Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why America needs multipartyism

The Liberal Ironist had an essay on the origins of partisanship in Washington. Like most analyses, it seems to be based on the erroneous premise that there was little or no partisanship in Washington prior to the 1990s. Anyone actually familiar with American history knows there have been several times when the country and the Congress have been far more bitterly divided than it is now: the late 18th/early 19th century, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Vietnam years.

The current hyperpartisanship is really the result of the convergence of the two major political parties on economic issues. Since Reagan's reign, BOTH major parties have veered sharply to the right on economic issues. And while liberals comfort themselves by blaming Republicans, even Democratic presidents have pushed the conservative economic orthodoxy of deficit reduction, tax cuts, heavy cuts to social services and the fraud mislabeled “free trade.”

Because the two parties have so heavily converged on economic issues, the only real difference remaining between them is on social issues. Since this is really only a small handful of issues – primarily whether gays, women and Hispanics deserve to be treated as human beings or deserve to be treated by 14th century standards – the two parties play these up to the hilt. 

It's called the psychosis of small differences. They already agree on so much, they can't compromise on the few things they disagree with or else they will be completely identical. The illusion of choice in our corporatacracy depends upon these few differences being hyped up as much as possible so as to rally the bases.

You now have a Democratic president who’s campaigning on his health insurance scheme... a scheme originally conceived and implemented by his Republican opponent... who’s now attacking what he created. 

I can’t think of anything that demonstrates the convergence (as well as the cowardice, corruption and intellectual bankruptcy) of the two corporate parties more perfectly. The Democrats have become Republicans. And the Republicans have become Medievalists. What's a rational voter to do? Follow Albert Einstein's advice and avoid the insanity of "doing the same thing over and over but expecting  different results."

Vote for smaller party and independent candidates, like Dr. Jill Stein. At the bare minimum, inform yourself about candidates from outside the two corporate parties. This will take some work, since the corporate media tends to blacklist them, but it's worth the effort.

The US is probably the only democracy in the world with so few (two) parties represented in their national legislature – even in democratic paragons like Russia and Zimbabwe have at least three. This won’t solve all the problems. But clearly, fresh ideas and approaches are needed and the Republicans and Democrats are not interested.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Will local newspapers adapt or die?

New Orleans has become the latest (and biggest?) major city in the United States to cease having a daily newspaper. The Times-Picayune, celebrated for its work and investigative journalism during and after Hurricane Katrina, will now publish in print only three days a week.

Will other dailies, especially smaller local and regional ones, evolve or will they keep patting themselves on the back and telling what’s left of their readership “You’ll miss us when we’re gone”? So far, they've preferred the latter.

Most seem to think 'evolving' constitutes posting videos on their websites. When I visit a newspaper website, it doesn't even occur to me to watch a video -- that's not what I go there for -- unless someone I know has told me they're in it. I don't know of anyone who does otherwise. 

This is really part of the smoke-and-mirrors (or razzle-dazzle lasers) approach most papers are taking to avoid truly transformative action that might actually save their business. Videos. Semi-paywalls. Giving blogs to people who already have columns. None of this matters.

Truly revolutionary change in the newspaper industries would be for local newspapers to focus on *local* news. Drop the wire service for everything (except for the cartoons and puzzles which I guess people freak out about if messed with). Take the money you save and use it to invest in more local reporters and better local journalism.

The national and international news they publish is half-a**ed crap written which is usually hacked for space reasons to the point of being... well... pointless. No one *pays* for The Post-Star or Saratogian for national or international news, when they can get the same stuff for *free*, and much better quality, from hundreds of different websites or, for that matter, on television. 

Local papers ought to focus exclusively on local content. Why? Because that's the one thing that's truly unique. It's the one thing they offer that people, particularly in smaller areas, can't get anywhere else. If it's truly unique, they're more likely to be willing to pay for it. If a newspaper is 30% unique customer and 70% stuff you can get for free else where, it diminishes the value of the entire product. If the newspaper is 90% or 100% unique content, then it has a much greater value to the potential customer.

Most newspaper people will read this and adopt the ostrich approach. They will call me naive and say "I don't understand" blah blah blah. Well, there is one thing I do understand. Circulation numbers for most papers are down, some way down. Some papers, even major ones, are going out of business or ceasing to be dailies. That's not me talking. That's the market talking. The band-aid-on-a-flesh-wound strategy isn't working. This isn't the time for the timid newspaper man. They'd better act. And they'd better act boldly and decisively before the newspaper ostriches go the way of the dodo.

