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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Swine fools

We're less than one week into the 24-7 coverage of swine flu and the media has apparently started running out of things to write about. How else to explain two major league non-stories that punched through the fog today.

At one point, ABCNews.com was bannering Vice President Joe Biden's "gaffe" in suggesting people stay off airplanes and subway cars as a way avoid potential encounters with the virus. "Off message," they shouted because Barack Obama had only counseled hand washing and cough control as contingencies.

Off message? Perhaps. How many of you plan to get on an airplane, notorious for its poor air circulation in the best of times, anytime soon? And do you really relish the thought of sitting next to a sneezing, wheezing Green Line passenger?

But "gaffe" is a much better angle than "common sense."

Far more venal are the remarks from the remarkably clueless Republican representative from Minnesota, Michele Bachmann. I can recall a litany of asinine comments from her over the course of the 2008 campaign, but I really don't feel like chasing the links.

Ratter, I want to present her with the Massachusetts Liberal Award for being the first person I am aware of to fulfill my prediction that someone on the right would attempt to blame Obama for the outbreak.

Ms. Bachmann obviously didn't read my blog (or anything else for that matter) in putting the 1976 outbreak on Jimmy Carter, quickly adding the weasel words "I’m not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it’s an interesting coincidence.”

Except for the fact the swine flu follies took place under Carter's predecessor, Gerald Ford. The first death occurred in February 1976, when Carter was an unknown Georgia peanut farmer about to pull off a surprise in Iowa.

I'm not blaming Ms. Bachmann for being a clueless, idiotic partisan. But it's not not just an interesting coincidence.

Can we focus on what is actually happening out there and leave politics out of this medical story?

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Clueless wonders

Let's see now: Gov. Deval Patrick is positioning himself for a tough re-election fight while Massachusetts House members have only the public interest at heart in taking a vote on a sales tax increase before completing action on ethics, pension and transportation reform.

If you believe that, there's a bridge I can sell you. But buyer beware: It may be ready to fall down from years of neglect by a Legislature that failed to rein in Big Dig costs and squandered cash.

Rep. Michael Rodrigues, a Westport Democrat, may be guilty of one of the most mind-numbingly clueless (but incredibly sanctimonious) comments in Massachusetts political history with this little gem he left with the Globe's Matt Viser:
"We'll be on guard now and we'll realize that we don't have the type of partner in the corner office that we thought we had. It's the governor positioning his reelection campaign. He's going to now try and position himself as an outsider reformer and run against the Legislature."
Excuse me? After key members of Speaker Robert DeLeo's leadership team said there was a strong preference for one tax vote? Could that possibly be because they were positioning for a reelection campaign?

Or what can you make of the House's likely decision to restore dollars for the Quinn Bill, a pet of police unions, that is apparently important enough to generate a finger-jabbing exchange between Malden Democrat Chris Fallon and DeLeo? At a legislative fund-raiser.

Memo to clueless lawmakers: the Globe may be gasping for air but it's still around. So is the Herald and thanks to the Web your own words and deeds are recorded for posterity and playback.

Patrick would be guilty of political malpractice is if he did not run against the Legislature. Apparently they were looking for a patsy to stand by silently while they offered "leadership" similar to the type they showed by dumping the Big Dig cost overruns on the Turnpike Authority, then making it the fall guy for the disaster that ensued.

Or giving the T a penny on the sales tax while ignoring its debt problems.

The unnamed House leader quoted by the Globe as saying "it's personal with 160 people" likely was looking in the mirror as he or she was thinking about their own survival.

And I do hope the "leader" can count dollars better than heads. It's no more than 159 people. There's a vacancy in the North End where the representative stepped down amid a swirl of questions about the way the business of the House was conducted.

You may remember him. His name is Sal DiMasi.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some enchanted evening

Remember the hue and cry (or was this pissing and moaning?) when Barack Obama failed to call on The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal or USA Today during his previous primetime news conference?

Now we know why.

Timesman Jeff Zeleny won the booby prize at tonight's prime time presser with his question about Obama's most "troubling, humbling, surprising moments." Interesting omission by the Times' live bloggers in forgetting to mention the other category -- "enchanting." Heck, even Obama wrote down the options.

Let's see. Swine flu. Failing auto companies. Failing economy. Loose nukes in Pakistan. And this is the best the Times can come up with for a featured question at a nationally televised news conference?

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Beacon Hill warfare

Sorry if you gave you a nice Sunday to do the people's business Madame President. But there is a problem here that requires all of our attention.

The tension between Gov. Deval Patrick and legislative leaders ratcheted up a few more notches after Patrick's release of a video declaring "reform before revenue" in the search for ways to balance the state budget. Maybe Murray was annoyed that Patrick has appropriated her mantra, but this comment will go down as one of the more tone deaf remarks in state history.

"I was very surprised, since the speaker and I gave up our Sundays and sat with him for quite a while," Murray said. "To receive that letter, with that tone, was shocking, really."

I'll leave it to others to debate whether Patrick is a reformer or just posturing. But from the tone of the comments on a Globe story from yesterday, it seems as if the governor is closer to the public's mood than a Legislature that sends the signal that it prefers an easy vote over a hard debate.

On the one hand, Murray's open annoyance at Patrick can't be a good thing for the governor's agenda. She had been a silent mediator in the struggle between Patrick and former Speaker Sal DiMasi so her adversarial stance here is ominous. And her genuine (and righteous) pique at Transportation Secretary James Aloisi makes this dustup look like a walk in the park.

But lawmakers have not been projecting any sense of urgency in grappling with ALL the issues facing the Commonwealth. And for voters the mess at the Pike, the steady steam of news about another pension outrage and yes, the political backbiting, all come down to the same thing -- elected officials out of touch.

Not to mention they elect one person as a figurehead to handle it all.

Belatedly or not, cynically or not, Patrick seems to be moving in the direction favored by the public. No one will ever be happy paying an additional penny in taxes but they do want to see some signs they are being heard.

Packaging tax decisions into easier-to-defend votes and lamenting about lost Sundays are as tone deaf as uproars over drapes and book contracts. And they are equally important to a public that is growing ever more angry over the inability of our leaders to address things important to them.

Patrick appears to have learned from his most recent gaffes -- the Marian Walsh and James Aloisi "cozy up to the insiders" moves having flamed out royally. He may have the high ground right now in the symbolism wars only to lose it later. And obviously, legislators have nothing to worry about as long as the Republican Party puts out press releases rather than candidates for office.

But standing up to a legislature is never a bad political move for an embattled governor.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Losing a battle to win the war

House Speaker Robert DeLeo may be feeling pretty good this morning -- cobbling together a veto-proof majority for his proposal to raise the sales tax to 6.25 percent in the face of Gov. Deval Patrick's letter to lawmakers promising to reject the hike if it isn't preceded by reform.

Patrick is probably also feeling pretty chipper this morning too. Why? House Dean David Flynn was spot on when he told the Globe "I think this is him kicking off his campaign."

And it's not a bad start when a major revenue piece, strongly opposed by business (not to mention the inevitable public unhappiness) is accompanied by headlines that declare "House plan won't solve long-term transit-fund crisis."

Patrick is now officially on the record taking on the Legislature over taxes. His even less popular gas tax hike is off the table and he has positioned himself as the champion of the taxpayer by declaring:
"I don't believe that we can go to the public and ask for any broad-based tax increase unless we get meaningful outcomes on the reform measures that are pending."
But note the operative or weasel word, if you will -- pending.

By the time this budget wends its way through the Senate -- where President Therese Murray has been notably silent on taxes -- into conference committee and back to Patrick for signature, it will likely be mid-to-late June, at the earliest.

