Friday, January 30, 2009

The text messaging part I don't understand

I have a new cell phone. It's not that I needed one. The one I had was working fine. But it was 5 years old and was nothing fancy. It was a phone! I talked on it; I called people; I recharged it.

But newer phones had other functions. They had cameras and Internet access and qwerty keyboards that you could type on with your newborn baby-size fingers. Some played music and displayed photos and gave directions and researched term papers and repaired your car for you while you waited. Maybe that last function hasn't come out yet. But you get the picture: My phone was an antique, in a digital age sort of way, meaning it was not the latest, shiniest, fastest most awesome thing on the market.

I would have been perfectly happy to keep it until the battery quit charging (which is how I managed to get the phone I've got). But my wife wanted more. She wanted to be able to text. She needed that function to communicate with her co-workers, who apparently are a bunch of carpal-tunneled texting fiends. So she got a company phone, one with a qwerty keyboard for better texting. She's happy.

Because her old phone was married to my old phone, sort of like the two of us are married and have been for a long time, especially in digital years, for which every three years is a lifetime, I had to do something about her old phone, and that meant I had to do something about my old phone. I had to divorce her old phone from my old phone, the two of which were in a family plan, and before I got through the ordeal, I was afraid I might have to call in a family law practitioner. But after numerous calls to the Wireless Provider, which will remain nameless because this is not that kind of blog, the separation agreement finally went through, and her phone with the old familiar number, which was one of the last things I memorized in this lifetime, disappeared into cyberspace or wherever it is old phone contracts and old phone numbers go. And with a new two-year contract, during which time I cannot do any of the thousands of things I agreed not to do when I signed my name, I got a new phone. It's shinier and swifter-looking than my old phone, but it still does the same things my old phone did, which was make and receive calls. And it also takes pictures, although we have two digital cameras and several old film cameras that do that, but you never know when you'll need to take a picture while you're holding your phone. It does not text. It does not surf the Internet. It does not give directions or search for the nearest pizza place. And it does not play music.

The thing I still don't understand is what's so great about texting. Twice today, my wife got text messages on her new phone. She had to text back a reply. It took a few minutes to scrunch down her fingers to fit that newborn-size keyboard. "Why not just call?" I asked, and she gave me that "you just don't understand anything" look and kept on scrunching her fingers onto that keyboard. I really don't understand it: It's as if you're holding a telephone in your hand and, instead of making a call, you say, "I think I'll send a telegram instead!" Those telegrams sure must impress a lot of people who are paying extra each month for unlimited text messaging so that, even if they lose their ability to speak, their nimble little fingers will be in great shape.

And wouldn't Samuel F.B. Morse be pleased to know that telegrams are still being enjoyed in the 21st century. "What God hath wrought!"

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Legislators waste no time playing politics

State legislators have been in Raleigh only one day and already they're playing politics while real problems fester.
On the first day of the legislative session, Sen. Doug Berger, a Youngsville Democrat, introduced a bill to take enforcement of occupational safety and health laws from the commissioner of labor and hand it over to the Employment Security Commission. It will come as no surprise that the labor commissioner is Cherie Berry, one of two Republicans on the Council of State. Berger, who has support from several key Democratic legislators, says the commissioner is not doing a good job of enforcing the laws. The state is responsible for enforcing federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules. A Charlotte Observer investigation had found that North Carolina's fines for workplace violations are much lower than other states'. But this bill is more about partisan politics than it is about worker safety. Make a note that Berger had run against and been defeated by Berry.
The commissioner of labor is a constitutional officer. The General Assembly can't eliminate the position without a constitutional amendment, but it can emasculate the powers of the office. Legislators are good at that. When a Republican was elected lieutenant governor in the 1980s, legislators stripped the lieutenant governor of nearly all powers except the one specified in the constitution, to preside over the state Senate. Another Council of State member, the superintendent of public instruction, has been reduced to a figurehead, but a figurehead elected statewide.
Shifting OSHA responsibility to ESC sounds like a disaster in the making, especially at this time, when ESC is so overworked by the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who are unemployed and applying for jobless benefits. ESC needs to concentrate its resources on providing services to the unemployed and helping them find jobs. That's a huge responsibility these days.
While legislative leaders toy with Council of State members' authority, the state faces a $2 billion or larger deficit. You'd think legislators would be hard at work trying to find places to cut spending. That should be top priority. In the long term, legislators might want to seriously consider changes to the way the government is organized. The state could save money by reducing the number of departments and divisions, by electing fewer executives (most states appoint heads of agriculture, state, labor, education, insurance, etc.) and by merging redundant programs (such as Smart Start and More at Four). Some of these changes would require a constitutional amendment, but the public, shown the cost savings available and the potential for greater efficiency, would go for it.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Prolific writer's fiction lives after him

John Updike, for my money the best American writer of his generation, has died. Long live Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Henry Beck and all the other characters Updike created in his 50 (count 'em) books and numerous short stories.
The obituary cites Updike's prolific output over the past half century and the writing prizes he won — two Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award and the American Book Award. I opined recently that Updike could have, even should have, won the Nobel Prize. His fiction captured better than anyone's the fits and starts of the American middle class in the 20th century, and his prose was lively, sensory and poetic. His four Rabbit books — "Rabbit Run," "Rabbit Redux," "Rabbit is Rich" and "Rabbit at Rest" — chronicle the changes in the American middle class through the turmoil of the 1960s and '70s and the giddy greed of the 1980s. Each novel is set against the political and sociological changes of its decade, creating a Tolstoyan chronicle of the American century. In "Rabbit at Rest," the protagonist faces his own mortality with the dissatisfying realization of a life with little real meaning. Over a period of years, my wife and I set about collecting the Rabbit books in hardcover from used book stores and library yard sales. The complete collection now rests on our bookshelf, and my wife recently undertook to reread them in chronological order (neither of us had read the books in order the first time around). She found "Rabbit Redux" so painfully depressing that she decided to take a break from the unadmirable life of Rabbit Angstrom. Almost overlooked in the obituaries are two of Updike's best explications of the American middle class and the sexual revolution — "Couples" and "Marry Me." I found them both vivid and disturbing.
My introduction to Updike was in a college writing class, when we read "A&P," a short story that is as lean and moving as anything Hemingway ever wrote. I would recommend it to anyone as a model for a short story.
This morning I realized I had read only about a tenth of Updike's books. I need to read more of them and to go back, like my wife, and read "Rabbit" in chronological order.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One-day job losses by the thousands

The Washington Post is reporting today that U.S. corporations shed 55,000 jobs in just one day — Monday. The New York Times, looking worldwide, came up with an even bigger one-day number — 75,000 jobs lost in one day.
However you count it, the news is devastating for the economy and discouraging for those of us looking for jobs. That just makes thousands more people competing for the limited number of jobs available. And believe me, few people are hiring. Even if you're willing to relocate to anywhere in the country or world, which I am not, the competition is fierce. And for the unemployed, there's no relief in sight. Waiting it out might be a realistic strategy for most recessions, but not so for this one, which appears likely to last through most of this year or even into 2010. It will not take too many more days like Monday to turn this recession into something resembling the 1930s. Remember that this recession began rumbling with the spike in gasoline prices last year. Don't look now, but oil prices are rising again, up about $10 to over $46 a barrel.
Don't overlook the political impact of all this. There are no congressional elections this year, but the recession could linger well into 2010 when there are national elections. The Democrats who control the White House and Congress could find themselves blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the economic pain voters are experiencing. If things turn around early enough, say by the first of 2010, and the economy is growing and creating jobs by summer, Democrats will likely get the credit — rightly or wrongly.

