Writings and observations

Another sign of circling the drain? The main indicator of trouble times for newspapers has been stagnant (or declining) circulation and declines in advertising, both critical. But maybe we should look too at the printing plants.

Traditionally, daily newspapers have run their own printing presses; those in joint operating agreements (like the dailies in Seattle) have shared that part of their operation, but they have been the exception. Even most small dailies have had their own presses. But that has begun to change. In Idaho, it changed in-corporation a few years ago when the papers at Pocatello and at Logan, Utah (which are about an hour and a half away from each other) quit their local printing and shared a joint press midway or so between them, at Preston. But those dailies were both owned by the same newspaper group.

Now something different is happening: Competing newspapers (which Pocatello and Logan were not) owned by different corporations are sharing printing plants. Today came word that the largest Idaho newspaper, the Statesman at Boise (owned by McClatchy Newspapers), will no longer have its own printing press, and will not even print in its home town, but will share operations with the Nampa Idaho Press-Tribune (owned by Pioneer Newspapers). Kinda changes the nature of the competition – a little less pure than it was. The same sort of thing has been approved as well in Washington, between the McClatchy Bellingham paper which will be printed at (Pioneer’s) Mount Vernon operation.

Secondarily, there’s another hidden question. Many publications depend on the newspaper presses for their printing, including most weekly newspapers. With this consolidation, will they continue to be able to get their papers printed locally, or even in arms length? And what might that do to journalism as it ripples along?

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The TVW network, which is more or less Washington’s very own C-Span (what a great service it is, and an idea co-optable elsewhere), is now living in the age of UTube, and not too comfortably. It has gotten great access to all sorts of governmental, policy and political activities over the years partly with the idea that although the public could see it all, the raw materials couldn’t be transformed into attack ads.

Except that in the age of UTube, that’s becoming an increasingly difficult proposition.

The battle over what can and can’t be excerpted from TVW (which copyrights its material) has been ongoing for a while, and the Horse’s Ass blog has been in the middle of it for a while. Some compromise seems to have been reached. Point here i to draw attention to a useful overview by Richard Roesler at the Spokesman Review, on his blog. Which also provides a useful video link . . .

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The non-establishment and the establishment split the votes at the Idaho Republican convention at Sandpoint. The establishment won more votes, but the outsiders won the big one, for state party chair.

That was where the line seemed drawn most clearly, between the grassroots, represented for purposes of this election by former congressional candidate Norm Semanko, and the downtown establishment crowd, represented by Kirk Sullivan.

From the Spokesman-Review‘s blog: Semanko is “currenlty telling the delegation that they must uphold conservative Republican principles and elect Republicans and get seats back to the U.S. House. Semanko thanked Kirk Sullivan for his years of service and added that he ‘likes Kirk’ and it was about rallying and building a relationship with the grassroots Republicans, not just the establishment.”

At the same time, the establishment won a key vote on open v. closed party primaries, getting the convention floor to stick with open primaries. (What the central committee, the final policy maker for the party, will have to say about that is unclear.) And National Committeeman Blake Hall, challenged by former state Senator Rod Beck (who had been the challenger to Sullivan before Semanko entered that contest), survived, but apparently narrowly.

More evidence at this convention of splintering among Idaho Republicans than since 1990. Not that this is a prescription for 1990-type results (that being the best year Idaho Democrats have seen since 1958), but it does give pause.

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The proposal for Idaho’s police office training organization to contract with Blackwater International (see our earlier post) is apparently on hold at least, and possibly derailed.

This week’s meeting of the Idaho POST (Police Officers Standards and Training) Council led to a tabling of the proposed agreement. There were anti-Blackwater protesters outside the meeting, but more decisive may have been expressions of concern from area law enforcement leaders. Take note of the end of the Spokane Spokesman-Review story on this:

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said that was his understanding after speaking to Blackwater representatives. Watson said he was told the center would be built on 300-plus acres between Coeur d’Alene and Worley and the first phase of construction would cost more than $20 million.

The representative “made it very clear it was a military training facility,” Watson said. He suggested Blackwater was trying to attach itself to local law enforcement in an attempt to make it easier to locate in North Idaho.

