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.

Last Night’s GOP Debate

I’m not a major-party voter, but like millions I have watched the GOP presidential debates (and will watch the Democrats’ debates, too).  There’s a lot to learn from watching the candidates, for all the showiness, the pre-debate theatrics, etc.

The key point about all these encounters is that they are intra-party affairs – it’s a debate among those of the same general view.  If one GOP candidate does poorly, there’s another GOP candidate likely to gain. Success or failure of some in this setting is not a repudiation of a party teachings; it’s simply a reallocation of support among relatively like-minded candidates.

That brings us to Gov. Walker: conservatism is everywhere in the national GOP, but his candidacy as a conservative has been a disappointment.

Over at NBC News, Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Carrie Dann have a story entitled, Winners and Losers from Last Night’s Debate. I think their assessments are spot-on.

Here’s their assessment of Gov. Walker:

Scott Walker: He had a good first 10 minutes with his “apprentice” line. But he faded after that. It was like the football team that immediately delivered on the trick play it had been practicing, but then showed little else for the rest of the game.

It seems that Scott Walker knows it was not a good night, from post-debate remarks quoted in the Journal Sentinel:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker needed a breakout performance in Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate, but he had a problem:

In the three-hour forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, he was asked just three questions.

“Short of tackling someone, I don’t know what more I could have done,” Walker told reporters after the debate. “I aggressively interrupted (CNN moderator) Jake Tapper a bunch of times along the way and short of an absolute brawl, I don’t know what more one could do.”

One makes one’s own opportunities.  That means, in this case, speaking more, and speaking in sharp exchanges with rivals within the same party.

That didn’t happen at the first debate; it didn’t happen in the second.

Candidates are responsible for their own campaigns, of course, but it’s worth repeating that Wisconsin’s press has not prepared her candidates for the kind of exchanges that other major-party candidates handle often and easily.

 

 

What City Officials and the Press Haven’t Told You About the HyPro Layoffs

Updated, 9.9.15, 2 PM, and bumped forward from original 9.8.15 post date. I’m always eager for more discussion about WEDC –

To reconcile the figures of $1,300,000 and $262,000: There are differences in the dollar amounts of tax credits depending on whether one considers the maximum authorized or the amount HyPro has so far taken.

In 2013, HyPro had a maximum tax-credit authorization of over a million dollars ($1,300,00). The company used around $262,000 of that maximum. (The Legislative Fiscal Bureau report below lists legal maximums in Economic Development Tax Credit — Maximum Total Tax Credit Limit.)

That maximum, by the way, assumed 80 jobs created for $1.3 million in tax credits, or $16,250 per job.

In the clip below, WKOW reports that HyPro so far took over $262,000 in credits, and created just two jobs.

The tax credits used were actually 8x less efficient than WEDC estimated.

The WEDC’s own records indicate that HyPro created jobs at the price of over $131,000 per job.  

There should have been no tax credits for this employer; everything received should be paid back.

WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Original post, 9.8.15:

Local newspapers have reported that HyPro is laying off over sixty workers at its Whitewater building. Those workers will be out of jobs by early November.  

What city officials and local newspapers haven’t mentioned is that only two years ago, HyPro received $1,300,000 in tax credit [authorization] from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.  

One-million, three-hundred thousand in tax credits.

See, from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau,  Economic Development Tax Credit — Maximum Total Tax Credit Limit (General Fund Taxes — Income and Franchise Taxes), page 16.

Commenting on these layoffs, Whitewater City Manager Clapper is quoted in the Daily Union observing that that “[w]e’re sad to see them go, but we recognize this happens in the life cycle of a business.” See, HyPro Inc. closing Whitewater plant @ http://www.dailyunion.com/news/article_d83ec8d2-5291-11e5-a5a7-1fb4265234ef.html.  

If that should be so, and these developments occur in the life cycle of a business, then why would Wisconsin offer $1,300,000 in tax credits to that business?  Either that money was futile from the beginning or it’s not true that layoffs like this simply happen in the “life cycle of a business.”  

