Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Just out: Our new Observer edition for the iPad

If you have an iPad (or hope to get one under the tree) we invite you to try our newly released Observer app for iPad.

This tablet edition is tailored specifically to take advantage of the iPad’s features. And it’s a leap ahead of our former iPad edition. Among the features I think you’ll like:

-- Easier navigation and a friendlier format.

-- More photos and videos.

-- The ability to leave a comment by a story.

-- More topics added, including a weather page and obituaries.

Also, with one click of an icon (in the uppermost right-hand corner of the screen), you can move from the iPad edition to the E-edition. That’s the very popular replica of the printed Charlotte Observer in a digital format.

What did he say? Yes, the E-edition is a digital replica of the actual printed newspaper.
Readers who like printed newspapers love this version.

If you subscribe to the Observer, you already have unlimited access to both of these formats, as well as our smartphone apps (iPhone and Android). If you don’t subscribe, but would like to take a test drive, try a one-month trial subscription for digital access to all of these products for only 99 cents.

We've also made it easy for you to download our apps for iPad, iPhone, Android and Windows 8. Users of all other web-enabled phones will find similar improvements at our mobile website. Simply aim your browser at

We know you spend more time now reading screens of all kinds. Our goal is to always be where you need us to be when you turn to The Charlotte Observer.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

When death checks in, who's paying attention?

Last June, North Carolina’s top public health official talked tough about authorities’ failure to protect three guests killed by carbon monoxide poisoning at a Boone hotel.

“These deaths were a tragedy that should have never happened,” said Aldona Wos, chief of the Department of Health and Human Services. ”I have instructed my staff to work with local officials to identify measures to ensure tragedies like this never happen again.”

That was six months ago. Incredibly, Wos has said nothing about the deaths since and has repeatedly refused Observer requests for interviews.

And in a strange twist, her office in August issued a brief statement saying, in part: “Based on our review of the facts, we do not believe that any state employee erred in performing their responsibilities.”

I urge you to read our in-depth report today on the deaths of these three guests. Then decide for yourself. Is the state’s standard for meeting its responsibilities high enough for you and your family?

Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, and her husband, Daryl Jenkins, 73, died mysteriously in Room 225 at the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza. There was no evidence of foul play.

But the medical examiner assigned to investigate did not visit the death scene. The state didn’t require it.

When the medical examiner submitted samples to a state lab for toxicology tests, he left blank a portion of the form that asks about circumstances surrounding the deaths.

Details like, this person died in a hotel room. Oh, and another person died in the same room at the same time.

Again, the state didn’t require him to mention those details.

Those samples then sat in a lab in Raleigh for 40 days for a test for carbon monoxide poisoning that takes 15 minutes.

And once the samples did test positive for carbon monoxide, no one took the necessary steps to save 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams.

Urgency was not part of the state’s protocol.

Jeffrey checked into Room 225 with his mother, Jeannie Williams, seven days after the state identified carbon monoxide as the Jenkinses’ killer. Jeffrey died and Jeannie was severely injured.

Why didn’t officials act more responsibly? And why should you believe they will next time?

You should also know this. The state Medical Examiner’s Office, which reports to Wos, obstructed The Observer for months in its efforts to get public records that were important for this story.

Those record requests went unfilled despite certified letters sent to both Wos and the state’s chief medical examiner, Deborah Radisch. Only through an attorney and a threat of a lawsuit were we able to secure the documents.

This is hardly behavior befitting people who claim to be public servants, looking after the public’s safety.

In today’s stories, an expert says it is a mistake for a medical examiner not to go to the scene of a mysterious death. Another expert says that when two people die in the same enclosed space, you should immediately suspect an environmental cause. Still another says he never spends a night in a hotel without taking along a carbon monoxide detector.

Sadly, all of this advice comes from authorities outside of our state. Inside, where this tragedy took three precious lives, we’ve heard little about how they are improving a system that is supposed to prevent public health hazards.

Our staff continues to investigate the important work of medical examiners in North Carolina. We invite your help. If you have a question or concern about a specific death investigation, please let us hear from you.

As a help, we’ve posted on a death investigation database that is public record. It is searchable by name and will indicate whether the medical examiner viewed the body in a specific case.

No one can bring back those who were lost, but we dare not ignore the lessons left behind for the living.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Traveling? Take The Observer with you

As you travel this Thanksgiving, it will be easier than ever to take your Charlotte Observer with you.

All subscribers have access to our popular E-edition. This is a digital replica of the printed newspaper for computer and iPad (download the iPad app at iTunes).