Update: Also, it's not exactly the smartest business strategy to tut-tut commenters to your newspaper website for their poor spelling and then misspell (or not bother to notice the copy-pasted misspelling of) the name of your paper's own city, as did "Glen Falls" Post-Star editor Ken Tingley.

Also see: my earlier essay The Decline and Fall of the Newsprint Empire.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I meant every one of those unprofessional words I claim to be apologizing for

The boring fake apology of the typical public figure goes something like this: “I apologize to anyone who might have been offended by my comment/action.”

But the town supervisor in Hartford (NY), who thinks government meetings are prayer sessions, tried the less common defiant fake apology.

 I can’t link to it, due to the daily’s new pay wall, but here’s The Post-Star account of a heated Washington County board of supervisors argument over the potential sale of a county asset:

 "You’re nothing but a bunchy of pimps, prostituting land in the name of money," Hartford supervisor Dana Haff shouted to his peers. 


"You guys have screwed Hartford for 20 years because it makes you feel good," he screamed, while pointing his finger in the face of Dresden Supervisor Bob Banks. 

Haff, in a comment on the Post-Star website later Tuesday, apologized for "unprofessional" use of "unvarnished, salty language," adding he "meant every word."

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Liars and the lies militarists tell

So let me get this straight. In 1979, militarists in the US said we needed to impose an arms embargo against the theocratic regime in Iran. By 1986, they were saying we needed to sell arms to theocratic Iran, in violation of the embargo they demanded, so we could use the money to destabilize Central America. Now, the militarists who armed theocratic Iran saying we need to launch some sort of aggression against them, to use that Orwellian phrase, in order to 'preserve peace' because... they allegedly won't disarm. Why exactly would anyone with an ounce of critical thinking skills still be listening to these people?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Catholic extremists against rationalism and truth

Much is made of the intolerance of Islamic extremists, but Catholic fundamentalists aren't much better. The global media has picked up a story from India. A prominent atheist was arrested when he debunked claims of a miracle that a cross was weeping. He revealed that the 'tears' were the very unmiraculous result of a leaky drain. The local Catholic Church demanded he retract his truthful claim and when he refused, they had him detained on blasphemy charges. According to Wikipedia, blasphemy in India is punishable by up to three years in jail. Yet another illustration of how intolerant religious fanatics are a menace to free thought regardless of their religion.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Hydrofracking's 'toxic legacy'

Initially, it may have been nothing more than stalling to appease public opinion, but New York state's controversial temporary moratorium on hydrofracking is looking increasingly wise. The Diane Rehm Show had a comprehensive discussion on the benefits and dangers of the process. Officials from the Southern Tier who want fracking at any costs should check out this NPR All Things Considered story on its 'toxic legacy' in neighboring Pennsylvania.

Reminder: the excellent site Pro Publica has done some comprehensive investigative journalism on hydrofracking, its dangers and state government complicity with gas polluters.

Update: A few days ago, Vermont became the first state in the nation to ban hydrofracking.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Evil scum war criminal pats himself on the back

This essay is part of an occasional feature on this blog that presents compelling stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, IsraelStine and the Trumped Up Enemy of the Month. A list of all pieces in this series can be found found here..

In his sentencing hearing today, evil scum and war criminal Charles Taylor pleaded for mercy from the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone... without acknowledging any guilt. The former Liberian dictator was convicted by the court of knowingly aiding and abetting war crimes in that country’s civil war (he’s never been charged for his role in the barbarity in his own country).

Taylor had the gall to praise himself as bringing healing and reconciliation to Liberia. He is correct.... sort of. Healing and reconciliation arrived in his country, but only after he fled the country in disgrace.

