Do we need to save journalism or save those who won’t save themselves? The FTC weighs in

So the Federal Trade Commission issued a “staff discussion” report generated by nearly a year’s worth of research entitled “Potential Policy Recommendations To Support the Reinvention of Journalism.”  You can, and should,  read the full 47 page report from the FTC here (Well, it’s actually a 35 page report.  The last 12 pages are bibliography.)  Ostensibly, the report is full of “suggestions” about how to fix journalism for the purposes of debate, particularly an FTC roundtable discussion on June 15 at the National Press Club.

The report opens innocently enough, going out the way several times to specify that this is just some ideas, they are just for discussion, and this is nothing concrete.  Okay, but then they make a crucial mistake.  In the very first paragraph of the actual report on page 2, they equate journalism with the term “newspapers.”  While it’s true that newspapers have and will continue (for a while, at least) to bring journalism to people, it is not actually journalism.  Journalism is an activity, newspapers are a medium no different than magazines, televisions shows, blogs, twitter feeds, what have you.  This choice, while serving to oversimplify a discussion that really shouldn’t be simplified at all, immediately called into question for me whether this was an effort to reinvent journalism, or to reinvent newspapers.  To their credit, however, they did state in plain language that policy decisions shouldn’t favor newspapers over other platforms.  Then they proceeded with 30 pages of recommendations that favor newspapers over other platforms.  Well, not simply newspapers, but the large corporate entities that had cornered this industry for so long.

Newspapers themselves served us very well for a long time.  But it would be disingenuous to ignore the reality that increased internet saturation, notably the newer pervasive mobile technology, has exposed the weaknesses of the platform.  To put it simply, newspapers have very few positives to hang their hats on anymore as a medium, and this is evidenced by the consistent declines in circulation over the past few decades.  Even prior to the internet information revolution, newspapers were losing readers.   If we are truly to “reinvent” journalism, we need to free the term from the shackles of any particular medium.  But I digress.

The report also makes a rather optimistic (and thus far, untrue) statement that advertising revenue is likely to improve in 2010.  The Newspaper Association of America just posted an 11.4% decline in sales for the first quarter this year, this off of the nearly 30% drop in the first quarter last year, and it is the third largest first quarter decline on record.  Sure 11 is smaller than 30, but that’s still not what I would call an improvement, and it still shows an industry in overall continued decline.  Read about it here, and don’t miss the comparison chart between the first quarter of 2005, just before the declines started and this year that shows a 55% drop in newspaper advertising revenue in just 5 years.  Ouch.  So it begs the question, should we be trying to save newspapers by linking journalism to them or should we be trying to find a sustainable outlet for journalism post-newspapers?  Should we have legislated support for the eight track tape in the ’70s or allowed the music contained to find newer, more useful mediums as it inevitably did?

Anyway, perhaps the best line in the entire report is located immediately before the Potential Revenue Sources from Changes in Law on page 5.  It says, “Is a wait-and-see approach preferable at this time, when experimentation to find new revenue sources is ongoing and the likely effects of some proposals may be difficult to gauge?”  In short, yes.  And it’s definitely preferable to some of the “revenue generating” suggestions they came up with.

One is Federal Hot News Protection.  Basically, this would allow news organizations to have copyright protection on some of the actual facts gathered in a news story for a brief period of time.  Some states, such as New York, already have laws in this regard, but there is still something unsettling in allowing corporations to copyright facts about the news, even for a short time. Another proposal is Statutory Limits on Fair Use.  Basically, this is the anti-Google, anti-aggregator argument.  Essentially, this kind of policy would redraw the landscape of how information spreads over the internet for the specific benefit of a few at the expense of everyone else.  One thing I’ve never quite understood is why, if the product is of such importance to your print business which makes the lion’s share of your revenue, and you’re uncomfortable with your lack of control online, then don’t put it on there.  No one is forcing news agencies to post their expensive content on the web, and there are already means to block search engine crawlers from indexing their material.  No, this is simply a matter of a handful of monopolies wanting to extend that online by altering the ground rules everyone plays under for their specific benefit.

A third one is news licenses in terms of either micropayments for use of content, or by a general tax on ISPs paid in some scheme or another to certain content providers.  Undoubtedly, this would result in the larger corporate entities basically getting a check from the feds paid by all of us on our internet service bill.  There is simply no way that this kind of proposal could be administered or paid out fairly, and I have considerable questions as to whether we should.  After all, many of the newer internet only businesses aren’t even trying to generate revenue directly off of their content.  Why should we set up a tax scheme that unfairly benefits one side in a competitive philosophy bout?  We shouldn’t.  And I certainly don’t want to be paying as extra five bucks on my ISP bill that siphons money to entities that don’t deserve it  and ones who I wouldn’t pay for their products by choice, anyway.  Put simply, we shouldn’t be forced to support business models that can’t find a way to support themselves.

