Saturday, November 19, 2011

We're expanding arts coverage

Mention the arts in Charlotte and many people immediately think of events at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center or exhibits at the newly opened museums at the Levine Center for the Arts.

These institutions are cultural gems, and our region is much richer for having them. But they only begin to define a broad and diverse arts scene that also plays out in neighborhood theaters, universities, coffee houses, galleries and churches.

Less familiar with those venues? Well, that begins to change this week.

On Thursday, the Observer debuts Arts Alive, a full-color package in print and online designed to introduce you to the full range of opportunities to experience the arts. That includes emerging art trends, artist profiles and news of upcoming events.

Our first installment introduces you to Charlotte’s own aerial dance troupe, Caroline Calouche & Co. The Observer’s Lawrence Toppman describes its namesake this way: “Like a New York developer, this choreographer owns both the ground she inhabits and all the space above.”

The group rehearses in Charlotte’s NoDa community and will perform Saturday in a production at Central Piedmont Community College.

“I don’t think we’ve ever done a full-blown feature on this troupe,” says the Observer’s features editor, Michael Weinstein. “We can now write about groups like this in addition to those that are already very well known to the community.”

This adds to our Sunday arts coverage and frequent reviews of organizations like the Charlotte Symphony, Opera Carolina and the N.C. Dance Theatre.

How can we expand coverage in an era of media cutbacks? By using a relatively new funding model. It relies on a specific underwriter to support the added cost.

This model is new to newspapers. But it is quite familiar to you through other media, including public radio and public television.

The underwriter for the Observer’s Arts Alive content is Carolinas HealthCare System (CHS). As the region’s largest employer, CHS corporately supports a wide range of arts initiatives. In 2011, its employees contributed more than $600,000 to local arts organizations in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. CHS also uses art and music therapy in its rehabilitation programs.

“This region is truly exceptional when it comes to artistic and cultural enterprises,” says CHS CEO Michael Tarwater. “(Underwriting) is one means by which we can encourage everyone to enjoy all of the benefits that accrue from a healthy and growing arts community.”

Underwritten content is produced independently through the Observer’s newsroom. Underwriters play no role in the selection of stories or direction of coverage. Carolinas HealthCare joins two other underwriters now working with the Observer in this way:

Duke Energy underwrites SciTech, two pages of news about science and technology from across the Carolinas that appears in Monday’s Observer and on

Piedmont Natural Gas underwrites Young Achievers, news about the exceptional accomplishments of young people in our region. It appears in Tuesday’s Observer and online at

Underwriters choose to invest in quality content, recognizing that this helps build stronger communities. We’re pleased that such a moment has now arrived in Charlotte for the arts.

The Observer hopes to shine still more light on the arts, beginning this week, through a new partnership with a variety of other local media.

The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance (CAJA) includes the Observer, public radio station WFAE, television station WCNC and two publications that are solely web-based, and

For its launch, this group is being assisted by a grant it won in the Community Arts Journalism Challenge, a national competition sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Our alliance is one of five groups nationally that submitted winning proposals to reinvigorate coverage of the arts in their communities. Each member of the Charlotte alliance will enlist freelance journalists to cover the arts, and then share that content freely with other member organizations.

UNC Charlotte also is a member of this alliance. Its College of Arts and Architecture will develop seminars and courses that could help equip journalists who are new to covering the arts.

The initial grant of $20,000 is being used to pay journalists in an experiment at content-sharing, as well as to plan curriculum. The grant is being administered locally through the nonprofit Arts & Science Council (which played no role in the selection of the proposal or its details).

Later this month, the alliance will submit a final proposal to the Knight Foundation and the NEA that could lead to another $80,000 in funding.

Our goal is to elevate both the volume and the quality of local arts coverage. By collaborating, we also expect to reach wider audiences, which will only benefit both our community and the arts organizations that aspire to enrich it.

Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.

Friday, October 28, 2011

On your phone: All Panthers all the time

Carolina Panthers fans, how would you like a channel that's all Panthers, all the time? It's right there, inside your smartphone.

