Don’t dislocate your shoulder from patting yourself on the back

Roy Peter Clark:

The disappearance of a pregnant woman out West became national news. What possibly could have happened to her? Her husband expressed his grief and anxiety in front of a national TV audience. I turned to my wife next to me on the couch. “He did it,” I said. And so he did.

Between cop shows and real-life crime stories, we all recognize the trope: The first suspect is the partner or spouse, often the one who reports the crime.

Detectives are trained to sniff out the truth. That’s why the slang for them is bloodhounds — because they “track down” the killer. The metaphor is apt.

Science writer Marc McCutcheon notes that “The bloodhound’s epithelial membrane, or ‘sniffing organism’ is 50 times larger and thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s. The trace of sweat that seeps through your shoes and is left in your footprints … is a million times more powerful than the bloodhound needs to track you down.”

Let’s hear it for the nose. Journalists have all kinds of noses, or maybe just one nose, but a nose with a third nostril.

Among professionals, journalists are the dogs. They are guide dogs and watchdogs, trackers and pointers, but never lap dogs. They stand guard in the public’s yard. When danger, or even uncertainty, approaches, they bark. It’s a form of news telling. Hey, pay attention! Look at this! This guy doesn’t smell right!

Reporters as dogs.

My wife and I are again on the couch. A story out of Chicago of a young celebrity, Jussie Smollett, black, gay, the victim of a hate crime. At 2 a.m. on a frigid Chicago street, he is assaulted by two vicious thugs who claim allegiance to President Donald Trump, pour some liquid over him, and place a noose over his neck.

“This doesn’t smell right,” I said. She gave me a disgusted “you doubt everything” look.

I have spent 40 years listening to journalists and learning their lingo, their slogans, their metaphors. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s an old one. But at one time it may have been even more cynical. Melvin Mencher, an influential and curmudgeonly teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, offered this version: “If your mother calls you Sonny, check it out.”

In other words, not only may your dear mother not love you, but how can you be sure that she is your real mother at all?

The distinction that most matters is the one between skepticism and cynicism. The practical skeptic doubts what he knows. His concern is about knowledge. The skeptical editor asks: “How do we know that?” Or “How can we know that?” The cynical editor has doubts about the ability of humans to act with good will. Her concern is about morality. That editor assumes the worst about people in general, especially those being covered.

“I better check that out,” comes from the skeptic. “They all lie, all the time,” comes from the cynic, a word, by the way, that comes from the Greek meaning “dog.”

Cover politics for any length of time and you will learn that, indeed, they all lie, all the time. Cover police and courts for any length of time and you will learn that, indeed, most of them lie, most of the time. However cynical you are about politics, you’re not cynical enough. Abyone who has something to gain by lying will.

I polled my Facebook friends — mostly the journalists among them — to get their sense of what it means when “something doesn’t pass the smell test.” How did journalists come to grow a third nostril?

Here are some of their ideas:

  • Veteran editor Walker Lundy wrote, “I always used the Two-Minute Mile Rule. It’s impossible for a human to run a two-minute mile. If you come across a story that sounds impossible, it probably is.”
  • Adam Hardy wrote: “If something doesn’t pass the smell test for a journalist, I think that’s shorthand for ‘More reporting is needed.’”
  • Dean Miller riffed on that strategy: “If too good to be true, too starkly good guy/bad guy, more reporting is needed.”
  • Tamara Lush wrote, “If you’ve covered crime long enough, you come to notice patterns. In motives, how events unfold, even how perpetrators/witnesses/victims tell stories. When things don’t fit those patterns, the intuition kicks in. That’s not to say a reporter shouldn’t pursue the story, but it’s one of the caution lights.”

Every veteran journalist I have ever met could tell me a story about being fooled or misled by sources. As a result of those experiences, reporters learn to be cautious with the statements of public figures, but sometimes the source seems so reliable that fabrications, falsehoods and distortions sneak through.

When editors intervene, they are looking for holes in stories, gaps of important information. At times, an editor will smell something in the text that is a little off and requires verification. In a collaborative spirit, the editor prosecutes the story, a kind of journalistic devil’s advocate. We love this story and want it to be true, and because we want it so much, we owe it to everyone to check it out, down to the last factoid.

Andrew Meacham, an expert practitioner of feature obituaries, shared this classic case on Facebook:

As an obit writer on a daily deadline, I was delighted to learn of a recently deceased physician who only did house calls. How quaint! Usually I checked backgrounds on potential subjects before investing a lot of time. But because he was a doctor, somehow that didn’t strike me as something to do immediately.

For me the “something isn’t right” element was physical but not olfactory. More like a nausea you try to deny or ignore until it’s just about time. In this story it was the too-pat responses from the widow about why he gave up his clinic to treat elderly shut-ins. He just enjoyed it more! He found it fulfilling. No anecdotes about that decision, maybe something he said about why he liked house calls better. It felt like a false bottom.

Four hours into my reporting I started searching his name, and quickly learned that four female patients had accused him of improver behavior. It was the state’s Board of Medicine that said he could no longer work out of an office, not some nostalgic desire to return to small-town America of the 1950s. We killed the story.

In summary, here are things I have learned about the smell test:

  1. Think of your nose as an early-warning detector. If you smelled something unusual in your house, you would get up off the couch and check it out.
  2. In the process of getting a story, more reporting is the antidote to many poisons.
  3. Both writers and editors must be willing to “prosecute” stories, especially the ones we most want to believe.
  4. A good question reporters can ask themselves: “How do I know this?” A good question for editors to ask reporters: “How do we know this?”
  5. If “everyone” believes something, it is still worth checking out. If that thing turns out to be wrong, that will make its own important story.
  6. You will not become a better reporter by assuming that everyone is lying to you. That makes you a cynic. Double-checking the assertions even of trusted sources makes you a dutiful, practical skeptic.
  7. The best way for an inexperienced reporter to develop a third nostril is to hang around with reporters who have one. Follow the work of such reporters and ask them how they sniffed out the evidence.
  8. All of these are versions of the same sensibility: “This doesn’t smell right.” “This doesn’t feel right.” “Why does my gut hurt?” “Where’s my B.S. detector?” “My spidey-sense is tingling.”
  9. You are not born with a third nostril; you grow one. In other words, this alert response is not based on instinct, which, technically, you are born with. These responses are learned, which is why more experienced journalists recognize and trust them.
  10. Your nose is more powerful than you think.

This last point is confirmed by science writer Marc McCutcheon in the book “The Compass in Your Nose”:

All humans have a trace amount of iron in their noses, a rudimentary compass found in the ethmoid bone (between the eyes) to help in directional finding relative to the earth’s magnetic field.

Studies show that many people have the ability to use these magnetic deposits to orient themselves — even when blindfolded and removed from such external clues as sunlight — to within a few degrees of the North Pole, exactly as a compass does.

And, for the record, if your mother says she loves you, you should probably say “I love you too, Mom,” but don’t be surprised or offended if she checks it out.

Well, aren’t we full of self-regard. Care to guess how much real investigative reporting most reporters do in your careers? Answer: None. We might like to tell ourselves we investigate as part of our jobs, but the fact is that most of us lack the time and resources to dig very far into stories.

How much investigative reporting do you think political reporters did during the Obama administration? Even worse, how much investigative reporting took place during the Clinton administration? (Notice any investigative reporting taking place in Wisconsin about the current governor, in stark contrast to his predecessor?) Similar to the way that dissent becomes patriotic during Republican presidential administrations, investigative reporting becomes cool again once the occupant of the White House has an R after his name.

