Monday, November 23, 2009

We do disasters, large and small

The night gave meaning to the expression "Oh-Dark-Thirty," a gloomy, cold, rainy night, and I was hurtling through it this morning, following two tail lights a hundred feet ahead. It was so middle-of-the-night that the only radio station I found was playing Christmas music. Other stations had signed off until dawn. "Oh Holy Night" and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" gave a surreal sensation to the night. Ahead, a house had burned down to the floorboards, and lives had been shattered.

This is the job most people never think of when they hear "Red Cross." Oh yeah, the blood drives and the first aid classes. Few people think about disaster services, except for the Big Disasters, the tsunamis and the earthquakes and the Katrinas. But these dark rural roads in the middle of the night is where Red Cross volunteers spend most of their time and energy. A call in the middle of the night from a rural fire chief sets off a response from on-call Red Cross volunteers, who find the location of the small disaster and the survivors, huddling beneath a tree behind the burned-out hulk of a mobile home. They're luck to be alive, but you don't tell them that. They don't look so lucky at the moment.

Don't doubt that this is a disaster of monumental proportions for one family. All is lost — home, furniture, clothing, medications, shoes, identification cards, keys, precious photos and mementos. The Red Cross' role is to get the clients through the initial shock of this devastation. A place to lay your head, a change of clothing, a pair of shoes, some food: It goes a long way toward bridging the gap between Before and Now What? "Comfort kits" provide little things that you might never think of but are as essential as clothing — toothbrush, toothpaste, antiperspirant, etc. In bigger disasters, clients are grouped into shelters, where basic needs can be attended to. But in a typical week, the local chapter attends to at least one single-family fire, a disaster of gargantuan proportions for those directly affected. Each year, Red Cross responds to 70,000 home fires nationwide.

In the dark of night, with incongruous Christmas carols playing background music, the work goes on where few notice.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

With parades, marching beats watching

A parade looks different from the inside. I found that out today when I marched in the Wilson Christmas parade, held five days before Thanksgiving! I had not watched a Wilson Christmas parade (or any other variety) in several years and have never been a huge fan of parades. The last time I watched the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade or the Rose Bowl parade on TV, I was probably too young to vote. When I lived a block from the Wilson parade route, I would usually walk down the street to see what the excitement was all about. One of my children appeared in the parade one year.
This year, I took part in the parade for the first time. Walking with other American Red Cross staff and volunteers, I marched along and waved, as if I were a beauty queen or a politician. The parade went quickly. I scanned the crowd for familiar faces and saw a few, including my 2-year-old grandson sitting on his dad's shoulders.
Being in the parade, I concluded, is more exciting than watching one. I saw more people I know, waved to them and heard my name called once or twice. And walking a mile or so sure beats standing around for hours. I'll be ready to do it again next year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Want news? That'll cost you

If you went to the Wilson Times Web site today, you ran into a blockade. After five or six years of free access to the site, the newspaper has erected a barricade around its news stories. Only the often enigmatic headlines are free to all. The newspaper had tried setting up a pay wall around its content in the past, as news Web sites were just developing their presence. The $6 a month fee for print non-subscribers never generated much revenue and scared off potential readers. With online readership peaking at a couple of hundred or so, the Web site had little or no appeal to advertisers, and the pay wall was taken down several years ago.
Pay Wall II will charge an audacious $9.50 a month for access, the same price as a print subscription. This price, of course, has no relationship to the cost of placing the news on the Web. The newspaper's Web site has no printing costs, no delivery costs, no mechanical infrastructure. It appears to be a price aimed at shoring up print subscriptions — subscribe to the Web edition and get the print edition for no extra cost. Buy one, get one free? Something is needed; I'm told that the newspaper's circulation, which peaked above 18,000 when I was there, has fallen below 15,000.
This aggressive pricing has been advocated by some of the "experts" offering advice to a newspaper industry that is clearly in turmoil. News content is costly to produce; it has value; anyone accessing it, in print or online, should pay for that cost, these experts say.
Others are not so sure that's the right approach. Most state, national and international news probably will remain "free." There's just too much competition and too little consensus about how to charge for this information. Local news might stand a better chance of surviving behind a pay wall, but this news has to have real value sufficient for large numbers of people to want to pay for it. And entry into the information business is so inexpensive these days (no need to buy a printing press, and there are plenty of out-of-work journalists to hire on the cheap) that even highly local content providers have to beware overpricing their content. An upstart competitor could easily overthrow their monopoly.
The fundamental problem is that the newspaper business model has broken down. For generations, newspaper owners got rich by delivering reliable readers to advertisers. Now readers are less likely to read a newspaper because they have so many other options, and advertisers are concentrating on the narrowly targeted cohorts of buyers delivered by Internet search ads and other innovations instead of the shotgun-blast approach of hitting the entire population (or large portions of it) via newspaper ads. Charging for content, which newspapers never really did (subscription prices used to cover only the delivery costs), is one answer to this quandary, but it might not be the best solution.
What is the best solution? If I knew the answer to that, I could be a consultant and make big money instead of giving away my opinions for free. I do know that charging for content that used to be free will only anger the people accustomed to dialing up the newspaper Web site whenever they feel like it, and restrictions will sharply reduce traffic on the Web site, making advertising space there less valuable.
It's a bold but risk-laden strategy, but these are desperate times (no pun intended).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Three quick observations

