Sunday, January 31, 2010

Print newspaper warms a cold morning

There was no doubt about the sunrise this morning. The sun reflecting off an ocean of pure white snow made the brightest of days. The icy blanket crunched beneath my feet as I walked out to pick up the morning paper — and was disappointed.

Although the paper was in the driveway early Saturday morning as the snow and sleet were falling, it was missing this morning beneath the bright blue sky and the sparkling white base. I sat down with a cup of coffee, pulled up the N&O Web site on the computer and skimmed over the stories posted there. But it's just not the same. I wanted reading material, not looking material. After seeing no major breaking news, I picked up my coffee cup, retrieved the book I was reading from the bedside table and sank into a comfortable chair to read. After another cup of coffee and a minimalist breakfast, I checked the driveway again and saw what might be the newspaper lying there. It was.

I brought in the paper and sat down to read through each section and flip through the pile of advertising circulars. That exercise consumed what remained of the morning, a relaxing, soothing interlude with NPR's Weekend Edition and then an album of church music on the stereo. Getting out of the neighborhood to get to church seemed like too much of a risk with the temperature in the low 20s, so we opted to stay home and plead forgiveness.

Even though we had power and Internet connectivity, it was the old media — the hefty Sunday paper plopped in the driveway — that made my morning complete. Many a time over the years, I had walked to the nearest newspaper rack to buy a paper when a poorly motivated or skittish carrier failed to deliver. Having the news available online has not changed that motivation to walk a few blocks, if necessary, to hold a freshly printed newspaper in my hands, to spread it out across the breakfast table, to divide it up among family members and to slowly savor its every page with all the enthusiasm reserved for flavorful special weekend coffee. Print newspapers are the best.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The iPad is wonderful, but ...

This week's introduction of the much-anticipated new Apple iPad has some news media analysts thinking that the 10-inch touch-screen device could be the manifestation of a decades-long quest for a newspaper that is delivered instantaneously and without the expense of a printing press. Like all new Apple products, the iPad is being promoted in jaw-dropping videos of its capabilities that leave viewers like me salivating.

CEO Steve Jobs describes the iPad as the best device for surfing the Web, and he might be right. The touch-screen interface seems as advanced, at first glance, as the click-and-drag mouse was in the first Macintosh computers. Want to see a picture bigger or read a story on a Web page? Just tap it with your finger. Want to turn a page in your electronic book? Just brush the bottom right corner of the "page" with your finger. Want to select a new Web address from a list of favorite? Just tap it. Need to type an address or fill out a form? A virtual keyboard magically appears. I'm impressed — and salivating.

The iPad is more portable and more readily usable than a laptop and easier to read than a smart phone. Its size and light weight make it nearly as easy to carry around as a newspaper or a book. I'd love to own one, or at least get a chance to play with one.

Still ... . Despite all the advances in electronic connectivity and screen display, there's something missing. Although I've never held an iPad, I know it doesn't feel like a book — or a newspaper. The New York Times has already signed on as a provider for the iPad, and the video I've seen touts the similarity between reading the print Times and the iPad version. It may be a while before I get a chance to experience what it's like to read the NYT on an iPad, but I can tell you that reading most newspapers online via a computer is nothing like reading the print version. Besides the loss of the tactile sensation of holding the paper in your hands, the online reader misses the overall page display, including the advertising, and the serendipitous aspect of turning newspaper pages, never knowing what news you might find. Online readers tend to be more focused, seeing only what they search for. As a result, they miss the broader horizons that print readers experience.

Print newspapers still have value and still provide experiences electronic versions do not. Printed books, likewise, provide experiences e-books don't. I think the iPad and its competitors and successors will have an impact on publishing, but the proven, 500-year-old technology and effectiveness of print will still be around for generations to come. And I expect to be sharing the morning newspaper with my wife over coffee, swapping sections back and forth, for many more years. The iPad (or something similar), if we have one, will be a supplement to the format we like the best.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Time for the State of the Union PowerPoint

