Gazette Editorial Begs Paul Ryan: Call Me Maybe?

 

There’s an editorial at the Janesville Gazette, hometown of Paul Ryan, complaining that Ryan won’t hold a town hall:

 

Paul Ryan, your constituents have waited long enough.

It’s time for a town hall, even if it’s only the telephone kind. Something. Anything to show your constituents that you—not only your staff—are hearing their concerns.

See, Our Views: Detached from his district @ Janesville Gazette (subscription req’d).

Ryan has ignored the Gazette more than once:

Your spokesman, Ian Martorana, told us you planned to hold a telephone town hall in March, but that never happened. Now he says you’re looking to schedule one in the “next three to four weeks but potentially sooner.”

Desperate for a reply, the Gazette – a paper that not long ago counted itself among community ‘movers and shakers‘, is now begging for anything, even a telephone town hall that the paper admits would be a dodge:

If the town hall isn’t for you, the telephone version works well because you can control who’s talking and when. Sure, it’s a dodge, it’s not as good as hearing from your constituents face-to-face, but it’s better than nothing.

Ryan’s in the presidential line of succession immediately after the vice president, but he won’t show up in person in his own district, and the Gazette is so lacking in influence with him that he simply ignores the paper.

They’re down to a bit of pleading:

Call Me, Maybe?

Margaret Sullivan on Great Local Reporting

Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist observes that Great local reporting stands between you and wrongdoing. (Sullivan was formerly The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of her hometown paper, The Buffalo News.)

Sullivan explains what great local reporting means:

“In only 15 years, American newspaper companies slashed their workforces by more than half — from 412,000 employees in 2001 to 174,000 last year.

But that troubling trend wasn’t on the minds of journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail last year as they dug deep into the prescription-drug epidemic that was inflicting mortal wounds on their community.

No, what motivated them was the West Virginia paper’s unofficial motto: “Sustained outrage.”

That phrase, coined by former publisher Ned Chilton, “means a lot to people here,” executive editor Robert Byers told me last week, shortly after the 37,000-circulation paper won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The family-owned paper (Chilton’s daughter is the publisher now) has a newsroom staff of about 50.

“You can do a hundred stories” on the opioid crisis, Byers said, “but we wanted to know where all these drugs were coming from, and how could so many pills be diverted onto the street.”

Needless to say, not all communities have newspapers like this. On the contrary, in the Whitewater area, we have papers so weak that they’d never come close to a serious journalistic nomination, let alone a real award. Many of them give each other prizes at local press gatherings, for third-tier work, on a participation-trophy theory of life. Indeed, the local climate is so weak that a small-town politician can brand his own website a news source, cover for years the political projects in which he’s been directly involved, and expect to be taken seriously for it.

If  one can say of the admirable Charleston Gazette-Mail that its unofficial motto is sustained outrage, one can say as easily of the Gazette, Daily Union, Register, and Banner that they might as well have a common, unofficial motto of sustained boosterism.

This local problem has been part of That Which Paved the Way to the weaker economic, fiscal, and social conditions that plague nearby communities. The way out will not come neither from more of the same ideas nor the same people pushing the same ideas.

That Which Paved the Way

Adam Khan, writing at @Khanoisseur, has an answer for why Trump was able to prevail, despite myriad political & personal failings. Khan’s answer explains part of Trump’s success (and on the national front, I think he’s chiefly right):

Locally, however, in places like Whitewater there never was much investigative journalism, and newspapers became incurious boosters of small-town notables long before the Great Recession.

There’s something sad about local groups that believe (or at least pretend with apparent conviction) that adopting Babbitt‘s boosterism is a ‘visionary’ development. It’s an imaginative result only if one looks ahead believes that grandiose claims, dodgy data, an anti-market outlook, and nativist policies could possibly represent a hopeful future.

More than a few town notables in places like Whitewater paved the way for Trumpism. They made this possible. See, along these lines, The National-Local Mix (Part 2). Those of us in an implacable resistance have much work hard work, and likely many hard losses, before we prevail in opposition.

When we do, Trump will go, and Trumpism with him. More than that, however: the causes of Trumpism in places like Whitewater will go, too.

About eighteen months ago, thinking only of these earlier causes, I wrote in reply to a prominent social & political figure in town, predicting that ‘not one of those practices will endure to this city’s next generation.’

Whether she believed this, I don’t know, and candidly it matters not at all what either of us believes.

The prediction will prove true nonetheless.

