Category Archives: Uncategorized

An N.C. proposal to turn over low-performing schools to charters isn’t a good solution

Dear Mecklenburg area legislators,

I’m a long-time resident and taxpayer in Mecklenburg County who values North Carolina’s history of strong public education. I’m in Tricia Cotham’s and Jeff Jackson’s districts, but I’m hoping all of you will give me a moment to share a thought on public education and charters.

I’m dismayed at the recent report that Rep. Rob Bryan is proposing a pilot plan to give charters control of low-performing elementary schools. The Charlotte Observer story is here.

I sent my daughter through Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools as I lived in East and Central Charlotte, from 1995 to 2012. Public magnets allowed her to get an excellent education, with major challenges for me in navigating the system. The diversity in the schools has helped make her an excellent, accomplished young woman, comfortable with all kinds of people and languages.

Now, I’m aware that schools near my center-city neighborhood face huge issues with large populations of poor students. But in extensive reading about charters in other more-challenged cities, I see no evidence that charters are necessary for allowing community support of schools. Businesses and city leadership should be welcome in our public schools and can make huge differences, as can developers and new housing patterns.

Stories about other cities and charters often are about remaking neighborhoods and remaking communities, not just about turning public schools over to charters. The initiatives are generally done together. In Charlotte, we’ve already demonstrated great success in rebuilding some poverty pockets, stalled a bit by the recession but coming back strong. People are showing they want to live in center-city neighborhoods. Our community needs to support that trend by fixing some center-city schools. But again, no evidence exists from other cities that schools must become charters in order to get developer and business support (dependent on state and federal funds as well as philanthropists). Evidence does exist in New Orleans that charters can exclude and alienate communities of color as well as complicate the burden on parents. Our market is rebuilding neighborhoods of young, diverse people in the center city, and they should have the option of staying in those neighborhoods as their families grow.

I’m not interested in having my public tax dollars diverted to private nonprofits running charter schools, and I urge you to vote against any proposal that would convert poor-performing schools to charters. It’s also incredibly poor branding for North Carolina, which is not Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Washington or NYC. We do have pockets of despair that need help. We also have made progress, and we have a proud tradition of business, civic, religious and community support of public schools in North Carolina. We should build on that tradition.

Here’s a reading and listening list, for those who want to go deeper on the issue:
This American Life, about Missouri’s troubled public school issues near Ferguson
Houston Chronicle, on KIPP schools and an effort to rebuild communities, with Warren Buffett money
Next City, on Atlanta efforts with the East Lake Charter School and Tom Cousins money
Jennifer Berkshire on charters in New Orleans.

Thank you for your time,

Andria Krewson

Land grab: wrong numbers for Mecklenburg County on Republican voting strength


Bill James, a longtime Republican member of the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, suggests in a Facebook post that the voting districts and at-large system in Mecklenburg unfairly penalize Republicans. His comments come as the N.C. General Assembly is pushing bills that could change the rules in Greensboro and Wake to give Republicans more power at the local level in urban areas.

He says the GOP represents about 45% of Mecklenburg voters.

He’s wrong, based on recent election results.

I see numbers that show the percentage of GOP voters is 35 to 40%, based on non-presidential year results that tend to be more conservative.

Here are three county-wide votes from 2014 to illustrate:

N.C. Senate: former Sen. Kay Hagan received 59% of the votes in Mecklenburg, and Sen. Thom Tillis received 38%.

Mecklenburg County Commissioners at large: Democrats received 65% of the votes cast for at-large candidates.

N.C. Supreme Court (which is nonpartisan in name only): Cheri Beasley received 59% of the vote versus her challenger, Mike Robinson, who was supported by Republicans.

Check the numbers yourself at the N.C. Board of Elections.

A letter to the UNC Board of Governors

Dear members of the N.C. Board of Governors,

As a resident of North Carolina for almost 30 years, I’m registering my dismay at recommendations to close the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. I’d also like to register my dismay at plans to shut down the Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change at N.C. Central University and calls for limiting the mission of the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

Poverty center

In addition to being a longtime resident of North Carolina because I believed in its commitment to education, I’m also a veteran journalist who has watched the dwindling of information about North Carolina as a whole. Traditional for-profit news organizations in the state depend on declining advertising revenue. They now have limited resources and are structurally unable to cover stories that do not appeal to populations without money to spend. That flaw in the marketplace leaves a hole in the state’s information ecosystem that is partially filled by the poverty center. The center’s mission and funding should increase, not decrease, at a time when poverty and lack of opportunity remain stubborn problems that the state needs to address. For an example, please see the website created as a joint project with the poverty center, Low Wage NC.

