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Posts published in March 2009

The paper watch

Now the Post-Intelligencer, the print version anyway, is gone, and the drumbeat goes on. Cuts at Boise, Olympia, Bellingham, elsewhere. (The norm now seems to be that the average newspaper in the region, probably in the country, employs about a third fewer people than it did a couple of years ago.)

Who's keeping track?

If you're looking for mainstream industry information, the place to watch is Editor & Publisher, the website of the long-running industry magazine. Beyond that, and beyond the official corporate sites, there's some interesting reading to be found.

Jim Hopkins' excellent Gannett Blog has attracted a good deal of attention, and it has some relevance to Northwest newspaper watchers - but less than it once did, because Gannett has only one daily left in the region (the Salem Statesman-Journal). The chains more dominant in the region's newspapering aren't be tracked so closely.

There is also, happily, the McClatchy Watch, about the newspaper company that now owns the dailies at Tacoma, Boise, Bellingham, Olympia and the Tri-Cities, is deeply in debt, and it cutting back all over.

Two other companies own a bunch of dailies in the region. Both Pioneer Newspapers (Klamath Falls, Nampa, Pocatello, Mount Vernon, Ellensburg) and Lee Enterprises (Twin Falls, Albany, Corvallis, Longview) collectively have substantial audiences in the region, and own a bunch of weeklies in addition to the dailies, but aren't really well-known as corporate entities. There doesn't seem to be a close external observer of Pioneer, which as a family business can and does manage itself quietly. There is a blog called Lee Watch, but it mainly posts employee-related matters.

Oregonians can check Oregon Media Insiders, which leans a bit toward the broadcast side but often has useful material on the area's newspapers too (like a recent post on more cutbacks at the Vancouver Columbian).

And, of course, right here . . .

More time for poetry?

Mark Trahant, who has been (as of this writing, presumably, still is) editorial page editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has been on Twitter for a little while and doing something unusual with it: Composing four-line poems on subjects of the day. Today's topics include the AIG bailout and the shutdown of the print P-I.

This would be a good day to check it out.

Seattle P-I: Print ends Tuesday, web goes on

A sad day we knew was coming soon: Tomorrow marks the end of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer as a print publication. After tomorrow, it becomes web-only. One intriguing point: It will be "outside the JOA" - outside the agreement with the Seattle Times, with which its current website is linked. So this will be something new.

What will the web version be like? How will it differ from, say, Crosscut or Publicola? The early indications were not at all clear. The paper itself said "The so-called 'community platform' will feature breaking news, columns from prominent Seattle residents, community databases, photo galleries, 150 citizen bloggers and links to other journalistic outlets." That might have been one thing with a newsroom the size of the print P-I's; what it will be with 20 or so will emerge in the days ahead.

The transition goes on.

The hall in McMinnville

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley at the McMinnville town hall/Stapilus

Town hall meeting number four for new Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, held (like Senator Ron Wyden's most recent in the same county) at the McMinnville Police Station, had some push and pull within the audience. Maybe there's something reflective of politics generally there: A majority of the crowd of about 100 who wanted to talk about the economy, finance reform and health care, and a smaller (albeit determined) group out to talk - as opposed to question or listen - on illegal immigrants and the citizenship of Barack Obama.

Merkley set up his town hall to run a lot like Wyden's; he was still new at it, and there were kinks to work out. The basics remained the same. There was the relatively nonpartisan nature of it, for one thing; Merkley gave over the floor for while at the beginning to Republican state Representative Jim Weidner, R-Yamhill. (His big topic, and a large one in the area, is the Highway 18 Newberg-Dundee bypass, a road improvement which has been sought after for a couple of decades and may be pursued for quite a few years yet.) Merkley opened with a description of his committee assignments, and what he was doing on them; much of the interest ran to his most recent appointment, to the banking committee, a slot he'd wanted but originally thought he might not be able to get. And the thing was dominated by questions. The audience for the most part seemed to center on the topics of economic recovery and health care.

And on that front he seemed well aligned with the audience, which probably leaned Democratic but wasn't monolithic. (Asking how many favored a single-payer health plan, he drew about 30-40 raised hands; just one raised a hand in opposition.) When he asked, "Did you see that outrageous story about AIG?" he drew an appreciative response from the group, or most of it, which was loaded for bear on the subject. What exactly Congress can or will do about the outrage, however, remained a little less clear.

The inevitable difficulty with the open format - which has the great advantage of fostering open discussion, which it did - is the ease with which it can be hijacked, which happened twice.

First was a person evidently suckered in by the web chatter that Obama was born in Kenya and wasn't a U.S. citizen. The other, longer, case involved a group determined that illegal immigrants were ruining the country and costing taxpayers massively; one called out, "Congress is the problem! You are the problem!" One seemed to argue in favor of an American equivalent of the Great Wall of China (apparently sufficiently unaware of history to know that it didn't work out well there either). That group seemed to want no other subject addressed. Merkley kept cool throughout, though, and pulled the discussion onward, over to health care.

