May 16, 2013So many people have asked me what I think The Rhinoceros Times has accomplished, I feel obligated to say something about it.
Whenever I speak to a group, I try to work in the quote by Thomas Jefferson, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate for a moment to prefer the latter."
We are a self-governing people, or are supposed to be, but if people don't know what their government is doing how can they be a part of it? County Editor Scott Yost was explaining to me why he used the Guilford County Board of Elections office to find out the party affiliation of the new county manager in Brunswick County. I said, "It's a public record. All you had to do was call down there and ask."
Yost agreed that it was a public record but pointed out that Brunswick County is a long drive and, if they didn't know it was a public record, it would take hours or days to get the information.
We run into it all the time when we have to deal with other jurisdictions or with employees here recently hired from other jurisdictions. The law in North Carolina makes just about everything in a government employee's office a public record, which means anyone can ask to see it at reasonable times and can request a copy, which is supposed to be provided as promptly as possible. It's the law, but it doesn't make a bit of difference what the law is unless people who have the records know what it is.
When we first printed government salaries in the paper, people were astonished. We did it in part because every year at budget time the managers and school superintendent would complain about how poorly paid their employees were. Since even low-level government employees usually make more than experienced journalists, it was particularly galling to us.
But when those first salary lists came out people asked us if we weren't afraid of going to jail, and they were serious.
So one thing that we have accomplished in 20 years of fighting and complaining is that Guilford County, City of Greensboro and Guilford County Schools are all much more open in their public records policy. I fear that next week they will go back to their same old tricks, but I hope my friends in the mainstream media will work to keep them honest.
The same can be said for closed meetings. Here we have had some problems of late. Mayor Robbie Perkins is in favor of doing business behind closed doors and no one on the City Council is standing up to him. When state Sen. Trudy Wade was City Councilmember Trudy Wade, she made it known that she was not going to participate in any secret closed meetings. If all the councilmembers won't play the game, then it doesn't work.
Years ago when Joe Bostic was a Guilford County commissioner, he singlehandedly put a stop to economic incentives by first announcing that he was going to walk out and tell the press everything that was done in closed session and then doing it, once.
Companies knew that if they came to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for free money it would be known, and they quit asking.
Unfortunately, we have too many elected officials right now who don't know the law and pay way too much attention to government employees who would like to do everything in secret.
John Dinan, who is a professor of political science at Wake Forest University, a good friend and a fan of The Rhino, said the other day that Winston-Salem politics just wasn't at interesting as Greensboro politics. I doubt that he's right. I've never covered Winston-Salem so I can't say for certain, but my guess is that Winston-Salem politics is just as interesting as Greensboro politics, but nobody is writing about it. We found that the stories in Charlotte, where we had a paper from 2002 to 2008, were very similar to the ones in Greensboro, just twice as big. High Point is its own world, but there is no lack of interesting and sometimes bizarre stories there.
The daily newspapers used to have the staff to put people on stories for weeks at a time. Now short-staffed like everyone in the business, they are just fighting to put a newspaper out every day. In their defense, they don't have the time to put in the kind of research that is needed. One reason Scott Yost was able to break all those stories on Guilford County government was because he had a week to work on them. It didn't hurt that he knows everyone in county government and is a subtle but relentless interviewer.
Our business model stopped working, which is why this is our last paper, but I think someone will come up with a business model that does work because one thing we have proven is that people are interested in their government.
But to answer the original question, our biggest accomplishment was putting a paper out every Thursday for 21 years.