Criticisms of the center include ad hominem attacks on Gene Nichol, claiming he and the center are partisan. I ask that board members look directly at his actions and words, and the products of the poverty center at its website, rather than at the partisan attacks calling him partisan. If, at times, his words have felt too directly aimed at current legislative leadership, perhaps that issue is separate from a wholesale dismantling of a valuable center that serves a useful educational and civic information function.

In addition, the center has been criticized for hosting a conference on poverty in which some groups apparently felt excluded. Please look yourselves at the invitation list for that conference and weigh whether this list was inappropriate for its purpose. The list included the nonprofit N.C. Justice Center as well as mostly academic representatives. It appears partly that the partisan attacks on the center are designed to shut out a nonprofit center whose mission includes economic justice from future discussions with academics. Please consider the impact on free speech and philanthropy for the state if the board acquiesces to such attacks.

N.C. Central’s Institute for Civic Engagement

Again, as commercial sources for information about civics dwindle, a center whose mission is encouraging people to vote and to get involved in the civic life of our state is crucial. Its role and funding should be increased, not decreased.

UNC Center for Civil Rights

Criticism of this center focuses on its advocacy role in certain lawsuits. It’s particularly hypocritical that the criticism comes from a private lawyer on your board as well as from a University of Tennessee law professor and prolific blogger (Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit). Reynolds, in particular, works at a law school in a competing state which has long offered its own legal clinics that give law students practical experience. His desire to limit the UNC Law School’s ability to do the same, via his claim that UNC was “whoring out,” is not only offensive but also deeply hypocritical – and transparently an attack on a rival law school.

By law, the center represents people who could not afford lawyers of their own. The state of North Carolina has recently been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits that do not represent my will as a state taxpayer – against equal marriage, against easy voting access and even soon perhaps against municipal broadband. To begrudge a tiny amount of my taxpayer dollars to be spent on poor people, often people of color, for access to legal representation is criminal and unfair. It creates a society in which justice only goes to those who can afford it. I’m not a fan of state money being spent on lawyers instead of solutions to problems, but sometimes the only access to fair treatment is through the courts. The center for civil rights helps level the playing field.

Association with UNC

These centers get outside funding for much of their work, but their associations with the UNC system enable them to involve students in their activities and use UNC facilities, providing strong educational value and interdisciplinary collaboration. A direct look at the Center on Poverty’s website – through your own eyes, not filtered by partisan pundits – can show you how the center serves the state by contributing to the education of new leaders as well as plugging holes in civic information. The Center for Civil Right’s role in training young lawyers through practical experience while serving poor people who cannot afford private lawyers is a double benefit to North Carolina. Clearly, at least one representative of a law school in a competing state (Glenn Reynolds) would be happy for UNC to dismantle practical learning opportunities for young lawyers. Please consider the motivations of those who would like to limit the center’s functions. And at N.C. Central, a center that advocates voting is crucial to the future of our democracy. An educational institution is an appropriate place to teach civic responsibility.

The least of these

As you weigh your decisions, please think of Bill Friday and Dean Smith. In particular, please remember Kristen Smith’s speech about her father where she said he was inspired by the Gospel of Matthew, and the admonition to serve “the least of these.” Know that many longtime taxpayers like me are glad to fund such centers – even in small amounts by simply providing access to university facilities for meetings and providing students access to special projects. I am proud to have these centers associated with UNC campuses, and my pride in North Carolina’s commitment to education has kept me as a longtime resident and taxpayer. That pride extends throughout my family.

Thank you for your time.

Andria Krewson

Fact checking, words, images and stories

Charlotte has a starring role in a new video from Mitt Romney, focusing on jobs and unemployment. And that’s good: Voters have consistently said through polls and other venues that the economy is the most important issue for many of them this election season.

Here’s what’s interesting:

Media outlets and civic organizations have ramped up more fact checking this year of candidate’s claims, because in politics, spin and distortion are often the name of the persuasive game.

Online social sharing and the reach of Youtube make videos incredibly powerful, with views for that one video growing from 300 or so on April 18, (the day Romney visited Charlotte) to 6,000 or so on April 19 and 40,000 or so on April 20. (I’m not linking here, on purpose, to avoid becoming part of something I might measure for class work.)