Good evening and welcome to TNN's coverage of the State of the Union PowerPoint. The Sergeant-at-Arms is carrying the president's laptop into the House Chamber. "Madame Speaker, the president of the United States. Please dim the lights!"
The president is opening his laptop and booting up his PowerPoint presentation. There — the first slide just appeared on the big screen hanging from the balcony railing. There's another screen behind the podium simultaneously showing the PowerPoint from the presidential laptop.
"You know, Tom, there's been some talk about changing the venue for this event next year to Cowboy Stadium, which has the world's largest video screen."
But who wants 90,000 screaming political groupies at a State of the Union PowerPoint?
"You're right, Tom. This is so much better here in the Capitol's empty House Chamber with just the president and his IT czar and his laptop. It's so much quieter than in the old days when the president gave a speech. And all those silly interruptions and standing ovations! How did we ever stand it?"
It's the march of technology. The PowerPoint presentation has supplanted the Teleprompter.
"And we're glad it has."
The president's hand is on the mouse and he's ready to start his presentation.
"Madame Speaker, Mr. Vice President, Members of Congress, Honored Guests: On this slide you see that the State of the Union is strong. While other nations would like to supplant the United States of America by force of arms or by unfair trade practices or by technological innovation, you just can't beat a PowerPoint presentation."
Oh! That's a nice touch! The president has segued to a slide of members of Congress giving a standing ovation.
"I wonder when that little video was shot! Oh! And look, he's Photoshopped in a couple of guests in the crowd. There's Bill Gates applauding."
And look who's sitting beside him. Isn't that Steve Jobs?
"Thank you, but let's go to the next slide. America's future depends upon education, and tonight I am proposing a new $500 billion initiative to put computers in every classroom throughout this nation. When this initiative is complete, every child in America will be able to see the same PowerPoint presentation at the same time in each and every class throughout this great nation. We call it No Slide Left Behind. The cost of this program will be offset by savings resulting from eliminating the need for teachers. We'll be able to use service animals to click the mouse and advance the slides."
With this next slide, the president is showing his commitment to controlling spending. Instead of flying all these special guests to Washington to sit in the balcony and wave to the camera when the president calls their name, the president is showing a slide of each special guest, along with a brief bio, so he doesn't even have to name them or explain them.
"That's a nice touch. He's really taking advantage of the technology to save taxes."
... And that's the end of the PowerPoint, coming in at just 11 minutes after he entered the chamber. That's a lot better use of time than the usual 70 or 80 minutes presidents wasted when they gave speeches to Congress.
"It's so much more efficient these days."
And our instant poll results are in. Americans like the PowerPoint State of the Union much better than the old-style speeches. They preferred PowerPoint by a margin of 42 percent to 9 percent over speeches. The other 49 percent wanted to eliminate the whole shebang. Good night, Dan.
"Good night, Tom."
And don't forget that this presentation is downloadable from or from iTunes. Good night from TNN.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's too late for a federal spending freeze

Later tonight, in his State of the Union Address, President Obama is expected to propose a freeze on federal spending — or at least on a little bit of it. The freeze would not affect "security" programs, including the military, nor would it apply to entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and others. The net impact of $250 billion over 10 years sounds impressive until you remember that over the next decade, the federal budget is expected to roll up another $9 trillion in debts. Last year's budget deficit was a record-shattering $1.4 trillion, and this year's deficit will be almost as large.

A spending freeze that exempts the better part of the federal budget is not going to fix this problem. The budgetary problem has gone way beyond a simple gesture like a spending freeze. If you're going to trim a $1 trillion-plus deficit and get the nation back to the surplus it enjoyed just a dozen years ago, elected officials will have to make some painful decisions. And the first decision is that we can't afford all the things the government is buying.

It's too late to just trim back on existing programs; we're going to have to eliminate whole programs. We can't do all the things we've been doing. We'll have to decide what programs to eliminate: Farm subsidies? NASA? Federal grants? The latest new ship, tank or airplane? Tax deductions for mortgages? Ethanol subsidies? Like a person with $20,000 in credit card debt, the federal government is going to have to find out what it can live without. As my father used to say, it's going to have to learn the difference between wants and needs. The current course of spending better than a trillion more than you take in every year is unsustainable, and a relatively painless spending freeze won't fix the problem.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Skeptical of Edwards from the beginning

It's comforting to remember from this vantage point that I was skeptical of John Edwards from the beginning, but not because I suspected he was a self-centered, egotistical, lying, untrustworthy philanderer. I was skeptical of Edwards back in 1998, when he announced a run for the U.S. Senate because he had no political record. He had never run for political office and had only occasionally voted. D.G. Martin, who had a political history and a defined resume, seemed the more logical Democratic nominee.

But when I met both Martin and Edwards at a N.C. Editorial Writers meeting before the primary that year, it was obvious that Edwards had the skills, knowledge and sharp wit necessary to be a good campaigner and even a good senator. Martin, despite his campaign experience, seemed a little ill-at-ease explaining why voters should choose him. Edwards, in contrast, was selling himself with the confidence of a carnival barker.

After that, Edwards' political career took off like Fourth of July grand finale fireworks. He was mentioned as a potential vice presidential nominee for Al Gore. His skills as a litigator translated well to debate in the Senate, and his charm and intelligence made for an impressive campaigner. He won praise in articles in national publications. In 2004, he was John Kerry's running mate and bolstered the ticket. Soon thereafter, he was named to head a program studying poverty at UNC (a transparent effort to keep Edwards' name in the news as he prepared for 2008). In the 2008 campaign, he was widely regarded as Hillary Clinton's prime rival for the Democratic nomination. Had Barack Obama not surfaced and if some events had fallen differently, Edwards could have won the nomination.

What an embarrassing turn of events there might have been if a newly elected president had been forced to admit the paternity of a child with a skanky videographer working with his campaign. It's not just that Edwards, whose incessant primping with his hair turned into a youtube sensation, was playing around, but he was doing it while his wife was battling cancer. He was doing it even after he had been given the perfect way out, when Elizabeth Edwards' cancer returned in 2007. But he was such a narcissist that even his wife's morbidity could not sway him from his ambitions, and she obediently went along, even though she knew about his affair. All politicians are egotists; why else would they claim to be able to solve the world's (or the city's or state's) problems when others have failed? And this egotism leads many to risky behavior and sexual infidelity; they want to share themselves with the people!

