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Posts published in “Idaho column”

To write them in

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Until this month,when she was briefly a national figure for her party-line-breaking vote on a Supreme Court nomination, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski merited political attention for an entirely different kind of reason.

She is one of the few people in recent generations at least to win high office in this country through a write-in campaign. She did that in 2010, as a first-term senator who lost her party’s primary but came back to win the general election as a write-in. (In 2016 the Republican Party did renominate her for a third term, which she won.)

That was so remarkable because it’s hardly ever accomplished, for high office or lower. (Strom Thurmond in 1954 was the only other occasion of such a win for a Senate seat.) Ordinarily, when you hear about contenders trying to win through write-in, without the advantage of a visible spot on the ballot, you’re best off to, let’s say, minimize their chances.

Many non-incumbent candidates will tell you how hard it can be to become reasonably well known around the electorate even with a ballot spot to help out. Invisibility there makes it a lot harder.

Still, that’s not to say they have no chance at all. And at least one legislative contest in Idaho might put that to the test.

In all, six candidates have filed in Idaho to run as write-ins. Two are for major offices: Michael Rath of Saint Maries for the first district U.S. representative and Lisa Marie of Boise for governor. There’s a state House candidate in District 23 (a district based in Elmore County), Tony Ullrich from Hammett.

Two of the write-ins are better known, and in fact were on the ballot only a few months ago. Peter Rickards of Twin Falls ran this year for the Democratic nomination for the second district U.S. House seat; now he’s running for state Senate against an otherwise unopposed Republican incumbent. Rickards’ odds are not good, but his experience of many years as a candidate may add some interest to the race.

The most interesting situation is in District 32, in the rural southeast corner of the state. In May long-time Representative Tom Loertscher, a Republican, lost his party’s nomination in an upset to Chad Christensen of Idaho Falls. Loertscher has been a mainstay of legislative politics in that area since his first election to the House in 1986 (and he was a Bonneville County commissioner before that). Now he’s trying to do exactly what Lisa Murkowski did in 2010, return as a write-in by defeating his own party’s nominee.

In some ways Loertscher fits the profile of the kind of candidate who might be able to pull it off. He’s deeply experienced and connected in the area, is familiar to a lot of people there and for that reason he might be more advantaged running in a general election than in a primary.

Running as a write-in is nonetheless tough, and Loertscher has an added burden in this case: A sixth write-in contender also has filed in that same district. That candidate, Ralph Mossman of Driggs, seems to be drawing more support from the Democratic side (his web site lists support from the Idaho Education Association and former Democratic Representative Richard Stallings, for example). But he, like Loertscher, is listed as an independent write-in, so the fallout is far from clear.

Hard campaigning work will be central here. The numbers generated on election day should be fascinating.

A personal disclosure is needed here. My wife is running for city council in our small town, one of three candidates for three open seats. There’s no declared opposition, not even on the write-in level, as yet. That means her odds of winning next month are pretty good.

But she’s campaigning anyway. After all, you can never take those write-ins for granted ...
 

Searching for the argument against

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When it comes to ballot issues, the voter calculus ought to involve these questions:

What, at core, is the argument supporting?

And what, at core, is the argument against?

Maybe there’s a third as well: Are any of the core arguments something that would be better decided by the courts than by the voters?

In the case of Proposition 1 (you can find it at https://sos.idaho.gov/elect/inits/2018/init04.html), the historical horse racing initiative, the sides seem to be asymmetrical. I’m having a hard time locating the compelling argument against.

First, a political note: In a time when practically everything seems to have split along party lines, this one has not. Prominent Republicans and Democrats can be found on both sides.

Prop 1 would allow the return of historical horse racing (or “instant racing”) terminals at places where live horse racing takes place. They were legalized in Idaho in 2013, but the Idaho Legislature banned them again in 2015 after being persuaded they were too much like slot machines. The central benefits to the state noted are an increase in jobs at horse tracks - the Les Bois in Ada County shut down after the 2015 ban - and some additional revenue (probably a modest amount) going to the state school fund. The benefits are small in scale, but they are definable.