You can now download, at no charge, a special application for Panthers news from the Charlotte Observer. We've created apps for both the iPhone ( and the Android (

All week long, our sports staff writes, shoots photos and video and compiles stats on the Panthers for use across all of our platforms. That includes the printed paper,, mobile news, the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad and our digital e-edition of the printed Observer.

So why add apps just for the Panthers? Because this puts everything a fan needs in one convenient place.

Every day, every detail that we pick up about the Panthers will appear here. And on every game day, it gets even more interesting.

Before the opening kickoff, enter the app, hit "more," and click on Panthers Gameday. That page will feature all of the stories and videos we've prepared on the eve of the game, as well as the starting lineup.

As the game unfolds, hit the link labeled "Twitter" for play-by-play observations from our sports writers on the sidelines and in the press box. Go to our Panthers blog for more detailed updates at the end of each quarter.

The apps are easy to install. They are also a lot more fun to look in on than email, whether your time-out is in the stands or in the checkout line., and Phone: 704-358-5001.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

New feature: Young people who inspire

If you spend any time with young people, you know that the best among them don't always get the attention they deserve.

This is especially true in the media's coverage of the daily news.

It shouldn't be that way. News, by definition, is what's extraordinary to our readers. And when young people achieve remarkable accomplishments, that is extraordinarily good news.

The Observer has long valued this news. It's why each spring we honor more than 100 of the region's top students as Observer All-Star Scholars. It's also why we've been proud to sponsor the Charlotte Observer Regional Spelling Bee for 57 years.

On Tuesday, we introduce another way to mark the accomplishments of young people with a new feature called Young Achievers.

Each week, we will bring you news and insightful profiles of young people in our region who are excelling in academics, the arts, public service and a variety of other settings that are richer because of their involvement.

On Tuesday, for instance, you will meet Manasvi Koul. Manasvi's personal battle with a potentially fatal illness motivated her to raise more than $500,000 in support of other sick children while she was still a high school student in Union County.

Young Achievers will appear in our printed edition as two full-color pages inside our Carolina Living section. Online, you will find that content, plus videos, photo slideshows, archives and the means to share your own stories about inspiring young people.

Some readers may be surprised to see added community coverage in an era when the trend has been for most news media to cut back.

This is possible through a new funding model the Observer is developing for coverage that you would welcome. Under this approach, we find a company, foundation or individual willing to underwrite the cost of high-quality content as an important investment in the life of its community.

Similar to underwriters of content on NPR and PBS, our underwriters play no role in the selection or editing of the content. But their support is a high-profile commitment to coverage that is good for our region.

This is how we are able to bring you our widely acclaimed Sci-Tech section each Monday. Its exclusive coverage of advances in science and technology across the Carolinas is underwritten by Duke Energy.

For Young Achievers, we found another willing underwriter: Piedmont Natural Gas.

"We see this as a wonderful opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of young people throughout our community and to show appreciation for the contributions they are making, not only in their own lives but in the lives of others," said Thomas Skains, Piedmont's chairman, president, and CEO. "I have no doubt that the talents, energy, and passion represented . . . will be as impressive as they are inspirational to us all."

Of course, there are many more young people deserving of recognition than we can mention in any weekly package. So this coverage is in addition to ongoing schools and youth-oriented features you find now in our community sections and daily news coverage. Many of those features also invite you to submit an idea or an item for publication.

Our goal is that, with your help, we will leave no significant achievement unrecognized.

I think you will be touched and encouraged by what you read. These are remarkable individuals. To know them through their personal experiences is to appreciate all the more how far they have come already in such young lives.

-- Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Android users, your app is here

If you have an Android phone, I hope you will take a moment to download’s new application (app), designed to give you full advantage of your phone’s features.

The app is free. I have it on my phone and can say from personal experience that it dramatically improves your ability to navigate the site.

You move easily from top breaking news to sports, entertainment, business news, opinion and even movie show times.

