Dillard’s January Closing Date May Be On Hold

CHAPEL HILL – Dillard’s in University Mall was scheduled to close by the end of January at the latest, but that plan may be on hold for now.

A sign which stated that the Dillard’s store was closing has been removed from the department store’s door. UMall officials said a press release will be issued this week from Dillard’s with more information about the expected closure date.

A 13-screen luxury movie theater, Silverspot Cinema, will open in the current Dillard’s location in 2015. The announcement was made at the beginning of November after months of speculation that Dillard’s was leaving the shopping center.

A source told WCHL News in September that the department store was leaving UMall and that negotiations were underway with a non-retail store to replace it.

Currently the clothing store is functioning as a clearance center.

As of November, Dillard’s employed 33 sales associates. A rep for Dillard’s said the employees have been offered positions at other stores.

As part of a greater redevelopment plan for University Mall, new leases signed this year include William Travis Fine Jewelers, Fine Feathers, Peacock Alley, TrySports and Kidzu Children’s Museum. Plaza Azteca, a Mexican restaurant, will join the dining options in 2014. The shopping center’s Harris Teeter is undergoing a $9 million renovation.


The Crisis Of Modern Journalism (Part II)

A couple days ago I wrote about a disturbing trend in modern journalism: with the economy tight, newsrooms are reducing staff to the bare-bones minimum, making it harder and harder for news departments to conduct investigative reporting (or sometimes even basic fact-checking). As a result, reporters often have to rely on what they’re told. That’s always been true to an extent, but I think it’s even more true now than ever before.

In itself, this isn’t the end of the world—so long as those doing the telling are informed and honest, with no incentive to lie or withhold key details or spin the facts to make themselves look good.

And sometimes that’s actually the case. When police or other government officials want to get vital information out to the public, they use the local media. (I remember getting a call from the Chapel Hill PD earlier this year to ask if we could get the word out about an overnight break-in. As I put it on Facebook later: “Small-town journalism in a nutshell—Chapel Hill Police just called me to report a crime.”) The same is even true—occasionally—with more controversial issues. After the Yates Building incident in November 2011, there was some debate about whether those in charge made the right decision given the information they had, but it was obvious to all that they should have had more information in the first place. I think it was town manager Roger Stancil who called it a “communications breakdown.” So there was an incentive for town leaders to communicate, both with each other and with the public. And though it did take a while (Stancil at one point put a gag order on Town staff), eventually they opened up completely. And positive changes got made.

But when those with access to information do have an incentive to lie, to withhold, or to spin—well, that’s a different story.

Small-scale example: let’s talk about University Mall.

It was in mid-September when the news first broke that Dillard’s was likely going to leave—that was when the store converted to a clearance center and shifted very obviously into everything-must-go mode. But was it leaving? It looked that way, but nobody would say for certain: Dillard’s spokesperson Julie Bull said only that the store was converting to clearance, but insisted that didn’t (necessarily) mean it was on the way out. U-Mall GM Peter DeLeon told us that was as much as he knew as well. “(Bull) stated to us that she has not been given that information that they are closing,” he told WCHL, “(and) at this point we have to respect what Dillard’s is telling us.”

How much of that was true? While all that was going on, I walked into Dillard’s, no press badge, and casually asked a cashier what she’d heard—and although she said she’d heard conflicting reports, she told me they’d been informed Dillard’s was closing within a few months. This turned out to be true, and it was more specific than we (and possibly even U-Mall) were hearing from the company. They knew more than they were letting on. And while it’s possible they were keeping U-Mall in the dark as well, there’s evidence to suggest that Silverspot Cinemas was already in the works too. For one thing, it was already in the rumor mill: someone told us in September that she’d heard U-Mall was bringing in a movie theater, though that information was third-hand and the original source wouldn’t go on record. And then there was last week’s press conference, where mall staff put up several renderings of what the new theater would look like—one of which, someone told me later, was actually dated July.

So it’s fair to say there may have been a disconnect between the reality and the official story.


Well, frankly, in September, neither Dillard’s nor U-Mall had much incentive to confirm the store was closing, even if it was true. For Dillard’s, it’s negative publicity: you’re laying off employees, which never looks good, plus closing a location suggests the company is in trouble. (Even in November they didn’t say much. Here’s the one press release where they announced it: good luck spotting it in there.) Same goes for U-Mall, and there it’s even more crucial: malls depend on strong anchor stores to draw in business, and the nation is already littered with malls that suffered badly because they lost their anchor. So U-Mall had every incentive to hold off announcing that Dillard’s was out until they could tailor the announcement to focus on the nice new thing that was coming in.

And in this case, no harm done. We got the full story in November instead of September. No big deal.