This edition has all the features of the printed paper and then some. For example, the content is searchable and the stories are easily saved and emailed. You can also pull up seven days of back issues.

Here is another convenience especially nice for travel. You can download the issues you want for reading later, when you won't have Internet access -- in the car, on a plane or at a remote vacation destination.

Thousands of subscribers now read the printed Observer this way. If you don't subscribe, we have a one-month trial subscription for digital access only for 99 cents.

Also, if you are traveling, it's easy to go online and put a temporary hold on delivery of your paper copies. You can arrange the dates to both stop and restart your paper.

Read The Observer by phone? You'll want to get our app updates for Android and iPhone.

These updates introduce a whole new look that includes more photo galleries, article commenting and video that comes embedded conveniently within stories.

To download our app for iPhone, go to the Apple App Store. For Android, go to Google Play. Users of all other web-enabled phones will find similar improvements at our mobile website. Simply aim your phone's browser at

Safe travels, everyone.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Check out our updated phone apps

If you are among the thousands who now read The Charlotte Observer by phone, you'll want to get our app updates for Android and iPhone.

These updates introduce a whole new look that includes more photo galleries, article commenting and video that comes embedded conveniently within stories.

Navigation is also simpler. Sub-sections logically lead you to topics you most care about. And, of course, you can swipe your way from story to story.

The most popular content also remains: local news, sports, weather, entertainment, movie times, news alerts and the ability to share favorite stories with your friends.

To download our app for iPhone, go to the Apple App Store. For Android, go to Google Play. Users of all other web-enabled phones will find similar improvements at our mobile website. Simply aim your phone's browser at

The phone is an easy way to keep up with the latest developments, wherever you may be. It's no wonder why mobile (phones and tablets) is now our fastest growing audience segment, representing a third of all visits to

We will soon launch a redesign of our tablet edition for iPad, with more video, photos and graphics. More on that in the next month or so.

As always, we welcome your feedback. Our goal is to be where you need us to be, in the format that works best for you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Observer headlines for your website

If you manage a web site or blog, you know all about widgets.

A widget is a feature that you can download for use on your own web pages. There are thousands of them.

Now The Charlotte Observer has added one more that could be of special interest to your audience: Breaking news headlines from

It’s a window, essentially, to the top local news of the day. The headlines change constantly to reflect the latest developments. And if your web site or blog is focused on the Charlotte region, it could be especially appealing to your visitors.

The headlines are also links. A user who wants to read more about a particular story can click on it. Naturally, we hope people will do that at times. But we’ve also made it easy for those users to return to your site with the click of their “back” button.

We’re launching this feature with a choice of headline topics: Local News, Sports, Business, Opinion, Entertainment, Young Achievers and SciTech. Pick as many widgets as you would like to try.

Also, know that this is an idea still in development. We welcome your feedback to help us improve on it, including topics you’d like to see added.

Friday, September 6, 2013

In Saturday edition: Panthers special section

Practice and preseason are over. Now it's for real. And your Saturday Charlotte Observer makes it more so with a 16-page special section kicking off the regular season of the Carolina Panthers.

What's so special about it?

-- A cover story by Joseph Person on quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the cornerstones of the franchise and one of the best young tandems in the NFL.

-- The complete roster and depth chart, plus an analysis of the Panthers, position-by-position.

-- Game-by-game analysis of the Panthers schedule, by the Observer's Jonathan Jones.

Then, coming Sunday:

-- It's game day, Panthers versus the Seattle Seahawks. You'll find a four-page wrap around your sports section with all the details.

-- Also, in an exclusive interview, Cam Newton talks with Jonathan Jones about how he spent the off-season analyzing himself as a leader. And, how Newton learned from former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme.

Can't wait? Check out this video of Observer columnsts Scott Fowler and Tom Sorensen giving their predictions.

Watch for more video, beginning Sunday, as features game highlights for the Panthers and other NFL teams.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Why the arrest of a reporter should matter to all

It's a simple principle, basic to keeping government power in check.

If authorities take you into custody, other citizens cannot interfere or impede, but they have the right to witness the arrest.

Sometimes, those witnesses are journalists. They watch on behalf of the public and independently report the circumstances.

Last year, Tim Funk was among Charlotte Observer journalists who trained on how to report on days of protests without obstructing police during Charlotte’s Democratic National Convention, where the president’s security was at stake. Not one of our journalists was detained or arrested.

In June, the Observer sent Funk to Raleigh to cover a single peaceful protest at the General Assembly. Police there handcuffed him as a “trespasser.”