So that’s the pro side. And the argument against?

The anti group Idaho United Against Prop 1 (their site is at http://idunitedagainstprop1.com/) said that “Proposition 1 is all about gambling machines, not horses. The text of Prop 1 will allow historical horse racing machines to be permitted anywhere that live racing or simulcast horse racing occurs – but machines are permitted to remain on 24/7 even if no racing is taking place. Casino-style gambling could be expanded to every corner of Idaho unless voters say NO this November.” That (along with the point that revenue to schools would not be large) is evidently the core of the argument.

The Idaho Racing Commission lists active horse racing locations in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Rupert, Jerome, Malad, Burley and Blackfoot. But in 2018, the commission said, none operated more than six race days during the year. The initiative wouldn’t allow the instant machines in any place that didn’t run races at least eight days a year. Presumably, that would entail a revival of the Les Bois operation, or something similar. But it doesn’t sound like a prescription for an Idaho overrun with gambling machines.

A second argument is that these historical racing machines are a lot like slot machines, and that’s a question I have raised in this space in the past. But if true (and it’s at least debatable) that seems more like a question for the courts (where this doubtless will go if the initiative passes) than it does for the voters.

The other criticism is about how the finances are structured and how much schools actually would receive. There’s no real debate, though, that the schools and the state would receive something, more at least than they do now. And if the amount funneled off to the state does strike people as too small, the legislature could adjust it.

So what’s left is a modest but real argument in favor, and a vaporous argument in opposition.

Unless someone has something more concrete to offer ...
 

What should we talk about?

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On Tuesday, the two main candidates for governor - Republican Brad Little and Democrat Paulette Jordan - will meet for their first face-off, at the College of Idaho at Caldwell.

What should they talk about?

Here are a few topics they, and the panel of questioners, might consider.

The cost of housing: The sheer ability to get housing - in the parts of Idaho that are growing - has become something close to a crisis. This is a regional, not just a local, issue. What can and should the state do?

As the housing problem suggests, the parts of Idaho are growing, or slipping, in different ways. How can the growth in some parts of Idaho be harnessed to avoid the troubles of boomtowns, but help and boost the parts of Idaho that are stagnant or in decline?

Should the Medicaid expansion ballot issue pass? (Jordan has endorsed it, Little has declined to state a position.) If it does, what will you do to make it work in a frequently hostile political climate? If it doesn’t, what will you do to help solve the problems that have led to its placement on the ballot?

This year’s Idaho Republican convention called for punishing businesses that employ undocumented workers. What do you think the state should do about that?

Pause for a look at the big picture on taxes: Is Idaho’s tax structure taken as a whole fair? How can it be improved?

How do you plan to communicate with the public? Please explain how that relates to your, or your party’s, relationship with the news media in Idaho.

Tell me something - one specific thing, a law, a rule, a process, a program or whatever - that another state does that Idaho would be wise to emulate; and other specific thing from another state Idaho would do well to avoid.

A one-off for Jordan: You’ve accumulated a long and growing list of campaign missteps, from uncertainty about keeping your legislative seat, to involvement with outside issues, to campaign administration problems, to (this isn’t too strong a description) attacks on news reporting, and beyond. If all this doesn’t suggest a lack of preparation for the top elective administrative job in Idaho, what does it say?

A one-off for Little: How are you and your prospective governorship anything other than the Otter Administration Mark IV? Granting some successes (and a strong Idaho economy, attributable only in part to state government), plenty of Idahoans, including plenty of Republicans, would like to see something else after 12 years. Will there be anything substantial other than new names on the doors? And if so, what is that?

And: What do you think is the biggest piece of unfinished business the Otter Administration is leaving behind, and how would you deal with it? How as a practical political matter would you get it done - and why hasn’t it been done yet?

For that last question, at least, there are more than a few reasonable answers. Maybe allow an extra minute on that one.
 

The personal factor

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Hang around political people long enough, and you’ll become struck by how personal much of it is. Personal relationships matter a lot in places high and low.

In places like a state legislature interpersonal relationships can sometimes swamp all other considerations, leading to results even many constituents can puzzle over. So how do we figure out when something is personal and when it’s a matter of real difference over public policy?

