Sunday, April 24, 2005

Murdoch on the press

I had meant earlier to link to this speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The speech has gotten a lot of play in the blogosphere, not, I suspect, so much for its content as for who said it.

But one statistic caught my eye: "According to one recent study, the percentage of national journalists who have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the American public to make good decisions has declined by more than 20 points since 1999." That number was new to me.

Murdoch opines, "Perhaps this reflects their personal politics and personal prejudices more than anything else, but it is disturbing." Perhaps. I suspect that it may reflect a reaction to the fairly overwhelming public distrust of journalists. If I know I'm telling the truth, and you call me a liar, then my respect for your judgment diminishes.

But I agree with Murdoch that it's a disturbing number. When journalists think their readers are stupid, that can't be good for journalism.

Here at The Outpost, I struggle with the opposite problem. I think Outpost readers are the bee's knees. It's the nonreaders I don't trust. Sometimes on Thursdays, when I'm out delivering papers all day long, I catch myself silently cursing the intelligence and character of people who walk by our racks without picking up a copy.

I'm not saying that's smart, and I'm not proud of it. But if you ever see me on Thursday with a couple of bundles of Outposts under my arm, you might want to ask for a copy. Someday, who knows? I might just blow.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

More winners

Here are a couple of more legislative winners I meant to mention:

Dave Wanzenreid: After he was maneuvered out of the House speaker job, Rep. Wanzenreid, D-Missoula, could have spent the rest of the session pouting. Instead, he took the defeat with class and held Democrats together during crucial votes.

Alternative energy: Wilbur Wood, who has been writing about wind energy and other alternative energy sources, says that amendments took much of the meat out of the final version of Senate Bill 415. But renewables are on the map now, and they won't go away.

Legislature: Who won?

Here's my quick read on winners and losers in the legislative session. In true blogging fashion, I have based these judgments on virtually no research, so your corrections and improvements are welcome.

Brian Schweitzer: I'm not persuaded that the governor did as well as he thinks he did, but considering that he was breaking in his first elective office with a slim legislative majority, anything this side of total disaster has to be a positive. Give him a B.

Jon Tester: The Senate president promised to be fair and bipartisan, and, by and large, he seemed to keep that promise. Now there's talk he'll run for Congress.

The ACLU: Strange, but true. Not only did public defender legislation pass in an effort to ward off an ACLU suit, the Legislature also lined up behind a resolution against the Patriot Act.

Education: It probably was too much to expect a solution to school funding problems to come out of this session, but Sen. Corey Stapleton, R-Billings, was right: Legislators should have debated education until the bitter end. Heck, I haven't had a day off since January; why shouldn't the Legislature burn 90 days of midnight oil? Back to Helena, folks.

Republicans: As I have noted before, I hold Republican leader Roy Brown in considerable esteem. I think he's smart and honest and fights for what he genuinely thinks is right. But I thought Republicans were much too quick to adopt the minority party role. They ought to have played from a position of strength: We're still the majority party in this state, and don't think a little gerrymandering changes that. Either show some bipartisan cooperation, or eat our dust in the next election. But conservative Republicans can't seem to shed the minority mentality: Sean Hannity has 12 million radio listeners, and his party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress, yet he still sounds every day like a besieged minority. Time to grow up.

Too close to call
Democrats: Interesting session for Democrats. On one hand, they had a fat surplus to spend -- every politician's wet dream. On the other, they had genuine needs to meet from court cases and a dozen years of tight budgets. It's one thing to freeze state workers' pay when the state's struggling to stay in the black, quite another when the Legislature has a couple of hundred million to play around with.

So Democrats had to spend, but they also had to avoid as much as possible the big spender label. Tough trick to pull off, and Republicans weren't eager to make it easier. The spoiler is still school funding. If the Legislature can come out of a special session with a reasonable solution and no big new tax bite, the Dems should be OK. If they don't, well, welcome to 2007.

