Sunday, August 28, 2005

Missouri wisdom

From the Vandalia (Mo.) Leader: "We're probably the only manufacturing plant in town that shuts down a production line when a customer enters the building."

Blasting BLM

If you haven't been following the discussion of Todd Wilkinson's Outpost column this week, you probably should be.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Debate wrapup

Here's my (belated) analysis of winners and losers in Tuesday night's mayoral debate. My ups and downs just indicate whether I think the candidate helped or hurt his chances. They aren't necessarily related to my overall view of who's winning or which candidate I personally prefer.

David Bovee (up): His candidacy is going nowhere, so anything he did outside of swinging an ax or throwing up on another candidate probably would have helped him. He sounded less versed than some of the others, but rational and mainstream. He probably should come up with a better description of his career than "retired."

Larry Brewster (down): Brewster came across as the apologist for the current council and staff, and that's a tough job. I don't think anybody can win this election who doesn't sound as if he could make things better. Brewster seemed to promise more of the same.

Al Garver (up): Impressive showing. He sounded remarkably well schooled on the issues, quite reasonable and quite articulate. The crowd, which was fairly large and fairly old, had obvious sympathy for his complaints about the wording of the public safety mill levy. In my experience, incumbents generally can bury challengers on the facts -- it takes a long time to get up to speed on all the stuff that government does. But Garver sounded ready to hit the ground running.

Cliff Hanson (down): Came across more as a perpetual candidate than as a committed citizen ready to take the next step in public service. He seemed to lack clear vision and goals, and he was the only candidate who sounded at all downbeat about Billings' future. While that may be rational, it's probably not good politics.

Michael Larson (up): He's not an incumbent, but he's a fairly recent council member, which puts him a tricky position. He could criticize recent council decisions without sharing the blame, but he still needed to sound as if the city did something right in the eight years he helped run it. In my view, he handled the challenge masterfully. He's well versed on the issues, thoroughly articulate, and is able to sound like he is making bold pronouncements while actually outlining positions nearly everyone would agree with. Probably the big winner of the debate.

Ron Tussing (neutral): He carries lots of baggage in this race, some helpful and some not. The Tussing supporters were by far the most visible in the crowd, and they didn't hear anything to change their minds. But I'm not sure that voters who are skeptical about his motives and diplomacy heard anything to change their minds either.

My straight news account is here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Kirn on Sullivan

A fellow Montanan, Walter Kirn, is guest blogging for Andrew Sullivan.

It's a good thing somebody is blogging. Just when you thought this blog couldn't get any deader, it's about to. I'm back to teaching next week, two courses at Rocky(freshmen comp and journalism) and one -- at least -- at MSU-Billings (second-year German). I probably also will still be doing some tutoring. And still trying to put out a paper.

Any resemblance between this site and an actual blog will be purely superficial.

In the meantime, though, I've been following, and occasionally contributing to, this discussion over at Press Think. Important topic but, as always, lots of blather in the comments.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Just say don't go

Here's an oddity: a Montana-based website "committed to stopping the militarization of our schools."

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Rack update update

I've now talked to two business managers who say that Community Racks of Montana had given them the impression that free publications had been contacted in advance before their racks were removed. Neither was happy to hear that wasn't true, and one offered to let us right back in. We may not have lost this thing yet.

Sad news

Over at The Outpost site, an anonymous commenter posted this profound thought:

It's not the 6,000 votes that typically vote "no" in Billings' school mill levy elections that bother me. It is the fewer than 4,000 voting "yes." With 16,000 students, and at least one parent of each student, it's sad to see such apathy. Maybe parents don't see the needs. There's a lot of work to be done, isn't there?

Friday, August 05, 2005

Rack update

In response to some of the comments below, it occurs to me that I haven't been as clear about the rack distribution mess as I ought to be.

There actually are two companies out there signing stores to distribution agreements. One is River's Edge Distribution of Great Falls, which is owned by the Great Falls Tribune, which is owned by Gannett, which is the nation's largest newspaper company -- one of the few left with the resources to swallow somebody like Lee Enterprises. River's Edge is the Montana branch of DistribuTech, which has the national contract for publications in Albertsons stores.

The other company is Community Racks of Montana, described in the post below. It claims to have contracts with the two big IGAs, County Markets, Western Drug and a few other places. I am still trying to confirm whether these contracts are legitimate.