Photos look great, too. They have their own place in the navigation bar, making it easy to go straight to slide shows. (To activate a slide show, touch the photo. Then use your finger to slide from frame to frame). I just went through more than 30 photos of the Panthers’ Steve Smith and Cam Newton tossing footballs and horsing around with kids at Smith’s football camp.

To get the app, go the Market on your Android phone and search for Charlotte Observer. Check that the app says McClatchy Newspapers to make sure you are downloading the correct app. View the details.

The phone can also be a great way to keep up with news throughout the day, regardless of where you are. In fact, it’s how I learned Saturday about that nasty line of thunderstorms about to sweep through the region.

A growing number of you also are keeping tabs on by phone. Compared to January, traffic to the site through phones through the first half of June is up almost 50 percent, with over 700,000 page views.

For those of you with an iPhone or iPod Touch, we also have a free iPhone news app. Just go to the iPhone market and search for Charlotte Observer.
And if you use a Blackberry or other Web-enabled phone, you can view our news updates by directing your smart phone browser to

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Reader: Don't pick candidates for us!

Q: Why do the media believe it is their right to pre-select a field of acceptable candidates for their readership?"
The reason I ask this is that . . . you have published two articles about the decisions of two "candidates" to NOT run. The article about (Mike) Huckabee mentions no fewer than eight other candidates (or non-candidates): Romney, Gingrich, Bachmann, Daniels, Pawlenty, Palin, Santorum, Trump. The (Donald) Trump piece mentions Romney, Gingrich, Bachmann, Daniels, Pawlenty,and Huckabee. Missing from the articles are the man who some believe "won" the first debate (Herman Cain), the man who many others believe won that debate(Ron Paul) . . , and a man who has twice the executive experience of Mitt Romney (Gary Johnson, twice elected governor of New Mexico). (A recent) editorial once again omitted Gary Johnson and Ron Paul (it did name-check Herman Cain). This follows a tragic precedent set by the Observer and its affiliated wire services in 2008 to exclude certain candidates from mention in its election coverage. Why are you staggering down the same pathetic path this year?

Hilton Caldwell, Monroe

A: Hilton, I agree that there has been little consistency to this point in our reporting on the potential field of GOP candidates. That's partly because of the uncertainty about who is in and who is out. The Gallup polling organization, in an effort to make sense of this fluid field, has been tracking 15 names. Potential candidates now officially announce or excuse themselves almost daily. But that will change as the field firms up. For now, candidates who have announced and are drawing a following certainly should be acknowledged in coverage. So, I think you make a very good point about Ron Paul and Gary Johnson, both of whom have announced they are running. You may have seen that we carried an article about Herman Cain announcing in Atlanta over the weekend. Others who have announced include Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty. I’ve shared your concerns internally with our staff and we will work to provide more complete references to the field of potential candidates. This is an issue that matters a great deal to us. We think voters should decide which candidates are to be taken seriously, not the press, not political parties, not special interests. As the campaign progresses, we will also watch carefully to see which candidates are resonating with voters and which are being generally discounted. It would be unwise to focus on a candidate simply because he or she has gotten on the ballot. If the public has clearly heard a candidate and largely rejected that person, voters are better off if the media uses more of its resources, instead, to cover viable candidates. Thanks for the question.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Alliance to bring you more local news

More news is good news. And that is what we have for you now, through a new feature on

It’s called the Charlotte News Alliance (CNA). This is a network of 16 local websites, and growing, that have partnered with The Charlotte Observer to offer you the region’s most comprehensive look at local news.

You can find summaries and links to the best of these stories in the lower half of the home page on A number of these stories will also appear on the printed pages of the Observer. In turn, some Observer stories will appear on the partner sites.

Some CNA sites are operated by journalists, some by civic-minded citizens. But all are opening doors to a tier of news coverage that is uniquely “hyper-local.”

By that, we mean news that can be as local as your own neighborhood or your own particular topic of interest.