That's enough for now. I'll add more as needed.

Giving Wendy's the finger

Assuming this case results in a conviction, then it's too bad about that pesky provision in the Constitution banning cruel and unusual punishment. It wouldn't be hard to think of a fitting penalty: chili con pinkie.

Racicot grilled

Those of you who don't read The Outpost regularly (damn your eyes) will want to look at this story on Marc Racicot. And those of you who do look at The Outpost probably will want to look at this (link courtesy of Tony).

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Testy with Tester

Dirt Between Light Bulbs finds Senate President Jon Tester's logic a bit tortured. Sen. Tester essentially argued that Republican neglect of education in recent years forced Democrats to increase education spending this year.

While I don't have much use for legislators who blame the other party for their own failings, I would never get into an argument with a man who has a haircut like a drill sergeant's. But Tester, who always has struck me as a reasonable fellow, actually has a point.

Everybody knew that a lawsuit over school funding was coming. I wrote nearly four years ago that it was in the works. And most people I talked to predicted that the suit would succeed.

Now, you can talk all you want about whether the suit was reasonable and necessary. And you can argue until you're red in the face that more money doesn't necessarily equal more quality.

But the fact is, Republicans knew this suit was on the way. And they knew it would probably be successful. And they knew that success would cost the taxpayers money. And they ran the show. And now they are looking for a way to blame Democrats. That won't fly.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Lee ethics: an oxymoron?

From the e-mail:

I ask you keep my name and location out of this for obvious reasons, but you could identify me (if you must) as a Lee newspaper employee...
In your April 16 post, you said the other anonymous poster was correct and that Lee has an ethics policy in its "Principles for Quality Journalism." That is very nice, but it is not an ethics policy. It's a mission statement.
If you review some other newspaper ethics policies available online, you'll see that they are strict personnel policies that -- for editorial personnel --govern how they conduct themselves. Ethics policies are hard rules on issues like conflicts of interest, acceptance of gifts, travel expenses and the like from potential news sources, etc. They generally carry severe penalties, including dismissal, for violations. Here is the San Jose Mercury News policy:
for an example; it the first one that Googled up. Lee has nothing like that.
Right now, if I were a Lee reporter, I could be a member of an organization, report on that organization, and violate no company policy. I could be a stockholder in a corporation and write editorial praising that corporation. Furthermore, there is no Lee policy requiring that those relationships be disclosed to readers.
Here's one line from Lee's "Principles for Quality Journalism":
Employees shall "Play a leadership role and be a force for change in the community through coverage, editorials and civic involvement."
Lee strongly encourages middle management editorial employees to join local civic organizations and then allows those same employees to contribute to and even to author news coverage and editorials of those same organizations without disclosure to readers. That violates most other newspapers' ethics policies, and it leads to biased coverage.
I sorta expect publishers to have such community ties, but publishers don't put out the paper every day and good publishers don't insert their biases into local coverage. Lee is unusual in promoting such conflicts among its grunts in the editorial trenches.
Anyway, I've said my piece. I'm glad you're offering a forum for this discussion. I've been fighting over these issues here for years.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Lee update

An e-mailer who asks to remain anonymous takes exception to an anonymous comment about Lee Enterprises below that says that "Lee is also alone among the major newspaper corporations in that it has no professional ethics policy to guide its newsgathering."

The e-mailer is correct: Lee does in fact have a statement of Principles for Quality Journalism.

David Summerlin also asks, "In your most honest moments, is it possible that your contempt for Lee is driven as much by jealousy as by high minded journalistic principles?"

It's a fair question, worth reflecting upon. My contempt for Lee actually drips at a much slower rate than Nathaniel Blumberg's. And although it is driven by many factors, jealousy, I believe I can safely say, is not one of them.

I always have ranked Lee somewhere in the middle of the pack of corporate newspaper behemoths. It offers good benefits. It has conducted layoffs with a certain restraint. Corporate headquarters seems content to stay out of local editorial matters. As competitive pressure on newspapers has intensified, Lee has doubled up on its commitment to publishing newspapers, a move that I find admirable if not especially smart.