Take a look at the Ada County Highway District, which recently has seen a squabble on its commission, and try to tease it out.

The debate goes back to midsummer and a proposal before the commission to allow a vote (on the November ballot) on whether to raise car registration fees. Of the five commission members, two - Jim Hansen and Kent Goldthorpe - voted against the idea, and three - Sara Baker, Paul Woods and Rebecca Arnold - were in favor. The measure will appear on the local ballot.

A couple of weeks later, Hansen sent an email to Goldthorpe and Woods, saying he might be persuaded to support the ballot issue if the commission supported some transit ideas he was proposing. Because that discussion involved business before the commission and because the communication involved a majority of the commission (three of the five members), Hansen violated the open meetings law. Goldthorpe in turn sent the mail to other commission members as well, compounding the situation, though he said he did that because he interpreted the Hansen note as a matter of district politics, not debate of formal board action.

The violation still seems clear enough; now, what to do about it? The state attorney general’s office was contacted for an opinion, and Deputy AG Paul Panther promptly delivered one. Yes, the law was violated, he said, but Hansen (and Goldthorpe) could resolve - “cure” - the problem simply by admitting publicly to the communication.  Both of them did that.

He did not recommend further action: “Our office is vested with the public’s trust ... These responsibilities are not served by pursuing a civil action against public officers who have admitted their mistakes and who have sought as individuals to remedy any potential injury caused by their improper conduct.”

That might have seemed like the end of the matter. It was not.

The commission’s president, Sara Baker, sent an angry letter back to Panther. She called on the attorney general’s office to “prosecute [Hansen] to the fullest extent” and “make an example of Commissioner Hansen.” (She gave Goldthorpe a pass because, she indicated, his motives were better than Hansen’s.) The commission voted 2-1 (since Hansen and Goldthorpe both abstained) to send that letter to Panther. In effect, that official commission statement represented the view of less than half of the commission, but Baker pushed it through, as such, anyway.

Panther again declined to take further action.

When we get into the subject of motivations, we wander onto tricky territory because we never can delve inside a person’s mind and conclusively determine what they’re thinking, and why.

But it doesn’t seem a far reach in this case to see at work something more than simple concern for the open meetings law, something more personal. And some of the elements involved with it - the insistence on punishment and making an example, of pushing through a minority opinion masked as that of a majority - may offer some of the indicators worth our watching in other places as well.
 

Matters of relative importance

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You can tell campaign season is kicking in by the flurry of data points arriving. Here are two sets from the forthcoming Idaho campaigns - one that might be over-rated in importance, and one under-rated.

First up is the latest poll, covering the races in Idaho’s two U.S. House districts, from Dan Jones & Associates. Those polls have been the subject of criticism from some Idaho political people, but they’re among the few regularly conducted in Idaho, so we’ll put that aside for the moment and just look at their bottom lines. They show these levels of support: In the first district, Republican Russ Fulcher at 35 percent and Democrat Christina McNeil 27 percent, and in the second district Republican (incumbent) Mike Simpson at 59 percent, with Democrat Aaron Swisher at 23 percent.

One way to look at this would be big news: If the margins between the candidates in the second district (more than two to one) is about right, maybe that indicates a much closer race than expected in the first district, where polling is showing the two candidates running tightly. There might be some temptation to attribute some of this to a Democratic year and an appealing female candidate (who did unusually well in the primary), and possibly those are factors to consider. A little.

The problem is that the races in the districts aren’t really comparable. Simpson, representative in the Idaho 2nd for coming up on 20 years, is about as well known locally as a member of Congress could be. Fulcher has been on the ballot for major office twice, but only in primary elections. He isn’t nearly as well known in the first district as Simpson is in the second. That will change somewhat in the ramp-up to election day, and - bearing in mind that he’s run a capable and uncontroversial campaign so far - you’ll likely see his numbers rise significantly over the next couple of months, as Republicans come home.

If you assume the Jones numbers are an accurate snapshot of recent weeks, that doesn’t mean the end results will look the same way they do now. The dynamic is fluid. The percentages will change.