It was obvious that Funk was merely doing his job as a reporter. He had Observer identification around his neck and a pad and pen in his hands.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby agreed. Last week, Willoughby dismissed charges accusing Funk of second-degree trespass and failure to disperse. Those charges were filed by the N.C. General Assembly Police.

“I saw a video of the incident and it appeared to me that he was there as a reporter, and not part of the protest. He was doing his job,” Willoughby said in an interview Friday. “If they (the General Assembly Police) had called me and showed me the video, I’d have told them what I thought.”

They didn’t. And that should disturb both you and the General Assembly.

In what ought to be the most public building in North Carolina, police did not respect the public’s right to witness officers arresting citizens.

Funk, 58, covers faith and values for the Observer. He traveled to Raleigh on June 10 to report on Charlotte-area clergy who were taking part in the “Moral Monday” protests. At least some participants from Charlotte expected to be arrested as they took their protest inside the marble-faced building where the state House and Senate meet.

Building rules prohibit disruptions or disorderly conduct. During the legislative session, nearly 1,000 protesters chose to sing, clap and pray inside the building and be arrested in an act of civil disobedience.

These arrests became a Monday routine. So routine, in fact, that the protesters who wanted to be arrested were advised to wear green armbands so they could be distinguished from crowds of onlookers and supporters.

Funk was working through those crowds, trying to locate people from our region, when he heard someone on a bull horn. It was General Assembly Police Chief Jeff Weaver, warning protesters to disperse or face arrest.

“It was very loud in the hall, so I couldn’t hear all of what he was saying,” Funk wrote later in an account of the day. “But I made out – and wrote in my notebook – that the arrestees-to-be had 5 minutes to leave. I kept trying to talk to the (protesters) as they sang and prayed.”

Weaver then gave a two-minute warning. But it never occurred to Funk, who was wearing his Observer press badge and taking notes, that the warning applied to him.

“There was a lot of drama,” he said. “And, as a reporter, I thought my job was to capture it for Observer readers.”

A video shot by a documentary film crew captured that moment for all to see. It shows Weaver and accompanying officers closing in, not on the protesters, but on Funk.

“Chief Weaver came straight for me. … I was shocked that he intended to arrest me and was sure it was a mistake. … I remember that I kept saying, ‘I’m a reporter, I’m a reporter.’ But the chief kept coming at me, kept saying, “You’re under arrest; put your hands behind your back.”

Officers zip-tied Funk’s hands and led him to a detention center. They emptied his pockets. Took his notebooks, his briefcase, his computer. Stripped him of all identification, including his wallet and his driver’s license.

“I told every uniformed person I saw that I was a reporter, there to cover the protest, not participate in it,” Funk said. “I also asked several times whether I could call the Observer. They said no. I asked if they could call the Observer. No. At one point, my cellphone rang. I asked if they could answer it or put it to my ear. No.”

Funk was then locked in a detention cell for two hours before being taken before a magistrate and released.

Weaver was out of the office and unavailable Friday. But in telephone conversation with Observer Managing Editor Cheryl Carpenter on the night of Funk’s arrest, he said the reporter had ignored his order to disperse. He dismissed Carpenter’s explanation that Funk was a working journalist, lawfully reporting a story.

Raleigh attorney Wade Smith, hired by the Observer to represent Funk, said Friday that the reporter was clearly within his rights when he was arrested.

“He was doing his job just as fully as legislators were doing their job,” Smith said. “It seemed to me that they cast a net and caught someone they shouldn’t have. It may be that they just weren’t thinking about it.”

I’m sure that months of demonstrations, not to mention contentious political battles, have tested this police force in unprecedented ways. That may help explain how Tim Funk was treated. But it does not excuse it.

Chief Weaver and the General Assembly Police should own up to their mistake and apologize. They should also sit down with journalists who cover the legislature and discuss how both police and reporters can fulfill their responsibilities.

The Charlotte Observer and the North Carolina Press Association, representing more than 200 newspapers statewide, stand ready to meet.

“I would hope that in the future that (General Assembly Police) will recognize that a journalist has a very important role to play,” Smith said, “and that they will let journalists do their job.”

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

We are changing how readers comment on our site

You wouldn't go to a public forum wearing a mask and expect to be invited to speak.

And yet websites commonly allow users to speak their minds anonymously in virtual forums, as if that should be the new standard for the Internet.

No doubt it will continue to be the standard for many sites. But our own experience tells us that anonymity rarely produces the kind of dialogue our users want.