It's fortunate for the country that Edwards fell behind in the early primaries and dropped out of the campaign early. He was last seen in Haiti, helping out after the earthquake in another example of his egotism, hinting that he will single-handedly solve the problems that have defied other persons and organizations. Let him stay in Haiti or in some other Third-World country where the poor need help and there is plenty to keep him busy. Just keep him out of the news. America has had quite enough of John Edwards.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Indictment presents GOP opportunity

Ruffin Poole's indictment Thursday on a long list of charges involving fraud and improper influence over state regulators is a warning for others in the Mike Easley inner circle and for Democrats who have been way too comfortable with their power, perks and entitlements. Poole, who claimed his Fifth Amendment rights when called before the state Elections Commission looking into Easley's campaign finances and subsequently lost his job with a law firm, is surely not the only Easley insider to face indictment. U.S. Attorney George Holding, who is bucking replacement by President Obama, is deadly serious about this case. Easley could easily end up being the first N.C. governor in memory to face criminal charges over conduct in office.

A string of indictments of powerful Democrats could devastate the party's chances in this fall's election of state legislators, members of Congress and local officials. If Republican strategists have any sense of political opportunity at all they will focus their campaigns on the accusations of political corruption and will frequently recite the names of Democratic officials who have gone to prison (Jim Black, Frank Ballance, Meg Scott Phipps, etc.) or who have been indicted (Poole and whoever else finds his name in headlines over the next 10 months).

Even without the political corruption charges, Democratic incumbents would face a difficult test. High unemployment, flagging state revenues, unpopular new taxes and steady increases in state spending under Democratic leadership would be hard to hide. But the corruption allegations constitute an issue that appeals across the ideological spectrum; liberals and independents don't like corruption any more than conservatives do.

Republicans still need candidates who have broad appeal, and that's too often been a problem for N.C. Republicans. Massachusetts Republicans (with help from independents and disenchanted Democrats) elected Scott Brown to the U.S. Senate. But would N.C. Republican strategists even consider a candidate who had posed for Playgirl in his younger days? It's hard to imagine.

It's also hard to imagine how North Carolina Republicans might blow this opportunity, but they've developed an affinity for missed opportunities. The 2010 election will almost certainly result in more GOP seats in the General Assembly. And if corruption trials of once-powerful Democrats linger into 2012, that year's elections could bring even greater opportunities to the state GOP.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Photo exhibit makes statement for Wilson

A reception at the Wilson Arts Center last night celebrated the Martin Luther King holiday and the exhibit of photographs taken immediately after King's 1968 assassination by Burk Uzzle. The galleries were packed with people getting close-up, lingering looks at the black-and-white photos. It was an extraordinary exhibit of anguished faces and a historical artifact documenting one of the most tragic and turbulent events in American history. Uzzle, the quiet, humble photographer, graciously discussed his pictures with gallery visitors, adding insight into the events that even his perceptive photographs could not capture.

From here, the exhibit goes to the American Tobacco Museum in Durham and likely will continue to travel from there. The exhibit is a major coup for the Arts Council of Wilson and has given the Arts Council more state and national publicity than it has ever known. Arts Council officials are still hoping for some international recognition of the magnitude of this exhibit. The Arts Council owes a tremendous debt to Uzzle, who has adopted Wilson as his hometown and sings its praises again and again.

Sometimes it takes an outsider to fully appreciate a city, and Uzzle serves that purpose in Wilson. He is bolstered by Theatre of the American South founder Gary Cole, who was at the gallery reception last night. Cole chose Wilson and the Edna Boykin Cultural Center as home for his theater festival and continues to praise the hospitality and artistic civic-mindedness of this city. One long-time resident, who chose to move here from elsewhere, has proposed promoting Wilson as "the city of the arts." Given last night's reception, Uzzle constant praise and the strong local arts community, it's not far-fetched.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Near-certain death lurks at 65 mph

I almost died this afternoon at 65 mph on a six-lane stretch of interstate just east of Greensboro. I was cruising toward home on a perfect traveling day under a blue sky with temperatures in the low 60s. I was not talking on a cell phone, changing the radio station, eating at the wheel, looking at a map or changing CDs. But the person who decided to take over the space occupied by my front fender may have been doing all of those things — and at a speed considerably higher than the posted 65 mph.

All I saw was a flash of a gold- or yellow-color front fender of a truck just as it veered into the few square feet my little sedan was traveling. I didn't have time to honk the horn. I was too busy slamming on the brakes and veering to the right, out of the path of the wayward truck. My wife, who never saw the other vehicle at all, screamed as the car left the travel lane for the shoulder and the tires squealed and smoked. The rear end fishtailed, and I attempted to correct the spin, but the tires weren't gripping anything, and the car veered too far back into the travel lane as other vehicles swooshed past. The rear end whipped loose again, and I again tried to correct the veer as we continued traveling almost as fast as the other vehicles just a few feet away. This time, the skidding and correcting culminated in a maneuver you see on car-chase movies, a 180-degree spin that sets the car headed back in the opposite direction. Suddenly, I was looking west through the windshield, not east. But I wasn't interested in reversing my travel. I was just trying to get the car to stop. I pressed the brake as hard as I could and hoped that nothing was behind me as I felt the car bump off the paved shoulder into the grassy dirt. Finally, amid a strong odor of burning rubber, the car came to a stop.