For example, is a hyper-local site based in south Charlotte’s Ballantyne community, while is a news and information site focused on African-American life across Charlotte.

Through this alliance, we believe we are building on the strengths of all of the partners. How? is the most visited local news site in both Carolinas, attracting 2.4 million viewers a month from around the world. But our region is vast and still growing, making it very challenging to deliver everyone the most intensely local news possible.

This, however, is the primary mission of hyper-local sites. They can deliver readers a more narrowly targeted area or topic. Their challenge often is building enough audience to generate revenue needed to operate their sites. Their affiliation with adds to that audience.

Working together makes us all stronger. It also provides you richer choices of content in one convenient place.

We began assembling this alliance more than a year ago, initially as the Charlotte News Network . Our preliminary work was aided by a grant from J-Lab: The Institute of Interactive Journalism at American University in Washington, D.C.

Among our partners are several startups, including, which covers uptown Charlotte and four surrounding neighborhoods. We also have the websites of established media, including La Noticia and Mi Gente, both Spanish-language newspapers.

If you know of a local website that would be a good fit for this alliance, email a link and description to the Observer’s innovations editor, Jen Rothacker. You can see examples from all the partners, as well as other details, at the Charlotte News Alliance page.

Reach Rick Thames at, and Phone: 704-358-5001.

The Charlotte News Alliance

Ballantyne Scoop: Community website based in Ballantyne.

Carolina Public Press: Asheville-area news site dedicated to in-depth news in Western North Carolina.

The Catawba River District: News about nature, learning, recreation and community development along the Catawba River.

Charlotte Viewpoint: A web-based magazine of essays, reviews, fiction, poetry, photography and video produced by citizens.

CLT Blog: A community website with users submitting Charlotte news, video, photos, links and blogs.

The Gatton Report: Investigative reports from the Mooresville/South Iredell area.

Hoodie Charlotte: Covers five center city neighborhoods – Dilworth, Myers Park, Plaza Midwood, Elizabeth and Center City – with news, features and photos.

Inside Stanly: News and features from Stanly County.

The Johnsonian: Winthrop University’s student newspaper.

La Noticia: Website for the city’s largest Latino newspaper.

Mi Gente: Online report from this weekly Latino newspaper.

Monroe Scoop: Community website based in Monroe and Union County.

Niner Online: UNC Charlotte’s student newspaper.

Qcitymetro: News, commentary and events about Charlotte’s African-American community.

Tega Cay Talk: News, events, people, places, and “The Good Life,” in and around Tega Cay.

Villa Heights: Community website serving Villa Heights and surrounding neighborhoods.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A bank unlike any Charlotte has seen

Is there room in Banktown for a lender willing to finance the dreams of entrepreneurs living below the poverty line?

A civic-minded group of local business executives remains $1 million short of its goal to establish a Charlotte version of the world-renowned Grameen Bank of Bangladesh.

The sooner they get that money, the sooner they can bring to Charlotte the micro-credit concept that won Grameen founder Muhammad Yunus worldwide admiration and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize:

You can make a small business loan to people who are poor and expect it to be paid back, with interest.

The public had the opportunity to see this idea explained in a documentary, “To Catch a Dollar,” which was shown Thursday in uptown Charlotte’s Epicentre Theater. The film features Yunus and personal finance expert and TV personality Suze Orman.

Yunus, a professor, established the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983. He got the idea after loaning small amounts of money to poor basket-weavers in the mid-1970s. Replicas of the bank now operate in more than 100 countries.

In 2008, supporters brought this idea to the United States, opening Grameen America in Queens, NY. That organization now operates branches in Brooklyn, Upper Manhattan and Omaha, Neb. It is preparing to open two more in Indianapolis and San Francisco.

Charlotte’s organizers have $1.5 million of the $2.5 million they need to open Grameen Charlotte, which will operate as a nonprofit. They expect to assist 3,500 borrowers in the first four years.

