From the Globe, some needed context on charter schools

The Boston Globe has been notably favorable toward charter schools both on its opinion pages and in its news coverage. But if you oppose Question 2, a referendum that would expand the number of charter schools in Massachusetts (as I do), then you’ve got to like two pieces in today’s Globe.

First, a story by David Scharfenberg on a study by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation that claims to show charter schools aren’t draining money from regular public schools notes in the second paragraph that the study was paid for by a pro-charter-school organization:

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation study, paid for by the pro-charter Boston Foundation, shows that per-pupil spending in traditional public schools has grown at about the same rate as per-pupil spending in charter schools over the past five years.

Interestingly, the original version of Scharfenberg’s story, posted online Wednesday, made no mention of the funding. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that he and/or his editors decided to add that important context later on. And by the way: the study actually shows that, in some communities, the financial bite caused by charter schools is pretty serious.

Second, Joan Vennochi observes in her opinion column that Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s opposition to the ballot question is likely to be a big deal. Toward the end, Vennochi writes:

I don’t like union resistance to needed reform. But I also dislike charter advocates’ portrayal of union-backed teachers as universally lazy and inept. Of course, parents naturally want the best education for their children and they should be able to choose what that means. But the creation of a two-tiered system betrays the very mission of public education [emphasis added].

That really goes to the heart of the matter. Because the political will doesn’t exist to create great public schools for everyone, charter-school proponents want to create them for a few. It’s just unacceptable.

Disclosure: My wife is a public school teacher and a union member in a community unlikely to be affected if Question 2 is approved.

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Why the Olympics defeat is the Market Basket saga of 2015

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Market Basket protesters in 2014

The defeat of the Boston Olympics bid was this summer’s Market Basket story — a feel-good saga about ordinary people triumphing over the moneyed interests. Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi calls the opponents “heroes.”

Of course, there were a lot of good people involved in Boston 2024, and they don’t deserve to be cast as the bad guys. But it was a great moment on Monday when Boston Mayor Marty Walsh stepped to the podium to say that he wasn’t willing to put taxpayers at risk, thus bringing this contentious chapter to a close.

Some of us opposed to the Olympics began cautiously celebrating on July 17, when The Boston Globe ran a story by its veteran Olympics reporter, John Powers, that made it sound like Walsh, Gov. Charlie Baker and the U.S. Olympic Committee were all trying to send a signal that it was over. In particular, Powers noted that the political establishment is always a driving force behind successful Olympic bids, and that was entirely lacking with Boston 2024.

There’s already plenty of discussion about what went wrong with the proposal. Personally, I don’t think anything went wrong. We didn’t want the Olympics, and nobody asked us. A better job of salesmanship wasn’t going to matter. As Michael Jonas writes in CommonWealth Magazine:

Far from being small-minded killjoys, Bostonians proved to be a pretty forward-looking, sophisticated lot. We asked a lot of questions, didn’t settle for half-baked answers, and weren’t overly wowed by the shiny objects the US Olympic Committee dangled in front of us.

As for the public improvements we will supposedly lose now that the Olympics won’t be disrupting our lives for the next nine years, there isn’t a single unmet need — be it transportation improvements, affordable housing or the redevelopment of blighted areas — that can’t be met better without the games. Former WCVB-TV (Channel 5) editorial director Marjorie Arons-Barron writes:

If Boston 2024 boosters are really serious about a long-term vision and strategy for greater Boston, why not join forces with Mayor Walsh in his nascent Boston 2030 planning? If this wasn’t just marketing palaver, they could put their resources (including their unspent budget) and talent together with others in the city (including the No Boston Olympic supporters) to develop and implement a smart and integrated plan to upgrade housing, roads and bridges, public transit, education, creating jobs and more so that greater Boston can express its aspirations in a practical and achievable blueprint that can transform the city and meet the needs of all its people. That would be a gold-medal-winning performance.

Kudos to everyone on a tremendous victory.

More: The Market Basket analogy occurred to Jon Keller of WBZ as well.

Photo (cc) by Val D’Aquila and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

The Globe drags its opinion pages into the 21st century

Of all the hoary traditions of 20th-century newspapering, few seem quite so hoary as the editorial and op-ed pages. Mixing editorials (unsigned because they represent the institutional views of the newspaper), cartoons, columns by staff members and outside contributors, and letters from readers, the opinion pages often seem anachronistic in the digital age — a bit too formal, more than a bit too predictable and way too slow off the mark.

