennedy went ahead with a plot started by the Eisenhower administration to overthrow Castro through the support of anti-Castro exiles. The Bay of Pigs is remembered today as one of the great debacles of Cold War foreign policy. Cuban troops routed the ill-trained and ill-equipped insurgents.

 An embargo of trade with Cuba has not succeeded in more than 50 years, and it will not succeed for another 50 years. Cuba is a natural trading partner for the United States and was a favored tourist destination in the pre-Castro years.

It is difficult to justify an embargo of Cuba when regimes of similar or even worse human-rights and anti-American policies enjoy free trade and diplomatic recognition. Can the United States continue to isolate Cuba while it maintains normal relations with Russia, China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia and other nations? If an embargo worked, wouldn't the United States have used it against other nations with totalitarian regimes or socialist economies?

The Cuban embargo was born out of Cold War fears, which were affirmed and exacerbated by the truly frightening 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but so much has changed since the Castro regime's early years. The Soviet Union has collapsed. The Cold War officially ended. Russia and China have embraced capitalism in one form or another. Cuba is no longer sending soldiers to fight proxy wars in Africa. The rationale for isolating Cuba has disappeared.

American interests lie with helping Cuba to reform, adopt more free-trade and human rights policies and come into the 21st century through the example of American freedoms and products. A trade embargo and other restrictions make no sense in 2014.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Christmas traditions include special china

I don't know when, exactly, we started this Christmas tradition, but it has to be about 20 years old. By then, our small children were no longer small. They were teenagers or more, my wife was working, and we had achieved a degree of comfort replacing the monthly panic over matching income with expenses.

We had developed other Christmas traditions. When our children were still sitting on our laps, we began lighting the Advent wreath and holding a family observance each Sunday of Advent. We would buy a Christmas tree on or near our oldest child's Dec. 13 birthday. The children would help decorate the tree, and the youngest would get to place the angel atop the tree.

Our new tradition began when my brother and sister-in-law began giving Cuthbertson Christmas china to each family in our extended family. They started with a pair of dinner plates, adding a couple more each year. My mother and sister took up the collecting and gifting, and soon we had plates, dessert plates, glasses and serving dishes.

It seemed a shame to use these handsome dishes only on Christmas or Christmas Eve, so we began using them every day during Advent, giving us four weeks, plus the days from Christmas to Epiphany to use the plates with their nostalgic, colorful, toy-circled fir. The tradition expanded a bit to include drinking our morning coffee from Christmas mugs, which we had collected by the dozen without ever meaning to.

So, today, with our children long departed and with families and Christmas traditions of their own, my wife and I sip coffee from colorful Christmas mugs. At dinner, we cover the beautiful painted Christmas tree with fish and vegetables and drink water from glasses displaying that same tree below a gilt rim.

How long this Christmas tradition will last I cannot say. The tradition has suffered as the deaths of my Mother in 2006, my brother in 2012 and my sister in 2013 undermined the family bond of precious Christmas china. None of my children have taken up this tradition, and I do not know whether my nieces and nephews might have inherited the China from my brother and sister or my mother.

I only know that my wife and I will continue our odd loyalty to a china pattern for as long as we are setting our own table. Through all the days of Advent and Christmas, we will eat from plates with a big Christmas tree and drink from glasses and mugs with Christmas themes. This exercise gives us Christmas joy and reminds us of our family and all the times we spent together in this time of the year.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Loss of memory through the death of others

People die. We grieve. We mourn. The ache lingers. We dissolve ourselves in the routines of life, and still the ache stabs us. Some little thought, a photograph, a song, a place, a flower, a car, a book, a smell, a taste, a sound, a flash of light through the trees plunges a rapier through our calm demeanor and our quotidian routine. We crumble into despair.

When we lose a friend or a family member, we lose pieces of ourselves. What died with them was a part of us, and that part is taken away. Our collective memory loses its fullness. Without others' memories to help keep alive our own, we lose whole parts of ourselves, for it is experience and memory that makes us what we are — social, sentient beings reliant on others to keep our memories straight.