Until I read this I had no idea who Clark was, or is. Maybe it’s unfair, but I have a hard time believing Clark has ever met a reporter from a real newspaper — that is, a newspaper where the staff isn’t angling for an appearance on the Sunday morning TV talk shows in order to further their careers. In other words, the veracity of this opinion doesn’t pass the smell test, since discerning readers can count the number of times big-time media either screws up something or fails to report what it should report. Bloviating such as this is a big reason the media is in poor regard in the eyes of the public, and getting worse by the day.



How socialist are the socialists?

Rick Newman:

Sen. Elizabeth Warren insists she’s a capitalist who “sees the value of markets.” But an exclusive Yahoo Finance analysis of her policy proposals puts her on the more socialistic edge of the Democratic field, barely to the right of Bernie Sanders.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, by contrast, has resisted efforts to label him a capitalist. Yet he lands at the more capitalistic end of the Yahoo Finance analysis, along with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.

As the field of Democratic presidential contenders swells, the primary-election process is shaping up as a tug-of-war over what type of economy is best for the nation. Leftists want far more government intervention in health care, energy, transportation and other sectors, to address worsening income inequality. Centrists insist pragmatic, market-based policies can solve pressing problems. And some candidates claim to be one thing while backing policies suggesting they are something else.

To clear the smoke and identify who stands for what, Yahoo Finance analyzed four key economic policies of 15 leading candidates (including Joe Biden, reportedly set to announce soon), and placed each of them on a spectrum ranging from more socialistic to more capitalistic. We used a 3-point scale to rank the candidates’ policies on health care, taxes, trade and climate change, then tallied the scores to reveal an overall economic orientation for each. (Please check out our complete methodology.)

Here’s where each of the 15 candidates stands:

There are several useful takeaways for voters. It’s no accident that the two declared candidates with gubernatorial experience—Hickenlooper and Inslee—are at the capitalistic end of the field, since governors have to work with businesses to develop pragmatic tax and regulatory policies that generate jobs. Joining them at the capitalist frontier is Delaney, who made millions starting and running two successful businesses, and only ran for office after that.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, not surprisingly, is the most socialistic candidate among Democrats, with a well-developed plan to sharply raise taxes, nationalize health care, cover college costs for many families and roll out other generous government benefits. Sanders has also signed on to the Green New Deal, which would border on a government takeover of the energy sector and force radical change in transportation, as well.

At least 7 of these candidates—Sanders and Warren, along with Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, plus Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and businessman Andrew Yang—support Medicare for all, which would essentially nationalize the health care industry and eliminate the private insurance that now covers nearly 180 million Americans. That might lower the total cost of health care, while covering more people, but it would also be massively disruptive and require sharp tax hikes. There are other ideas for working toward universal coverage with a broader government role, while keeping the private health care system mostly intact.

On taxes, we considered plans to redistribute wealth through taxation—such as Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax—as more socialistic. Politicians don’t often tout tax hike plans, but they do sometimes favor sweeping new programs—such as Sanders’ free-college plan—that necessitate higher taxes. We also rated those more socialistic. Tax hikes aren’t inherently bad, but economists generally say growth is strongest with the lowest possible level of taxation needed to meet public needs. And there are other ways to raise up those left behind, such as Delaney’s plan to incentivize investment in underperforming parts of the country.

On climate policy, we consider the Green New Deal to be the most socialistic plan out there for addressing global warming. At least five of the candidates—Booker, Harris, Sanders, Warren and Gabbard—support the GND, which would put the government in charge of the much of the energy and transportation sectors and require large tax increases. In this instance, there are clear market-based alternatives that are more capitalistic, such as imposing carbon taxes and letting the market sort out the most efficient way to cut pollution. Inslee, who’s campaigning primarily on a “climate mission,” would push reforms down to the state and local level, end existing carbon subsidies (capitalistic!) and involve businesses in his crusade to reduce emissions.

On trade, Trump-style protectionism is the socialist bookend, and only Bernie Sanders favors such an aggressive effort to protect American jobs by raising the prices consumers pay for imports. Trump has effectively, if mistakenly, vilified free trade, and few candidates these days are full-throated globalists. But Inslee, Hickenlooper, Delaney and to a lesser extent former Rep. Beto O’Rourke are all on record touting the virtues of open trade. Biden, as President Obama’s vice president, supported the Trans Pacific Partnership, which the Obama administration cultivated.

Some of the candidates, including O’Rourke and former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro, haven’t spelled out their views on every one of these issues, so we analyzed past actions and other policy positions to estimate where they’re likely to fall on the socialism-capitalism spectrum. And Biden, widely expected to enter the race soon, hasn’t detailed his economic views since he ran for president in the primaries in 2008. Much has changed since then, and Biden will have to update his views to account for Medicare for all, the Green New Deal and other recent developments. We’ll track all the moves as socialism and capitalism duke it out over the next 20 months.

The college of real life

Kerry McDonald:

While reading about the student-led climate protests last week, a statement jumped out at me from the 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, who is credited with launching the walkouts that occurred in over 100 countries. In an interview with The New York Times, Thunberg, who says she was a shy but good student who was overcome for years with adolescent depression, claims that her climate work has added fulfillment to her life. She says: “I’m happier now…I have meaning. I have something I have to do.”

Regardless of how you may feel about climate activism, the key message to parents is that school can be stifling and anxiety-inducing for many teenagers who crave and need meaningful work. Adolescents are meant to come of age within the adult world, surrounded by a diverse group of mentors and engaged in authentic, real-life pursuits. This gives them both experience and personal reward.

Instead, teenagers today are spending more of their time confined in school and school-like settings than ever before. Teenage employment has plummeted, with part-time jobs abandoned in the all-out quest for academics and college admissions. Summer jobs, once a signature activity for teens, are no longer valued. Schooling has become the priority—even in summer. In July 1985, only ten percent of US teens were enrolled in school; in July 2016, over 42 percent were.

Thunberg also isn’t alone in her teen depression. Mounting data show skyrocketing rates of adolescent anxiety, depression, and suicide over the last decade. Some researchers point to technology and social media as the culprit, but they ignore other, recent cultural trends—like more time in forced schooling and less time engaged in jobs and meaningful work—that could be contributing to adolescent strife.

In a recent Harvard EdCast podcast interview, Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University and author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, said that she has heard from several admissions officers that they, regrettably, rarely see work experience described in student essays or otherwise touted on college applications. Young people and their parents now believe that academics and extracurriculars are more important than good, old-fashioned teenage jobs.

Not only is this increased emphasis on school over work likely contributing to teenage angst and disenfranchisement, but it is also not serving them well for the adult world they will ultimately enter. A report by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation revealed that employers are disappointed that today’s highly-schooled graduates lack basic proficiency in simple tasks like drafting a quality email, prioritizing work, and collaborating with others. Other studies have found similar results, with employers frustrated by their new hires’ lack of communication skills, poor problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities, and low attention to detail.

While parents and teachers may think that piling on academics is the key to adult success, the lack of genuine work experience can be more hindrance than help for today’s young people. If parents really want their children to have a meaningful and successful adolescence and adulthood, they should consider trading a well-schooled life for a well-lived one. They can encourage their teens to get jobs and gain beneficial work experience—and make sure that their kids handle it all independently, learning through trial and error. As Lythcott-Haims warns in her book:

Helping by providing suggestions, advice, and feedback is useful, but we can only go so far. When parents do what a young employee must do for themselves, it can backfire.