Sunshine Week in Wisconsin

Sunshine Week: a project of the American Society of News Editors and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The USA Today Network of Gannett papers in Wisconsin (including the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) asks How open is your government? Tell us:

They’re entrusted with important responsibilities to keep people safe, educate kids, maintain roads and enforce rules fairly. Taxpayers fund their salaries. But just how public are public officials?

That’s what we want to know.

As part of Sunshine Week — a celebration in March commemorating the public’s right to government records and proceedings — USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin is looking for people in central Wisconsin to share their experiences with accessing government information.

Maybe you’ve tussled for records or information from city hall, a state agency or the federal government.

Or maybe you have a positive story — an experience with a government official who helped you connect to information or otherwise demonstrated the virtues of transparency in government.

Whatever the case, we’d like to know.

To share your story, contact reporter Jonathan Anderson at 715-898-7010 or jonathan.anderson@gannettwisconsin.com. You can also find him on Twitter at @jonathanderson.

Tales from Mid-Sized Newspapers

Over at Digiday, Lucia Moses relates a young reporter’s experiences at a mid-sized Gannett newspaper in ‘I’m doing three beats right now’: Confessions of a millennial newspaper reporter. (Moses is describing someone else’s work life, not her own.) It’s not an encouraging tale:

Give a specific.
We have, like, one copy editor looking at more than one newspaper per shift. And that copy editor has duties outside copy editing, like laying out the pages. Mistakes get through, and that erodes the credibility of the paper. It’s one of the ironies because the newspapers are focused on growing an audience, but you’re losing that when you make mistakes. There’s that term, feeding the beast. You have to put out a print newspaper every day. I’ve seen reporters leave and companies be very slow or unable to replace them. I’m doing three beats right now. I’m barely scratching the surface on these. It’s an injustice to readers….

Sounds demoralizing. Do you think you’ll stay in journalism?
I don’t know. If you asked me that two years ago I would have said definitely. Now I’m more open to other things. Most of the reporters I know get into journalism because they want to make a positive change. Especially the print reporters. So I would hope if I do leave journalism to find something in a nonprofit.

One shouldn’t take any pleasure in this: publishers have diluted their product, driving readers away, leading to further dilution. Much of what’s offered is a thin gruel now: one could almost consume it with a straw.

Some national papers will find a new footing (in digital) in opposition to Trump; mid-size papers probably won’t have that chance.

Local papers have even fewer resources than a mid-sized Gannett publication. Their prospects are worse than what’s described above.

Tumulty Finds Sycophancy’s Hard to Shake

Trump Press Sec. Spicer gave a dishonest statement about crowd size on Saturday (“White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds“), and spent a bit over an hour in a dishonest and maudlin press conference on Monday (“This time Sean Spicer smiles, spins, pledges not to lie“).

It was a first conventional press conference of ordinary length, an average number of questions, and no particular specificity.

For it all, Karen Tumulty finds sycophancy hard to shake. Despite her colleague Margaret Sullivan’s warning that The traditional way of reporting on a president is dead. And Trump’s press secretary killed it, Tumulty pushed a string of fawning tweets & retweets(from 1:09 PM – 23 Jan 2017 to 2:07 PM – 23 Jan 2017) during Spicer’s press conference:

@PressSec doing a solid, professional job. #reboot

“Knowing what we know now, we can tell WMATA’s numbers were different.” — @presssec”I’m going to stay here as long as you want. … I want to make sure that we have a healthy relationship.” — @PressSec

Jim Sciutto @jimsciutto
It’s official: @PressSec now says WH does not claim Trump’s inaugural crowd was largest ever

Marathon White House briefing. #penance #reboot

Jon Ralston @RalstonReports
All press secretaries evade and spin. By standards set through the years, Spicer is doing very well, I’d say. And calling on a lot of folks.

Mike Memoli @mikememoli
.@PressSec can’t leave without taking a question from Goyal

.@jaketapper: “Let’s hope that this @seanspicer stays with us.”

.@GloriaBorger: “We got some serious information out of Sean today.”

Why so quick to praise after the offenses of Saturday’s press statement, and during a still-dodgy Monday effort? (Spicer claimed during this Monday press conference an entitlement that ‘sometimes we can disagree with the facts,’ suggesting that either he’s still cynical over facts or, at a minimum, too inarticulate to say that sometimes we can disagree over which claims are facts.’ Either way, that’s a poor performance, not a ‘solid, professional job’).