It's possible that by then lawmakers will have formalized versions of ethics and pension reform. Maybe even transportation restructuring. That would clear the way for Patrick to sign a sales tax increase (assuming it passes muster in the Senate), claiming that he forced lawmakers to push ahead on the reforms he sought.

Or, which seems just as likely -- the transportation "solution" still lacks depth because the sales tax hike doesn't cover long-term problems -- he vetoes the tax hike, is overridden and has ready-made commercials for his 2010 campaign against sales tax foe Christy Mihos.

This quote might make a strong campaign talking point too:
"If the public thinks that, 'Oh, this sales tax is going to solve all the problems,' it won't," said Eric Bourassa, a public transit advocate for the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group. "It might improve the short-term problems, but it might just push them off into the future."
Higher turnpike polls become lawmakers' problems and they will have hell to pay for the next round of MBTA service cuts and fare hikes. Not to mention they will own the crumbling roads and bridges.

Patrick's popularity numbers may be in the tank, but no politician has ever gone wrong running against the legislature or Congress. The beleaguered Patrick has put an important downpayment on his campaign by taking a stand here.

He's in a much better place to win the war by losing this battle.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

A taxing situation

The first piece of the state's fiscal bailout appears to be taking shape in the House, where Speaker Robert DeLeo appears ready to throw his support behind a 1.25 percent increase in the sales tax.

Aside from being a messy number when you try to compute the tax in your head, the 25 percent increase in the levy appears to be a fair solution to a vexing problem. But the House is setting up some booby traps by earmarking portions of the new revenues for specific problems.

The plan calls for $275 million to go to transportation needs and $200 million for local aid, leaving about $425 million to deal with what is estimated to be a $1.2 billion budget hole.

It also doesn't come close to solving the transportation needs. Gov. Deval Patrick's 19-cent a gallon gas tax hike would bring in an estimated $500 million, enough to offset toll hikes and help deal with the MBTA's shortfall which, let us recall, is tied to a drop in sales tax receipts earmarked for the T.

Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Michael Widmer suggests the revenues would not begin to make a dent on the teeth-rattling condition of our roads and bridges in serious need of repair thanks to the cash vacuum cleaner known as the Big Dig.

Nor would a $200 million restoration of a $424 million local aid cut forestall significant municipal cuts or efforts at property tax increases.

There seem to be two obvious directions lawmakers can go to fill in the remaining gap -- short of following through on the full laundry list of cuts. One item may very well be on the table for the fall -- slots or casino gambling. The climate is likely to be very different after the full impact of the fiscal 2010 budget hits home.

The other option can and should be more timely -- expanding the reach of the sales tax. No, not to clothes or food. But professional services. Telecommunications. And most importantly, gasoline.

I'll leave it to someone else to do the math, but a 1.25 percent add-on to a gallon of gas should be a lot less costly than a 19-cent tax. It would generate a lot more dollars to go to road and bridge repair.

And it would be a user fee -- a charge levied on motorists who use those highways and local streets. Don't drive as much, use the T (shudder) and you won't pay as much. It's a basic energy conservation measure, something that seemed important when gas topped $4 a gallon.

We will continue to hear laments that a higher sales tax would drive business to New Hampshire. Maybe, maybe not, except in communities that border the "tax-free" mecca of higher property taxes. It would still be a lower sales tax than Rhode Island or New York.

The folks who insist on getting something for nothing can continue to move to New Hampshire. And maybe we can charge them one-way exit tolls.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

The First 97 days

Analysis of Barack Obama's first three months is in full flower, with polls showing the public far more patient than the punditocracy in expecting results after eight years of screw-ups.

But in keeping with the fevered brows appearing both in mainstream outlets and in the blogosphere, allow me to introduce a new angle into the analysis: why has Barack Obama failed to cure swine flu?

For those with short memories (or those who weren't even born then) let's recall the issue became a problem for Gerald Ford in 1976.

Here we are three decades later and still no solution. What's up with that Barack?

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Survivor: Newbury Street

City Weekly and Globe Northwest are history. Health/Science has disappeared into G. The Globe itself is tottering on the brink of extinction.

But we still have the lifestyles of the rich and famous beat.

I know I just could not wait another day to learn that "men were shying away from orange-patterned dress shirts and favoring blue gingham ones, opting for charcoal pinstripe over glen plaid suits."

Taste making a comeback in hard times?

And I am also comforted to know that Ernie Boch Jr., that shy, self-effacing auto mogul/blues musician who works his name into his annoying radio jingles, isn't interested in the limelight, telling Joan Rivers that he didn't want to appear on a new reality show "How Did You Get So Rich?"

What if they renamed it "Survivor: Newbury Street"? I can see it now. The Running of the Scarves at Burberry. Getting a table at Stephanie's. Looking for close-outs at Louis.

Bring it on!

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

The future of Boston news

I have seen the future of Boston news should the New York Times shutter the Boston Globe. And it ain't pretty.

There it was -- on page A12, deep in the bowels of the National section, next to the latest on the Craigslist killer: "To Save Money, M.I.T. Drops 8 Sports Teams".

Breaking news. Film at 11.

Two weeks after its longing look back at the 20th anniversary of Harvard's sole NCAA hockey title (totally ignoring eventually Frozen Four winner BU), the Times was scouring the Boston collegiate sports scene again, offering scintillating details missing from a story the Globe ran a day earlier. How could we live without this detail?
The announcement ended several weeks of meetings and student hand-wringing over which of M.I.T.’s 41 Division III varsity teams would be cut. Being an innovative lot, M.I.T. students looked for ways to save programs, including fund-raising and protests. Some disgruntled students even kidnapped Tim the Beaver, the institute’s mascot, demanding that all 41 teams be kept. (The student playing Tim was released unharmed, although the costume’s head eventually ended up on the John Harvard statue in Harvard Yard.)
Hand-wringing indeed. We have it all wrong about the threat to the Globe. The Times will be there with tough looks at MIT and Harvard athletics. And as an extra bonus we can read their coverage of Yankee games at Fenway Park!

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Let me add my own two cents

It's one of the more common expressions of daily life. In the 1920s, it was the cost of a glass of seltzer on the Lower East Side. Over time it has come to represent something cheap and easy.

Apparently two cents in Massachusetts can be worth up to $1.5 billion -- if it is tacked onto the sales tax. And I can't help but have a nagging feeling that if the Massachusetts Legislature goes in that direction they will be making a cheap and easy decision.

OK, not cheap.

The Globe reports a "consensus" is building to stick two pennies on the 5 percent sales tax, a 40 percent jump in the levy. No gas tax hike. No sweets and soda tax.

An easy solution to a complex problem. But it's not.

For starters, sales taxes hit everyone the same, no matter whether than can afford it. A 40 percent increase is much harder on a single parent than on some hauling down six figures.

As I discussed yesterday, a sales tax-only solution hits different people up for different problems. A kid buying school supplies would be paying for the Big Dig, while his own school may well suffer because revenues that could go to the general fund and for education get diverted to pay for the transportation infrastructure mess.

And, as I noted, we've tried it already, earmarking a penny of the current five-cent tax for the MBTA. That's worked well. Not.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo is facing massive headaches in his first months on the job, a position he won by serving the needs of his constituents -- 159 other House members. His goal is a clean and simple tax vote to make their lives easier next November.

But clean and simple votes aimed at an election 19 months away is not in the best interests of the more than six million folks who live in Massachusetts. Especially when it doesn't take into account other options.

