Monthly Archives: January 2009

Can Globe readers get a refund?

A few quick observations on a Saturday morning.

• Someone at the Boston Globe had a good idea for selling a few more copies of the Saturday edition: plug a Joan Vennochi column on page one. But that’s a trick you can only pull once unless you actually run a Vennochi column inside. (Apologies for the unreadable page-one teaser, but trust me. It says “Point of View: Joan Vennochi.”)

• New York Times columnist Gail Collins makes some semi-amusing fun of folks who can’t handle the switchover to digital TV. It would have been more amusing, though, if she could figure it out herself. “How could the Republicans not be worried about this?” she writes. “A disproportionate number of the endangered TV viewers are senior citizens. Bill O’Reilly’s entire audience is in danger!” Uh, Gail? O’Reilly’s entire audience has cable and won’t be affected by this — a fact you seemed to grasp earlier in the column, but I guess not.

• Bob Ryan’s got a great lede this morning: “Jason Varitek wanted to test the waters. He’s lucky he didn’t drown.” Personally, I’m glad Varitek is coming back, though I’m more than a little puzzled by the games-started incentive his contract calls for in 2010. If Tek starts more than 80 games in 2010, then the Red Sox will have a serious problem. Secondarily, it puts Terry Francona in the position of costing Varitek money. Not good.

Middleborough meltdown

This is all too weird. But if you oppose casino gambling, you can’t help but love it.

Adam Bond, chairman of the Middleborough Board of Selectmen and the guy who did more than anyone to try to bring the world’s largest casino to his adopted hometown, has quit the board. It seems that Bond wanted his fellow selectmen to try to grab more money from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, which would own the casino, and which is now beset by legal problems, starting with the crimes of its former leader, Glenn Marshall.

(As an aside, it’s a shame that Sal DiMasi’s replacement as Massachusetts House speaker, Robert DeLeo, is a fan of casinos. Casino gambling is bad news, and we shouldn’t want it anywhere. More than anything, though, we need to keep it out of Middleborough.)

Cape Cod Times reporters George Brennan and Stephanie Vosk have a thorough account of the Bond shenanigans, and Alice Elwell of the Brockton Enterprise offers a good overview as well. In the Boston Globe, Christine Legere reports that Bond plans to keep his weekly radio show, which is broadcast here on Thursdays at 11 a.m. I shouldn’t, but it’s hard not to look when you happen upon a car crash.

As Elwell reported in a previous story, Bond had already alienated the board with his blog, which, I have to confess, is too tedious for me to wade through — though I do enjoy his claim that one of the selectmen, Mimi Duphily, “wanted to ‘rip my face off.’”

So I’ll give the great Gladys Kravitz the last word:

[A]s the person who has been putting Bond under a microscope since 2007 — believe it, this is a good day. This is a great day. It’s a pick up your American flag, go outside and stand on your porch or the hood of your car and let out a big WhooHoo type of day.

The king of all drama queens had a meltdown and provided you with an extra seat on the Middleboro Board of Selectmen. Now pick up a broom and sweep away the damage. Then pull back the curtain on the light of a better day.

One down, four to go.

More: The Enterprise editorializes on Bond’s “unconventional and inappropriate” behavior.

How to avoid prosecuting Bush and Cheney

Prosecuting George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others for torture-related war crimes would be madness, and President Obama clearly doesn’t want to do it. But torture is serious business. What should we do?

At ThePhoenix.com, civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate shows us the way out.

GateHouse memo to employees

Media Nation has obtained a memo sent to the troops by GateHouse Media New England president Rick Daniels. I present it here in full; emphases are Daniels’. If there’s anyone at the Boston Globe and/or the New York Times Co. who’s got a memo you’d like to share on this matter, my e-mail address is in the right-hand rail.

GATEHOUSE MEDIA NEW ENGLAND – MEMORANDUM

To: GateHouse Media New England Colleagues

From: Rick Daniels, president / CEO GHMNE (and the GHMNE Senior Team)

Date: Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

We just wanted to inform you that we have settled the lawsuit that was to have begun Monday morning in Federal Court. A lot has begun to be written about the case, and more will be, but we wanted to take this opportunity to address you, our colleagues, to whom this great outcome belongs.