Monday, January 26, 2009

One theater giveaway; one news story underplayed

Looks like the Arts Council of Wilson owns a theater, whether it likes it or not. The Wilson Daily Times is reporting today that Arts Council officials are pretty much speechless over the donation of the city-owned Edna Boykin Cultural Center to the nonprofit agency. They don't know what to say. While it's not nice to look a gift theater in the footlights, this gift could turn out to be an albatross.
Wilson City Council agreed to be generous in one fell swoop in a meeting earlier this month, voting first to repair the landmark theater's roof trusses (damaged by a leaky roof) and then agreeing without warning to donate the theater to the Arts Council. Doing so gets the asset, which can be a big liability, off the city's books, and it saddles the Arts Council with unknown future maintenance costs. At a minimum, the Arts Council will have to take out an insurance policy on the building. Councilman James Johnson made the unexpected motion to make the gift, and his motion passed quickly and without any input from the Arts Council. It seems obvious that Johnson had done his homework to line up  the votes to support his plan, but it also appears that he did not seek the approval of arts advocates who may justifiably worry how much of a burden this gift will turn out to be.
Some history is needed: In the early 1980s, City Council members were embarrassed to have X-rated  movies advertised on a marquee little more than a block from City Hall. To get rid of the embarrassing eyesore, the city bought the Wilson Theatre (I recall the purchase price being $100,000), shut down the projectors and cleared the marquee. Little was done to rehabilitate  the historic 1919 theater until some years later. The city again put up most of the money, matching private donations (including $150,000 from Edna Boykin) to restore the theater. Management of the theater was turned over to the Arts Council, but the city kept the deed and responsibility for major repairs.
Today's news story appears to be a compensation for the grossly underplayed original story. On Jan. 16,  the WDT reported, far down in a story with a headline that made no reference to the theater or Arts Council: 
"In other business, The City Council also made a decision on repairs to the downtown Edna Boykin Cultural Center. The council decided to have the ceiling trusses repaired for $91,750. Councilman James Johnson III recommended that the city turn over the property deed to the Arts Council of Wilson after the repairs are complete. The council voted in favor of the move." 
That's it? More than 25 years of city ownership of one of Wilson's most visible and most-used historic structures ended in a quick and surprising vote, and all it's worth is a two-sentence mention under the "other business" rubric? City Council drops a new liability on a nonprofit organization that attracts thousands of members, donors and patrons and earns Wilson a reputation as an arts-oriented city, and it's only worth two sentences? The city gives away a historic theater that is home to the Theater of the American South, and it's not even worth a separate news story in what is supposed to be a local, local, local newspaper? What could be a bigger local story than the city's giving away (without negotiation) the theater it has owned for more than 25 years? And why did it take nearly two weeks for the folks at the WDT to realize they blew this story the first time around?
The city's gift might result in a workable arrangement in the long run. The newspaper's downplaying of City Council's action will remain an egregious shirking of its watchdog role.

This 'drop of water' is really a great flood

An article in The Wilson Daily Times last week provides a sobering message to those who hoped the inauguration of Barack Obama might bring about a new era. "Today we saw a drop of water," the Rev. Alonzo Braggs, the local NAACP president, told a reporter. "... we need an ocean of change."
If the election of America's first African-American president just 44 years after legal segregation was outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and just 40 years after the 1968 Voting Rights Act began enforcing the guarantees of the 15th Amendment is a drop of water, it's a large enough drop to float Noah's ark. It's a big enough drop to flood the National Mall with upwards of 2 million joyous celebrants at Obama's inauguration.
In my lifetime, I have seen the removal of "white only" signs, the registration of millions of black voters who previously were not allowed to vote, the integration of schools and businesses and the election of thousands of black politicians to positions of great power. These are not drops of water that have dampened the social fabric, they are floods that have washed away the stain of segregation and prejudice. Obama's astounding and improbable election is a validation of all the changes that have transformed society over the past 50 years.
Early in Obama's presidential campaign, I suggested that he would be old-line racial activists' worst nightmare. Self-appointed African-American spokesmen, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, would find themselves without portfolio, replaced by a leader legitimized by the electoral process and bearing the authenticity of nationwide public support. Braggs' suggestion that Obama's inauguration doesn't amount to much is either delusional or disingenuous. He points to the problems remaining in this country — illiteracy, crime, economic insecurity — as if any one person or one action could correct these problems. President Obama will not be able to wipe out illiteracy or poverty in one day or in eight years, but his election makes clear that these shackles can be overcome, that the trail has been blazed for individuals to overcome the handicaps that society places before them. And that amounts to far more than a drop in the bucket.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Perdue aims for ambitious government reforms

The News & Observer reports today that Gov. Bev Perdue is thinking of performing a radical remake of state government, in the mold of Gov. O. Max Gardner. During his 1929-1933 reign, Gardner changed the face of state government forever, taking advantage of the urgency of the dire economic situation to have the state take responsibility for roads and schools, along with other reorganization of state government.
Gardner employed the urgency of economic collapse, the bankruptcy of dozens of local governments, the closings of scores of banks and his own political skills to implement a series of recommendations by the Brookings Institution, which he hired to study state government. Gardner's reforms gave us the state-paid teachers, state-paved roads and state sales tax we've known all our lives. Perdue recognizes that the anticipated $3 billion budget shortfall, the crisis in mental health care and the heavily politicized Department of Transportation align the stars for her in much the same way the crises of his era opened the reform door for Gardner.
State government cries out for reform, but it will take great political skill and grassroots support to bring about significant change. Powerful interests entrenched over 75 years will not dissolve easily. But real reforms could save the state precious tax dollars and make the state more efficient.
Highway costs have ballooned far beyond the rate of inflation, and it is obvious that some road-construction decisions are compelled by politics, not by transportation needs. Perdue's decision to take road-building decisions out of the hands of the politically appointed state Board of Transportation (though it still must be approved by legislators) is a first step in the right direction. Construction decisions must be made more wisely and professionally, and costs must be better controlled. The department has long been viewed as a political cesspool where cronies can go on to their earthly reward; the nepotism and cronyism must be cleaned up.
Although Gardner took the first step toward consolidating the university system (joining what is now UNC-CH, N.C. State and UNC-G) and Bob Scott, who died Friday, completed the consolidation of all state-supported schools under one umbrella, there still is plenty of political influence in higher education. Witness the planned new dental school at ECU at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars over the long run and the recently announced push by UNC-G for a second state-supported pharmacy school. Alumni and other supporters push programs for the aggrandizement of their alma maters without regard to the benefits, or lack thereof, for taxpayers.
Duplicative state programs and responsibilities have survived other reform efforts. The state has the SBI, the Highway Patrol and state ALE, all involved in enforcing laws, but no consolidation has been successful. When a commission recommended folding Crime Control and Public Safety into existing departments, the proposal lost to political empire-building. No programs better illustrate the state's duplication of efforts for political reasons than Gov. Jim Hunt's Smart Start and Gov. Mike Easley's More at Four, separate programs both aimed at preparing children for school.
Despite recommendations by the Brookings study more than 75 years ago, North Carolina still elects far too many state officials. The commissioner of labor, commissioner of insurance, state treasurer, superintendent of public instruction, attorney general and secretary of state should all be appointed by the governor, just as the president appoints his Cabinet. And the state has too many departments, each protecting its own turf and running up expenses, as previous studies have shown. Reforming these anachronisms might be the most difficult reform of all. Voters who can't name a single candidate on the ballot below the governor insist that they don't want their vote taken away. Judicial elections (I doubt that 1 percent of voters can name more than two statewide judicial candidates on any given election day) should be replaced with an appointment and referendum system as has been repeatedly proposed in the past.
Reform of state taxes will have a natural urgency in an economic crisis, and this year might see some movement on this issue. Studies have frequently shown that the state retail sales tax implemented in the 1930s has lost its relevancy to a modern economy, which is far more service-driven. Most services are not taxed. But newspapers, which don't want their ads taxed, and professional organizations, which don't want their legal fees or accounting fees taxed, have prevented significant reform.
Meanwhile, the state gives away millions of dollars to lure industry to the state. These giveaways are funded by individual taxpayers and by corporations who then must compete with the subsidized industries. It's an unfair and ultimately futile exercise. The state would be wiser to reduce corporate taxes for everyone, treating newly recruited industries and established ones the same.
If Perdue succeeds against the odds to implement fundamental reforms that bring reduced costs and less efficiency, she will have earned her place in history. She has a long, hard row to hoe before she reaches that pinnacle.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Former governor dies, leaving memories