Keeping the debate focused, and the facts in order . . . always a challenge . . .

A bull market in hate?

Hard times lead to hard feelings, and worse. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and related groups around the country, reports finding 926 such groups around the country, "up more than 4 percent from the 888 groups in 2007 and far above the 602 groups documented in 2000."

It goes on: "As in recent years, hate groups were animated by fears of Latino immigration. This rise in hate groups has coincided with a 40 percent growth in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2007, according to FBI statistics. Two new factors were introduced to the volatile hate movement in 2008: the faltering economy and the Obama campaign."

Some caution is called for, though, in evaluating all this. One of the newcomers to the list is the Eugene-based Pacifica Forum, which seems to fall into a gray area. Pacifica has given a platform to anti-semitic speakers in recent years, and the SPLC seems to have concluded that the relationship is closer than simply offering a soapbox. The Eugene Register Guard, which has watched it in action for years at close range, offers this interpretation:

"If the Pacifica Forum represents any kind of threat, it’s a small-bore threat indeed. The number of people who are actively involved can be counted on two hands, and among them are a high quotient of people guilty of nothing worse than being stubborn fools. Listing the forum as a hate group will serve mainly to pump up its sense of importance, and bolster its self-image as a martyred defender of free speech. The forum began, and functioned for years, as a platform for controversial political and historical analysis of every ideological stripe. Among its speakers were sharp critics of U.S. support for Israel, and some of these stepped over the line into outright anti-Semitism. When the forum was called out on this, its organizers mistook public criticism for intimidation. They remained blind to the difference between speakers who expressed strong views on matters of public policy and those who demonized entire groups of people. They confused their bad judgment with open-mindedness."

So some caution and acceptance of gray areas is called for. And numbers of a given category can rise and fall depending on how you define the category.

The SPLC points to 26 groups around the Northwest, 12 in Washington and seven each in Oregon and Idaho. In the national context, these aren't massive numbers. States in the south and border-south have many more per capita. It's a part of the landscape up here, certainly. But might this be an indicator that the Northwest is not a specific breeder of this kind of activity? (more…)

A tale of two bonds

spokane schools

From the Spokane School District 81 website

Those into parsing the details of election returns will want to turn toward a post on the Spokane Spokesman-Review Spin Control blog, which gets into the distinctive results of two March 10 public bonding votes in Spokane. One (the larger) passed, the other failed. The votes weren't close.

In fact, the one that passed, a $288 million school bond, was estimated at 15 times larger than the city of Spokane bond, which failed.

Why that result? Reporter Jim Camden points to a much larger campaign budget for the school bond than for the city's - $145,000 to $6,600 - and more sophistication on the part of the school campaign. But there was also this: "the city bond issue was for a fairly amorphous set of projects, such as an evidence warehouse, some new courtrooms, an expansion of an animal shelter. The District 81 bond issue was for specific schools, and the approval margin is significantly higher in the neighborhoods around those schools, presumably because parents who live there know what needs to be done to their kids’ classrooms."

Paying its way

Jeff Kropf

There are indicators that the idea of legalizing marijuana, or at least moves in that direction, are starting to take hold. Oregon may be one of the latest, best indicators, because there's now a bill in the Oregon House to create a state-run process for producing and distributing (medical) pot - and reaping state tax money from it as well. It would be a variation on the state's liquor control operation.

Here's the formal description of House Bill 3274:

Directs Department of Human Services to establish and operate marijuana production facility and distribute marijuana to pharmacies for dispensing to medical marijuana cardholders and designated primary caregivers.
Allows pharmacists to dispense marijuana to medical marijuana cardholders and designated primarycaregivers.
Disallows private marijuana grow sites.
Imposes tax of $98 per ounce on marijuana dispensed by pharmacies. Establishes Marijuana Production Facility Fund. Continuously appropriates moneys from fund to department for operation of production facility.

The list of sponsors here is highly interesting. The senators are Ginny Burdick (liberal Portland Democrat), Jeff Kruse (conservative rural Roseburg Republican) and Rick Metsger (rural/Portland area Democrat, considered moderate, and a former and probably future candidate for statewide office). That alone should give an indication that this is no personal windmill, or that the idea seems to be some sort of political third rail. That's even more true of the many House sponsors - 22 of them, approaching half the chamber, running the full gamut, including a bunch of conventional conservative Republicans Dennis Richardson, Ron Maurer, Jim Weidner, minority leader Bruce Hanna), the more moderate members of the caucus (Scott Bruun, Vicki Berger), relatively conservative Democrats (Mike Schaufler), along with caucus-centrist Democrats (Mitch Greenlick, Tina Kotak, Carolyn Tomei). This is a genuinely bipartisan, cross-ideological deal.