In addition to encouraging part-time work, parents can also help their teenagers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset that focuses on customer satisfaction and value creation. By looking at her job (even if it’s in retail or food service) from an entrepreneurial perspective, a teen can learn a lot about business and value-creation and may be inspired to become an entrepreneur in adulthood. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is woefully neglected in schools and standard extracurriculars.

As parents look ahead to summer vacation, they may want to pause and take a closer peek at their teenager’s plans. Will she spend those warm months getting ahead on her AP classes? Will he do a foreign language immersion program that will look good on the college transcripts? Maybe getting a job or learning how to think like an entrepreneur would be a more beneficial and rewarding way to enjoy a summer—and a life.


(Some) local journalism shrinkage

The Associated Press goes to Waynesboro, Mo.:

Five minutes late, Darrell Todd Maurina sweeps into a meeting room and plugs in his laptop computer. He places a Wi-Fi hotspot on the table and turns on a digital recorder. The earplug in his left ear is attached to a police scanner in his pants pocket.

Maurina, who posts his work to Facebook, represents the press — in its entirety.

He is the only person who has come to the Pulaski County courthouse to tell residents what their commissioners are up to, the only one who will report on their deliberations about how to satisfy the Federal Emergency Management Agency so it will pay to repair a road inundated during a 2013 flood.

Last September, this community in central Missouri’s Ozark hills became a statistic. With the shutdown of its newspaper, the Daily Guide, it joined more than 1,400 other cities and towns across the U.S. to lose a newspaper over the past 15 years, according to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina.

The reasons for the closures vary. But the result is that many Americans no longer have someone watching the city council for them, chronicling the soccer exploits of their children or reporting on the kindly neighbor who died.

In many places, local journalism is dying in plain sight.

The Daily Guide, which traces to 1962, served the twin towns of Waynesville and St. Robert near the Army’s sprawling Fort Leonard Wood. It was a family owned paper into the 1980s before it was sold to a series of corporate owners that culminated with GateHouse Media Inc., the nation’s largest newspaper company.

As recently as 2010, the Daily Guide had four full-time news people, along with a page designer and three ad salespeople.

But people left and weren’t replaced. Last spring, the Daily Guide was cut from five to three days a week. In June, the last newsroom staffer, editor Natalie Sanders, quit — she was burned out, she said. The last edition was published three months later, on Sept. 7.

“It felt like an old friend died,” Sanders said. “I sat and I cried, I really did.”

The death of the Daily Guide raises questions not easily answered, the same ones asked at newspapers big and small across the country.

Did GateHouse stop investing because people were less interested in reading the paper? Or did people lose interest because the lack of investment made it a less satisfying read?

GateHouse said the Daily Guide, like many smaller newspapers across the country, was hurt by a dwindling advertising market among national retailers. It faces the same financial pressures as virtually every other newspaper company: Circulation in the U.S. has declined every year for three decades, while advertising revenue across the industry has nosedived since 2006, according to the Pew Research Center.

The challenges are especially difficult in smaller communities.

“They’re getting eaten away at every level,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst at Harvard’s Nieman Lab.

The Daily Guide supplemented its income through outside printing jobs, but those dried up, too, said Bernie Szachara, president of U.S. newspaper operations for GateHouse. Given an unforgiving marketplace, there’s no guarantee additional investment in the paper would have paid off, he said.

Szachara said the decision was made to include some news about Waynesville in a weekly advertising circular distributed around Pulaski County.

“We were trying not to create a ghost town,” he said.

To residents of Waynesville, the loss of their newspaper left a hole in the community. Many are still coming to grips with what is missing in their lives.

“Losing a newspaper,” said Keith Pritchard, 63, chairman of the board at the Security Bank of Pulaski County and a lifelong resident, “is like losing the heartbeat of a town.”

Pritchard has scrapbooks of news clippings about his three daughters. He wonders: How will young families collect such memories?

Other residents talk with dismay about church picnics or school plays they might have attended but only learn of through Facebook postings after the fact.

“I miss the newspaper, the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee and a bagel or a doughnut … and find out what’s going on in the community,” said Bill Slabaugh, a retiree. Now he talks to friends and “candidly, for the most part, I’m ignorant.”

Beyond the emotions are practical concerns about the loss of an information source.

Like many communities, Waynesville is struggling with a drug problem. The four murders last year were the most in memory, and all were drug-related.

Without a newspaper’s reporting, Waynesville Police Chief Dan Cordova said many in the community are unaware of the extent of the problem. Social media is a resource, but Cordova is concerned about not reaching everyone.

It isn’t just local residents who notice the absence of community-based journalism. As the newspaper industry has struggled, a host of philanthropic efforts have begun to fill at least some of the gaps.

Whether any of those efforts ever help Waynesville and small towns like it remains to be seen.

After the Daily Guide folded, Waynesville briefly had an alternative. A local businessman, Louie Keen, bankrolled a newspaper, the Uranus Examiner, that was delivered for free. It was shunned by local advertisers and lasted just five issues.

I have a copy. It’s pretty hysterical. I think Keen, owner of Uranus Missouri (think of a somewhat tasteless Wisconsin Dells attraction), may be a bit too cutting-edge.

So Waynesville is left with local radio and Maurina’s Facebook site. He says that for journalism to survive, reporters need to get back to the basics of being at every event and “telling everyone what the sirens were about last night.”

As “small newspapers wither and die, that’s going to cause major problems in communities,” he said. “Somebody needs to pick up the slack and, at least in this community, I’m able to do that.”

Part of the problem with reporting like this is its lack of attention to bad business decisions of the now-closed newspapers’ owners. It’s ironic the first time I saw this was on, the website of the St. Louis Post–Dispatch, owned by Lee Newspapers, which has cut back its Wisconsin State Journal severely because Lee purchased more newspapers than it should have purchased. Like every other media outlet, newspapers are businesses first and foremost, and if they’re not bringing in more (advertising and subscription and single-copy sales revenue) than is going out, they’re not going to survive indefinitely. This cynical writer wonders how many people who bemoaned the departure of their local newspaper actually paid to read it or advertise in it.

It’s not as if the news goes away if the local newspaper goes away. Maurina is trying to do something about that, and it may well be that newspapers need to think about alternative forms of delivering their news. (Particularly since the U.S. Postal Service decided earlier this year that delivery of the mail was optional in bad weather.) My prediction, though, is that unless Maurina comes up with a revenue source, he’s not going to be Waynesboro’s journalist for very long.


Instead of a wall …

An intriguing idea comes from Purdue University:

Instead of a wall, build a first-of-its-kind energy park that spans the 1,954 miles of the border between the United States and Mexico to bring energy, water, jobs and border security to the region.

That’s the audacious plan put forward by a consortium of 28 prestigious engineers and scientists from across the nation who propose that the two nations work together on an enormous infrastructure project: a complex train of solar energy panels, wind turbines, natural gas pipelines, desalination facilities that together would create an industrial park along the border unlike anything found anywhere else in the world.

The facilities would provide the desired border security, the researchers say, because utility facilities and infrastructure must be well-protected. The connected energy parks would also be an economic driver, both in the construction of the facilities themselves and in the businesses that would be attracted to the region by cheap electricity and plentiful water resources. Comments from co-authors of the proposal to build an energy-water-security corridor are available here.