But it’s noteworthy that the media really wasn’t able to crack this nut two months ago—and that’s emblematic of a larger, more troubling issue.

For the problem is double-sided. Lacking the power to investigate, reporters in the shrunken newsroom increasingly have to rely on what they’re told—to depend on the kindness of strangers, as it were. But even in a relatively minor situation like this, those with information usually have at least some incentive to withhold it or spin it to their advantage.

There’s no malice in this, by the way. These are good people doing their jobs.

But while reporters’ power is declining, their power is growing. And that’s changing how news stories get told.

Here’s the second trend: while the news media has declined, the PR industry has taken off—and it’s made a science of figuring out how best to ‘control the message.

Public relations has been around forever. As a profession, though, it’s only about as old as psychology, and it’s advancing at about the same rate. (Think about how bad psychology was in 1950 compared to today—PR’s improved by similar leaps and bounds.) And as companies and organizations grow more aware of the importance of “image,” public relations takes on an increasingly prominent role. (This is heightened all the more because there’s been an explosion of new media outlets in recent decades too—from cable channels to the Internet to social media and beyond. Now, if you’re a company, it’s not enough to craft your image on three or four outlets—you have to craft it on three or four hundred.)

As a result: fifty years ago there was one PR rep for every reporter; now the ratio’s closer to 4:1. No reason to think that’s going to change. Career advisors are now actively encouraging prospective journalism majors to track towards PR instead. (Better long-term prospects.)

And that in turn amplifies and accelerates the consequence of all this: what you hear in the news is often just a rehash of official statements and press releases. “Churnalism,” it’s called. We often blame this on journalistic laziness, but that’s not what it is—it’s all these trends at once, coming together. And this is what you get. Government agencies, organizations, businesses all carefully route inquiries to the press office; everyone else is carefully instructed not to speak. You listen to a newscast talk about some national issue, it’s nothing but a Democratic sound bite followed by a Republican sound bite.

Sometimes this is helpful, especially when the PR reps become aware that it’s up to them to determine what gets reported as news. Catherine Lazorko is the public information officer for the Town of Chapel Hill. A couple years ago at WCHL’s Community Forum, she said something that stuck with me: that she finds herself being more careful now, when crafting press releases, about covering all the bases and angles of a given issue—because she knows that her words will very likely end up being lifted directly and dropped into a story. (I doubt that’s changed in the last two years.)

But we can’t assume that sort of altruistic behavior on a regular basis—especially when the organization in question has every incentive to clam up.

Take UNC.

In the last three years UNC has had to put up with—well, let’s just say they’ve had to put up with a lot. It’s been three very difficult years. And let’s be honest: some of the headache came from their willingness to be good and open and transparent all that time. Other schools have committed violations far worse than UNC’s—but they locked down, zipped their lips, refused to let NCAA investigators on campus, and basically got off scot-free. UNC did it right, played the game, let investigators on campus, threw open their books, and talked at great length about what went wrong and how best to fix it—and ultimately got hit with sanctions far worse than Miami and Auburn and Oklahoma State and all those other schools put together.

Well, lesson learned.

With the transition from Holden Thorp to Carol Folt, UNC has suddenly become a lot more tight-lipped, at least when it comes to the top administrators. Folt has been incommunicado since taking over, aside from public appearances and carefully prepared remarks; you may notice you don’t hear her quoted in the media nearly as often as Thorp was.  (Folt did sit down with us for a WCHL News Special with Jim Heavner, but that was really her first extended interview since she first took over—and it’s worth noting that it aired in November. We usually do that annual interview-with-the-chancellor in August.)

And it goes further. Earlier this month UNC named Joel Curran—senior executive at one of the world’s largest PR agencies—to the position of “Vice Chancellor for Communications and Public Affairs.” It’s a position they just now created.

Three guesses why.

The point is, organizations like UNC have every reason to want to control the message, as much as possible. The PR industry has enabled them to do that more effectively than ever before—and the media’s inability to dig deeper makes it all the easier too. It’s not because of malice or laziness or any personal flaw—it’s the byproduct of several long-term, large-scale trends, and if we want to reverse it it’s not going to be easy.

But that’s where it stands.

And shoot, now I can’t think of a good ending for this post. Well, add your own pithy conclusion here, and I’ll accept it without question.


The Crisis Of Modern Journalism (Part I)

Three things happened in Chapel Hill last week: University Mall announced that Silverspot Cinemas would be replacing Dillard’s; UNC named Joel Curran the new vice chancellor for communications and public affairs; and it actually snowed for a little while.

