Friday, January 29, 2010

$ for On Line Newspapers

(News-Herald, January 28) This week, in what must be a journalistic first, the New York Times announced that it is going to follow the lead of the News-Derrick. Specifically, the NYT announced that it will start charging readers to look at its on-line version, a decision that this paper implemented last November.
Neither newspaper met much enthusiasm from its customers. The internet hasn’t been around that long, but it has some strong traditions, and one of them is that stuff is supposed to be free. People will pay to DO stuff on the internet (over 12 million people pay real money each month to play World of Warcraft), but to just look at content, folks expect free.
These are tough times for newspapers and magazines. Many print media (“old media” they’re often called) have folded, prompting hand-wringing reminiscent of the days when malls were extinguishing downtown shopping.
For newspapers to stay in business, they must make money. Journalists like to eat, too. The money has to come from somewhere. But many attitudes stand in the way of paying for an on-line newspaper.
One is quick and easy availability of content on line. Why bother with those fancy “journalists” with all their “research” and smarty-pants “facts” that have been “verified” when there’s so much more colorful coverage from a few thousand ranting bloggers?
If a guy is giving away free hamburgers on the corner, why would you go sit in a restaurant and wait to pay for steak? Certainly there are some people who would pay—they’d rather have steak and they don’t trust the corner guy or his hamburgers—but will there be enough of them to keep the restaurant in business?
Another factor is the old media’s own fault. They used to sell nice, fresh-cooked steak, but after a while they just started dragging freeze-dried processed beef slabs out of the freezer, microwaving them, and calling them steak. Many big city newspapers became fat, happy and lazy, and their steak really isn’t all that better than the corner hamburger.
Still another factor is an old one. We aren’t really used to paying for our own entertainment. Television and radio are free (ish). The old media model is a three-cornered transaction, and the audience rarely foots the bill. The tv draws a crowd, and advertisers pay to have a chance to address the assembly. Newspapers do the same. All these years we’ve been paying a token charge while advertisers buy the paper for us.
The internet upped the ante. We could suddenly catch the show without having to stick around for the pitch. Advertisers figured out they were talking to an empty room; they packed up, stopped buying ads, and now nobody is paying for the show.
Modern Americans hate paying our own bills, and in a sense the problems in media are part of a larger picture. We have someone else to pay our medical bills, someone to hire garbage collectors and policemen for us.
Why does the government insist in running up debts? In part, because we the people keep egging them on. Why do we egg them on? Because with the miracle of deficit spending, the government can take one of our dollars and buy us ten dollars worth of stuff. The pain that we are just starting to feel in Pennsylvania is the pain of government telling us, “Sorry, but we can only use your dollar to buy one dollar’s worth of stuff.”
We’re used to having invisible someones buy stuff for us, the illusion that folks are giving us things for free, from infrastructure to entertainment.
The deck is stacked against newspapers, big or small. What can they do? The biggest thing they can do is provide something unavailable anywhere else. That’s a challenge—many papers use wire service content, but that same content is available everywhere on line, for free.
What newspapers need is content that no one else has, and lots of it. This challenge requires nerve. A paper deals with people who want free promotion for their events, and it makes sense to charge for what is essentially advertising. I respectfully suggest that newspapers should not view these folks as people asking for free advertising, but people offering free local content.
However, the other thing newspapers need is reader/subscribers who can grow up and not expect someone else to buy their paper for them. Don’t ask someone to buy it for you or make it for you for free. If something is worth having, it’s worth paying for.
(Note: I do pay for my own newspaper subscription)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Appreciating PA State Troopers