It’s possible that Tumulty’s not up to the task, or that she’s been given the task of obsequious reporter so that her newspaper can soften the blow from other colleagues’ serious questions. (Even this second option doesn’t offer much for Tumulty: it’s like arguing that she’s supposed to be bad, or that she’s so bad she’s good.)

No, Karen Tumulty offers no worthy path forward; it’s Margaret Sullivan who has the sound approach to Trump, his administration, and surrogates.

Trump Will Force Choices the Local Press is Too Weak to Make

A sound critique of the national print press says that it has a limited time left. See, concerning the work of Clay Shirky, A Prediction of Print’s ‘Fast, Slow, Fast’ Decline. Market forces will also take their toll on the local print press, and even now local papers are useful only for The Last Inside Accounts (rather than inquisitive reporting).

(I’ll share a funny story from a local school board meeting touching on this topic. Some months ago, during a discussion of points the district wanted to make sure were in print, a school board member saw a local stringer in the audience, and called out to him, ‘did you get that?’ Locally, whether in print or online, most local publishing is publishing-as-stenography. Significantly, local reporting in this area is access journalism, designed to give officeholders an unquestioned say in exchange for an interview.)

The national press will not be able to carry on this way, to the extent they did, as Trump is an existential threat to the free exercise of their work. Margaret Sullivan’s right: The traditional way of reporting on a president is dead. And Trump’s press secretary killed it. (Credit where credit is due: Trump, himself, made access journalism unsound in a free society before Sean Spicer ever took the podium.)

It’s possible – one hopes – that through digital publications the national press will find new life in a battle for solid reporting in opposition to an authoritarian administration. (I subscribe to quite a few solid digital publications, and am always on the hunt for more. One can and should criticize weak publications and while firmly supporting inquisitive ones.)

But there’s a local angle in all this: the local press is weak & dysfunctional, living in fear of both dissatisfied advertisers and aging, give-me-happy-news readers. They’re to timid to take a firm stand on Trump, for or against.

On the biggest national (and international) story of our time, the local press is too timid to say much at all. It’s head down, eyes averted, for them.

That makes their work this year even less significant than it was last year. They were already stumbling about, but Trump’s rise demands someone who can walk, determinedly, in a particular direction. They can’t do that.

Trump didn’t set out to make the local press even less significant, of course, and yet, he’s done just that. Those who’ve bet on hyper-local have made a bad bet. (Local affairs through application of national standards was always a more sound approach.) Trump divides all America in ways that force stark choices, and an anemic local press lacks the vigor, let alone the courage, to address the fundamental topics of our time.

What About the Local Press?

A reader wrote to ask what I thought of the outlook for the local press in 2017. I’d say that there will be no big changes in the year ahead: slowly declining last year, slowly declining this year. I’m supportive of media analyst Clay Shirky’s perspective. Although he writes about the national print press, his assessment of print generally is sound: that we’ve seen a period of sharp decline, will have period of stagnation, and then see another period of sharp decline at the end of the decade (‘fast, slow, fast’).

From my perspective, the only remaining value of local print publications is to get a sense of how local insiders think. See, The Last Inside Accounts. As a matter of serious coverage of stories, there’s nothing left. Anyone who wants a fulfilling career has, or quickly will, move on from the publications in the Whitewater area. Smart employees move on as soon as they can (and the stories from local newsrooms about those left behind are filled with accounts of disappointment, dysfunction, and delusion).

Local publishers would be better off limiting their print newspapers to two days (e.g., Sunday & Wednesday) and otherwise publishing only online. Anything more (and often even that much) is ecologically unsound as a waste of paper. There’s little future from print anywhere, and none locally.

For 2017, it’s business as usual for local newspapers, where business (in the broadest sense) is bad.

Fake News Was a Local Problem Before It Was a National One

localThere’s post-election consternation about the amount of bogus news sites on social media.  This concern pairs with the worry that fact-checking from major news organizations doesn’t work well when candidates simply lie and refuse either correction or apology.

This may be a recent national development – at least on this scale – but local news for small towns has been dishonest (mostly by omission), conflicted (so much so that sometimes the same people make and write the news), or simply mediocre (where cheerleading replaces analysis) for years.

(Obvious point: this is a site of commentary, not traditional news reporting. Always has been, always will be.  There’s a difference between the two;  I’ve never had a problem seeing as much.)