Borrowers targeted are below the household poverty line of $22,050 a year. In 2009, that amounted to 14,500 households in Charlotte. Applicants undergo a financial training program before being approved for a loan of up to $1,500. Loans are repaid over six to 12 months.Grameen America reports a repayment rate of 99 percent.

“The nice thing is, this is ready to go,” said John Lassiter, a former city council member, mayoral candidate and businessman who co-chairs the Charlotte effort and helped lead an informational session at Whitehead Manor this week. “Once we have the cash in hand, they have a branch manager who is ready” to come to Charlotte.

Their biggest gift to date has been $500,000 from Wells Fargo, followed by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation ($450,000), the City of Charlotte ($230,000), the Leon Levine Foundation ($100,000) and the Ginter Foundation ($100,000). Gifts from individuals total $71,500.

People can also choose to invest in Grameen, in $1,000 increments. Those investments are repaid in five years at an annual interest rate of 1%.

For more about the Grameen Charlotte campaign, contact co-chair Sara Garces at or campaign committee member Joe Mynatt at

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Congress, spend a weekend in D.C.

Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to congratulate members of Congress who return to their home districts each week.

Sure, it sounds virtuous. "I don't stay in Washington any more than I have to," the line often goes. "I'd rather be home, keeping in touch with the people I represent."

But a couple of veteran observers say this commuter mentality contributes mightily to the animosity and gridlock that keeps Congress from working together for the good of the nation.

Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas co-write a column called "Common Ground" for USA Today. Beckel is a political liberal, Thomas a conservative. The pair were in Charlotte last week to speak to the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club.

They are funny as a pair, the political odd couple. Their put-downs fly as freely as you'd expect on any political talk show (here's a taste from another appearance). But they are deadly serious about their friendship beyond politics, and they make a point of showing that to their audience.

One problem with Washington, they say, is that nobody goes out of their way anymore to build bipartisan friendships. Our elected representatives fly in on Tuesday, vote on bills they often haven't read, then fly out again on Thursday.

There was a time when politicians lived in Washington. They mingled socially, met each other's spouses, talked about their children. They got to know one another as human beings and, in the process, found that common ground. This sometimes led to a common courage to find solutions to the nation's problems, despite their differences.

This notion at first struck me as quaint, if not naive. Could the problems of Congress really be helped with a few more backyard barbecues?

But we all know the penchant people have for demonizing other people who are not like them, people that they don't actually know. In grade school, it leads to bullying. In grownups, it surfaces as ugly episodes of racial and class prejudice.

So, why should we expect anything but a pathetic outcome when politicians wall themselves off from their political opponents? The opponent equals the enemy, someone to be despised and ridiculed. Is it any wonder that each party would rather run the country aground than be caught crafting a compromise?

Of course, they act this way in part because they think this is what voters expect. And that was a parting point from Beckel and Thomas. Change won't come first in Washington. It has to start in places like Charlotte.

Seek out someone you disagree with politically and start a conversation, they said. Keep talking until you understand why that person holds those convictions. Find out what you have in common and find ways to build on that.

It's fashionable these days for members of Congress to hold "town meetings" in their districts. Often, these end up as partisan affairs, bordering on pep rallies. I'm imagining a town meeting of a different kind.

Our representatives are invited to appear together, Democrats and Republicans, alike. The audience consists of pairs of people already having conversations about their political differences -- already seeking common ground.

Would the expectations of that audience be different? Would those voters say, "Sure, go ahead, work with your political adversaries for the sake of the nation?"

Of course, one conversation, or even one town meeting, won't provide enough cover for a politician to safely cross the line and talk. But we have to start somewhere.

Your members of Congress need a new role model if they are to break out of this cycle of destructive politics. And that role model is you.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Let's all learn from "Death at the Track"

Care to guess who documents deaths in auto racing across America?

Not the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Not the National Transportation Safety Board. Not even the International Council for Motorsport Safety.

Only the staff of the Charlotte Observer works each year to establish how many people die at auto racing events – both drivers and fans.