“As sheriff, I don’t want my officers going to that facility just because of public perception,” Watson said. “Our reputation is important to us. I don’t know if Blackwater did everything that was reported in the media. They’ve now obtained the reputation.”

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Is it something about Oregon Senator Gordon Smith‘s speech patterns that simply make him hard to follow? We had a tough time trying to make sense late last year of his big Iraq speech on the Senate floor, and the new video circulating today is no easier.

On one level, the Q-and-A here is transparent enough. The question was, “Do you support a much broader extension of partnership rights through, for example in our home state, the recent domestic partnership bill that has passed? And secondly how do you reconcile your position on partnership benefits with your support of the federal marriage amendment and the marriage protection act?”

Smith disposed of the first part easily and clearly: “I am fine with what the legislature did. I think it is a good accommodation of very legitimate demands by gays and lesbians.”

The second question, though, seemed to send him backwards, forwards and sideways. His reply – you’d best listen to it yourself – seemed to revolve around concerns about defining marriage and especially federal as opposed to state determinations about it. But when he brought in the whole subject of polygamy, he vanished into verbal quicksand; you suddenly couldn’t tell what he was in favor of.

Gotta love his conclusion, though: “And I hope you understand.”

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Chris Cillizza, the Washington Post political blogger, has been something of a skeptic about the Jeff Merkley campaign in the Oregon Senate race against Republican incumbent Gordon Smith. His take for some time has been that Merkley hasn’t “caught fire.”

That sense seems to have changed (and we get the sense that it has in places elsewhere too) in his rundown today of the Senate Line, wherein he lists the U.S. Senate seats most likely to switch party control in November. Smith/Merkley has been on the list consistently, but over the months most often moving dwn the rankings. This week it moved up, from No. 8 to No. 6 (behind, in order, Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and Alaska). Cillizza’s take:

Regular Fix readers know that we have long been skeptical about state House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D). But to his credit, Merkley managed to win the Democratic primary last month over activist Steve Novick and now stands as something close to an even-money bet against Sen. Gordon Smith (R). Why? Obama is a heavy favorite over John McCain in the state this fall, and Merkley will surely benefit from a huge turnout in the Portland-area for the party’s nominee. Merkley also caught a break recently when John Frohnmayer, a well known name in the state expected to take votes from the Democratic nominee, dropped his third party bid. Smith is paying attention and doing everything he can to win reelection, but he faces an extremely difficult environment.

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Walkscore in Seattle

Into our ongoing lookout for indicators that may suggest partisan leanings by geographic location, strolls a promising entry: Walkscore.

This is a ratings tool, in this case rating neighborhoods by how “walkable” they are – meaning, among other things, how many business and service resources are available in walking distance. This relates, of course, to how urban an area is (and with rare exceptions, in recent years urban areas have trended strongly Democratic) but also to other factors, such as (often) the number of children in a neighborhood and the number of local vs. chain businesses.

The site Walkscore.com has ratings out for Seattle’s neighborhoods, and a map (a piece of it reproduced here) showing where the most and least walkable areas in the city are.

Seattle overall is, of course, highly Democratic. In relative terms, though, a quick eyeballing gives the suspicion that the more “walkable” neighborhoods (indicated here in green) are also the more strongly Democratic. Thoughts? Does this look like a rough correlation, or not?

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The smoking ban in Washington state covering bars and a bunch of other businesses, which went into effect in December 2005, was long fought as an economic nightmare, a killer that would savage a whole range of rtail businesses.

Except, apparently, that just the reverse happened: A new state Department of Revenue report says that business has jagged sharply upward ever since the ban went into effect.

We won’t press the point too far; there are lots of reasons, not just one, that a business may do better or worse. The department is careful to say that it “asserts no cause and effect relationship between I-901 [the anti-smoking initiative] and industry revenues.”

Still. For Washington bars and taverns, annual revenue growth in the three years pre-901 averaged 2.1% a year; in the two years after, the average growth was 9.7%. The total of food service and drinking places statewide (many of which were non-smoking beforehand) showed no significant change, from 6.8% average growth to 6.9%.

