UMall Chick-Fil-A Holds School Supply Drive

University Mall’s Chick-fil-A restaurant is hosting a school supply drive to benefit Orange County teachers and students.

The drive is in partnership with the PSF-East Chapel Hill Rotary Teacher Supply Store, and the Store is making even more of an effort to assist local teachers by offering a $75 voucher to buy supplies in store for their classrooms.

In the recent history of state legislative budget cuts, North Carolina public education has taken one of the hardest hits. The General Assembly is currently working out an 11 percent pay-raise of teachers, as North Carolina holds one of the lowest rankings of teacher pay in the country.

“Our Chick-fil-A team is honored to help collect school supplies for the Teacher Supply Store,” said Sammy Culberson, franchise Operator of the Chick-fil-A at University Mall in Chapel Hill in a statement. “We encourage the community to come out and help local teachers and students start the school year poised for success.”

Donations can be dropped off in the restaurant during the mall’s open hours from Saturday, August 2 to Saturday, August 16.

Items requested by the Store include: Pencils (no.2), colored pencils, glue sticks, markers (fine line and broad tip), Sharpies (fine and ultra fine), highlighters, index cards (ruled and unruled), Post-It Notes, Scotch tape, composition book and construction paper.

For each guest that brings three items, Chick-fil-A is offering a complimentary Grilled Chicken Sandwich.

http://chapelboro.com/news/pre-k-12-education/umall-chick-fil-holds-school-supply-drive/

Hot Diggity Days Event at University Mall

Ron Stutts with some of the ladies from Elevate

Ron Stutts with some of the ladies from Elevate

WCHL kicked off Hot Diggity Days at University Mall on Friday with a live remote.

Hot Diggity Days is UMall’s summer sidewalk sale and featured special guests like Marilyn Monroe, Illusions of the King tribute artist, Keith Henderson, and more. The event ran through Sunday.

For more information on Hot Diggity Days, click here. To see a photo gallery, click here.

 

http://chapelboro.com/lifestyle/hot-diggity-days-event-university-mall/

University Mall Adds New Tenants

The University Mall has announced three new expansions for the upcoming years: Tacos y Tequila this coming June, Planet Fitness this December, and Aveda Institute in early 2015.

Tacos y Tequila is a contemporary Mexican restaurant, serving a broad selection of south-western cuisine. Planet Fitness is a fully-staffed gym, possessing a wide variety of exercise machines and circuits for mall attendees to utilize. The Aveda Institute is a beauty and cosmetology school, complete with a spa and salon.

The General Manager at University Mall, Peter DeLeon, is excited about these new additions and the momentum the mall has carried along with the changes.

“What I want to make sure everybody remembers is that this isn’t just a few new stores. This is a continuation of what we’ve been doing,” says DeLeon. “What’s happening because of all this change, it’s creating a lot more interest in the marketplace for University Mall, and we have a lot of things in the pipeline that we’re hoping to announce sooner rather than later.”

While the mall is expanding as well as becoming more luxurious, DeLeon assures that they intend to make sure there is something at U-Mall for all patrons.

“I’d like to think we do have something for everyone,” assures DeLeon, “and where we’re going, what we want to make sure what we’re doing for the community, is making sure we have things that are relevant for them. And as we’ve been in the marketplace, these are the kinds of tenants people want.”

http://chapelboro.com/news/entertainment/university-mall-adds-new-tenants/

“Life Is A Dream” At Deep Dish: Redemption, Just In Time

Last Thursday, at my friends’ insistence, I finally saw the movie “Thor.” It’s a big-budget action spectacle, with lots of lights and noise and CGI, but the basic premise is Shakespearean: cast out of his family by the machinations of his scheming half-brother, left broken and penniless in an alien land, our brash, headstrong hero prince (read: he’s a jerk) must regain his status as favored son and heir by proving his moral worth to his aged, tough-but-kindly father.