Proponents of the WEDC cite its funding selectively: big talk when the grants, loans, or credits are issued, but then silence when those grants, loans, or credits prove ineffectual.  

(Rep. Jorgensen is quoted in the same story alluding to the failure of tax credits as an incentive, although his printed remarks don’t say directly that HyPro received tax credits, or in what amount. He’s right to be critical of the WEDC; it’s almost a measure of reasonableness.)

City Manager Clapper has been a supporter of the WEDC, likening its work to a natural science like chemistry.  

WEDC funding is nothing like a natural science; it’s akin to alchemy, not chemistry.

HyPro’s workers deserved better than the WEDC.

Message Frenzy

If one runs a business, and has a sale scheduled, advertising the time and place of the sale is vital: people won’t attend events of which they’ve no knowledge.

Some news stories are like this: reporting on an approaching storm requires quick publication of the weather.

It’s not true, however, that every story requires quick publication: some are instant coffee, but others are slowly cold-brewed. 

Looking at Whitewater, or communities close to Whitewater, one sees how many stories are rushed, how many quick press releases are issued to ‘get one’s message out,’ or ‘jump on a story,’ etc. 

A few more hours’ care would have produced a better product: more strengths, fewer weaknesses.  (Some of the weaknesses are hostages to Fortune; they reveal views that will likely come back to haunt months later.)  

There’s more than one person advising Whitewater’s officials to respond quickly, change the subject, move on, etc. 

They all have this in common: they don’t understand that the city evolves meaningfully over seasons and years, not hours and days. 

On Trends in Whitewater’s Media

If print’s in decline (and it is), then what’s next for Whitewater (or other small towns)?

I’ve contended that a new Whitewater is inevitable.  We’ve passed the beginning of that process, and are now in a middle time toward a new city.

There are years yet ahead, but most now living in Whitewater will one day see a significantly different political and social climate.   

A few easy observations:

1.  The move from print to digital is a move toward the possibility of faster interaction between publisher and readers, and less expensive entry costs for new publishers.  It’s less expensive, in fact, by more than one order of magnitude.   

2.  It’s worth highlighting yet again: these electronic trends empower individuals to become publishers.  It’s a return, in a way, to America’s early (vigorous, and influential) tradition of pamphleteering. 

3.  Nothing about the Web, social media, email, texting, etc., was invented in Whitewater.  These are global developments, of which America has had a significant, outsized role.  The businesses behind these developments are often worth billions singly, and amount to trillions in wealth collectively. 

4.  America’s tradition of liberty, with a free and productive economy, is a fertile ground for the growth of these electronic media.

5.  Like most places, Whitewater has had both public, institutional, and small-publisher websites for years.

6.  Whitewater’s political culture has been, until recently, stodgy, top-down, narrow, and driven by personality.  (One can guess that glad-handing has no appeal to me, especially when it has produced work so far beneath the standards that capable Americans can and do meet every day.  Most Americans are sharp and capable this way; many, but not all, town notables have often lagged the standards of our dynamic country.)

There’s no circumstance under which I would prefer print over electronic publishing, or an insider’s role over independent commentary.  See, along these lines, Measuring the Strength of a Position

7.  I predicted in 2012 that Whitewater would grow to have not a few but many electronic publications, of diverse types of media, and that resulting growth would be a positive development. (“I like it, and hope for more and still more.  Each and every thoughtful person in this city will benefit from an expanding marketplace of ideas.”) 

8.  I made this prediction three years ago, and it’s slowly proving correct.  Not only have thousands of residents been skilled in using social media for many years (long before 2012, of course), but their clubs and organizations are beginning to build new webpages or Facebook pages to advance their views without reliance on third parties. 

There are easily dozens of such organizational or business sites now,  and each one affords its publisher the chance to craft his or her own message by content and style. 