I’d describe the emergence of local fake (or low-quality) news like this: (1) local print publications wrote and reasoned poorly, (2) print began to decline, (3) advertisers grew anxious, (4) these same print publications and their imitators went online, (5) publications still wrote and reasoned poorly, (6) publishers also had trouble making money online, (7) so print had fewer advertisers than ever, (8) remaining readership skewed old and down-market, (9) publishers focused on keeping the low-quality readership that they had left, (10) producing weaker  analysis but stronger cheerleading to comfort aged, complacent, or undemanding readers, (11) local digital became a mere imitation of low-quality local print journalism, (12) the local level of self-deception and confusion became so great that local politicians styled themselves as newsmen, with notebooks and voice recorders, (13) community leaders pushed wasteful, counter-productive projects with no legacy-press criticism, (14) as conditions grew worse, community leaders demanded more cheerleading, facts-be-damned, and (15) here we are, with communities facing stagnation and relative decline.

[For a discussion of whether national publications handled the transition to digital properly, consider the exchange about whether investment in digital was a good idea between Jack Shafer (What If the Newspaper Industry Made a Colossal Mistake?) and  Steve Buttry (The newspaper industry’s colossal mistake was a defensive digital strategy).  I’m with Buttry.  The newspaper industry was & has been too cautious about digital, as he describes from his experience:

The few times I heard truly creative ideas for reporting news and generating revenue in the digital marketplace, they met with huge skepticism and open resistance. The newspaper industry settled for repurposing and extending editorial content in a marketplace that demanded and rewarded visionary new products.

(Emphasis mine.)]

Poor reasoning, dodgy data, heapings of the insistence that all is well (one’s lying eyes to the contrary) make up the local fake news that small towns have consumed for years.

If one is worried (rightly) that national politicians lie with impunity, it’s fair to say that the residents of small towns across America have experienced, and some have become inured to, political lies and deceptions for many years.  The national scene is experiencing, sadly, what’s been true locally a long time.

Whitewater’s Mentoring Gap

Looking back ten years (or nine in the case of UW-Whitewater), one finds at the helm of Whitewater’s public institutions leaders who so very much embodied Old Whitewater: Steinhaus, Brunner, Coan, Telfer (beginning in ’07).  They were the perfect representatives of Old Whitewater, where Old Whitewater is an attitude, not an age: narrow, grandiose, mediocre, producing little more than self-praise and ceaseless exaggerations about sham accomplishments.  2006-2007 was the high watermark of Old Whitewater.

To these officials, it must have seemed that their outlook would continue, unquestioned and unchallenged, forever.  Newspapers were still seemingly strong and unquestionably fawning, the Banner was just beginning a servile boosterism of all things official, and together these few leaders advanced in unison a one-city, one-view, one-way perspective.

Ten years on, each one of the officials named is gone from the offices they then held, each of them having left in disappointment and failure.  (On the university side, the full measure of the mess that Richard Telfer left behind is only now spilling out.)  These failed leaders were once treated as tiny deities within the city; when I started writing in 2007, it was common to meet even educated people who spoke about them in reverent tones.

(I, in fact, do believe in God; I’ve just never felt – and never will feel – that He holds local office in Whitewater.)

There are undoubtedly a few who still cling to those now-gone officials as giants, but then there are probably a few who believe that Americans never landed on the moon, or believe against all evidence that Carrot Top really was funny.

These failed few from a decade ago may be gone, but they’ve left another problem behind: as they were poor examples, so they offered too little to subordinates by way of good mentoring.  So many of the people under the leaders of a decade ago lacked good examples of leadership.  They may have learned what not to do, perhaps, simply by watching mistake after mistake at the top.  That’s not much, though.

The truth is that today’s leadership class had few positive examples from yesterday’s leadership class.   They’ve come to office at a disadvantage.  Sometimes, there really is an evident problem with mistaking office-holding and being credentialed for insight and understanding.  The sound mentoring today’s leaders never received would have been a big help; it’s not clear that they see how much they’re missing.   (Even if they do see what they’re missing, at least a few of them don’t seem to know what to do about it.)

Whitewater still struggles with the effects of our last decade’s mistakes and poor choices.

A mentoring gap is among the ill effects today’s leaders inherited from yesterday’s leaders.

 

Revisiting Kozloff’s ‘Dark, Futile Dream’

About a year ago, I wrote a post on an off-campus meeting at which local notables and a search consultant (Jessica Kozloff) discussed a replacement for Richard Telfer. A story on that meeting, published in the Daily Union, is one of the best accounts of insiders’  thinking.  See, from that newspaper, UW-Whitewater chancellor session held, http://www.dailyunion.com/news/article_f042575e-a63a-11e4-bcd8-939679ffcc09.html.