Item two is an endorsement from a seemingly off-the-wall source that could prove important.

Endorsements in political campaigns usually don’t matter much. Many of them are mildly helpful just by way of showing the person or group involved isn’t opposed to the endorsee. Rarely do they actually change people’s minds or cause them to look at an issue or person in a different way.

Here’s one that could be an exception to the rule.

The Idaho Sheriffs’ Association has voted to endorse Proposition 2, the measure that would expand Medicaid access in Idaho. Chris Goetz, the sheriff in Clearwater County Sheriff and chair of the group’s government affairs group, remarked that “The vote for this wasn’t even close. Sheriffs voted overwhelmingly to support Proposition 2 to save taxpayers money, to keep people out of the jails, and to keep people out of the emergency room. By expanding coverage to low-income people with health issues or mental health issues, they’re more likely to contribute to society and less likely to end up back in the system.”

The ISA endorsement comes not from one of the “usual suspects” - people and groups you might expect to be supportive - but from a group that usually wouldn’t be anticipated to weigh in at all. The reasons they give for doing so, relating to public safety, could cause a number of Idahoans to think about Medicaid expansion in a different way than they have in the past.

Remember too that 40 out of the 44 Idaho sheriffs are elected Republicans. This is no gaggle of liberal activists, and no one is likely to mistake them as such. And they’re spread all over the state, not concentrated in the urban centers where most of the expansion support likely has been focused up to now.

If the vote winds up being close, this one might be an actual game-changer.
 

Cruel and unusual

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When we think about the eighth amendment to the Constitution, the one banning “cruel and unusual punishment,” torture and the like spring to mind. No drawing and quartering, presumably; no waterboarding, one might think.

But last week’s 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in a case blasting the city of Boise for running afoul of the amendment may give us some new ways of thinking about that constitutional prohibition.

The case is is Robert Martin v. City of Boise, decided on September 4, and partly upholding, partly rejecting a district court decision (which appeared to side to a greater degree with the city). In the ruling, the judges said “We consider whether the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment bars a city from prosecuting people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to. We conclude that it does.”

And there are significant numbers of homeless people in Boise. Most do spend their nights in shelters, but not all do; the estimate in 2016 was that 125 were sleeping on sidewalks or in parks or similar places. That number of unsheltered almost certainly was low. Shelters do turn away people because they run out of room.

This is not the first time a similar idea has come to the court. In a 2007 ruling, in June v. City of Los Angeles, the 9th Circuit held that “‘so long as there is a greater number of homeless individuals in Los Angeles than the number of available beds [in shelters]’ for the homeless, Los Angeles could not enforce a similar ordinance against homeless individuals ‘for involuntarily sitting, lying, and sleeping in
public’.” (The Jones ruling wasn’t binding, but it does show ongoing reasoning by the judges.)

Well, after all: Where would you expect the homeless to go? What would you expect them to do - simply not sleep?

And isn’t sleep deprivation - apparently required under the law - a form of cruel and unusual punishment?

The question of what is and isn’t cruel and unusual takes up about seven pages of the ninth circuit decision, and it’s worth reading by any citizen. It specifically stops short of requiring the city provide shelters for homeless people. But “as long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter.”

When does the punishment become cruel and unusual? Maybe around the point where people lose their ability to make a realistic decision to the contrary - when they lose control over their lives, as people in really impoverished circumstances may do.
That raises some questions about how we should deal with the impoverishment, homeless or not, of so many people in our midst.

Which raises another question. The eighth amendment in total says, “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” When are bails and fines excessive? They’ve been increasing steadily, sometimes at galloping pace, in recent years. When is it too much?

Some states, California for one, have begun revisiting such questions. In Idaho it’ll be a matter for another, but surely arriving, day.
 

Chris Carlson

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John McCain, the senator and former presidential contender who died last week, said this in the last paragraph of his new and final book:

“What an ingrate I would be to curse the fate that concludes the blessed life I’ve led. I prefer to give thanks for those blessings, and my love to the people who blessed me with theirs.”