Another suggestion is anti-trust exemptions for publishers.  This would allow publishers to collude to erect wide-scale paywalls, and set up a mandatory licensing scheme to extort money from search engines and aggregators.  No, and no.  Publishing has long been a somewhat monopolistic enterprise, and to allow individual monopolies to collude to shut out competing possibilities, especially with a licensing scheme, is exactly the kind of stuff the Federal Trade Commission was created to prevent.  When taken in conjunction with other suggestions  like limits on fair use, hot news protections that allow copyright control of news facts, and mandatory ISP taxes, we could conceivably each be paying to support an industry colluding unfairly to limit the spread and discussion of news except on their terms, setting up price structures uniformly that blocks the news behind paywalls and away from general public consumption or discussion.   If we are indeed defining journalism as a “public good” as the FTC does in this document, it’s hard to see how allowing any of this holds true to that moniker.  In addition, this could likely transition from a debate on Copyright and Fair Use into a 1st Amendment Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press issue.

The report goes on to detail some of the past government subsidies for publishers, such as postal subsidies that  produced significantly cheaper rates for delivery for publications than for average citizens, and many government regulations requiring the publication of legal notices in the paper of record in a particular area.  There are also numerous tax breaks publishers have long benefited from listed as well, including tax breaks for maintaining or increasing circulation (There shouldn’t be more than six newspapers in the country that have benefited from this credit in the past ten years, but I bet a lot of them do), sales and use tax exemptions for ink, newsprint and the printing equipment, etc.  Basically, newspaper publishing is an industry that has traditionally posted margins in the 30 to 50 percent neighborhood for a long time, yet still benefits from massive tax breaks. Why do you think newspapers were such an attractive buy for consolidators over the years?  Low taxes, high margins and virtual monopolies everywhere.  If anything, the recent upheaval is simply leveling a playing field that large publishers have had tilted in their direction for a long time, reaping billions in profits under the guise of a “public good.”  If the industry already benefits from these kinds of massive tax breaks and still can’t find a way to stay relevant, why should we continue to throw money their way in terms of new breaks?

The report suggests several new ways to support journalism, from commonplace like increasing postal subsidies for publishers, to establishing a National Fund for Local News (although how that would work and who would be on the receiving end of that is unclear), to the actually intriguing like providing a tax credit for news organizations for every journalist they employ.  That I could get behind, so long as it is actual writers they are getting the credit for and not pushing the definition just to get the credit.  I would actually like to make another suggestion in this vein; a tax penalty for hiring management.  Publishers, particularly the large corporate variety, and typically top-heavy with managers, and its been the writers and low level employees that have taken the brunt of the cutbacks while upper management staff have been largely untouched.  Let’s penalize this kind of inefficiency with a tax penalty for managers but a credit for actual, on the ground writers.  Makes sense to me.  Actually, it doesn’t.  Government should stay out of private hiring decisions, even well-meaning ones.

How to pay for this?  Well, we again have the tax on ISPs mentioned, and a 5% tax on consumer electronics (cell phones, iPads, computers, etc) and a sales tax on advertising as well as limiting the write-off of advertising expense for businesses.  That last one makes no sense.  Newspapers are struggling to sell ads as it is, so let’s make businesses that buy ads pay more in taxes, and make them more expensive through sales taxes.  Sure, that’ll help.  Help push businesses away from traditional advertising, as if they need much pushing these days, anyway.

There’s also a detailed look at non-profit status for news organizations, including all sorts of different possibilities such as new corporate classes, and changes in non-profit status, all designed to limit tax liability.  To me, this just seems problematic.  Businesses can already function under current non-profit laws.  If we change them to benefit news organizations, would we ultimately be creating an atmosphere where, after some paperwork filings, a newspaper could function as business as usual only without tax liability?  It just seems like this could be an area ripe for abuse.

The report wraps up with some actually interesting suggestions about making government information more open and available, as well as the technology to examine, index and search documents.  This stuff makes good sense to me.  One thing about this, though, as it relates to the previously mentioned government requirements for legal notices.  I think, particularly given the current budget problems, we need to drop that requirement and just have governments post the information available online, with access from the courthouse if you don’t have a computer or as cell phone.  We shouldn’t be requiring municipalities to continue to spend dwindling tax receipts to pay high newspaper ad rates for these.  Sure, that’s not going to save newspapers by literally taking away their last vestige of actual classified revenue, but that’s my whole point.  This process has to be about what’s in the best interest of everyone, not one segment of one industry that has failed to adapt to changes in conditions.

I go back to my point earlier about a wait and see approach.  After reading through this entire report, I don’t see anything in here that really needs to be done, and many things that definitely shouldn’t be.  I, for one, believe in the free market, and those market forces are at work here.  Maybe it’s not what the traditional legacy media needs to happen for their survival, but we shouldn’t structure law on emerging technologies to suit the ends of outdated and soon-to-be-if-not-already obsolete delivery systems.  The FTC roundtable on June 15 should be interesting, if nothing else.  We shouldn’t underestimate the entrepreneurial strengths of individuals, as this report does to an extent, to find a need, fill it and figure out how to make a buck doing it.  But much like the music industry, the disruption has severely handicapped large, corporate monopolies much to the benefit of the ever-greater number of individual musicians who now have the capacity to earn a living on their music without putting themselves under corporate control.  The same thing is happening to publishing.  Do we really want to save journalism or do we want to save the corporate monopolies that have hijacked it?

Pay attention.  This could be important.

