Friday, August 31, 2007

Signature issue

Once upon a time, when I was editor of the Freeman, back in ancient times (the early 1980s), I established a policy regarding letters to the editor. It wasn't earthshattering, nor original, but it was necessary: If you want your letter published in our paper, you have to sign your real name and you have to let us know where to find you for verification.

That policy continues today, long after I handed off the baton to the next editor, also in ancient times (the late 1980s). The reason is quite simple: If you have an opinion to express in public, you ought to have the courage to tell readers who you are.

There have been remarkably few instances of readers violating the policy. Sometimes people forget or don't know about the policy, so we find them and obtain verification. Sometimes the people can't be found and we throw away their letters. And sometimes, I regret to tell you, people beat the system. It can happen (I'm not going to tell you how), but it can and it has, although not often.

The interesting part to me is that when there's a violation of our policy -- that is, someone writes under a fictitious name and it gets in the paper -- it's generally a letter about a political campaign or politics. Sort of tells you something about the anonymous politician and/or supporters who deliberately promulgate the deceptions, doesn't it?

In recent weeks, two letters have been challenged by a local candidate and his backers. They say the writers used phony names. I can't swear that they're right -- we obviously thought otherwise or we wouldn't have published the letters. One of the writers has been published on our pages several times before without the authenticity of his name questioned.

But if, in fact, one or more writers snookered us, shame on us. More importantly, if one or more writers snookered us, shame on them.

Our Opinion pages are forums for ideas and points of view in the form of cartoons, letters, columns and editorials. All opinions are welcome, even if we don't agree with them. Heck, I often tell people if we only published letters with which we agreed, there'd be a lot fewer letters in the paper.

We rely on the goodwill and fair play of our contributors to play by the rules. But as we know, in this crazy world of ours, some people are serial rules breakers. Again, shame on them.

That having been said, I'm not moved by the sanctimonious politicians or supporters who castigate us for enabling people to beat the system. "Be more careful," they cry.

With apologies to Steve Martin, well, excuuuuuse me!

We made the policy. We don't want it broken. On the other hand, there's nothing to say we couldn't have a wide open door policy, that is to say, one that welcomes all comers, including anonymous letter writers. We don't do that for obvious reasons, but we could.

Fact is, if someone writes a letter and uses a phony name, the point of view he/she is expressing typically already is in play, especially during political season. That an unauthorized letter writer doesn't have the courage to sign a real name doesn't mean that the same opinion couldn't be expressed by others who do abide by the rules.

In short, let us worry about the letters policy. It's ours and we try to enforce it.
But if we fail on rare occasions (and they have been rare occasions), get over it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Buyers market

On days when our lead story is about a big crime, we'll typically hear from readers denouncing the "sensational" nature of the paper. "You're worse than the tabloids," they'll say.

You know what else happens when there's a big crime story atop the front page? We sell more papers, usually lots more.

Today, for example, with our coverage of the drug bust in Midtown, it's hard to find a Freeman in and around Kingston.

Like rubberneckers on a highway who slow down to view a wreck, even people who normally eschew newspapers will plunk down four bits for a copy with a tasty crime splashed above the fold on Page 1.

It's tempting to ask the editors to routinely take the most important police blotter story of the day and move it from Page 2 to the front. But we don't go that route, in part because this isn't Dodge City, so most local crime news doesn't usually rate Page 1 attention and we don't force feed it.

But when there's a meaty story like the one, it's atop Page 1 because it's important news. That it helps sell copies is a silver lining for us.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Coming up for air

We're immersed in budget planning and reviews, which sap up much of my time each late summer -- and this year will probably mean postponing next week's vacation (just as it already has cost planned time off for my controller and one of my advertising directors). That's the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say. But for the purposes of this blog, I've come up for air just long enough to consider several more odds and ends.

For example:

*The New York Post, which often throws away any attempt at objectivity, has outdone itself in coverage of the "Troopergate" situation in Albany. If the Post wants to vilify the governor on its editorial page and opinion columns, by all means, go for it. But it ought to be embarrassed with its slanted "news" coverage. It ought to be embarrassed, but it isn't.

*The Wreckers are playing the Dutchess County Fair tonight. In case you were uncertain, they're musicians, not a demolition derby.

*I believe I'm already on record regarding my distaste for a lot of what appears on local public access television. Beyond that, there's no disputing that many of the local stations have experienced their fair share of content- and operations-related firestorms. But you'll be hard-pressed to find a more shocking public access TV story than the one by Freeman staffer Patricia Doxsey on today's front page describing the arrest of a businessman and school board member for allegedly wiping out the bank account of the Northern Dutchess TV station for which he was in charge. We're talking $25,000. "We were unhappy with the way (the station) was operating, but I think we thought we dealing with imcompetence, not this," said Rhinebeck Supervisor Steve Block.

*I respectfully suggest to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim should be permanently eliminated from the New York Yankees schedule.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Time stands still

It's unlikely Rip Van Winkle would get culture shock if he awakened from two decades of slumber around here.

