Column: The year has sped past

Jan. 19, 2014 @ 01:31 AM

The past year has been a whirlwind.

On Jan. 20 last year, I moved into a garage apartment in Oak Hill. The next day I started work at the News-Topic.

Now I’m a homeowner in Lenoir, and I have been working here four months longer than I did when this place gave me my first reporting job in 1987-88. It doesn’t feel like it has been a full year.

It has been a year of not only setting expectations for my staff but learning the expectations of the community, sometimes by accidentally departing from them. In some cases, I intentionally departed from what those community expectations had been, but generally only where it seemed that our limited resources dictated a change.

During the past year, I received a fair number of complaints, but I also received more thanks and compliments than I ever expected. At the very least, I can say it has been 10 or 11 months since I heard that anyone believed I was “running the paper into the ground.” But maybe they only got tired of saying it out loud.

When I started, I set three very basic goals for this newsroom:

*I wanted to get the website, newstopic.net, integrated into the daily work flow, especially since the expectation at the time was that we would have a paywall in place soon; if we wanted people to pay for access, it had to get better. I wanted to streamline the site and make it an active news destination.

*I wanted to get the staff engaged online with the community, including not only posting on Facebook but being willing to seek people out and have exchanges with them.

*Most of all, I wanted to put good writing front and center. In my introductory column, I wrote:

“If I accomplish nothing else in my time here, the News-Topic better become a reliable source not only of local news but local characters, scenes, vignettes, tragedy and comedy – life … . I entered this business to write – not just report, which is transcription, but write, which is expression and emotion, the figurative lightning flashing across the sky of your imagination.”

I can count progress on all three goals, to different degrees.

Our website is more active – attracting three times as many visitors and almost five times as many page views as in 2012 – but it still is not streamlined and it has no paywall, and because of that we are not devoting all of the energy to it that we ideally would. The printed paper that readers pay for is the focus of our energy and the only place to receive everything we do -- stories appear in the paper first, then later online, and not all of the local content in the paper can be found online. We still hope to have a paywall soon (but don’t ask me when).

Similarly, we have become active on Facebook, including answering questions and getting tips from the community there. Some people seem much more comfortable asking questions of us on Facebook, whether in public comments or private messages, than they do asking by email or phone. I welcome the interaction, even when it’s critical of something we have done. The News-Topic had fewer than 890 “likes” on Facebook one year ago, and this week we are likely to pass 3,000 – that’s an average gain of 40 a week, which in a community this size is pretty big.

But I feel best about our accomplishments in writing. As I wrote a year ago, I have always considered myself primarily a writer, so nothing bothers me more than stories that are badly written or organized. Our writing is not always top-shelf. We run too many corrections.

Our stories aren’t triggering as much lightning flashing across your imagination as I’d prefer, but if you pull any random set of papers from the past year, more days than not you’ll find the front page has a focus on narrative and clear explanation.

As I start Year Two, my basic goals are the same. I hope in another year it will feel that we did better.