Former Gov. Bob Scott has died. Scott was governor during some of this state's most tumultuous times, from 1969-1973. He dealt with protests over civil rights and the Vietnam War. And most distinctly  to my college classmates, he ordered state troopers onto campus to break a cafeteria workers' strike at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Cafeteria workers had gone on strike over wages, if I'm remembering correctly, and students, already in a demonstrating mood after civil rights and war protests, joined the picket lines. Support groups called on students to boycott classes in solidarity with the workers. The university was in a tough spot because its food services were not making money. The food was generally crummy, and most students ate off-campus as university cafeterias deteriorated. Most colleges now contract out food services to private firms.
Scott took a lot of heat for his tough, anti-union, anti-picketing stand, and the photo of a phalanx of state troopers in front of university buildings became infamous.
My most vivid memory of Bob Scott, though, was from the 1980 gubernatorial campaign. Jim Hunt was running for re-election as governor in the first election since a Hunt-backed constitutional amendment allowing gubernatorial succession. Scott, hoping for a political comeback and an opponent of succession, ran against Hunt in the Democratic Primary. Scott came to Wilson for a rally at the Wilson County Fairgrounds, in Hunt's back yard. I interviewed Scott after the evening rally, and I later had the candidate all to myself at the not-so-well-attended event.
After I asked Scott a few questions, he asked me where I was from, and I told him I grew up in Anson County. Immediately, he asked, "You know where White Store is?" Of course I did. It's a crossroads that had been a rural trading center where Union troops burned a Confederate grain warehouse in 1865. I used to ride a school bus through the crossroads, where a classmate's parents still ran a country store. I told Scott this, and he responded, "Well, you really are from Anson County."
Scott will be remembered for legislation he pushed through to consolidate all state universities and colleges and for his leadership of the community college system 1983-1994.
He was a politician from another time, like his father, Kerr Scott, and grandfather, a time when back-room deals, cash contributions and mutual back-scratching were the norm. That attitude was obvious when he defended his daughter, Meg Scott Phipps, against corruption charges over campaign contributions that might have been routine in her grandfather's day.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

And now the news ... again

More fallout at The Wilson Daily Times: I learned this afternoon that Eddie Fitzgerald, the longest-serving reporter on the staff, was laid off after 17 year with the paper. Along with a reporter (Laura Keeter) who left and wasn't replaced and another once-filled reporting desk that was never filled after a resignation, that puts the paper down three reporters in the past year or so. Those are in addition to the photographer, city editor and opinion editor who were laid off last fall. That totals six positions eliminated — that's in the neighborhood of a fourth of the newsroom, close to a third if you don't count Sports and Lifestyle.
Reporters  — warm bodies on the street or on the phone to interview people, attend meetings and events — are the basis of news coverage. Along with editors and photographers, they make the product people read. No newspaper can lose so many reporters — and papers across the country have shed a lot of reporters — without affecting news coverage.
I was thinking back today to 1980, when I came to Wilson to take charge of the newsroom. As best I can remember, we had four reporters, maybe five, and two editors who laid out the local pages (all of it in pencil in those days). With the loss of Eddie, the Daily Times now has, by my count, six reporters. Wisely managed and productively used, these six reporters should be able to do a decent job of news coverage, but some things will go uncovered, and the reporters will be kept hopping. That's the challenge of being an editor — using limited resources to cover the news readers want to see while not omitting anything they need to know. With all the layoffs in the industry, editors' jobs have gotten even harder.

Changes in attitudes, changes in ... looks

Readers of The Wilson Daily Times' print edition may have noticed some changes recently, and I'm not referring to the absence of veteran staff writers. Tuesday's edition provides a good example: The entire front page was taken up by a national story — admittedly a big, historic national story, but a national story reported by The Associated Press (with no attribution on the front page) nonetheless. The paper delayed publication by more than an hour to get the new president's swearing-in into Tuesday's afternoon edition. Although there was a pretty major local story — the biggest snowfall in Wilson in at least four years — no local news made it to the front page.
That's a 180-degree shift from the principles laid down for years at the newspaper, that local news is the first priority because it is news that no other news provider (Internet, cable or broadcast) had. It was a principle reinforced — actually mandated — by consultants advising the publisher. For the last couple of years that I was running the newsroom, we insisted on an all-local front every day. Even the front-page "teasers" referring to items inside the paper had to refer to local stories.
We caught some grief over this policy in the 2005 London subway bombing as we stuck to our policy of maintaining an all-local front page. On this occasion, if memory serves, we did "tease" the international story at the top of the page.
No doubt, Barack Obama's inauguration is a seismic event, but it's an event that every major news service in the country had flooded the market. For years, this and other good local newspapers have thrived on localizing national/international stories, but it's not necessary to "be there" to get a good story. An example: When UNC basketball coach Dean Smith announced his retirement, my sports editor insisted on being there to cover the story. He wanted to be able to say he was there for the big event. His story was, frankly, not as good as the AP's coverage, and by going to Chapel Hill, he missed the best stories — the local angles about "Mama D.," the Wilson woman who had cooked meals for Smith's teams for most of his tenure, and other Wilson residents who had played for or been close to Smith over the years. Those local angles could have given real life to the entirely predictable praise lavished on Smith in the main story.
Readers of the print version of the local story might also have noticed another change: The newspaper's two-deck nameplate, which was part of the 2003 redesign, has been altered to a colorful one-deck version of The Wilson Daily Times. I found the change amusing, as I had objected to the narrow, two-deck nameplate during the redesign process. My preference for the more customary full-width, one-line nameplate was both a personal preference and a commitment to  the paper's tradition, going back nearly 100 years. But I lost that argument and went forward with the nameplate the publisher and design consultant wanted.
So what's changed now? I don't know.
I am told that a new redesign is being planned that will entail a change in the paper's name to The Wilson Times. I'm also told that the redesign will coincide with a shift to morning delivery sometime this spring. It will be interesting to see how readers react to these changes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Banner on the mall says it all: We have overcome

A banner held up at Tuesday's inauguration of President Barack Obama caught my eye as the television camera panned across the mall. It said: "We Have Overcome."
What greater proof could be asked for to show that the refrain of that civil rights anthem had at last been achieved? A black man had been inaugurated president of the United States, bolstered by the votes of, yes, the vast majority of African-American voters but also by a clear majority of white voters. As police and state troopers turned fire hoses, police dogs and clubs on protesters in the early 1960s, the demonstrators responded by singing "We shall overcome ... someday." For the martyrs of the civil rights demonstrations and their heirs — and indeed for all Americans — "someday" came on Jan. 20, 2009. The promise, the hope, the dream has been fulfilled in a time far earlier than most veterans of that era could have imagined. Barack Obama will not wipe out all vestiges of racism, ill will and unfairness ("Life is unfair" was one of President Kennedy's favorite sayings), but his achievement proves that legal segregation and societal prejudices cannot hold back a determined, persistent and talented leader.
That banner on the mall showed how far we have come, appropriately taking racial equality out of the future tense and into the present.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Snowfall brings a rare treat

Wilson got its first real snow in more than four years today, a quiet, soothing powder falling from the heavens. It made for a good day to stay inside, watch the inauguration and watch the snow fall silently outside.
I took our "snow dog" outside and watched her leap through the snow, which I measured at 5.75 inches in an undisturbed area of my back yard. Little Bear enjoyed her romp at first, but she quickly decided the cold and the ice forming on her thick black fur was not for her.
Late in the afternoon, I ventured outside for a treat that is among the fondest memories of my childhood — snow cream. Today's snow was ideal for the simple concoction, which consists of new-fallen snow, milk, sugar and vanilla flavoring. I've never known what are the "proper" amounts of each ingredient. My mother always magically found just the right proportions, and the recipe I whipped up today was decently edible and reminiscent of the treat I devoured each time my childhood home got a decent snowfall.

