Sunday, December 16, 2012

Journalism changes nothing

          Journalism doesn’t change anything.
          I got into this business as a 17-year-old recent graduate of Provo High School in 1976. Back then, my main interest was sports and I had visions of one day writing for Sports Illustrated.
          As it happens, I developed other interests. I began my full-time career in journalism as a city beat reporter. In my youthful innocence, I believed that journalists could change the world, one story at a time.
          I know better now. Journalists don’t change the world; those who are influenced by journalism, however, can.
          Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who provided my original inspiration to pursue journalism, made absolutely no difference whatsoever. They did, however, provide enough information to persuade others to action. Eventually, their coverage of Watergate nudged forward the first domino that led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.
          That’s how the world gets changed.
          Nearly eight years ago the Post Register published a series, considered controversial by some, about child molestation inside the local Boy Scout organization. We changed nothing. But other people, at least given a nudge by our journalism, went into action and today the statute of limitations on child molestation in Idaho has been dramatically extended and many people view their world differently.
          Over the past several years the Post Register has expended considerable resources gaining access to information that public officials tried to keep secret, the most recent incident being the payment by the Blackfoot School District of more than $220,000 to a former superintendent. The behavior of the school board was outrageous.
          But our stories won’t change a thing. They are just words. If change is going to happen, other people -- regular people like those reading this column -- have to initiate it. That’s how this works. Journalists investigate, write and publish. Changing the world is the role of other people.
          I wrote a column recently calling on the members of the Blackfoot School Board to resign. Those words won’t persuade them to do it. In a vacuum, those words mean nothing. I got a number of calls thanking me for the column, which I appreciate. But if that’s where it stops, our journalism will have meant nothing.
          I bear no ill will toward the members of the Blackfoot School Board. I’ve never met a single one of them, but I’m sure they got involved in public service out of a desire to do good things. However, they messed up, big time. There remain pieces to this story that we don’t know, and we’ll continue casting a wide net.
          But if our stories are going to result in change, it is the patrons of the Blackfoot School District who will make it happen.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

They just don't get it

Once again, in a series of events that has become all too familiar, a local judge has ruled that a local public entity has illegally withheld documents from the public.

This time, the culprit was the Blackfoot School District, which has been fighting several plaintiffs, including the Post Register, over documents that likely reveal to whom the district paid more than $105,000 of taxpayers’ money earlier this year. This case is particularly egregious because the school board made decisions involving this payment in an executive session that its attorney now admits also was illegal.

It didn’t take District Judge David C. Nye long to make up his mind. Exactly one week after hearing arguments in his courtroom, Nye issued a nine-page decision ordering the district to turn over the documents. Since it must have taken him some time to do the writing, it’s clear he made his decision not long after the hearing.
The district argued that the documents we sought were exempt from disclosure because they were part of a personnel file. Nye swatted that argument down.
“Parties cannot exempt a public record from disclosure and hide it from the public simply by placing it in a personnel file and declaring the personnel file exemption to be applicable to it,” he wrote.
The issue here is plain for all to see. On April 24, the Blackfoot School Board went into an executive session to “consider hiring a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent,” the judge wrote. Then-Superintendent Scott L. Crane attended the private session.
Minutes for that meeting, the judge notes, show “that the agreement between the board and Employee B-2012 has been executed.” In open meeting after the executive session, Crane’s retirement was announced. It was only in October that the district acknowledged to the Post Register that Employee B-2012 was Crane. In the district’s expenditure summary for July there is record of a payment to Zions Bank in Salt Lake City for $105,428. The description of the payment is simply “AP Contract Services.”
The question is pretty obvious: Did the district pay Crane $105,428? The district has done everything in its power to hide that information. Thanks to Nye’s decision, we’ll all soon know.
As troubling as these events are, they are frustratingly common. This is only the most recent case in which the Post Register and others have had to take public entities to court to get them to release information that was clearly public. Despite persistent efforts by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to educate public officials on the law, Idaho’s Open Records Act and Open Meeting Law are routinely violated.
We hope the voters of the Blackfoot School District are paying attention.