All the lights on the instrument panel were on. The dashboard indicated that all four doors were open (but they weren't). The whole frightening ordeal had lasted about two seconds, during which my heart had pounded a hundred beats and was still racing. My wife began to breathe again. I turned off the ignition; the engine had stalled. I cranked the engine again, and the dashboard display returned to normal. I checked the traffic coming toward me, looking for a space to pull off the shoulder and onto the interstate again. "Let's just sit here a minute," my wife said. We did, until our breathing returned and a gap opened in the traffic.

Then her cell phone rang. It was her sister, who had been traveling behind us. They had seen the white Accord sitting on the side of the road facing the wrong direction. "Was that you?" she wanted to know. Yeah, my wife explained, breathlessly, what had happened. What kind of vehicle was it, she asked. All I saw was a yellow or gold fender of a truck, but whether an SUV or a moving van, I couldn't say. Was it a gold Dodge Dakota? Could have been. That vehicle had just cut them off, too, but without quite so much excitement. The truck never stopped.

We made it safely home from our trip. But just slightly different circumstances — a car or truck close to our car when it began fishtailing or a tire biting into the mud and causing the car to flip — could have ended much, much worse. We were 100 miles from home when we started out again, and I grew nervous each time a vehicle pulled alongside of me the entire way. In more than 40 years of driving, that might have been the most frightening episode I have ever experienced.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Make donations of money, please

I've answered a number of calls in the past couple of days from people who wanted to donate food or clothing or other items to the victims of the Haiti earthquake. One woman even brought in a bottle of aspirin to accompany her cash donation. I had to tell these concerned and well-meaning donors that, sorry, but the Red Cross is not accepting "in-kind" donations. I explained each time that the cost of shipping products to Haiti and the uncertainties about transportation infrastructure in Haiti (both the airport and the seaport were knocked out of commission by the quake) made it impractical to accept in-kind donations. The potential donors were disappointed but seemed to accept my explanation.

The American Red Cross has provided detailed explanations to its chapters about the problems associated with in-kind donations. The Red Cross does ship food, clothing and other items to disaster areas, but these are bulk items palletized by manufacturers and can be handled by modern ships, airplanes, seaports and airports. A can of green beans or a box of mixed clothes cannot be efficiently shipped and tends to clog the supply line rather than expediting relief that is needed.

The Red Cross' policy is also followed by most reputable charities. Cash donations can be spent in the disaster country, bolstering the distressed local economy. Donations of products can flood the market and hurt local sellers and manufacturers. Still, I see stories of truckloads of goods being collected for earthquake victims, and I wonder whether these items will ever reach their destination.

The simplest way to make a donation to Haiti relief is via the American Red Cross' secure donation link at Donations are also being accepted at local chapters. The Wilson-Greene Red Cross office (2305-G Wellington Drive) has been open special hours this weekend to accept monetary donations for Haiti. Sunday hours are 2-4 p.m., and the office will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, which is a holiday. Donations may also be mailed to the office with "Haiti" written on the check's memo line. The response thus far has been gratifying. The need is overwhelming, but generous monetary donations and skilled, professional relief workers and trained volunteers will make a difference in this sad country.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Novel falls south of Conroy's abilities

When Pat Conroy wrote another big novel, I felt an obligation to read it. His earlier novels, including "Beach Music," "The Great Santini," "Prince of Tides" and "Lords of Discipline" captured the angst of our generation in lyrical, evocative writing with powerful images. At his best, Conroy can make the English language sing. But Conroy's writing was not without its problems. As was apparent in "Prince of Tides," Conroy's writing could be self-indulgent and bloated, but his brand identification was so strong that an unbelievable plot twist or 20,000 unnecessary extra words did not hurt his sales or his status as a pre-eminent Southern writer.

So I read "South of Broad." Being fairly familiar with Charleston, where my brother has lived for 20 years, I looked forward to a story about that fascinating city. But what Conroy delivered was not a credible account of a fascinating city (such as John Berendt's wonderful ode to Savannah, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil") but an unedited mish-mash of unbelievable story lines, paper-thin stereotypes masquerading as fictional characters, and the most wooden dialogue I've ever read in a reputable novel. "Wooden" is too complimentary a description of some of the conversation in "South of Broad"; it's more like cheap Formica. Example: "Here's all the wisdom I got to share, Leo: Being a kid's a pain in the ass. Being an adult is ten times worse. That's Cleo the Greek, who came from people who brought you Plato and Socrates and all those other assholes." You'd think the author had never listened to people talk.

Part of the novel is set in the social upheaval of desegregation in the 1960s, but Conroy's portrayal is all black-and-white (forgive the pun) with none of the nuance, internal conflicts and doubts that afflicted that era. His characters face integration as either pristinely noble knights or black-hearted, cruel scoundrels. For a more honest and accurate look back at this era, read "Magic Time" by Conroy's good friend the late Doug Marlette, who captures the conflicts and flawed characters of that time.