(The Daily Union may be a mediocre paper, but it’s a clear window into town notables’ inflated views of themselves, mistaken notions of quality, and willingness to say and believe any number of tall tales about the city.  See, along these lines, The Last Inside Accounts.)

The DU story quotes Kozloff as dismissing the assertiveness of the local press, seeing that not as a problem, but as a benefit:

“One of the trends we’re finding in the search is that the role of the president is, to some degree, less attractive today because it’s everything from social media to the volatility of politics today,” she said. “All of that has sort of had an impact and made the role much more stressful, especially in a place that has a very, very negative media. However, that’s not going to be true here, so I think that’s going to help.”

Kozloff is right that the local press here is laughably weak (what she’s describing as ‘a very, very negative media’ would undoubtedly be investigative journalism and inquisitive reporting elsewhere).  Gazette, DU, and the Banner (an online imitation, if not a parody, of a newspaper) have played critical roles in supporting local authorities at almost every turn.

(For those who doubt that the Banner‘s publisher could possibly imagine himself as a journalist of sorts, there’s confirmation of those pretensions  in a Gazette story still online, in which he poses with a reporter’s notebook and a voice recorder: http://www.gazettextra.com/news/2008/jan/20/ambassador-records-community-life/.   At the time, this must have seemed almost precious to the Gazette; it would have been closer to the truth to say that it was a foretaste of where quality of inquiry was headed, in a race to the bottom among declining newspapers and their imitators.  The political-press relationship is so distorted here that one can be a candidate, and report on one’s candidacy, while describing oneself in the third-person in a childish attempt to downplay the conflict.)

Big_Fat_Red_CatWhere Kozloff’s wrong, however, is in her implication of how news actually travels in this community.  She wants to reassure her audience of notables that they needn’t worry about ‘negative’ news, but of course she’s reassuring only in the way a doctor would be reassuring when telling a morbidly obese patient that he’s fit and looks great: a few people will believe anything.

One can consider the contrast between what a few seem to think and how information actually travels.

What A Few Seem to Think.  Even now – it’s 2016 – one can find examples of officials who must think (or hope, really) that information comes from only a few sources: DU, Gazette, and Banner.  They’d also know that there’s word-of-mouth discussion, but would have less worry about it except in personal terms.  (If there’s anyone left who thinks that the Register is a meaningful source of information, well…)

How Information Actually Travels.  People read stories in the DU, Gazette, and Banner, to be sure.  (Candidly, though, the actual penetration of either the DU or Gazette into the community is almost certainly far lower than their publishers would have one believe.  That’s more true of the Gazette – sales of the paper locally or online subscriptions for Whitewater’s residents are surely small.  Doubt this?  Potential advertisers should ask for independent readership figures for Whitewater, that is, figures specific to the city.  They’ll be surprised, if they even get anything.

But there are other ways that news travels, from email, blogs, Facebook, text messages, etc.  On the blogging side, a post that mentions local policy (or responds to mention of local policy discussed elsewhere) reaches a significant audience within twenty-four to thirty-six hours of posting.  That doesn’t mean everyone in the relevant group (city, school district, whatever) sees every post, but it’s about a day to a day-and-a-half before the post reaches a critical mass, to speak.

ostrichThere are undoubtedly officials who would deny this, or at least hope it’s not true.  They are committed to a strong perimeter fence, and desperate to live as there is no discussion – or life – beyond it.  SeeThe Perimeter Fence and How a Perimeter Fence Dooms Elites Within to Impossible Tasks, Exhaustion.

Their denial has never bothered me.  In fact, it’s been a great advantage.

First, when a few carry on as though no one has heard a counter-argument, when in fact many have heard the counter-argument, those who pretend nothing in reply has been said look ridiculous.  Even a few episodes like this makes a person look absurd.  It leads to a situation part silly, part sad.

Second, I don’t think that Whitewater’s public policy differences are merely a choice between alternatives of equal quality.  What officials say about something, and what one writes in reply, is not what will carry the day: the underlying soundness of a position is what matters most.  Many of Whitewater’s policymakers evidently believe that it’s enough to sell something. No, and no again: only close alignment between one’s views and the fundamentals of policy and human nature can assure a view’s ultimate vindication.  That’s why I see blogging – or any advocacy if undertaken properly – as both Commentary & Chronicle.

Third, remaining distant from local ‘movers and shakers’ assures that one will not be influenced, biased, or compromised by personal relationships.  Most insiders in Whitewater are individually talented but – when part of a collective group – produce work below their individual abilities.   SeeWhitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).