Sneak peek No. 2: Yellow Light of Dusk

I've been on a bit of tear this week, and "Yellow Light of Dusk," the sequel the hugely successful "Blue Light of Dawn," is about one-third complete. It took another unexpected turn this week. Here's the latest excerpt. Expected release date is early spring:

“I like you, Dan Pittman,” Janae said, walking to the edge of my desk. “I always have. I’m sure I always will. But,” she said, leaning in a bit, “do not ever underestimate me. Men have been doing that all of my life, and it’s unwise.”

She turned and picked up my digital recorder, checking it again to make sure it had not be turned on, then placing it gently on my desk.

“It’s been lovely seeing you again,” she said. “Give my best to Nicole.” With that, she turned and walked out of the office, not looking back. I sat back in my chair, stunned.

I told myself that she’d made a lucky guess about Nicole. I knew I was probably right, but I was shaken nonetheless. I sat motionless for a time, then went to the office door and locked it, turning my “Open” sign around, even though it wasn’t quite five o’clock. I went back to my desk. I pulled my computer back to me and found the window I had minimized. The voice recorder was still running. I clicked it to stop, saved the file on my hard drive, then played it back. It was crystal clear. I found two empty CDs in my filing cabinet and burned a copy of the recording on each, placing one at the back of a cabinet drawer and keeping one on top of my desk. I found my cell phone and dialed the number of Chief Brewer.

“Brewer,” he said after two rings.

“Meet me at the Wine Knot in 10 minutes,” I said.

“And good afternoon to you, too, Dan,” he said. “This is a happy coincidence. I was about to call you and suggest that very thing. Ten minutes.”

I grabbed my cell phone and the CD on my desk, slipping each into a pants pocket. The CD barely fit and felt awkward, but I didn’t want to carry it in the open. I turned out the office lights and went out the back door, making doubly sure I locked it, and walked the half-block to the bar. I waved at the waitress and held up two fingers. She knew what that meant -- two Dead Guys. I found a booth in the corner away from the handful of other patrons. The waitress brought two glasses of amber ale.

“Expecting company or drinking for two?” she said.
“Chief’s on his way,” I said. She nodded and went back to the bar.
I was halfway through my beer when Brewer ambled in and sat down across from me. He took a long swig from his beer and sat it back down on the table.
“I had a visit today from a Portland P.I.,” he said.

I’d almost forgotten about Rufus.

“And?” I asked.

“And, I wasn’t particularly pleased with the visit. I don’t like having criminal suspects dictating to me the terms of an interview,” he said.“Come on, chief,” I said. “You know you’re not going to be arresting her and you wanted to have a meeting.”

“I don’t know any such thing,” he said. Then his face lightened a little.

“No, I don’t suppose I am … arresting her, that is,” he said. “It still pisses me off. I’ve agreed to the meet. By the way, Rufus is a good choice. He was a good cop and, from what I’m told, a respectable P.I. It’s not often I use those two terms together. Anyway, the meeting’s set up and we’ll see where it leads.”

“That’s not why I called you,” I said. His eyebrows lifted a little. We both took a long drink.
“I had a visitor today, too,” I said. “Janae McKenzie.” He put down his glass.

“What the hell?” he said.“Exactly.”

“What did she want?” he asked.

“I’m not exactly sure,” I answered. “However.” I extended my right leg under the table to access my pants pocket and extracted the CD. “I happen to have recorded our conversation.”

Brewer stared back.

“Well, now, it seems that I have been underestimating you,” he said.

“That’s an ironic thing to say,” I said. “When you listen to this, you’ll understand why.”

“I hate surprises,” he said. “What’s on the CD?”
“Oh, I don’t want to spoil it for you,” I said. “Let’s just say that she’s really, really scary. And, she’s still really, really hot.
He shook his head.

