Sunday, September 29, 2013

Paying for the product

Starting on Tuesday, you'll have to pay $9.95 per month to read The Dispatch online, unless you already subscribe to the print edition of the newspaper. Then you get the digital Dispatch for free as a part of your subscription.

Up until Tuesday, readers — whether they were print subscribers or not — had perhaps nearly 10 years of free access to the online paper, which probably reinforced their supposed sense of entitlement about getting a source of their news for no cost. Consequently, some readers stopped subscribing to the printed Dispatch exactly because they could get their news for free online.

That's not particularly good business sense if you happen to be a business. How long would the Candy Factory last if it gave away its raisin clusters for free?

By charging a fee for its online edition, The Dispatch is joining many other print publications across the country in charging for their product. This has become a necessity brought on, ironically enough, by the Internet. The Internet not only serves as a conduit for carrying news, but also for generating news — sometimes by creditable sources, other times by not so creditable sources. And this conundrum is with what newspapers have been competing, and consequently digital journalism has put print journalism in a tilt toward decline.

Imagine that. Charging for a product, like it was gasoline. Charging for a service (the distribution of information), like it was medical care. Isn't that the nature of capitalism? Isn't that free enterprise? Isn't that the American system?

When word broke two weeks ago that The Dispatch (an annual North Carolina Press Association award-winning publication, by the way) would be charging for its services, much reader reaction — predictably — was mostly negative. Some wanted to know why online advertising wasn't paying for the service, and why not increase those advertising rates? Some suggested they could get their local news from other sources. It went on and on.

The way I'm figuring it, the digital Dispatch, at $9.95 per month, comes down to about 47 cents per day (based on 21 print days per month). That's still cheaper than the print edition. Plus, the online paper offers videos, photo galleries, an instant archive to past stories, reader forums, links to other sources and an opportunity for immediate reader comments to each story.

Some readers were confusing paying for the online Dispatch with paying for the Internet. That's so far out into left field I don't even know how to react to that.

I'm not a businessman, but I think I remember hearing that online advertising generates perhaps 10 percent of a newspaper's income. That's unsustainable if the paper wants to stay in business. And how long do you think advertisers will remain online if their rates increase?

Some readers said they would turn to other news sources, like neighboring newspapers or television stations. Good luck with that. Out of town sources can't come near to providing the local coverage as the local paper can, if for no other reason than they either cannot afford the on-site resources that are needed or are unwilling to pay (there's that word again) for maintaining branch offices. Out of town sources tend to be incomplete and cursory at best. I guarantee you will not be as fully informed about Lexington if you go out of town for your news.

Television? The other night I was watching a telecast of a local news story — just one Lexington story in a half-hour broadcast — that credited The Dispatch as its source. Oh my. So some people are willing to give up The Dispatch to have somebody from out of town read them a few Teleprompter lines from a single story that came from The Dispatch? That logic eludes me.

I'm not really surprised by most of the reader reaction to charging a fee for digital news. This type of expressed dissatisfaction also happened whenever the paper increased its rates for the print edition.

I guess it's a way for those in the business to gauge just how much the readers appreciate the paper after all.

Here is a video that illustrates everything:

(Full disclosure: I was employed by The Dispatch for 30 years as a sports writer and sports editor before retiring in 2006. It has always been my feeling — and still is — that The Dispatch is one of the best small-town newspapers in the state.)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Paving the way

Sometimes you don't know that a life event is lurking until it hits you square on the head.

But the time had come — we needed to pave our gravel driveway.

Yes, I know what you're thinking: paving a driveway is NOT a life event. Yeah, well, just don't tell that to my bank account.

But we'd grown tired of having to remove stones that had gotten caught in the brake calipers of my car on more than one occasion. We were tired of pulling weeds from the gravel or even walking on stones that would shift under your feet.

It was time.

So we found a contractor, Tim Walser, and took the plunge. Herewith is a photo essay of our journey:

Here is our old weed-and-gravel driveway that is desperately in need of resurfacing.
Contractor Tim Walser grades the driveway with his trusty Bobcat. I want one.
Wooden forms define the boundary where the concrete will be poured.
A massive cement mixer somehow negotiates the narrow driveway. Whew.
Walser smooths out the concrete as it chutes into the driveway.
The finished product. Looks pretty good, doesn't it?
The whole process took two full work days — and about three truckloads of concrete — to complete. I was petrified that friends and neighbors would want to put their initials in the drying concrete (a proven primal urge, apparently contained in our DNA as I understand it), or that a stray animal might want to leave a paw print or some other memento behind, but it never happened.