Creepy Alligator Comin’ Round The Bend

First off, I just can’t stop putting old song lyric references in my titles.  I’ve tried.  It’s an addiction.  This one is from the old Grateful Dead song, aptly named (for the purposes of this piece) Alligator.  Yesterday, I had occasion to check out something I wouldn’t have thought we’d see wandering around loose on the Chesapeake Bay, an alligator.  Well, it was a caiman, actually, but close enough.

Just imagine being a meter reader and having this jump out at you.

A few days ago, the Humane Society in Kent County got a call from a meter reader who, while going about his rounds in Rock Hall, approached a house only to have an alligator jump out at him.  And I thought German Shepherds were trouble for meter readers.  I guess that’s one way to keep the electric company at bay. Also, he incorrectly called the much smaller animal a gator, but I doubt he had the time to parse sub-species information.  Have you seen the movie Lake Placid?  If a gator ever jumps out at me somewhere, I’m not stopping to ask its ethnicity, either.

Anyway, it was later discovered that someone in the area was keeping the caiman as a pet and, being small, sleek and really fast, it managed to escape its owners.  After being informed that it was against the law to own a caiman, the owner agreed to turn it over to the Humane Society once they managed to recapture it.  Fortunately, the caiman didn’t eat any neighborhood pets and, other than scaring off the meter reader,  just hung out under its owners’ house until being lured out with some food, where they snapped up the nearly 3-foot long reptile.  Yesterday, the Humane Society found a new home for the caiman, turning it over to Plumpton Park Zoo in Rising Sun, where they already have another caiman or two for him to hang out with.

According to the Zoo, this particular caiman is about four years old.  Like other reptile species, they are long-lived, sometimes reaching ages of 70 or 80 years, making this one a relative youngster.  Caiman, also like other members of the alligator family tree, are an endangered species, with far too many of them ending up as shoes, belts, wallets or luggage, hence the illegality of owning them.  Well, that and they’re more agile than regular alligators and have longer, sharper teeth.  Not exactly a replacement for the terrier as a family pet.  This particular guy was actually pretty laid back, and he just hung out in the cage in the Humane Society van for the long ride.  I’m sure he’s looking forward to finding a good home at the zoo.  And meter readers everywhere can breathe a little easier today.

I think he looks happy. That's kind of a grin, right?

The End is Nigh

I come to you with a heavy heart this morning.  The end of days is fast approaching.  Earthquakes, floods, disease and other natural disasters plague the Earth.  Everyone knows about the Mayans and the quickly approaching 2012 apocalypse.   And today, there’s word that country music legend Willie Nelson cut his hair!  This is truly a harbinger of the end times, a biblical-level event.  War, Famine, Pestilence, Death and a short-haired Willie; has to be the five horsemen.  Willie’s braids brought comfort to so many over the years, kept the IRS at bay and showed that even a man in his seventies, despite societal conventions,  could rock some long hair with style and grace.  Now, the red-headed stranger has a doo that looks like some kind of bobbed thing out of Ally McBeal.  Is there no God?!?  I’m sorry to have to lay this on you, but you’d better get your affairs in order.  I’m going to go drown myself in a Whiskey River of old albums and weep for Willie’s lost locks.  The end is near.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 3:18 pm  Comments (2)  

Obsolescence and a New Cell Phone

So I got a new cell phone yesterday.  First off, let me say that I like new toys just as much as the next guy, but I’m typically the kind of guy that runs the car until the engine falls out before I go buy a new one.  I’m not generally one to rush out to the store to get the latest and greatest gadgets fresh off the assembly line, not when I have a perfectly fine model already at home.  Hell, I was one of the last people I know to even get a cell phone in the first place, waiting far beyond reason until early 2007 before finally breaking down and signing up.  I had stayed away because of an unfortunate side effect of cell phone use I had witnessed first hand in entirely too many people; they were a leash.  I watched husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, and employees kept under almost constant surveillance through text messages or calls that they, for whatever internal reason, simply couldn’t bring themselves to ignore.  I didn’t want that type of restriction.  But when I left my job at the time and started publishing Pet Companions Magazine, I went out and got one because of its relative usefulness for the business at hand.

Over the years, that phone became an important link to a lot of different things far beyond simple phone calls.  And I ran into a little of that unfortunate leash problem before coming up with a way of dealing with.  Just don’t answer the phone, or reply to that insistent text message.  Eventually, people got the point.  I used the wireless internet, crude as it was, to keep up with email and various other things.  I knew that better and more effective phones were out there, but I didn’t have a need to move from what I already had.  Why fix what isn’t broke?  Well, a couple weeks ago, I spent a few minutes fooling around with my sister’s iPhone.  The capacity of what that thing could do far, far outweighed my virtual antique flip-top Samsung that had served me so well for the past three years.  I was debating making some changes to my phone service anyway, so while I was on the Verizon website a couple days ago, I checked out the phone upgrade possibilities that I’d been eligible for since, oh, around Christmas of 2008.  I ended up getting the next best thing to an iPhone, I got a Droid.  The really great part is that not only is my overall phone bill going to be cheaper than it was before, but they gave me the phone for free, even tossing in free overnight shipping.  If there’s one thing I like more than fancy new toys, it’s free fancy new toys.  Yeah, yeah, I had to agree to a new two-year contract, but so what?  I wasn’t switching services anyway.