My fellow columnist and long-time Idaho politics writer Chris Carlson, who died just about a day after McCain, likely would have been glad to second that sentiment. In fact, with only slightly different words, he often did.

For Carlson, as for the senator, the view toward the end of the road was a long time coming.

I knew of him long before I met him. When I went to work at the Idaho State Journal in the mid-seventies, I often read his writings for that paper about Idaho politics from a half-decade or so before. He worked for Cecil Andrus during the governor (first run) and interior secretary years, and became so close to him as to be almost a member of the family. He was a founder of the consulting Gallatin Group along with Andrus, whose prominence and connections gave it a powerful initial push.

I got to know Carlson as he moved toward retirement, easing out of Gallatin after he was diagnosed with Parkinsons disease in 1999 and an aggressive cancer in 2005. For many people that might have been a setting into quiet retirement, the end of an active role in regional (Washington state as well as Idaho) public affairs, involvement in political campaigns, issues battles and much more. Fighting back and holding at bay his medical issues might for most people have been more than enough to occupy what time was left.

But for Carlson, in the dozen and more years that remained to him, that seemed to be only the beginning.

As he battled for health, he took a lead role in the “no” campaign on Initiative 1000 in Washington state, on physician-assisted suicide. He wrote a biography of Andrus that, while highly laudatory, filled in many of the gaps remaining in Andrus’ own memoir. He started writing a political column which ran in many Idaho newspapers (and on my web site, ridenbaugh.com) up until a few weeks ago. He also wrote three more books (two of which, Medimont Reflections and Eye on the Caribou, I published), the most recent published only month ago.

And that was hardly all he did.

In 2013, Carlson and I took a long road trip around Idaho, talking about books we both had recently put out. Carlson was the lead organizer of the trip, and we stopped in on people all over the state - people he had worked and organized with, sometimes argued with. We talked and listened about Idaho and its politics, and about how things could be made better. And for Carlson at least, the talk was always just step one. He’d get on the phone and make things happen.

Once, he ran across a little-known novel written years ago by a now-deceased but highly influential University of Idaho professor. From that he launched and kept rolling a chain of events that led to the re-publication (I was drafted into this as well) of three of the professor’s books, and their distribution and visibility around the state.

He did a lot of that sort of thing.

In his last column, Carlson wrote, understating his impact in his later years, “I was able to see two beautiful grandchildren born who have extraordinary talents, as well as all our children mature and happy with fulfilling employment. I also decided to get back on the stage of Idaho politics by writing a weekly public affairs column carried by five of Idaho’s newspapers. In addition, I wrote four books …”

Sounds a bit like a reflection McCain might have had.

Take care, Chris.
 

What eminent domain is for

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Back in the mid-80s, when the big, nasty, ferocious political battles in Boise had to do with shopping centers, the subject of eminent domain reared its head.

The issue (one part of it anyway) was development of a regional shopping mall, which ultimately was built and now is called Boise Towne Square. The development of a regional mall preoccupied Boise politics and a lot of public debate for the better part of two decades, and now the end of the battle seemed in sight but for one final issue:

One of the biggest road bumps at the end of that long trail was a family which for decades had lived on a tract in a key segment of where the mall was intended to be built. The family didn’t want to sell. And the battle went on for a while.

Along the way, the idea of eminent domain was raised.

Eminent domain is defined as “the right of a government or its agent to expropriate private property for public use, with payment of compensation.” Normally, this is done with the idea that the land is needed for an important public purpose, like a highway or a major public utility, and traditionally only a critical and important public need can justify the taking. We are after all talking about the forcible taking of property (in Britain they call something similar “compulsory purchase”), albeit for payment.

But there’s been mission creep, in which - in some cases - governments have seized property and used it for less than critical needs, or turned it over to private developers, with the idea that the new use would be higher and better, and more profitable, than the old one. It’s not hard to see how such an idea, if allowed to go unleashed, could become nightmarish.

In the Boise Towne Square case, workarounds and compromises eventually were found. But the idea of using that kind of power in the interest of building a shopping center made more than a few people uneasy.