The facts of jobs and unemployment in the video are fairly indisputable, though not the full story, as detailed by Kirsten Valle Pittman of the Charlotte Observer in an excellent fact check box on April 19. But the questions about how we measure economic health, jobs and unemployment are nuanced and difficult to explain in visuals, short headlines and blurbs. In explaining those nuances with words and narrative, the visceral emotions of the ad get lost. And the ad’s accuracy becomes difficult to question because it sticks to facts in its few words.

But our economy and our jobs have changed dramatically, and our measurements don’t tell the full story. When we focus on measurable facts, as candidates, as journalists, as voters, we miss the nuance of change. Some have said we become what we measure, or we encourage what we measure, and some have even suggested alternative methods. Chip Conley, in a TED video,  has examined the question of whether we should measure things differently, playing off the Gross National Happiness factor. Certainly that idea would get laughed out of the political arena this year as falling into the spin and distortion category, not quantifiable (yet).

As graduation season approaches, the stories of a couple of college seniors at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte strike me as more telling about our current economic uncertainties and likely won’t show up in the unemployment data: One has an occasional job laying carpet, and that pays the bills. Freelance journalism on the side feeds the soul and the resume. Another senior has occasional freelance assignments, but the gas costs to produce the stories eat up any profit. He wants a job, any job, that pays enough to give him economic independence. (I was at the same spot, long ago, for a couple of months right out of college. I was waiting on President Reagan’s words of hope to trickle down. They did, somewhat, eventually.)

But back to the video ad: The shareable, visceral appeal of video political ads has long been about audio and visuals, with techniques like foreboding music, heart beats, grainy black and white images contrasted with vibrant color. This ad uses some of those techniques, and connects North Carolina viewers with a familiar landscape, drawing contrasts from ugly, empty loading docks to shiny, crisp uptown skyscrapers. That contrast will be easy to find in Charlotte and North Carolina, over and over in this campaign season, and existed long before the current economic downtown. But viscerally, it tells a story that goes beyond data.

Melanie Green has written about a concept called “transportation,” or feeling immersed in a narrative story, and how that immersion builds trust and positive feelings. The Romney ad visuals have the capacity to transport North Carolina people (and Florida people, in another ad) by showing them familiar sights, and thus perhaps building trust and liking.

So while reporters and others in the civic arena rightfully draw attention to “facts” that are measurable and verifiable, the growing reach of video and visual messages can strongly influence trust of candidates in this campaign year. Fact checking narratives can’t address those video techniques easily. Presentation of narrative, pointing to specific methods in video ads and even linking to specific timed spots in ads, can perhaps increase critical thinking about the ads. But as always, dry narrative has a tough battle against emotional, visceral images. Qualitative storytelling is as strong as ever, perhaps stronger with video’s growth online, and emphasis on facts has a role but cannot tell the full story.

Rex Hubbke of the Chicago Tribune says Fact has died. Journalists will strongly disagree, and my professors will still strongly encourage quantitative measurement. But we cannot deny the growing power of qualitative, visceral stories. In 1974, Eudora Welty wrote a short critical piece, “Is Phoenix Jackson’s Grandson Really Dead?” I’m mining the online libraries to try to find a copy, but I think her answer to readers inquiring about the facts in a story she had written was this: It didn’t matter. Phoenix believed her grandson was alive, and that’s what the story was about.

Belief matters, and story matters, and sometimes facts don’t. Regardless, we still need to check those facts, and perhaps we can find more persuasive ways to encourage others to do so too.

 

My next adventure with CJR

I’m spending much of 2012 reporting on media in North Carolina for Columbia Journalism Review’s Swing States project. CJR reporters in key states are serving as watchdogs for local press coverage of political rhetoric and money.

North Carolina is one of those swing states, has a governor’s race in play and also has a controversial proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The state has traditionally voted Republican in presidential elections, except in 2008. More locally, (in case you hadn’t heard) Charlotte is hosting the Democratic National Convention in early September.

I’m excited because the work fits with my studies through the University of North Carolina’s master of arts in technology and digital journalism. The program launched in August 2011 with a great group of about 20 students from across the state and beyond. (Learn more.)

The CJR work is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to study high-profile media stories in class and in real life, in my hometown and home state. I’ll stay in Charlotte, with road trips when appropriate. Last semester, I worked on a research proposal of how voters really get the information they use for election decisions, and the CJR work will allow me to keep focusing on that key part of our civic society. Pew research provides tons of information; I want still more.

Lots of people helped me make this move. In particular, thanks go to Fiona Morgan, research associate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. Fiona has written a groundbreaking case study on the information ecosystem in the Triangle, and she continues to lead thinking on news ecosystems. She invited media leaders from around North Carolina to meet each other and Tom Glaisyer of the New America Foundation recently in Durham, signaling the growth of some interesting conversations.