A third of the way into Conroy's 500-page novel, I complained to my wife, who had already read it, and she reminded me that I was under no obligation to finish it. But I persevered, partly in the hope that it would get better and partly in the desire to see how Conroy was going to drag this disjointed plot to a conclusion. I'm left with sad disappointment that a novelist with so much talent could allow himself to turn in a manuscript that falls so far short of his abilities.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

This book provides context for Haiti

Repeatedly yesterday and today, as the conversation turned toward the situation in Haiti, I have recommended that my conversational partners read "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder. The book is the extraordinary story of Dr. Paul Farmer and his organization, Partners in Health, which has done remarkable work in Haiti and in other Third World countries, treating diseases thought to be incurable and caring for poor patients no one cared about. (Tracy Kidder spoke at Barton College a few years ago, promoting the book.)

Kidder, one of the most honored nonfiction writers of his generation, tells the compelling story of Paul Farmer against the bleak background of Haiti, a nation that was a basket case before this week's devastating earthquake. Kidder's descriptions sets the scene for what is happening in the news now, and his narrative provides a concise background for anyone hoping to understand Haiti's abject poverty and unbelievably harsh conditions.

And that was before the earthquake.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What's he apologizing for now?

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's quote about then-candidate Barack Obama has caused a lot more stir than it's worth, but I'm not making excuses for Reid, who has apologized to the president and to all African-Americans. It must be hard to apologize for stating the obvious truth. I'm not a fan of Harry Reid, who, I think, has been the cause of much of the continuing divisive partisanship that has kept Congress from accomplishing anything (he has had plenty of accomplices), but I think a mountain has been made of a molehill of a remark.

Reid has apologized, but what has he apologized for? He admits saying the remark quoted in a new book about the 2008 campaign, referring to Obama as "light-skinned" and someone who did not engage in "Negro dialect" unless he needed to. His description of Obama is entirely accurate. The president is the mixed-race son of an African man and an American woman. His skin is a sort of medium on the color scale. He is widely regarded as one of the best speech-making politicians of his day. His speech patterns reflect a careful articulation without any obvious regional or cultural inflections. Those are facts. Reid has apologized for speaking the truth.

What he should be apologizing for is the fact that current political rules do not allow the pointing out of obvious racial differences, unless, of course, the racial or ethnic differences are written into law in a manner to benefit specific groups. You can pinpoint the desire of racial minorities to elect one of their own under the Voting Rights Act's special provisions, for example, but you can't point out that Islamist terrorists tend to be young males of Arabic descent.

As for the president, his candidacy benefited from the very attributes that Reid pointed out. His skin color is little different from the color of many Americans of European descent, and he doesn't talk like a rap artist. (Reid's use of the antiquated term "Negro" might seem awkward or insensitive but is not incorrect.) Americans might be uncomfortable with admitting that we might be ready for an African-American president but they're not ready for Al Sharpton or H. Rap Brown as president.

Republicans are screaming because they say Sen. Trent Lott was crucified when he suggested at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that America would have been better off had Thurmond been elected president in 1948. Lott was forced to give up his majority leader position. Lott's remark was more stupid than insensitive, the result of trying too hard to compliment the old codger on his birthday. Being stupid is a more serious impediment in performing the duties of majority leader than whatever crime Reid committed. A more relevant comparison to Reid's remark is now-Vice President Joe Biden's 2007 remark in which he said almost the same thing Reid did, that Obama is articulate, "clean" and nice looking. Biden might have one-upped Reid on the political incorrectness scale.

If Reid loses his election this year, it should be because of serious issues in Nevada and Washington, not on account of an offhand remark that is deemed politically incorrect. Americans should be more willing to accept the truth, even if it does cringe our racial sensitivities.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Good news and bad news for newspapers

One report out today gives some good but ironic news to my former profession while another study affirms doubts that online news will ever be a profitable venture for newspapers. The good news is contained in a Pew Research Center study that finds that nearly all of the substantive, original news on the Web comes from the "old media." That's right, it's newspapers (and to a lesser extent, television and radio) that provides in-depth reporting and important updates about what's going on in the world and in the local community. Those "aggregator" sites run by Google, the Huffington Post and others are basing most of their information on what has been reported by newspapers.

But before I and other newspaper-reading stalwarts shout, "I told ya so!" consider what that means. Advertisers and, to a lesser extent, readers, are fleeing the newspaper Web sites for the newer, trendier, sexier aggregator sites. So while newspapers are doing all the heavy lifting, the "new media" are getting the credit and the profit from online advertising. Newspapers, with less respect than Rodney Dangerfield, can't get credit for the good work they're doing.

If that weren't depressing enough, another post today shows that newspapers that have chosen to charge for their Web content are doing abysmally in building an online readership. What portion of their print readership is willing to spend money to read the news online? According to today's Newsosaur blog, about 2 percent. That is not good news for those news executives who have advocated "pay walls" as the key to making newspapers profitable — or more profitable — again.