What do you want to bet it passes?

And what's the national context?

We posed the question to Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML (the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws), and here's his reply.

To date, no state has formally adopted any taxation scheme for the distribution of medical cannabis.

NM...realizing the likely conflict with federal laws, opted for a ‘self-preservation’ medical cannabis model. The RI legislature is currently re-visiting their 2-year old medical cannabis laws to create a state-authorized distribution system (which, again, raises numerous state/federal issues), but no $ amounts have been discussed re any levied taxes or fees.

In CA...the only state with quasi-retail access to medical cannabis, in some parts of the state, their board of tax equalization has weighed in on possible revenue from medical cannabis; CA’s tax revenue bureacracies (city/county/state), whether they know it or not, have been collecting ‘taxes’ from some of the cannabis sales outlets—often in the form of the state’s junk food tax masking as cannabis tax.

Richard Lee, proprietor of two of Oakland’s five licensed medical cannabis dispensaries told CNBC that his stores paid over $900,000 last year to city, county and state agencies.

Oregon would be breaking ground.

Examining the pieces

A definition of dismantle: "1: to take to pieces ; also : to destroy the integrity or functioning of; 2: to strip of dress or covering : divest; 3: to strip of furniture and equipment."

Used in a sentence, in an editorial in today's Idaho Statesman: "Gov. Butch Otter wants to preside over a dismantling of Idaho public schools. There is no subtle way to say it. And there is no way Idahoans should accept it. Otter's K-12 plan - using the word loosely - calls for cutting 5 percent from the schools' budget for teachers and staff. This will mean fewer class days, fewer teachers in the schools, and more children crammed into classes."

Is that a dismantling, though, and does Otter want to preside over it? Does a 5% budget cut - serious as it is, and it is serious - amount to a deconstruction of the system? We'd probably suggest a little more generosity than the Statesman has, recognizing the difficulty of the financial situation and Otter's limited options.

And they are more limited than many people may realize. From Otter's rebuttal to the editorial (and other critiques): "The reality is that I have some discretion – with legislative concurrence – over the use of less than $45 million of the $1.2 billion that is available to Idaho. That amounts to about 3.6 percent of the total. Given those limitations, all I am proposing to do is what people on Main Streets and in families all over Idaho are doing – tightening their belts. The people we serve are doing it; state government must not be exempt."

That last gives us a sharp spin of its own, though. This year's economic crisis has to do more with a lack of spending - a freezing up of money that usually flows through the economy - than it does with profligacy; over-indebtedness may have gotten us into much of this mess, but the problem now is that people aren't spending. There's never an excuse for waste, but "belt-tightening", whether governmental or otherwise, isn't the recipe for renewal at the moment.

This whole debate, which has been going on (in Boise as elsewhere) more quietly for some time but seems to have erupted today (in Boise), with the editorial, the governor's rebuttal, and other commentary. In Idaho, the key debate seems to revolve around the honeypot: The state's rainy day fund, which Otter is loathe to use (recognizing that the economic downturn may last into another budget cycle) and others are suggesting be used to at least some greater extent. The idea of finding new revenue to help bridge the gap appears to be off the table. (more…)

Teaching to the pizza

What's next when it comes to underfunding schools (see post to follow shortly)? The future of the really underfunded schools may be showing up in Pocatello . . .

Where, according to news reports, high school history and economics teacher Jeb Harrison is selling advertising - ads his students are obliged to look at. They are so obliged because the ads (for a 14-inch pizza for $5!) appears on tests and workbooks.

Before you blame the teacher, note that Harrison is not pocketing the money: The $315 so raised is being spent by the pizza shop owner on supplies for the classroom. The motivations of teacher and business owner seem more or less honorable enough. (The three commenters on the news story linked above all though this a wonderful idea.)

Where do we go from here - what's up for sale next? Is this the kind of sad, sold-out future - where absolutely everything is nothing more or less than another blank slate for another ad - we're headed toward? It is if we take the attitude toward school funding that - well, we'll come back to that in a moment.

Steele’s rousing . . . uh . . .

Adding to the growing list of quotables from new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele - quotables especially by Democrats - comes this one at his fundraising stopover in Portland today:

"At this moment, we have to acknowledge that their team has a better game plan, their team has the better players and their team has the winning way. What is important for us to do as a party is to adapt to the new realities that the Democrats have created very successfully."

That's the ra-ra spirit! You can just see those devoted Republicans pulling out the checkbooks after hearing that message . . .

Not that there isn't some truth to it. But then there was some truth in what he said about Rush Limbaugh too. At first: Before backing off and apologizing. Brace yourself for something similar, on this latest one, soon.