“You’re pathetic,” he said.

I tipped my nearly empty glass and touched it to his.

“I’d say we’re both a little pathetic,” I said.

“Perhaps you’re aware that it’s illegal in the state of Oregon to record a conversation unless all parties are made aware of the fact,” he said, ignoring my dig.

I didn’t know that. In the other states where I’d been a journalist, it had been legal so long as at least one party knew, and I had routinely taped telephone interviews. I realized that it didn’t matter in this case.

“This recording will never become legal evidence,” I said. “Let’s just say it’s for your personal entertainment.”

He didn’t respond. Instead, he took the CD and stood up from the table.

“Thanks for the beer,” he said. “Let’s do this again.”

“Oh, trust me,” I said. “We’ll be doing this again very soon.” He walked out. I put a $10 bill on the table, waved to the waitress and walked back to my place. Rusty was sitting outside his open door, pipe lit and cheap whiskey by his side.

“I’ll be back down in a minute,” I told him, and he just nodded. I went upstairs and pulled a cigar out of my humidor, clipped it, grabbed my lighter and poured myself a healthy serving of bourbon. I’d eat dinner later, I told myself. Downstairs, I pulled up my chair, lit the cigar and took a sip of the whiskey.

“Women are frightening creatures and men are pigs,” I said to Rusty. He grunted, which is as close to a laugh as he gets. Then he said the longest sentence I’d ever heard him say.

“We’re surrounded by crazies and idiots,” he said, his gravelly voice barely audible, “and the island is shrinking.” I laughed out loud.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sneak peek

Most of my loyal, loyal readers know that I self-published an e-book earlier this year titled "Blue Light of Dawn," a murder mystery/romance that gets generally good reviews. I've sold enough copies so far to cover two bottles of Lagavulin single malt. (You can buy the book for any electronic device that supports an ebook format here.

Undaunted (and facing the prospects of another winter), I'm writing a sequel to "Blue Light" called "Yellow Light of Dusk." See the theme here? Anyway, I'm precisely one-quarter through the sequel, and I really haven't a clue of the precise plot -- it tends to take on a life of its own as I write. Here's a brief excerpt from Chapter Six -- I hope to be done by the end of the winter.

Henry and Nicole exchanged small talk as he drove and I just kept quiet. Within 10 minutes we pulled into a long lane with the ubiquitous oak trees and Spanish moss on either side. After a half-mile or so a large white house appeared -- your standard Southern plantation house.
“So what’s your boyfriend’s name?” I whispered to Nicole as we approached the mansion.\
“My friend’s name is Alex,” she said, giving me a mildly reproachful look.
The gravel drive circled in front of the columns that fronted the home. Henry stopped in front the steps leading to the massive double front doors and opened Nicole’s door. We got out, thanked Henry for the ride, and walked up the steps as Henry drove the Lincoln to a side driveway that apparently led to a garage. As we approached the front doors, the one on the left opened wide and a tall, slender woman stood before us, holding her arms open to embrace Nicole. They embraced, and the woman kissed her on both cheeks. Nicole stepped back and turned to me.
“Dan Pittman, meet Alexandra Pennington,” she said.
Alex, it turns out, is a woman. She turned to me and opened her arms wide again, and I walked into an impressive embrace. She kissed me on both cheeks, too.
“I’ve heard so much about you,” she said, echoing Mrs. King. Her voice was strong and clear. Her eyes were spectacularly blue, her short-cut snow-white hair, cut in a modern version of what used to be called a page boy. She appeared to be wearing a navy blue kimono and matching blue slippers. When she stepped back to let us farther into the house, I caught a twinkle in her I that immediately knew was permanent. It took me a moment to get my wits about me, particularly when I saw my surroundings -- an enormous two-story foyer, a wide semi-circular staircase leading to an upstairs balcony that seemed to lead to upstairs wings. A chandelier the size of a small hot air balloon hung over our heads.
“Thank you for inviting us,” I finally said. “It’s a great pleasure to meet you.”
“I rather suspect you had no idea who you were going to meet tonight. Am I right, Dan Pittman,” she said, the twinkle in her eye more obvious.
“No, ma’am, I had no idea,” I said.
“That will be enough of the ‘ma’am’ stuff,” she said. I noticed she had no Southern accent whatsoever. She spoke a careful style of language that seemed to include no contractions. I could smell something I couldn’t quite discern coming from what must have been a distant kitchen. Alex showed us into a nearby sitting room where a crystal decanter of brown fluid, two short crystal tumblers and a crystal container of ice sat on a side table. The room feature a smaller chandelier and obviously expensive furnishings.
“I understand you enjoy the occasional bourbon, Mr. Pittman,” Alex said.