The pain of aging is in losing, one by one, those who have been a part of your life for decades. First parents and aunts and uncles, then your own generation, cousins and siblings, and contemporaries, friends from childhood or later. Each of them carries away knowledge of you in the form of memories, some of them many decades old. With each death, we are a little less of what we had been. We are left an incomplete version of living, a flawed recollection that cannot be supplemented or ignited ever again.

If the elderly seem thinner, more fragile, or slower, it may be because they have seen too many memories buried, too many pieces of themselves cremated. They become an abridged version, a redacted life.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bad news has a new conduit

This is how bad news travels these days: Facebook posts. No more telegrams. No long-distance phone calls. No hand-written letters. Not any more.

A late-night check of Facebook finds three messages obtusely hinting that John Pegg, my closest friend my senior year in college, one of the ushers at my wedding, had died. I had to reread and examine the posts before coming to the realization of their meaning.

John was a freshman that 1970-71 year, and I was a senior, but we bonded somehow. I was the resident adviser on the third floor of the dormitory, and he lived next door. He caroused and partied together. Had it not been for John, who was friends with a student in the adjacent women's dorm, I would never have met my wife, who was the student's roommate.

After I married, graduated and began a family, we remained in touch, even though military service took me to Washington, D.C., and he began a career in business. We exchanged periodic letters and occasional phone calls. My wife and I visited him one football weekend when he was still in school. He came to see our baby, and we would stop at his house in Kernersville on that long drive back to Washington and spend few minutes catching up.

We rendezvoused to have dinner together as my family, three children by then, traveled through the Triad area on our way west several years ago. John, by then, was married. Though our lives had turned 180 degrees, our bond coupled immediately, and we vowed to keep in touch. Sometime later, we met at a UNC football game. I was with my wife, and he had an entourage of friends from home. We were briefly young again, kidding each other as we had decades before.

The last time we talked, I had seen an obituary in the alumni magazine for our friend, John's freshman roommate, and I emailed him to ask what had happened. He told me to call him, and I did. He explained that we had lost our friend to suicide, and we grieved together over the phone.

When I was in Atlanta for a conference two years ago, I sought out the Hyatt-Regency hotel, where we had gone in December 1970 before the Peach Bowl game against Arizona State. John and I and two other men had driven to Atlanta for the game. The road trip began with hearty laughter and shenanigans and ended in an icy rain as we returned home, saddened by a loss on the football field but still excited by our adventures, including a peach daquiri in the revolving restaurant bar atop the Hyatt-Regency. When we left there in a rush to meet an appointment, the line for the elevator curled around the room. We decided to take the stairs down 28 floors. Part of the route took us across a roof line, which caught the attention of security guards, who chased after us down the remaining flights. We laughed for years about that pursuit.

I sent a photo of the Hyatt-Regency to John and asked him if he recognized the place. He did.

Friendships are like flower gardens. They must be watered and fertilized frequently. People, unlike flowers, grow apart. People pull up roots and move. Keeping a friendship thriving across physical gaps of hundreds of miles is difficult. You have to work at it. For both of us, our aging adult lives grew too full of other responsibilities — children, jobs, commitments, grandchildren, aging parents. The fragile twine that bound us together stretched and frayed until only social media posts kept us connected.

I apologize for not doing a better job at being an active, accessible friend. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

College sexual assault echoes earlier scandals

The explosive expose about a ghastly gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house, as reported by Rolling Stone magazine, has some holes in it. Rolling Stone has issued an apology for failing to ask the right questions and interview all involved — practices that are fundamental to good journalism.

Whether "Jackie" suffered a horrific assault by a gang of fraternity brothers, as the magazine reported, has now been called into question. Some of the details of the allegation, as reported, do not appear to be substantiated by facts. Even some of "Jackie's" supporters have some doubts about the veracity of her tale.

So why would a major national magazine be so slipshod in its reporting on such a volatile and potentially defamatory allegation? Rolling Stone seems to have been allured by the notion that any allegation of sexual assault must be true. After all, any woman willing to tell about such a humiliating assault must be telling the truth! So why do the basic reporting of corroborating allegations, allowing persons accused of crimes or misbehavior to respond to charges, and checking details provided by an accuser?