Well, I spent the entire evening last night playing around with this phone.  The wireless internet, for which I got the unlimited package, is simply fantastic.  And the Droid market has so many apps, the vast majority of which are free, that I spent two hours just scrolling through all of the possibilities.  One thing I particularly liked, by the way, is Pandora, a streaming music service that lets you type in a band or a song and it instantly creates an entire station of music of and like your selection.  And they have a wide variety of really good stuff.  It’s just very cool.  I’m listening to Led Zeppelin radio right now as I type. Now playing is Ten Years Gone from Jimmy Page and The Black Crowes, complete with album cover art from their Live At The Greek album.  The last song was Day in the Life from The Beatles.  Wait, now it’s In The Flesh from Pink Floyd’s The Wall.  And all I did was just type in Led Zeppelin and click search.  My old phone couldn’t do that.  I’ve even got the phone plugged into my computer speakers, and the sound is sharp.

Still, I’m not really a tech junkie.  I appreciate the hell out of what these things can do, but I don’t get all hung up on specs and stats and such.  I’m far more interested in the end-user utility.  And to this point, the utility of my new phone is far beyond my capacity for imagining what I’d like to do with it.  It feels like I can literally do anything.  I’m sure there’s limitations, but this does not bode well for the future of numerous industries.  Over the past year, I’ve talked a lot about how the web has forced obsolescence onto the publishing industry.  Well, they’re not alone.  I think, before all is said and done, we’ll be hard-pressed to find an industry that this technology doesn’t disrupt in some way.  And to me today, I’m thinking that while many are still struggling to adjust to the emergence of the web, this relatively new and still expanding mobile capacity has changed even that game.  Does it really do you any good to find a way to live in the world of websites when the world is moving toward a mobile cloud way of communicating?

After another Zeppelin tune, Aerosmith’s Dream On and some Tom Petty, I’ve switched over to John Lee Hooker Radio.  Time for a little blues for the disrupted.  The first tune is When My First Wife Quit Me by the boogie blues man himself.  Just cool.  Anyway, as convinced as I was two days ago, I’m even more convinced that a useful future on the web isn’t going to be like the old real estate maxim of “location, location, location.”  The home page and the destination web, as I’ve seen it called, is already somewhat obsolete.  It’s about the vast, flowing streams of information, and about being in the ones that you need to be for the audience you want.  After all, the ability to access all things internet wise has already transitioned away from the desktop.  You don’t need a computer anymore for any of this.  My little 5″ x 3″ touch screen phone can do anything I need communication wise, virtually anywhere I am.  And I haven’t even played with an iPad or the like yet.

In a related matter, I was reading this blog earlier about someone who finally, despite a lot of hedging, broke down and got an Amazon Kindle reader for books.  Scroll down and read some of the comments.  Person after person told almost the same story:  “I love books, they’re great.  I didn’t want a Kindle because I like real books, but I broke down and got one.  Now real books don’t look as attractive any more.”  And these aren’t gadget freaks, but genuine book-lovers coming to this realization in numbers.  Technology is pervasive, and as it continues to assimilate into our everyday lives, its advantages are going to be too great to ignore, no matter what your biases are.  (And to be honest, I’m biased in favor of actual paper books myself, but that belief is increasingly going against reason.)

I see many in publishing talking about how the worst is behind them, but I don’t think so.  I think it’s yet to come.  Technology is improving by the day, further eroding the usefulness of mediums of the past with each leap.  If something as simple as cell phones can grow from what I had in 1997 into what this thing I have now is in three years, what will we be using five years from now?  Can you even imagine it?  I can’t.  The one thing I can see us not using is the daily newspaper.   Pandora’s now moved on to Howlin’ Wolf moaning some blues.  “I’ve had my fun if I never get well no more.  My health is failing me, and I’m going down slow.”  Pretty apt, I think.

Published in: on May 26, 2010 at 4:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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Do you beleve in Magic? Yeah, me either.

Before moving on to more interesting things, I feel compelled to write a little bit about the NBA playoffs, or if you prefer, the race to see how many completely uncompetitive series we can have on the way to a championship.  After a fairly interesting first round, at least out west where all four series went to game 6, and Atlanta-Milwaukee in the east went the distance, it’s been a bore a minute.  Three of the four second round series were sweeps, with only Boston-Cleveland making it to 6 games, but that series stopped being competitive after game 3.  So far, the Conference Finals have all the look of adding two more sweeps, which would make 6 series sweeps out of 14 total series.  Not exactly compelling television.  And this was supposed to be a deeply interesting and combative playoffs.  I’d be willing to bet that David Stern in praying for another epic Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics.  Nothing else will tune down the din of all Lebron, all the time.

