‘Don’t worry about them – the rest of us feel great!

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin

A doctor walks into a town of one-hundred people, and finds that half of them are pale, feverish, and vomiting blood. The physician calls out to a community leader, “Send for help, you have an epidemic on your hands.” The community leader replies, “Oh no, don’t worry about them – the rest of us feel great!”

There one sees the self-regard and self-promotion of some, while ignoring the condition of others.

Over at the Janesville Gazette, that paper’s editorialist feebly tries to divert attention from the fundamental problems of his community, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports them (and as cited at FW on Tuesday. See Contrast). First a portion of Rock County’s many struggles, then highlights from the Janesville editorialist’s reply —

Reporting from the Journal Sentinel (‘Wisconsin childhood trauma data explodes myth of ‘not in my small town’):

Of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, Rock County falls into the highest tier of overdose deaths, hospitalizations and emergency room visits linked to opioids and heroin, as ranked by state health authorities….

Once solidly middle-class Rock County today harbors the state’s highest scores for childhood trauma, the deepest plunge in income since the turn of the century, and one of the most extreme drug epidemics.

Of the state’s 72 counties, Rock County is home to the fourth-highest share of single-parent households (17.6%) behind Menominee, Milwaukee and Kenosha counties (28%, 23% and 18.4%, respectively). In the last 20 years, households in the county accepting FoodShare entitlements rose 310%. In the last 15 years, childhood poverty surged 150%, the second fastest increase in the state. The rate at which babies in the county are born with opioids, heroin or other addictive drugs in their bodies more than tripled from 2013 to 2016.

“Soon, we’ll have a whole generation of grade school kids who all have in common a parent who overdosed and died of heroin,” said Janesville police officer Justin Stubbendick. “It breaks my heart to think”….

Editorial reply from the Gazette (‘Our Views: Outsiders get the region’s story wrong again‘):

….This is the sort of one-dimensional portrayal of the region we’ve come to expect from outsiders (Mother Jones magazine did the same thing in 2009). It’s a cliché to characterize Janesville in a downward spiral since the closing of the GM plant nearly a decade ago. It’s a cliché, too, to dismiss the expansions of other manufacturers, the region’s surging tax base and downtown Janesville revitalization efforts.

To be sure, this region has many challenges—heroin being one of them—but these gloomy narratives emerge only by their authors ignoring positive developments….

W.W. Grainger on Janesville’s east side has hired hundreds of employees over the past two years and recently began in-house leadership training programs to help employees advance in the company.

Dollar General’s distribution warehouse has hired hundreds of workers, and while it doesn’t pay GM union levels, workers average $16 to $17 an hour to start, according to company hiring fliers.

Plastics company GOEX is in the process of expanding its warehousing and clean room facilities on the city’s north side to meet booming demand in markets it serves.

In southern Rock County, Pratt Industries opened a $52 million box plant this year.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation remains committed to the Interstate 90/39 expansion project, even as the agency has shelved other Interstate projects (including in the Journal Sentinel’s own backyard). Officials have made I-90/39 a top priority because they recognize the corridor’s and this region’s economic importance….

We refuse to allow pockets of instability to define us. The Journal Sentinel piece is a reminder that we as a community must take responsibility for telling our own story, especially if outsiders seem bent on casting this region as a failure.

1. Outsiders! Many have written serious critiques of Janesville, including Pulitzer winner Amy Goldstein, but they’re mere outsiders to the editorialist. (At least he refrained from calling them rootless cosmopolitans.) These many and solid critiques are all from Americans: established, serious, thoughtful, relying on actual conditions of thousands of local residents.

So provincial is the Gazette that Milwaukee – part of the same state, not far at all from Janesville, is somehow a distant land. There’s wagon-circling, and then there’s this: a small-minded, xenophobic rejection of anything outside the county.

2. Parachuting! Easier said than being able to refute a single statistic JS reporter John Schmid offers. Truly, the Gazette‘s editorialist doesn’t refute any of the statsitics about Rock County’s troubled state – instead, he implores readers to look at the positive.

The supposedly positive (as the editorialist sees it) has not, and will not, compensate those who are now suffering for their actual hardships.

What does it profit a family to gain an interstate if it shall endure childhood poverty? What does it profit a family to gain a nearby warehouse if they struggle with addiction?