9.  There’s a role for something like a Banner in Whitewater as a convenience to others, and may always be, but it’s an obvious move for organizations to create their own pages, of their own composition and design, to advance their views and messages as they would like, without reliance on a third-party publisher.   

The number of talented people in Whitewater is vast; there’s no one in the city who is demonstrably best at online publishing.  Even in a city of about fifteen thousand, one could not count (let alone arrange in order) all the capable people of this kind. 

I would always prefer an environment where FREE WHITEWATER was one of many different sites, of all sorts of views.

10.  As groups craft their own pages (especially on Facebook, which is well-used and offers an easy-to-use publishing method), their views will begin to diverge from a common, unified, party-line message.

Some will start by echoing the same, standard message of others, but they’ll not end there.   (Several pages will begin with a common message, then with similar messages, then with different messages revealing the differences in ideology and outlook between publishers.)

One knows this because while Whitewater’s town fathers would prefer a single message, nature offers diverse messengers.  When dozens of groups have dozens of Facebook pages, those pages will begin to publish the unique viewpoints of (naturally) separate and distinct individuals. 

It’s false, and odd to the point of nuttiness, to think that a free and educated people would rely on a few print publishers, or a few online publishers, as against their own prodigious talents.   

Some pages will spring to life unexpectedly, in surprising times and places, as part of a broader, spontaneous order (thank you, among others, Prof. Hayek).

11.  The idea of ‘one city, one leadership, one message’ is fated to failure.  It’s not fated to failure because of anything that began inside the city, but because of the irresistible trends in media developing all across this continent, when applied to (naturally) different kinds of people. 

Those forces, and that human nature, will not be denied.  Whitewater will develop into a city of shifting pluralities, with no one (individual or group) assured of control over a majority.  That will be to the good. 

Whitewater’s coming to the end of a top-down way of doing things, although there are years to go before that prior and inferior method shrivels to its demise. 

I write this because I am confident that it’s true, but with considerable optimism for the outcome, too:  Whitewater will be a far better city when she at last sheds this absurd and wrong desire of a few to dominate so many more.

Diverse media are better media.

A Prediction of Print’s ‘Fast, Slow, Fast’ Decline

Earlier this spring, the public editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post on how the printed newspaper would continue to be important to the Times.   In reply, Professor Clay Shirky of NYU wrote with what he called a “darker narrative’ of print’s prospects. 

(See, at Sullivan’s blog, A ‘Darker Narrative’ of Print’s Future From Clay Shirky.)

When Shirky wrote to Sullivan, she published some of his remarks.  Longtime readers know that I’m an admirer of Shirky’s work, and his reply is, I think, not merely darker, but more realistic, than Sullivan’s views.

Here’s a portion of Shirky’s perspective on print’s future:

I’d like to offer a considerably darker narrative: I think the pattern of print revenue decay will be fast, slow, fast.

The original, fast decline was 2007-9, where two overlapping events — the Great Recession and the sudden shift to mobile consumption — created a vicious cycle, where your most adventurous readers and least committed advertisers both moved rapidly to digital-only, amid a period of general contraction in ad revenues. These were the years of double-digit decline in revenues.

By 2010, most of the early abandoners had left and the economy recovered, leaving you with only secular decline in readership (down 5-6 percent a year) and only proportional decreases in advertising revenue. This is the slow period of print decay.

The people you quote — Baquet, Caputo — seem to be betting that the current dynamics of slow decline form the predictable future for your paper. I doubt this, and the alternate story I’d like to suggest is that print declines will become fast again by the end of the decade, bringing about the end of print (by which I mean a New York Times that does not produce a print product seven days a week) sooner than Baquet’s 40-year horizon, and possibly sooner than Caputo’s 10-year one. (Public editor note: Mr. Baquet said “no one thinks there will be a lot of print around in 40 years.” Mr. Caputo predicted that a printed Times would be around in 10 years, but did not specify seven-day-a-week production.)

You observed that print is responsible for the majority of ad revenues at the paper, but the disproportionate importance of print is not a signal of the robustness of the medium, it is a signal that advertisers have not found a way to replace print ads with anything as effective in other media.