As Newsosaur shows, how much the newspaper charges for online content has little impact on how many online subscribers it collects. That might encourage publishers to charge a premium for online content, but the success of "pay wall" sites is a minuscule online subscriber base. Even premium payments won't amount to much if you're only getting 2 percent of the print-reading population. And by cutting off other readers, these publishers are decimating the value of their online advertising by reducing the number of eyeballs falling on those online ads.

Newspapers are in a tough dilemma. They get little respect for the essential news reporting they provide — reporting that is the foundation of a modern representative democracy — and they can't attract enough online readers to make a reasonable profit off their expensively collected news. Aggregators, with little overhead cost and sophisticated ad-targeting software, are eating newspapers' lunch, as well as their breakfast and dinner. Pay walls don't appear to be the answer.

Americans who care about public interest reporting — and all Americans should — might consider a revision of copyright laws that would require payments to originators of information when that news is rewritten, repackaged or redistributed. Without a reliable revenue stream for newspapers, the flow of legitimate, trustworthy news, as the Pew study shows, will dry up.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Decorations come down with sadness

The Christmas decorations are coming down, and it's a two-day job, maybe more. The dining room, the stair landing and other spots throughout the house are piled with Christmas decorations that have inspired, uplifted and comforted us for a month. Now it is time for them to go back into the cabinets and the attic whence they came.

These decorations are the accumulation of a lifetime, a collection with no central theme other than Christmas itself. It is an eclectic mix of Santas and angels and books and pictures of Christmases past. There are also bells and wreaths and lights and candles, all revolving around the Christmas theme, bringing light to our winter darkness, warmth to our winter chill.

My wife, who spends days sorting through the collection each December and carefully placing each artifact for best effect, has spent this weekend defrocking the Christmas spirit that has occupied this house since the beginning of Advent. She hates this job as much as she loves last month's task of placing tidings of comfort and joy. But Epiphany is past, and it is time to strike the set of our Christmas comedy. The live greenery went first. The tree found its way to the curb, and the sprigs of holly, nandina and fir went into the compost bin. All that is not compostable or disposable is being packed away.

Now, on a day that dawned with a temperature of 20 degrees and has barely exceeded freezing all day, we must put behind us the light and anticipation of Christmas and face the bleak midwinter, all gray and lifeless. January, chosen by the ancients to be the beginning of the new year, hardly looks like anything new. The first signs of new life are a month or two or three away when brave crocuses and daffodils will dare to splash colors across the gray landscape, and we will have hope again that azaleas and dogwoods and tulips will follow. Until then, we gird our bodies and our minds against the cold and dark, remembering while we still can the glorious warmth of spring in all its colorful beauty. This memory is all we have to get us through to spring.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Look out: Gasoline prices are rising

For most Americans, the current Great Recession began in 2008 when gasoline prices threatened to hit $4 a gallon. The government and economists caught on later when the housing crisis hit full force.

Now gasoline prices are on the rise again. Regular gas, which had dipped below $2 a gallon at one point, is now pushing $3 a gallon. The price of crude oil is rising, demand for petroleum is recovering as the global economic upturn begins, and Americans are still driving big, gas-guzzling SUVs. I sat at a stoplight earlier this week on my way to work and watched the vehicles passing in front of me. The drivers, all looking like they were on their way to work, were all traveling alone. Seven of the eight vehicles that passed in that light cycle were eight-passenger carriers; the eighth was a five-passenger sedan. Only one person was in each vehicle. It's hard to think of a more inefficient way of commuting to work.

Many families believe they "need" their big trucks with their 25- or 40-gallon gas tanks. Sometimes they haul as many as three children, and they like to stretch out. But most of the time, one person is traveling alone in these eight-passenger, 5,000 pound monsters rolling on tires as big as oil pipelines. Government safety-seat regulations, which keep children in space-hogging safety seats until they're 8 years old, also contribute to the problem. Two car seats take up the entire width of most vehicles, forcing three-child families into vans or SUVs. Getting Americans out of these big vehicles into a more sensible commuting car would save billions of barrels of oil, reduce the price of gasoline and, maybe, stave off the next down cycle of the economy.

One final late night for college football

OK. The college football season is over, and I'll have to go into withdrawal for the next eight months. Last night's BCS championship was a good game, in doubt until the last few minutes and with plenty of spectacular plays. It was a game I stayed up to watch (why TV's dictatorial influence puts these games on until midnight on a Thursday night is another issue), and I wasn't disappointed.

Neither team was my choice for the championship, and I have an abiding distaste for both head coaches, but since someone had to win, I relished seeing Mack Brown lose more than seeing Nick Saban win. Roll Tide! (Too bad Auburn didn't succeed in knocking you off and Nebraska failed by one second knocking Texas off.) If I had a vote in the final polls, it would go to undefeated Boise State, the team that still gets no respect, despite one of the winningest records in college football over the past three or four years.