I thought Phoenix was much better suited to put up a decent fight against L.A. than they had been in the past.  Boy was I wrong.  The Suns gave up a disgraceful 126 points per game in the first two, and that’s not even in overtime games.  So much for that vaunted defensive improvement.  In reality, Steve Nash can’t guard a lamp post and Amare Stoudemire may well be costing himself millions and a free-agent suitor or two with his epic soft play.  Stoudemire, who fancies himself a beast, has a total of 9 rebounds in two games.  For a 6’10” power forward-center, to be averaging 4.5 boards a game, even against the Lakers size, is just sad.  When people talk about the big inside guys available in free agency this off season, we repeatedly see three names- Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer and Chris Bosh.  Let the buyer beware here.  A 12-pack of squeezably soft Charmin could play tougher than this trio.  And unlike Amare, I bet even Mr. Whipple could box out once in a while, and at least have a clue about what a “defensive rotation” actually is.  Unless L.A. completely falls asleep on the road, the next game in Los Angeles will be Game one of the Finals.

Meanwhile in Orlando, we’re seeing somewhat of a repeat of last season.  Orlando cruised through the first two rounds, getting all cocky and arrogant, before getting punched in the gut by an actual championship caliber team.  Same thing happened to Cleveland last season.  I said before the season, and I’ll reiterate here, replacing Hedu Turkoglu and Courtney Lee with Vince Carter was, and continues to be, an enormous mistake.  Say what you want about Hedu’s bust year in Toronto, this guy was perfectly suited to the Magic’s roster and style, and Lee was an upcoming spark off the bench before being exiled to the Jersey swamps.  I hope everyone enjoyed watching Vince choke on those late-game free throws the other night, especially his cop-out setup of a sore wrist beforehand.  Nobody sets up excuses for failure ahead of time like VC.  Vince is a blackhole of bad jumpshots and worse defense.  Wasn’t anyone paying attention when the Nets added Carter as the final piece to a championship puzzle a few years back and ended up presiding over the downfall of a franchise that played in two straight NBA Finals before acquiring him, but none after?

Dwight Howard is a good example of why the Defensive Player of the Year award should have absolutely nothing to do with individual stats.  Sure, he’s an aggressive rebounder, and he blocks a lot of shots, but his straight up and team defense are pretty lacking.  A guy who doesn’t stay patient and within the defensive system, flying all over the court trying to block every shot is ripe to be eaten alive by an actual team effort.  Boston has made this look entirely too easy.  I was very confident in my pick that the Celtics would win this series outright, but despite their obvious shortcomings, I really thought Orlando would bring at least some effort and win a game or two.  Guess not.  And don’t get me started on Rashard Lewis.  Five points per game in the Conference Finals?!?  After this pasting by Boston, Orlando may have to start rethinking the players surrounding Howard.  And possibly even the coach.  Of course, I doubt there’s anyone in the league who would want either Carter or Lewis at this point.

The Houston Rockets laid out the blueprint for championships won by surrounding a dominant big man with three point shooters, taking that style to consecutive titles in ’94-’95.  Hell, even the Shaq-Penny Hardaway-Nick Anderson-Dennis Scott ’95 Magic had that formula down better than this version, and they got swept in the finals by those same Rockets.  Dwight Howard may indeed be great, but he’s not even in the same hemisphere as Hakeem Olajuwon.  And the guys Orlando has currently around the arc are a pretty far cry from Vernon Maxwell, Kenny Smith, Sam Cassell, Robert Horry and Mario Elie.  If Orlando really wants to win a title with Howard, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Published in: on May 23, 2010 at 4:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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Clarifying The Rumor Mill

As with all things, sometimes rumors will outweigh the reality of a situation.  Earlier today, I received a tip that the Cecil County Office of Economic Development had threatened to pull financial support from the Chamber of Commerce over the now-contentious matter of the upcoming Company of the Year Award.  I have learned that, after the recent meeting, it was reaffirmed that Chesapeake Publishing and the Cecil Whig will indeed be recognized with this award.  Being naturally curious, I sought comment from Vernon Thompson, the Economic Director of the Office of Economic Development in Cecil County.  Mr. Thompson was gracious enough to reply.  Here’s what he said:

“The information you have been provided is incorrect. The office of economic development is a close partner with the chamber and the Whig. The decision of the Chamber regarding the “Company of the Year” was theirs to make.   It was based in part on the ability of the Whig to recalibrate successfully in a difficult market for print media.   We support the Chamber selection.”

Thank you, sir, for the clarification.  Whether or not we agree or disagree with a decision, it’s very easy for unsubstantiated rumors to be confused with facts.  In my experience, people do many things that deserve criticism, but we should be cautious to not demonize someone unfairly or based on false or half-truths.   More on this story later.

Update on Company of the Year

Information flies quickly in cyberspace these days.  A week or so ago, I released a bit of knowledge I had come across about the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce awarding the Cecil Whig’s parent company, Chesapeake Publishing, with an inexplicable Company of the Year award among Cecil businesses, despite layoffs that possibly number over 100, the shutting down of a long-standing printing plant, numerous full time positions being exported out of Cecil County to Easton and even the demise of the Cecil Business Ledger, Chesapeake’s lone Cecil business publication covering the dealings of the business community and the Chamber itself.

Well, apparently, I wasn’t alone in my concern for this matter.  Sources have indicated to me that yesterday, the Board of Directors for the Chamber held a special emergency meeting, the topic of which being the before-mentioned award and who the recipient will be at their June 18 awards ceremony.  The meeting, and rumored reconsideration, was called after the Chamber reportedly received a sizable amount of pressure from the local community over the issue.