Luciano Castillo, Purdue University’s Kenninger Professor of Renewable Energy and Power Systems, and lead of the consortium, says if enacted, the mega infrastructure project would have a historic positive effect for both nations.

“Just like the transcontinental railroad transformed the United States in the 19th century, or the Interstate system transformed the 20th century, this would be a national infrastructure project for the 21st century,” Castillo says. “It would do for the Southwest what the Tennessee Valley Authority has done for the Southeast over the last several decades.”

Ronald Adrian, Regent’s Professor at Arizona State University and a member of the prestigious National Academy of Engineering, says this proposal, although a huge undertaking, is worth serious study.

 “At first blush the idea seems too big, too aggressive, but consider the Roman aqueducts or the transcontinental railroads — enormous undertakings that gave enormous benefits. The cost of providing basic, essential infrastructure to the border lands is tiny compared to the opportunities it creates,” he says. “I view this project as a means of creating wealth by turning unused land of little value along the border into valuable land that has power, water access and ultimately agriculture, industry, jobs, workers and communities. With only a wall, you still have unused land of little value.”

Carlos Castillo-Chavez, Regent’s Professor at Arizona State University, says a cooperative effort between the United States and Mexico to address the issues of the border region would reinforce the cultural ties that have existed for hundreds of years.

“The USA-Mexico border is home to families with common bonds, large Spanglish-proficient communities, talented creative large pools of young people, intersecting cultural ties and more. These communities have faced day and night similar ecological, health, education, energy, water and security challenges,” Castillo-Chavez says. “They know that solutions must address these challenges across both nations. There are no effective single-territory solutions.”

The plan was first reported by Scientific American; the full proposal is available online.

Contributing to border security

The first question often raised about the proposal is about border security and, Castillo says, the energy parks would provide ample security.

“All utility plants, pipelines and other energy production facilities have security — as any infrastructure will have under any conditions,” he says. “In addition to physical security features, such as multiple levels of fencing, these pipelines and facilities would also have electronic sensors and drone surveillance. This would allow areas for wildlife to continue to migrate while alerting officials to anyone crossing the border illegally.”

Adrian agrees: “The measures being undertaken to control the U.S.-Mexican border with a barrier ( the ‘wall’) are entirely compatible with a long bank of solar panels backed by a super pipe line — same land, similar construction issues, and the fact that each of these systems is a barrier to some degree.”

The idea of combining the border security wall or fence with solar energy panels isn’t original — in fact, President Trump himself has floated the idea as one of many possibilities.

“This is a different kind of initiative that will solve many existing challenges while bringing people together,” Castillo says. “It will bring energy, water and education to create more opportunities for the USA and Mexico on both sides.”

Providing water resources

The southwestern United States is dry and prone to drought — two of the world’s worst droughts in in the past 30 years have taken place there. Droughts, of course, limit or damage economic development and agriculture wherever they occur, and the chances of droughts in this region are expected to increase significantly in coming decades due to climate change.

California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona are currently in a drought categorized as severe to exceptional and are using up groundwater resources, according to research conducted at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Water conservation efforts are laudable, but they won’t be enough to bring this area out of its crisis,” Castillo says. “And they fall far short of a blueprint for growth and prosperity.”

The proposal offers a plan to increase water resources in the region in two ways.

First, in the United States, nearly half of the water is used by fossil fuel and nuclear power plants used for cooling, and increasing the amount of wind and solar production of electricity would allow billions of gallons of water available for other resources.

Second, the proposed plan includes wind-powered desalination plants at each coast, which would then pump fresh water into the interior region.

“Now, once you have water, you can have agriculture and manufacturing at levels this region has not seen before,” Castillo says. “Without this, over the next few decades the American Southwest is going to begin running out of water, and then you’re going to see another border crisis — but this one will be at the Canadian border where people will be rushing across to find water.”

Wealth of energy resources

Although the region has a scarcity of water, it’s quite the opposite for energy-producing resources.

Oil and natural gas: Some of the largest deposits of oil and shale gas are located in Texas, New Mexico and Southern California. In fact, a U.S. Geological Survey assessment of untapped resources in southwest New Mexico and west Texas found just these resources alone represent an increase of 100 percent in oil reserves and a 65 percent in natural gas reserves.

Wind energy: Research conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the strong winds at the Texas Gulf Coast and the Baja California regions are ideal for wind farms.

The proposal suggests that these wind farms be used to power desalination plants, and previous work done at Purdue University found this this could provide 2.3 million acre-feet of water per year, an amount equivalent, the proposal says, to satisfy the water needs for all of the manufacturing, mining and livestock needs of the state of Texas.

Solar energy: The sun is so intense in the border region that the Mexican state of Chihuahua has one of the highest solar radiation potentials in the world. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and the Imperial College of London found that a line five solar panels wide along the border would produce as much energy as the hydroelectric power production along the border of the U.S. and Canada (which, of course, includes Niagara Falls).

The proposal notes that the energy corridor would enable load-shifting, in which electricity generated could be sent to the eastern half of the United States when demand is high and then to the western United States later in the day when the highest demand shifts to that region.

Private investment, environmental impact studies needed

The authors of the proposal note two final components would be needed to bring this plan to fruition: private funding and an educated work force, says Jay Gore, Purdue’s Vincent P. Reilly Professor in Mechanical Engineering and director of the Energy Center in Purdue’s Discovery Park.

“A project of this magnitude must be a private-public venture driven by free-market forces. It would require assuring border security first, industrial-scale infrastructure second, and an educated workforce, third.  The private capital will flow to secure, infrastructure-ready and educated areas with great priority,” Gore says. “Over the years, I have learned from some of the most distinguished experts, including Nobel laureates, that for an entrepreneurial economic boom to happen it requires the availability of secure land, energy, water and an educated workforce.”

The proposal plans for at least three “energy security institute” campuses to be developed along the border where people from both nations can come to learn the skills needed to work in the wind energy, solar energy and natural gas industries.

“Universities within the four states, California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, should be convinced to establish partnerships with their Mexican counterparts across the border to establish curricula for workforce development at all levels to attract private investment by corporations and venture firms from around the world,” Gore says.

Castillo says the vision of the energy and water park would be to attract many businesses on both sides of the border in a broad and lucrative economic zone.

“Instead of being a region of conflict, the border area could become the largest industrial park of its kind in the world,” he says.

As someone skeptical of alternative energy, it seems logical to me to have wind and solar in a part of the country where the sun shines much more often than here. Unlike the border wall (of which I am also a skeptic), something positive would be produced here, possibly something to pay for its cost and possibly reduce illegal immigration by increasing economic opportunities south of the border.


All Ferraris are red, and all envirowackos are green

Michael Bastasch:

For the cost of implementing the Green New Deal, the federal government could buy every American a brand new Ferrari luxury sports car, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“For the comparatively cheap price of just $66 trillion I’m told the government could buy every American a Ferrari,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

McConnell is basing this cost comparison against a recent report by the right-leaning American Action Forum (AAF) that estimated the cost of the Green New Deal to be as high as $93 trillion over ten years, or $653,000 per household.

“What a great idea. But of course, everyone would have to get their drive in before Democrats ban the internal combustion engine,” McConnell quipped about buying every American a Ferrari.

McConnell joined other Republican lawmakers who took to the Senate floor to criticize the Green New Deal, which calls for radically transforming the U.S. economy to fight global warming and dramatically expand welfare and “social justice” programs.