Starting today, The Boston Globe is attempting to bring that nearly half-century-old construct up to date. No longer is the left-hand page labeled “Editorial” and the right “Opinion.” Instead, both pages are unified under “Opinion.” Content — some of it new, some familiar — is free-floating.

Much of it is what you’d expect: a pro-Olympics editorial (sigh) as well as staff columns by Joan Vennochi and Dante Ramos. Some is new: a roundup of opinion from elsewhere called “What They’re Saying,” a very short take by staff columnist Joanna Weiss on a much-delayed skate park, and an amalgamation of letters, tweets and online comments rebranded as “Inbox.” (The changes are outlined here.)

“You could look at this as a meal where you want snackable content and meatier content and the occasional dessert,” says interim editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg. Some of the ideas, she adds, were developed by experimenting with the opinion content of Capital, the Globe’s Friday political section.

Globe Opinion pages

Regular columns have been cut from 700 to 600 words. But op-ed-page editor Marjorie Pritchard says that the new Opinion section will also be more flexible, with pieces running from 400 to 1,200 or more words. (Coincidentally, this article in Digiday, in which Kevin Delaney of Quartz calls for the demise of the standard 800-word article, is the talk of Twitter this week.)

The Globe’s opinion operation has been on a roll under Clegg and her predecessor, Peter Canellos (now executive editor of Politico), with Kathleen Kingsbury winning a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last month and Ramos being named a finalist in 2014. But the look and feel of the pages haven’t changed much since the 1970s.

And then there’s the whole matter of print in the digital age. Globe editor Brian McGrory recently told his staff that a print-first mentality still prevails, writing that “too many of us — editors, reporters, photographers, graphic artists — think of just print too often.”

McGrory does not run the opinion pages, as both he and Clegg report directly to publisher John Henry. But the redesigned print section, with its careful attention to art and graphics, has the look and feel of a print-first play. In fact, Clegg is pursuing a two-track strategy — an improved but tightly curated print section and a larger online Opinion site. “Brian as usual captured it beautifully,” Clegg says. “I think that captured the ethos of where we’re all going, where we’re all headed.”

For some time now Clegg herself has been writing an online-only “Morning Opinion Digest” with summaries and links to provocative content elsewhere. Opinion pieces often run online before they appear in print. And some pieces are Web exclusives, such as this commentary by editorial writer Marcela García on the cultural stereotypes surrounding Cinco de Mayo.

Says Pritchard: “We’ve run a lot of online exclusives in the past, and we’re trying to beef that up.” Clegg adds that “we certainly don’t want to shortchange the print reader, but we want to enhance the digital experience. There has to be a balance.”

It was a half-century ago that The New York Times developed the modern op-ed page. Times editorial board member John Oakes, the Ochs-Sulzberger family member who was largely responsible for the idea, once called it “one of the great newspaper innovations of the century,” according to this Jack Shafer piece.

By contrast, the Globe’s new Opinion section should be seen as a modest improvement. But at a time when newspapers, both in print and online, are fighting to maintain their relevance, the Globe deserves credit for trying something new.

Also posted at WGBHNews.org.

Last words on the Globe’s lifted editorial

Just to bring this full circle, I want to point out that we talked about the Boston Globe’s lifted editorial on “Beat the Press” last Friday. You can watch the segment here.

We identified Globe columnist Joan Vennochi as the person responsible, which made us the first news organization to confirm that independently. Others cited an email Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr had sent to his followers, news that never found its way into the Herald itself.

On Monday, old friend Mark Leccese, an Emerson College journalism professor, took “Beat the Press” to task in his Boston.com blog, writing that we were too easy on what he believes was a clear case of plagiarism. And he says the punishment should have been more severe than the two-week suspension Vennochi (whom he does not name) received.

It’s a good, smart post, though I still believe what Vennochi did amounted to sloppiness rather than out-and-out plagiarism.

Finally, welcome back, Joan. Her excellent political column was back in the Globe on Sunday following a two-week suspension. You can read that here.