So you’ll understand why I was feeling a bit of déjà vu the following evening, sitting in Deep Dish Theater for their production of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s “Life Is A Dream” – a classic Spanish play (often likened to Shakespeare) that follows pretty much exactly the same plot.

Eat your heart out, Joseph Campbell.

Written in 1635 during the Golden Age of Spanish literature, “Life Is A Dream” is the story of Segismundo, a prince who’s been imprisoned literally from birth by his father the king. Seems he was born under a dark cloud—the stars have decreed he’ll grow up to be a tyrant—and so for the good of the country, his father has kept him locked away, ignorant of his rightful status as heir to the throne. (Why the king doesn’t just kill him outright is never entirely explained.) But as the king grows old—and his other would-be heirs begin sparring over succession—he relents: okay, he says, we’ll take Segismundo out of his cell, reinstall him as prince, and see how he handles it. If he behaves, terrific. But if he acts like a tyrant—we’ll simply drug him, lock him back up, and tell him the whole adventure was all a dream.

Meanwhile, subplots abound: a woman named Rosaura disguises herself as a man (seriously, have I mentioned Shakespeare?) to infiltrate the kingdom and take revenge on the prince Astolfo, who’s stolen her honor; the king’s closest aide discovers her secret and realizes he’s duty-bound to her too; and meanwhile Astolfo schemes to marry his cousin, the princess Estrella, to lay claim to the throne, but he may or may not still be pining for Rosaura. It’s not easy to keep up with it all: the plot is about as complex as “Hamlet,” but while that narrative unfolds slowly over three-plus hours, Calderón crams all his plot points into an hour and 45 minutes. (“I have no idea what is going on,” I overheard one audience member say during intermission.)

But as with Shakespeare, the plot isn’t as important as the underlying philosophy. Are we free to chart the course of our own lives, or are we fated to turn out a certain way? How can we tell the difference between dream and reality? Is there a difference, really? Is life itself not just as temporary and fleeting and inscrutable as a dream? And what does that tell us about how to live our lives? The intrigues of kings and princes and spurned lovers abound—there’s even a swordfight!—but the real heart of “Life Is A Dream” is in its philosophical musings, and those are handled primarily by two characters: Segismundo himself, and Rosaura’s companion Clarin, a stereotypically wise fool reminiscent of the one in “King Lear.”

Deep Dish Life Is A Dream

Alphonse Nicholson as Segismundo and Amber Wood as Rosaura, in “Life Is A Dream.” Photo by Jonathan Young via DeepDishTheater.org.

So that’s “Life Is A Dream.”

But more importantly: how good is it?

By the time I took my seat, I was already excited about the potential. In the few minutes before the house opened, as all the playgoers milled around in the lobby, we could hear passionate shouts and the clinking of blades on the other side of the wall—just one more last-minute rehearsal, I guess, but it sounded so cool. And the set design (by Lex van Blommestein) grabs your eye as soon as you walk in: angles and windows and disheveled shelves and an ethereal backdrop that evokes mountains, oceans—attractive and forbidding and foreboding, all at once.

But the play itself takes a long time to find its footing. I still remember a production of Craig Lucas’s “Reckless” I saw in college, in which the first act was so bad I almost left at intermission but the second act was some of the best theater I’d ever seen—and I got a similar vibe from “Life Is A Dream.” It wasn’t quite that extreme this time around—the first act had its good moments, the second act had its flaws—but the difference was definitely there. The first act feels like community theater, with all that that entails: nice costumes, fine production value, and performers going through the motions of acting without really finding the emotional connection to their characters. This is not really the actors’ fault, incidentally: “Life Is A Dream” is a fine play, but some of the characters’ motivations are simply baffling, especially early on. Why, for instance, does the king choose to imprison Segismundo for life instead of simply killing him? Having chosen to imprison him, why does he then choose to give him a classical education? Having done that, why does he then choose to free him, and why does he go about it in a way that’s all but guaranteed to elicit the worst possible reaction? John Boni’s performance as Basilio the king is actually quite good (notwithstanding his New York accent), but the character himself is impossible to believe. Same goes for Amber Wood as Rosaura, Anne-Caitlin Donohue as Estrella, and Peter Battis as Clotaldo the king’s aide—all of whom deliver fine performances despite having characters who make a number of brow-furrowing life decisions.