Prosecutors called for an 80 year sentence for the convictions, a term which defense attorneys called ‘disproportionate.’ They are correct, it is disproportionate. Taylor’s reign of terror which destabilized an entire region merits a much harsher sentence.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Buy A Falling Star

by contributor Mark Wilson

Part of a series on the troubles at The Post-Star and its parent company Lee Enterprises.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations has released paid newspaper readership figures for the six month period ending March 31. The report brings more hard news for the Glens Falls Post-Star. With average daily circulation standing at 24,578, the paper showed a loss of 1,455 paying readers since last October. Compared to a year ago, the average daily circulation is off 1,029 or roughly 4 percent. This places the Post-Star in the middle of the pack of nearby newspapers—the Albany Times Union showed a slight gain in paid readership over last year, while the Saratogian and Troy Record reported heavier losses of 5.7% and 7.5% respectively. Of the four regional papers, only the Post-Star showed deteriorating numbers in the second half of the past twelve month period.

With the latest report, the Post-Star has officially broken below the 25,000 average daily circulation level, a threshold which many organizations recognize when bestowing annual newspaper awards. With the general collapse of newspaper circulation over the past decade, the number of newspapers occupying the under 25,000 category has swelled, far surpassing occupants at higher levels.

While the Post-Star’s circulation losses are middling in comparison with neighboring papers, its performance against the rest of the newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises were considerably worse. Over the past six months, the Post-Star suffered the third highest percentage circulation losses of all fifty papers owned in whole or part by Lee. Perhaps of greater concern, against the firmament of Lee papers, the Post-Star has dropped farther than any other over the past five-and-a-half-years, dropping from the twelfth largest Lee property in October 2006, to twentieth (the ranking figures in the accompanying table take into account the various Lee properties that either merged or were sold over the years).

The Post-Star’s harrowing circulation drop might well explain why the newspaper moved so suddenly at the end of April to subscribed access for its online content: while plenty of people may be reading the Post-Star, fewer and fewer are buying it.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

NC writes discrimination into constitution; Taliban, ayatollahs approve

Tonight, voters in North Carolina went out of their way to pass an amendment to the state's constitution to ban marriage equality; it's already banned by state law.

"And the point -- the whole point -- is simply that you don't rewrite the nature of God's design for marriage based on the demands of a group of adults," said Tami Fitzgerald, head of the main anti-equality movement.

History scholars might be surprised to read Ms. Fitzgerald's words. Interracial marriage was not part of 'God's design for marriage,' as per the north Carolina constitution, until it was 're-written' in 1971.

In other news, the Taliban and the Iranian ayatollahs both praised North Carolinians for their judgment.

'Accountability' for teachers (but not anyone else in education)

Here is a great story from a family friend on the pitfalls of so-called ''accountability' in schools... a notion that sounds glorious in the theory world of vacuous political sound bites but is pretty tricky in practice to implement in the real world of public education. Reprinted with permission...

My oft-repeated story of my first year of teaching (a million years ago) is about being called into the principal's office to explain why ALL of my elementary students scored below average on their achievement tests. I thought the principal was joking. You see, that year I had taught a special education class of students with IQs in the range of 50 to 75. My boss thought the kids should still be scoring in the average range. Talk about Lake Wobegon! And folks wonder why some teachers are worried about job evaluations being based on student test scores ...

Monday, May 07, 2012

Thieves and the thieving thieves who gouge us

I feel like even if I used no electricity at all, I’d still owe National Greed at least $25.

My current bill...

Supply (actual usage): $17

“Delivery” (that includes ‘basic service,’ which is ‘not including usage’, AND ‘delivery’... as two distinct categories): $44

Saturday, May 05, 2012

New York comptroller exposes IDA racket

Late last year, New York's attorney general concluded that regional economic development and industrial development (EDCs and IDAs) slush funds were rife with the potential for seal-dealing, nepotism, improper loans and exorbitant expenses.

These taxpayer-supported rackets do government business but have little oversight and are exempt from being audited by the state comptroller's office. To say nothing of the massive redundancies of similar overlapping agencies. I've opined many times that a sober and thorough cost-benefit analysis would show this.

So it's little surprise that the comptroller has recently concluded that IDAs are a huge waste of money. Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said more than 4,000 businesses received the tax breaks, but that IDAs realized 22,000 fewer jobs last year than the year before while using the economic development tool.   "Taxpayers are not getting enough bang for their buck when it comes to IDAs,"DiNapoli said, according to the Associated Press.

The comptroller noted that the cost of the average IDA-secured job increased 9 percent from 2010 to 2011.

DiNapoli proposed a bill that would allow taxpayers to better analyze the effectiveness of IDAs and their tax breaks. His bill would require clearly described job goals when a tax break is provided, followed by an accounting when the tax break expires. If the jobs promised weren't created, local governments would have a "claw back" provision to extract the avoided taxes from the company.   

