On civics lessons and the comic page

First Posted: 1/15/2009

It was about 10 a.m. a week ago today, and I was sleep deprived and head high in a chaotic election when the phone rang for the 42nd time. A member of the Kiwanis of Robeson County wanted to know if I would speak at one of the club's meetings, with the topic being the only one on which I'm an expert -- The Robesonian.
“Sure,” I said. And then, with trepidation, I asked, “When?”
“About 12:30 today,” he said. “We'll feed you.”
I quickly solved this riddle. The real guest speaker had canceled, and the Kiwanians were desperate, which explains their decision to call me. Despite the short notice, I said yes, seizing the opportunity to promote this newspaper -- and enjoy a darn good meal at Carolina Steakman.
The visit with the Kiwanians was the second in recent weeks that I have had with a county civic group, the other coming at the request of the Fairmont Rotary Club. At times during each meeting, the seat was hot, but for the most part I was treated with respect if not admiration. No food was tossed in my direction -- although there was one nervous moment.
While I did make short presentations, most of the time I spent fielding questions. And some good ones -- often tough -- were flung my way. But there were also many positive comments, and an overall recognition of what this newspaper is trying to accomplish. For that, I was appreciative.
I think I surprised a few folks by being honest about what I see as this newspaper's shortcomings. I believe ours is a good newspaper, readable and informative, the leader by many lengths in the race to report Robeson County news. But this journey will never end. We will continue to work hard because we must improve.
The questions were many, but a few themes emerged. I figured if the Kiwanians and Rotarians were curious, you might be, too. And you don't have to feed me.
I was asked about mistakes. We have our share of typos, grammar problems, stories ending in mid-sentence, but not more than our share. Mistakes are stitched into the fabric of the newspaper business, because we start each day with empty pages and a deadline. These mistakes are like a pimple on the bridge of a nose, embarrassing and obvious, but not by themselves debilitating. I should lose sleep over a misspelled word in a headline, not you. But simple mistakes do chip away at our credibility, which is why we fight hard each morning to avoid them.
I was asked about fairness, and what we do to ensure it. Our editors and reporters go to extraordinary efforts to ensure that news stories -- those that appear on Page 1A -- are balanced and free of bias. That is our job. If our calls are not returned, then it is someone else who has blown that opportunity to give his side of the story.
Page 4A is a different animal. That is my opportunity to tell you what I think. It's a great gig, but I'm always surprised at how much power people yield to me by allowing my opinion to ruin their day. Importantly, that page also provides you the opportunity to tell us what you think.
Finally, they wanted to know how to get community news into the paper. Call us.
Do that and we will walk you through the process. We depend on the community to help us fill our Education, Religion, Business, Health and Agriculture pages, as well as what appears in Lifestyles, including Club News. These pages help us sell newspapers, which is our goal. There is no incentive to exclude community news from these pages -- and I will not tolerate that happening when I become aware of it.
I want to thank both clubs for giving me the opportunity to answer their questions. And if there are other clubs or groups that are similarly desperate, give me a call at 739-4322, Ext. 104. I promise to be equal parts informative and charming.
-- -- --
For some, the comic page is no laughing matter. They expect to find their favorite strip when they turn to that page.
If you fall into that category, keep reading. We are preparing to take a serious look at our comics, and it's quite likely that some will be replaced.
The last time I started down this road, we ended up adding “Pooch Cafe” and “Garfield” by moving another feature off the comic page. But the only features remaining on the comic page are “Dear Abby” and “Bigar's Stars,” and I'm told if I move or kill them that I should update my resume.
The Robesonian will soon send a comic page and a self-addressed envelop to 200 randomly selected subscribers. We will ask them to mark the comics they read and the ones they don't, and then return the page to us. We will use that information to make decisions on what will stay and what will go.
You, too, can tell us what you think. Just take a comic page and mark it up and send it to me at P.O. Box 1028, Lumberton, N.C. 28359. If you put your name and telephone number on it, you might win a dinner for two.

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