(News-Herald, January 21) Here in Venangoland, we’ve had ample opportunity recently to think about the business of being a Pennsylvania State Trooper.
I learned several things at the service last Sunday for Pennsylvania State Trooper Paul Richey. I learned that troopers are unparalleled organizers, that they can take seemingly unmanageable logistics and manage them. Among their many talents, it turns out that troopers are the world’s best ushers. (As a choir, however, not so much.)
I have also learned that the Troopers do not wear a badge. This practice reminds the troopers that their authority comes from their conduct, not any badge. In other words, the state police do not demand that citizens respect the badge no matter who wears it. Instead, they demand that their troopers earn our respect by being honorable men and women.
In this area, it’s not hard to find people who have an automatic dislike for any and all manner of police. And there’s no doubt that putting on a uniform does not magically transform an average jerk into a hero.
But I don’t think it’s at all easy for an average jerk to put on the uniform of a Pennsylvania State Trooper.
Not all jobs are created equal. Some jobs are more tough, more demanding, more heroic than others. They require a level of guts and commitment that not many people have, and yet the jobs need to be done. Pennsylvania has always known it asks a great deal of its troopers. For the first few decades of its existence, the PSP didn’t allow its troopers to marry.
It has been noted many times that Paul Richey volunteered to go out to the Smith home, that he didn’t have to be there. That tells us a lot about his character, commitment and courage.
But here’s the thing. The same thing is true of every trooper, every day.
None of them have go out there. None of them have to put on that uniform. None of them have to stay on the job, and none of them had to take the job (a job that they had to work hard to earn) in the first place. Scott Mohnkern could be selling cars by day and spinning tunes weekends. Dave Wargo could live off his wife’s teacher salary while he worked as a blues singer. All the members of Troop E could hang up their uniforms tomorrow and the rest of us would have no excuse to complain, because the rest of us didn’t have the nerve to take on that job in the first place.
State Troopers belong to that select group of people who run toward the things that the rest of us run away from.
It is easy for us to forget the level of danger that troopers face in their routine days. On the 13th, after all, the troopers were only going out to talk to a guy with a bad tendency to smack his wife around. Today other troopers will answer similar routine calls, make routine traffic stops, step into routine situations where someone is needed to bring some peace and order. Today, like any other day, they will never know if they’re about to meet some dangerous nut with a beef and a gun.
The rest of us don’t have to think about the danger in such places because there are people in uniform to think about it for us.
Sometimes civilians are called to face extraordinary danger. I wonder, for instance, how well Nancy Frey-Smith knew that she was putting herself in harm’s way every day. But as civilians, we usually find ourselves in a dangerous place by accident or circumstance. Troopers choose it.
In 2008 there were over 50,000 violent crimes in Pennsylvania. There are fewer than 5000 State Troopers.
There is nothing good about the loss of a man like Paul Richey. But it does serve as a shock and a reminder that even here in one of the world’s quieter places, dark and dangerous events can strike, and that there are people who have chosen to stand between that darkness and the rest of us. They and their wives and children and families sacrifice so much, sometimes all at once, and sometimes day after day, year after year, so that the rest of us can rest easy.
PSP’s stated core purpose is to seek justice, preserve peace, and improve the quality of life for all. Paul Richey’s life and death remind us how seriously they take that, and how large a debt of gratitude we owe them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Message from the World's Slobs

(News-Herald, January 14) I’m here with a message from the messy people of the world to those of you who are Very Neat:
We are not the ones with the problem—you are.
Being neat wastes enormous amounts of time. Double amounts, really, because you are taking the time to put things away just so, and before you know it, you just have to get them back out again.
The entire Picking Up process wastes time and effort. The wise messy person consolidates work—in the course of a normal day, while traveling about the house for everyday business (eating, dressing, showering), we just pick up anything that’s not where it’s supposed to be and move it to an appropriate location. No extra trips, no extra effort, no time wasted.
You people with incredibly neat and tidy desks—who the heck has time to do that? If your desk is incredibly neat, I have to wonder what you didn’t get done today so that you could do maintenance on your paper clip collection.
Even more troubled are the secret slobs who keep a public pretense of perfect neatness. These people don’t waste time, exactly. Their desks are neat because there isn’t anything sitting out in plain sight that they actually use. The shiny stapler, perfect collection of clips, pristine pile of paper sitting on their desk—they haven’t touched any of it in three months. All the supplies they actually use are shoved in a big jumble in the desk drawers.
Neat freaks (yes, I called them freaks) like to think they are taking control of their environment when actually the reverse is true. Jumble your kitchen condiment collection into a disarrayed higgledy-piggledy (yes, I said higgledy-piggledy) and the slob will be able to walk right by it, still free to go about his business. But a neat freak will be at the mercy of that mess, unable to take care of anything else until the salt and pepper shakers are in proper harmony.
(To be clear, I am not arguing in favor of dirtiness. An entire collection of paperback novels stacked around the dining room table is messy. An entire collection of dishes, displaying a collection of food samples from the last month and covered with growing things that are quite possibly never seen outside of a science lab—that’s dirty, and we messy people of the world do not support it.)
Messiness preserves value. A neat person might jump to the conclusion that a plastic doohickey is not valuable just because he hasn’t had any use for it in the past seventeen years. Messy people understand that tomorrow could be the day that plastic doohickeys suddenly return to prominence in the world. A messy person is not surrounded by random junk, but by a possibly-valuable collection of potential-worthwhile stuff. We understand that someday you will be thanking us for holding onto that doohickey. Jake DeBence ran a messy museum, and Venangoland is now better for his legacy of valuable antiques at DeBence Music World.
Messiness is also more secure. Neat people believe in a place for everything and everything in its place. For the messmasters of the world, the rule is a pile for everything and everything in its pile. A messy person can find that valuable plastic doohickey just as easily as the neatnik can (if the neatnik hasn’t already thrown it away). The important difference is that in the home of a neat freak, anybody can find it.
A burglar can get in and out of a neat person’s house in less than five minutes, loaded down with valuables. A burglar who breaks into a messy person’s home will be found by police five hours later, trapped between the stack of National Geographics and the collection of boxes filled with cans filled with wrapping paper, still trying to decide if anything important is in there.
Mess protects important things. The urban planners who designed Washington DC laid it out as a deliberate, confusing mess, specifically so that invading armies would have a hard time capturing our leaders. Yes, messiness is part of what has made our country great.
Entropy, chaos, disorder—these are the strong natural forces of the physical world, which means that neat people are battling the very natural order of the universe, while we messy ones are in tune with the cosmos. Neatness is unnatural. Come on. Set down those big storage tub organizers and join us on the dark side.

