Monthly Archives: February 2009

– Death to Newspapers

Horsey-02-15-09.pngPrint newspapers are dying. The evidence is everywhere and was recently highlighted on a Time Magazine cover.

Local government officials should be ecstatic about this event, right? Daily newspapers are much more likely to have negative coverage of local government’s activities. And if they do carry positive news, it is usually buried on page 16 of the “G” section.

David Horsey, wonderful cartoonist and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote an insightful February 15th column about the National Press Association’s recent awards dinner. That dinner was essentially a funeral dirge for newspapers. Note: Horsey himself may very well be out of a job at the end of March when his newspaper ceases printing.

Despite the plethora of negative coverage, I suspect most city and county officials are as quite upset about the difficulties of the daily papers. First, I do believe a lot of the daily newspapers’ coverage is negative, and I’ll cite some examples:
•   Gil Kerlikowske, Seattle’s long-time Police Chief, has been extraordinarily successful as chief. Seattle is adding cops to its force even now, in a serious recession. And our crime rate is at the lowest in memory. Kerlikowske is leaving for a cabinet-level post in the Obama administration. So what do the mainstream media write about when announcing his departure? The Mardi-Gras riots of 2001. An event which lies at the feet of a sleeping Mayor Paul Schell and his deputies.
•   Indeed, “crime” is the poster-child for negative reporting. Newspapers of all stripes regularly report the details of criminal acts and give neighborhood “activists” a forum to blast government about everything from failure to patrol the streets to accusations of racial profiling when such patrols are conducted too aggressively.
•   Streets and transportation are another favorite topic for reporting. Rarely (but sometimes) will you see an article about new sidewalks or bike paths or street paving projects which are finished, usually on time and under budget. Potholes, mistimed traffic lights, traffic delays are frequently highlighted however.
•   Although the City of Seattle invests at least $100 million annually in building and maintaining information technology systems, rarely are successful technology projects mentioned in a daily newspaper. Inaccurate reports about high electricity bills from a new computerized billing system helped Seattle City Light’s former superintendent Gary Zarker lose his job. And the one headline I’ve received in five years as CTO is about a botched e-mailing to 2000 cable television customers (which was, indeed, the fault of my department).

In contrast, coverage in community newspapers and in the trade press (e.g. for me, Government Technology Magazine, Network World, Computerworld) is considerably more positive. Perhaps that’s because those media outlets have small staffs who rely more on government for press releases and interviews to create their content. Perhaps they have a readership and advertising base which desires and reads news which is more informative, less “sensational”.

Given this, am I happy about the decline and impending death of many newspapers? Absolutely not. The investigative reporting which newspapers have funded has not only improved government, but also highlighted issues with private companies such as John Thain’s infamous $1.3 million office remodel while running his company Merrill Lynch into the ground. Newspapers have changed the direction of the nation from high-profile issues such as the Watergate Investigation and the botched war in Iraq to exposes such as toxic medicines and failed cancer drug trials. Just have a look at the past 20 years of Pulitzer prizes for more examples.

Is there a business model which will allow the local daily newspaper to survive? Time’s Walter Isaacson suggests a possibility in his February 5th article – essentially having readers pay for content on the web just as they pay for content today by subscription or at the newsstand. I agree with Isaacson that the “advertising” model is flawed. Not only does relying solely on advertising lead to ethical conflicts, but it also drives the need for sensational and negative reporting I mentioned above. I’m not sure that a micropayment model will work, and I have no other bright ideas to offer.

But I do hope newspaper reporters continue to be there to call me – and other local officials – even if they are writing a negative story!

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– Sugar Rush Stimulus

Local and State Stimulus as well as FedgovThe Federal economic stimulus package is at the top of the news. Everyone is looking to Washington DC to spend our way out of a deepening recession.

And we’re all going to be disappointed. After the disappointment, local and state governments will have to pick up the slack.

The Fedgov can pass an 800+ billion dollar stimulus package (here’s a fascinating graphic of the package) .

It can be full of tax breaks and grants and “shovel ready” projects. And – hopefully – that will lessen the effect of this recession. But after that, the Feds will be tapped out. Because the $800 billion comes on top of a $700 billion TARP financial-system rescue on top of a two trillion dollar war on top of a 10 trillion dollar national debt. This “stimulus” is also full of tax breaks which put more money in the pockets of Americans and businesses. But there is no guarantee we’ll actually use that money to buy things and pump up the economy. Consumption accounts for over 70% of the GDP (according to the Federal Reserve) up from 62% in 1970. And consumer debt has skyrocketed – while personal income has risen about 500% since 1980, household debt has risen over 1000%. It is just as likely Americans will pay down their debt as opposed to “spend and stimulate”.

After the “sugar rush” of the stimulus projects is over, what can local and state governments do to address the frightening prospect of middle-class white collar recession plus 10% unemployment? We need some longer term, more sustainable programs.

I attended a brainstorming session with some City and non-profit leaders this past week, and here are some random thoughts and facts about from the “other Washington” (State):

1. Consumer spending may be down, driving down the economy, but people are contributing in other ways. In Seattle we had 130,000 people visiting and using food banks and meals programs in 2008. But Puget-Sound area people also have contributed two million more pounds of food to Food Lifeline over the last 7 months, and volunteerism to support food banks is breaking records.

2. In parallel to that, we’re seeing increased use of City facilities. Use of parks is way up, perhaps because people can’t afford expensive days out of town. Library circulation is up 10% to 15%, as is library walk-in traffic. Free public computers in libraries are booked all day, perhaps by job-seekers and resume-writers, but also by the homeless. Community technology centers are doing a land-office (as in “Hooverville“) business.

3. We need a local stimulus package. And the people of Seattle have continually stepped up to this challenge. Seattle-area voters have approved a number of taxes and levies over the past few years, which will pump more work into the local economy. These include:
•   Sound Transit. In November, 2008, voters approved a $17 billion expansion of light rail, adding 36 miles to the system.
•   Pro-Parks Levy. This levy passed in November 2008 and will fund $146 million in parks improvements over the next six years.
•   “Bridging the Gap”. In 2006, Seattle voters approved $365 million for street, bridge, sidewalk and other transportation improvements.
•   Housing Levy. Seattle voters have twice approved levies to create affordable housing, the latest one in 2001 for $76 million.
•   Fire Facilities Levy. In 2003 Seattle voted $167 million to remodel or rebuild every fire station in Seattle. In 2008 we opened a new Fire Alarm Center and Emergency Operations Center as just one of the projects funded by that levy.
•   Pike Place Market rebuild. This $73 million levy also passed in November 2008 and funds a rebuild of the 101 year old historic market.

4. This morning (Wednesday, February 11th) Mayor Greg Nickels will announce a further set of local stimulus ideas and projects.

We’re losing both blue collar and white collar jobs – construction and high tech and aerospace jobs. We’ll need every one of those projects above and even more initiatives to put Seattle and the Puget Sound back to work to move us out of this recession.

The bottom line is simple: the Fedgov stimulus is an important blood transfusion for an ailing economy. But the patient is very sick, and the transfusion will be a sugar rush. It will be up to state and local governments to keep the medicine coming until the economy regains strength and becomes robust again.

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