Since starting the master’s work, I’ve also juggled a day job in the new production hub for McClatchy at the Charlotte Observer. Essentially, I’m used to a job and a half. The CJR work is a contract gig, so I’m talking with some people about other projects that fit well with my class and CJR focus without creating ethical conflicts. (The McClatchy hub is hiring. Email Hope Paasch.)

This move also gives me more time to continue work with the Greater Charlotte chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. We’re working on building a chapter that is platform agnostic, reaching out to existing groups with affiliated skills and interests.

In the past, my focus has been on community journalism (“hyperlocal” in some circles) and business models. I’ll always have a passion for those topics. But this year, in this place, politics offers the greatest opportunity for learning. Already, people like Dr. Michael Bitzer of Catawba College have helped me to study up with generous links on Twitter and elsewhere.

So now comes The Ask. I’m counting on y’all to share your thoughts on media coverage of politics in North Carolina. Some folks have started a Twitter tag, #unasked, that can help issues bubble up. What else should I know about? Reach me here, or soon at the Swing States project, or email me.

N.C. legislators turn back effort to take legal notices out of newspapers

screenshot of legalnotices.org
A legislative committee turned down efforts to stop requiring local governments to place legal ads in newspapers this week.

Polls in North Carolina of county plus town and city governments show local governments spent about $6 million last year on legal ads and public notices, according to the Associated Press.

Discussions about the notice requirements ran hot and heavy among Charlotte Twitter people. Discussions centered on the print and online circulation numbers for established media as well as the lack of online access for specific groups.

The Charlotte Society of Professional Journalists will likely put the issue on the agenda of a future meeting.

Here’s the full story on legal notices in newspapers in North Carolina.

TriadWatch has used freedom of information requests to gather some numbers about public notices and legal ad spending. Here’s part of what they found, matched up with audited print circulation numbers for the newspapers that benefited:

The City of High Point spent $49,000 on public notices in Fiscal Year 2009-2010.

The High Point Enterprise had a Sunday print circulation of 18,300, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the six-month period ending March 31, 2011.

The City of Greensboro spent about $128,000 in public notices in two local newspapers since January 2010.

The Greensboro News and Record, which has received about $96,000 from the city since January 2010, has a published Sunday print circulation of about 86,500, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation. Online numbers would be higher. (I don’t know if they provide legal ads online.)

The Carolina Peacemaker, which received about $31,000 from the City of Greensboro, appears to have a print circulation of about 5,000, weekly, though those numbers could be out of date. On its own site, it lists a readership of 60,000, likely including online numbers.

Circulation numbers, in print and online, are difficult quantitative measures of reach these days. Some news organizations have free print products with large circulation numbers not included in the ABC numbers. Many news organizations measure their online reach in ways that are not comparable. Much of the Twitter discussion in Charlotte the past week centered on these numbers; I’d suggest moving the conversation up a level or two to look at all the possible futures of public notices before focusing on specific ways to compare influence and reach.

Noted by TriadWatch: The Charlotte Observer partners with legalnotice.org to display legal notices in a somewhat searchable way, supported by advertising. The screenshot above is from a search through the organization. The “About” page gives little details about the company. The company also provides subscriber services.

Worth consideration: More granular, searchable, open information could enable more detailed search information, provided in more accessible, easy-to-use interfaces, available to more readers and new companies, perhaps even local startups.

Here’s traffic data from Alexa for legalnotice.org:

“There are 829,298 sites with a better three-month global Alexa traffic rank than Legalnotice.org. Visitors to the site view 2.9 unique pages each day on average. Visitors to the site spend approximately 45 seconds on each pageview and a total of two minutes on the site during each visit. Search engines refer approximately 22% of visits to the site. Legalnotice.org has been online for more than twelve years.”

Also from Alexa: 170 sites link in to legalnotice.org, and its traffic rank in the United States is 143,925.

For this legislative session, the issue is off the table. But it will arise again.

We should talk more and include experts in a variety of fields. We need to move beyond thinking the issue of the cost of public notices and legal ads is merely two-sided, with established media on one side and with cash-strapped taxpayers and governments on the other.

Privacy, sunshine and the electronic frontier: That slippery slope in North Carolina

Electronic Frontier logo

N.C. legislators have introduced a bill that would allow local governments across the state to opt out of providing copies of email lists they maintain.

Several other local bills specifically allow the governments of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Greenville to opt out of providing the copies. The contents of the list would still be open to public inspection.