Friday, January 08, 2010


(News-Herald, January 7) Gossip has always been associated with small towns. I don’t think we have a lock on the sweet pastime, but I do think there is a special brand that flourishes only in small communities.
Big city gossip is not a pastime—it’s an industry. Entire magazines and cable channels are devoted to dishing the latest dirt about a variety of celebrities. This is not new. Opponents of Presidential candidate James G. Blain shouted “Ma, Ma, where’s my pa?” in reference to his alleged illegitimate child (the reply from his supporters was “Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”) As long as there has been print, a certain amount of it has been devoted to gossip about the famous and successful.
Big city gossip has upped the ante by creating faux celebrities. We call them famous for being famous, but they are famous because they are fun to gossip about. In the big city gossip industry, people are willing to pay for dishes of new dirt.
This business model clearly does not work as well in a small town setting. At least, I don’t think so. Perhaps it is time for the News-Derrick to start a local gossip page. But small town gossip is a little like Christmas—it’s more fun to give than to receive.
Small town gossip used to come in more varieties than big city stuff. Small towns could gossip about general misbehavior, attributing all manner of rule breaking that, in print, would feed a flock of libel lawyers. During Prohibition, Chess Lamberton was picked up for an alcohol violation, but charges were dismissed weeks later when the evidence had mysteriously vanished. That much I know from newspaper accounts, but I’ll bet that a considerably more colorful story was traveling around town at the time.
Nowadays, malfeasance gossip is a lost art, mainly because people no longer feel much shame over being caught Doing Naughty Things (“Why yes, I cleaned out the pension fund. But let me show you our vacation pictures from Bermuda!”)
It’s not that gossip requires shame as fuel. It’s that gossip tends to shrivel up in the face of well-dispersed hard facts. If everybody already knows exactly how Floyd burned down his mother-in-law’s house, there’s no fun to be had conjecturing and nobody to pass the conjecture on to.
That’s why personal gossip will always provide entertainment. It’s not just that personal gossip is impervious to facts, but that solid facts will never be available.
The fastest way to get yourself on the small town gossip grapevine is to get a divorce. Divorce can be a matter of public interest (just how many businesses around here have been sunk because the owners went through a messy split), but mostly they provide drama surrounding a set of unknowable circumstances.
Regardless of a couple’s circumstances, nobody outside of the two people involved can possibly know what is between them. It’s fun to make guesses about why two people come together or fall apart, but guesses are all you can really have. As long as the guesses are entertaining, you can keep playing.
Guesses and gossip go together like peanut butter and jelly. And small town gossip can travel with a speed and vigor that the best big city tabloid can only dream of. Electricity seeks the ground, water seeks its own level, and gossip seeks the path of greatest entertainment. Gossip is only fun to know if you can tell another person. But not just anybody. You seek out the person who will be most entertained, whose face will register shock and surprise (or the jackpot—real emotions like joy or anger or pain or outrage).
In fact, passing on gossip to an entertained audience can be such a rush that many people just go ahead and pass on gossip about themselves.
Big city gossip has to hunt for an audience. Before you can be entertained by scoop about Paris Hilton or Heidi Montag, you have to know (and care) who they are. Even in a big city, that’s a small crowd. Because everyone knows everyone in a small town, potential audience is everywhere. The trick is not to find a possible audience, but to find it first, before someone else ruins your fun.
Is gossip bad? I’m not a big fan of Not Truth, but I suppose gossip, like the truth, can be spoken maliciously or kindly. Just don’t mistake gossip and truth for each other, and when you’re the subject, don’t confuse gossip with genuine concern.