Poynter weighs in on the Globe’s lifted editorial

Craig Silverman of Poynter Online weighs in with a smart take on the Boston Globe’s decision not to release the name of the staff member who wrote an unsigned editorial that was lifted almost word for word from WBUR.org.

The original piece, which criticized Vice President Joe Biden’s “put y’all back in chains” comment, was written by Republican political consultant and WBUR contributor Todd Domke. The Globe editorial was the subject of a recent “editor’s note” (which you’ll find at the bottom) in which the paper expressed its “regrets.”

As I wrote on Aug. 24, the editor’s note raised as many questions as it answered, since it did not reveal the identity of the person who wrote it or whether he or she had been disciplined.

Last week, as you may have heard, Boston Herald columnist and WRKO Radio (AM 680) talk-show host Howie Carr sent a dispatch to subscribers to his email list claiming he had learned the culprit was Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, and that she had been suspended for two weeks. The email ended up being posted to the Free Republic, a right-wing website.

Oddly, though, that information has not appeared in the Herald, which instead ran a story on the Globe’s decision not to name names. The Herald also criticized Emerson College journalism professor Mark Leccese for not addressing the issue in the unpaid blog that he writes for the Globe’s Boston.com site.

Also writing about this have been Jim Romenesko and iMediaEthics.

Silverman’s piece is the fullest treatment so far. He quotes editorial-page editor Peter Canellos as saying:

Our policy is not to discuss internal disciplinary actions. But our editor’s note should speak for itself. There were similarities in structure and phrasing that shouldn’t have been used without attribution. We take these matters very seriously.

Silverman also expresses frustration at the Globe’s response, writing that “the paper won’t name the writer, won’t detail any related discipline, won’t say if they’re reviewing previous work, and won’t call it plagiarism.”

It strikes me that this would have been a one-day story if the Globe had simply announced who did it, whether that person had been disciplined and, if so, what the punishment was. The borrowing from Domke’s piece looks to me more like extreme sloppiness than classic plagiarism.

And yes, I understand that such matters are confidential at most companies. But if this had been a signed column rather than an anonymous editorial, naming the person would have been unavoidable. I don’t see why it should be handled differently simply because the piece did not carry a byline.

The Globe’s opinion pages beef up

Joshua Green

A year ago, the biggest question at the Boston Globe was whether the New York Times Co. was serious about shutting it down if it couldn’t squeeze out $20 million in union concessions.

These days, the story is considerably more pleasant. Though no one thinks the Globe is entirely out of the woods (there is, after all, a revolution under way), the paper keeps expanding in modest but useful ways.

The latest initiative is coming tomorrow: a weekly column on the op-ed page by the Atlantic’s fine political writer, Joshua Green, who, according to Globe editorial-page editor Peter Canellos, will offer a Washington perspective from a non-ideological perspective.

“He’s a pure reporter and analyst,” Canellos says. “And I think that for somebody looking at the changing landscape of Washington these days, this is a happy meeting of a writer and subject, because it’s a fascinating time.”

This coming Sunday will mark a significant expansion of the opinion pages. For years, the Globe has published a third opinion page, reserved for letters, every other week. Now the paper will publish three and four pages on an alternating schedule.

Newish op-ed columnists Joanna Weiss and Lawrence Harmon will join standbys Joan Vennochi and Jeff Jacoby. Harmon, the Globe’s chief editorial writer on city issues, will continue to write his column once a week. Weiss will now write twice weekly, picking up Harmon’s Tuesday slot.

On weeks when there are four opinion pages, Canellos says, the extra space will be used for features such as “visual op-eds” by cartoonist Dan Wasserman and longer essays by columnist James Carroll and other writers.