“I do, indeed,” I said, “and, please, call me Dan.”
“Excellent!” she said, as if I had done her a great favor. “I happen to favor Kentucky spirits myself. Would you mind pouring for the two of us? Henry will be here soon with a vodka martini for Nicole here, who cannot be convinced that American whiskey is vastly superior to that nasty Russian stuff.”
She actually winked at Nicole as she said it.
“You may serve mine on the rocks,” she added.
I put ice in two tumblers and poured two fingers of bourbon in each.
“Now, Dan, you can do better than that,” Alex said. I filled the glasses, delivered Alex’s drink to her, and she sat in an overstuffed chair. I joined Nicole on a matching love seat and Henry appeared presently with a tray holding a single martini glass filled with clear liquid and two olives -- a dry vodka martini. I sipped the bourbon, which was so smooth that I scarcely tasted it. This was not Wild Turkey. Alex noticed my reaction.
“It is a single-barrel bourbon aged 12 years in American white oak,” she said. “I could tell you where I get it, but then I would have to kill you.”
Alex was enjoying herself. Tall and slender, she was attractive and charming. She wore no jewelry or makeup and looked to be in her mid-60s, clearly fit and active.

“I presume Nicole has explained our friendship,” Alex said. I looked at Nicole.
“No, as a matter of fact, she hasn’t,” I said.
Alex clapped her hands.
“Excellent!” she exclaimed. “I get to tell the whole story!”
“Some months ago I was enjoying dinner at one of Savannah’s many fine restaurants when I spied this spectacular woman sitting alone at a corner table. I really could not take my eyes off of her. I eventually suggested to the waiter that he invite her to join me and, gratefully, she accepted. We enjoyed a lovely meal and even lovelier conversation. I am afraid that I was quite smitten.”
At this, Nicole turned a bit red and reality finally dawned on me. Alexandra Pennington is gay. She continued, apparently assuming that I was catching on.
“I have learned over the years to be discrete when getting to know another woman, particularly one as lovely as Nicole here,” she said. “It took several other evenings together to discern that she was not ‘my type’ as some would say, and a few more evenings for Nicole to discover that my original interests had been a not altogether honorable.” Nicole turned a brighter shade of red.
“Fortunately, I am quite accustomed to attractions that do not quite work out. Even more fortunately, Nicole was not offended or bothered, and a splendid friendship has developed. Of course, Nicole, it still could be more if you have changed your mind.” She winked again and Nicole went full neon red.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A fun clash with a TV dude

Had a little fun this week with a TV guy in Boise over a blog post reporting on commercials by KTVB attempting to take advantage of the Idaho Statesman's decision to (finally) institute a pay wall.

For the complete back-and-forth go here.