Mr. Summerlin is correct, I believe, in saying that Lee's faults are typical of, and probably less serious than, those of larger media conglomerates. So why pick on Lee?

1. Lee is a medium-sized fish in the world of media conglomerates, but it is a great white shark in Montana. You fight the enemy where you find it.

2. All corporate newspapers, in my view, are far more alike than they are distinguishable, and their differences become tinier every year. That means that the worst newspaper companies either reform or get out of the business (Thomson, Worrell), and that the best newspaper companies cut editorial quality to jack up profits (Knight Ridder). Attempting to choose the best of the lot of is a fool's game, a meaningless scoresheet on an ever-contracting scale.

3. Most of my knowledge about Lee comes from The Gazette. At the time I worked there, I thought it was the worst-run newsroom I had ever seen, and I thought the publisher was a chronic abuser of both the staff and the newspaper's reputation. By all accounts, things are better there now, but I can't let Lee off the hook for what went on there.

4. Lee can't be relied upon to aggressively cover stories in which it is involved. Just look at how Lee covered its Pulitzer acquisition.

5. As another commenter below notes, Lee is a ruthless monopolist that tries any tactic it can think of to sew up every media-related market niche in every town where it operates. It starts pointless niche publications with no editorial aim other than to dry up advertising dollars in the market. When we ventured into the car ad business, Lee cut rates in half for selected advertisers to induce them to sign long-term contracts. It did the same thing in the early days of The Outpost. When we asked the Legislature to give us a chance to bid on county legal ads, Lee's lobbyist (so I am reliably told) threatened senators with retaliation.

Sometimes Lee's attempts to head off competition can be amazingly petty, such as the Missoulian's refusal to run help-wanted advertising for a perceived competitor. Then there's this story, which I can't prove but which was told to me by a person involved whom I believe to be reliable: The founder of a media outlet in this region was nominated for recognition in the Gazette's 40 Under 40 special edition, but the Gazette rejected the nomination because she was a competitor. A competitor? Her creation is too small even for The Outpost to worry about, and The Gazette is a hundred times larger than we are.

Jealous? That's not the word for how that sort of story makes me feel.

Montana astroturf

Daily Kos, one of the prominent liberal blogs, calls Dirt Between Light Bulbs the first astroturf GOP blog. Follow the link to the Swing State Project for more info about these guys. And more here from Matt Singer.

In Dirt's favor: It provided the links that led to all of the above. And Dirt claims that nobody is getting paid to run the blog. OK by me, but you had better be telling the truth. I don't care how your politics lean, but I do care where your money comes from.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Publisher of the Year

As some readers may suspect, I am no particular fan of Lee Enterprises. So you might anticipate I would have a snide response to the decision by Editor & Publisher magazine (subscription required) to name Lee CEO Mary Junck as Publisher of the Year 2005.

Actually, I don't -- except perhaps to point out that CEO and publisher are not exactly the same job, even when they are held by the same person. But that's E&P's worry, not hers.

Ms. Junck probably deserves the accolade if for no other reason than Lee's huge purchases of the Howard Publications and Pulitzer chains. That's an impressive investment in the future of a mature and probably permanently declining industry. Impressive, even if not smart -- and possibly smart, too.

A sidebar in the E&P story asks the crucial question: "Just how good are Lee's papers?" The puff-filled article quotes only one naysayer: Nathaniel Blumberg, former dean of the University of Montana journalism school. Nathaniel doesn't say much to E&P, but he says it emphatically: "My contempt for Lee Enterprises and what it has done to the journalism profession runs so deep that I prefer not to be quoted at this time."

Me neither.

Heavy handed

An e-mailer suggests that one reason the free weeklies were able to get House Bill 474 passed (see numerous posts below) was that "Lee Newspapers has one of the most obnoxious lobbyists in the session." He adds, "I guess there is some symmetry there."