“93 trillion is more than every dollar our federal government has spent in its entire history to date,” McConnell said, referring the AAF report.

“It’s more than the combined annual GDP of every nation on Earth,” McConnell said. “This amount of money could rebuild the entire interstate highway system every year, just for the heck of it, for 250 years with a little left over.”

McConnell said the Senate would be voting on the Green New Deal in the coming weeks, sparking outrage from Democrats who called the vote a political stunt. Many Democratic 2020 presidential candidates support the Green New Deal resolution introduced by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey.

Despite this, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is looking for ways to shield Democrats from having to vote on the Green New Deal. Schumer plans an “offensive” to make climate change a top issue in the 2020 , turning it against Republicans.

“This is the first time Democrats have decided to go on offense on climate change,” Schumer told The Times in an interview published Monday.

Schumer also plans on holding weekly floor speeches on climate change, and pressing Republicans to vote on an alternative climate resolution that calls on Congress to immediately act on global warming — as opposed to making specific demands, like the Green New Deal.

However, Republicans will make sure the Green New Deal will continue to be brought up through the 2020 elections, tying Democrats to policies they see as “socialist.”

“Cars, lawnmowers, commercial airliners, everything must go,” McConnell said.

How to get rid of 25,000 jobs

Brad Stone:

In retrospect, the helipad was probably a bad idea.

The proposed transportation hub for senior Amazon executives was supposed to sit atop one of the company’s gleaming new skyscrapers along the East River, part of its planned second headquarters in Queens, New York. But the image of Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos and his well-heeled lieutenants bypassing the city’s congested subway system grated even on proponents of the deal. It also handed political opponents a convenient catch phrase—“Stay the helipad out!”

On Thursday morning, Inc.decided to do just that, scotching a deal that would have brought 25,000 high-paying jobs over 10 years to New York, in exchange for close to $3 billion in tax breaks and subsidies. “After much thought and deliberation, we’ve decided not to move forward with our plans to build a headquarters for Amazon in Long Island City, Queens,” Amazon announced on its corporate blog. “We are disappointed to have reached this conclusion.”

Bezos and colleagues, along with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, the primary backers of the deal, will now have to puzzle over how one of the most prominent development deals in recent history went wrong. According to urban policy experts and other observers of the fracas, there’s plenty of blame to go around: regional politicians who didn’t properly consult local interests, local officials who turned the debate into a national bully pulpit on unrelated issues such as the merits of facial recognition technology, and an economic development process that for decades has pitted U.S. city against city in a destructive battle to court the largest companies in the world.

And Amazon, too, is to blame. “For them to not have anticipated a political backlash to this kind of incentive package, when it sits right in the backyard of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just shows complete incompetence,” says Richard Florida, an urban studies professor at the University of Toronto.

Amazon’s withdrawal is, by any measure, a catastrophic outcome to its extremely hyped search for a second headquarters, or HQ2. Bezos decided to conduct the search in September 2017, when Amazon was facing increasing animosity in its home town. Candidates in the Seattle mayoral election that year slammed the rapidly expanding company for contributing to soaring housing prices and homelessness, while the city council passed an income tax on residents making more than $250,000 a year—a dart aimed right at Amazon executives. Other legislation, which Amazon bitterly fought: taxes on the city’s large businesses to fund homeless services and affordable housing.

For Bezos and other Amazon execs, the HQ2 search was partly a way to gauge public sentiment in each potential city, so they could avoid the problems they faced in Seattle, according to a person familiar with the process. Outside the company, as Amazon narrowed its list to 20 finalist cities in January 2018, there was a different reaction from corporate welfare opponents who saw the process as an effort to extract the biggest possible tax breaks. The optics were further tainted by the fact that during the process, Jeff Bezos became the wealthiest man in the world, by a lot, and Amazon’s market value touched (briefly) the magical threshold of $1 trillion.

Still, de Blasio and Cuomo were all smiles at a press conference last November, when they announced they had scored one-half of the prodigious HQ2 haul, along with northern Virginia, the other winning site. Cuomo predicted that Amazon would hire 40,000 workers within 25 years and that the city would reap as much as $27.5 billion in tax revenue—a great return on a $3 billion enticement. They had won the game, “doing what mayors and governors have done for time immemorial, which is to get companies to locate in their region,” says Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied the history of Silicon Valley and other technology hubs.

The local opposition started to gather before the press conference even ended. Outside the event, huddled against the cold wind, a handful of local politicians criticized the “secretive grease-the-wheels process,” according to Jimmy Van Bramer, a city councilman who represents the district where Amazon would have located.

If the opposition was a surprise to Amazon, it shouldn’t have been. Last June, 28-year-old Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated powerful incumbent Representative Joseph Crowley, running on a Bernie-flavored platform of Medicare expansion, government housing, and jobs guarantees. The progressive left was emboldened, and with political winds shifting, local officials feared being on the wrong side of the Amazon fight.

There was other relevant history that should have scared Amazon: New York has repeatedly stiffed the entreaties of another gigantic retailer, Walmart, which doesn’t have any stores in the five boroughs, despite repeated attempts over many decades. “I don’t care if we are ever here,” a former Walmart CEO, Lee Scott, once said bitterly of New York, sounding a bit like a beaten-down Frank Sinatra. “I don’t think it’s worth the effort.”

Predictably, opposition got louder after Amazon announced its plans. Anti-Amazon activists were already well organized from Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and armed with lists of constituent emails and telephone numbers. The New York tabloids sharpened their knives. “Queens Ransom” blared the cover of the New York Post, with an illustration of Bezos holding bags of cash and smiling villainously as he departed via the infamous helipad.

The company’s response was uncharacteristically feeble. It sent out flyers (“Happy New Year from your future neighbors at Amazon”) that promised career retraining for local residents and a donation of real estate for a new school for 600 students. And weeks after the initial announcement, it set up a community advisory council to interact with local officials and advocate for the deal.

It was also notable what Amazon did not do: bring out the big gun, Jeff Bezos himself, to give city politicians the attention they often feel entitled to. Instead, his chief deputy, Jeff Wilke, called local officials to wish them Happy Thanksgiving, while policy and real estate executives represented the company at the increasingly fractious public hearings.

Polls showed strong support for Amazon in Long Island City. Residents backed the deal 58 percent to 35 percent, according to a poll conducted in early February by Siena College. But opponents had leverage: The subsidy package, or part of it, required the authorization of the state’s three-member Public Authorities Control Board; a major critic of the project, Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, was nominated to the board. Critics were also raising issues, emphatically, on TV and online, that Amazon would rather not address, such as the company’s opposition to unions in its fulfillment centers and its sale of facial recognition technology to government agencies like ICE.

None of this surprised longtime observers of New York politics. But Amazon, it seems, didn’t have the appetite for the protracted public battle, or the prospect that it could be scapegoated by every subway delay, pizza rat, traffic jam, or housing eviction in Queens from now to eternity.

“This was not even that a difficult a fight,” says Ester Fuchs, a Columbia University urban affairs professor. “I think it’s a misreading by Amazon of how politics works in New York.” Julie Samuels, executive director of Tech:NYC, a group that advocates for tech-friendly urban policies, says “culturally, the problem was they were not equipped for people to not be excited. They had no tools in place for that.”

And so Bezos went full Snake Plissken and escaped from New York. Cities such as Newark, N.J., are trying to win Amazon’s favor. But the company said in its blog post that it will stick with northern Virginia and a smaller office planned for Nashville.