Some highlights, starting with the original blog post:

Boise TV Station Capitalizes On The Idaho Statesman’s New Paywall

This week, USA Today publisher Larry Kramer said his paper isn’t “unique enough” to charge readers access to its online content.  Kramer, quoted in The Wrap, said, “There is so much national news out there…“I think we would lose more than we would gain.”
Paywalls started going up at newspapers and magazines years ago as the internet became one of the top destinations for information. Many people, especially people under 40, don’t spend money on print subscriptions like they used to. That’s forced newspapers to explore different ways to make money. But the debate over whether charging readers for access to online content is a smart business strategy, or a sustainable model, continues as big brands weigh in.
In Idaho, at least eight daily newspapers charge readers for web access.  The most recent paper to shift to a paywalled system is the state’s largest paper, The Idaho Statesman.
That move inspired Boise’s NBC affiliate, KTVB, to take direct aim at The Statesman with this spot:
The local TV station boasts all its web content is free.  Web content at my employer, StateImpact Idaho and Boise State Public Radio, isn’t behind a paywall, but we do rely on listener support (here’s a great explainer on how public radio stations are funded).
KTVB’s spot, and promotion of it on Twitter, sparked a discussion mostly among Idaho media.  Watching the exchanges unfold on Twitter (and I shared my two cents), I wondered if the wrong debate was happening.  In an age of media saturation, how do you justify to readers that your content, your journalism, is “unique enough” to put up that barrier to free access?  By the same token, free content certainly doesn’t always equal better content.

Roger Plothow  2 days ago

"By the same token, free content certainly doesn’t always equal better content."
No, free content virtually guarantees inferior content. Why? Because people will actually spend money for superior content. In what world is free stuff of higher quality than stuff you have to pay for?
"But the debate over whether charging readers for access to online content is a smart business strategy, or a sustainable model, continues as big brands weigh in."
No, this debate is over, at least in the newspaper business. Eighty percent of newspapers now have some kind of pay wall, and it will soon by nearly 100 percent. Free content was always a bad idea. Compare the total local content in a single edition of any daily newspaper to that of a competing TV station. One day's edition has more local content than a week of local TV newscasts, and that's true in Boise.

Emilie Ritter Saunders  Roger Plothow  a day ago

Thanks for the comment Roger. Perhaps I needed to define 'free'. No media is free, the consumer pays for media/journalism in a lot of different ways. Whether you pay for cable, donate to your local public radio station, buy a Sunday paper at the grocery store or pay to read articles online - there is a cost incurred somewhere.
And I'd argue the jury is very much still out on whether the newspaper industry can sustain itself on digital revenue. As stories like this one show:, there is a lot of ground to make up.

  • Avatar

    Don Day  Emilie Ritter Saunders  a day ago

    And I would argue that in Mr. Plothow's market, vastly more folks get their news and information from the KIFI News Group than the Post-Register. So folks have chosen: ad supported over subscription. The quality argument is unwarranted, and frankly, not based in reality. It's a newspaper man's argument - "our content is better because we were here first" - or something. Newspaper folks often look down their nose at TV folks (as is illustrated plainly above) - all the while their house is burning down.
    TV has been free for 60+ years and makes a MUCH higher margin than newspapers. When classifieds paid for the news operation, newspapers had a pretty good thing going. Then Craig Newmark came along and destroyed that silly model (free and instant of course trumping paid and slow - yes FREE over PAID). Then folks figured out... "oh hey... I can get my news and not pay for it? sweet." Mr. Plothow's paper, to its credit, never gave away content free - but then KIFI ate its lunch. served 67,000 folks last month. PostRegister? Just 16,000. As I noted - the people have spoken.
    Mr. Plothow is as wrong about Boise as he is about his own market. It may be true in big markets like Seattle that the newspapers are the news engine - but in this market it's not. He might count drivel like comics and syndicated fluff and gardening feature as "content" - but local apples-to-apples content (LOCAL NEWS), it's not what he would like to think. There are news outlets all over - Boise Weekly, StateImpact/BSR, Boise Weekly, and yes KTVB, KBOI & KIVI that combined generate far and away more content then the local paper (in fact, a couple of those generate more on their own than the paper). Add in BoiseGuardian, KBOI Radio, etc. - and there is ZERO reason to pay for local content when it is plentiful and free.
    Pretending that content is superior because it comes from an organization that owns a printing press (or leases access) is plainly a misread of the news environment these days. Once upon a time newspapers had more journalists (the only way they were actually superior) - but those days are quickly falling away, and no paywall will fix it.