The Observer has been doing this for 10 years. And here is why it matters.

A decade ago, this in-depth reporting opened the eyes of the racing world to a wider concern for safety even as it mourned the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt.

Earnhardt, it turned out, was one of at least 260 people who had died in U.S. auto racing between 1990 and 2001. That included 29 spectators, among them, five children.

The statistics shocked racing insiders.

"That is not acceptable," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, then president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway. "This is something the industry has to deal with. We have a moral obligation."

Said Indy racing champion Mario Andretti: "Now maybe we should spend even more time and energy in making cars safer."

Because we still count the deaths, we are also able to report some good news today in a Page 1 story.

Since Earnhardt’s death, no drivers or spectators have died in NASCAR’s three National series – Sprint, Nationwide and Camping World truck. That compares to 10 deaths in the decade prior to Earnhardt’s death.

Clearly, NASCAR has become more proactive about safety. The statistics show it.

Those numbers also illustrate the value of journalists who are committed to looking out for their communities.

One of them has been our sports editor, Gary Schwab.

For years, Schwab was haunted by a tragedy at a 1995 race in Charlotte that was designed to give relatively new drivers experience on a big track. A driver died, the track was cleaned up and the race was restarted in 33 minutes.

"That moment stayed with me," Schwab recalled. "It just didn’t seem to be the right response to a tragedy of that magnitude."

Schwab eventually teamed up with another Observer journalist, Liz Chandler. The two of them began searching for random reports of other deaths. Gradually, they documented 20, then 40, then 60.

By the time Earnhardt died, our journalists knew there was an important story to tell. The Observer committed a team of more than 30 people. They documented the 260 deaths over 11 years. More important, they discovered how many of those deaths might have been prevented.

You have to pause to imagine what this team faced. There was no clearinghouse for statistics like this. No report you could request. To complicate things, media often gave little notice to on-track deaths. Wasn’t that to be expected in the world of racing?

Our library manager, Marion Paynter, used resourceful search terms to track down reports of deaths in various databases. Combinations like "racing," "freak accident" and "he died doing what he loved."

Our computer-assisted reporting expert, Ted Mellnik, created our own database to organize what we found. Reporters collected as many of 18 pieces of information about each fatality.

A lot has happened since we published that initial report, called "Death at the Track." As you’ll read today, head-and-neck restraints are now required at racing’s top levels. NASCAR tracks are outfitted with energy-absorbing walls. And drivers race in newer, safer cars.

Meanwhile, we keep counting. Thanks to technology and experience, our searches are now more sophisticated. And each time we find another death, it is entered into our database.

"The death count is probably still low," Schwab said. "Deaths at small tracks often don’t get much attention. But in doing searches over the past 10 years, we haven’t found any list on U.S. deaths that is as complete as this one."

In fact, a major safety equipment manufacturer recently asked permission to use the database for its research. We’ll go one better. In hopes that it will add to everyone’s understanding of this issue, we’ve posted the updated database at and its sister site, It is searchable for data on 474 deaths in racing since 1990.

On Friday, we will report on a new concern emerging from those numbers. Deaths continue at an alarming rate at small tracks across the country even as safety has improved at the top levels of racing.

"That number is striking," said Peter St. Onge, one of the journalists on the story. "The number of deaths has actually increased."

People interviewed say they hope the safety improvements at NASCAR will eventually trickle down to these smaller tracks.

We hope they are right. And we’ll keep watching.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001

Monday, January 24, 2011

We heard your concerns on e-mail lists

The Observer has decided that it will not use e-mail address lists obtained from local municipalities to invite citizens’ input on news coverage.

We are shelving this idea after hearing concerns from some on the lists that the e-mails would not be welcome. Please reconsider, you said.

And so we did. The last thing we want to do is to discourage anyone who actively seeks information from his or her government. That kind of interest is good for our community, and should only be encouraged.

We apologize to all who were offended. While we did not view these invitations as a “commercial use” of the e-mail lists, we respect the concerns of those who did.