The e-mailer may have a point. One senator said that the Lee lobbyist (who also lobbies for the Montana Newspaper Association -- a disturbing conflict of interest) "threatened me with the wrath of the Gazette."

Can that be? Would a major news organization leverage its near-monopoly status to stifle free-market competition for government services? Hmmm. I'll have to think it over and get back to you.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Up with stupidity

"I just don't think we can legislate against stupidity," Sen. Joe Balyeat this week during a legislative debate on banning smoking in public buildings.

He's right. We probably can't legislate against stupidity. But that doesn't mean we have to elect it to office.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


House Bill 474, the Free Weekly Legal Advertising Relief Act, has passed the Senate on third reading. Now it goes back to the House with a minor amendment.

So the little guys do occasionally win one.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Back to life

Guess I was too pessimistic below about House Bill 474. The Senate just voted to reconsider the bill, and it has been scheduled for a second reading.

I don't have any details yet. Matt Gibson, who has been fanning the flames on behalf of Montana's free weeklies, heard from a senator last night who said he thought there were enough votes to change the outcome. As of this morning, the bill still had failed, 25-23. Somewhere during the day, it picked up another vote to make it 25-24. I sent out four or five messages to senators last night, and a few more this morning.

Now, by a 30-20 vote cast this evening, we will get another chance. Since the bill already has passed the House, with a little luck we're in. Cool.

The breakdown on this evening's voting isn't up yet. In the House, all the negative votes were cast by Republicans, but party lines were less visible in the Senate on Monday. Republican Jeff Essmann, for instance, voted for us, while a good Democrat, Jim Elliott (whose column occasionally appears in The Outpost), voted against us. Republican Corey Stapleton voted against us, but so did Democrat Jon Tester.

As I was firing off e-mails this morning, it occurred to me that, for the first time in my life, I was lobbying. It was a weird feeling - violating my oath of political celibacy. Guess I am a businessman after all.

UPDATE: HB 474 has now passed on second reading, 26-22. It goes to a third reading on Wednesday.

Butcher block

City Lights finds itself agreeing with Sen. Ed "The Vegetable" Butcher that a bill requiring school districts to adopt anti-bullying policies is a bad idea. Note to Ed: Anytime you find yourself tempted to agree with Sen. Butcher, you should rethink your position.

I don't like the state dictating every step school districts take (and I like it even less when the feds do it) but this bill doesn't dictate a policy; it simply requires school districts to adopt one that includes a process for handling complaints. That seems to be a sufficiently modest and sensible approach to dealing with a real problem that is at least anecdotally linked to school shootings.

And it might even be good news for bullies. The lives that are saved could be theirs.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Whittled down again

Apparently my optimism expressed below about the passage of House Bill 474 was excessive. I just got an e-mail from Matt Gibson saying that the Senate voted the bill down, 26-23, and it probably is dead for the session. Apparently the paid-circulation papers and their lobbyist got to enough senators to beat it down.

For what it's worth, here's some of the written testimony I submitted to the House:

Newspapers were born free, but everywhere they are in chains. The number of independently owned daily newspapers in the United States has fallen from a peak of more than 2,100 to about 250 today. Many of those absent newspapers went out of business; most of the rest were absorbed by increasingly larger and increasingly more concentrated newspaper chains.

But in recent decades, alternatives have arisen. Free distribution weekly newspapers are published in nearly every major American city. During the 1990s, these newspapers doubled in circulation and revenue.

In Montana, free and independent weeklies have blossomed in the last dozen years: The Missoula Independent, the Butte Weekly, The Billings Outpost, the Queen City News here in Helena. These papers offer a genuine alternative to established weeklies and dailies, and have readerships that rank favorably with most of the state's long-established newspapers.