But the second act ultimately redeems the first, and it’s all thanks to the play’s two philosophers, the wronged prince Segismundo and the wise fool Clarin—the two richest and most sympathetic characters, and (as luck or fate would have it) in Deep Dish’s production the two best acted as well. As characters, Segismundo and Clarin actually don’t figure too much in the first act—but they dominate the second, as Segismundo gets swept up in the royal intrigue and Clarin is left alone with his thoughts. And what thoughts! As Clarin, David Hudson is simultaneously hilarious and insightful and touching and tragic; unburdened by all the mounting plot points, he’s free to deliver a memorable performance.

But it’s Alphonse Nicholson’s dazzling turn as Segismundo that truly makes “Life Is A Dream” worthwhile. Sticking with the Shakespeare theme, Segismundo’s journey is a bit like Ophelia’s in reverse: he starts the play half-mad, muttering wild things to himself while life goes on around him, and the plot turns on his gradually reconnecting with sanity and society. It’s a tough part to play, and Nicholson nails it. Intense, fierce, passionate and sympathetic, he commands the stage from the moment the spotlight first falls on him—and it’s his intensity, plus Hudson’s, that finally win over the audience in the end, though it takes a while to get there. During intermission, I overheard an audience member in my row cracking jokes about the play; by the end, I heard the same person gasping (with real emotion) during Segismundo’s final speech. I felt roughly the same way.

(It’s also worth noting, as a side point, that Nicholson is the only black actor in the cast—including Boni, who plays his father. This passes without comment in the play itself—and it’s obvious from the get-go that Nicholson was simply the best actor for the part—but casting a black actor in that role also adds an additional dimension to a story about a man who begins his life in bondage, is freed in a callous and capricious manner by a king who doesn’t particularly care whether he succeeds, is cast back into bondage and is forced to regain his freedom all over again. But the play is seventeenth-century Spanish, not twentieth-century American—so the audience is left to ruminate on that for itself.)

In the end, if “Life Is A Dream” doesn’t quite reach the heights of Deep Dish’s last production, the quietly stunning “Arcadia,” it’s still worthwhile (stick around, it’ll win you over) on the strength of Nicholson’s performance as Segismundo—who never quite reaches a conclusion on whether life really is a dream, but resolves to make the best of it nonetheless. How that’s to be defined is up to you.

“Life Is A Dream” runs through May 31 at Deep Dish Theater in University Mall.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/life-dream-deep-dish-redemption-just-time/

Who’s Really Unhappy About Roses Closing Shop at UMall? Seniors

There’s one group of Chapel Hill residents that is particularly unhappy about Roses leaving University Mall in June: Senior citizens.

WCHL talked to some senior shoppers at the University Mall store one afternoon this week, and here’s what some of them had to say.

Lula Alston is a retired senior who lives in Chapel Hill.

“I hate it,” she said. “It’s really the only store in town that you can just go in and lounge around. And you can almost find everything you need.”

For Alston, those immediate needs include clothing, household items, and even food. When asked where she will shop after Roses goes away, she had this to say:

“I have no idea right now.”

Another Chapel Hill retiree, Josephine Cundari, takes the bus to the University Mall Roses twice a week.

“It’s bad. Bad news. People shop there. And then they have the senior discounts on Wednesdays. That helps, too. It’s a shame.”

The discount retailer has operated a store at that location since 1973. Roses is owned by Henderson-based Variety Wholesalers, which owns more than 400 discount stores throughout the southeast.

Variety Wholesalers is owned by the family of Art Pope, the budget director for North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory.

Earlier this week, Wilson Sawyer of Variety Wholesalers told WCHL that the store is closing due to a rent increase, as well as plans by University Mall to downsize the store.