It’s a typical Bezos power play—belligerently confronting opposition he views as unfair or unjust. He did it in Texas back in 2011, when he threatened to close a fulfillment center in the face of a $269 million bill for uncollected state taxes. (The state caved.) He also did it last week, when he called out the National Enquirer in a blog post for threatening to publish personal photos if he didn’t suspend an inquiry into the tabloid paper. (The paper and its parent company denied the charge of extortion.)

Now, New York and some of its politicians are feeling the brunt of Bezos’s ire. In their quieter moments, they may also be counting all the jobs and tax revenues that could have been.

This, of course, is what Wisconsin Democrats want to do to Foxconn, because (1) they don’t believe in the private sector, and (2) they didn’t make the Foxconn deal.


Foxconn’s on/off switch

The Milwaukee Business Journal:

Foxconn Technology Group on Friday said it will build an LCD screen fabrication facility in Mount Pleasant, a move that was put into question after reports earlier this week of the company reconsidering its plans.

The company said the decision came after “productive discussions between the White House and the company, and after a personal conversation between President Donald J. Trump and Chairman Terry Gou.” That Gen 6 plant will fabricate smaller, high-resolution LCD screens than the company had originally planned to make in its Mount Pleasant plant.

Reports from Reuters and Japanese news publication Nikkei Asian Review had called into question whether Foxconn would be fabricating any LCD screens in Wisconsin at all. The company earlier this week committed to building packaging plants, assembly facilities and research centers over the next 18 months in Mount Pleasant. But it fell short of committing to the Gen 6 fabrication plant to make TFT, or “thin-film-transistor” screens.

“Our decision is also based on a recent comprehensive and systematic evaluation to help determine the best fit for our Wisconsin project among TFT technologies,” Foxconn’s written statement Friday announced. “We have undertaken the evaluation while simultaneously seeking to broaden our investment across Wisconsin far beyond our original plans to ensure the company, our workforce, the local community, and the state of Wisconsin will be positioned for long-term success.”

That fabrication plant could break ground over the next 18 months, according to a Friday statement from Racine County, the village of Mount Pleasant and the Racine County Economic Development Corp. The company in April is expected to hold open houses regarding its upcoming construction plans.

Foxconn’s announcement ends a week where the firm’s Wisconsin plans attracted extreme scrutiny. A Reuters story on Tuesday raised speculation that Foxconn may not manufacture in Wisconsin at all, a point the company refuted.

Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, described it as watching “a Twitter world collide with a dynamic, global business decision.”

Foxconn’s strategy in Wisconsin has evolved over the past six months, which is in keeping with the company’s reputation of being flexible and responsive to market conditions.

Foxconn first announced last year it was backing off from plans for a Gen 10.5 facility in Wisconsin to make very large LCD screens. Instead, the Gen 6 plant will produce small to mid-sized displays that would be used in televisions and by automakers.

“Over the last year at least, the capacity for the large LCD screen manufacturing in China has grown exponentially, and the cost has been cut in half,” Sheehy said.

The actual fabrication of screens in Wisconsin is significant. The company is building Gen 10.5 plants in China, but such operations don’t exist in the United States. Fabricating the screens, versus assembling products around the finished LCD displays, was expected to attract a new supply chain of manufacturers to Foxconn’s plant.

Sheehy said there is value to Foxconn’s research and development operations planned for Wisconsin, but the fabrication plant creates “an opportunity for supply chain and a more robust capital investment.”

Contractors over the last several months have leveled an estimated 3-million-square-foot plot of land near Interstate 94 in Mount Pleasant that was intended for the fabrication facility. That facility is to be the centerpiece of a larger manufacturing and technology campus Foxconn is developing.

That campus will also include extensive research and development operations to explore new applications of Foxconn’s technology in health care and other arenas. Foxconn earlier this week also planned to build a data center and rapid prototyping center at its Mount Pleasant campus.

Ambisjon og frihet

On many Independence Days I repeat the words of former Facebook Friend (former because he’s not on Facebook anymore) Tim Nerenz:

Americans are the perfected DNA strand of rebelliousness.  Each of us is the descendant of the brother who left the farm in the old country when his mom and dad and wimpy brother told him not to; the sister who ran away rather than marry the guy her parents had arranged for her; the freethinker who decided his fate would be his own, not decided by a distant power he could not name.  How did you think we would turn out?

Those other brothers and sisters, the tame and the fearful, the obedient and the docile; they all stayed home.  Their timid DNA was passed down to the generations who have endured warfare and poverty and hopelessness and the dull, boring sameness that is the price of subjugation.

They watch from the old countries with envy as their rebellious American cousins run with scissors.  They covet our prosperity and our might and our unbridled celebration of our liberty; but try as they might they have not been able to replicate our success in their own countries.

Dan Mitchell somewhat brings this up in comparing here with the “old country” for those of us of Scandinavian heritage:

The most persuasive data, when comparing the United States and Scandinavia, are the numbers showing that Americans of Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian descent produce much more prosperity than those who remained in Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Norway.

This certainly suggests that America’s medium-sized welfare state does less damage than the large-sized welfare state in Scandinavian nations.

But maybe the United States also was fortunate in that it attracted the right kind of migrant from Scandinavia.

Let’s look at some fascinating research from Professor Anne Sofie Beck Knudsen of Lund University in Sweden.

If you’re in a rush and simply want the headline results, here are some excerpts from the abstract.

This paper examines the joint evolution of emigration and individualism in Scandinavia during the Age of Mass Migration (1850-1920). A long-standing hypothesis holds that people of a stronger individualistic mindset are more likely to migrate as they suffer lower costs of abandoning existing social networks. …I propose a theory of cultural change where migrant self-selection generates a relative push away from individualism, and towards collectivism, in migrant-sending locations through a combination of initial distributional effects and channels of intergenerational cultural transmission. …the empirical results suggest that individualists were more likely to migrate than collectivists, and that the Scandinavian countries would have been considerably more individualistic and culturally diverse, had emigration not taken place.

If you’re interested in more detail, here are passages from the study.

We’ll start with the author’s description of why she studied the topic and what she wanted to determine.

People of Western societies are unique in their strong view of themselves… This culture of individualism has roots in the distant past and is believed to have played an important role in the economic and political development of the region… differences in individualism and its counterpart, collectivism, impact processes of innovation, entrepreneurship, cooperation, and public goods provision. Yet, little is known about what has influenced the evolution of individualism over time and across space within the Western world. …I explore the relationship between individualism and a common example of human behavior: migration. I propose a theory, where migration flows generate cultural change towards collectivism and convergence across migrant-sending locations.

Keep in mind, by the way, that societies with a greater preference for individualism generate much more prosperity.

Anyhow, Professor Knudsen had a huge dataset for her research since there was an immense amount of out-migration from Scandinavia.

During the period, millions of people left Europe to settle in New World countries such as the United States. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark experienced some of the highest emigration rates in Europe during this period, involving the departure of approximately 25% of their populations. …Total emigration amounted to around 38% and 26% in Norway and Sweden respectively.

Here are some of her findings.

I find that Scandinavians who grew up in individualistic households were more likely to emigrate… people of individualistic mindsets suffer lower costs of leaving existing social networks behind… the cultural change that took place during the Age of Mass Migration was sufficiently profound to leave a long-run impact on contemporary Scandinavian culture. …If people migrate based, in part, on individualistic cultural values, migration will have implications on the overall evolution of cultures. Emigration must be associated with an immediate reduction in the prevalence of individualists in the migrant-sending population.