One can only conclude that sexual assault on campus has become the 21st century version of the child sexual abuse crimes of the 1980s and 1990s. For about a decade, police and prosecutors accepted as divine truth the claims that preschool children were being sexually abused by day-care workers and other care-givers. Police added specialists trained to ferret out the sublimated memories of horrible abuse. Many were very successful in coaxing tales of abuse from children who were properly prompted to tell outlandish stories.

Adults jumped aboard this freight train of good intentions and demanded that investigators "Believe the Children," in the words of an often-used picket sign. They demanded that the courts accept the children's stories as true, even if the stories included mutilations, murder, magical animals, secret rooms (which could never be found) and trips on space ships. Nearly the entire staff of the Little Rascals day care in Edenton, N.C. were indicted, and two were convicted in the frenzy to protect children from sexual predators disguised as day care workers, cooks and clerks. In the end, all of the day-care sexual predator convictions were discredited, although the ruined lives could not be restored to the innocent accused.

Claims of how many women are raped on college campuses have taken on the sacrosanct aura of the "Believe the Children" demonstrations. Colleges and advocates for women's safety have created a dilemma. They want to stop sexual assault, but they don't want to turn the allegations over to professional law enforcement, and they don't want assault allegations to be judged in the harsh light of a criminal court. When any boorish or offensive behavior can be labeled sexual assault, the numbers of incidents are astounding, especially among young males and females at the peak of their sexual interest and with easy access to excessive alcohol stimulation.

Sexual assault is a crime that should be prosecuted in criminal courts, not in student-led "honor court" without legal standing, constitutional protections or the authority to impose the kind of punishment sexual assault warrants. At worst, a student court might sentence an offender to expulsion from school. Big deal. There are other schools and other women. Conviction in a criminal court, however, carries more serious consequences — a long prison term and a lifetime label as a sex criminal.

Keeping sexual assault bottled up in student courts diminishes the seriousness of the crime. Today's students will not remember that 50 years ago, conviction of rape could be punished by execution in many states, including North Carolina. Would the victim's advocates now demanding greater regulation of sexual contacts on college campuses be willing to have student courts sentence a collegiate offender to death?

Deciding that in the relationships between men and women on college campuses, there is only one side to the story, as Rolling Stone apparently did, does not advance women's safety or an honest assessment of the seriousness of sexual assault.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

We refugees from journalism

During a round of introductions at a meeting yesterday, I described myself as "recovering from a 33-year in journalism." In retrospect, I think a better description might be as a refugee from a 33-year career in journalism.

Like residents uprooted from their homes by war or famine, I have been uprooted from the career I chose, enjoyed and thrived in (at least to some degree). Like war refugees, I find myself somewhere else, a place I'd never been before, unable to return to the place — the career — I had known for so long. Like any refugee, I cherish the memories of the good times and try to put aside the pain of the final days of my former life. Despite their longing, refugees have to put the past behind them and channel their energies toward new and different goals, never looking back at what might have been.

Across America, there are many thousands of refugees like me, journalists who worked hard, held responsible positions and enjoyed the adrenaline rush of breaking news and time-absorbing investigations. In the past 10 years, great newspapers have become hollow shells, their newsrooms depopulated as if by a neutron bomb (remember that proposal — it was in the news?) that killed off the workers and left the walls and desks and files behind. During that time, the gradual transition away from printed classified ads and print advertising in general became a waterfall as the advertising revenue base collapsed. At the same time, consumers became so inundated with information that the news in print seemed redundant. Readership and circulation fell.

Publishers, many in a panic, slashed newsroom jobs to compensate for the loss of ad revenue. Eliminating news coverage just turned off the remaining loyal readers who still liked to sit down with a print newspaper and absorb the variety of information included. In some cases, even those newsroom cuts were not enough, and daily newspapers dropped back to semi-weekly publication status or closed their doors entirely.

Thousands of us refugees are among the unemployed and under-employed. Many of us are in our fifth, sixth or seventh decade, when getting hired in a new job is about as likely as getting pregnant. The skills learned in a lifetime in a newsroom are not easily transferable to the few jobs that are in demand in a still-struggling economic environment.

But like a war refugee, I'm not going to harp on "the good old days" that will never come again. We refugees make the best of what we can find.