University Mall is owned and operated by Madison Marquette of Washington, DC. In an email to WCHL, Robyn H. Marano of Madison Marquette declined to comment about a rent increase.

She said that the departure of Roses opens “an opportunity to enhance retail, dining and entertainment” at the mall.

Marano said an announcement about new tenants should be coming over the next few months.

http://chapelboro.com/news/news-around-time/whos-really-unhappy-roses-closing-shop-umall-seniors/

Order Amidst Chaos, Or Vice Versa: “Arcadia” At Deep Dish

Sitting in the Deep Dish Theater on Friday, waiting for the start of “Arcadia,” I overheard a woman in the row in front of me.

“I looked up ‘Arcadia’ on Wikipedia before we came,” she said to her companion. “And thank God I did, because I probably wouldn’t have a clue what was going on otherwise.”

So it goes with “Arcadia,” Tom Stoppard’s sweeping, breathtaking magnum opus about knowledge, science, history and fate, now playing at the Deep Dish through March 22. Expertly directed by Paul Frellick (DD’s artistic director) and beautifully acted by a cast of twelve, it’s an absolute must-see—but your brain better come ready to work overtime.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on “Arcadia,” incidentally.

To understand “Arcadia,” start with Tom Stoppard. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1938, he fled the Nazis with his family and traveled to Singapore, Australia, India, and finally England—picking up a world of perspective and insight along the way. His plays—“The Real Inspector Hound,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the screenplay for “Shakespeare In Love”—are ruminations on the human condition, the nature of art, the certainty/uncertainty of knowledge, and the thin line separating reality from theater. (Are those four things all one and the same?)

And “Arcadia” is his masterwork. Set in a single room in Sidley Park, an English aristocratic estate, the play jumps back and forth in time between the present day—where three scholars are trying to unravel a historical mystery tangentially involving the poet Lord Byron—and the early 1800s, where we see the events play out as they happened. (Byron himself never appears: turns out he’s not as important to the plot as the modern-day scholars think he is.)

What’s happening? Well, in 1809, we follow a teenage girl, Thomasina Coverly (Nicole Gabriel), and her tutor, Septimus Hodge (Ryan Brock). Thomasina is a genius: like any teenager, she’s curious about “carnal embrace,” but she’s also about to discover the second law of thermodynamics decades before its time. What is the second law of thermodynamics? Entropy, the inescapable process by which things irreversibly break down. What is done cannot be undone, and order necessarily decays into chaos (this is paralleled by Sidley Park’s garden, which—off-stage—is being remodeled from its Enlightenment-era neat geometry into a rough, naturalistic, Romantic-era wildness). Eventually the pair realize the ultimate implication of Thomasina’s discovery: all the stars will flicker out and the universe will settle into a lifeless equilibrium. “We’re doomed,” says Septimus.

Meanwhile, in the present day, two scholars, the hilariously pompous Bernard Nightingale (Eric Carl) and the no-nonsense Hannah Jarvis (Dorothy Recasner Brown), join forces—reluctantly, as they dislike each other—to investigate Sidley Park’s documents in order to determine whether Lord Byron killed a fellow poet in a duel. Red herrings lead them astray—Hannah, for instance, misinterprets a doodle of Thomasina’s, and Bernard wrongly assumes that Byron wrote an essay that we know was written by Septimus—but gradually, very gradually, the truth (or most of it) comes out.

Also, romantic entanglements abound. By the end of the play, Septimus has been involved or nearly involved with three different people (one of them never seen); Bernard, Hannah and Thomasina have each been involved or nearly involved with two. And there are nine other characters I haven’t even mentioned yet. There’s a lot going on here.

ARCADIA

Eric Carl is Bernard Nightingale and Dorothy Recasner Brown is Hannah Jarvis. (Photo via DeepDishTheater.org.)