Tony asks, What can be done? I wish I knew. Since the Albertsons agreement appears to be national, local managers probably are impervious to pressure. But a little pressure never hurts. For various reasons, I don't really think the Trib is in this for the money; I think it wants to protect access for its own (and Gannett's?) free publications. If a few local newspapers should happen to fold ... well, Gannett could live with that. In some respects, I would feel safer if the Trib was in it for the money.

Community Racks, I suspect, is just in it for the money, and its managers may be too stupid to know that alienating their potential customers to death isn't a bright way to start a business. I'm a little nervous about going public with all of this in The Outpost (do I really want to advertise the fact that some rack locations may get paid while others don't?), but I think that's probably what I ought to do.

Monday, August 01, 2005

On the rack

I'm still not sure how much I will write about this in The Outpost, since it's such insider stuff and since I don't know that anybody gives a damn, but here's a draft of a letter I'm working on to local merchants that have agreed to have our racks pulled from their stores:

Dear xxxxx,
A company named Community Racks of Montana alleges that it has obtained your permission to remove our distribution rack from your store. Since I have no reason to rely upon the veracity of this company’s representatives, I am writing to ask you to verify whether this is in fact the truth.

If you have indeed signed an agreement with this company, I would appreciate your letting me know why. You should be aware that, although this company appears to have signed agreements with some local businesses as early as June, it provided no notice whatsoever to us or, apparently, to other publishers, until last Friday. The notice it did provide gave no indication of any intention to remove any racks; however, at least some of our racks already were gone by the very next day. At this writing, we still do not know where all of these racks are. I have heard from other business owners that this company has used this same tactic in at least one other Montana city, desisting only under threat of legal action. At this writing, we still have received no coherent business offer from this company. I am having difficulty believing that you would jeopardize the reputation of your business by contracting with an outfit of this caliber.

Moreover, Community Racks has been unable, or unwilling, to demonstrate to me that it has any agreement in place that allows it to remove our racks. We obtained your permission to be in your store; obviously, you have the right to withdraw that permission, but I have seen no convincing evidence that you have done so. The two sample contracts that Community Racks provided to me upon my demand referred to “marketing materials” and to “free magazines, flyers and brochures.” They contained no reference to newspapers; in fact, one of the contracts clearly distinguished between this company’s “free standing Displays” and “newspaper stands.” I have no way of knowing what your intention was when you signed this agreement, if in fact you did sign it, and I am asking that you please clarify your intentions.

If you did intend to include The Outpost in any agreement you signed, I would ask that you reconsider that decision. I hope you understand that The Outpost is in no way comparable, either under law or in common understanding, to the materials mentioned in this agreement. The Outpost provides a wide range of news articles, commentary, public affairs information and cultural coverage. We devote hundreds of column inches each issue and thousands of man-hours each year to giving readers vital information about nonprofit activities, government and the community. We have sponsored and organized gubernatorial debates, music awards programs and public affairs television programming. We are media sponsors of the Alberta Bair Theater and the Billings Symphony, and we are key sponsors each year of the MSU-Billings Career Fair. Just this year, the Montana Legislature, recognizing the role we play in our communities, voted to allow our newspapers and others like us to print official county legal notices. To dismiss us as “marketing material” is to grossly underestimate the role The Outpost plays in this community.

Since our inception, we have been fully aware that we depend upon the generosity of local merchants to make our newspaper available to the public. We could not possibly afford to pay for the locations we need to reach readers promptly each week. It is no exaggeration to say that agreements such as these jeopardize our survival. Over the years, we attempted, admittedly inadequately, to acknowledge your generosity in a series of house ads, some of them as large as a full page, listing merchants who allow us to place our paper in their stores and inviting readers to patronize them. We have attempted to earn our place in your stores by practicing responsible and reliable journalism. I have lost track of the number of readers who say they arrange shopping trips around Outpost delivery day. Just a few weeks ago, a woman stopped me as I delivered papers to a Billings grocery store and said, “It’s my Thursday ritual. I always have to buy something unnecessary so I can get my Outpost.”

We also have attempted to respond promptly to any complaints from merchants about problems with our racks. On at least two occasions, we have responded to merchant concerns by constructing, at our own expense, multi-publication racks and shelves custom-designed to meet the merchant’s needs. This we would gladly continue to do.

My point is that it is unclear to me whether you intended to force us to deal with an unreliable distributor in order to continue to have access to your store. In any case, I see nothing in the agreement that prevents you from continuing to allow us in or in front of your store, and I look forward to hearing from you and continuing our business relationship.

Dubious honor

Billings makes the RV Unfriendly website.