How about some creativity -- like expanding the scope of the sales tax? The handy rule of thumb is if you can eat it, drink it or wear it, you can't tax it (unless you eat or drink it in a restaurant).

Lawmakers actually expanded the sales tax in 1990 to include business services (including utilities and telecommunications), a tax hike that lasted long enough for Michael Dukakis to move out of the Corner Office and let Bill Weld move in.

That vote and repeal took place during the last really major downturn that hit Massachusetts. Dukakis, then the most hated man in politics, took the heat for what was a courageous vote. But courage crumbled in the face of a newly elected governor who benefited from the other tax hikes Dukakis helped to engineer.

That's what happens when votes are placed ahead of the common wealth. It's more important than ever to do the right thing, not the politically expedient thing.

Why don't I believe that will happen?

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Negotiating gap

The Herald has done a marvelous job covering the story the New York Times doesn't want to talk about, the tabloid's tendency to tweak the Globe at every opportunity got in the way today -- and pointed out the inherent problem with a bargaining team top-heavy in non-journalists.

I suspect reporter Beth Daley, the one journalist said to be on the negotiating team, was as uncomfortable as anyone with the decision by Boston Newspaper Guild President Dan Totten to invite legislators to today's noon rally at Faneuil Hall.

While it's a great ploy for plumbers, carpenters and other trades, the invitation represents a cardinal breach in the wall between reporter and source, something a newspaper advertising sales rep should get but obviously did not.

With a week to go before the New York Times' hardball deadline, now is not the best time to create any cracks in the solidarity wall. And offering politicians or other non-friends an opportunity to take shots at the newspaper's journalistic ethics, not matter how far removed journalism is from the battle, is unwise.

A lot of the talk centered around the concessions being sought focus on the lifetime job guarantees. It has been reported those guarantees are more important to backshop staff than to journalists. But the bottom line is they are worthless if there is no newspaper to write, edit, sell ads for or deliver.

I can't make it to today's rally, but have signed the Guild's "Save the Globe" petition. I would suggest union leaders with an advertising background also take heed and listen to WBUR's John Carroll. The real constituency they need is not the folks reporters work with. It's their own business-to-business base.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Get it right the first time

Massachusetts legislative leaders seem to have a visceral fear of the gasoline tax. Maybe it was the stratospheric levels the fuels climbed to last year -- and the resulting pain in the wallet inflicted on motorists. Or maybe the have a problem with anything Gov. Deval Patrick proposes.

In any event, consensus seems to be building -- at least among leadership -- to solve all the state's financial travails -- including the massive amount of cash needed to maintain and restore crumbling roads, bridges and subway systems -- by adding a penny to the sales tax.

A 20 percent increase in the sales tax is estimated to generate $750 million. Patrick's 19-cent gas tax hike would bring in about $500 million. The gas tax hike would be used to prevent toll hikes, MBTA fare increases, fund regional road and bridge projects -- all glaring transportation needs. Whatever is left over could be used for the state's other pressing needs such as education, public safety and human services. Not to mention local aid.

We've been down this road not all that long ago. And that is part of the reason we are here again today. To solve the last transportation funding crisis, lawmakers earmarked a penny of the current sales tax for the MBTA, a move that has helped fuel the problem because tax receipts did not meet projections.

Now we expect to split that extra $750 million among the MBTA, the Turnpike Authority, MassHighway and who know where else and think it will make a serious dent in the transportation problem and the shortfalls caused by the steepest recession since the Great Depression?

Maybe it's psychological -- one penny instead of 19 pennies per gallon. But lawmakers should think long and hard about that tactic. Do they really think the anti-tax foes will shrink from calling it a 20 percent increase?

And what about the regressive nature of the tax -- one that will hit everyone not matter the size of the income or the size of their gas tank. Republicans generally favor user fees, which is what a gas tax amounts to.

And the obvious downsides -- driving dipped when prices soared (although declining T ridership suggests the car will always win out). But all sales are plummeting, merchants are closing up. It was the recession-driven loss that is at the root of the MBTA's problems (that and bad management).

Lawmakers are obviously looking for the simplest solution for when they face voters. Higher gasoline taxes, a sweets and soda tax, local option levies and the like provide too many targets for them to defend.

A 20 percent increase in the sales tax makes a dent in one of our problems -- and leaves the rest twisting in the wind. Funds for schools, police, fire and local services would be restored when the economic tailspin ends -- but at what cost?

The debate should be about what is best for Massachusetts residents, not job security for 200 people. Lawmakers need to think very carefully and not opt for the easy way out. That is a legislative tradition, one which always seems to move the problem forward to the next crisis.

Let's get it right the first time for a change.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Things ain't gonna get any better"

You can see why House Speaker Robert DeLeo likes the ideas of casinos. He's probably a poker player. He knows how to keep his cards close to his vest.

DeLeo wasn't offering much to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation other than declaring an income tax hike would be "dead on arrival." Sales tax? Gas tax? Furloughs in the House and Senate? The Speaker was almost as forthcoming as The New York Times brain trust.

(Nor did he offer any hints whether lawmakers taking this school vacation week off were being paid or whether they get an extra day off because of the Monday holiday.)

But we do know the fiscal crisis is getting severe enough that good ol' Smilin' Dan Grabauskas is actually ready to act -- laying off 75 employees and impose furloughs and a wage freeze on its nonunion workers.
“I have to start doing something. Things ain’t gonna get any better,” said Grabauskas, who blamed the cuts on a drop in ridership, advertising on the T, and expected union raises and pension contributions.
When Grabauskas acknowledges "things ain't gonna get any better" you know its long past time for lawmakers to get serious about tackling the state's problems.

Gov. Deval Patrick has conveniently taken the heat off of them by making some bone-headed personnel decisions, but the facts are inescapable: Nearly four full months have elapsed in this year -- complete with a lost month over the DiMasi ordeal, two weeks of vacation and a number of paid days off. We're waiting on pensions, ethics, transportation overhauls and an answer of how we will pay for services we need and can't afford.

And I can't feel comfortable that more than a handful of House and Senate leaders are taking things seriously when lawmakers can round up the votes to save the Quinn Bill and submit 978 amendments for necessities such as $20,000 to update the sound system at a school auditorium in Hopedale; $250,000 for the eradication of invasive aquatic species in Lake Cochituate State Park; $90,121 to have the State Police Bomb Squad trained by Israeli security services; or $50,000 so that Leicester can study whether it needs a new fire facility.

It's getting to be time to know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em. Let's get serious already, shall we.

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Some of the news that's fit to print

Following weeks of silence after their threat to shut down the Boston Globe, honchos at the New York Times have deigned to offer a few words on their thinking -- sort of.

New York Times CEO Janet Robinson could not avoid the mandatory conference call with stock analysts after the company offered its dismal quarterly earnings. The Times lost $74.5 million in the quarter, blamed largely on declining ad revenues at the Globe.

But to read the pages of the newspaper of record, you would be hard pressed to learn about the most talked-about crisis in the newspaper world today. The lack of coffee and doughnuts at the Citigroup shareholders meeting is apparently more newsworthy.

Of course, the Globe doesn't use taxpayer dollars to buy front page ads in the Times, requiring editors to make a stronger claim of editorial independence from Young Arthur's floor.

We know the clock is running on the Times' ultimatum to Globe unions to offer up $20 million in concessions or face closure. We don't know how they plan to make up the remaining $65 million gap they claim is there. We also know they don't intend to negotiate in public.

Some of the news that's fit to print. The Times could probably save some short money by jettisoning a spokeswoman who doesn't speak.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The House's Sacred Cow

I wish I could say I am surprised to see that Massachusetts House members have their priorities straight -- even as the economy tanks and the social safety net crumbles.