DiNapoli's proposal would also require annual reports from IDAs and a report card on projects and their job success. 

Update: The Innovation Trail public radio project has a great piece on the lack of transparency in IDAs and its consequences.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Governor One Percent pretends to denounce his puppetmasters

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is jumping on the fake populist bandwagon by pretending to rail against so-called Super PACs -- even as the largest and most secretive one in the state, the ironically-named Committee to Save New York, is spending huge sums of money on his behalf. That Super PAC was given an 'F' by Common Cause New York for its complete lack of transparency; by contrast, none of the public sector unions so demonized by Cuomo received anything close such a failing grade. Governor One Percent is obviously counting on liberals to pay more attention to pious words than actual deeds, which is usually a good bet. A bill before the state legislature would implement a degree of public financing of political campaigns. We'll see if the governor, so beholden to corporate campaign bribes (I mean, "donations"), will throw his considerable influence behind public financing or if his words on this are as hollow as his promises on mandate relief.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Arrogant Post-Star launches outrageous campaign against privacy

The Post-Star engages in a lot of self-righteous crusades, perhaps as reflection of the paper's increasingly desperate attempts to stay relevant in the midst of a changing media landscape and self-cannibalization. One of the most prominent is related to teen drinking/binge drinking/drunk driving, which the paper dishonestly conflates as a single issue - a crusade so carefully demolished by Mark Wilson here and here.

More recently, the daily has taken the Lake George School District (LGSD) to task on a pair of controversies.

At a public hearing on the budget, LGSD asked for people who wanted to receive budget information *from the district* to sign up to an email newsletter. Those interested provided their email addresses (*to the district*).

But a critic of the school board inexplicably felt he was somehow entitled to those email addresses, so he could give these people his version of things. The Post-Star, even more inexplicably, backed his Freedom of Information request, under some demented notion of "transparency."

Apparently, private citizens who want to stay informed actually owe transparency to the presumptuous newspaper. Who knew?!

Eventually, a quasi-public, two-person body called the Committee on Open Government (COG) decreed that these private emails were in fact public information.

In a recent blog piece, the daily's pooh bah Ken Tingley again denounced LGSD superintendent Patrick Dee for "playing games." He agreed with the COG that decreeing the email addresses public information did not constitute "an unwanted invasion of privacy."

According to Tingley, the superintendent made the issue about privacy when it should be about transparency. There is no privacy risk here.

Dee should not have dithered or played games. Instead, he should've been direct. He should've said HELL NO. He should have said that the district will not give the paper the email addresses of private citizens. He should have told the paper that since the *private* emails weren't given to The Post-Star, IT'S NONE OF THEIR DAMN BUSINESS.

I believe in transparency for public officials and generally agree with most of the COG's decisions. But I also believe that private citizens should be able to maintain a level of privacy judged by their own discretion, not by an unaccountable newspaper or a mysterious two-person panel.

Mr. Tingley says there is no threat to privacy. He implied that the paper wants the private emails not for any actual newsworthy purpose, but just to set a precedent that they are public information.

He is dead wrong.

What the paper intends to do with the email is completely irrelevant. Once the precedent is set that private emails are public information, then anyone can get them via a Freedom of Information request and do whatever they want, including publishing them in print or online. Clearly, the activist in Lake George wants them so he can spam people with unwanted propaganda. How Tingley can say that this is not an invasion of privacy defies any sensible analysis.

I make no value judgment on the worthiness of the activist's campaign. If he wants to get people's private email addresses, he has every right to do what LGSD did: ask people for them so they can choose of their own free will who they want to share their private details with. Instead, he's choosing the lazy way of essentially trying to steal them.

Ironically, The Post-Star's crusade will deter participation more fully in civic bodies, the lack of which it often bemoans. Many people may want to stay informed on public issues, but may want not to do so at the cost of potentially broadcasting their email addresses to the world's spammers.

If I were Superitendent Dee, I would appeal this via the courts. Anything else is a violation of trust given to the district by the people who voluntarily submitted their email addresses under the expectation that it would be for internal use only.