For those new to this issue, here is some background: On Saturday, I wrote that we have made public records requests for lists of e-mail addresses compiled by Mecklenburg County municipalities. The owners of those addresses submitted them so they could receive alerts, updates and newsletters.

We made our requests after the city announced early this month that it would seek to restrict access to the lists. The city’s lobbyist said there was concern that e-mail spammers might seek to use them. The lists would still be public record, but governments would not have to provide electronic or paper copies.

As I said Saturday, we feel a responsibility to see this “public record” before legislators move to restrict access to it. Very often, you only understand the value of a record being public once you’ve seen it. And this is something we have never examined before.

This was, and still is, our primary reason for asking for the e-mail lists.

But I also noted that we presumed the people on the lists to be especially civic-minded. And we had considered inviting them to become part of a growing pool of citizens who advise us on our news coverage. This idea especially offended some e-mail subscribers.

“I signed up for information about road closings from the city,” one subscriber wrote. “This is emergency information. To even receive one unsolicited e-mail from The Observer, even just asking for input, is unacceptable.”

We hear you. Most people who signed up for government e-mails did not know that their addresses would become part of the public record. Information alerting them of this either didn’t exist or was hard to find on the municipal sites. In fact, one town’s site erroneously told people who signed up that their addresses could be kept confidential.

We have many other ways to invite people to advise us on our journalism. If you are interested, please e-mail reader engagement editor Cindy Montgomery at

I also want to reiterate that the Observer will not convert these lists for commercial purposes or share them with others. They will be used solely for journalism, namely to determine their relevance as a public record.

Thanks to all who weighed in with your thoughts on this. We heard you, and we promise to keep listening.

Reach Rick Thames at or 704-358-5001.

Friday, January 21, 2011

E-mail lists used only for journalism

Did you know that when you sign up for e-mail alerts from your local government, your e-mail address becomes a public record?

To be honest, we had not thought about that, either. In fact, this only occurred to our newsroom when the City of Charlotte announced earlier this month that it would ask the N.C. legislature to restrict access to such e-mail lists in its upcoming session.

The city’s lobbyist, Dana Fenton, said the city would propose that the list remain public record, but a record that could only be inspected on site. The city could turn down requests for electronic or paper copies.

This, said Fenton, would make it more difficult for an e-mail spammer to use the addresses.

We’re all for less spam. But we felt a responsibility to at least see this "public record" before legislators moved to restrict access to it. Why?

In many cases, you can only understand the value of a record being public once you’ve seen it. And this was something we had never examined before.

It also occurred to us that many people who signed up were clearly engaged with their communities, given that they were interested in receiving government e-mails. We immediately thought of two ways they could help us in our coverage of their public officials:

They could tell us from experience if this government e-mail service was useful. Did it provide the information that they need?

If they were interested, they could also become part of a growing number of citizens who are lending their perspectives and expertise to help us produce better journalism.

To date, nearly 1,500 people have accepted our invitation to be part of the Carolinas Public Insight Journalism Network. They have assisted us on a variety of stories, including the quality of local cell phone service, the state of the economy, the upcoming revaluation of Mecklenburg County property and last November’s election. (For more on this program, go to

If people were not interested in advising us, we simply wouldn’t contact them again. And in no instance would their e-mail addresses be published in our newspaper or on our website, used commercially or passed on to anyone else. This was solely about journalism.

In hindsight, we should have been clearer as we made our requests, and we apologize for raising concerns.

While the state’s open records law does not require citizens to explain why they want a public record, several governments that we contacted feared that we wanted the lists for commercial purposes. This led some governments to warn people that their e-mail addresses were being given to the Observer.

To further confuse matters, our requests were submitted by Steve Gunn, who formerly worked exclusively in our newsroom, but in January moved to the Observer’s Interactive Division.
In his new role, Steve works with the newsroom as well as with other divisions in the company.