See also the item in the Slog (“Wasn’t the smoking ban going to destroy bars?“) about this.

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Back around the fall of ’05 we were hearing talk that the field of Republican candidates for the 1st U.S. House district in Idaho might include one Bill Sali, a state legislator not much liked by Republican leadership (among others). We heard that from a few people whose take on Republican field organization has been good. We did not hear it from any of the downtown Boise Republican inside crowd; those we heard from among the downtown crowd, in fact, were dismissive of the very concept, and initially convinced there was no way Sali could get anywhere. We thought otherwise, and didn’t really seem to convince anyone until the primary election results gave the nomination to Sali.

This comes to mind in the rapidly-changing battle over the chairmanship of the Idaho Republican Party, which has been held by Kirk Sullivan, a well-respected downtown guy who is very much a part of the downtown Republican crowd, close to the lobbyist community, the congressional staffs, the legislators, the staffs of the statewide elected officials (and their principals, of course) and so on. He has personal support from most of them, from Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter on down. He’s not a lightning rod kind of guy, much more the diplomatic than confrontational type, which makes the recent fierce struggle to oust him seem all the stranger. But then, it would seem, it’s not really a matter of Sullivan personally.

The man who has been challenging him directly, former state Senator Rod Beck, is much more the lightning rod type. But the idea that Beck’s candidacy for the chair is about something other than Beck now has got some support, with Beck’s withdrawal from the contest in favor of attorney Norm Semanko (better known till now as a failed congressional candidate in 2006, as head of the Idaho Water Users Association, and as a new city council member in Eagle).

Beck told the Idaho Statesman that “I was convinced I had 55 (percent) to 60 percent of the vote. I think with Norm throwing in, he could get as much as 70 percent.”

(Beck’s new target is another Republican establishment guy, Idaho Falls attorney and former state chair – now national committeeman – Blake Hall.)

Without guessing at the percentages, our sense that Beck isn’t far wrong in his analysis. The indicators we’ve seen are that while most of the downtowners remain happy with Sullivan, the grassroots activists are agitating for a change – and odds are they have the numbers. Two key indicators of that are two people close to those grassroots, Sali himself, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who say they are backing Semanko. The point is not that these two may sway a lot of people; but they are markers, indicators of where a substantial portion of the Republican organization is going.

Semanko, who himself has a strong diplomatic streak, will be put to a serious test if he wins – pulled in two directions. This could be one of those occasions where the effect of winning is to offer a demonstration of just how good a politician you really are, because he would sitting astride a serious split, and an increasingly emotional one.

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In a package of stories today on rising gas prices, the Oregonian included a McClatchy piece (bylined Kevin G. Hall) listing three moves regulators could take (endorsed to date, it notes, not by Bush, McCain or Obama) that could choke off some of the price increases. One is strengthening the dollar, which could have a wide range of other effects as well. A second is dipping into the strategic oil reserve, which probably makes sense but has some issues too.

The third seems a no-brainer: “Perhaps the quickest action, the experts said, would be ordering curbs on financial speculation. Financial industry heavyweights have acknowledged before Congress that such speculation is driving oil prices higher. Pension funds, endowments and other big institutional investors are pumping big money into index funds linked to commodities, including oil, driving up demand – and prices.” Such restrictions could be enacted by a simple presidential order, or congressional action.

We’ve been watching for a while for a candidate for federal office, anywhere, to address this – it would seem one of the easiest and most useful steps available in the short term. Today, we ran across the first we’ve seen (if you’ve seen others, let us know), from Oregon Senate candidate Jeff Merkley.

In a release on gas price policy, he offered support for the Consumer-First Energy Act (S. 3044) which among other things, he wrote, will “Stop Wall Street speculation by preventing U.S. contracts to be traded on foreign exchanges and closing the “Enron Loophole,” which allows energy commodities to be traded on markets exempt from any federal, state, or local oversight. The Farm Bill included language that was intended to close the Enron Loophole, but the CFTC has said that it will not treat crude oil contracts as covered by the amendment.”

This would seem an obvious political hammer. And to useful purpose, too.

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