If there is anything more sacred in the House than the Cod that hangs from the eaves of the balcony, it surely must be the need to cater to the needs of lobbyists who pour thousands of dollars into their re-election coffers.

How else to explain the apparent ability of backers of the Quinn Bill, one of the larger special interest boondoggles around, to prevail at the same time people are being threatened with homelessness, not to mention fewer police officers being around to collect on their education benefits.

It also tells you all you really need to know about the power of Speaker Robert DeLeo, he who was on the receiving end of the "finger-jabbing" exchange with Malden Democrat Chris Fallon.

Fallon of course attempts to cloak this in lofty rhetoric.
I don't know if you can emphasize enough the impacts of having an educated police force. I don't think the state, given this economic time, should be telling people: 'By the way we're going to be cutting your pay. We're gong to be cutting an incentive.' "
No, we're going to be cutting your cruisers instead. And your shifts. And of course public safety.

I guess the concept of "shared sacrifice" goes out the window when you have 81 votes. And they really should change that animal hanging from the ceiling to the Sacred Cow.

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When news breaks...

Back from another quick getaway and once again amazed by just how crummy the news business has become.

To watch CNN yesterday morning, you would think the biggest story on the planet was an airplane hijacking in Jamaica (why someone would want to commandeer a plane to Cuba when that was its scheduled destination is something I'll leave for others to decide).

Nonetheless, breathless CNN anchors took turns chatting up the Jamaican information minister and electronically loitered while waiting for the Canjet general manager to come out for a perfunctory statement and short Q&A.

But the absolute folly was brought home minutes after the top of the hour. After going to their packaged opening, a four-or five minute rehash of everything they had been regurgitating for the prior hour, it's back to the information minister -- who informed us that while the anchors blathered the "troubled young man" surrendered, peacefully.

When news breaks, we miss it -- becase we're to busy setting it up.

Without missing a beat, the "best political team in television" moved on to another "breaking story." Despite the fact they had been flogging it without much conviction over the same time frame, all of a sudden we were now offered the news that the first full Obama cabinet meeting was about to take place -- and the secretaries were going to be challenged to cut $100 million in 90 days!

But then it occurred to me why they could say "this just in." A White House reporter finally punched in and was stationed on the Lawn!

We already know the perils of cable TV news, especially when the "fair and balanced types" play like William Randolph Hearst and attempt to create the stories before our very eyes.

But the over hyping and cheapening of every story may be an equally large crime in the continued degradation of the concept of what we need to know.

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Different strokes for different folks

I couldn't help but being struck by the different priorities highlighted in today's stories about the impact of the House Ways and Means Committee proposed budget cuts.

The Globe looks at the impact of cutting a rental housing subsidy, zeroing in on a Marblehead woman who may become homeless during her cancer treatment because of the loss of state assistance..

The Herald tells us about a "violent uproar,"a finger-jabbing exchange between a Malden rep and House Speaker Robert DeLeo at a political fund-raiser. The topic -- elimination of funding for the Quinn bill that pays police officers for continuing their education.

Think each paper knows its (dwindling) constituencies?

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Friday, April 17, 2009

The debate begins

I started to really question that validity of the tax-free New Hampshire argument one day when I tried to find a parking space in the Wrentham outlet mall -- jammed to the gills with a huge number of cars bearing Rhode Island licenses plates.

A quick check determined Rhode Islanders pay a 7 percent sales tax. In Connecticut and Vermont, its 6 percent. In New York it ranges from 7 to 8.75 percent. And for the record, they all have income taxes and, unlike Massachusetts, the levy is spread out based on income rather than assessed at a flat rate.

We all know "tax-free" New Hampshire has no sales or income tax. But do we know about the town tax? The local education tax? The state education tax? The county tax? The dividends and interest tax? We also know that the Live Free or Die State hits you up every time you use gasoline to buy cigarettes and alcohol.

And tolls? They hit you up simply for the have to pass through their state on the way to Maine.

All things to consider as we start see rumblings about adding a penny on the sales tax (which I admit sounds a lot smaller than a 20 percent increase.)

To hear it told the entire state of Massachusetts has moved to New Hampshire to avoid our heavy tax burden. They also moved to get hit with crushing property taxes and poor to non-existent services. And they couldn't even save the state's landmark Old Man in the Mountain when it fell apart from old age (a somewhat fitting metaphor).

Good luck to them -- more for the rest of us hearty souls who stayed put.

These are all important point to keep in mind as we start to hear about higher sales taxes, gasoline taxes and casino gambling revenues. We have two choices: we can have a rational argument, buttressed by facts, on what services we value and how we best pay for them.

Or we can turn into New Hampshire.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ka-ching!

Who says House and Senate leaders don't talk?

On the same morning that House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Murphy unveils a pain-filled $27.4 billion budget that contains not a speck of new taxes, Senate President Therese Murray utters one word at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce that spells out legislative planning.

The House document is stark -- it even eliminates the Quinn Bill, a prized piece of perk for police officers. Local aid is slashed, sending the pain down the chain to cities and towns who will need to layoff those same police officers, along with public works employees and librarians.

Murphy and Speaker Robert DeLeo insist it is an accurate reflection of reality in a state that has been rocked by the national recession.
"We're not playing any games," Murphy said in a briefing with the Globe. "We're trying to illustrate the fiscal reality."
And it is one version of fiscal reality.

Taxes, as we all know, are the third rail of politics (an even more apt analogy given another picture of fiscal reality offered by the MBTA). No one wants to pay them, yet everyone wants something from government, whether it is police protection or education benefits.

I've been as vocal as anyone in suggesting House lawmakers intended to use scare tactics in unveiling a bare bones budget. Murphy and DeLeo simply picked other words from the thesaurus to describe it.

And Murray offered the tag team approach at the Chamber breakfast.
"We need the revenue. To see that over $900 million leaves the Commonwealth every year and goes to Connecticut and Rhode Island for gaming, I think that even if we could pick up $700 million of that, we would all take that."
Anyone find it interesting that she used those numbers when it has been estimated a penny on the sales tax would probably raise $750 million?

The most ardent foe of Deval Patrick's casino gambling proposal, former House Speaker Sal DiMasi, is gone. His chief lieutenant in that fight, Rep. Dan Bosley, he of the economically gutted North Adams run by Mayor John Barrett, has been consigned to the back benches.

Murray held her cards close to the vest in the first round. But by alluding to some sorts of slots proposal she is now aligned with DeLeo and Patrick in saying the debate will be re-opened.

In very different economic times.

Don't bet against it. While it may be a lot harder to find a Sheldon Adelson or Steve Wynn willing to plunk down the cash to launch a casino in a recession, it's certainly the easiest way out of the political box -- no matter what other social and economic problems are raised.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Nibbling sliders while Massachusetts tanks

It appears the Massachusetts Legislature is doing all it can to improve Deval Patrick's poll rankings.

On the same day a "grim" Patrick his third round of emergency cuts by slicing another 750 executive branch jobs (bringing the total to 1,750) and 5,000 furloughs, legislative attention seemed elsewhere in advance of today's House Ways and Means budget unveiling. As the Globe's Matt Viser notes:
As they formulate their spending plans, the lawmakers have also been raising campaign money, a Beacon Hill tradition at budget season. Murphy hosted a fund-raiser last week at the Liberty Hotel ballroom, complete with meatball sliders and lamb chops. DeLeo held a fund-raiser last night at Tecce's, and House lawmakers were rushing to wrap up debate on pension reform to trek over to the North End restaurant.
Let's see now -- fund-raisers during budget season -- why would they time it like that? Lucky for them they don't let cameras in. (Lucky?)