These supposed achievements have not brought widespread community uplift. They’ve brought, instead, leaders’ self-serving entreaties to accentuate the positive. (“Look, we have a box plant! Over here, pay attention!”)

Developments that allow a large underclass to grown within a city serve to distract from actual suffering to the benefit of aged leaders’ vanity and pride.

3. Refuse…to define us. These aged self-promoters – whose public lives have witnessed only community decline – have no power to define. Their refusals mean nothing – they’re too weak, too dense, too selfish to persuade anyone except a small number of that same ilk.

These few are not, even now, writing the story of their community. It’s written by men and women more thoughtful, more persuasive, more principled.

In any event, the future will write the history of the present. It will be harsh with the anything like the editorialist’s outlook.

That will prove true in small & beautiful, yet struggling, Whitewater, the city from which one daily views the world beyond.

‘Backed themselves into this corner’

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin There are local versions of the problem Fox News now faces as a flack for Trump. First, the Fox situation, then the local equivalent —

Nationally, the Daily Beast website writes of remarks from a former Fox News contributor & panelist:

[Andy] Levy, who served for 10 years as “ombudsman” and nightly panelist on Fox News late-night show Red Eye until its early 2017 cancellation, added: “Fox News should disavow it, but it kinda can’t because, with a couple of exceptions, they’ve backed themselves into this corner and they’re now the Trump News Network, and that’s their life blood.” Levy is now a regular panelist and senior producer of Cupp’s show.


Locally, both established newspapers (Gazette, Daily Union) and websites (Banner) have a similar problem: they’ve tied themselves to an economically ignorant boosterism, now to find that actual conditions undeniably lag local claims. Their own mediocre grasp is That Which Paved the Way for an even worse local, nativist impulse. (It’s also a nativism that doesn’t give a about damn hierarchy, forcing publications to pander, or at least stay silent, in an effort to hold on. See Old Whitewater and Populism.)

These nearby publications share this characteristic with a national one: they’ve backed themselves into a corner, on behalf of bad ideas and bad policies. One may be daily thankful for not making a similar mistake.

‘This is an Apple’

I haven’t watched CNN in years, to be honest, but their promotional advertisement about Trump’s alternative facts outlook is spot on.

It’s more common for me to read than to watch cable news, but my two favorites on television are Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow. Watching Hayes or Maddow is always valuable: informative, engaging, and therefore truly enjoyable.

(I’ll also sometimes watch recorded segments from Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity, but only with the general outlook of someone who would watch a nature program on hyenas before going on safari – one should be prepared for what one might meet.)

Media Dependency

Concerning national publications, Eliana Johnson describes How Trump Blew Up the Conservative Media. Her observation on this point has local relevancy (both about and apart from Trump). Here’s Johnson’s key observation:

“For the 89 percent of Republican voters who cast ballots for Trump, their backing represented a departure from many of the principles that have animated the American conservative movement for six decades. Today, those voters remain broadly supportive of the president personally, and as a result, insiders say, the conservative media have been increasingly pulled by a tractor beam that demands positive coverage of the president regardless of how far he wanders from the ideas they once enforced. Producers and editors have been faced with a choice: Provide that coverage or lose your audience.”

That’s spot on.

It has local meaning, too: nearby publications either tip-toe around Trump, or avoid the subject entirely.

Consider what that means: these publications are too timid to address the most significant political development (toward a nativist authoritarianism) of contemporary times.  It’s not for or against for them, it’s head down, eyes averted, let me be your buddy.

This weakness may be financial (‘please, I’ll not say anything that might make our few over-charged, under-served advertisers complain’) or emotional (‘please, I’ll keep quiet about a major political development so that I can ingratiate myself with others’).

Either way, it’s not worth publishing on those sad terms. No one has to discuss, let alone cover, political issues. If a publication does cover politics, however, and skirts these issues, it’s not truly covering politics.

The noted English philosopher Adam Ant beautifully explained the terms of a good life in his 1982 masterwork, Goody Two Shoes:

We don’t follow fashion
That’d be a joke
You know we’re gonna set them, set them
So everyone can take note, take note

One stays true to one’s convictions.

The Revolution, Abolition, the defense of the Union, civil rights: those great moral & political causes called for more than faint hearts and a faltering step.

A few national publications have been invigorated in opposition to Trump, and a few nativist ones have profited in support, too. For many others – both local and national – an existing, difficult media environment is doubly constraining now.