    • Avatar

      Roger Plothow  Don Day  20 hours ago

      Mr. Day could not possibly be more wrong.
      First, comparing web site "traffic" of a free site to a subscriber-based site is of no value whatsoever. We earn more in subscription income than a comparable free site earns in advertising. It's an utterly false comparison.
      Second, assuming that web site stats establish that "vastly more people get their news and information from KIFI..." is wrong on many levels. The actual news casts and daily newspaper editions are still far and away the main products of each medium, and in that regard the Post Register is the clear leader. (For one thing, TV ratings done using diaries are notoriously unreliable, while the Post Register's circulation is audited by a third party. For another we also reach most of our nonsubscribers with a weekly printed product.)
      Mr. Day's online numbers are also way, way off. To be fair, getting web stats through third parties is a tricky business and the numbers are essentially meaningless. In October, The Post Register and its affiliated web sites generated 145,000 user visits and more than 1 million page views.
      Information superiority has absolutely nothing to do with the medium itself (or who came first). No one in the newspaper business suggests otherwise. Mr. Day sets up a straw man and neatly knocks it down, but it's not an elegant or unique performance. Take my challenge -- count up all the local information pieces contained in any single edition of the Idaho Statesman (news stories, calendar items, advertising, obituaries, announcements, letters to the editor, editorials, columns, etc.), then do the same for any TV broadcast. Just do the math. It's not close. Leave out the syndicated material -- just count the original local news, information and advertising content. Come on, I dare you.
      It's a myth that TV margins are universally higher than those for newspapers. TV in eastern Idaho is faring better now that it has gone through drastic consolidation, but I wouldn't trade places. It's fair to say that margins in either business aren't what they used to be, but we're talking about industries in which 30, 40, even 50 percent margins were commonplace.
      Finally, Mr. Day gets it exactly backwards when comparing markets like Seattle to smaller markets. Newspapers in smaller markets such as eastern Idaho are far more dominant than those in metros markets. It appears the Mr. Day is simply making this stuff up. The Post Register has more people in its newsroom and advertising department than the TV stations combined. Still. Mr. Day, you are operating under a broad misconception because you make assumptions rather than gathering data.
      The truth is, local TV and newspapers will co-exist for a long time. Neither is about to disappear, though both are going through dramatic and, ultimately, healthy and necessary changes. It's not a zero sum game, as so many geniuses would have us believe. Both media serve a unique purpose and serve their markets in different ways. The Internet, smart phones or whatever comes next won't change that. But, to assume that all anyone needs to be fully informed is free news sources is simply and unarguably wrong. Yes, one can survive this way, but one can't be a full participant in his or her community without the full complement of free and paid information sources.

      • Avatar

        Don Day  Roger Plothow  3 hours ago

        I'm not going to escalate a silly argument any further. I respect where you come from but know (based on extensive study) that what you profess is flawed.
        Best of luck with the fire hose.

  • Avatar

    Roger Plothow  Emilie Ritter Saunders  20 hours ago

    I'd go a step further to argue that neither television nor newspapers can sustain themselves with digital revenue, and neither should try, at least at this point. Digital is a complementary revenue source and will continue to be for a long time, just as it is for television. Our legacy models still sustain us. TV has the same problem -- traditional TV spots earns far more revenue than the same volume of online advertising. For one thing, we all know that no one looks at online ads. We have to figure out how to fix that problem first.
    As for free versus paid, part of the issue is where the revenue goes. When you buy a TV set or pay your Internet or cable bill, none of that revenue goes to the local content providers. When you buy a newspaper or pay for an online subscribtion, all of that revenue goes to the newspaper. That's an enormous advantage that I know my TV friends would love to have.

Final thought (not part of the message board): I hereby declare victory.