The anticipated House budget won't have a lot of room for meatball sliders and lamb chops. We know that despite a minimum of leaks because newly installed Ways and Means boss (he of the Liberty Hotel fund-raiser) has ruled out taxes -- to the point of ignoring several revenue proposals Patrick laid on the table earlier this year.

But as former Speaker Sal DiMasi spokesman David Guarino notes in his new dreaded private sector blog, the real test of where the House is will come on Friday -- the day amendments are due.

Wilmington's Jim Miceli, a House veteran, isn't sanguine about what his colleagues will do. He tells the Herald's Hillary Chabot:
“I’ll bet the amendments filed in this budget break the record.”
A word of advice to those counting the days to when Patrick walks through the center doors and down the Statehouse steps: don't get ahead of yourself. The Legislature may be the best thing he has running for him in 2010.

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I can hear it now



The right wing talking points factory is cranking up this morning. Snark and cynicism (is that their consulting firm?) will reign.

So let's try a contest. Come up with your own captions. Two to get us started.

If President Obama can get pulled to the left by a dog, what future does the country have?

Or, he can't control a dog, he gives in to his children's every whim -- what does that say about his leadership?

Suggestions?

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Declaration of war?

With Deval Patrick sinking in public popularity after some tone-deaf political moves -- and hard choices coming on where and how deep to cut services -- it seems the governor has found a perfect target at which to focus his comeback. The Legislature.

Patrick emerged from a meeting with House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray and immediately told the assembled reporters that he didn't think much of House and Senate plans to overhaul the state transportation bureaucracy. Or their budget-balancing efforts to date.
"The bills just don't go far enough ... The savings that we have planned for, and organized around, and looked forward to, and anticipated are just not in either the House or the Senate bill."
Patrick also took a swipe at lawmakers for failing to act expeditiously on a second round of tax proposals he offered in January, around the same time the House was consumed by the Sal DiMasi soap opera and the DeLeo-John Rogers power struggle.
"We would not, frankly, be in the situation we're in today, at least in part, if the Legislature had acted on some of the solves that we proposed," he said.
Sounds as if he may be as welcome as a skunk at a Garden party the next time they meet.

It's important to note the salvo comes within hours of the House unveiling its fiscal 2010 budget, when lawmakers will finally have to put forward their own bleak vision for Massachusetts in the coming year.

And it also comes after the MBTA's kamikaze proposal to strip night and weekend commuter rail service, close Green Line stops and generally make life impossible for travelers.

While the timing could have been better -- in tandem with a Globe story detailed yet more pension abuses at the T -- the plan itself is much more political savvy than a mere threat, as Robert David Sullivan notes.

It takes aim at suburban commuters from farflung places like Lowell, Methuen and Fitchburg, who like to think they have no stake in the Boston subway system.

Let's do a quick geography lesson here. Senate Ways and Means Chairman Steven Panagiotakos hails from Lowell and his transportation committee counterpart Steven Baddour hails from Methuen.

If commuter rail shuts down after 7 p.m., more cars jam up on Route 3 North and South (maybe even in the Plymouth home of Murray). Northern commuters will jam up at the airport tunnels in DeLeo's district.

And by shutting down the Green Line's Huntington Avenue trains nights and weekends, Sullivan notes, the plan does serious damage to possible attendance at Symphony Hall and the Museum of Fine Arts. That is bound to give what is left of the city's philanthropic community agita.

Patrick's 19-cent a gallon tax hike would solve a lot of the problems -- including cash for road construction and repairs in western Massachusetts, where resident might be thinking secession is s good thing.

The Patrick game plan also relies on a basic principle of politics: people like their legislator but hate the Legislature. The ethics problems in the Senate involving James Marzilli and Dianne Wilkerson leave that chamber imperiled, while the last shoe has probably not dropped in the DiMasi mess.

Patrick is standing behind a plan no politician can relish -- raise taxes to avoid even more painful cuts than what are already underway. But the Legislature has given him cards to play with in their response to the ethics, pension and transportation reform plans.

A politician with a tough reelection scenario is better off than one without any plan at all. Patrick showed some interest in gambling with his casinos proposal and he's rolling the dice here.

Don't bet against him, not just yet.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Times discovers Boston!

In the trail-blazing spirit for which it is known, the New York Times has apparently dispatched a reporter to the wilds of Boston to explore the distant rumblings of rebellion that have been slowly reaching their way to the executive suites of the Renzo Piano monument on 8th Avenue.

The hearty reporter engaged local leaders and even entered the native habitat on some strange conveyance called the Red Line in search of the answer: can the Hub of the Universe exist with a Globe?

OK, a bit sarcastic to be sure, but Richard Perez-Pena's story in today's New York Times represents The Paper of Record's first real acknowledgment of the impact that its game of corporate chicken is having.

In many respects, it reads a bit like a foreign dispatch, complete with tired references to Boston chafing at the loss of its own identity as corporations come in an swoop up local institutions, including "the Red Sox baseball team — an organization close to a civic religion..."

The only stereotype missing was a reference to the Bean and the Cod.

It's instructive to read the story as an example of "big foot journalism," often practiced by the television networks. Correspondents parachute into a location, spend a few hours or days taking the pulse of the community and then head back off to civilization to report on their brush with the natives.

I personally think we're over the "faraway headquarters" angst -- something the faraway owners of the Times should have recognized awhile ago, if they paid attention. BankBoston, John Hancock, Gillette. That's so 20th Century.

In fact, we've adapted quite well to Google and Microsoft entering our midst to provide employment for folks with an affinity to MIT, that other major Cambridge institution whose name does not begin with an H.

No offense to Perez-Pena, but the assignment seemed as if it were described as "find out why those people are so upset." The folks in charge in Manhattan seem to be totally out of touch with the reality of Boston today.

Almost as out of touch as are folks who think boycotting the Times print product will actually make a difference.

It would be nice if the Times had not opted for a stereotypical look at a controversy, particularly one in which they are squarely in the middle.

The newspaper industry is in serious jeopardy, fueled by falling advertising revenues and bad decision-making. Newspapers like the Globe, the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle are or were vital components of their community and losing them is or will be far more significant than Manulife buying Hancock. That's the story which should have been assigned.

But that local connection has always been lacking at the Times. Queens may well as be Queensland for a reporter hoping for Page One. New Yorkers who want to know what goes on in their town read the Daily News or the Post.

We've just been reminded again of why.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Burying the lead

I've been pretty adamant that, all things being equal in the sad business that is newspapers today, The New York Times holds the lion's share of the blame for the precarious state of affairs at the Boston Globe today.

That is until I read the news today, oh boy, that the Taylor family had a chance to get in on the ground floor of what today is Monster.com -- and passed up the chance.

The Globe, like every major paper, literally got fat and happy with classified advertising. The decline of that revenue source is at the root of the problem of every struggling newspaper.

But not every newspaper had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the phenomenon that has led them to desperation.

To their credit, the Taylors are not shy about admitting what hindsight says is one of the most bone-headed moves in Boston history.
Asked about the mid-1990s rebuff to Monster.com, Steve Taylor, who was executive vice president of the Globe during those discussions, said, "I'm sorry to tell you that's an absolutely true story."

Taylor family members in Globe management at the time recall the episode as a missed investment opportunity, something that might have given the company a financial cushion though certainly not slowed the Internet's rise or the erosion of the print classified ad base. "The Globe just didn't want to cannibalize itself," Steve Taylor said.