The way forward requires (1) financial independence (or at least diversification) and (2) the confidence to express one’s views clearly and firmly. Indeed, the latter makes the former more likely. This is a key point: one lives better – in the deepest, fullest sense – this way.

A publisher’s policy that begins with distance and detachment, and ends with diligence, is incomparably better than living one’s life in constant servility to national or local pressures.

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.

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.

Why Trump Press Secretary Spicer Lies

Anna Rascouët-Paz relates an explanation (from someone who worked in a past administration) for Trump press secretary Spicer’s repeated lies about inaugural crowd size.  It’s spot on:

For more on a disinformation strategy based on insisting that nothing is knowable, see The Russian Conspiracy on Behalf of Conspiracy Theorist Donald Trump (“there is a coherent pattern to the discourse he has promoted. It is a comprehensive attack on empiricism. He spreads distrust against every institution, so that the only possible grounds for belief is trust in a person. The suspicion he spreads against every institution protects Trump from accountability.”) and For Mr. Trump, It’s STEM, Schwem, Whatever… (“he insists that the truth is indeterminable whenever he wishes to evade responsibility for his own lies.”).

For Spicer’s calculated statement to undermine truth, see The White House Press Secretary Makes A Statement.

 

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.

Blaming the Press Won’t Slake Trump’s Thirst

CNN Money’s Jill Disis writes that Trump attacks ‘fools’ at The New York Times.  There’s a short self-life to attacks on the press.  Admittedly, the attack’s good for a headline, and similar insults probably helped in his campaign.  Yet, all campaigns blame the press, and the blamecasting is like a narcotic to which addicts slowly become both addicted and inured.

Trump – unlike a conventional leader of conventional appetites – will soon need more tangible targets than the New York Times.  The Times?  In six months the high from complaints against that paper won’t quicken the political pulse.  Few will show up at the rallies he plans to keep holding to hear Trump rail at the Times.  They’ll want more; they’ll want a list of tangible results, a list of particular names.

Trump will move on to much stronger stuff than Twitter.

‘Critics Say So’

Is Stephen Bannon, newly-appointed chief strategist to Donald Trump, a racist.  A headline to a story on that subject comes with a limitation: critics say so. (See, Is Trump’s new chief strategist a racist? Critics say so.)

There’s the weakness of a legacy press: big money, high self-regard, but a small appetite for declaring definitely the character of a person’s views on a well-considered topic.

Is it so hard for a powerful paper to give readers an up-front answer?  Yes, it is, as a combination of past journalistic traditions, present need for readership, and an eternal desire to ingratiate with the next administration.

Reporter Weigel mostly exonerates Bannon of the charge of racism, relying in part on Morning Joe Scarborough’s exhaustive study of ‘like five different people’ that Scarborough happened to choose:

More importantly, Bannon helped shape a Trump message that won the condemnation of the Anti-Defamation League — and helped him in swing states. Trump’s closing ad, a two-minute edit of a speech he had given attacking the “global financial powers,” struck the ADL as hitting “anti-Semitic themes.” In the wider media, it was seen as stirring and populist.

“I played the clip for like five different people and I said, ‘Is that anti-Semitic?’” said MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough last week. “No. There are dog whistles, but .?.?. play that ad to 100 Americans in middle America, 99 of them will go, ‘That’s cool.’?”

(Weigel’s ‘in the wider media’ claim is both vague and false.  The Trump ad to which he refers drew considerable media criticism.  For a detailed assessment of the ad’s anti-Semitism, see Josh Marshall, Trump Rolls Out Anti-Semitic Closing Ad, with a scene-by-scene analysis.)

For an answer to the question of Bannon’s racism, see David Corn’s excellent Here’s Why It’s Fair—and Necessary—to Call Trump’s Chief Strategist a White Nationalist Champion: Stephen Bannon said he was.

‘He Said, She Said’

Alternative title — False Balance While Dealing with Liars, Exaggerators, and Other Political Miscreants.

There’s considerable consternation in the national press that traditional ‘he said, she said’ political coverage, where each side of a question gets an equal, unchallenged say, doesn’t work when one candidate is an inveterate liar:

A certain etiquette has long governed the relationship between presidential candidates and the elite media. Candidates stretch the truth, but try not to be too blatant about it. Candidates appeal to bigotry, but subtly. In turn, journalists respond with a delicacy of their own. They quote partisans rather than saying things in their own words. They use euphemisms like “polarizing” and “incendiary,” instead of “racist” and “demagogic.”