Historic inauguration day boosts pride

It has truly happened. A black man has been inaugurated president of the United States of America, a country where 50 years ago his African father could not have voted, eaten in a restaurant, obtained a decent job or slept in a  motel in many cities of this country. The reality of what this nation has achieved — not just what Barack Obama has achieved (though his achievement is great) — is staggering. Throughout the ceremonies today, as I watched on television, seeing civil rights heroes like Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the reality of this achievement sunk in.
A throng estimated at up to 2 million packed the National Mall for this ceremony. Some shed tears at the magnitude of the event. Others, including the new president himself, took pride in a nation's accomplishment.
This is a new president, a new administration, a new political era. In an inaugural speech that sometimes sounded like a campaign stump speech and sometimes like a State of the Union address, Obama called on the American people to work together to overcome the troubles that face us. He also expressed confidence in the principles and character of the American people and their ability to overcome difficulties, as they have so many times in the past. He invited other nations to sit down and work together to solve the problems that confront the globe, and he expressed confidence that tribal, ethnic and religious differences of the past would succumb to the common interests of the human race.
The 19-minute speech set the right tone for an administration that promises to emphasize compromise and common interests, not divisiveness, but it lacked the high principled pronouncements of John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech.
The great news of this inauguration, other than its historic nature, might be the active involvement of millions of people from all over the country who came to witness history in the making. It is truly extraordinary that so many people place so much pride and hope in this one man, who, being one man, will ultimately fail to meet all the expectations piled before him. But the smooth transfer of power today, the honoring of political adversaries and what I thought was the most impressive moment of the day — Obama embracing former President Bush as the latter prepared to board a helicopter and leave town — speaks well of this new president's new beginning.

And now, every day is a snow day

When you're unemployed, every day is a snow day. So on this Inauguration Day, I can curl up with the TV coverage of events in Washington or with a good book or with a warm computer and watch the snow paint the neighborhood white. My wife had to get to work today, and she persuaded me to drive her. The worst part of the task was cleaning the snow and ice off the car's windows before driving cautiously the couple of miles to her office. I didn't see any accidents, though I did hit some slippery spots. Now I'm back at home to watch the wind-driven snow accumulate.
This is a far cry from the snow days I had known over a 33-year newspaper career. We had a heavy snow a few weeks after I took the new job in Wilson, and after several attempts concluded I could not get my car out of the driveway. So I struck out on foot through  the already deep and still accumulating snow for the office about a mile away. I pretty much had the road to myself and had traveled about a third of the way when some kind soul saw me and offered me a ride in his pickup. I gratefully accepted. We got the paper out and sent people home before conditions got any worse. That's the way most snow days went over the last 29 years. I had some harrowing journeys to the office over the years here, but I always managed to make it, even when a majority of employees couldn't or chose not to try. And we never missed a publication day.
When I was working for a morning paper in Virginia, which normally went to press at midnight, there was a different scenario. I vividly recall a time about 30 years ago when a heavy snowstorm blew in shortly after nightfall. Orders came down to rush the paper to press and go home as early as possible before things got worse. We managed to churn out  the pages and got the paper to press soon after 9 p.m., and I headed home, which would require crossing a bridge over the Dan River. The snow was about a foot deep already. Weighing my options, I decided to take the slightly longer, more heavily traveled route over a high bridge instead of the less-traveled, narrower and lower bridge a couple of miles downstream. After clearing the snow off my compact car, I fell in behind an 18-wheeler with the snow falling so heavily that I could only see the blur of the trailer's tail lights and the path of its wheels in the snow. The trucker led me across the icy bridge and up the steep hill to my turnoff toward home. Without that fortuitous rendezvous with a trucker, I don't know if I could have found the travel lanes on that bridge or kept my little car from skidding off the highway.
For people who have to work on inclement weather days — and there are plenty of professions that require it, including police, firefighters, health-care workers, postal carriers, utility crews and journalists, among others — there's little to admire in the quiet accumulation of snow over lawns and roads.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King's 1963 still reverberates

Thanks to NPR, I caught a replay of Martin Luther King's Aug. 28, 1963, "I Have a Dream" speech while I was in the car. It was part of an NPR program's coverage of the  MLK Holiday. At the end of my short trip, I sat there, mesmerized, and listened to the iconic speech to the very end.
A day before America inaugurates a new president who is known for his accomplished speechmaking, it's instructive to hear again or read again King's most famous address. By any rhetorical standard, it's a remarkable speech, filled with vivid language and sharp, instructive metaphors. Consider this short paragraph from the speech: After saying that black America had come to Washington to cash a check for the guarantees of freedom and opportunity promised in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, King says, "But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity in this nation. And so we've come to cash this check, a check that gives us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice."
Nobody, including Barack Obama, makes speeches that rich and evocative any more. Few in history ever have. Even without its ending flourish with its repeated chant of "I have a dream," King's speech would be recognized as a powerful call for civil rights and a model of effective rhetoric. He challenged a nation to live up to its promises and, more important, to recognize that those promises have been denied to a large portion of the population.
His rhetorical style honed in the pulpit of churches in Alabama and Georgia, King borrowed the phrases of  the church, quoting the prophet Amos that "justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream" and the prophet Isaiah's promise that mountains will be laid low and valleys will be filled, the way shall be made straight "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." Biblical quotations in political speeches were more common 45 years ago and were more familiar to American audiences, but no one used biblical quotes better than King, who had earned a Ph.D. in theology.
It is appropriate to reread King's speech (to get the full impact, listen to King's own powerful delivery) on this holiday in his honor. And on this day before the inauguration Barack Obama, it is instructive to realize how far this nation has come since King stood before Lincoln's statue. His plea that day in 1963 was for basic human rights for black citizens — the right to vote, the right to be served in restaurants, the right to use a public bathroom, the right to sleep in a motel. His plea was for civil rights for "The Negro," a term that seems, at best, quaint, today. And today, we can rejoice that the basic rights that King demanded — that "check" promised in the Constitution — has not been rejected for insufficient funds; the bank of justice is not bankrupt. King's dream lives in a newly elected president who won the votes of white voters who ignored the "color of his skin."
Don't stop reading or listening to King's speech. Let it live forever. But don't ever think that things haven't improved since 1963.

A holiday and an inauguration day

I'm missing the Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast today. For most of the years that the holiday has been celebrated in Wilson, I have worked either as a reporter at the breakfast or back at the newspaper office, putting out the day's edition. A couple of times I attended the breakfast without any work responsibilities, just to be there and see all the folks who attended. The jam-packed Darden Alumni Center always was filled with good will and good conversation among a wide diversity of Wilson residents.
Today's MLK holiday holds special significance in that it comes a day before the inauguration of our nation's first African-American president, creating a two-day celebration of America's civil rights pioneers and this nation's conquest of the racial divide. Speakers at MLK celebrations across the country will remind listeners that racism has not ended and that racial minorities in this great nation still face huge hurdles, and they will be right. But this day cannot pass without acknowledging the significance of Barak Obama's election to the nation's highest office.
Obama has achieved what even King was reluctant to imagine — election of a black man to the most powerful office in America by an electorate dominated by white voters. Obama won many votes because he was black. Large numbers of voters, both black and white, were eager to vote for black president. But many more Americans voted for him because of his policies, his inspiring speeches, his management of his campaign, his personality, his leadership style and what King famously called "the content of his character" — without regard to race.
This is a huge achievement for Obama personally and for America as a nation, an achievement that cannot be taken lightly. Obama's inauguration Tuesday might not signify the beginning of post-racial politics, but it is undoubtedly an opening into that promised land. Much depends on the degree of Obama's success as president. He takes office amid the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s and at a time of serious international threats to U.S. security.
African-Americans across the country, both those who played roles in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and those too young to remember the 1960s, will celebrate today and tomorrow, and they have every right to do so. But as both George W. Bush and John McCain have pointed out, Obama's success is an inspiration, a validation and a point of pride for all Americans, echoing Obama's own famous words from 2004 that there is not a black America, a white America, a Latino America; there is only the United States of America.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Perfect pictures require keeping a camera handy

Whenever you see that perfect picture is when you don't have a camera handy. It happened to my wife and me twice in the last couple of days. The first time we were on the road, somewhere in Cumberland or Robeson County, I think, on a rural, two-lane road, late Friday afternoon. The sun was setting, and I was shifting my head to dodge the glare of sunlight that my dark glasses couldn't shade. Then the sun dipped below the tree line on the horizon, and the scattering of high clouds turned pink and red in a glorious display of natural painting. For 20 minutes and about as many miles, the colors in the sky shifted, brightened and dimmed as we watched in awe.