Ben Taylor, the last member of his family to serve as publisher of the Globe, also remembered the paper's decision to pass up an investment in Monster.com. "Getting a piece of Monster might have been a quantum leap into the digital world," he acknowledged. "But it may have been a leap we weren't prepared to take."

That may be the quote they stick on the Globe's tombstone.

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Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Times warp

I think I can now explain the total disconnect between Boston and the moguls on 8th Avenue who run the New York Times. They live in a time warp in which Boston is a foreign posting.

How else to explain that on the day the Boston University Terriers take on the Miami University Red Hawks for the NCAA Frozen Four hockey championship, the newspaper of record regales us with a story about the 1989 titlist. And that would be the boys in Crimson from across the river in Cambridge.

The story does manage to name both the Red Hawks and Bemidji State, loving chronicled in the Times a week earlier. No mention of the Terriers or the University of Vermont, also theoretically part of the coverage of the Times' New England edition.

So I can only assume the Times headquarters has been encapsulated in a swirling vortex, a wormhole that has sucked New England into a parallel universe that has transported editors back 20 years to another dimension. (The building has already sucked the cash right out of Young Arthur's bottom line.)

And that would explain why the folks in New York, who are threatening to nuke the one-time major paper they own, are trying to make mailers at the Boston Globe accept salary concessions that would set them back 20 years.

The Times has been what can now only be described as arrogantly silent on the fate of its chattel. This story suggests the folks in midtown Manhattan are as tone deaf on news as they are in business.

So in the spirit of the current religious holiday season, may I paraphrase Moses and ask: Let my city go!

And oh yeah, Go BU!

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Not playing fare

As if on cue, the promises of pain likely to emerge without a tax package are coming to the forefront. But the MBTA's threats, while real, provide perfect fodder for the reform before revenue movement given short shrift by Transportation Secretary James Aloisi.

And that's because the real news comes in the sidebar -- prominent online but not equal to the Page One play in the dead tree edition -- the latest example of pension abuse that turns the public totally off to the concept of any tax increase.

I really won't dwell on the notion that after five years and $48 million the Kenmore Square station project is "nearing completion" even though it may take until the end of the year to install elevators for the disabled.

I will make some snide asides about the fact I rarely see anything resembling "customer service" so I won't miss any of the 304 agents who work in subway stations at a cost of $18.4 million. Let's face it, they are people given new assignments after the CharlieCard system eliminated the need for their jobs as token booth attendants.

It's a tough economy out there, but the jobs seem superfluous to me given the number of folks I see hanging around subway stations wearing safety vests.

But the real problem is not people trying to grind out a living. The problem is the outrageous benefits that keep them in the jobs -- starting with the ability to retire after 23 years on full pension and start a second career. Often at the same agency they "retired" from.

I'll leave it to Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Michael Widmer:
"Is there no end to the indignity?" he said. "I'm speechless. It's amazing. It's the entitlement and the creativity. And it's all done out of public view. They have done these things for years with a wink and a nod of the Legislature."
No, Mr. Secretary, reform before revenue is not a silly concept.

A $160 million budget deficit is no laughing matter. The virtual elimination of evening and weekend commuter rail service is no joke.

But it's impossible to take the threats seriously until the T cleans up its own house by eliminating the waste and abuse of the pension system that allows "retirees" to make more as consultants doing the same job they did on the public payroll only long enough to collect a pension.

And I sure as heck hope that this isn't the report that Smilin' Dan Grabauskas paid a consultant $86,000 to come up with.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Here comes that painy day feeling

Get ready for some really horrifying cuts in the state budget.

Public hearings notwithstanding
, Massachusetts legislators are not in the mood to think or talk taxes these days. That means the budget unveiled in the House next week is going to be using the proverbial hatchet on public safety and human services.

In one sense, it's hard to blame lawmakers for not wanting to talk about new revenues. The current budget has been in a freefall, with up to $1 billion needing to be chopped over the $2.5 billion axed so far. Solving the current gap is more important than even thinking about the next one.

Then there is the political dynamic. No one ever wants to raise taxes, especially when unemployment continue to soar. Unemployed people no longer have income tax deductions from the paychecks and sales tax revenues drop. Adding to that misery isn't bright politics.

But we need to throw in a few more twists -- particularly the sour political mood and the plummeting popularity of Deval Patrick. While the governor has made some significant revenue proposals -- the municipal assistance package and the gasoline tax -- the recommendations have gone over like a lead balloon.

And of course there is the whole "reform before revenue" movement, given heightened importance after the foolish comments by Transportation Secretary James Aloisi,

Lawmakers have been far more productive than usual this spring -- despite an agonizingly slow start. Transportation, pension and ethics reforms are in various points of the pipeline. Depending on the backbone, there could be some significant reforms that generate significant savings. Down the road.

The other logical piece that comes before a unified tax package is a realistic picture of what the state can and cannot afford. And that's where the public's reliance on things and their unhappiness over paying for them will intersect.

A budget proposal without new taxes will be awful to behold. The daily demonstrations outside the Statehouse will grow and generate the fig leaf lawmakers need to raise the issue.

The tactic has two strong points: it will reflect an honest assessment of what the state can and should do -- and it will bring taxes into a clearer picture that will require just one vote.

But in the meantime, it won't be pretty to watch.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

As the Globe Turns

The Massachusetts House passes transportation reform and lawmakers talk about taxes. Deval Patrick chief of staff Doug Rubin pleads guilty to being the root of the governor's recent bout with political tin ear. Job cuts are on tap at another major employer.

Life goes on as it always does. But all anyone really wants to talk about is the future of the Globe.

Better read the Herald.

While the Globe offers a warmed-over version of a two-day-old Boston Business Journal story, the Herald continues to beat the Globe at its own story: a look at the "sacrifices" being made by New York Times Co. executives; a reminder to the out-of-state owner that federal law requires them to file notice under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Act; and an examination of how much it would cost the Times to shutter the Morrissey Boulevard plant in terms of pension liabilities.

Walk away from these stories with the idea that the closure threat is a negotiating ploy and nothing more?

I admit I can be hard on the Herald for its trivial pursuits, so this is really top drawer work. And it is difficult for the Globe to cover its own story. But it should not be impossible.

Globe editorial management should insist on the same type of thorough, in-depth coverage they apply to other major stories. If there is push back from the executive suite or New York, they should report that too.

The Herald's feistiness is understandable. For years they've been the newspaper in trouble. It has bred a mentality that puts sticking it to the Globe at all cost tops on the agenda. No doubt the same idea one-time Globe columnist Eileen McNamara had in mind in penning an op-ed for the Herald.

Scot Lehigh offers a polite forum for readers to sound off. But it is no time for being genteel. It's time to take off the gloves and expose the underlying management problems that have led to this moment.

You know they have done it when other major Boston institutions tottered. Why should this story be any different?

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Full, complete coverage?

The fate of the Boston Globe is Topic No. 1 around town these days (OK, maybe No. 2 after the opening of the 2009 baseball season). Want to read about the latest twists and turns?

Don't count on the Globe. And certainly not the apparent villain in this set piece, the New York Times.

Want to know exactly what management is saying in the wake of the weekend bombshell? Try Media Nation. Curious about the mood inside the paper? Try the Herald. Looking to survey the field of possible saviors? Mosey on over to the Boston Business Journal.

The Globe has offered up a short story on the blog rally in which I am taking part. But the main story offers little in the way of substance. The newspaper that doesn't take no for an answer when someone says "I don't want to negotiate in public" is in full hunker down.

While the stance is hardly surprising -- and it's not the reporters fault that editors won't publish what they would like to report on -- the contrast is rather harsh.