See, from Peter Beinart, The Death of ‘He Said, She Said’ Journalism @ The Atlantic.

The journalism of equivalance and balance doesn’t work when one candidate is unbalanced and without a contemporary equivalent. The national press is learning this now, although perhaps too late to address effectively the new conditions presented in this election.

Locally, however, we’ve not even had a weak balance, we’ve not had even a sham equivalence.

In Whitewater and towns nearby, it’s one view, sometimes that of a politician, presented as news.

It’s true that the national standards of presumed balance no longer work, and that papers like the New York Times have had to become (as Beinart tells it) more direct in response to lies, exaggerations, and crass political self-promotion.

That’s a cause of national political concern, but at the local level communities have been plagued with lying, glad-handing notables & a sham, lickspittle press for years.

National publications are right to abandon a false equivalence, right to abandon a delicacy of description that only emboldens connivers.

It’s unfortunate, yet true, that these publications now find themselves fighting the kind of fight – without real balance – that’s been ongoing for years in towns across America.

The Sketchy – But Revealing – UW-Whitewater Dormitory Stories 

The big UW-Whitewater story last week wasn’t about a dormitory, but about a lawsuit against former Chancellor Telfer and current Athletic Director Amy Edmonds

The dormitory stories are at best evidence of administrative incompetence, at worst evidence of a manipulated story (albeit ham-handedly).  They also, ironically, offer a dark motivation for the repeated actions of UW-Whitewater officials concerning sexual assault reporting. 

Background.  On Sunday evening, 8.21, the Journal Sentinel published a story about how UW-Whitewater dorm limbo could crimp recruitment. I posted on the story the next day, noting that even by the story’s own terms, the key issue wasn’t a dorm, but the influx of out-of-state students from Illinois. SeeDorm-Construction Isn’t the Big Story.

Five days later, on Friday evening, the Journal posted a follow-up to the dormitory story.  SeeUW-Whitewater dorm back on track.

Turns out, the Journal story was stale even before the first installment on 8.21:

Gov. Scott Walker signed the final contract to hire an architect/engineering firm for the UW-Whitewater residence hall the same day the project was singled out by the regents during their [August 18th] meeting in Madison. The project was working its way through the pipeline in a normal progression, according to Steve Michels, communications director for the state Department of Administration….

UW officials weren’t notified that the governor had signed the contract until Tuesday [8.23], the day after a story about the project delay appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

(In fact, the story appeared online on 8.21, but either way the dorm had been approved before reporter Herzog published a word of her story.)

A few observations:

Convenient, coincidental. How convenient it must have been, on the same day that news broke of a lawsuit against UW-Whitewater, that an unrelated  (and actually resolved) issue was available to divert attention from a more important matter.

The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Wisconsin on 8.18 – university officials surely knew of it before reporter Karen Herzog’s story appeared online or in print.

Incompetent. Honest to goodness, could Herzog not have called to ask the status of the dorm before writing her first story? That first story makes no mention of any attempt to call any state officials. 

The story seems to rely completely and totally on the account of Jeff Arnold, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs at UW-Whitewater

Either Herzog was negligent to omit reference of a call to the state, was negligent not to call the state, or was a dupe in a UW-Whitewater effort to push a non-issue (dorm already approved) over an ongoing, serious one (federal lawsuits and federal Title IX investigations). 

Ineffectual. Since the dorm had already been approved, what does that say about the Vice Chancellor Arnold’s competence or influence that supposedly (1) he didn’t know and (2) nobody bothered to tell him promptly?

Ineffectual, Part 2. All litigation is uncertain. I’ve no idea how either the lawsuit or Title IX administrative claims will develop.

I do know that both stories are now national ones,  and that local efforts to shift the subject are futile (both because the stories have spread too far and because the university’s Media Relations staff are incapable of effectively spinning these accounts against an accurate telling in reply).

Motivation.  Whether Arnold’s fuss over a dorm that had already been approved was from his own incompetence or as a public relations diversion, it’s revealing in a deeper way.

