Opinion

Harry Chapin and The Herald-Sun’s new beats

Mark Schultz is the managing editor of The Herald-Sun.
Mark Schultz is the managing editor of The Herald-Sun. ehyman@newsobserver.com

“It was raining hard in ’Frisco

I needed one more fare to make my night

A lady up ahead waved to flag me down

She got in at the light.”

“Cat’s in the Cradle” was his biggest hit, but “Taxi” was singer Harry Chapin’s masterwork: 6:44 of lost connections and regret.

I played “Taxi” for my newswriting class at UNC two years ago. I wanted to make a point about storytelling – that a good news story like a good song, takes you places, introduces characters, has a beginning, middle and end.

Only one student, a freshman named Heather who sat in the back of the room, had heard of Chapin. Her parents played his records when she was growing up.

But I think they got the point.

It’s one we in the newspaper business have sometimes forgotten over the years, as we let school beats become school board beats, city beats become City Hall beats.

We filled the paper – because at the time the job was about filling the print edition – and we forgot to tell stories.

Next week, The Herald-Sun staff goes to “reinvention” training. In workshops and one-on-one meetings with experts from McClatchy, our parent company, we’ll learn to re-emphasize putting you, the reader, front and center as we pursue a digital-first strategy where most of you now read us: on your phone and desktop.

The work started earlier this summer with new beat descriptions we hope will return us to storytelling. Or I hope anyway, because I wrote most of them.

Our Changing Spaces (Durham): This beat examines growth and development, architecture, rural and natural spaces in the greater Durham area. Reporter Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan will look at urbanization, gentrification, demographics and quality of life, and be your watchdog for city and county government. Dawn’s Batalá Durham story this week – that’s changing spaces.

Our Changing Spaces (Orange and Chatham counties): We’ve got a big region to cover; lucky for us, Tammy Grubb has been reporting with depth on Chapel Hill and Orange County for years. She’ll do in these counties what Dawn will do in Durham, reporting how government decision making plays out – or doesn’t, and asking tough questions, like why the town would allow a new apartment building in the flood plain.

Where should my child go to school?: Yes, a beat can be a question, and there may be no bigger question mark than the one hanging over the Durham Public Schools, fighting pressure from private and charter schools and public perceptions. I told reporter Greg Childress he has a big job that just got bigger. He will now keep watch over the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County schools as well.

The New Economy: Yes, this is our business beat, but it’s also about job training, the unemployed and underemployed. Reporter Zachery Eanes will keep watch on the start-up scene, incentives in recruitment and expansion, openings and closings, job training (including Durham Tech’s important role) and the arts and athletics as part of the economic engine in our communities.

Town-Gown and Beyond: Did you read reporter Ray Gronberg’s interview with new Duke President Vince Price? If you did, you saw Ray ask him about gentrification and affordable housing. Yes, we’ll cover curricular debates when we think there is a broader audience for them, but we want this beat in Durham and Chapel Hill to capture what it means to live in a university community, where our largest employers wield influence beyond the campus borders.

True Courts and Crime: The next time someone asks for the police reporter I’ll tell them we don’t have one. Virginia Bridges has been tearing it up this summer, but her focus has always been to find and talk with those affected by crime and policing. This beat will examine the human cost and consequences of violence, public policy issues related to policing, profiling, jail operations and technology such as police body cameras.

“24/7”: So that’s a lot of government stuff. And that’s OK. We’re your watchdog. But at the end of the day, what matters most to readers is the rest of your world: your kids, your spouse, your parents, or your creaky bones. We’ve asked Cliff Bellamy to cover children, families, and aging in this innovative beat. He’s already delivered, breaking stories on a rise in foster care cases across the state tied to the opioid epidemic, and a follow up that reported how abuse and neglect – not painkillers – are putting more children into the system in Durham.

Real time: That’s not a lot of people. To respond quickly to breaking news, and more importantly tap into the conversations readers are having on listservs and social media, we’ve formed a Real Time Team. Reporters Joe Johnson, Colin Warren-Hicks and others will watch what’s trending, get stories started that they or the beat reporters will develop more fully throughout the day, and generally keep us tuned in to what you’re already or about to be talking about. We’re also carving out time for Colin to focus on the stories he lives to tell, like Steven Mitchell, the Duke fan who sat behind Coach K and who died in June, our top-read story this year.

If we do it right, we’ll take you places, like Harry Chapin took me many years ago and, just maybe, a few future journalists at that 8 o’clock class in Carroll Hall.

Oh, and Heather? She Facebook messaged me a couple of weeks ago to ask if she could write for the paper this fall.

Mark Schultz is the managing editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him on Facebook, at mschultz@heraldsun and at 919-829-8950.

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