The outcome of this case addressed each and every substantive point of why there ever was a lawsuit in the first place. Despite the “chaff” that has been thrown up, this case is not, and never was about, “linking”; it’s about the ability of GateHouse to protect our valuable content from inclusion in websites, or anywhere else where it doesn’t belong – and being used by competitors who have no permission to use our content. We could not be happier with the outcome, and it will be clear to anyone who has followed this case and the extensive trail of public documents that have been generated, why. You will hear or read a lot of opinions from those who have no idea what they are talking about. For instance: “GateHouse should have tried to settle this quietly and without going to court”. We did. Please ask us about ANY question or concern you have.

You, our professionals, have built an extensive array of local websites that are the “real McCoys” because hundreds and hundreds of LOCAL journalists and advertising professionals nourish them with content and revenue. Our journalists have been reporting LOCAL news and events in our newspapers or websites that have become part of the very fabric of over 150 greater Boston towns. Similarly, when local, and now so many regional and national advertisers look at their best market coverage options, they turn to OUR newspapers and websites due to the over 1.7 million readers we have each week, and about the same number of unique web visits. As we all know, success breeds imitation – always has, always will – but it SHOULDN’T breed violations of our legal rights to protect the content and journalism we generate.

We embrace – absolutely – the most core principles of the Internet and Web – linking and content sharing that supplements our own content and exposes this content to a wider audience. We also have enlisted a virtually countless number of local contributors, bloggers and webmasters with whom we have shared – and will most certainly continue to share content – vigorously and actively. We only expect those with whom we share content to comply with all applicable licenses and copyrights, as we do ourselves. Respect for these rights actually leads to the creation of MORE content, as the content creators have the potential to earn an economic reward for their efforts. For anyone who thinks or says that GateHouse is against the well-embraced Internet practice of content sharing and linking, and that we don’t understand the great value of these practices, they are dead wrong. If, by defending our legitimate copyrights and our ability to control where our content appears, we are thought to be “old school” – guilty as charged!

Both the press release and the letter agreement between GateHouse and the New York Times Company can be found at the GateHouse investor’s website: http://investors.gatehousemedia.com/. A word of caution: Settling a lawsuit requires certain each party to honor certain agreements, our Chief Counsel, Polly Sack has asked that the attached directive go out to all GateHouse employees. [Note: Media Nation does not have the attachment.] Please read it and comply with it – fully. She and we want to ensure we comply with both the letter and spirit of the agreement. It’s how we do business. If there are ANY questions on the requirements of this agreement, please contact Polly Sack [contact information omitted].

There are so many people and organizations to thank for the case we put forward, it wouldn’t be fair to try to list them all, but credit has to be given to our Corporate GateHouse colleagues, and especially Mike Reed, for their willingness to undertake this complex action based on their judgment of the merits of the case. Polly Sack, our GateHouse corporate counsel was, from start to finish, immense in her wisdom and expertise. The litigators from the firm of Hiscock and Barclay were extraordinary in their professional skill and stamina. Speaking of stamina, those who produced most of the discovery documents, prepared for depositions, and endured the grueling ordeal of depositions have to be credited. Much of this work was done on a “nights, weekends and holidays” basis. Recipients of the “Cool Under Fire” awards have to go to Kirk [Davis], Greg Reibman, Anne Eisenmenger, Chris Eck, Bill Blevins and Howard Owens, among others. MANY others not only contributed thoughts and helped the case in various ways, but also held down the fort as so many of us were otherwise occupied by doing in one month what our attorneys said would typically take 12-18 months!

Having this behind us is great, but it’s the road ahead where the battle for the hearts, minds, dollars and eyeballs of local readers and advertisers will be won or lost, and make NO mistake, we will win, but we will face formidable competition at every juncture, which is something that we’re not afraid of – whether it be print, digital or any other form of the media. This agreement just ensures that critical aspects of the competition will be within appropriate legal boundaries.

We also, thanks to the great majority of our reporters, editors, photographers and others who “get it”, will continue to make our websites, and certainly our newspapers continue to be the beneficiaries of content partners who both USE our content in appropriate and legal ways, and provide content to our sites that enriches them. We urge you to re-double your efforts to partner with any and all content partners who can make our offerings more compelling, or expose our content more widely.

Thanks again for not only your great support during this difficult, yet so very successful case.