Given the choice, I would for both principled and practical reasons never trade my aerie for one at the Gazette, Daily Union, or Banner.  Newspaper-oriented publications are on the wrong side of history.  Part of that historically disadvantageous position comes from the costs of printing, but just as much from the top-down, authority-boosting perspectives they hold.  One measures the strength of a position by considering whether one would trade it for another.  There’s no reason to trade to a weaker position.

Groups – at least political or social groups with serious concerns – wanting to advance a message in this unfolding, new environment need to create their own messages with their own media.  Relying on others’ media, when those media lack the energy or acumen to drive a serious political or social concern – is a recipe for failure.

One should do one’s own work.

The Newspaper-Caused Public Records Problem

Not far from Whitewater, Janesville’s local newspaper finds itself in an access-to-information conflict with the Janesville School District.  There’s no surprise in any of this.  (Quick note: I’m using that paper as an example because it’s close-at-hand.  One could find other examples easily enough.)

For years that paper has ridiculed citizens’ petition efforts, toadied to business insiders, pushed government spending for those same business factions, included itself in a supposedly elite group (oh, brother!) of Janesville movers-and-shakers, all-the while producing some of the weakest editorials of any paper in Wisconsin.

It’s no wonder that Janesville’s school superintendent shows no respect to that paper: public records requests are either ignored or answered with what seems to be a laughable inadequacy. Having spat on so many who exercised free speech in that city, Janesville’s waning paper now finds itself without the clout to assure full compliance with public records requests, requests that are, after all, a matter of law.  Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39.

It seems unlikely that the paper will spend the time and money to litigate public records requests to assure full compliance.  This unwillingness to commit the time and effort is no doubt evident to Janesville’s school district – they can probably spot a paper tiger (yes, it’s an awkward play on words) when they see one.

That’s unfortunate, but it’s more than a Janesville problem – it’s a problem for others nearby.  Officials’ ability to brook lawful requests there will likely influence policymakers nearby, and encourage them to provide inadequate answers, too.

That leaves the rest of us – residents, bloggers, etc. – starting at a disadvantage: the Janesville paper’s toothless response will lull policymakers in other communities to assume falsely that they’ll be able to disregard requests as Janesville’s policymakers have done.  One will have to begin every step with the commitment and expectation to enforce those rights at law.

In this environment, it won’t matter what one says, hopes, or expects – it will only matter how one proceeds.  Proceeding may be inconvenient,  but the alternative is far worse: enduring passively the infringement of one’s right to open government.

What a mess it is that print is leaving left behind, that others will have to clean up.

Henry Blodget on Where Digital’s Headed

At the latest Ignition conference, Henry Blodget of Business Insider gave his most recent assessment of where digital media are headed. It’s a sound appraisal. It’s worth noting that while he sees media’s direction as predominantly digital (true enough), he leaves unstated (because it must seem so obvious to him) that successful digital media are not simply old print publications placed online.

The same sensibility that got print into trouble hampers online publications that carry over or mimic that tone (locally, e.g., Gazette, Daily Union, Register, Banner). The generational divide in media viewership is profound, and cannot be bridged merely by swapping ink for electrons.

Odd, but some otherwise clever people in town have trouble grasping this. It’s the reason I would never trade this website’s position for that of any of those other publications.

In any event, Blodget assesses insightfully –

Wasted Paper

20151214_072348-1

Week after week, people who don’t ask for rolled-up newspapers find those dead-tree publications on their porches.

Wasted paper, each week, of each month, of each season, of each year.  The distribution comes close to lawful littering.

Publishers should be required to obtain consent before dumping these papers on homeowners’ lawns.

That prior consent would be burdensome for publishers, who’d rather toss sheet after sheet of next-to-worthless pulp throughout an entire neighborhood, and by doing so convince overpaying advertisers that their money’s been well-spent on a wide distribution.

People who’ve subscribed to newspapers have made a legitimate choice to manage the publications that pile up on their lawns and in their houses. Everyone else has an unwanted trash-collection-and-recycling regimen imposed without consent.

The more digital (and the sooner), the better.

Theranos as a Cautionary Tale

Theranos is a much-hyped biomedical start-up that’s fallen in valuation and reputation (not always the same thing) following published doubts (e.g., @ Wall Street Journal, Fortune) about its supposedly revolutionary technology.

Here’s the meaning of this story for Whitewater: Theranos had the participation (and attention) of some of the most gifted men and women in America, yet its (likely exaggerated) claims escaped serious scrutiny for years.