On the other hand, if you ever want to draw a crowd, get a cement mixer to come to your house. Little knots of onlookers sometimes gathered in the course of the day to check out what the Wehrles were doing, and that was fine. It was a social happening. I think there must be something fascinating about concrete trucks that bring people together — cementing bonds, as it were.

Anyway, I still can't put a car on it for a couple more days as the concrete cures, and there'll be a little landscaping and reseeding of grass in our future, but we're getting close.

It was time.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

(Her) Class reunion

High school class reunions are usually hard on spouses.

Kim has been to a few of mine. They always require a 500-mile trip to Pennsylvania, which is hard enough right off the bat. It also means she has no familiar faces to connect with during the actual reunion, so she has to call on her sincere Southern charm and make new friends with my old friends.

The last one she went to — my 40th — involved putting up with a Vietnam vet who may have tangled a little too much with some Agent Orange and couldn't stop talking her ear off about it. I made a couple of feeble attempts to rescue her in the course of the night, but the only real solution was to leave. Which we did, but only after several hours of war stories about Khe Sanh, My Lai, Tet, and Huey helicopter gunships had slipped by.

You know, the usual class reunion fare.

Last night, we went to Kim's 35th class reunion, of which she is a proud member of the Lexington Senior High School Class of 1978. We probably didn't have to drive more than five miles to get there.

Not a bad class reunion as class reunions go. (Click on picture to enlarge)

Kim was immediately in her element, social butterflying her way from one cluster of classmates to the next, catching up and renewing contacts. It was actually kind of neat to watch. Kim tells me how shy and reserved she was in high school, but over the years she's blossomed into a virtual class resource center. People actually seek her out. She has a memory for memories and a gentle touch for enhancing them.

As her spouse, I'm in an unique situation. Because I live in a small town, and I was the local newspaper's sportswriter for 30 years, I probably know almost as many of her friends as she does. I also know many of the spouses of her friends, so when she was off reminiscing with a girlfriend or two, I'd be chatting it up about the Alabama-Texas A&M game with their husbands.

Somewhat surprisingly, the chick talk that I overheard last night wasn't so much about men as it was about menopause. I am serious. These are women in their early 50s and, for the most part, they've been gobsmacked by life's changes. Even Kim occasionally would point out one of her friends in the room who might be fanning her face, saying, "She's having a hot flash..."

I casually mentioned the M-word to one of her friends, suggesting it could be the theme of this particular reunion, and she politely answered by saying "Men just have no idea..." Well, she might be right, but I doubt if women really do, either. I hear a lot of "What's going on with me?" at home.

Anyway,  the best story of the evening came from a spouse who told me that he solved the night sweats problem by their switching places in bed — she now sleeps directly under the ceiling air conditioning vent, and their life is good again.

I laughed out loud when he told me that. It was so simple it was brilliant. All problems should be so easy to figure.

Next year will be my 45th class reunion (I'm nine years older than Kim). That means another weekend trip to Pennsylvania. Most of the men in my class will be around 63 years old, talking about their knee replacement surgeries, heart medications and low T.

I just hope it's not a hard night for Kim.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Parking with Underhill Rose

OK, OK, I know what you're thinking: Not another blog about Underhill Rose.

Sorry. But yes.

Kim and I made the trek to Greensboro last night because Underhill Rose, a trio of talented women from Asheville who perform mostly original Americana backed by a guitar, banjo and upright bass, were on hand at Center City Park for the last First Friday (of the month) event of the summer.

I don't know if it was the venue, the sound system, the perfect weather, or what, but Kim and I both thought the group sounded better than ever. This was the fourth time we've seen them, which might officially make us groupies by now. I don't know how Underhill Rose feels about silver hairs as their groupies, but I guess they're stuck with us.

The last time we saw them was about four months ago, when they appeared at High Rock Outfitters at the Square on Main Street. We thought they were great then, but I think they've gotten even better now.

They've just come off a "western" tour where they drove (they drive to all their gigs) to Montana (where bassist and South Carolina native Salley Williamson has connections) to bring their brand of mountain music to the prairie dogs, buffaloes and other citizens of the Great Plains.