In fact, the mud-wrestling that often unfolds in anonymous comments that follow our stories on is a big turn-off for many people. And despite our best efforts to maintain a civil atmosphere, a small but determined number of users continue to post comments laced with hate, vicious attacks and vulgarities. We delete as many as 300 comments a day that violate our guidelines.

So we are recalling the masks. Beginning at noon Wednesday, our stories will only feature the comments of people who are willing to be recognized.

Specifically, commenters will log in using a Facebook account. Most people on Facebook use their real names. Even those who don’t are generally recognizable to their Facebook “friends” and, therefore, more accountable for what they say.

You won’t need a Facebook account to read the comments, only to post one. Many readers already have an account. For those who don’t, we’ll show you how to get one.

We’ve prepared a Q&A for that and other questions that we anticipate you will have with this change. You can also message me with questions on Facebook, in email, on Twitter or by phone (details below).

We know that a few users will yet find a way to post anonymously through Facebook. We will continue to monitor comments for violators of our guidelines, explained at the beginning of each comment section, and ban them from our site.

We also have an option for anonymous users who often assist us through the comments with news tips or additional context about a story. Look for a link at the top of each comment section that allows a user to send the newsroom a message that will remain out of public view.

With these changes, we expect fewer comments on our stories. This has been the experience of other newspaper websites that already switched to Facebook registration, including The Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald and USAToday.

But their experience also suggests this will result in more relevant and substantial comments. We hope it will also encourage the return of many reasonable commenters who previously left, rather than be bullied or intimidated. We want to provide our users a safe place for community conversations and respectful debate.

We also still welcome the tasteful comedians out there. Just remember that if the joke falls flat, someone will know where to aim the tomatoes.

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

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Gun permits: We should handle with care, but keep them public records

Set aside for a moment the handful of journalists who have published wholesale lists of people with gun permits and the handful of gun enthusiasts who have threatened to kill them.

I’d like to talk to the rest of you, regardless of how you feel about guns.

First, let’s acknowledge what brought us here. Our nation continues to react to a horrific event. A deranged gunman walked into an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., just before Christmas and killed 26 people, including 20 children.

That massacre set off unprecedented demands for new forms of gun control, followed by record sales of guns. Journalists everywhere set out to cover these developments and, in the process, some turned their attention to gun permits.

Gun permits have been public records in North Carolina for decades. They are among hundreds of types of public records that the Charlotte Observer uses to research specific stories.

We were doing research earlier this year when we requested and received two databases from local and state authorities. In response to our public records requests, the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Department provided a digitized list of all handgun permits it has issued. The State Bureau of Investigation provided a similarly fashioned list of permits issued statewide for carrying a concealed firearm.

We requested these databases to help us explain trends tied to the recent surge in gun sales. We have never considered publishing the complete lists because we’ve found no compelling journalistic reason to do so.

That may disappoint some who think it should be enough that the permits are public record. But the Observer, like the vast majority of newspapers, makes choices like this every day. We constantly balance the public’s right to know against the potential harm that could result from disclosure.

We draw hard lines when safety and well being are in question. For instance, the names of rape victims are public record, but we withhold them. We withhold names of children accused of juvenile crimes. We use public records to provide you reports of crime in your neighborhood, but we withhold home addresses.

Does widespread knowledge of the identities and addresses of gun owners encourage break-ins, as some suggest? It’s a debatable question. A veteran burglary detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police told me Friday that he has never seen anyone break into a home solely to steal weapons.

But many people with permits obviously are worried about their security. I’ve also read of serious concerns for permit holders who are battered spouses. Consider people who victims of stalkers. The point is, people have many reasons to arm themselves legally, and in some cases widely publicizing identities and addresses potentially could lead to harm.

But there is also real danger in closing these records to the public, as is now proposed in the state legislature.

Your sheriff has the sensitive task of determining who deserves a permit and who doesn’t. To close the records is to eliminate all oversight for that process. No agency checks behind the sheriff to see that permits are issued fairly or responsibly. The Cherokee Scout newspaper said it sought permit records because of a tip questioning the fairness applied to permitting in Cherokee County. The sheriff refused to release the information. (Read more about this on Page 1A today.)

In 2011, The New York Times obtained the same database we recently received from the SBI. It checked those names against five years of crime data and found that more than 2,300 people issued concealed weapons permits in North Carolina had been convicted of felonies or misdemeanors (excluding traffic-related crimes). More than 200 of those crimes were gun-related, and at least 10 involved murder or manslaughter.

“In about half of the felony convictions, the authorities failed to revoke or suspend the holder’s permit, including for cases of murder, rape and kidnapping,” wrote New York Times reporter Michael Luo.