When Whitewater’s city government, Community Development Authority, and local university administration receive fawning stories from the Daily Union, Gazette, Register, Banner, or whatever, does anyone believe that those economic development gurus are receiving anything like the scrutiny Theranos or any American project should receive?

Theranos’s problems have not been for lack of talent (CEO Elizabeth Holmes, is undeniably intelligent, persuasive).

And yet, and yet, intelligent and persuasive do not assure successful new technologies. Doubt not how very much I and others would wish the Theranos story to have a successful outcome: a new & powerful blood-test technology, that would save lives, time, and money from a compelling American entrepreneur would be to humanity’s benefit.

Prof. of Finance Aswath Damodaran of NYU’s Stern School writes about the problems of Theranos – in part problems that are ours for believing so much in the company’s tales – in a post entitled, Runaway Stories and Fairy Tale Endings: The Cautionary Tale of Theranos @ his Musings on Markets Blog.

Here’s Prof. Damodaran:

I can offer three possible reasons that should operate as red flags on future young company narratives:
  1. The Runaway Story: If Aaron Sorkin were writing a movie about a young start up, it would be almost impossible for him to come up with one as gripping as the Theranos story: a nineteen-year old woman (that already makes it different from the typical start up founder), drops out of Stanford (the new Harvard) and disrupts a business that makes us go through a health ritual that we all dislike. Who amongst us has not sat for hours at a lab for a blood test, subjected ourselves to multiple syringe shots as the technician draw large vials of blood, waited for days to get the test back and then blanched at the bill for $1,500 for the tests? To add to its allure, the story had a missionary component to it, of a product that would change health care around the world by bringing cheap and speedy blood testing to the vast multitudes that cannot afford the status quo….
  2. The Black Turtleneck: I must confess that the one aspect of this story that has always bothered me (and I am probably being petty) is the black turtleneck that has become Ms. Holmes’s uniform. She has boasted of having dozens of black turtlenecks in her closet and while there is mention that her original model for the outfit was Sharon Stone, and that Ms. Holmes does this because it saves her time, she has never tamped down the predictable comparisons that people made to Steve Jobs. If a central ingredient of a credible narrative is authenticity, and I think it is, trying to dress like someone else (Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett or the Dalai Lama) undercuts that quality.
  3. Governance matters (even at private businesses):… Theranos illustrates the limitations of these built in governance mechanisms [that is, the desire of founders and venture capitalists to protect their investment in a way managers might not], with a board of directors in August 2015 had twelve members:
Board Member Designation Age
Henry Kissinger Former Secretary of State 92
Bill Perry Former Secretary of Defense 88
George Schultz Former Secretary of State 94
Bill Frist Former Senate Majority Leader 63
Sam Nunn Former Senator 77
Gary Roughead Former Navy Admiral 64
James Mattis Former Marine Corps General 65
Dick Kovocovich Former CEO of Wells Fargo 72
Riley Bechtel Former CEO of Bechtel 63
William Foege Epidemologist 79
Elizabeth Holmes Founder & CEO, Theranos 31
Sunny Balwani President & COO, Theranos NA
I apologize if I am hurting anyone’s feelings, but my first reaction as I was reading through the list was “Really? He is still alive?”, followed by the suspicion that Theranos was in the process of developing a biological weapon of some sort. This is a board that may have made sense (twenty years ago) for a defense contractor, but not for a company whose primary task is working through the FDA approval process and getting customers in the health care business….

So-called ‘Whitewater Advocacy’ has done a huge disservice to Whitewater by flacking wasteful ideas that have only diverted time and money from higher priorities.

It can’t last, of course, just as the outcomes of similar schemes elsewhere show.

The real question for Whitewater is who runs dry first: public schemes that divert resources to cronies’ projects or the local press that touts these projects?

They’re both destined for the ash can, but I’m not sure which one will arrive first.  As it is, I’d say it’s likely to be a close race between the two.

4 Points About Public Records Requests

So a local paper complains that a local school superintendent won’t comply with a public records request, won’t put the paper on a media contact list, and simply ‘must’ improve communications.  

A few points —

1.  Compliance with a public records request isn’t a ‘communications’ issue; it’s a legal issue, of rights of residents under Wisconsin law.  

2.  Perhaps there would be a greater willingness of public officials to comply with the Public Records Law (Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39) if newspapers hadn’t made clear that they’re too weak or too miserly to challenge officials’ non-compliance at law.