Here is her data on the individualism of emigrants compared to those who stayed in Scandinavia.

As an aside, I find it very interesting that Scandinavian emigrants were attracted by the “American dream.”

…historians agree that migrants were motivated by more than hopes of escaping poverty. Stories on the ‘American Dream‘ and the view of the United States as the ‘Land of Opportunities‘ were core to the migration discourse. Private letters, diaries, and newspaper articles of the time reveal that ideas of personal freedom and social equality embodied in the American society were of great value to the migrants. In the United States, people were free to pursue own goals.

And this is why I am quite sympathetic to continued migration to America, with the big caveat that I want severe restrictions on access to government handouts.

Simply stated, I want more people who want that “American dream.”

But I’m digressing. Let’s now look at the key result from Professor Knudsen’s paper.

When the more individualistic Scandinavians with “get up and go” left their home countries, that meant the average level of collectivism increased among those remained behind.

Several observations are worth mentioning in light of the revealed actual and counterfactual patterns of individualism. First, one observes a general trend of rising individualism over the period, which is consistent with accounts for other countries… Second, the level of individualism would have been considerably higher by the end of the Age of Mass Migration in 1920, had emigration not taken place. Taking the numbers at face value, individualism would have been between 19.0% and 20.3% higher on average in Sweden, 17.8% and 27.9% in Norway, and 7.6% and 12.5% in Denmark, depending on the measure considered.

… To wrap this up, here’s a restatement of the key findings from the study’s conclusion.

I find that people of an individualistic mindset were more prone to migrate than their collectivistic neighbors. …Due to self-selection on individualistic traits, mass emigration caused a direct compositional change in the home population. Over the period this amounted to a loss of individualists of approximate 3.7%-points in Denmark, 9.4%-points in Sweden, and 13.6%-points in Norway. …The cultural change that took place during the Age of Mass Migration was sufficiently profound to impact cross-district cultural differences in present day Scandinavia. Contemporary levels of individualism would thus have been significantly higher had emigration not occurred. …The potential societal implications of the emigration-driven cultural change are of great importance. The period of the Age of Mass Migration was characterized by industrialization, urbanization, and democratization in Scandinavia. Individualism was generally on the rise, in part due to these developments, but it seems conceivable that the collectivistic turn caused by emigration played a role in subsequent institutional developments. While economic freedom is high in contemporary Scandinavia, the region is known for its priority of social cohesion and collective insurance. This is particularly clear when contrasting the Scandinavian welfare model with American liberal capitalism.

This is first-rate research.

Professor Knudsen even understands that Scandinavian nations still have lots of economic freedom by world standards.

Imagine, though, how much economic freedom those countries might enjoy if the more individualism-minded people hadn’t left for America? Maybe those nations wouldn’t have dramatically expanded their welfare states starting in the 1960s, thus dampening economic growth.

The obvious takeaway is that migration from Denmark, Sweden, and Norway to the United States was a net plus for America and a net minus for Scandinavia.

P.S. When she referred in her conclusion to “American liberal capitalism,” she was obviously referring to classical liberalism.


Karma, media ownership edition

USA Today is owned by Gannett, which means USA Today is reporting on its owners and its would-be owners:

In a cost-cutting move last year, The Denver Post relocated from the city’s downtown, where the newspaper had been based for more than a century, to quarters in its printing plant in a neighboring county. Reporters and editors found that their new workplace had the feng shui of a run-down casino, with no windows to let in sunlight and a constant ambient hissing from the presses.

But they hoped the move represented an end to the bloodletting that had occurred at the newspaper since hedge fund Alden Global Capital took over in 2010, said Larry Ryckman, then a senior news editor. Layoffs and turnover had left only about 100 journalists in the newsroom, a third of its staff during the paper’s heyday.

That hope was dashed a couple of months after moving offices, when it was announced 30 more positions would be cut. It was then that Ryckman came to believe that the firings would only end when the newspaper closed for good: “We were under attack by our own owners.”

What would follow was a newspaper mutiny, including editorials slamming its own ownership, allegations of censorship and mass resignations.

Most any journalist who has worked at a newspaper in the last couple of decades has come to expect layoffs and other cuts as the new reality of the industry, including at Gannett Co., USA TODAY’s owner. As audience has shifted to digital products, including online news, the unrelenting trend has ravaged profits from print circulation and advertising. Increasing digital subscriptions have not easily offset print’s legacy profit sources.

But journalists and industry insiders familiar with Alden regard its methods of acquisition and management of distressed newspaper properties as a particularly ominous force in the industry in which staffs are decimated and properties sold off for investment elsewhere at the expense of a newspaper’s prospects for long-term survival.

If Alden’s latest plans come to fruition, it will be bringing its ownership style to a newspaper near virtually every American. MNG Enterprises, which also operates as Digital First Media and is owned by the hedge fund Alden, has launched a hostile takeover bid for Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher by paid circulation. With a national newspaper in USA TODAY and 109 local brands in cities around the country, Gannett would make for a unique – and landscape-shifting – acquisition for MNG.

In a note to clients on Monday, analysts Douglas Arthur and Craig Huber described Alden’s reputation for “strip-mining” newspapers it purchases “until the very last iota of cash flow has been squeezed from it.”

Ken Doctor, an analyst who writes about the media business on his website,, said the hedge fund is alone among owners of struggling media properties in that it doesn’t reinvest in its journalism or harbor any long-term survival strategy for the newspapers it owns. Doctor said that MNG purchasing Gannett “would signal a local newspaper capitulation to the inevitability of further decline toward closure at some point.”

But in a letter sent Monday, MNG derided Gannett, of which it says it already owns a 7.5 percent stake, for a “series of value-destroying decisions made by an unfocused leadership team” and cast itself as a guardian angel for the industry. “We save newspapers and position them for a strong and profitable future so they can weather the secular decline,” MNG declared.

Gannett has said it is reviewing the proposal. Some analysts have said they believe MNG’s offer, of $1.4 billion, is too low. Gannett declined to comment on what impact the potential sale might have on the company’s journalism.

In interviews with roughly a dozen journalists who experienced Alden’s takeover in Denver, a dire picture emerges of what happens when the hedge fund comes for the newspaper in your town. They described crippling personnel cuts, corporate meddling and a stewardship that results in a newspaper being hollowed out to a shell of what it once was.

A spokesperson for MNG, Paul Caminiti, did not respond to specific questions for this article but issued a statement crediting the company’s “successful track record” enabling it “to run newspapers profitably and sustainably so that they can continue to serve their local communities.”

Alden’s Digital First owns about 200 publications, including The Mercury News in San Jose, California, the Los Angeles Daily News and the Boston Herald. Perhaps nowhere has its ownership been as contentious as in Denver, a city with a storied history of once-thriving newspapers.

The Denver Post, first published in 1892, had waged a decades-long war with the Rocky Mountain News. In 2007, each newspaper employed more than 200 journalists, according to Kevin Vaughan, a former reporter at both papers. But shrinking profits gave close quarters to the feud when the rival newspapers were forced to move into the same office building, and ended it altogether in 2009, when the Rocky shut down for good.

In 2010, when Alden acquired the Post’s bankrupt parent company, the newspaper’s journalists were expecting the kind of cuts that have become commonplace in the industry – but not the carnage that ensued, Ryckman said.

Chuck Plunkett, then The Post’s editorial page editor, described a “yearly grind” in which layoffs followed even the best journalistic results, such as when he said roughly twenty staffers were cut after The Post won its ninth Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for coverage of the Aurora movie theater massacre.