Rick

Somewhat short of outrageous

As they are wont to do, the editors of the Boston Herald today offer populist outrage on page one: “BIG SCREENS IN THE BIG HOUSE!” The subhead: “CONS SCORE NEW TVs FOR SUPER BOWL … HOW ‘BOUT YOU?”

Trouble is, the story, by Jessica Van Sack, contains too much truth to sustain the outrage. It turns out that the state Department of Correction spent nearly $77,000 on 117 flat-screen televisions with “canteen money,” which she describes thusly:

Canteen money is raised by prisoner purchases of items such as toiletries and food, the proceeds of which go into a fund to benefit inmates. At any given time the account can contain up to $800,000, [DOC spokeswoman Diane] Wiffin said. Purchases of more than $1,000 require approval by top DOC officials.

In other words, the TVs were bought with the prisoners’ own money.

The best use of those funds? Probably not. As Van Sack notes, even Leslie Walker, director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, was perplexed, noting that many prisoners already have their own TVs in their cells.

But the image conjured up by the Herald’s treatment — that of “hard-core killers, rapists and thieves” watching the Super Bowl on high-end TVs bought with your hard-earned tax money — just doesn’t hold up.

From a watchdog to a lapdog

The New York Times today runs a lengthy op-ed on the idea that the only way to save newspapers may be to turn them over to non-profit endowments. It’s an intriguing notion, but the authors, Yale University endowment officers David Swensen and Michael Schmidt, point out a shortcoming that hadn’t occurred to me before:

As educational and literary organizations devoted to the “promotion of social welfare,” endowed newspapers would benefit from Section 501(c)(3) of the I.R.S. code, which provides exemption from taxes on income and allows tax deductions for people who make contributions to eligible organizations.

One constraint on an endowed institution is the prohibition in the same law against trying to “influence legislation” or “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.” While endowed newspapers would need to refrain from endorsing candidates for public office, they would still be free to participate forcefully in the debate over issues of public importance. The loss of endorsements seems minor in the context of the opinion-heavy Web.

Minor? Uh, no. It’s bad enough that newspapers would be prohibited from endorsing candidates under this scheme. (Not that anyone reads endorsements; it’s the principle that concerns me.) But it’s easy to imagine that critics could go after the paper if any of its columnists, or even straight-news reporters, appeared to be “influenc[ing] legislation.”

I want to see newspapers survive, but I’m not sure it’s worth it if they have to give up their First Amendment rights. There’s a reason that the Founders wrote, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

There are a few papers, such as the New Hampshire Union Leader and the St. Petersburg Times, that are for-profit businesses owned by non-profit educational institutions. Such a set-up may not provide all the tax advantages Swensen and Schmidt advocate, but it doesn’t stop them from endorsing candidates for office. For instance, the Union Leader endorsed the McCain-Palin ticket this past October.

Swensen and Schmidt may mean well. But their proposal would diminish newspapers, turning them from independent watchdogs into government-subsidized lapdogs, afraid to exercise the constitutionally protected right to a free press lest the tax collector put them out of business.

Two years ago I wrote an article for CommonWealth Magazine on how alternative ownership models might save newspapers. In it, I took a look at the Union Leader and the St. Pete Times. The article is online here.

Jacoby joins Brooks in getting CBO study wrong

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby today repeats David Brooks’ error in using an outdated, incomplete Congressional Budget Office study to argue that President Obama’s stimulus package won’t inject money into the economy quickly enough to do any good.

Jacoby writes that “less than half of the $355 billion the bill allocates to infrastructure and other ‘discretionary’ projects would actually be spent by the end of 2010; of that, a mere $26 billion would be spent in the current fiscal year.”

Unlike Brooks, Jacoby does credit an accurate source — a Washington Post story from last Wednesday, which makes clear the CBO study’s limitations, if not its utter worthlessness. But Jacoby himself doesn’t make it clear, thus leaving the same wrong impression as Brooks.

In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt lays out how and why too many in the media got it wrong. And he reports that, on Monday evening, the CBO put out an up-to-date report estimating “that about 64 percent of the money, or $526 billion, would be spent by next September.” Here (PDF) is the CBO study to which Leonhardt refers — readily available, as Leonhardt notes, since Monday evening.

I’m not sure when Jacoby’s deadline is, but surely he had time to peruse the new study.