The problem with print is that the advantageous returns to scale from physical distribution of newspapers become disadvantageous when scale shrinks. The ad revenue from a print run of 500,000 would be 16 percent less than for 600,000 at best, but the costs wouldn’t fall by anything like 16%, eroding print margins. There is some threshold, well above 100,000 copies and probably closer to 250,000, where nightly print runs stop making economic sense. This risk is increased by The New York Times’s cross-subsidy of print, with its print+digital bundle. This bundle creates the risk of rapid future readjustment, when advertisers reconsider print CPM in light of reduced consumption and pass-around of print by all-access subscribers. (Public editor note: C.P.M. is the cost to the advertiser per thousand readers or viewers, a common measurement in advertising.)

Both your Sunday and weekday readerships are already near important psychological thresholds for advertisers — one million and 500,000. When no advertiser can reach a million readers in any print ad in the Times (2017, on present evidence) and weekday advertising reaches less than half a million (2018, using the 6 percent decline figure you quoted), there will be downward pressure on C.P.M.s. This makes no sense, of course, since pricing ads per thousand should make advertisers indifferent to overall circulation, but marketing departments have never been run terribly logically.

So it seems likely to me that after the early, rapid decline, we are now in a period of shallow, secular decay, which will give way to a late-stage period of rapid decline. You can see something like this has happened already in your delivery business, when you read the comments on your piece. Several commenters would like a print copy, but don’t live in an area where it’s cost-effective to deliver the paper. This happened to my mother, in western Virginia; she is now digital-only because after years of gradual decay, the Roanoke, Va., market simply crossed a threshold where it became unprofitable, and all the remaining print subscribers disappeared all at once.

Those dynamics, in miniature, characterize print as a whole — below some threshold, the decay stops being incremental and starts being systemic.

Shirky’s talking about a large paper in this discussion, but his observations have value for smaller ones, too.  Significantly, any slowdown in print’s decline is temporary, and advertisers’ alternatives and print’s own huge costs will erode print circulation significantly.   

For an expression of Shirky’s views on papers, see Last Call: The end of the printed newspaper

Tomorrow: On Trends in Whitewater’s Media.

The Meaning of Whitewater’s Not-Always-Mentioned Demographics

Our signs say that Whitewater, the city proper, has a population of around fifteen thousand.  We do.

What they don’t say, and what we know but don’t always mention, is that a significant portion of that population is attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

So much, when looking at data from the ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates (2013 Table), that the adult population in college is unquestionably the largest cohort by daily activity among all adults in the city. Not every young person in the city attends university, but so great is the group of young men & women that those attending college is the largest vocational group in the city. 

(The city’s median age is 21.9 in the same table.  In nearby Fort Atkinson, it’s 37.9.)

Those many students are vital to the city’s economic life.  There’s not the slightest chance Whitewater would have the same economic prospects without them. 

But if college students are the largest vocational group in the city, their presence means that news, marketing, etc., directed to non-student residents reaches a much smaller part of the city than some wish to admit.

In this city of thousands, many of whom are at school, how far does the influence of our local notables really reach? 

I have a guess that readership of local papers is poor, considering the health of newspapers, generally.  The only way to be certain would be for the local press to release independent, audited circulation figures that had numbers for Whitewater, specifically.  Even then, one would like to know about the age of those readers. 

Print publishers aren’t rushing to discuss those numbers.  One doesn’t have to guess long to conclude correctly why they’re not rushing.

Looking at election results, attendance at public meetings, and the probable circulation of press accounts that herald officials’ accomplishments, the reach of Whitewater’s local notables isn’t very wide. 

Some officials are popular, but others not so much as the pages of the Daily Union would suggest. 

By contrast, there are lots of people in Whitewater interested in city life, including its politics, who are in no way insiders.  They are among the most vibrant residents in the community.  Their numbers dwarf the number of town fathers.