And little old me, I was simply pointing out the apparent inconsistency of giving an award to a company who’s public actions appear counter to the Chamber’s stated mission as “advocate for a strong, viable economic environment in Cecil County.”  I guess my off-hand crack about being a freelance pain in the ass might be more accurate than I realized.

That being said, for the best interest of Cecil County and its business community, I applaud the effort to reconsider, if that’s indeed what is going on here.  Times are very tough economically in this area, as I’m sure we all know.  Our local Chamber of Commerce should be recognizing companies that are committed to Cecil County, not with one foot out the door.  As I mentioned in a post a couple days ago, this isn’t to say Chesapeake or the Whig have or haven’t done anything in this case to be criticized for.  Business decisions, especially difficult ones that eliminate jobs, are what they are.  But in this case, what’s best for the County and what’s best for Chesapeake are clearly divergent.  Accolades from the County’s Chamber should go to those who work for economic growth within our community, creating jobs, not eliminating them, no matter how necessary those layoffs are for the company in question.  If they want to create an award for Promotional Assistance, or for Community Awareness and give that to the Whig, then I have no problem with that.  But Company of the Year, if it’s to have any meaning, should be held to a higher standard.

As more information about the emergency meeting emerges, I’ll keep you posted.  And, as I stated before, if anyone from the Chamber would like to expound on this, you have an open forum here.  Apparently, there are quite a few people out here in the community who are interested in this.

Random Thoughts For A Wednesday

I was reading about Arlen Specter this morning.  If you don’t know, the 30-year U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania who’s career was marked by twice switching political parties (nothing like sticking to your guns) just lost in the Democratic primary to a relative nobody without the supposedly necessary support of big special interests and even his own party.  The election in November is shaping up to be a bloodbath for incumbents, particularly on the Democratic side.  And justifiably so, in my opinion.  Anyway, in reading some of the comments beneath the article, one struck me as particularly insightful on the current state of electoral politics in this country:

“Politicians are like drug dealers.  You finally take one down and you end up with an immediate replacement who is as bad or worse than the original.”

So before we get all excited about the political upheaval that’s coming, we need to remember that we don’t need to just boot out the incumbents but actually replace them with people who won’t end up falling victim to the same forces of money, party and special interests that we’re trying to get away from.  I’ve seen a few changes in political leadership in my life to this point, all painted as very different choices at the time, but in retrospect, outside of a few talking point,  essentially party-mandated policy decisions, I’ve seen very few actual differences.  If you’re going to vote, vote for somebody you believe in, not just against someone you don’t.  A choice between the lesser of two evils, or made just to get rid of one guy without regard to the other isn’t a choice at all.  That is how we got where we are today.

Hanley Ramirez of the Florida Marlins put on a display of dogging it on the baseball field the other day that Rickey Henderson would be proud of.  Ramirez, a shortstop, ran into shallow left field chasing a pop up, he didn’t get to it in time, then proceeded to boot the ball deep into the outfield corner.  Two runners that were on base scored easily and the batter made it to third before Ramirez managed to saunter over to the ball.  Upon returning to the dugout, Ramirez was promptly dressed down by his manager, Fredi Gonzalez.  After which, Ramirez said to the media something to the affect of, “What does he know, he never played in the majors.”

Ramirez, who is one of the best players in the National League, has been roundly criticized, as well he should be.  He dogged it after that ball, and there’s just no excuse for that.  Of course, maybe he’s just sick of playing for a cheap-skate franchise in an empty stadium.  I’m sure that if there were any fans in the stadium, they would have booed Ramirez lack of effort.  As for Gonzalez, Ramirez has a point.  Who is this guy?  He’s been the manager of the Marlins since replacing Joe Girardi in 2007, and has led Florida to zero playoff appearances, and an overall .500 record.  That just commands respect doesn’t it?  Still, Ramirez should have run harder for that ball.  With a little effort, he could have kept the batter to second base instead of third, and that could have made all the difference.  Preventing that run and the Marlins would have lost 4-1 instead of 5-1.  Plus, the decision to pull Ramirez from the game didn’t give the player an opportunity to atone for the error with his potent, NL Batting Champion bat.

Still, hustle is a lost art in baseball.  I was watching the Phillies the other night in a game against the Milwaukee Brewers.  All-Star second baseman Chase Utley hit a short grounder fielded by Brewers pitcher Dave Bush.  Bush stumbled his way to first base, ending up on his backside in the baseline between Utley and the base.  The Phillies second baseman tried to dance around the prone Bush and was tagged out easily.  I couldn’t help but think about past Phillies players and how they would have handled that situation, namely Charlie Hustle himself, Pete Rose.  Rose would have went all Ronnie Lott on Bush, hitting him like a free safety smacks a defenseless wide receiver, knocked the ball away and been safe at first.  This is a guy that ran over catcher Ray Fosse in the 1970 All Star Game, after all, putting a more fierce  lick on that catcher than we’ve seen in any NFL Pro Bowl of late.  Man, I miss the good old days.