That’s a familiar pattern for the company, according to Kat Anderson, an administrative officer at the Pacific Media Workers Guild, a union representing journalists at several San Francisco area newspapers. She said that MNG also laid off about twenty staffers at the East Bay Times in the wake of the Oakland-area newspaper’s Pulitzer win for its coverage of the “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire.

Dana Coffield, whose decade-long tenure at The Post until 2018 included a stint as its second-in-command editor, said the ongoing cuts crippled the newspaper. “If you lose a pint of blood you don’t notice it, but if you lose 6 of your 8 pints you’re going to feel it,” Coffield said. “That’s how it felt at the end – like not knowing if you could stand up and keep going.”

Making the layoffs more troubling to those weathering them are revelations that the company apparently was earning ample profits but reinvesting them in non-journalistic enterprises with questionable results.

Doctor, the analyst, has obtained financials showing that Digital First earned a $160 million profit in 2017. The privately held company has disputed the figure while not releasing detailed financial information. On Monday, the company boasted of a profitability margin exceeding 16 percent in 2018.

In a contentious meeting with staffers at The Post’s office last June, MNG Chairman Joe Fuchs described a strategy of “survivability and consistency,” which included making “Warren Buffett-style investments in some other things.”

In the recorded meeting, Fuchs allowed that at least one of those investments, into the struggling Fred’s pharmacy chain, was “not very successful.” The $158 million investment is now worth roughly $20 million.

Alden has made a variety of investments in other publicly-traded companies unrelated to media and communications, federal regulatory filings show. The hedge fund made a quick profit by selling most of its stake in furniture store Pier 1 Imports in January 2017, before the company’s stock plummeted. Alden’s other investments have included holdings in Mechel PAO, a Russian mining giant that has been criticized for pollution, and a Brazilian state-run energy company, the filings show.

Ryckman said removing hard-fought profits from local journalism for such investments drove home his belief that “we were working for the bad guys. And none of us got in this business to work for the bad guys.”

The trouble in Denver reached a boil over last spring, when journalists in The Post’s opinion section responded to the continuing layoffs with a bold statement: a full page of columns blasting Alden as “vulture capitalists” and calling for new ownership to save the newspaper. Editorial page editor Plunkett said he was forced to resign soon thereafter.

Then-senior news editor Ryckman said he was effectively barred from assigning reporters to cover the backlash against the newspaper’s own ownership. When he insisted on writing an article about Plunkett’s resignation, Ryckman said, editor-in-chief Lee Ann Colacioppo only allowed the story to be published only after removing explicit references to Alden Global Capital. Colacioppo did not respond to a phone message seeking an interview for this story.

Ryckman said it was “the first time in my career I was told to take facts out of a story for no reason having to do with journalism.” He resigned the next day.

Post chairman and former owner Dean Singleton also quit, saying of Alden: “They’ve killed a great newspaper.”

Journalists from The Post traveled to Manhattan to protest outside of Alden’s offices last May. “They didn’t speak to us – they never do,” said current Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez. “They don’t care about journalism. That’s very clear.”

Several editors and reporters who left the newspaper, including Coffield and Ryckman, have started a grassroots rival publication called The Colorado Sun.

Plunkett described the current state of The Denver Post now as “a shell of a newspaper” full of content repurposed from other sources. Ryckman called the loss of local reporting “not just bad news for journalists” but also “for communities. It’s bad news for democracy.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, despite facing a raft of critical articles in The Post last year concerning a series of sexually suggestive text messages he sent to a member of his security detail, said he has considered government intervention to save publications like The Post from being gutted.

“It’s an essential part of our democracy and vital to those who value sound reporting for these mainstream publications to survive,” Hancock said.

Ryckman said: “It makes me sad to contemplate what’s going to happen to Gannett papers coast-to-coast if this sale goes through. … They’ve put these newspapers into a death spiral.”

Former Denver Post reporter Brian Eason, in describing corporate entities like MNG, said that he believed newspapers aren’t just “dying from natural causes. Greed is killing them.”

The irony here is that most of what this story accuses Gannett’s would-be buyer of is what Gannett has done in the past. When was the last time Green Bay-area readers read the Green Bay News–Chronicle? Gannett succeeded in buying and then closing the News–Chronicle in 2005, the culmination, if you want to call it that, of two decades to kill off the News–Chronicle, as chronicled in Richard McCord’s The Chain Gang, and by the News–Chronicle itself:

The Green Bay News-Chronicle is printing one more obituary today – its own.

The News-Chronicle, dead at 32, survived by its sister and stepsister newspapers. Remains on view in a red coin box near you – at least for 24 hours. Private burial in the bottom of a birdcage someplace.

Such, of course, is the fate of all newspapers; it’s a disposable medium. That, to those who work in them, is part of their charm. We may write something that is remembered, but there’s always a deadline the next day. We may botch something royally, but like a baseball player making an error, we have a chance to do something memorable the next day to make people forget it.

There’s always the next issue. Until today.

Volume 33, No. 175 marks the end of the line for a newspaper that was formed in strife and never seemed to lose that background. It was never the newspaper it could have been, but it was more than it had any right to be.

The biggest victims of Gannett have been readers of and advertisers in Gannett’s Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan and Manitowoc newspapers, which are essentially one not-very-good newspaper.

Don’t believe me? Facebook Friend Brian Fraley posted five Sunday front pages:

Gannett last year closed its Appleton printing plant and prints all 10 newspapers not named the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in West Milwaukee. That may seem like inside baseball to you, but consider what WLUK-TV reported:

“Starting (Monday), our print deadlines will be moved up,” wrote Robert Zizzo, Press-Gazette editor. “That means we won’t be printing next-day results of UW-Green Bay, St. Norbert, Badgers, Brewers and Bucks games. Those results, as well as those of the leagues they play in, will be in the following day’s newspaper. Same with lottery numbers.”

Both Zizzo and Ed Berthiaume, news director for The Post-Crescent, emphasize the shift to digital products and away from the paper itself.

“Yes, we still publish print newspapers, but that is one piece of what we do, and the print edition is no longer a vehicle for breaking news. Maybe it never was. The bulk of our readers are now accessing our content on their phones, tablets or desktops long before the newspaper rolls off the presses,” Berthiaume wrote.

The move comes as the Gannett papers continue to see declines in circulation.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, for the period ending on Dec. 31, 2017, the Press-Gazette’s daily circulation was 34,105, down from 52,993 on Sept. 30, 2007. In the same roughly 10-year period, Sunday circulation fell from 78,094 to 45,853.

The numbers are similar in Appleton. Daily circulation fell from 50,639 to 30,817. Sunday circulation fell from 64,989 to 37,614, according to Alliance figures.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe that these changes will be popular with our print-only readers. It will be painful for those of you who can’t or won’t activate the digital access that comes with your print subscription,” Zizzo wrote. “Believe me, if we could continue to give you the newspaper of 20 years ago, while still serving our growing digital audience, we would.”

“It’s a new reality for the print edition. We are going to do everything in our control to keep the print edition of The Post-Crescent alive, informative and entertaining. But reversing the hands of time is not an option,” Berthiaume said.

Journal Sentinel readers don’t appear enamored of the changes Gannett has imposed on them since the print side of the late Journal Communications was purchased by Gannett. And now Gannett appears to be in fear of having done to Gannett what Gannett has done to itself.