I've watched a lot of bowl games over the past couple of weeks, and I'm the first to admit there are too many of these games over too long a stretch of time and at kickoff times that make no sense to anyone but television executives. Most of the bowls are nothing but profit-making transactions for the teams and host cities and excuses for partying by fans (thus, Memphis was an ideal bowl city for ECU, with its party school reputation). I watched these games not because they were meaningful or because I wanted to see how area teams stacked up against other opponents (though I did), but because college football is a terrific spectator sport that is ideally suited to television. Instant replay and multiple camera locations have turned watching football on TV into a viewer-friendly fascination. The team loyalties and passions of college football make it the most exciting of major sports. I still watch NFL games occasionally, but the loyalties and passions are not the same when grown men are playing for million of dollars per game.

There's much wrong with college football (and college sports in general) — the overwhelming control of television, the monstrous budgets, the non-playoff, non-decisive BCS bowl system, the odiously extravagant coaches' salaries (Mack Brown — $5 million a year, plus bonuses; Nick Saban — $3.5 million or something like that) — but it achieves its purpose of being grand entertainment.

I'll miss it over the next eight months.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

State's ABC system makes no sense

The best argument for privatization of alcohol sales in North Carolina might be the New Hanover County ABC Board. As WRAL reports, the board resigned this week rather than face the scrutiny of county commissioners, who might want an explanation of why the county's ABC manager is being paid $214,000 a year, plus a $30,000 bonus. Other news organizations have reported on the wide discrepancies in ABC store profits across the state. Some ABC systems even lost money, which must be a pretty difficult thing to do when you own a monopoly on one of the most popular consumer products in the state.

The way the state ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) system works seems normal to those of us who grew up in North Carolina after the ABC system came into being after Prohibition (Wilson County had the first ABC store in the state). But from an efficiency and management basis, it makes no sense at all. Individual counties operate ABC boards, which oversee county ABC stores, but the county ABC stores can only buy their stock from the state ABC Board, which operates a state liquor warehouse. The state has a monopoly on wholesaling, the counties have a monopoly on retailing, and county ABC boards can pay whatever salaries they want and accept whatever profits (or lack thereof) they deem acceptable.

What is missing is any profit-and-loss control. A store manager can't decide to run a special on Absolut vodka, for example, because he's got an oversupply, and he can't accept an offer from Seagram's for a cut-rate wholesale price. He has to buy through the state warehouse. Does anyone think the state's system of county ABC stores are run as efficiently as Wal-Mart or Family Dollar? In other states, the free market sets the price of alcohol. Consumers win because retailers pay attention to their interests instead of dictating what will be sold and what it will cost.

North Carolina should abolish the system of county ABC vendors, replacing the stores with independent, state-licensed alcoholic beverage stores. Sales would be limited to specialty stores that sell nothing but alcoholic beverages; no minors would be allowed in the stores. The state Alcohol Law Enforcement system would remain in place to prevent underage sales and to address addiction problems. This system should have no effect on drunken driving; those laws would remain in effect or even be strengthened. Consumers would benefit from increased competition and lower prices (the result of not paying six-figure salaries to county ABC managers). Many North Carolinians would appreciate being able to take advantage of a sale on Maker's Mark when they drop into Total Wine for a bottle of chardonnay.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sadness follows the Christmas season

"I'm sad. Christmas is almost over." So said my 2-year-old grandson in the middle of the afternoon on Dec. 25.

His parents and grandparents attempted to comfort him by telling him that Christmas was not over. Christmas lasts until Jan. 6. I don't think we did a lot to alleviate his sadness. So it goes with small children, whose excitement for Christmas builds over a period of a couple of months or longer, and then it's over.

Last night, having removed the decorations and the lights from our tree, which was shedding needles like a cumulus cloud sheds moisture, and helping me wrangle the tree out the door, my wife sat looking at the empty spot the tree had occupied. "I'm sad," she said. The tree had been up nearly a month. And although we were leaving up other decorations — Epiphany has not yet arrived — it was sad to see the empty spot in the sun room and to lose the twinkling lights that had brightened that dark corner.

Much of our Christmas traditions, including bringing green trees indoors and installing candles and lights throughout the house, have more to do with the winter solstice — the lengthening of darkness as days grow shorter — than with Christian history or theology. Now that Christmas is (almost) past, we have little to encourage us through the still-long nights and the dreary, gray landscape until the first buds of spring arrive.

Two-year-olds can be pretty perceptive. It's a sad time.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Old bridge coat still keeps me warm

This morning, I found my old bridge coat in the hall closet, brushed away the lint and put it on. This relic from the life I briefly lived as a Coast Guard officer has served me well. The long, heavy wool coat is the warmest coat I own, and partly for that reason, it's one I rarely wear. Most days in North Carolina, even the cold ones, do not require a coat designed to keep an officer warm on the bridge of a ship in the North Atlantic. Its double row of naval-style brass buttons provides a warm double layer that is warm even in the coldest wind but is too formal for most occasions. I bought the coat, a required part of my uniform wardrobe, from a second-hand naval uniform shop while I was in Officer Candidate School 38 years ago.