"If we only had a camera," my wife said.

"There's one in the trunk," I replied. "Do you want to stop?" But we were in a hurry to get where we were going (aren't we always?), so we didn't think it worth the trouble and the delay to stop.

Later that cold night, when the temperature would drop to around 10 degrees, I stepped outside and looked up at the dark sky, which was illuminated more brightly than I had seen it in years by the southern constellations. Orion's belt was brightly jeweled, each star distinct and clear against the darkest black background. Sirius in Canis Major trailed behind the hunter, and Taurus the bull menaced him to the right, bright stars marking the tips of his horns and the Pleiades forming a cloud above him. The clear sky and chilling temperatures had combined for the perfect star-viewing conditions, turning the dark dome of the sky into its more perfect imitator, a planetarium's ceiling, where each star is perfectly visible and their numbers are uncountable.

Modern men have little appreciation of God's promise to Abraham in Genesis to make his offspring as numerous and uncountable as the stars in the heavens or the sands on the shore. Urban skies, with their competing light and air pollution have dimmed out all but the brightest stars. We lose the overwhelming magnitude of that divine promise.

On Friday night, with the right equipment, a fast camera and a tripod, I might have captured a view of the sky as it was 5,000 years ago, before electric lighting, overpopulation and air pollution dimmed everything. But I was not equipped for such a task, so I hold it only in memory and inadequate words.

For readers who appreciate the visual, I offer this link to a blog offered by someone who keeps her camera handy and uses it well.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cold air matches the cold economy

Winter has truly arrived. Shortly after sunrise today, the thermometer on my porch says it's 18 degrees. Weather Underground reports it's 16 at the Rocky Mount-Wilson Airport. Either way, that's cold, especially for eastern North Carolina.
It was cold enough Thursday, so cold that I chose to forgo my usual walking of the dog. She might like the cold, but I don't. If I'd had more time, I might have let her talk me into it, and I might have done just a little yard work, but between the lack of time and the cold, I chose to stay inside as much as possible.
Tonight's lows are forecast to be in the single digits — a truly rare phenomenon in this part of North Carolina. Only once in my life can I remember temperatures falling below zero here, and that was sometime in the mid-1980s, better than 20 years ago. It shouldn't go that low this time, and temperatures are supposed to rise next week, but today's cold is a reminder that global warming hasn't canceled winter altogether.
Despite the harsh cold, or perhaps because of it, there is no snow in the forecast. Eastern North Carolina hasn't had a good snow since Dec. 26, 2004. We're overdue. Wilson did experience some snow back in November, but it was just a brief flurry that didn't stick.
The cold weather serves as a metaphor for the cold economy. Congress is debating spending unimaginable amounts of money in hopes of creating millions of jobs, but, speaking for 2.6 million newly unemployed Americans, I say, "Show us the jobs!" The fiscal crisis has prompted Gov. Bev Perdue to order a hiring freeze by the state. That's not good news for job seekers in this state.
Even if Washington's Keynesian spending plans succeed, which is not a certainty, the taxpayers will have to come up with the money to repay these eye-popping sums. Between last year's $750 billion bailout package, which has had almost no tangible benefits for the economy, and the $825 billion stimulus package Congress is now debating, the federal debt will increase around $1.5 trillion. That's a burden even a growing economy will be hard-pressed to shoulder.
It was reported this week that Bank of America, which wants even more government money, has decided to keep the Merrill Lynch name and bull logo as it takes over the brokerage firm. But it may be a long time before average Americans are ever again "bullish on America."

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Only one governor at a time, please

The  News & Observer is reporting this morning that former gubernatorial candidate and state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr is challenging actions taken by former Gov. Mike Easley after Jan. 1. Orr, who heads the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, is a constitutional specialist and one of the brightest guys to ever seek the governor's office (OK, so brilliance was not what the voters wanted). He says the governor's term ends on Dec. 31 following a gubernatorial election. Although Gov. Bev Perdue was not inaugurated until Jan. 10, she was, in fact, the governor as of Jan. 1, 2009.
If Orr is right, the actions Easley took between Jan. 1 and Jan. 9 are invalid. During that time, he appointed a couple of Superior Court judges, voted with the Council of State to sell bonds and finally came to his senses on state e-mails, reversing policy and ordering state employees to retain copies of e-mails. Perdue is already reviewing the e-mail policy, but the big issues might be the judicial appointments, one of which went to a close political ally.
It will be interesting to see how Orr's lawsuit progresses. Thus far, Orr has not had a good track record in persuading the state Supreme Court, on which he served with distinction, that his verbatim, clear-intent interpretation of the Constitution on such matters as business incentives and the lottery is correct.
Even if Easley was the legitimate governor until the inauguration, it's clear that his successor is off to a good start in her term. Perdue has taken quick action to open up state records and processes and to tackle the state's looming fiscal crisis. She will still face a test when her open government efforts clash with legislative leaders of her own party, which is probably inevitable. However, give her credit for a good first week. I have been skeptical about Perdue's ability to bring about change in Raleigh, but she's started off on the right track, and that's encouraging.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Unemployment is frustrating and discouraging

I guess I'm not very good at this. The "this" is being unemployed. Before my current idleness, I had spent no more than a couple of weeks out of work, and that longest previous period came when I quit a job, decided not to take an offer and was jobless until taking a temporary position before settling on a permanent job.
I spent hours yesterday trying to file an online claim for unemployment and kept running into roadblocks. The online form would not allow me to enter my veteran's status. I could have lied on the form and stated I am not a veteran, but falsifying an unemployment form is a criminal offense. I kept trying to enter the accurate information, and the web site kept rejecting it until finally the whole thing just locked up. In the end (this was after dinner last night), it turned out to be a problem with my browser. Entering the same information on a Windows-based browser allowed me to complete the application without a problem.
So now, for the first time in my life, I have signed up for unemployment. I have joined the statistics of around 2.6 million Americans who were laid off in 2008 and still can't find a job. There's no shame in claiming unemployment, everyone says, but there is a high degree of frustration. Even when you're staying busy, as I am (I have three meetings to attend today involving charitable groups and had one meeting yesterday), the lack of routine and purpose is disappointing.
This was a discouraging week. I found out I was not selected for a position I had held out some genuine hope for, and I was informed that becoming certified to teach in public schools would require more college courses than I had anticipated. I managed to major in English without taking a grammar course, so now, after 30-plus years of correcting the grammatical errors of young (and some not-so-young) reporters and having taught English composition at the college level, I have to take a grammar course. A half-blind e-mail application for a rare advertised writing/editing position within commuting distance got no response.
This discouragement even made me think twice about my decision to limit my job search to the Wilson area and to leave newspapers. A couple of intriguing editor positions were open in cities I knew something about, but each would require relocation. My wife brought me back to reality: It's bad enough that I have to start over; it would be even worse if both of us had to start over.
So here I am, reliant, at least for a few months, on what the British call "the dole." It's an entitlement, a safety net, a transitioning device. I'm grateful for it (though I haven't actually received anything yet), but I'd rather be working. I would have preferred to scrape the ice off my windshield this morning and to drive, shivering, to the office as the sun rose and put in a good day's work at some useful, honorable profession. In the words of the Employment Security Commission, I am available for and actively seeking work.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Decline of newspapers calls for innovative thinking