Somehow, I got on an email list for candidate Ted Patterson, who’s running for State Delegate of District 34B, a position held for the past four terms by Dave Rudolph.  Anyway, in an email I received yesterday, Patterson, in full campaign speak, rants against the unfairness of the sales tax in Maryland and how that particular tax hammers us in Cecil County given our close proximity to tax-free Delaware.  He goes on to say that he will not vote for any state sales tax increases, and will fight to actually cut the tax.

First off, I couldn’t agree more.  The sales tax kills us here in Cecil County.  It keeps retail businesses on the Delaware side of the state line, and who knows how many untold millions of dollars the stores we do have lose out to the tax free version just 10 minutes or so away?  I’m all for cutting or outright eliminating the sales tax here.  But good luck getting that done.  The problem with Maryland politics is that one little corridor in the center of the State; the Baltimore-Annapolis-DC Suburbs corridor; basically runs the entire show, regardless of what we on the outskirts need.  And they’re not dealing with sales tax issues because Washington DC, Virginia and Pennsylvania all have comparable 5 or 6 percent sales taxes of their own.  Our issues in dealing with this tax mean absolutely nothing to them.

Of course, get rid of the tax and we not only equal out Delaware’s advantage over us here in the east, but gain big advantages over Maryland’s surrounding states, which to me seems like it might be a pretty good idea.  It’ll never happen.  The dominance over state politics exhibited by the State’s central corridor is precisely why I’m always sympathetic every time I hear someone suggesting those of us on the eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay should form our own state.  And who can ever forget former Governor William Donald Schaefer famously referring to Maryland’s Eastern Shore as a shithouse back in 1991?  That’s respect for you.

Anyone else think the NBA’s Draft Lottery was rigged?  The Washington Wizards, who changed their team nickname from the Bullets in 1995, partly because of concerns related to the high crime and gun violence rate in DC at the time (and not because of the obvious marketing positives of selling NBA merchandise in the inner cities with pictures of an old guy in a robe and pointy hat on it.  Nothing says street cred like sporting a Gandolf jersey) had their season crash and burn after a gun incident involving their best player in their own locker room.  Gilbert Arenas’ idiocy notwithstanding, long-time Washington owner (and NBA Commissioner David Stern’s buddy) Abe Polin passed away less than six weeks before the incident took place.  Arenas and the Wizards were a disgrace to the league, Washington and it’s image, especially after standing around in a circle before a game playing cowboys and indians with finger pointing “gunfire” only days after the incident.  Well, now, Washington, who was the fifth most likely team to win the lottery and get the top pick, actually got it.  Odd, no?

Anyway, the New Jersey Nets, who were historically bad this season at 12-70, ended up with the third pick and prime in the possible bust range.  That got the third horse in a two-horse race.   Kentucky’s John Wall and Ohio State’s Evan Turner are the obvious one-two, and after them, it’s a guessing game.   This draft is said to be deep with talented players, but it’s not without risk.  It may, in fact, be one of those drafts where you’re better off picking 8-9-10 instead of 3-4-5, and let someone else nab those highly touted but risky potential guys so you won’t be tempted to.  Still, it sucks to be a Nets fan.  With the number one pick and John Wall coming to town, they may have had a shot at Lebron or Dwayne Wade.  Now, that’s not going top happen.  Sitting pretty at number two is the Philadelphia 76ers, who are guaranteed to get a very nice player to add to an already talented, if massively underachieving roster.  This could be your sleeper team in the East next season.

Publishing Links For Today: Are local newspapers really in trouble and can Google save the day?

Over the past few weeks in this area, we’ve seen our local newspaper suffer the indignity of modern corporate publishing, that is being cut back like an out of control hedgerow to better service other parts of the company.  I’ve been accused of attacking this company through my pieces and the information I’ve presented, but that’s not entirely true.  To be certain, I disagree with some of the decisions, namely the closing of a printing plant, and have criticized it, but only on strictly business terms.  To me, it makes much more sense, if you’re going to have a commercial printing facility actively seeking outside work, to have that facility in this area with its close geography to significantly more possible business than to have it in Easton, far afield of the population bases we can easily access up here.  But that being said, as much as we don’t like it here, we as a community need to accept that the Cecil Whig isn’t a locally owned and operated publication anymore.  It is one of a cluster of publications that is managed outside of the County.  To expect decisions related to their business to be made simply for the best results for Cecil County is unfair and unrealistic.

To some, the local newspaper is seen as a public service of sorts, but at its roots, it’s a business.  A very, very expensive business.  And in case you haven’t noticed, this isn’t exactly a golden age for the news industry.  Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made, and those decisions are never pretty.  The mistake here isn’t in the layoffs, it isn’t in the closing of facilities, it was in a decision made quite a while ago.  The mistake was in allowing the company to be sold out from local ownership in the first place.  And that was a choice  made long before any of the current people in charge had anything to do with it.  The current leadership are just dealing with what they’ve had forced upon them, unseemly as it may be.  That still doesn’t justify winning a company of the year award, but that criticism belongs with the Chamber of Commerce, if it indeed comes to pass.

Which brings me to my links for today. The first is a comment made by Sir Ray Tindle, the owner of Tindle Newspapers, a collection of small, hyperlocal newspapers in the UK.  Tindle makes some interesting points, namely about how the death watch for local newspapers has been exagerrated, and his expectation that they will survive for a long time to come.  I think he’s a little optimistic (actually, a helluva lot optimistic) and that he, himself, is downplaying the technological forces at play that are expediting the fall of print, but what do you expect from an 80-something, life-long newspaperman?