Deep Dish’s production of “Arcadia” is tremendous. The set is deceptively simple—a large table, a few chairs, three doors and some windows, that’s all, but you feel the presence of the house, the gardens, the estate, the swirl of life both on and off stage. The leading actors disappear into their characters—I loved Ryan Brock’s wry Septimus and Dorothy Recasner Brown’s Hannah, and Eric Carl steals the show as Bernard (Bernard delivering his paper in the second act is a tour de force)—but the rest of the cast shines as well: notable are David Godshall as the clueless poet Ezra Chater, Erika Edwards and Adam Sampieri as the brilliant modern-day siblings Chloe and Valentine, and Nicole Gabriel (a high-schooler!) as Thomasina. The relationships between these characters are very delicate—the earliest buds of a romance between Septimus and Thomasina, the love/hate romantic-professional partnership between Bernard and Hannah—and it’s all performed so smoothly that the difficulty doesn’t even register. “Arcadia” requires its actors to shift back and forth, often mid-scene, between virtually every imaginable stage of romance—while simultaneously ruminating on life, death, science, art, history, mathematics, landscape architecture, botany, poetry, and fate—and each of the twelve actors here is more than up to the task.

And then there’s the play itself. What are the themes? Start with the title. “Arcadia” is a reference to the Latin phrase “Et in Arcadia ego,” or “Even in paradise, there am I.” The “I” is death: looming over the play is not only Thomasina’s discovery about the eventual decay of the universe, but also our advance knowledge of Thomasina’s own death—coupled with the end of the Enlightenment, symbolized by the remodeled garden, plus the fact that all the events of 1809, so important to the characters then, will either be forgotten or misinterpreted by history, even when intelligent people are actively trying to piece them all together. (The recurring motif is fire. Pay attention to fire.) It’s all very pessimistic. Or is it? The chaos which violates order is romantic love, “carnal embrace.” The play ends with a dance that reaches across centuries. And while Thomasina argues that things done cannot be undone, Septimus counters that knowledge lost can be regained—a theory that’s apparently confirmed by our present-day scholars, who manage to rediscover the truth almost in spite of themselves.

All of which is to say: good Lord, this play is smart. My friend and I walked out of “Book of Mormon” last week remarking how intelligent a play that was—but “Arcadia” operates on a whole other level. It’s the most intelligent play I’ve ever seen. The best? Well, not quite. But definitely the smartest.

“Arcadia” is two and a half hours long and doesn’t waste a second. There’s a phenomenal amount of dense dialogue here; if there’s a flaw in the production at all, it’s that the actors will occasionally stumble over one or two of their hundreds of lines. (But that’s just probability theory.) The knock on Stoppard, if there is one, is that his plays appeal to the head without appealing to the heart—and yes, there’s an extent to which that’s true for “Arcadia.” Stoppard is writing at the top of his game; there are thirteen characters in the play (one actor plays a double role), and by my count, at least six are certifiable geniuses. Probably seven. Maybe eight.

So yes, it’s not an easy play. (Between the two, I found myself more emotionally moved by “Book of Mormon,” a play that actively goes out of its way not to strike an emotional chord.) But you ought to see “Arcadia,” not in spite of its difficulty but because of it. You ought to see this play because it’s brilliant, because it will make you think, because it will make you smarter for having seen it. Its very intelligence will move you.

Will that motion fade? Yes, eventually.

But man, it’s worth it in the meantime.

“Arcadia” runs at the Deep Dish Theater (in University Mall) through March 22. Visit this link for tickets.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/order-amidst-chaos-vice-versa-arcadia-deep-dish/

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.

Why?

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.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/crisis-modern-journalism-part-ii/

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.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/the-crisis-of-modern-journalism-part-i/

Town Leaders Talk Possible Transformation Along Fordham Blvd.

CHAPEL HILL – Change is in store for University Mall with a new movie theater coming in 2015, and some town leaders hope more change will happen just down Fordham Blvd.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt has made it clear that he wants to move forward with plans to transform the area around the Ephesus-Fordham Boulevard intersection.