A former colleague and I were talking recently about the decline of newspapers. Newspapers across the country are struggling. No longer "a license to print money" (as was enviously said of newspapers' money-making potential years ago), newspapers are cutting back or closing their doors. Stock in McClatchy, one of the biggest newspaper companies, had fallen below $1 a share recently.
"What's going to happen," my former colleague asked, "when people suddenly realize there's no one there to provide the news they want and need?" The problem is not just with newspapers. All news organizations are suffering. Television is no longer the cash cow it once was. The Internet is making it harder for all news organizations to charge for advertising and to charge for access to information, which is costly and time-consuming to collect.
But if newspapers — and to a lesser extent, television news — is driven out of business by consumers' refusal to pay the freight of news gathering, what then? Will Americans be oblivious to the situation in Iraq? To the fall of stock prices on Wall Street? To the terrorist attacks in Mumbai? To the Israeli invasion of Gaza? To hurricanes approaching the Atlantic coast? To the presidential primaries and debates? To local elections? To decisions by city councils and local school boards?
Democracy depends upon a well-informed citizenry. Blogs (like this one) and bloggers can't be expected to provide the objective reporting of diverse and complex information that is essential for prudent decision-making. Most of what is in blogs (including this one) is personal opinion, and often not well-informed at that. Without newspapers, the Associated Press, Reuters and other worldwide news organizations will not have the cash flow to support the costly foreign bureaus and Washington and state capitol reporters necessary for well-informed news content.
Advertisers are fleeing newspapers for "new media," but they have been unwilling to pay prices for Internet advertising comparable to what they were paying for print. Classified advertising is especially hard-hit by online services such as Craigslist and eBay. So newspapers' cash flow is down, even for those with a strong Web presence and plenty of online ads. Newspapers need a new paradigm (to use an overused and over-trendy word). They need a new revenue stream, a new source of cash flow. What can it be? Subscribers are probably not willing to pay what it really costs to produce a newspaper. Subscription and single-copy prices have always been a "loss leader" for newspapers. Advertising has always paid the freight for modern newspapers.
My wife is intrigued with the idea of membership subscriptions of the sort that keeps National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting afloat. Public-spirited, deeply interested individuals listeners/viewers, foundations and corporations subsidize the costs of NPR and CPB so that these services can be provided essentially free to the masses. Getting the volume of money necessary to support a newspaper would be a huge hurdle. I don't think it could be done.
A New York Times column proposes a different kind of solution: Newspapers that would follow the iTunes business plan. Having subscribers download newspaper content to computers, cell phones and similar digital devices would save newspapers the considerable costs of printing and distributing their product. This has been the mythical future of newspapers since I was in Journalism School 40 years ago. It hasn't happened yet and might never fully replace the printed newspaper tossed in the driveway.
This "solution" doesn't address the fundamental issue of revenue, however. Newspapers have extended their reach into such ventures as telephone books and "niche products," but many of these have a dim future at best. The traditional phone book, once a cash cow for the monopoly phone companies and now a cash cow for any number of private vendors (including newspapers), seems especially doomed. Online phone directories are already widely used. Some cell phones can automatically search for numbers of businesses or individuals. And the annual phone book has never been especially popular: It's a bother to keep and to read. Diversifying into other print products does not appear to hold much promise for newspapers.
To survive, newspapers are going to have to find a new revenue source, or people who care about the news — and about their community, the nation and the world — will have to come to the realization that newspapers are essential to a well-informed populace, without which democracy cannot long survive. And they'll have to be willing to pay for news or push advertisers back into print.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Christmas is finally over

Christmas is finally over at our house. It took all of Saturday and a piece of Sunday to get the deed done. We were late this year, the end arriving five days after the calendar's end of Christmas, Jan. 6 (Epiphany). But other commitments interfered — the birth of a grandson and the five-day trip to help out with the newborn,  and the simple magnitude of the task.
Our  Christmas decorations have expanded over the years. Like our library of Christmas music — once just a couple of LPs offered cheap by retailers, now a cupboard full of cassette tapes, CDs and digital music — our Christmas decorations have multiplied exponentially. Year after year, we've added an item or two to our collection until now every room in the house and several spots outdoors get the Christmas trimmings. We've gone from one tree to two because my wife had collected so many angel ornaments that she had to have a second tree to display them all. Christmas-themed placemats, hand towels and even photographs now are pulled from boxes in the attic and displayed. Furniture has to be moved to make room for the trees. Statuettes, wall hangings and knick-knacks find their places in every room.
But now it's done for another 11 months. The live tree, still green and glossy, lies by the curb to be turned to compost or whatever the city does with thousands of trees each year. The boxes are back in the attic to be forgotten for another 11 months. Last night, I poured a mug of the last of the Christmas wassail and gulped the spicy, hot fruit juice one last time.
Christmas is truly over now. When does spring come?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Regardless of gender, governor has big task

Much has been made of the fact that North Carolina's newly inaugurated governor is a woman. Certainly, it is a historic moment, but I'm not sure it will mean major changes in the way state government operates.
Gov. Bev Perdue is a woman. She is also a Democrat who has toiled in the vineyard of the Democratic power structure in the legislature. As a member of the state House and state Senate and during two terms as lieutenant governor, Perdue has paid her dues. But she has also toed the line to promote her party's agenda. She was a protege of Sen. Marc Basnight, who, as president pro tem of the Senate, is arguably the most powerful person in the state. Nothing happens in the Senate without Basnight's approval, and nothing gets through the Senate if Basnight opposes it.
Perdue's campaign consisted of little more than platitudes about making North Carolina the best that it can be. She showed little spark in her debates against Republican nominee Pat McCrory. Former Gov. Jim Hunt has opined that Perdue will be a better governor than she was a campaigner. Let's hope so. Her work is cut out for her.
The international financial crisis' victims include state government. Already, outgoing Gov. Mike Easley has ordered state agencies to reduce spending. More spending cuts are almost certain. Perdue, to her credit, has admitted that her proposal to make community college tuition free will have to be postponed. Other cost-saving measures will be needed to avoid a tax increase, which might further damage the state's economy.
The state's mental health system, its transportation department, and its probation and parole system are all in a shambles. Public education is faltering as far too many students drop out and far too many fail to pass standardized tests. Governmental ethics are endangered following the prosecution of several high-ranking government officials, including the former speaker of the N.C. House and the state commissioner of agriculture.
For Perdue to succeed against these crises, she will need more than an allegiance to party hierarchy and ideology. Creative ideas will be needed. Some sacred cows might have to be skewered. Her success will depend on her willingness to put public interest above partisan interests. She might even have to take on Basnight and other power brokers. All of this has nothing to do with being female or male.