In a city disproportionately young, and with a higher Hispanic population than our census figures state, most meetings skew older and whiter than the city’s averages. 

(There’s nothing wrong with being white; I’ve been white my whole life.  There’s nothing wrong with being older; I’ve been older than the city’s median age for quite a while.  Then again, this blog is the work of just one person, not a city committee or representative sample.) 

Almost no ordinary residents attend local WEDC meetings, CDA meetings, etc. The only way the Community Development Authority could get an ordinary crowd to the Innovation Center would be to change the city’s street signs so that people passing through town would accidentally land at the Tech Park. 

Reaching all Whitewater is a bigger job than reaching what a few wish to describe as Whitewater. 

As Whitewater is changing, those unwilling to see that what worked won’t keep working will find themselves surprised and frustrated. 

The Dark, Futile Dream

UW-Whitewater is searching for a new chancellor, and so there’s a search committee, and a search consultant to guide that committee’s work.  The consultant is Dr. Jessica Kozloff, the former president of a small, undistinguished college in Pennsylvania.  (The UW System schools are, each of them, more competitive and developed than the one Dr. Kozloff led until 2007.)

Dr. Kozloff and others see, and perhaps dream, of a world where college presidents will act as they wish, when they wish, without meaningful scrutiny.  One can conclude as much after reading published remarks she made about the role of a college president:

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.”

Stressful, you see, because social media and the traditional media (at least, by her thinking, the ‘negative’ part of the traditional media) are watching public officials in the performance of their public duties.

I don’t doubt that Dr. Kozloff would prefer a world with a docile and fawning press, and without social media by which students, faculty, and residents might communicate news of administrative actions and decisions. 

Funny about all this: Kozloff is both laughably condescending and wrong at the same time. 

It’s too funny how she speaks to Whitewater’s insiders.  She speaks to them as though they were children, fit for a fairy tale about one Big Bad or another lurking in faraway places.  She speaks something like this: ‘Out there, beyond your safe little hamlet, lurk hungry reporters waiting to devour you.  Stay quiet, don’t make a sound, and maybe – just maybe – you’ll be safe.’

Funnier and sadder still would be the number that heard Dr. Kozloff speak and thought, ‘yes, that’s right.’

If these few are even half of what they claim to be, then why can’t they handle the thorough and series inquiries that come their way? 

It’s odd how wrong Kozloff is, too.  Of the traditional media, such as they now are, and where they’re heading, Kozloff seems profoundly ignorant. 

To be sure, she needn’t worry about the traditional print press of our area going negative; the only place they’re going is broke.  See, Last Call: The end of the printed newspaper.

They’ll not survive the media changes sweeping America – print (including the toadying one that yet persists in our area) – will not survive beyond the next several years.

At first blush, this demise might seem good for insiders, on the theory that no traditional print paper is better than any traditional print paper. 

Nothing could be more wrong.  The media that replace traditional print (with a few exceptions) will be more skeptical of authority, not less, as many of them will originate from non-traditional sources.     

As it stands now, most of the local print press is fawning, and willing to shill for almost any incumbent influencer or political swell it can find.  These pages upon pages are great for insiders’ scrapbooks, but the publications that churn them out have little time left. 

(Note to insiders: Hurry now to give yourselves every award you can concoct – there’ll soon be no admiring print publications to promote your ersatz honors. )

The loss of a supine press, catering to politicians, bureaucrats, and connected, big businesses, is a loss principally to insiders, not to advocates of good policymaking.

As for Whitewater particularly, media changes sweeping America will take from local town squires the reflexively supportive environment they falsely believe that they deserve.  No official in Whitewater will ever again operate without scrutiny. 

Consultant Jessica Kozloff will collect her money and drift away in some other direction. 

Her work will amount to nearly nothing.  Any insider relying on her counsel about the press, or one’s relationship to the community, will find himself or herself disappointed.  The cosseted environment about which she speaks crumbles all around; there’s no future in it. 

For our county and city, however, there is an irresistible movement toward better than we’ve had.