A few quick observations for the blogosphere:
• While I waited in a checkout line Friday, the young woman behind the register looked at my name and asked, "Are you the guy who writes those editorials on the Internet?" "I write a blog," I said. "Yeah, I thought you looked familiar." When I began writing a blog, I continuously invited people to read it. Few did, I'm sure, but I picked up a handful of followers and occasionally received comments from friends who said they'd read a blog post. But having a stranger tell me she reads my blog was a pleasant surprise. The (invisible) counter on my blog turns up the occasional reader from California or Dubai, but the vast majority of readers are from Wilson or the surrounding area.
• As I was listening to an NPR program earlier this week, the radio host began an interview with a person she identified as "a professional blogger." I was impressed. There are millions of blogs out there. There can't be more than a handful of people making a living at it. I've occasionally considered adding Google ads to this blog, but the return (fractions of cents per click) hardly seems worth the bother.
• Wilson residents frequently complain, with good reason, about our high electric rates. Thanks to a multi-billion debt, NCEMPA, which provides electricity to Wilson and 31 other eastern N.C. cities, has high debt payments, and these member cities charge above-average rates to pay off that debt. When our utility bill arrived this week, I first noticed the somewhat higher-than-expected total. Then I looked at the breakdown. Water and sewer service, it turns out, amounted to more than electric costs. That's a reminder that Wilson has high water rates than many neighboring cities. I caught some flak at the newspaper when I wrote a story noting that Rocky Mount would sell the water it was buying from Wilson cheaper than Wilson sold to its residential customers. Rocky Mount's water rates are lower than Wilson's. But Wilson, thanks to its investment in water infrastructure (primarily Buckhorn Reservoir), had water to spare; Rocky Mount didn't.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Soaking rain gives soil what it needs

This week's drenching rain was just what the soil needed, a long, slow, steady shower that soaked deep into the soil. After a gloriously crisp and dry weekend (the Whirligig Festival thanks you!), the rain began falling Tuesday and is still drizzling today. The rain gauge on my deck measured just over 4.5 inches for the last three days' accumulation.
The rain was, at least in part, the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which ran aground on the Gulf Coast and then stumbled into the Carolinas, leaking water all the way. Hurricanes, which depend on warm ocean waters for their strength, are unusual this late in the season, and Ida turned out to be not such a powerful force. North Carolina has been spared the kind of destruction that hurricanes usually bring to the coast and even, as Wilson residents will remember, far inland. This week's rain led to some coastal flooding and evacuations. N.C. 12 on the Outer Banks was reportedly overwashed, and shelters had to be opened in some areas.
Overall, however, it's been a quiet hurricane season, one that lulls us into indifference or ignorance. Every year will not be so fortunate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Uncomfortable facts about shooting are relevant