Long before I bought my second-hand bridge coat, I wore my father's World War II Navy pea coat after I discovered it beat anything you could buy for warmth. It kept me warm through college on long walks to class on cold mornings and continued to serve me well in my civilian career until the day it was stolen in the late 1980s from the back of my wife's car parked at the church where she worked. If I could replace that peacoat, I would, but more recent versions of the classic double-breasted Navy-issue pea coat that I have seen were not as thick nor as well-made as the one my father was issued in 1944.

When the overnight temperature drops into the teens, seldom-worn heavy coats earn their keep. Modern fabrics and insulation make these scientifically engineered parkas warm without so much weight, but nothing I've found can beat a Navy bridge coat or pea coat for cozy warmth.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Baby it's cold outside!

It's late morning with the sun already high in a clear blue sky as I write this, but the temperature is in the 20s. While that counts as a mild day in Minnesota, it's frigid in eastern North Carolina, especially when combined with a brisk, biting wind. Meteorologists say we're in for the longest sustained period of freezing temperatures in decades over the next several days. It's a good time to huddle in your home and do some reading, watch a movie on the DVD player or just catch up on napping. Outdoor activities are too painful to contemplate, and, fortunately, there's little gardening that needs to be done this time of year. I won't be raking leaves, mowing grass or planting annuals this month. My most sustained outdoor activity might be walking the dog, whose thick, furry coat makes this her kind of weather.

This persistent stretch of cold nights could have a positive effect. Sustained freezing temperature discourages some insect pests and bacteria and can kill some invasive plants. But few of us are thinking about the benefits as we shiver our way from door to car. My own car, well into its 16th year and 140,000-plus miles, doesn't care for the cold. The radio refuses to work in the cold. (I'm told that the problem is probably a poorly seated circuit board that contracts in the cold and fails to make a good connection, but it's not worth hundreds of dollars for a technician to find the problem or the $100 or so to replace the whole thing.) Whenever I'm greeted by silence when I crank the car, I know it's cold.

Bitter cold like this is usually bad news for fire departments. People will go to great lengths to stay warm, but sometimes those lengths involve hazardous practices. Space heaters are often the problem as unattended heaters ignite nearby flammable material. Refilling kerosene heaters is the cause of many fires, and open fireplaces or wood heaters can also cause fires. As you stay warm, use caution. Shivering in the cold is bad, but a house fire is infinitely worse. Be warm, but be safe!

Here's a little distraction from the cold, courtesy of Dean Martin:

Friday, January 1, 2010

Looking ahead at this new year

It's a new year, though only a few hours removed from the old year. It is not, as some list-makers have claimed, the end of the decade. (Decades begin in the year ###1 and end in the year ###0.) But instead of looking back on 2001-09, let's look ahead at 2010.
• This year should bring a climax to the multiple investigations of the Easley administration. My guess is that there will be an indictment on at least some of the charges against him. It could be as minor as campaign finance misreporting or as serious as influence-peddling. Will it be failure to report free flights on private aircraft or pressuring N.C. State to hire his wife or manipulating state regulatory responsibility for fun and profit?
• However the grand jury decides on the Easley issues, the embarrassing publicity and some retirements from the legislature should make 2010 a golden opportunity for North Carolina Republicans. After losses in 2006 and 2008, the GOP needs a win or two. As usual for the state GOP, the question will be whether it can present competent, qualified candidates or will it insist upon ideological purity? The key will be independents, also known as unaffiliated voters. If Republicans can woo them instead of scaring them away, Republicans could rule in Raleigh.
• President Obama got his health care bill through the Senate. Now he and congressional leaders have to resolve the many differences between Senate and House versions. This may be even more difficult than bargaining 60 Senate votes. Democrats are determined to get a health care bill signed, so it could happen. One thing to remember, however: Most of the provisions of the bill will not take effect until 2011, which means the new provisions won't help Democratic candidates in 2010 elections. In fact, the bill could hurt them if critics succeed in highlighting ambiguities and disinformation about the bill.
• The war in Afghanistan continues with the addition of new U.S. troops, but victory over the Taliban and the entrenched tribal loyalties of the Afghans is not assured. American troops are to leave Iraq, but that squalid country is still a dangerous place that could easily collapse into civil war.
• A larger concern than either Afghanistan or Iraq should be the global conspiracy to wage a war between fundamentalist Islam and the secular (or Judeo-Christian) West. Recent failed plots to attack U.S. facilities and recruit American jihadists portend an increasingly dangerous world. Although the militant jihadists are a tiny percentage of Muslims, their ideology and their tactics endanger people of all faiths and threaten to undo the civilizing arc that began with the Enlightenment. America and the West, along with the moderate majority of Muslims, must recognize this threat and eliminate it before it sends civilization into a fatal tailspin. 2010 could be a crucial year in this struggle.
• The American economy should improve in 2010, but it will be a long time before "good times" return. Savings, home values and employment will improve some, but not a lot. Unless there is a seismic shock, such as a successful terrorist attack, things should improve incrementally through the coming year. Many geographic areas will continue to have persistently high unemployment. Instead of a new stimulus, Congress should review and revise government policies on trade, taxes, banking and manufacturing that got us into this mess.
• 2010 by most any measure should be better than 2009, but that's a bit like being sweeter than a salt lick.