With Tuesday’s news that the Dillard’s in University Mall will close its doors and a 13-screen luxury movie theater will open in its place, Kleinschmidt said now is the time to embrace change which he believes is necessary in both areas along Fordham Blvd.

 

“I think for one thing, the announcement [Tuesday] will remind folks that we are serious about working to enhance our commercial tax base and providing high quality retail,” Kleinschmidt said. ”If we can help people understand that then we can move forward with Ephesus Church and Fordham.”

As part of a greater redevelopment plan for UMall, four new boutiques, a sporting goods store, and a restaurant have already or soon will be moving in. The shopping center’s Harris Teeter is undergoing a $9 million renovation.

Kleinschmidt said he hopes that the momentum which has pushed the transformation for UMall helps to push plans forward for the Ephesus-Fordham Focus Area—which is the space surrounding Ram’s Plaza near the intersection of Ephesus Church Road and Fordham Boulevard from South Elliott Road to the Chapel Hill Memorial Cemetery.

The Chapel Hill Mayor has said in the past that the area is hard to navigate and “dysfunctional.”

“A lot of what we have going on works, but a lot of what we have going on in that district isn’t working,” Kleinschmidt said. “We can’t just sit back. Lesser communities would just sit back and say, ‘Well some of it is working so we’re done.’ This isn’t that kind of community. We can do better.”

Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill’s economic development officer, said that he and town staff are currently working to rezone the area.

In order to do this, using form-based code has been suggested. It’s a new planning tool that supporters, like Kleinschmidt, have said will make the development process more predictable. Opponents worry that it will move the approval process out of the public’s view. The plan to create a form-based code is still in its early stages, with no action from the council planned until next spring.

Bassett said that the redevelopment of the Ephesus-Fordham Focus Area would complement the changes coming to UMall and revitalize the look of the area considered a gateway into Chapel Hill.

“There are numerous developers less than a half-a-mile away willing to invest in office residential, retail and hospitality uses, and that certainly adds to this center by providing additional market opportunities,” Bassett said.

The Ephesus-Fordham Focus Area is one component of the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan that seeks to set a vision for the Town’s growth.

http://chapelboro.com/news/development/town-leaders-talk-possible-transformation-along-fordham-blvd/

Becoming University Mall

(Being Part 2 in a two-part series about University Mall.)

So it turned out to be a movie theater after all. Good.

In case you missed it: University Mall announced Tuesday that Dillard’s will be leaving—ooh, sorry, hope you were sitting down for that one—and they’ll be replacing it with Silverspot Cinemas, a 13-screen luxury multiplex that comes with leather seats, a well-stocked bar, a fine restaurant (here’s their menu), and selections ranging from “Bad Grandpa” to the Bolshoi Ballet. (Here’s hoping that selection also includes Rifftrax Live.)

Silverspot Cinema

Everybody’s excited about it—the mayor, the business community, U-Mall staff, Chapel Hillians in general. (Heck, they even brought Rameses and four UNC cheerleaders to the press conference, so you know this is something something.) Personally I try not to get too excited about anything in advance, before we know exactly what it’s going to entail. This will have consequences. The Chelsea Theater in Timberlyne might be in real trouble, for one thing. Less worry for Deep Dish, but that bears watching too. (Movie theaters and live theaters aren’t really competitors, even if they’re right next door, but that may change if said movie theater starts putting live performances up on screen.) And Silverspot’s ticket prices are higher—sixteen bucks each—so it remains to be seen whether Chapel Hillians will go for that anyway. (Though it apparently works in Naples, Florida.)

So let’s get all that on the table too. But even so, I still say this is a good move—for Chapel Hill, sure, but also for University Mall. Especially for University Mall.

This is where they ought to be heading. In many ways, this is what they already are.