Here’s my thesis: all three are connected to a single development—a rather disturbing one—that’s plaguing modern journalism. Read on…

If you’ve ever been to our on-air studio at WCHL, you know it’s a pretty small room, with no view of the outside world, in a building set far away from any actual street.

How do we report on traffic?

Truth is, when I’m on the air, there’s no earthly way for me to know firsthand what’s happening on I-40—or, heck, Weaver Dairy for that matter. Occasionally we send someone out to drive around and report back in, if there’s a flood or a snowstorm or something serious. But those are special days. Beyond that, we have to rely on reports we get from other people: Triangle Traffic on Twitter, for instance, or listeners like you. (That’s why we’re always so insistent about asking for “Road Warriors.”)

Same goes for weather, to a point. It snowed a little bit last week, right in the middle of our afternoon newscast—but where was it snowing, and when? We’d gotten the general Orange County forecast from the National Weather Service, and we were monitoring radar throughout—but when the system came through and it started alternating between rain and snow, we had to rely on firsthand reports from listeners (“snow warriors,” as Rachel Nash put it) to tell us where, specifically, it was snowing at a given moment. (Especially when the radar kept insisting there was nothing but rain.)

I mention this because it’s a good illustration of how journalism works in general, for better or worse. All the events we cover take place outside the newsroom, and those who report the news are almost never the ones who make the news—journalistic ethics, you know—so there’s always an extent to which we’re relying on other people to tell us what’s going on.

That’s always been true.

But nowadays it’s compounded by several potentially disturbing trends.

Especially now in the Internet age, people feel increasingly entitled to get their news for free—which makes it harder for news outlets to generate revenue, which leads in turn to staff cuts. (The recession certainly didn’t help.) Newspapers have been hardest hit by this—especially since they always relied on charging consumers directly, as TV and radio never did—but it’s affected every medium, and news outlets everywhere now make do with the bare minimum in staff. (Our news department’s been lucky—we haven’t had to deal much with staff cuts—but we’ve always operated with a pretty small staff to begin with.)

Several consequences. First: a newsroom with a bare-bones staff becomes even less able to go out and cover newsworthy events firsthand. (We encounter this sometimes at WCHL—on nights when, say, the Central West steering committee is meeting at the same time as a Rosemary Imagined event.)  But second, and even more important: a newsroom that reduces itself to a bare-bones staff loses its ability to engage in investigative journalism. Investigative reporting is an endeavor that requires time and resources and manpower; in the absence of all three, it becomes impossible.

Both of those consequences amount to the same thing: even more than ever before, news departments have to rely on what they’re told—often without digging deeper or probing further.

The existence of Twitter actually compounds this too, because it means that newsworthy events get reported instantaneously—which reduces the amount of time a newsroom has to put together a story. Forget hard-boiled investigation—at that speed, even basic fact-checking goes out the window. Which is how CNN could mistakenly report that the Supreme Court had struck down the Affordable Care Act, when in fact they’d upheld it—or how news outlets across the country could blithely retweet the mistake, since they’d heard it from a ‘credible source’ like CNN. It’s also how a TV station in California could end up falling for a prank and reporting that the pilot in July’s Asiana Airlines crash was named “Sum Ting Wong.” (In that case the station actually did do some fact-checking: they called the National Transportation Safety Board, where the name was confirmed by an intern who wasn’t really paying attention.) It’s true that news outlets get criticized for rushing on-air with “information” that turns out to be false—but at least the critics will keep tuning in. If you don’t rush on the air with something, people will simply stop listening to you.

All of which adds up to the same thing: forced to operate with a bare-bones staff, under increasingly tight time constraints, news departments are less and less capable of doing the deep digging on their own. More and more, they have to depend on what they’re told. (This is partly why CNN, for instance, is relying more on “I-reporters,” regular folks who send in videos of events. It also explains the rise of “churnalism,” news stories that are either partly or entirely cut-and-pasted from some organization’s press release.)

That’s trend number one.

But trend number two makes it even worse…

Part II to follow tomorrow. Stay tuned.


Rep: Dillard’s Will Remain Clearance Store In “Immediate Future”

CHAPEL HILL – Dillard’s in University Mall will remain a clearance store in the “immediate future,” according to a representative from the company.

Julie Bull, Director of Investor Relations at Dillard’s, said that the store will remain in “full clearance mode” and that a timeline has not been set for any further changes. Bull said that 18 of the approximately 300 Dillard’s stores in the United States are clearance centers.

A source told WCHL News last Wednesday that Dillard’s was leaving University Mall and that negotiations were underway with a non-retail store to replace it.

A cashier of the store told WCHL’s Aaron Keck Thursday that Dillard’s is likely closing in a few months. She said she also had heard conflicting reports.