What I think is really important in what he has to say is about the structure of his company.  While Tindle owns numerous titles, they are a private company (no shareholders or stock values to answer to) and each of their publications are run in a very hands-off way from the central office.  He also points out that, unlike many of the larger publishing conglomerates, his company has little or no debt, no outstanding bank loans and no big investors to satisfy.  Here’s a quote:

“We don’t run our titles directly from a head office,” he said. “Each is run locally by local management and a magnificent staff.  We find this is possible, in most cases, and so far we have come through this recession, which has seen 5,000 newspapermen (in the UK)  made redundant, without losing a single title and without making a single journalist redundant and yet remaining completely viable throughout as a group.”

Interesting, no?  A collection of papers still run independently in each case by locals, avoiding the pitfalls of many American and British publishers of taking out huge loans to buy up publications anywhere and everywhere, not having to make decisions based on stock price or debt service and doing just fine, thank you, despite this dire economic predicament.  I still think that technology is going to be a problem in the long run without a transition of some sort, but it does kind of illustrate how newspapers, if run properly, can still be viable entities, at least for a while yet.  To reiterate a point I’ve made repeatedly, newspapers themselves aren’t the problem, consolidation and far-away corporate management, and all that comes with that, is.

Which brings me to my second link, a rather lengthy piece detailing Google’s efforts to find a way to help the news business. Without going to in detail, suffice it to say that Google has a much different approach to what can be done than publishers, and those differences may indeed doom this potential alliance.  For one thing, Google not only accepts but is certain that print is totally dead and that publishers need to discard that platform entirely before they can make progress toward finding a profitable digital equivalent.  That belief is a deal-breaker right there, correct though it may be.

Anyway, for all of its engineering brilliance, Google is hanging their hats on two revenue streams; one is from subscription based content and the other is on web ads.  I’m a little surprised that a company as sharp as Google doesn’t see the inherent problem with this, namely being that those are the two models that have been tried, tried and tried again to very modest if any success at all.  Google seems to be convinced that for-pay subscription services will exist in the not too distant future and that they will generate significant revenue.  To some extent, they may have a point, but they still seem to be overlooking the one key element that makes paywalls fail.  No matter how good your information is, there is always going to be someone else giving at least a fair approximation of that material away for free.  If the news business were the only ones generating content online, wide-spread paywalls might have a chance, but they’re not and technology is continuing to progress to the point that they never again will be.

As for ads, I have stated before and will again that web ads don’t work.  They don’t work for the advertisers, they don’t generate enough revenue for the web sites to move away from print, and their price point has continually gone down, even as total volume has increased.  The problem is that there is no limit on space on the internet. There’s no premium positions because nothing is really premium.  And targeted advertising is a pipe dream.  People simply aren’t going to accept being harvested and having ads for every little thing even slightly associated with a site they may have browsed at one point forced upon them.  Certainly, the big publishers can try, but again, become too intrusive or annoying, and you further drive viewers to other alternatives, and there are always going to be other alternatives.  Google seems to be saying little more than “web ads haven’t worked so far because we haven’t done it for you.”  Plus, when companies start this wide-spread harvesting of info, it might take a month before someone comes up with a web browser plug in that blocks that kind of activity.  You don’t think so?  Just look at the backlash Facebook has faced since changing its privacy policy to make more people’s information more available to outside sources.

Google may well be able to help some publishers out, dragging a few of them at least part way kicking and screaming into the 21st century, but I was a little disappointed.  I would have expected something a bit more innovative than more of the same.  Of course, Google’s motto has always been, “experiment, experiment, experiment and see what sticks.”  Still, they don’t seem to have any more clue as to what will save the news than anyone else does.

Charles Barkley on Politics

A lot of people don’t like Charles Barkley.  Some think he’s a blow-hard just shooting his mouth off.  Well, yeah, he is, but I personally like people who say what they think without giving a damn about what others think of him.  If more people were like that, it would be a more interesting world.  Anyway, I read an interview on a site called Sports Media Watch with Barkley this morning that covered a lot of ground.  The part I particularly liked was when they got into politics.

Barkley’s TNT NBA show was criticized recently for bringing politics into the discussion when the Phoenix Suns wore their Los Suns jerseys during one of the games with the San Antonio Spurs to protest Arizona’s new (read: intrusive, unconstitutional, discriminatory) immigration law.   Personally, I had no problem with that topic or bringing politics into it because those kinds of self-serving laws affect us all negatively.  Anyway, Barkley, who once seriously considered running for Governor of Alabama, explained his feeling on politics.  Here’s a quote (the expletives were deleted on the SMW site):

“you watch politics, you see – they don’t give a s*** about these people. They’re going to do their right wing thing, the left wing is going to do their left-wing – the only people who lose are the people. You just try to be honest and straightforward. First of all, the Democrats and the Republicans both are full of s***. They’ve all sold their souls to special interest groups.”

Here, here Chuck.  I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Published in: on May 14, 2010 at 2:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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