Oh, sure, he'd see new shops here and there. He'd venture to the town of Ulster and find a new plaza and a couple of new motels. There's be this in New Paltz and that in Saugerties. It's not like nothing has happened. But face it, the streetscape is pretty much as the last generation (and the generation before them) left it.

People are trying. I mean, how many years ago ago did we start reading about the proposed condos along the Hudson, the high-rise in Uptown, the resort near Belleayre and a variety of other interesting entrepreneurial enterprises that haven't yet materialized?

No news is good news for those who want this area to be the place where time stood still. It's its charm, they'll say.

No news is bad news for those who realize the economy needs a few jolts for the good of employees and employers alike.

Sometimes I feel like we're mired in quicksand, our outstretched arms grabbed securely enough so that we won't vanish, but without enough oomph to get us back on our feet.

Development doesn't have to be a dirty word. We don't have to transform our lovely community into a traffic-clogged, patchwork quilt of neon and concrete. We're not Long Island North.

But if we don't improve the tax base, the burden on all of us will grow and the area will wheeze along. Is that really how we want to live?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

This and that

* I never had the pleasure of speaking one-on-one with Phil Rizzuto during my sportswriting days, but I did enjoy his company several times as part of larger groups. I'm reminded of one time prior to a post-season game at Yankee Stadium, where there was a hospitality room set up for media and baseball people in the large space typically used for indoor batting practice. Rizzuto was heading down the corridor leading to the Yankees' clubhouse, an entourage of friends, colleagues and admirers surrounding him as he laughed and greeted and waved his way. I'm here to endorse what you've heard and read from others: I'm not aware of anyone ever uttering a negative word about the Scooter.

* Environmentalists will be happy to learn we're using less fax paper these days. Now that the Congress and state Legislature are out of session, we're not receiving an unending stream of press releases boasting pork projects generated by local representatives.

* The recall of millions of toys, many of which had lead paint, is certainly proper if it successfully prevents generations of youngsters from being exposed to potentially harmful substances. But it sure does make this parent wonder what toys my boys handled when they were toddlers. Heck, who knows what I had in my tox box in the early '50s?

* The state comptroller is due here for an editorial board meeting this morning. Last time we hosted a state comptroller, it was Alan Hevesi, in what turned out to the first stop on an unsuccessful mea culpa tour that led to his ouster and criminal conviction. We have no reason to expect that kind of news from Thomas DiNapoli today.

* We've been trying to get Eliot Spitzer back for an editorial board. Spitzer the candidate -- and Columbia County neighbor -- stopped by during the gubernatorial campaign. Then he mostly stayed away from editorial boards until the recent "Troopergate" brouhaha, which has led him to meetings at several of the state's larger newspapers. The door's always open, governor.

* Andrew Cuomo never did make it here when he was running for attorney general. We'd love to see him, too. AGs Spitzer, Dennis Vacco and Bob Abrams (the latter several times) were visitors during their time in office.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Living large (parcel)

So far, the Freeman has received a couple of letters to the editor and one comment on our Website critical of a recent editorial on the "Large Parcel" law. No problem. Editorials are published, in part, to stir discussion. The next editorial with which everybody agrees will be the first.

But the critics, all from the town of Olive, where "Large Parcel" has been particularly controversial, given its potential unfavorable impact on local taxes, all have chosen to personalize their rebuttals by citing me by name. The gist of the complaint is that since I reside in Woodstock, where "Large Parcel" apparently will be beneficial, our editorials and news coverage have been biased for personal reasons.

It doesn't work that way, not here at least. Although I almost never write editorials, I certainly have the authority to influence them if I choose. More often than not, I don't. Anything we've done on "Large Parcel" has been produced by others. I have no strong feelings about the subject one way or the other. Perhaps I should, not because it might involve me personally (incidentally, I reside within the Kingston School District), but because it has divided people in the Onteora School District, an important part of our readership.

Critical of a Freeman editorial? No problem; send a letter to the editor. There's a good chance it will be printed. Want the editorial board to change its mind? Don't allege something it knows firsthand isn't true.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The death of a golf tournament

Another tradition has tumbled.

The Ulster County Men's Amateur golf championship tournament -- commonly known as The Herdegen -- has announced a major format change. Instead of a 72-hole tournament over two weekends at four different courses (not counting a fifth round elsewhere to serve as a qualifier), beginning in 2008 they'll play 54 holes on three consecutive days at three sites.

If that doesn't make my mentor and tournament founder Charlie Tiano turn over in his grave, this will: Beginning next year, the players will be allowed to ride in motorized carts.

As a result, the best-organized, most prestigious and demanding local sporting event in Ulster County -- the one patterned after the U.S. Open -- fades into history. What a shame.

Proponents of the new format say the lengthier Herdegen was taking up too much of the players' time. Tournament officials also said they'd been getting increasing resistance from local golf clubs whose first priority is to their members.

I can remember when local clubs lined up to host The Herdegen. It was a feather in their caps (as well as a revenue generator in the pro shop and at the bar). If memory serves me correctly, one local club owner actually threatened to sue one year when his course was eliminated at the last minute because it wasn't in good enough condition for The Herdegen's high standards.