Mistakes make the difference in playoffs

It's not the skills you bring to the contest, it's the mistakes you make — or avoid — that count. Never was this more obvious than in Saturday's NFL playoff games. The teams that avoided mistakes won. The teams that kept stubbing their toes lost.
The Tennessee Titans ran up and down the field in the first half against the Baltimore Ravens, but they could manage just seven points because of crucial turnovers. For the game, the Titans had three turnovers inside the 10-yard line — turnovers that robbed them of at least a field goal and, likely, touchdowns.
In the night game, the Carolina Panthers were abysmal on their home field against the Arizona Cardinals. Panthers QB Jake Delhomme turned the ball over six times — five times on interceptions — in what has to be one of the worst games in his spotty career. Sometimes interceptions get blamed on the quarterback when he wasn't really at fault. But on most of the interceptions last night, Delhomme was at fault — he threw into double coverage, he ignored defensive backs in the path of his pass or he just threw an errant pass.
The Titans and the Panthers were favored Saturday, but their mistakes, not their skills and accomplishments, made the difference at the end. For the Panthers, who thought they had fixed their problems from last season, will have to take a long, hard look at Delhomme, a fiery, emotional player who has been a team leader but whose achievements have fallen short of stardom.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Farm Fresh closing is doubly bad news

Farm Fresh is closing its less-than-a-year-old store in Gateway Plaza next month. Mark this as a victory for Harris-Teeter, which opened its own new store less than a mile away shortly before Farm Fresh opened its new store in a location formerly occupied by Winn-Dixie. Farm Fresh offered some of the same amenities that Harris-Teeter had and probably hoped to steal away some Harris-Teeter customers. Both stores had nice salad bars, extensive cheese and fresh bread selections and nice beer and wine selections.
But there probably wasn't enough room in Wilson for both stores. Food Lion and Wal-Mart offered shoppers cheaper grocery prices, but Harris-Teeter and Farm Fresh aimed for the same customer base of more affluent and discriminating shoppers who appreciated higher quality and more extensive selections of fresh foods. Both stores also provided greater customer service. Farm Fresh's location was just a stone's throw from Harris-Teeter's old location, which remains vacant. Customers would have to pass Farm Fresh when traveling from the old H-T space to the new, larger store.
Harris-Teeter shrewdly lured its old customer base to its new location by mailing $20 coupons for any $50 purchase. Later, the coupons were for $10 off on a $40 purchase. Holders of the store's VIC cards got the coupons in the mail. The deep discounts were enough to keep shoppers coming to H-T and countered Farm Fresh's efforts to lure those customers away. Farm Fresh relied on extensive newspaper advertising and its pledge to forgo the loyal customer cards H-T, Kroger and Food Lion use. But the twice-weekly ads weren't enough to counter H-T's dollars-off coupons and customers' loyalty, so Farm Fresh will close in February, leaving a big hole in the shopping center where Home Depot is also trying to attract customers from an entrenched competitor.
Farm Fresh's closing is especially bad news for The Wilson Daily Times on two counts: The loss of substantial advertising revenue will further hurt the already-reeling newspaper's bottom line. The closing also discredits the power of newspaper advertising. The newspaper ads didn't succeed for Farm Fresh. The direct-mail worked for Harris-Teeter. Other retailers are likely to take notice.
The paper has already laid off better than 5 percent of its work force (count me as Exhibit A), and this revenue loss will put more pressure on the paper to cut costs. My contacts at the paper tell me that Farm Fresh is not the only bad news. Sears and BB&T are also cutting back their advertising in the WDT. For the WDT, hard times might be just beginning, despite the tremendous increase in Wilson's retail structure over the past five years.

Friday, January 9, 2009

We're No. 1; No, we are!

Florida beat Oklahoma last night in the BCS championship game, so that makes Florida the national champions of college football, right? I'm not so sure, and I'm far from alone. Some people who watch a lot more college football and know a lot more about it than I are not convinced.
Utah had already defeated Alabama in a convincing fashion to complete its undefeated season. Anybody else got an undefeated season? Nope. That, it would seem, should make Utah the national champion. Or maybe not.
ESPN columnist Rick Reilly makes the argument for Utah being No. 1. He also argues for the Bowl Championship Series' monopoly on deciding who gets the most prestigious and most financially lucrative bowls to be declared illegal. The Utah attorney general has launched an investigation into the BCS. President-elect Obama has said he wants to see a collegiate football championship playoff system. Might the Obama Justice Department file suit against the BCS? My guess is that Obama has more pressing matters to contend with, but an anti-trust suit might not be out of the question.
The larger issue here is the predominance of intercollegiate sports over the higher education interests of colleges and universities. Television dictates when games are played (which is why so many college games are played at night during TV's primetime instead of on Saturday afternoon, as God intended), and athletic revenues and prestige have universities in a painful grip. The big-time football and basketball powers of the NCAA turn that sports publicity into increased donations and student applications. Sports exercise greater control over higher education than any chancellor or professor would want to admit, and the situation hasn't improved since the Knight Commission began its critique 10 years ago.
A federal lawsuit or indictment against the BCS might finally get the colleges', coaches' and TV networks' attention.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Burris will take his seat after all

When it came right down to it, the Senate Democratic leadership could not say no to a duly appointed African-American.
Reports yesterday indicated that Illinois Sen.-designate Roland Burris would be seated by the U.S. Senate after all. This represents a complete reversal from previously state positions by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and others. Burris, initially denied admission to The World's Greatest Deliberative Body, said Wednesday that he expects to be seated to fill out the remainder of President-elect Barack Obama's term.
Reid and others had declared that Burris would not be seated because he was appointed by disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Anyone appointed by Blago would be tainted by his alleged attempts to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder. Guilt by association is legal in politics.
I had commented on another blog about the conundrum the Burris appointment presented for both Democrats and Republicans. Politically, opposing Burris would be difficult for both political parties. But the larger issue is simply this: Burris has been legally appointed to fill the remainder of Obama's term. Blagojevich is still the governor (like it or not). He has not been impeached. He has not been convicted of any felony. He still has the authority to appoint persons to fill vacant congressional seats. Until he is impeached or convicted, you can't take that away from him.
The other element is that the Constitution gives both chambers of Congress the authority to judge the qualifications of their members. The Senate can choose to accept or reject anyone elected (or appointed) to that body, and there is even precedent for kicking members out. However, no one wants to delve into arbitrary judgments about members' qualifications.
For all these reasons, Burris will be seated. Then we'll find out whether he can win an election in 2010.

Newspaper flips over old toll road plan

It looks like The Wilson Daily Times is flip-flopping on its once-strongly stated contention that Interstate 95 should not become a toll road. In a Wednesday editorial, the struggling newspaper has very nearly endorsed toll booths on the interstate that cuts through Wilson County. (Typically of recent editorials, this one can't quite make up its mind one way or the other.)
That's a sharp departure from the newspaper's frequently state previous position that tolls for an interstate highway were not a good idea, and an especially bad idea for eastern North Carolina. That position reflected the opinion of most local governments along the I-95 corridor. Tolls on the interstate would make it less attractive to tourists and a real burden to local commuters.
The state's 21st Century Transportation Committee, which seems oddly mired in 19th-century thinking (tolls financed the plank roads that linked towns, such as Wilson, in the early 1800s), contends most of the tolls will be paid by motorists from out-of-state. If that sounds like a painless tax (in their broadest sense, taxes includes tolls), you're not listening to the businesses that rely on tourism dollars. Tourists provide millions of dollars in revenues to businesses at Interstate 95 interchanges and to the governments along the corridor who collect sales, income and property taxes from those businesses.
In its previous opinions, the Daily Times, agreeing with other critics of the toll plan, pointed out that Interstate 95 is in dire need of multi-million-dollar improvements precisely because state officials have ignored I-95's narrow, crowded lanes and archaic traffic designs. While Interstate 85 and Interstate 40 received billions in improvements and additional lanes, I-95, cutting through some of the state's poorest counties, was ignored. Rather than making amends for this discrimination, the 21st Century Transportation Committee proposes to punish residents and businesses along the I-95 corridor for the state's own malfeasance.
The toll road plan was raised again just as President-elect Barack Obama was proposing billions of dollars in infrastructure improvements, which could include enough money to upgrade I-95 to modern standards and widths. If used wisely, along with sensible prioritization by the state Department of Transportation, this infrastructure stimulus could fix I-95 for 21st century motorists without resorting to tolls.
The only real hope for stamping out the I-95 toll proposal, which keeps popping back up like a Hydra, is a united opposition involving all entities along the I-95 corridor and adjacent eastern North Carolina. With its new revelation that "the state would be smart to take a closer look at the toll road concept," The Wilson Daily Times has reneged on its previous strong opposition and has betrayed the interests of its readers and its advertisers.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

'The news is not good'

"The news is not good," my wife said, and I stood in the driveway holding her -- the only thing you can do about such news. But if the news was not good, it would be hard to discern the negativity from the face of the man whom the news was about. In his hospital room an hour later, her father played the role of the proud host, joyful to see his children and his wife gathered around his bed. That the occasion was not one for joyful celebration could not be determined by the mood in the room, the mood set determinedly by the 88-year-old man recuperating from surgery.