Friday, January 01, 2010


(News-Herald, December 31) New Year’s Eve is my least favorite holiday. Regret, disappointment, betrayal, sadness, disaster, stupid choices—too many of the ugliest snapshots of my life are time-stamped December 31.
But I like the idea of resolutions. I like the idea of renewed commitment to something, despite the fact that most of us don’t do commitment well.
We often approach commitment focusing too much on the end point. Now, I don’t mean to suggest that taking a clear-eyed view into the future is bad. The world includes too many people who are surprised that when they stick their metaphorical tongues in metaphorical fans, they suffer metaphorical hurt.
But commitment is not about “if.” Commitment is not about, “ I will look at the various obstacles and if I think I can beat them and if I think this will turn out okay, then I guess I will try to do it.”
There is no “if” in commitment. Commitment is more “of course.” “Of course we’re going to do this. There are some obstacles, so let’s figure out how to get past them.” We don’t say, “I’ll eat food today if I can find the time.” We say, “Of course I’m eating today. I’ll just find the time.” Commitment changes “Will I do this?” to “How will I do this?”
This is what people are complaining about when they talk about the fuzziness of modern marriage. Too many folks say, “Yes, I’ll stick with you if we can figure out how to beat that obstacle” instead of “Of course we’re staying together. Let’s work on how to deal with the obstacles.”
Organizations do the same. “Of course we’ll help you, valued customer. Let me just figure out how to solve this” is not “We’ll try to help with this problem if it falls within the list of issues I’m looking at on my computer screen.”
“If” is the enemy of commitment. So is “what if,” as in “What if the other job would be better” or “what if a different person would make me happier.” Making a commitment to Option A always means kissing Options B through Z goodbye. If you insist on keeping your options open, the only commitment you’ve made is to keeping your options open.
Other impulses get in the way of commitment. Keeping your choices hidden so that nobody can critique them is not commitment. Pretending you didn’t try in order to avoid looking foolish in failure is not commitment. That’s one more reason for marriage ceremonies to be held in front of friends and families—it’s what you do if you really mean it. And if your resolution is to lose ten pounds, but you aren’t telling a soul—well, you’ve already decided you’re going to have that piece of cheesecake. Your real commitment is to your goal of not looking foolish.
It’s not that commitment guarantees success. It doesn’t. In life, speed bumps and brick walls look much the same from a distance. Often you don’t know which is which until you try to get past it. If you make it past, it was just an obstacle; if you didn’t, it’s a dead end.
You have to make the commitment to find out. Standing at a comfortable distance making a judgment about which you’re facing, because if it’s going to be a dead end or even just plain hard, you aren’t going to go any further—well, that’s not a commitment. When you commit to go the distance, you don’t get to now how long the distance actually is.
Non-commitment has ultimatums (I won’t stay with you unless you serve me on silver plates); commitment has limits (I will stay here all week, but if I don’t get any food, I will collapse). Non-commitment says “I will try as long as I feel like it.” Commitment says, “I will keep going as long as I can.”
If commitment guaranteed success, everybody would leap whole-heartedly into the commitment pool. But committing guarantees either real success or undeniable failure— and that’s what many people don’t want to face. (As Yoda said, “There is no try. Only do—or do not.”) So they pick the luke-warm not-so-commitment and hope they get lucky.
Our commitments define us, both the ones we make consciously (I will walk five miles every single day) and the ones we make without thinking (I will stay safe and comfortable). Spending at least one day out of the year thinking about them couldn’t be a bad thing.

From my Flickr