On this Veterans Day, America mourns the loss of 13 soldiers in a bizarre incident a Fort Hood, Texas, in which a commissioned officer opened fire on troops preparing to deploy to Afghanistan. The officer, a psychiatrist of the Muslim faith, will be charged under military law, but his faith, and the way the media and the public have perceived its relationship to his actions, is causing additional distress.
Alan Mutter, in his widely read Newsosaur blog, accuses the news media of ethnic profiling in its reporting on the Fort Hood shootings. The painfully politically correct Mutter claims the use of the term "terrorism" and the mention of the shooter's Middle East heritage and Muslim faith were inappropriate provocations that should never have been part of the story about the shooting. Some commenters on the blog take Mutter to task for ignoring not just the obvious but the incisively relevant aspects of this incident.
It's hard to imagine an incident that better captures the term "terrorism" than an unprovoked and well-planned shooting down of unarmed soldiers on an Army post. "Terrorism" does not require multiple participants; it is not the same as "conspiracy." A terrorist can be a lone gunman or suicide bomber and does not have to be a part of a team directed by fanatics from afar.
Although not all the facts behind Maj. Nidal Hasan's motivation are known yet, it is obvious from what is known that he opposed America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and believed Muslims in the U.S. Army should be exempted from fighting against others of their own faith. He had corresponded with a radical Islamic cleric and had made a formal presentation proposing that Muslim soldiers be granted conscientious objector status on the grounds that their religion forbade their fighting against fellow Muslims on behalf of "infidels."
These are relevant facts, not "ethnic profiling."
One can report these facts without engaging in ethnic profiling or cowering behind political correctness. NPR's "All Things Considered" aired an insightful interview Tuesday with a Muslim chaplain who had counseled Maj. Hasan and who rejected the Islamist notion that religion trumps nationality. American soldiers, he said, owe their allegiance to America. Nearly all of the thousands of U.S. soldiers of the Muslim faith know and accept this, and the public should keep this in mind even as we recognize the Fort Hood shooting as apparently motivated by religious zealotry.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tax incentives are better than demolition

I was glad to see an article in the Wilson Times about a proposal to provide property tax credits in exchange for renovations on downtown buildings. I had made the argument before that tax incentives could solve some of the city's more persistent problems while improving the overall tax base in the long run.
Now Lindsey deGuehery, a Wilson physician who has invested in some downtown property, is proposing that the city rebate some property taxes on the renovated properties' increased value. Those rebates would offset the costs of renovations and encourage rehabilitation of vacant or abandoned structures. If successful, the rebates could spark a renaissance in the downtown area.
Some years ago, I had argued in newspaper editorials that the city would be wiser to spend its money on a tax incentive program that would reward rehabilitation efforts than to spend taxpayer money demolishing vacant properties. A number of N.C. cities have successfully adopted this approach. At the time, Wilson's policy was to demolish properties that had been vacant for a certain period of time. A city ordinance required that vacant property had to be boarded up to discourage vagrants and criminal activity. The boarding-up made the property less appealing to potential buyers or renters and had the metastasizing effect of infecting nearby properties. The city persisted in appropriating large sums for razing boarded-up property and in issuing "repair or demolish" orders.
By investing in rehabilitation, in the form of tax credits or incentives, instead of demolition, the city could end up with renovated, occupied houses instead of snaggle-tooth blocks of declining structures punctuated by nearly valueless vacant lots where houses once stood. The tax incentives could take many forms, such as a five-year moratorium on increases in tax value (the property tax would be calculated on the previous, pre-renovation value), or as a rebate of the higher taxes so long as the renovated structure remains occupied.
The proposal from deGuehery and the Wilson Downtown Development Corp. is a hopeful development, but it depends on City Council's willingness to see its potential. Will council embrace a productive and effective new idea or stick with its love of the wrecking ball?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Election's meanings are pretty clear

The political analysts are puzzling over the deeper meanings of Tuesday's elections like soothsayers examining the entrails of a goat. The meanings shouldn't be too hard to discern, in part because there are few new lessons to learn.
In Virginia, a key swing state, where I spent five years in the 1970s, Republicans are resurgent again, winning all three major statewide offices. Virginia Republicans led the wave of Southern states swinging to the right before the Reagan Revolution took hold, and the Republican Party has been strong for decades, fueled by the natural conservatism of rural Virginia and the pro-business inclinations of traditional suburban Republicanism. Virginia's unusual odd-year elections put the state in the spotlight every four years. This year, Virginia Republicans nominated a solidly conservative gubernatorial candidate who talked local issues, not national ideology, and Bob McDonnell won handily in the Old Dominion.
In New Jersey, Gov. John Corzine couldn't hang onto his office, despite impassioned appeals from President Obama. He lost to a centrist Republican who withstood personal attacks and snide references to his weight problem to gain control of the Democratic-leaning state. This GOP victory, because it is in New Jersey and because Obama campaigned so vigorously there, might be more important than the Virginia contest.
In contrast, Upstate New York Republicans shot themselves in the foot (or somewhere) by first nominating a candidate who held more traditionally Democratic views on social issues and then abandoning her in favor of a Conservative candidate who didn't know the territory or the issues in New York's 23rd District. Just before the election, the incumbent-but-never-elected Republican withdrew and cast her support to the Democrat, who defeated the divided Republican/Conservatives in a district that had been Republicans for generations. Republicans will get another chance to regain the seat next year, but they'll have to do it against an incumbent Democrat. It's their own fault.
The lesson of Election 2009 is simple: Centrist, moderate candidates do better than either ideological conservatives or far-left liberals. The electorate is generally moderate overall with some pockets leaning one way or the other. The predictive ability of these few contests is limited, but it's safe to say that voters are uneasy and are distrustful of too much change too fast in either direction.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