Publisher Steve Ainsley's declaration that management imposed a 5 percent cut on non-union employees (in exchange for 10 extra days off) is offered as an example that managers are willing to make sacrifices too.

Doesn't seem quite the same as giving up lifetime job security (the merits of tenure in a reporting job notwithstanding).

Ainsley did seem a tad out of touch when he told the journalists who work for him:
"It was certainly not our intention for you to learn of these preliminary discussions through reports in the Globe and other media."
Have you been paying to attention to the proliferation of other media outlets -- traditional and otherwise who were ready, willing and able to pick up this story and run with it?

Despite the lack of details emanating from Morrissey Boulevard, it seems the discussions with the unions will come down to two crucial areas:
  • Management is going to have to justify the $85 million projected loss. There is ample speculation about the number and questions why the cuts are being targeted only at the Globe and not its partner in the New England group that includes the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
  • The reported 430 lifetime job guarantees. That guarantee is worthless if the paper folds. Reasonable people have already suggested it is a valid thing to give up in exchange for a job, period. But what they get in return for that huge concession is crucial. It may seem a bit jarring, but many folks at the Globe have been working for four years without a raise. It could be that simple.
Ainsley's memo suggests you and I will be asked to dig a little deeper too -- a curious thought at a time when the product continues to shrink in size and, potentially, the number of days it will appear in print. I'm not ready to buy into Dan Kennedy's suggestion for a $2 daily and $5 Sunday read, but some hike in exchange for some stability seems reasonable.

What's interesting, in the wake of the mother ship's radio silence on the Globe issue, is today's story by Richard Perez-Pena, in which the Associated Press appears to be ready to do battle against aggregators like Google and Yahoo.

The debate appears to be shifting from the argument over whether aggregators are within their constitutional rights to pluck off headlines and into the real meat of the question -- who is getting paid for the work.
“This is not about defining fair use,” said Sue A. Cross, a senior vice president of the [AP], who added several times during an interview that news organizations want to work with the aggregators, not against them. “There’s a bigger economic issue at stake here that we’re trying to tackle.”
The remains one very large cash cow in this shrinking economy: Google. Not only does it provides one-stop shopping for casual readers and link-needy bloggers, it also charges advertisers when those eyeballs land on the pages loaded with links. They are clearly making a buck on the work product of the Globe, Times,. Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and AP.

That could prove to be a very interesting battle. Whether it comes to a resolution before the Globe and other newspapers slip under the waves for the third time remains highly doubtful.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

Blog Rally to Help the Boston Globe

We have all read recently about the threat of possible closure faced by the Boston Globe. A number of Boston-based bloggers who care about the continued existence of the Globe have banded together in conducting a blog rally. We are simultaneously posting this paragraph to solicit your ideas of steps the Globe could take to improve its financial picture.

We view the Globe as an important community resource, and we think that lots of people in the region agree and might have creative ideas that might help in this situation. So, here's your chance. Please don't write with nasty comments and sarcasm: Use this forum for thoughtful and interesting steps you would recommend to the management that would improve readership, enhance the Globe's community presence, and make money. Who knows, someone here might come up with an idea that will work, or at least help. Thank you.

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Making their numbers (up?)

Let me leave it to Jay Fitzgerald and Dan Kennedy to host my thoughts for the day (real reporters and not bloviators like me!)

The incongruity of the numbers as parsed by both of them just fits into the overall scenario that something else is underlying the Times' threat to close the Globe.

I'm not suggesting for a second that there isn't a problem -- the shrinking paper is made up by unequal parts of advertising shrinkage and staff cuts, with fewer ads meaning fewer pages. A once robust classifieds section is truly an embarrassment.

Neither the Times nor the Globe is under any obligation to tell us anything. Nor is an potential or ephemeral buyer. But as Dan reminds us, the SEC is another matter. That Times filing may be one of the most clicked documents on the web when it appears.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Times Square hold 'em

A day has gone by, enough time to absorb the shock of the New York Times' declaration that the Boston Globe employees must either come up with $20 million in concessions or the lights go off on Morrissey Boulevard.

The public is reacting, (including the terminally clueless who are shocked a newspaper employs 1,400 people and that the Globe's passing would be a reflection of its liberal bias) and employees are saying the right things (sure we will make concessions, but management needs to do so too).

So it's time to take out the crystal ball. And while I agree the folks down on Eighth Avenue are deadly serious about extracting concessions, I think the likelihood of actually shutting down the Boston Globe is slim.

Why? Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.'s legacy. Having now plowed through the massive profile in May's Vanity Fair, I cannot believe Young Arthur would risk the Times' reputation on such an act. Not because he cares about The Globe, but rather the damage such a crass business act would do to the reputation of Times as the fount of all that is good in journalism.

And as observers without as much invested in the saga suggest, a sale may be the exact end game the Times is angling for with this ham-handed ultimatum -- which came just after the buyout and layoff of 50 employees.

Take it from Matt Storin, who led the Globe in the days before New York swooped in and paid $1.2 billion amid promises of maintaining excellence.
"I do think it's obvious that the Times would like to get the Globe off its books," he said. "It's possible they're trying to reduce costs because they have a prospective buyer who is negotiating on that basis."
Rumors have been floating for quite some time about local efforts to purchase the paper. Jack Welch and Jack Connors and Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell have all shot down the idea on several occasions -- but if the price is right and the Times does all the nasty trimming of excess cost, why not reconsider?

And there are no doubt other rich, civic-minded folks who would love to ride in and rescue the Globe from the clutches of that other Evil Empire 200 miles away. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has always been a name that has popped into my head.

The Globe is not worthless -- no matter what the critics think -- even if it is a far less valuable than what the Times paid. There is the land, the presses and boston.com, the sixth most popular web destination with 5.2 million hits a month.

We can all repeat the mantra the web advertising can't come close to generating the revenue from newsprint -- but it ain't chopped liver either. There is enough available to sustain a leaner, meaner newsprint product until the economy turns around and people start buying things again.

Sulzberger's legacy is tied up in this debacle of his own making. I think he's looking for an exit strategy that will enable him to dump the Globe and the Red Sox and forget about Boston.

And when that happens, the feeling will no doubt be mutual.

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Saturday, April 04, 2009

Who killed the Boston Globe (II)?

While it's way to early to write the epitaph of the newspaper New Englanders love to hate, the word that New York Times management is playing hardball with closure threats seems an appropriate time to dust off an earlier entry about the problems between 8th Avenue and Morrissey Boulevard.

It's not quite a year since that item but in that time the economy has headed further toward Antarctica and there is probably not one company in America that has been spared the problem of falling revenues, rising costs and the need to jettison people.

But continued erosion of the Globe's advertising base isn't the only reason for its ills. Let me focus on two: competition and competence (of the management variety).

The media landscape -- online and off -- continues to change so dramatically that the Globe can be scooped on its own story. True, the unions probably had no intention of taking its talks public, but in this multimedia world what was the likelihood the bargaining session would remain a secret?

While the Globe provides the fodder for many part-time pundits like me, there are far too many outlets around today who are ready, willing and able to accept leaks and rumors. Thankfully, this one was broken by a reporter like Adam Reilly who believes in doing journalism right.

The other thought that strikes me as noteworthy is the timing -- right after the buyout or layoff of 50 employees. Who exactly is running the show in New York? Are they counting with fingers and toes or do they not do long-range planning?

Morale at the Globe was already in the basement and Marty Baron had put out a buck up the troops memo and then Times management drops this bombshell? What were they thinking?