If The Post-Star really wants more transparency, they should do a little digging on the opaque workings of Fred Monroe's taxpayer-funded Local Government Review Board... though since the Review Board and the newspaper share the same activist agenda, that kind of "transparency" is pretty unlikely.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Today, MOFYC... tomorrow, the world!

North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann notes that the political cartoonist Mark Wilson, whose series on the troubles at The Post-Star is a regular feature of this blog, is now having his cartoons featured at Long Island’s most prominent daily paper Newsday.

Bravo Marquil!

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Hitting the Paywall: The Post-Star and other Lee properties resort to fee-for-online content

Part of a series on troubles at The Post-Star and its parent company Lee Enterprises

by contributor Mark Wilson

The Post-Star of Glens Falls announced in Monday’s editions that as of midnight May 1, they will charge a subscription for access to most online content. Officials at Lee Enterprises, Inc.—the Post-Star’s Davenport Iowa-based corporate parent—announced in late March that most of the company’s 48 daily newspapers would erect a paywall before the end of the year. The announcement comes at a precarious time for the Post-Star, Lee Enterprises and newspapers in general. Over the past decade, the industry has been staggered by numerous body-blows, many delivered by online and mobile technologies; some, sadly, self-inflicted. National, local retail and classified advertising, once roughly three quarters of Lee’s operating revenue dropped by over 40% between the second quarter of 2006 and the most recent second quarterly report released in early April. While part of that loss can be blamed on the national recession (income which may eventually return) most of the missing ad revenue has been steadily raided by national online advertising engines like Google, Groupon, Monster and Craigs List. That revenue is gone for good. As reported in earlier installments, much of Lee Enterprises’ financial woes stem from its wildly over-leveraged and over-priced purchase of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (and the rest of the Pulitzer chain of newspapers), overseen by CEO Mary Junck and CFO Carl Schmidt in 2005. The resulting debt landed the company in bankruptcy court at the beginning of this year. The court-ordered reorganization seems only likely to prolong a grim reckoning for another few years.

At the annual meeting of Lee shareholders in March, corporate directors rewarded Junck and Schmidt with $500,000 and $250,000 bonuses, respectively, for piloting the company through a “successful” bankruptcy. While this amounts to an insignificant fraction of Lee’s annual costs, at a time when Lee headquarters was ordering damaging layoffs at papers across the country, the bonuses attracted unwelcome attention.

At the local level, the fiscal mess in Iowa has translated into increased layoffs (diluting valuable local content) and increased prices passed along to the consumer. Either one of the increases would be a tough sell to a readership in the grips of a national recession. Combined, they constitute an assault on even the most dedicated or dependent audience.

In April 2010 the Post-Star doubled the newsstand price of its print editions, little more than a year after laying off 15.5% (25) of its listed staff (business and editorial). Post-Star circulation losses of 4.62% the year of the layoffs ballooned to 10.58% after the price hike—the fourth worst circulation losses in Lee’s entire portfolio. Needless to say, loss of paying readers only compounded advertising revenue losses.

Of course, two years ago much of the paying Post-Star readership could easily retreat to the free content available at (visits to which have been growing steadily for years). The hope underlying yesterday’s erection of the paywall is that the paper will manage to reconvert enough of these online free-readers into paying news consumers, thereby reversing circulation revenue losses (which—in context—are still only 6.6% of advertising losses).

The success of this plan or its failure—a potentially accelerated migration of readers—hinges on the outcome of two major uncertainties: The first is what role increased free-print and online competition in the Post-Star’s circulation region—NCPR, Adirondack Almanack and Denton Publications to the north, Saratoga Today, WAMC, the Times Union and YNN (Time Warner Cable) to the south, and the Chronicle within the city—will have in providing Post-Star readers with satisfactory alternatives. The second is how the Post-Star’s most recent layoffs—including the closure of its Saratoga Bureau and the attenuation of its northern coverage—might undermine readers’ loyalties in those vulnerable regions.

Statistically, the answer to these questions will begin to emerge in six months when the Audit Bureau of Circulations reports semi-annual circulation and online activity numbers.

Anecdotally, the answer may be more immediate. The Post-Star’s report yesterday of the paywall’s imminent introduction drew a high volume of comments from online readers. By six o’clock yesterday 82 readers had registered 94 reactions. A casual count of those comments showed roughly three of every four commenters objecting (a majority forcefully) to the move with one of every eight either resigned to or tepidly in favor of the move.