The statewide bill says this, in part:

“AN ACT to make effective statewide a local act providing that a list of the email addresses of persons subscribing to local government email lists is open to public inspection but is not required to be provided, and to provide that the local government may use that list only for the purpose that it was subscribed to.”

Under North Carolina’s open records law, governments must provide copies of the records they maintain. But in the Charlotte area, some people have expressed concerns about how copies of email addresses can be used for marketing.

Specifically, the Charlotte Observer came under fire after an open-records request for email lists maintained by the city of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson. Editor Rick Thames wrote a column responding to the criticisms.

It’s no wonder email lists and marketing nowadays make people nervous. The most recent visible case happened when hackers obtained names and emails from the marketing company Epsilon. Thousands of consumers had their email addresses stolen. Organizations affected included the College Board and Target.

But that’s just the most recent case. Consumer concern about the privacy of their data has been growing for years. They’ve joined email lists for one purpose and watched their addresses be used for a different purpose. And as political battles heat up for 2012, partisan groups are collecting email addresses as fast as they can, without clear direction on how those emails will be used in the future.

Still, the proposed N.C. bills and any move to greater secrecy should cause concern among citizens. Exceptions to open records have a tendency to grow, with open records statutes adding clauses for government agencies that feel they need to do their work in the dark.

Open government data gives everyone a chance to watch how government is spending money and time. And sometimes, that data also can serve to grow new, independent businesses, like the crime mapping company already used by the town of Cornelius. Access to that kind of data needs to be available to everyone on an equal footing, not only to specific firms that cut deals with local governments.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has wrestled with the balancing of privacy and sunshine for years. Formed in 1990, the foundation’s mission is to defend free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights.

In 2004, the foundation issued a white paper about email. The title: “Noncommercial Email Lists: Collateral Damage in the Fight Against Spam.”

Much of the paper deals with the technical issues some email list owners face with spam filters, but it also includes strong recommendations for best practices for those owners.

It also highlights an important principle:

“Individual recipients should have ultimate control over whether they receive the messages they wish to receive. They can be assisted by software or anti-spam services, but knowledge of and control over receipt of email should remain with recipients and end users.”

The most relevant best-practice recommendation in this case: Allow the consumers a chance to opt in to email lists. That’s a basic principle of good marketing firms that work to protect the reputation of the companies they represent.

The specific words:

Senders must ensure that recipients have taken positive action indicating that they wish to be signed up for a mailing list.

More from the paper:

“While this problem is less of an issue with noncommercial lists, recipients do report that they have been added to noncommercial mailing lists without their consent. Sometimes this happens after they participated in a single call-to-action or responded to an issue online. Other times, organizers use or purchase a mailing list set up for one purpose as a ‘starter list’ for another, with the incorrect assumption that the people on the first list are likely to be interested in the second.”

The paper from EFF is worth reading for anyone owning and using email lists and anyone who signs up for a list. But the best practices aren’t law, and they won’t stop marketers, politicians or community organizers from using open records laws to obtain email lists when they can.

So should North Carolina limit access to copies of email lists compiled by local governments?

If so, N.C. legislators should proceed cautiously and choose the law’s words narrowly to avoid shutting off access to information that doesn’t threaten personal privacy. The proposed laws do take a step in the right direction by limiting government’s use of email lists for purposes different than initially intended.

But the contents of emails sent to subscribers of government lists should remain public and should be able to be copied electronically for data analysis.

Also, the number of subscribers to the government email lists should be easily available and easily duplicated. Any other data about the data that the government collects and that does not threaten privacy should be available electronically. As technology evolves, the value of that data about the data can grow in ways that are unclear now.

Any law to protect privacy that affects sunshine should be written narrowly to allow the value of information in the future to grow. Legislators should also proceed cautiously with granting exceptions to the N.C. open records law. Exceptions have a tendency to grow as well.

Sources:
Statewide bill: House Bill 544, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson, Tricia Cotham, Frank Iler and Joe Tolson.
Local bills:
Charlotte: House Bill 543, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson and Tricia Cotham.
Huntersville: Senate Bill 270, sponsored by Sen. Malcolm Graham.
Cornelius: House Bill 441, sponsored by Rep. Tim Moore.
Greenville: Senate Bill 182, sponsored by Sen. Clark Jenkins, Louis Pate and Richard Stevens.

Disclosure: I work at the Charlotte Observer as a community editor covering an area that includes Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and parts of the city of Charlotte. Opinions here are my own and were written on my own time.