City voters go for more of the same

Wilson voters opted for the status quo, for the most part, in Tuesday's City Council voting. Donald Evans and Bill Blackman kept their seats, and Logan Liles, who had been endorsed by departing incumbent Bob Thaxton, won in hotly contested District 6. Sam Lanier, about half Evans' age, conducted an energetic and highly visible campaign, decorating whole neighborhoods with his bright red yard signs. But voters went for Evans by a good margin.
District 7 voters returned Bill Pitt to the council dais, just four years after turning him out. Doris Jones, who had defeated Pitt the last time around, finished second this time in a four-way race.
Once again, computer problems delayed results until long after the polls had closed, leaving many to wonder why county election officials can't count votes more efficiently. But credit the county for having a nice display on the county Web site once the results were in. The county Web site had the results this morning while the newspaper's Web site was still blank.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Thirty years ago, a fateful decision

Thirty years ago on the evening of Nov. 2, I made a fateful decision: I would stand beside a reporter who had uncovered a politician's corrupt ways only to find the publisher would refuse to run the story. He quit. I did the same. We would stand on the principle that the public must know the truth. We could not abide the fact that voters would go to the polls in a few weeks not knowing the truth behind the leading candidate, the incumbent, a near-shoo-in for the office. I could not continue to work for the newspaper that had made me its editor and then surreptitiously work to reveal the facts its owner had decided to keep hidden.
By the time our shift ended at midnight, the reporter and I had both submitted our resignations. We would not go along with concealing essential facts about a candidate for political office. Oddly enough, I've forgotten the politician's name, but I remember the malfeasance a dogged reporter had documented: He was running a sideline business on city time and using his city contacts for private gain. The lawyers reviewed the story and OK'd it, but the publisher — a woman rarely seen at the newspaper — said no.
Brian O'Neill, who is now a successful columnist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, recently reminded me that this significant anniversary was coming up, and we exchanged a few e-mails. He reminded me that he was young and single and could go home to mom and dad when he quit. "My editor had a wife and three little kids, and he stood behind me all the way," he says he's told people many times. That's true, as foolish as it sounds, but I cannot remember once doubting my decision. My wife recalled that she was never worried. I was the sole breadwinner in this paycheck-to-paycheck family, but my confidence that I had done the right thing never wavered. To make ends meet (I had resigned voluntarily and was not eligible for unemployment), I took some temporary jobs at newspapers in North and South Carolina while I looked for a new job. I finally landed one as managing editor in Wilson, a town I had never visited before December 1979. I stayed at that paper for 29 years before being laid off last year.
In an e-mail, I told Brian that my snap decision that November night 30 years ago was "the most honorable decision I've made in my career." We stood up for truth, honor and integrity. Our vindication was not the surprise loss of the incumbent politician (area TV stations and word of mouth spread the story the newspaper would not print). "Our vindication was not subsequent success, though we both had some," I told Brian recently, "for truth is its own vindication and integrity is its own reward."
I would have preferred to celebrate this night with a toast in the town where we parted ways 30 years ago, but we are hundreds of miles apart tonight. Before calling it a night, I will raise a glass to Brian and wish him continued success. He's a superb columnist and has recently published a fine book, a series of loving essays about his adopted hometown, "Paris of Appalachia." See more here.
Thirty years later, my snap decision seems more crazy than bold. Brian once reminded me that when we told our 7-year-old daughter that I was quitting my job, she responded, "It's your life." So it is. And it's still the right decision.