Astonishingly, in the first story, reporter Herzog unintentionally supplies a motivation for the university’s actions to ignore or shove aside those who spoke of sexual assaults on campus: the university was under competitive, financial pressure to recruit out-of-state students.  

Here, from Herzog’s first story:

Since 2009, the school has doubled admissions applications and enrollment of Illinois students. Illinois residents made up 9% of the freshman class in 2009; now they are about 16% of the freshman class, with the largest number coming from McHenry and Lake counties.

Wisconsin resident enrollment is holding steady, according to school officials.

Not having enough housing may work against recruiting efforts in Illinois.

“The lack of housing is constraining our growth,” Arnold said. “It’s our feeling we’re losing students because of our inability to provide housing. Our freshman classes have been capped due to our housing.”

If Arnold thinks that lack of housing will constrain growth, imagine what repeated stories of sexual assualt on campus would do to those same recruitment efforts.

The pressure and push for out-of state-students, from 2009 to 2014, coincides with the clear majority of Richard Telfer’s tenure as chancellor.

Herzog’s first story, one that that Arnold seems to have spoon-fed to her, offers a dark, specific, numerical motivation to suppress assault reporting. 

One could have surmised as much without the story, to be sure, but if the story should be a public-relations inspiration, it’s an especially poor one. 

Expressing public concern over recruiting at the same time students and a former employee are filing complaints about mishandled sexual assault cases, unjust termination, and retaliation is particularly dense. 

More to come. 

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.

‘WEDC has been a disaster from the get-go’

After years of defending the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, one newspaper (out of several in the area) finally concedes the obvious:  ‘WEDC has been a disaster from the get-go.’

See, from 11.28.15, http://www.gazettextra.com/20151128/our_views_consider_two_steps_for_salvaging_state8217s_job_creation_agency, subscription req’d.

Yes, it has been a disaster, as politicized intervention in the economy, to the benefit of one’s well-fed, white-collar executive friends, will prove to be.

Only eighteen months ago, when it should have been clear to a properly read man or woman that WEDC was conceptually wrong, Whitewater’s leading officials touted a second round of WEDC funding as though it were manna from God:

“For us to have gone through that first cycle so quickly means a lot of jobs and new entrepreneur start-ups here in Whitewater, including here in the Innovation Center,” he said. “This is a recognition of a great success story. They have invested in us a second time. Our job now is to drive that to even greater success.”

– Jeff Knight, Whitewater CDA Chairman

“I am selfish,” he said. “The reason I am selfish is that I want Whitewater to be a better city and our university to be a better place. Part of what we do is try to make this a better place to live, work, play and learn. I think that is very important. For the university, my selfish thing is that I want to keep the professors here, and keep our graduates here, and whatever we can do to make that happen, we need to do.”

– Richard Telfer, Chancellor, UW-Whitewater

It feels a bit like déjà vu to be standing here before you all today,” Clapper continued. “It’s been a little over a year since our first event; today, we are celebrating the start of round two and the first grants of that round….”

“In the physical sciences, a catalyst is defined as any substance that works to accelerate a chemical reaction,” Clapper explained. “Without the help of a catalyst, the amount of energy needed to spark a particular reaction is much greater. When a catalyst is present, the energy required for the reaction is reduced, making the reaction happen more efficiently. Without the help of a catalyst, chemical reactions might never occur or take a significantly longer period of time to react.

– Cameron Clapper, Whitewater City Manager

See, from 6.9.14,
http://www.dailyunion.com/news/article_c8e49416-efe6-11e3-b1b0-0017a43b2370.html.

Knight speaks in empty platitudes, Telfer should have stopped after his first three words, and Clapper’s idea of chemistry is more like alchemy.

From the beginning, this was an empty ideology, a Third-World-style cronyism.

Whitewater deserves 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.

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.

What’s a Dollar-A-Week Subscription to a Print Newspaper?

What’s a dollar-a-week subscription to a print newspaper?

If you’ve received a direct mail solicitation to subscribe to a local, daily newspaper for just one dollar per week, then you’ve received a request to get the inserts that advertisers place inside the paper.

For a dollar-per-week, the paper is simply a delivery mechanism for advertisers’ inserts.

That means two things for readers.

First, when the inserts go the paper will fold.

Second, in the meantime, the quality of content in the paper will decline as publishers shave costs by printing anything, by anyone, to fill the pages that they wrap around the inserts.