This included a man jailed for terrorizing his estranged wife and daughter with a pair of guns, and then shooting at their house while they and a sheriff’s deputy were inside.

“That’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” the man’s wife said when told her husband was most likely still qualified to buy a gun at any store in the state.

His permit was revoked after the newspaper notified the Sheriff’s Office of his actions.

We are a nation of self-governing people. But we can only govern as far as we can see. The permitting of firearms is too important a process to all citizens to now be placed in a blind trust.

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

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, Charlotte athlete and legend, takes his rightful place in civil rights history

It’s rare to think of history as front page news. But that is exactly where history belongs when, in its own right, it is an untold story.

Today, you can expect to read many things about Charlotte’s history that are news to you as we begin a special three-part series called “Breaking Through."

I’ll start with the obvious. Nearly 50 years later, the identity of an African-American who became one of the greatest high school football player's in the history of Charlotte remains unknown to even some of the city’s most ardent sports fans.

He made a courageous decision to break through racial barriers, hoping that college scouts would notice him at a predominantly white high school. We have never connected that choice to one of the most racially violent chapters in our city’s history.

Today, you can read that story. Today, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick takes his rightful place in history.

Observer Senior Sports Editor Gary Schwab stumbled onto a reference to Kirkpatrick in November. Schwab was searching online for information about Charlotte’s annual Shrine Bowl, which features the high school all-star teams of North and South Carolina.

“I didn’t know who Kirkpatrick was, even though I have worked at the Observer for almost 30 years, mostly as sports editor,” Schwab said. “No one I asked knew, either.”

Observer researcher Maria David found a phone number for Kirkpatrick in Portland, Ore. Schwab and reporter David Scott made the call.

“I’m humbled that you want to tell my story,” Kirkpatrick said on the other end of the line.

It turns out that Kirkpatrick had been telling it for years in Oregon during Black History Month. But he had never had the opportunity to tell it in Charlotte, where his brush with history unfolded.

In 1964 and 1965, when Kirkpatrick was in high school, the Observer did notice him, but only in breathless bouts of breaking news. Kirkpatrick, the unstoppable running back for all-black Second Ward High School. Kirkpatrick, the black athlete who created a buzz by transferring to mostly white Myers Park High. Kirkpatrick, the first black player to make the Observer’s all-star high school football team.

Even the appearance of those stories was unusual. And though there were episodic reports of Kirkpatrick in a civil rights battle, it is only this week's stories that acknowledge the price he paid on his journey.

“Mainstream newspapers rarely covered black athletes in the 1960s, or earlier during segregated times,” Schwab said. “There are dozens of great athletes whose stories went untold or are long forgotten, dozens more whose potential was never realized because of lack of opportunity.”

The Observer has doubled back to report some of those stories in recent years, writing about people like Paul Grier who went to West Charlotte High School in the mid-1950s and is considered by some to be the city’s best-ever high school basketball player.

When we first interviewed Grier, he paused before answering a question. Tears ran down his face.

“Stan Olson, the reporter, asked if he was OK,” Schwab recalled. “’Yes,’ Grier said. ‘It's just that no reporter has ever talked with me before.’”

David Scott wrote about Willie Cooper. While Charlie Scott is remembered as the North Carolina Tar Heels' first black basketball player, Cooper played briefly as a freshman two years earlier, in 1964. In response, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of his family’s home in Elm City, about 80 miles east of Chapel Hill.

“I have always been struck by the fact that there is a history here that has gone untold for decades,” Schwab said.

Many people helped us reassemble the history surrounding Kirkpatrick. His former Myers Park quarterback, Neb Hayden, still has the school's film from most of the games of the 1965 season, on 16mm reel-to-reel tape. Hayden let us convert to a digital format some of that film, plus other footage previously transferred to VHS tapes.

As a result, you can see for yourself at why fans found it necessary to rise to their feet nearly every time Kirkpatrick had the football.

We also interviewed former teammates and opposing players. Some now meet as alumni of two of Charlotte’s former all-black high schools, Second Ward and West Charlotte. Once bitter rivals, they work together to support the community and call themselves the Thursday Morning Breakfast Club.

Kirkpatrick spent hours with Schwab and Scott, recounting his childhood in Charlotte’s Grier Heights community and his fateful decision to leave Second Ward High for Myers Park High. He then traveled to Charlotte to reunite with teammates from both teams, black and white.

Most had not seen him since their days as teenagers.

“This became a chance to talk to his old teammates,” Schwab said, “to see if what happened mattered to them as much as it mattered to him.”

And now it becomes history that matters to all of us.

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