The FCC releases its argument supporting municipal broadband in North Carolina

Map of broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC's ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.

Broadband availability in and around Wilson, N.C., from the FCC’s ruling pre-empting state law limiting its growth.


Here it is: 116 pages in PDF.
fccmunibroadband

Here’s the FCC’s full page with statements from all FCC commissioners on the issue.

Here’s the Times Free Press in Tennessee on their part of the issue.

Here’s Multichannel News on what happens next for muni broadband.

Short version: North Carolina’s law limiting town broadband expansion is bad law (it was House Bill 129 from 2011).

And arguments that criticize existing muni broadband in Davidson, Morganton, and Salisbury as examples of the dangers of muni broadband are hogwash. See pages 34-36 in the PDF.

Crossing the streams: N.C. politics (and sometimes media) on Flipboard

Flipboard screenshotFor an easy way to see curated stories on N.C. politics and civics, check out my Flipboard magazine.
Frequency of posts is fairly high, almost every day.

For less-frequent media curation, see my Flipboard magazine on that topic, ranging from net neutrality and drone journalism to N.C. media moves.

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

Supporting N.C. journalism through public notices and legal ads

So far, 15 bills mentioning the word “newspaper” have appeared in the N.C. General Assembly this session. They range from bills honoring the Rev. Billy Graham to bills allowing cities and counties to publish public notices digitally.

Legal advertisements and public notices, required by law, have been a little-noticed subsidy of local newspapers since Ben Franklin’s time. In the last few years, talk has increased about eliminating the requirement of placing some public notices in newspapers because of the cost to government and the dwindling reach of newspapers. Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote a good roundup about legal notices a year ago. I wrote about legislative bills affecting legal notices in North Carolina in 2011.

Some N.C. towns have already eliminated required print legal ads. This year, more towns (Greensboro, Morrisville, High Point) and counties could join them. With the changing face of journalism, including new digital startups, enhanced TV station websites and pay models at established media outlets, North Carolina should rethink how we write laws that require public notices. Our government’s goals should be leveling the playing field, supporting strong independent reporting regardless of the source, and providing government transparency about how legal ads and public notices get placed. The original intent of the ads – notifying people efficiently about government actions that affect their jobs and lives – must remain a key goal. Government websites cannot reach that goal alone.

The word “newspaper” appears 310 times in North Carolina’s general statutes. Rules requiring public notices grew organically over time, lack uniformity and tend to favor established newspapers. Sometimes, another news organization has broader reach, more reporting resources or more local reader engagement. In many cases, the rules allow non-elected officials to choose winners from among news sources, possibly fostering a spoil system that erodes trust.

The North Carolina Press Association keeps its eye on legislation affecting newspapers, and it has opened its doors to new journalism startups including the nonprofit Carolina Public Press in Asheville and the Raleigh Public Record. It must consider its own members’ interests and will likely lobby for rules that continue existing subsidies through legal notices to newspapers, especially newspapers of a certain size. While that support could erode this year, that issue shouldn’t be the only question on the table. Figuring out how to foster the growth of new news startups should also be a consideration in the General Assembly.

Federal agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission are studying how to preserve journalism as old business models fail. Journalism school deans from across the country, including the University of North Carolina’s Susan King, have written a statement urging the IRS to quickly approve nonprofit status for emerging news sites as a way to foster innovation in journalism.

At the same time, our N.C. General Assembly members should bring independent, thoughtful approaches to encouraging quality, local reporting, from for-profits and nonprofits.

Steven Waldman, writing in a special report, “The Information Needs of Communities,” for the FCC in 2011, made one suggestion:

“One possible solution that would benefit all parties would be for governments to save money by hosting public notices on their own websites and paying a lesser amount to run banner ads on other sites about the notices and linking back to the government site. The municipality would be able to spread information about the public notices to a broader range of audiences than they would by just publishing them in a particular newspaper. They would generate more traffic for their own websites, provide ad revenue for local news operations and advance the cause of government transparency.”

Posting public notices and legal ads on town and county websites furthers open government. But to reach people in our fragmented information age, using multiple methods (including print for some areas), at lower costs, seems like the right solution. Our new laws should be fair, encourage innovation and provide flexibility as technology and news sources change.

Here are some samples of the words in existing bills filed this legislative session in the N.C. General Assembly:

“The County shall advertise a notice for interested parties to submit qualifications in such form as the County may require for possible selection as the private developer or private developers in the public‑private project in a newspaper having general circulation within the County.”

“Advertise the sale by publication in a newspaper having general circulation in the county in which the property is situated. [AND] Make the following information about the property being sold available to the public both on its Web site and by mail. …”

“…sealed bids shall be solicited by advertisement in a newspaper widely distributed in this State or through electronic means, or both, as determined by the Secretary to be most advantageous… .”

“The secretary‑treasurer shall annually, at a time and in a law magazine or daily newspaper to be prescribed by the Council, publish an account of the financial transactions of the Council in a form to be prescribed by it.”

“The Charter Board shall distribute information announcing the availability of the charter school process described in this Part to each local school administrative unit and public postsecondary educational institution and, through press releases, to each major newspaper in the State. … ”

Disclaimers: I am not employed or paid by any of the news organizations in this post. I’m a former employee of the Charlotte Observer, and I’m working on a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in digital communications. These words are my own.

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.