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.

On the road

My piece for the Guardian on the GateHouse Media-New York Times Co. settlement should pop up here later today. I’ll be on the road all day, so will not be able to update. Play nice!

Settlement details are now online

I’m getting ready for class, and so will not be able to comment in any detail on the settlement terms reached between GateHouse Media and the New York Times Co. And it’s hard to know what the agreement (PDF) is going to look like in practice.

But my gut tells me that, by agreeing not to aggregate GateHouse content automatically for its Your Town sites, the Times Co. will shift more to a blogging model, compiled by actual human beings, rather than robotically posting headlines and ledes from GateHouse’s Wicked Local sites.

“To put it in the language of online-journalism theory, they have to shift a bit from raw aggregation to something closer to curation,” writes Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab. I agree — I think that’s exactly what we’re going to see.

One interesting aspect of the agreement is that the Times Co. says it will not interfere with any technological fix GateHouse attempts to implement in order to stop it from “scraping” its content.

“Gatehouse had not previously established a barrier to prevent such scraping of its stories,” writes Robert Weisman of the Boston Globe.

But in GateHouse’s legal complaint, the company charges that it “implemented certain electronic security measures” last November, which were quickly defeated by

More to come, I’m sure.

GateHouse and New York Times Co. settle (II)

Since it appears that GateHouse Media and the New York Times Co. are still working out the details of their proposed settlement, I’m thinking we’re not going to hear anything for a bit. Perhaps the two sides will put out a joint statement, but I’ve seen nothing yet.

The Boston Globe has a brief story here, and GateHouse, with an assist from the Associated Press, runs an account here.

GateHouse and New York Times Co. settle

As I had been hoping, GateHouse Media and the New York Times Co. have settled a lawsuit GateHouse brought over’s Your Town sites, which, GateHouse alleged, violate its copyright by lifting headlines and ledes en masse from its Wicked Local sites.

No details yet.

Instant update: It might be more accurate to say that the two sides are moving toward a settlement. The case has been dismissed, and thus the trial, scheduled to begin today in U.S. District Court, has been canceled.

But here’s what Judge William Young has to say in his written order: “IT IS ORDERED that this action is hereby dismissed without cost and without prejudice to the right of any party, upon good cause shown, to reopen the action within thirty (30) days if settlement is not consummated.”

So it’s possible that this isn’t over yet.