I have been waiting for my perfume sample-packed edition of Vanity Fair to arrive so I haven't yet read Mark Bowden's profile of Arthur Sulzberger Jr. So in the meantime, I'll just point you to Dan Kennedy's analysis of the analysis -- with a proviso that I am someone who does blame Sulzberger's bad business decisions as having a major role in New York dumping its troubles onto Boston.

I doubt the Globe will fold up shop in 30 days. I strongly suspect the unions will agree to concessions -- but only after they wring some promises of sacrifice from management too. The industry is indeed dying, but I can't see people voluntarily ending their jobs in this economic environment.

And we can only hope there is a white knight out there to scoop up the pride of New England journalism -- for a bargain price to be sure.

I'll start rooting around in my change bowl and penny collection. Anyone care to join me?

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Friday, April 03, 2009

If it bleeds it leads

Desperate times call for desperate measures. And the WHDH-TV 7 news operation is getting pretty desperate.

Following a long slide that took them from first to third at 11 p.m. in the Boston market -- and with anemic ratings in a head-to-head with WFXT-TV an hour earlier -- the folks who dumbed down Boston TV news have come up with a brain storm they think will vault them to the top: more news.

Only this time they are making it. The powers that be at WHDH are telling Andover native Jay Leno to take a hike on his new 10 p.m. weekend show. In his place they want to run still more car crashes, fires and consumer scam stories.

This is clearly a station in trouble. It fires two male anchors -- pretending that Randy Price "retired." It then promoted the novel concept that two women anchors would somehow make the nightly parade of trash and crash more authoritative.

At the risk of riling legions of Sarah Palin fans, the dump Leno move is an effort to put lipstick on a pig of a newscast that just ain't selling.

It's an odd thing for me to say there's too much news. But that's because what passes on television (and lately in both newspapers) isn't really vital stuff. The economy is tanking. Locally we have a state facing a $4 billion hole in its budget and the impending major surgery on safety net programs.

Yet tune in Channels 4, 5, 7 and 25 across the day and you are treated to fires, crashes and the usual staple of a format long ago accurately stereotyped as "if it bleeds it leads." Watching WBZ-TV at 11 p.m. on Monday night, the "lead" stories were a follow-up to a Saturday murder and a Friday assault.

And don't let anyone kid you this is about public service. It is about cash. The Frances Rivera-Kim Khazei team was tanking at 10 p.m. on WLVI-TV opposite WFXT-TV. It was running third at 11 p.m. It is in trouble and that means the powers that be at Channel 7 need to find yet another way to bring in the bucks.

Same for NBC, which is running an anemic fourth in the national network race. Moving Leno into the 10 p.m. slot was a decision for them that many people don't even bother with late evening local news and they could capitalize on the Leno audience who can now go to sleep earlier.

The Peacock Network is none too amused (although note to the Herald online headline writer, they can't strip the station's license, only its affiliation). But there's not a lot you can do when you are dead last. Who's going to take you?

In the end, I suspect WHDH will pull the plug on the Rivera-Khazei combo on 56 (which it also owns) and move Leno into that slot. And their next "innovation" will probably be a 90-minute newscast that runs from 10 p.m. to Conan O'Brien.

That just increases the odds you will be featured on 7News if you get into a fender-bender.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

No respect

Today is the first day of the rest of my life with Globe West. If I were Thomas Hobbes, I would suggest it will be short, brutish and nasty.

There on Page One -- tucked into a corner with stories about Acton, Southboro, Newton Concord and Arlington is a little note to readers that declares: "Starting today, Globe West welcomes readers from 16 cities and towns that had been served by GlobeNorthWest."

No mention at all of Brookline, served by the late and (by me anyway) unlamented City Weekly.

How about a fig leaf of recognition guys?

Oh sure, there was a Page One story with a Brookline dateline about the Booksmith, an independent store that stared down and beat Barnes & Noble. Will there be a regular Page One story from Brookline -- talking about tax rates and service cuts too?

Was it any better for the folks who were shifted from City to North?

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Pirates of Massachusetts Bay

Avast maties, haul up the Jolly Roger! There be gold in Boston!

Boston Mayor Tom Menino has added a little spice to the dreary spring by opting to go to war with the organizers of Sail Boston -- who appear intent on stiffing taxpayers for the $2 million security bill that comes attached to this summer's Parade of Sail. He fired a verbal cannonade across Sail Boston's bow.
... it's a public safety crisis, because we're not going to be there," a visibly angry Menino said. "When you plan an event of this magnitude, I would think you'd have the finances in hand before you make a commitment, and we were never brought into the financial piece for the last nine months."
That means an estimated 1 million people will be cramming along the harbor -- without police protection or even trash cleanup. I bet Homeland Security Janet Napolitano loves that idea.

A spokeswoman for Sail Boston defiantly hoisted the symbolic extended middle finger and tried to stare down Hizzoner.

"The event is definitely happening; the 50 tall ships are definitely coming," said Sheila Green, a spokeswoman for Sail Boston 2009, a nonprofit group that organized the event.

Just give us a little more time to raise the cash, she says.

Menino is absolutely right to demand the tribute, given the city and state's precarious fiscal state and the fact organizers promised to do better after leaving taxpayers a $1.6 million tab in 2000.

So here's an idea for Sail Boston: Maybe they can blockade the harbor and board the fleet of small boats that will be trying to watch from the water? After all, one of 'em will probably has a chest full of pieces of eight.

Conversely, Menino can order a fleet of Boston fireboats and tugs to set up their own blockade.

Is Johnnie Depp available for an appearance?

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

We now return to our regular programming

There's not much point picking through the detritus left behind by the "tsunami" that swept away Marian Walsh's HEFA job and much of Deval Patrick's credibility.

No, fun time is over and we should be back to the real questions that ought to consume Beacon Hill -- how do you deal with what has been estimated as high as a $4 billion hole in the state budget? That would be on top of several billion sliced off a spending plan that left the starting gate last July at around $28 billion.

For a man reported to speak in DeLenglish, House Speaker Robert DeLeo was pretty direct in speaking to the Boston Chamber of Commerce:
"I want to warn you that the cuts that are required to balance this budget ... will cut to the very core of government's purpose and mission ... It is almost impossible to overstate how dire the situation is for us."
His new Ways and Means Chairman, Charles Murphy of Burlington, when asked if the budget could be balanced without new taxes, replied, "Yes. Next question," according to an account of a Monday night Harvard forum reported by the Statehouse News Service (subscription required).

In contrast, Administration and Finance Secretary Leslie Kirwan responded:
"I don't think so. I think we are low on a lot of our taxes."
There has already been significant unhappiness among advocates with the cuts authored since October to trim constantly falling tax receipts. Stephen Crosby, the state's budget chief after 9-11, suggested Kirwan may be presiding over the biggest downturn in revenues of almost any secretary in recent memory.

But obviously we ain't seen nothin' yet.

DeLeo was less definitive than his Ways and Means chief, saying only that he didn't like the meals and hotel tax proposals Patrick has put on the table. He did seem to reject a deep dive into the state's rainy day fund and warned federal stimulus dollars are not a panacea.

It's entirely possible this is all political posturing. The public is obviously not in the mood for a tax increase -- facing the contrast threat of layoffs and drastic changes in their own budgets. The mere talk of a 19-cent gasoline tax hike to help fix the messes created by a lack of oversight and management of the transportation infrastructure has people seeing red.

House leaders may opt to put forward a "pain budget" that spells out in grim details what would be lost without new revenues, forcing a debate on which option is worse.

In any event, the uproar over budget and tax questions will make the Walsh tsunami look like a gentle ripple in a pond.

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