We found seats right up front and Kim and I wondered if Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley would recognize us. We shared kind of a personal moment with them back in June at HRO when we got there way too early and it was just the five of us. Then, during their performance, they surprised and humbled me by singing Bob Dylan's Wagon Wheel, which I had sheepishly requested in a Facebook email.

Aw, shucks y'all.

But that was four months and thousands of miles ago.

Anyway, halfway through last night's 75-minute set, Molly made mention of how great it was to be back in the South, and especially North Carolina, and playing for their fans in places like Greensboro and Lexington. Kim and I took that to be a clue they'd seen us. Together, we raised our arms and shook our fists like Arsenio Hall when she mentioned Lexington. Woo hoo.

It got even better.

After their performance, while Eleanor and Salley packed up their equipment, we met Molly at the souvenir tent. She recognized us right off and we had a great 10-minute chat with her. Yes, they drive to all their tour dates; yes, sometimes they sing together while traveling in their vehicle; yes, they feel like their vocal harmonies are getting tighter and tighter; yes, their confidence is building, and it's a very subtle thing that's happening but they're aware of it.

Then, to seal the deal, Molly said they pondered whether or not to sing Wagon Wheel last night. They never did, but if they had, I probably would have had to run to the men's room and missed everything.

I never got to talk with Eleanor, although I think Kim did. For all I know, Eleanor might think we're just a couple of stray cats who show up every now and then for a saucer of milk. Maybe we are.

A few minutes later I bumped into Salley, and she said "Hi, Bruce, how are you doing?" OK, now I'm officially floored. She remembered my name. With all the traveling, all the performances, all the people they meet, how does that happen?

I know, I know. I sound like I'm star struck, although I'm not sure I'm willing to admit to that just yet. I feel like we're just good acquaintances right now and I'm really pulling for them to make it big.

Guess what? They're scheduled to return to High Rock Outfitters on Nov. 9 — a cozy place where they say they really like to perform. Guess what? It's a good bet that I'm going to write a blog about it.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Getting flagged

We needed a new American flag. The old one had become seriously faded as well as detached from its cloth clip grip, which meant it kept sliding down the pole attached to the pillar on our front porch.

Kim said if we waited until Labor Day, we could buy a new flag at half price at Fox Discount Gifts on South Main Street.

Sounded like a plan to me. All we had to do was be at Fox's at 7 a.m., since that's when the half-price sale began and lasted for just two hours, after which the half-price sale morphed into a less spectacular 40 percent sale.

My new flag was worth fighting off the half-price sale shoppers.
 It also meant one of us had to get up at 5 a.m. to shower and dress on a day when you could otherwise sleep in, but never mind. I get up early anyway, so I went first, and then Kim a little later. By 6:45, we were in the car and on our way to Fox's, which probably took us all of five minutes.

As we neared the otherwise unassuming store, the sight in front of me took my breath away. A large, mostly estrogen dominated crowd, had already clustered at the front door. In moments, an orderly line of about 50 people snaked around to the far side of the building.

Kim and I quickly went to the back of the line as cars continued to pour into the jammed-packed parking lot. A woman several places in line ahead of us had a list of what she needed written on legal-sized paper.

What had I gotten into?

Kim and I had gone to Fox's several days earlier to scout out the flag that I was interested in. I found the one I wanted and hid it in the middle of a rack of flags, hoping that nobody would find it until Monday. Nobody did. As soon as we got into the store, we made a bee-line for the flags. I found the one that I had stashed away two days ago and snapped it up, and made my way back to the cashier.

Just five minutes after the door had opened, the aisles were already packed shoulder to shoulder. As I excused my way past one woman, she looked at me and asked, "Is that all you're getting? Just one flag?"

I'm guessing her's was a rhetorical question because I didn't answer her. But I tried to process her logic as I stepped up to the counter. Well, yes, one flag is all I needed. I didn't needed plastic flowers, garden flags, Christmas lights, knic-knacs, gnomes, stencils or decorative lighthouses. I'm thinking she was thinking, hey, this is a half-price sale, you need to buy everything you can carry.


Anyway, I got to the cashier and made my purchase. We were probably Nos. 58 and 59 going into the store, but I think we were No. 1 getting out.

That suited me just fine. I got my flag, saved $13.50, and had breakfast at Cracker Barrel by 7:30. What could be better than that?