I don’t know about you, but all my happy memories of University Mall seem to be arts-related. I remember the first time I walked in the place, how surprised I was at all the galleries. I remember walking through the mall during Scrapel Hill, admiring all those ingenious pieces. I remember the first time I saw “Baltimore Waltz” at Deep Dish last year—and the second, when I dragged my friend a week later. I remember stopping by U-Mall as a reporter to cover any one of the number of times they stepped in to provide space for some displaced business or agency—the library, Orange County Gymnastics, the Red Hen, the post-flood assistance center, now Kidzu. (Plus half of University Square.) I remember many a night on that center stage back in 2010-2011, playing moderator for WCHL’s Quiz Bowls. (Highlight: stumping eight Town employees in 2011 by asking them to name two of the three people running for mayor.)

What are they calling it? “Reimagine University Mall”?

There’s no “reimagine” about it. This is University Mall becoming what we were already imagining it to be.

UMall Blog 5

One non-arts-related memory I can’t not mention: I also remember showing U-Mall off to my parents when they came down from Michigan to visit—and we couldn’t find parking downtown. (This was during 140 West construction, so yes, yes, the parking situation has gotten better since then.) It worked out okay—my parents loved Southern Season. And Spice Street, as it happened.

And a good thing too. The history of malls in America is pretty simple: the first wave of indoor malls opened in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s; later came a second wave of larger, multi-floor, more upscale megamalls that ran the first wave largely out of business. (Nowadays even those second-wave malls are struggling; the really successful ones tend to be the most upscale. Score one for income disparity.) We’ve seen this play out in Durham/Chapel Hill: Northgate opened in 1960 and put up a roof in 1973, University Mall opened in 1973 and South Square opened in 1975—then along came Southpoint in 2002. Bye-bye South Square. Northgate hung on okay, but there’s not much vibrancy in it anymore. And University Mall’s in that same group. By all rights, according to all the trends, it really should be struggling too. (Heck, how many times have we heard the line about U-Mall, that it’s a nice place but nobody buys anything there?)

And yet…

I walk into University Mall and I sense vibrancy. I sense a place that’s bucking the trend. What’s different about U-Mall? What does U-Mall have that South Square didn’t and Northgate doesn’t? It’s the arts. It’s culture. It’s that commitment to remaking itself as a cultural center rather than merely a shopping center. That line, “nobody buys anything there,” doesn’t refer to U-Mall, not really. It refers to Dillard’s. And Dillard’s—we love you, but you’re not the U-Mall. Scrapel Hill is the U-Mall. Deep Dish is the U-Mall. The Farmer’s Market is the U-Mall. Southern Season’s cooking school is the U-Mall. That’s where U-Mall gets its lifeblood. Even Try Sports, big and cool as it is, feels like the icing rather than the cake.

A cautionary tale. Earlier this summer, I was at a family reunion in Houghton, Michigan, way way up in the Upper Peninsula. In Houghton is the Copper Country Mall, opened 1981, about the size of U-Mall. It used to do great. It had two department stores, a K-Mart, a sporting goods store and a 5-screen movie theater all in one. Then Walmart opened just down the road, and that was that. I went in there this year—first time in a decade—to find JC Penney still hanging on and the movie theater and the sporting goods store still open, and that was literally about it. There were two craft shops, a consignment store, a GNC, and a recruitment center for the local community college. Everything else, everything else, was empty storefronts. (You can read all about it on a website called DeadMalls.com.)

I recognized it instantly.

“God,” I said to a friend afterwards. “This is what University Mall would be if you took all the arts and culture away.”

But—they’re not taking the arts and culture away.

Instead, with this latest move, they’re doubling down on it. Good. Yes.

Will Silverspot succeed? Will it thrive? Will it find a place in Chapel Hill’s entertainment community without threatening its potential competitors? The Chelsea? The Lumina?

I don’t know yet. We’ll find out in 2015 or so.

But it’s the right move, absolutely the right move, for University Mall—a destination for culture as well as commerce…a shopping center I remember not for what I buy there but for what I experience…a special and unique place that just got specialer and uniquer.

So bring it on, Silverspot. Let’s see those sixteen-dollar seats.

http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/becoming-university-mall/