Currently Dillard’s is the only department store in Chapel Hill providing a sizable source of sales tax. It’s also one of the few places to buy clothing. Other stores include Roses and Julian’s, among others.

There was a proposal to relocate the Chapel Hill Public Library to the store’s location, until Town staff recalculated and found it would have been more costly than they originally thought.

UMall General Manager Peter De Leon said that he could not comment on the matter at this time, though last week he said the store would remain in the shopping center.


UMall Says Dillard’s Is Not Leaving, Sources Say Yes

CHAPEL HILL –  Peter De Leon, General Manager of University Mall, said Thursday that Dillard’s is not leaving the shopping center.

“We have also heard the rumor that Dillard’s is leaving Chapel Hill. We reached out to Julie Bull, who is in charge of Media and Investor Relations at Dillard’s,” De Leon said. “In speaking with Ms. Bull, she stated to us that she has not been given that information that they are closing.”

De Leon said he was told that the Dillard’s is being converted into a clearance center, which has been done to 19 other stores in the chain.

“Dillard’s, because they converted and it was fairly short notice to the store managers, I’m sure that fueled a lot it [rumors],”  De Leon said. “But, at this point we have to respect what Dillard’s is telling us.”

A source told WCHL News Wednesday that Dillard’s was leaving University Mall and that negotiations were underway with a non-retail store to replace it.

A cashier of the store told WCHL’s Aaron Keck Thursday that Dillard’s is likely closing in a few months. She said she too has been hearing conflicting reports.

Currently Dillard’s is the only department store in Chapel Hill providing a sizable source of sales tax. It’s also one of the few places to buy clothing. Other stores include Roses and Julian’s, among others.

There was a proposal to relocate the Chapel Hill Public Library to the store’s location, until Town staff recalculated and found it would have been more costly than they originally thought.


Source: Dillard’s To Leave University Mall

CHAPEL HILL – A source tells WCHL that Dillard’s is leaving University Mall.

We also understand UMall is in negotiations with a non-retail store to replace it.

Currently Dillard’s is the only department store in Chapel Hill providing a sizable source of sales tax. It’s also one of the few places to buy clothing. Other stores include Roses and Julian’s, among others.

There was a proposal to relocate the Chapel Hill Public Library there, until Town staff recalculated and found it would have been more costly than they originally thought.

A Umall spokeswoman denied the claim and General Manager Peter De Leon has not returned phone calls.


My Discontent with Dillard's

The Chapelboro community is a demographic dream: lots of highly educated people, many of them with disposal income.  Let’s not forget those shopping students either.  Why then, I wondered, is our only department store so dowdy?  

I had a few conversations about this back when there was discussion about the Chapel Hill Public Library moving into the Dillard’s spot in University Mall.  That went away and so did the conversations.  

Many months later I heard a local business owner express frustration with having to drive to Southpoint to get to a nice department store.  Her frustration reminded me of my own dissatisfaction with our Dillard’s.  I have seen other Dillard’s stores and many are quite pleasant.  I’m not suggesting they’re as lovely as the Botanical Gardens, mind you, but Dillard’s clearly does know how to run a store that can offer a positive shopping experience.  

Now I know the benefit of buying from our local shops and I try but there are times a department store has just what’s needed and I’m glad we have one.  I have to believe spending money in my home town is more beneficial than spending it elsewhere.  

I called Dillard’s corporate headquarters in Arkansas and spoke with Director of Investor Relations Julie Bull, who also handles general media calls.  I must give her credit as she kept a good humor while I laid out my aversion to our local Dillard’s.  I listed the crammed and crowded sales floor, the lack of a good selection and even the poor lighting.  I talked about the tables piled high, the jammed circular racks and the small range of choices therein. 

She looked at what she could easily find out about the store, mentioned it was small and told me she’d talk to some people in Dillard’s real estate department and get back to me.  When we did speak again, several days later, Bull had still not heard back from her colleagues regarding the Chapel Hill store.  I explained that it was beyond time for me to post this column and she said she’d continue to follow up and would get back to me when she’d received more information.  I promise it will appear in a future $avvy $pender column when she does. 

This led me to someone else who may have some insight: University Mall General Manager Peter de Leon.  De Leon told me he knows the local store is among the smallest in the Dillard’s chain and resources may not be there for one that small.  Overall, he said, “We’d like to continue the relationship and we’d like them to do well”.

So would I and that’s why I called the corporate office in the first place.  If the store doesn’t do well, we may lose our only department store.  I say keeping it healthy means cleaning it up, dressing it up and adding some style!

Agree?  Disagree?  Leave your comment below or write to me at Donnabeth@Chapelboro.com.