The city’s notice about our equest went to about 20,000 e-mail addresses Thursday. By Friday, about 100 people had contacted us, asking for more explanation. About half of them asked that we not contact them.

"I still find this an unethical use of the law," wrote one e-mailer who didn’t want to be contacted.

However, many appeared satisfied once they understood our intentions.

"Based on what you shared there is no need to put my name on the ‘remove’ list," said another. "I’ll review what you send and take it from there."

If you have concerns, Steve would like to hear from you. You can reach him at or 704-358-5077.

If you want to join our Public Insight Journalism network, please e-mail Cindy Montgomery at

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

View the Observer in our E-edition

Our offer of free access to the electronic edition of the Charlotte Observer has proven so popular that we are extending it one more day.

No need to go without your morning newspaper even if icy roads delay delivery today. Or, for that matter, if you’d rather not skate down your driveway.

Simply call up our E-edition. It is an exact replica of today’s newspaper, adapted to your computer screen. See the easy instructions below.

More than 2,000 readers took advantage of the E-edition by early Tuesday afternoon. Most who contacted me about the experience said they still like the look and feel of real paper, but the E-edition was an intriguing alternative.

“Thank you,” said one commenter. “After flipping through it (the E-edition) I do find it to be user friendly – and I like the look of a “real” newspaper.”

There was some disappointment. Wouldn’t you know, our vendor for the E-edition experienced a brief server problem at mid-morning, which prevented some from signing on until later. Also, some readers were chagrined that the E-edition is designed for PCs, but not smartphones or iPads.

“I want to read on iPad and iPhone,” said one commenter. “Get that going and you may have something.”

The iPad, maybe. But remember, the E-edition is a replica of an actual newspaper. For screens the size of an iPhone you are better off with a special iPhone application of the Observer. We released that a few weeks ago and it is enormously popular (you can download it to your iPhone at Apple’s app store at no charge).

We are developing an iPad application, but it won’t appear as a replica of the newspaper, either.

What’s the advantage of an E-edition? For many people, a newspaper remains the most representative record of that day’s events. They like how it is organized. They like its definitive nature.

Think about it. When we experience a historic day, people don’t fall all over themselves to take a snapshot of their favorite news web site. They want their own copy of that day’s newspaper. The printed front page still reflects their place and time.

The E-edition holds this same edge. On top of that, you can electronically search it and print out any portion of it. You can even shrink or enlarge what you print. If the Sudoku or crossword puzzle give you writer's cramp, make them bigger!

Here’s how to make use of the E-edition today. Go to:

When asked for a phone number, type in 704-358-0108. For the home address, type the number 600. Then apply the security code as provided.

If you need further assistance, operators are waiting at 800-532-5350.

I again want to thank our carriers for driving bravely through the snow and ice to get the Observer delivered. I also want to thank you for your patience in instances when we have experienced problems.

And we can all be thankful for the sun as soon as it returns.

(The E-edition is regularly available to print subscribers for an additional $1 a month, and to non-print subscribers for $5.99 a month.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

Observer E-edition is free today

If the icy weather disrupted delivery of your printed Charlotte Observer today, we invite you to try our electronic edition at NO charge.

That also goes for single copy buyers who can’t get to a news rack.

Our E-edition is an exact replica of that day’s printed newspaper. If you have not tried it, I think you will be pleased at how easy it is to virtually “turn the pages.” It also has the added advantage of search.

It is easy to get the E-edition on your home computer. Simply go to:

When asked for a phone number, type in 704-358-0108. For the home address, type the number 600. Then apply the security code as provided.

If you need further assistance, operators are waiting at 800-532-5350.

While our carriers are working hard to maintain delivery, it is inevitable that we will experience problems in some areas as a result of the ice. We sincerely apologize if this happens to you.

Please feel free to try the E-edition as an alternative. And if it is your first time, let me know what you think of the experience.

(The E-edition, by the way, is regularly available to print subscribers for an additional $1 a month, and to non-print subscribers for $5.99 a month.)