3.  A newspaper can say all it wants that it’s the ‘leading media company’ of its area, but that doesn’t mean much in a diverse media environment in which newspapers are doomed (as almost everyone knows them to be).  

In any event, social media messaging in many communities – by itself – vastly outstrips the reach of any media company.  Sorry, gentlemen, there is no ‘leading’ force anymore.  

4.  When a resident or publisher thinks about pursuing an issue in which a public records request might be needed, he or she should consider what might be next if officials slow-walk, respond only in part, or simply deny the lawful request.  One would prefer that local officials felt a duty other than self-interest disguised as public interest.  What one would prefer describes – less and less – the environment in which we live.

Residents, bloggers, and community groups that seek information under a public records law should be prepared to defend that request at law.  One hopes that won’t be necessary, but rights are more than hopes, and so one should think ahead, even before a request is submitted: what’s next at law if officials obstruct this request?  See, along these lines, Steps for Blogging on a Policy or Proposal.

That’s a big commitment, but a commitment one should be prepared to see through.  

Brookings on ‘7 trends in old and new media’

The liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, in a paper from Elaine Kamarck and Ashley Gabriele, offers insight into 7 trends in old and new media.

Their seven observations are solid, and broadly similar to the assessments of Clay Shirky, in Last call: the end of the printed newspaper.

Brookings summarizes their work:

The following are seven essential truths about the news today that Kamarck and Gabriele explore in detail:

  1. Print newspapers are dinosaurs
  2. Hard news is in danger
  3. Television is still important
  4. And so is radio
  5. News is now digital
  6. Social media allows news (and “news”) to go viral
  7. For the younger generation, news is delivered through comedy

It’s worth noting that print is failing both because it’s not interactive, and because it no longer has even the inquisitive sensibility toward the powerful of once-lauded, but still top-down, publications. (When online publications ape the incurious, fawning presentations of print publications, they consign themselves to the same fate as print.)

I’ve embedded the full white paper below –

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Sadly, Milwaukee Will Catch Up to Whitewater

In our small and beautiful city, what passes for professionally-produced news is poorly written, poorly reasoned, and fawning of authority. That’s been true for years in Whitewater, much to the delight of local officials, who’d prefer a good headline at the Gazette, Daily Union, Register (or even the Banner) to actually doing a good job.

More accurately: for the lazy, middling, or superficial a good headline is proof of a good job.

Over at Urban Milwaukee, Bruce Murphy writes about how Gannett is likely to gut the Journal Sentinel:

Not many editors — in the traditional sense — are used. Writers for a particular beat may make story decisions (within Gannett guidelines) and a “writing coach” or “content coach” may edit stories by various reporters. In an attempt to appeal to younger readers, newspapers may have a “beverage reporter” (covering beer and the bar scene) and fashion reporter, while the state capitol desk might get just one reporter.

To get a sense of how much the Journal Sentinel’s staff might be cut, I compared its current editorial staff (editors, writers, photo, design and online people) of 117 people with Gannett papers in two mid-sized cities. The Louisville Courier Journal, in a metro area of 1.3 million, has just 63 total staff covering these same functions. The Indianapolis Star, in a metro area of 1.76 million people, has 89 staff covering these functions. Given Milwaukee’s metro population of 1.55 million, you’d expect the staffing to fall somewhere between the other two cities, meaning the Journal Sentinel loses in the neighborhood of 35-40 staff….

Odds are the people let go will be the most veteran, highest-paid staff, the ones most knowledgable about the community they are covering….

Enterprise reporting? The Journal Sentinel has 13 staff on its watchdog team. “That’s going to be a luxury,” Hopkins says. “In 33 years, USA Today has never won a Pulitzer.” The Indy Star lists just one investigative reporter (and a list of “watchdog” reporters who are clearly just beat reporters). The Louisville paper lists two, but one sounds like a beat reporter.

See, in full, Bruce Murphy: How Gannett Will Shrink the Journal Sentinel @ Urban Milwaukee.

That’s a bad situation for Milwaukee’s residents, but it’s one with which we’ve had to live in Whitewater for years. The supposed news sites that I listed in the first paragraph don’t speak truth to power – they cower before power, writing obligingly, servilely, fawningly.

And yet – and yet – those officials who dream of a world without inquiry, scrutiny, and analysis dream a dark dream in vain. They neither deserve nor will have the world for which they so selfishly yearn.

We are a better and more creative people than that; we are a principled and inquisitive society.

Tomorrow: Methods, Standards, and Goals.