I regret that I cannot be here personally today. As a small publisher, I wear many hats, and I have a couple of those on today. But I do want to take a few moments to ask that we be given the same right that paid newspapers have to compete for legal notices placed by county government. I, and the publishers of these other weeklies, seek no special favors or breaks. I'm not asking that legal ads be awarded to us. I'm just asking that we be given a chance to compete. I'm not even asking for a level playing field; I just want a chance to get in the ballgame.

The Montana Newspaper Association, of which The Outpost has been a member since we started business, opposes this legislation. It will argue, among other things, that the bill, as offered, defines newspaper too loosely. The association's larger concern is that counties may use this bill as a wedge to give up legal notices in newspapers altogether.

I agree with the association that that would be a mistake. No entity in any community does more to keep the public aware of what local government is up to than the local newspaper. It just makes sense that newspapers should remain the place where citizens go to keep track of legal matters that affect them and their community.

But I believe that newspapers, like government, must be open to the changes that are sweeping communications at a pace that I have never before seen in the two decades I have practiced this craft. Without question, free weekly newspapers are a substantial portion of that change. They will play an increasingly vital role in helping to fill democracy's need for robust debate on the issues of the day. It is time that they were accepted as a legitimate and lasting force in Montana communities. Allowing them to accept county legal notices will be an important step in their growth.

So it's another loss for the little guy. I wish I could be the big guy for just one day.

Sunday, April 03, 2005


Dirt Between Light Bulbs is doing a good job of trying to track down answers to questions I raised below about Democratic gerrymandering. It's worth scrolling down through several entries to get the full story.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

One step closer

House Bill 474, which I wrote about here, has passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee by a 7-5 vote. The bill would give free weeklies like ours a chance to bid on county legal ads -- potentially a tidy, although not terribly profitable, little sum.

The bill already passed the House by an 84-14 margin, so chances look good. If it becomes law, the most satisfying aspect will be that it is opposed both by the Montana Newspaper Association and by Lee Enterprises -- which, coincidentally enough, both have the same lobbyist. It will be a nice little win for the little guy, helped along, primarily, by Matt Gibson of the Missoula Independent.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Making money

In comments on my Blogcasting post below, David Summerlin makes thoughtful suggestions about commercial prospects for blogging. He suggests that an alternative model to advertising may be needed, as well as an alternative to highly populated uppercrust blog sites.

I wish I had a clue what to offer. New West obviously has its own ideas about how to make money at this, and I wish them well, I think, but I'm not convinced that approach will work. Actually, I'm not convinced any approach will work.

But just to toss something out: What if you had four bloggers sharing one site, each putting in a couple of hours a day. That way everybody has enough time to keep a day job, but yet the blog gets full-time reasonable attention. With that much blogging, I think, you could become the premier Montana news and commentary site in the state (although without, I fear, much original reporting).

It could make money from:

1. Whatever ads were available.
2. The tip jar.
3. Annual memberships (?).

Nobody would get rich, but everybody might get a little cash. And it would be a must read for all folks serious about Montana affairs. Or maybe not. Anybody got a better idea?

Extreme moderates

I went to a meeting of a new campus group at Rocky Mountain College on Wednesday. The idea is to organize at the grassroots level to create the Moderate Party, a rational alternative to the partisanship and bickering of the two major parties.

The name of the party elicited a few inevitable chuckles. For example, when the next meeting was set, the time was placed at 6:15 p.m. -- exactly midway between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

I am naturally skeptical about the odds of rallying support for a rational approach to politics, but I'm happy to see college students meeting to discuss such matters. Even if nothing comes of it but a few debates on the nature of political compromise, it will be time well spent. On the basis of what I have heard, the students sounded more libertarian than moderate -- an idea also worth exploring.

But that can be changed. That could be my opportunity. Since Tony Lewis keeps labeling me as an "extreme moderate," maybe I could carve out a niche as a leader of the extreme wing of the Moderate Party.

If you would like any more information about all this, let me know. I will put you in touch.