I can also remember when qualifying for The Herdegen was the goal of virtually every Ulster County golfer with a handicap of 10 or less. (In those days, Tiano closely scrutinized handicaps; only the best players would be in this tournament.)

The point is, The Herdegen was unlike any other local golf tournament (and, for my money, any local sporting event, period). It was tough to get in it, it was difficult to play (and slow play was a no-no) and it was hard to win, particularly when the legendary Leon Randall was in the field.

So now it will be 54 holes. Less golf, but difficult in its own way since it will be on three consecutive days.

But to drive the final nail into The Herdegen tradition, they're going to let the players ride carts. Say it ain't so!

Competitive golf is supposed to be a test of skill, mind and body. Riding a cart is for weekend golfers and Member-Guest tournaments with beer stops on the course, not to determine the county's best player.

Tournament Director and Herdegen participant Dean Palen (by the way, Dean, a tournament director shouldn't be a competitor in the tournament he's directing) says The Herdegen committee will assess what they've promulgated at the conclusion of the 2008 event.

Perhaps they'll see the error of their ways.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Paper trail

The New York Times narrowed its web width this week. That is to say, the paper is slightly narrower. Most of that space came from the "gutters" and "margins" on which there is no news copy. So the change is neglible vis a vis content. But it is another sign of the times, no pun intended, for newspapers.

The cost of paper -- newsprint, in the vernacular -- is the second biggest expense in most newspaper companies' budgets. Salaries, benefits, etc., are No. 1. As newspaper circulation and advertising revenue has declined, publishers have sought a variety of efficiencies to help ease the burden. In The New York Times' case, it's estimated that millions of dollars will be saved by trimming the width of the paper.

The Freeman already has done this. We cut the web width a couple of years ago to little or no notice from our readers or advertisers. No surprise. It was really not a big deal (except when we paid the bills to our newsprint suppliers). But if you go back a few decades, you'll see the Freeman and other "broadsheet" newspapers were considerably wider than prior to the most recent trims. Given that comparison, there's no denying that the Freeman circa, say 1967, was quite different than the 2007 model. So, yes, the comparative "news hole" has declined.

I was talking about this briefly today with Sue Wittig on WGHQ radio. Sue's rather more conservative than I am, but on this point we agreed: When a business encounters declining revenue, its first instinct is to cut expenses. Government is more likely to boost taxes when it needs to generate more revenue. Yes, the private sector may do some rate hikes to bring in more money. But rarely does business rely solely on the customers to foot the bill.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Odds and ends

A little of this, a little of that...

* Joe Bruno is old enough to be Eliot Spitzer's father, and the old man seems intent on teaching the youngster a lesson. Not that governor doesn't deserve to be slapped on the wrist, but it's infuriating watching Bruno take Spitzer to the woodshed when it's the Senate majority leader who was wasting taxpayers' money when he (legally) used state aircraft in large part for political business. Spitzer says he had nothing to do with what Bruno calls "political espionage." And the governor claims he'll testify under oath. Let's get it over with and move on to the business of state government, including rectifying laws that enabled Bruno to do what he did to set off this donnybrook.

* Speaking of politics, it's the first day of August and political controversies abound -- from the aforementioned Spitzer-Bruno spat, to the prematurely overheated Kingston mayoral campaign, to the three-way match for Ulster County district attorney (the latter two races connected by the sideshow of the mayor and spouse of one of the DA hopefuls engaging in a barroom tiff caught on videotape). This doesn't even take into account the parade of candidates and debates in the race for the White House. It says here, it's a good thing for politicians that most people don't pay attention at this time of year. Memories will be short when crunch time rolls around.

* I've been blogging a lot about broadcasting, a sidelight for me. But I keep forgetting to pose this question: Is WFAN's Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo the most ignorant, incoherent and irresponsible sports talk host around, or does he just play that role on the radio? If it's the latter and he's merely acting, the man ought to be on the Broadway stage.

* I'm not expecting Rupert Murdoch to ruin The Wall Street Journal. It's a brand name with which he'd be crazy to mess. But I must confess I'm curious to see what he'll do with the other properties he's purchased, including the Times Herald-Record of Middletown. My old friend Jim Moss, the Record's former publisher, didn't mince words. In a Record story today, Moss said of Murdoch's acquistion of the Dow Jones-Ottaway chain, of which the Middletown paper is a part, "given the way the company's been managed for the past half-dozen years, it's hard to believe the paper could fare any worse under any other company."

* My packet of material for tomorrow morning's recording of the next Media Project program included this 30-year-old quote attributed to the Washington Post's legendary columnist David Broder: "I would like to see us say over and over until the point has been made that the newspaper that drops on your doorstep is a partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we heard about in the past 24 hours, distored despite our best efforts to eliminate gross bias by the very process of compression that makes it possible for you ... to read it ... If we labeled the paper accurately, then we would immediately add: But it's the best we could do under the circumstance, and we will be back tomorrow with a corrected, updated version."