Finally, Canellos says that a somewhat nebulous new online feature called “The Angle” will be beefed up with some definition and some original content as the result of a new partnership with “Radio Boston,” which WBUR (90.9 FM) is expanding from a weekly to a daily program next week.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Pundits on Patrick: Not a pretty picture

Gov. Deval Patrick’s politically clueless performance of recent days has brought out some sharp commentary from local pundits. A quick round-up — not meant to be comprehensive, just stuff that caught my eye:

  • Joan Vennochi, Boston Globe: “The Massachusetts governor is presiding over a local version of the larger, national disaster that is chipping away at confidence in government and the economy. But Patrick’s instincts for the symbols that enrage taxpayers are poor, and so, apparently, are the instincts of those who report to him.” Comment: Vennochi pretty much nails it. But it’s not just Patrick’s inept handling of political symbolism — it’s the lack of substance, too.
  • Jon Keller, WBZ: “It’s been a dismaying, demoralizing turn of events, coming at the worst possible time for the only thing that really matters, the ability of our state to deal with our crises in a way that protects and provides opportunity to the working classes. Things are bad out here, and no one wants to hear Deval Patrick whining about what a drag his chosen profession has turned out to be.” Comment: Keller’s pretty rough on everyone. Nevertheless, there’s a difference in tone here that suggests Keller thinks the governor has reached the point of no return.
  • The Outraged Liberal: “Patrick came to this job from the world of business, where executives got what they wanted by the sheer force of their will and personality. Some learn that politics is not the same environment and that accommodation is required…. But the biggest loser will be Patrick, who tried to strong arm the process and failed. In spectacular fashion.” Comment: Outside of Blue Mass. Group, Patrick has had no better friend in the local blogosphere than Mr. O.L. Very ominous.
  • Jay Fitzgerald, Hub Blog and Boston Herald: “Gov. Patrick’s ‘trivial’ comment is perhaps the single most stupid political remark I’ve heard muttered by a state or national pol in the face of genuine public outrage. It will stick with him for the rest of his years in the corner office.” Comment: I think Jay’s right.
  • David Kravitz, Blue Mass. Group: “It’s more than passing strange for this particular crowd to be so clueless about why stuff like this matters. No, the money at issue in the AIG bonuses, or Carol Aloisi’s job, or Marian Walsh’s special election, will not make or break the state or the country. But the damage these kinds of things do is, while less tangible, no less real.” Comment: If Patrick is losing one of the BMG co-editors, then he’s pretty much down to family and childhood friends.
  • Paul Flannery, Boston Daily: “Patrick has never bothered to take care of the little things — the car, the drapes, the chopper, the book deal while the casino bill went down in flames — and now the big things are slipping out of his grasp.” Comment: Call it the “broken windows” theory of politics.

We are now past the half-way point of Patrick’s four-year term. It’s pretty sobering — and discouraging — to realize that, without a major turnaround, we’re looking at yet another disappointment in the governor’s office.

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.

Wilkerson run would break no rules

Few observers of local politics are as astute as Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi. But I can’t agree with her that state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, D-Roxbury, is somehow breaking the rules because she will try to keep her seat with a write-in campaign if she doesn’t win the Democratic primary recount.

(Aside: I am referring only to the rules of running an independent campaign. I am not referring to the numerous tax and campaign-finance rules Wilkerson has broken over the years, which are the reason her political career may now be going down the drain.)

Wilkerson’s challenger, Sonia Chang-Díaz, may be the Democratic nominee (pending the recount results), but the rules allow Wilkerson to run as an independent, even though her name won’t appear on the ballot.

And though Wilkerson won’t be the party’s nominee, there is nothing to stop her from calling herself a Democrat (which seems to offend Vennochi), or a radical syndicalist, or Irene.

Vennochi tries to draw an unfavorable comparison between Wilkerson and U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who was re-elected as an independent after he lost a Democratic primary race in 2006. Lieberman, Vennochi writes, had the “grace” to run “as a third-party candidate.”

But Lieberman took the same branding approach as Wilkerson, referring to himself as an “Independent Democrat,” which sounds like a Democrat, only better:

I remain a Democratic [sic] but I’m running as an Independent Democrat, which in some ways makes official what I’ve been for a long time. I’ve been an independent Democratic [sic]. [Note: I haven’t listened to the audio, but I assume those are transcription errors, not evidence that Lieberman can’t talk.]

Wilkerson’s free to run, and the voters are free to re-elect her or reject her. Those are the rules.

What liberal media?*

Check out the nominally liberal Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, who absolutely unloaded on Barack Obama in Sunday’s paper in a piece headlined “The Audacity of Ego.” Ouch.

No doubt Obama is possessed of a healthy self-regard and then some. But isn’t it pretty typical for a presidential candidate — especially one who’s new to the national political scene — to undertake a foreign trip?

*Eric Alterman wrote the book.