Some of this comes back to mind with the prospective use of eminent domain in the case of Boise State University, which wants to build a new baseball stadium. The State Board of Education has given BSU eminent domain authority to condemn and purchase land for the facility.

BSU long has been crimped by its location in the middle of Boise, which means expansion is difficult - and BSU has been a fast-growing institution for a long time. Certainly, you can make a case for a new baseball stadium for the university. The property that would be taken would mainly consist of a parking lot, but there’s also an apartment building involved.

Phil Haunschild of the Idaho Freedom Foundation was quoted as saying, “The use of eminent domain for a stadium I think is an overreach. Eminent domain was meant to serve as a tool of last resort for those critical public infrastructure needs, for the roads, for the transmissions lines, for electricity, for canals for irrigation.” (There’s also the argument that Boise badly needs more affordable housing, some of which would be bulldozed in this development.)

Greg Hahn of Boise State University countered that the stadium, "is a vital part of the university and the university's mission in creating experiences for the students and it’s a big part of how the community experiences the university as well.”

This isn’t a black and white case. The traditional view about the proper use of eminent domain, I’d say, is closer to Haunschild’s.

But don’t be surprised if, as long as the building boom continues in the booming parts of Idaho, eminent domain returns, and in new and sometimes surprising forms.
 

In crisis, cause for press hope

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These can look like dark days for news reporting, and for our ability to keep track of and hold accountable those in power, who we most need to keep on a leash.

There are serious economic pressures, a dynamic underway for a generation now; business crunches that have wiped out massive segments of local and regional news reporting. Journalism in New York (mostly) and Washington, and other top centers, goes on. Beyond those places, far less of it is happening today than did a few decades ago.

There are newer political pressures, some of them coming from endless attempts from the White House to call out “fake news” that isn’t fake at all, in the perverse declaration of the press -- the best protector most of us have from the powers that be -- as the “enemy of the people.”

But under that, almost in the shadows, there are signs of hope. One is the nationwide uprising of newspaper editorials this last week, reflected in Idaho among other places, explaining just why an independent and free press really is important.

This message happened to be magnified for me, on a Northwest level, this week.

About five years ago a former colleague, Steve Bagwell (now a newspaper editor at McMinnville, Oregon), and I co-wrote a book, titled New Editions, about the Northwest’s newspapers, their history, present, and future. This week we were asked to revisit that in an interview for an article on a regional press, to bring up to date some of what we found in our research back then. It brought us to consider a more recent summing up.

We found, five years ago, that while the newspaper scene tended to be reduced to a stereotype of “bleak,” the actual picture is more complex. We found that the reality of newspapers and journalism, their condition and vitality, actually varies a lot between regions, types of communities, types of newspapers. That much seems to be just as true today. Not many definitive lines of description apply to all newspaper journalism.

Overall through the ‘00’s, many newspapers seemed to be crashing, to the point that trend lines (and many prognosticators) suggested most might not be around for long, that the print newspaper was close to extinction. But trend lines are often disrupted; the future isn’t so easily predictable. In the years since 2012, the newspaper industry, while still enduring hard time, has to a great degree stabilized at a smaller level. Layoffs have continued and news coverage is down. But those newspapers that were supposed to disappear en masse? Most are still there.

There are also counter-indicators.

One (the subject of a recent column) in Idaho is the growth of the Nampa Idaho Press newspaper organization, the expansion of coverage, hiring of new staff - what looks like an explosion of confidence in the future of newspapering.

A few miles across the Oregon line at the small town of Vale, look at the case of the Malheur Enterprise, a small, struggling weekly newspaper. Well, it used to be struggling. Now, under new owner Les Zaitz, a former Portland Oregonian investigative reporter, it not only is breaking important stories week after week, gaining not just local but even national attention, but it also is growing rapidly in circulation, adding staff and apparently prospering. Zaitz is now in the process of starting a new hard-news digital publication covering the state, based at Salem.

I should mention my own digital publication, the Idaho Weekly Briefing, which has been expanding and is working on its own new business model (involving online crowdfunding).

The times are difficult for journalism, and for people who want to follow serious news reporting. But hard times can make for some of the most creative solutions.