Being outside the bubble makes the world a better place

I don’t think I can accurately convey the immense difference in mind set from working inside the political bubble to now functioning, for the most part, outside of it. The only remaining bond is the fact that I live in DC.

The recent “scandals” are a prime example.

While the economy continues to sputter, Wall Street criminals continue to feed off taxpayers and homeowners, and children struggle to get a meal and get an education, Congress and the media are obsessed with the IRS doing its job, trumped up hearings on a terrorist attack in Libya, and the government investigating the leak of “classified” information to the Associated Press.

Each of these stories has a touch of importance, but you wouldn’t be able to figure that out from the coverage or the political yappers on TV. Each story deserves its own post and a careful examination of the facts.

As for my experience, thank god I’m no longer working on the hill getting caught up in this. It reminds of the experience my sister had while at home with her oldest child. She watched a great deal of TV, it was a companion.  Suddenly the world was a very dangerous and dark place. The news kept telling her about all the murders, kidnappings, and crime in the world. She didn’t want Emily to leave the house, let alone play with her friends outside. Then, as her other children were born and got older, and TV time diminished, the world grew brighter. Instead of listening to the observations of others, and away from the stories told to garner ratings, she was actually living in the world again. And guess what, that world was much safer than what the screen inside was trying to sell her.

Leaving politics is very much the same. All of the arguments now make no sense to me. All the time and energy spent creating fake outrage is that more regrettable. There are still big issues at play, still important differences to discuss and debate. But trust me, almost none of that is taking place. Just ginned up anger to fuel donations and media coverage.

It makes you wonder how much we could be accomplishing instead.


Who is going to uncover the next cheating scandal

Not long ago I wrote about the pay walls being erected by newspapers to try and stay in business. While I won’t be paying for access to every newspaper across the country, the fact is if we want reporters out their digging for the story and investigating corruption, they must be paid. Americans are used to being told they can get everything for free, but that just ain’t the truth.

This point was driven home during lunch this afternoon with a good friend who was born and raised in Georgia. We talked about the Atlanta public schools cheating scandal, which he pointed out was uncovered by the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC). The AJC broke the story back in 2008 when it uncovered testing irregularities, a fact authorities failed to notice and then refused to investigate until years later. Safe to say the indictments handed down this week against 35 people would never have happened without AJC’s work.

But can that type of deep and time consuming reporting be sustained in this era of newsroom cuts? The year after the story broke, COX Media, owners of the AJC and other papers, announced that it would be cutting the staff of the paper by 30%. According to the Wall Street Journal:

The AJC expects to reduce its 320-person news staff by about 90 positions. The paper also will continue to pare distribution to some outlying areas, a move that will cut about 2% from its circulation footprint. The AJC is the country’s 22nd-largest paper, with average weekday circulation of 275,000 copies.

The AJC said it plans more cost-cutting initiatives during the next 90 days as it aims to return to profitability next year.

In an editorial published at the close of 2010, AJC’s Michael Joseph wrote,

The hard work and tough decisions we’ve made in the last couple of years have begun to pay off in a significant way. That’s encouraging to me, and I hope it will be for you, too, our loyal customers. We appreciate your support, and we’ve been investing in our business to serve you better.

I’m happy to report that the AJC is profitable again. This ensures that we can continue to produce the quality journalism that you’ve told us is important to you. With our business once again in the black, we’ve added innovative content to the newspaper and

. . .

It appears the AJC has made strides despite the current climate of gutted newsrooms and papers going belly up. So if we want good reporting, we are going to have to pay for it and that means pay walls. The idea that online advertising would save newsrooms has failed, as demonstrated by a 2012 PEW report explaining that papers are losing $7 in print ad revenue for every $1 they gain in digital advertising. Check out this chart from the Economist’s Emma Gardner:

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic sums it best:

The scariest thing about the newspaper business is the idea that digital newspaper advertising is theoretically “alive” and “the future” even though it’s growing at 1/50th the pace of print’s decline. In the last five years, we’ve basically figured out one big thing about digital advertising — the power of search — while banner ads, native ads, and sponsored ads, and other non-search-advertising innovations haven’t been rich enough to pay for anything except the most shoe-string of journalism budgets. Basically, the digital ad business for newspapers stinks. And if it continues its pathetic rate of growth, four things will happen. 

First, many papers will erect pay-walls to beg for online subscribers. Second, many newspapers will discover their content is not distinguishing enough to justify digital subscribers and the pay-walls will flop. Third, many newspapers will continue to face newsroom and frequency cuts (e.g. going to three days a week). Fourth, many newspapers will die. They won’t die because Google attacked and killed them. They’ll die because newspapers have always been an indirect cross-subsidy of soft-news advertising paying for hard-news journalism. Online search simply offers a more direct way to advertisers to reach those soft-news readers.

The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have proven that “pay to read” can work. However I’m concerned with the small papers that cover city hall, local police departments and other organizations that may go unchecked.

I know PR when I see it

I’ve worked in communications long enough to know good public relations and Sunday’s Yahoo “article” on Michigan basketball coach John Beilein is a prime example.

Yahoo “expert” Dan Wetzel does an expert job of playing hand maiden to the PR folks at UofM. Check out this journalistic tour de force:

. . . Through the years, the one constant has been Beilein. Even when West Virginia and Michigan allowed him the chance to coach elite talent such as Trey Burke and Mitch McGary, he remained the same. Now paid about $1.7 million annually, in charge of a large Big Ten operation, he’s still the one who cuts up the game and practice film. That’s how he did it at Erie, that’s how he’s still doing it.

“We’re talking about every practice, plus games,” said assistant Bacari Alexander. “He cuts it personally. He’s an old football coach from his high school teaching days, reel to reel.”

. . .

They might not all know his back story or understand the lessons he learned on those bus rides through snowstorms home from Saint Anselm or Niagara County CC or someplace they’ve never heard about. They realize the wisdom he imparts, however. They never question the strategy.

“There is a humility about John Beilein that is something to be admired,” Alexander said. “He is just a guy who really benefitted from sweat equity. He is a guy who has coached at every level and, regardless of the roster he had, he maximized it. Every stop. Here at Michigan, it’s just more of the same.

I’m a Michigan fan and John Beilein appears to be a good person as well as an excellent basketball coach. I just can’t get past the PR fingerprints all over this story. There is the detailed back story of all the little places Beilein coached, how he still does his own yard work, and how he cuts his own game film, all very old school. There are the quotes from friends and family, swooning in their praise. All of this could very well be true, but why write it?

You don’t have to knock people down, tear them apart, but to me this story could have gone so many other more interesting directions. For example, Beilein is getting paid $1.7 million a year and the NCAA signed a 14-year broadcast deal in 2010 (for just the tournament) with CBS and Turner Broadcasting for $10.8 billion. Tell me again why players don’t get paid? College sports are huge business, and everyone seems to making out like bandits except the players, you know, the ones who do all the work.

And with Kevin Ware’s injury, Coach Beilein’s pay and benefits package could have been a great segway into talking about how players are treated after an injury. Do they get workers comp? Are they kept on scholarship? Are all their medical expenses covered? We know there have been instances where “student-athletes” have gotten shafted after getting hurt, as Chris Hayes discussed in a segment on his new show last night.

Isn’t Beilein a more complicated figure than this? I would love to learn how this working class guy who gets paid a ton of money connects with his players. Does he feel that Michigan and the NCAA are exploiting these kids? What does he do to ensure that his kids graduate?

Just like Coach Beilein, I’m sure Mr. Wetzel is a good person, he just shouldn’t write up the stuff the PR flacks at Michigan give him.