The surgery was not as extensive as had been planned. The surgeon looked inside and determined that removing diseased organs would not be worthwhile. Too many organs were affected; the cancer that had been battled initially in his prostate years ago had dealt out its deadly spores, colonizing other body parts, establishing its ramparts and proclaiming its conquest. Further battles would be futile.

To say that he took the news with calm equanimity would not do justice to the patient's genuine smiles and gratitude for all who gathered around him Monday night. He was, as always, the role model who would exemplify for his adult children and others around him resolute calm in the face of adversity and tragedy. He seemed oblivious to the tubes in his body and the digital displays of modern medicine all around him and most certainly uncomplaining about what must have been pain around his incision. The anesthesia could not dull the sharpness of his mind or the optimism of his emotions.

Frequently in the nearly 38 years since I married his daughter, I have been in awe of this man as he stoically faced the deaths of his wife, mother, sister, brother and a multitude of friends. His calmness, confidence and optimism set the tone for the entire family and modeled a Christian perspective on life and death, fortune and misfortune. Now he faces his final six months or couple of years, give or take, with the same confident optimism he had always displayed. He will be certain that his final years will not be lived in despair but in joyful celebration of a life that was prepared for death whenever it might come and that inspired others to live life as it should be lived.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

So many bowl games (that's not a complaint)

My wife is complaining that I've been watching football every day lately. I'll admit, I've watched so many bowl games that they have all begun to run together. Not only did I watch the one I was actually interested in, the one involving my alma mater, I watched others as well, those involving teams I had not followed through the season and, in many cases, I had not seen play a game all year.

I'm a casual fan, not a fanatic. I don't watch game after game every weekend. I almost never watch Sports Center. I'm even less interested in navel-gazing about sports than I am interested in navel-gazing about politics.

But there are so many bowl games, and so many of them are good games involving excellent teams. Boise State's game (forgive me for not remembering whom they were playing or what was the name of the bowl) was a case in point. Boise has had an innovative and powerful offense. And I had some interest in Notre Dame's bowl game against Hawaii; I was interested in seeing whether Notre Dame would lose yet another bowl game. Last night's game, Alabama vs. Utah in the Sugar Bowl, promised to be a blowout. Alabama had been ranked No. 1 for most of the season. Utah, I thought, would stand little chance. But I turned on the TV soon enough to see Utah score three touchdowns in the first half of the first quarter! I couldn't stay up to see the end of the game, to see whether Alabama's comeback would be successful, but I watched long enough to see some extraordinary football performances. When I got up this morning, I went to the computer to check the score and see that Utah had held on, convincingly, making Utah the only Division I team with a perfect record and, thereby, giving the Utes a claim to a national championship.

The problem is, there is no real national championship for Division I (or Bowl Championship Series) teams. Florida and Oklahoma will play in the National Championship bowl, but disputes will linger, no matter how the game comes out. Both teams have lost games, giving their conquerors a claim to a national championship as well. The only solution is a true playoff system for Division I teams. Commentators on one of the bowl games I watched (forgive me, they all run together) had a good proposal: Play the four big, traditional bowls (Rose, Sugar, Cotton and Orange) on New Year's Day. Then take the two highest-ranked, most convincing victors in those games and pit them against each other a week later in a national championship game. It's not a perfect system, but it's better than the current, much-criticized methodology.

But my wife won't like it. It will still mean a lot of good games on the TV, and I'll find a large number of them interesting enough to watch, at least for a while.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Mikey thinks newspaper is picking on him

Gov. Mike Easley thinks the News & Observer has been picking on him. But unlike the scrawny kid on the school playground, little Mikey can't go running to the teacher to whine. He's the guy who's in charge. So what does he do? He complains to another newspaper.
Easley complained in an interview with the Greensboro News & Record that the N&O reporters  weren't being fair. They had uncovered millions of dollars in waste in the state's mental health reforms. Easley said he was against the reforms in the first place, although there was no evidence in the record to support that contention. Then he fired the public information officer who had provided public records to the N&O. The N&O uncovered corruption in the Department of Transportation. Governor Mike ignored the controversy. The N&O reported on his wife's two trips to Europe at taxpayer expense and her appointment to a six-figure job at N.C. State University. He said the trips to Europe were all business, and she was the best-qualified person for the State job. Furthermore, the criticism of his wife was just sexual discrimination. Yeah, sure. The N&O documented dozens of murders by suspects out on probation and the inability of the state to find thousands of probationers. Easley said the N&O was picking on his Correction secretary just months before his retirement, and, furthermore, there were more probationer murders under the Hunt administration. Well that certainly makes it OK.
Seeing Easley's petulance and absentee management over the past couple of years, it's a wonder that he ever made it to the top in state politics. He parlayed a successful career as a district attorney to a couple of terms as state attorney general, then he handily won the governorship. Since then, he's made little secret of the fact that he's put state government on autopilot while he built furniture in the basement, participated in publicity events and made frequent trips to Southport.
I did an extensive interview with Easley when he was attorney general and found him amiable, funny and knowledgeable, and I've talked to him a couple of times since then. He comes across as a nice guy — friendly, affable and genuinely witty. He does dead-on impersonations. But his style is far removed from the focused, persistent determination of his predecessor, Jim Hunt. Hunt was renown throughout his four gubernatorial terms (and afterward) as a hands-on manager who regularly made late-night and early-morning phone calls to lobby for a particular issue or light a fire under a slow-moving legislator. Easley gives the impression that he not only wouldn't do that but couldn't be bothered to worry about it.
Easley's recent complaints about media coverage go beyond his laid-back, hands-off style. Now he's making excuses, and not very good ones at that. Easley's old enough to know that blaming the messenger is not an effective strategy, and his petulant whining just makes him look worse.
Easley has only a few days left in his term. Unfortunately, his elected successor, Bev Perdue, has shown a tendency to make excuses and ignore facts, just like Easley. Perdue appears ready to rely on her sweet charm the way Easley relied on his affable wit to disarm critics. Being personable is always helpful to a politician, but it's not a long-term strategy.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A new year, all fresh and bright

Jan. 1 is the day for making New Year's resolutions — a tradition I've never cared much for. The new year itself is so arbitrary. Jan. 1 has no astronomical significance. It's not an equinox or a solstice, just an arbitrary date for turning the calendar. But a new year, like a new day, is an appropriate time to make plans and set a schedule.
My resolution for 2009 is not to find a new job but to find a new career. My three months of enforced idleness (although I can produce a list of things I've accomplished since my layoff) have made me eager for a new purpose, a new mission, new goals. I hope to have a solid new purpose, a new set of skills to nurture and a clearer path to the future. Just make it soon.
2009 has to be better than 2008, when gasoline rose to over $4 a gallon and a housing and credit crisis saw the stock market collapse, housing prices fall and retirement plans crash and burn. There are already some indications that the worst might be behind us. The stock market has edged up in the past couple of weeks. There have been no more falls in the Dow Jones of hundreds and hundreds of points in a single day. The market shrugged off the election of a presumably less-free-market-oriented Democrat, and some investors are hoping the president-elect's plans for an infusion of infrastructure funding will boost employment and stock prices.
The Iraq War is scheduled to wind down, no matter what President-elect Obama does. The U.S. handed over control of the Green Zone today, and U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraqi cities this summer. Iraq is still a long, long way from stability and peacefulness, but conditions are improving, and American troops are scheduled to get out of the way.
We still face difficult times in 2009. Unemployment is at its highest in 20 years and will not go down quickly. Credit remains tight, despite efforts to expand the money supply and subsidize banks and other lenders. Everyone's retirement plans will take a long time to recover from their early 2008 or late 2007 levels.
But a new year brings hope, even if the date is arbitrary, even if times are difficult. Today dawned clear and bright. Let us hope that it is a harbinger of brighter times ahead for all of us.