Sunday, March 6, 2011

Profiles In Discouraged – Part V

The Press

Kenneth M. O’Brien


The press, the fourth estate.

Traditionally it has acted as a watchdog on the influential elements in society.

On a national level the diversity of news sources has grown even while the absolute number has declined. On the local level, however, there has been a decline in the number and diversity of “legitimate” press outlets.

This is the result of the changing economics of the news industry. It is also a function of the declining literacy of the American public and the growing rigidity of devotion to ideological points of view.

On the local level I am not going to postulate any grand conspiracy theory. Rather, I am going to argue that what has happened to our local press is a function of the process of “co-optation” that has resulted from the economic necessities imposed on traditional newspapers.

By the use of the word “co-opt” I mean the second definition provided by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “to take into a group (as a faction, movement, or culture) : absorb, assimilate <the students are co–opted by a system they serve even in their struggle against it>.”
There is little doubt that traditional newspapers have suffered severe financial consequences over the last ten years.

As a result of electronic media and its exploitation of traditional media by aggregating their work, repackaging and disseminating it without compensation they have prospered without the overhead incurred by traditional media.

Consequently, electronic media outlets such as The Huffington Post have prospered, recently being sold to AOL for $315 million, while traditional outlets from whom they essentially “misappropriate” content, have suffered.

This is even more pronounced at the local level.

In addition to the decline in reliance on them for information, the internet has undermined their primary source of income – advertising.

These trends have created a “perfect storm” that has severely constricted the economic viability of local newspapers.

As a consequence local traditional media has had no option but to reduce employment, cut staff and demand more from those who are still employed.

Given this analysis, let me turn to the two major local press outlets, The Worcester Telegram & Gazette and The Southbridge Evening News.

Both have substantially cut back. In the case of the T&G, their local reporter was moved to a Worcester office, after substantial layoffs. In the case of The Evening News, there has been a constant turnover in staff as well as management.

In both cases the demand for output from the reporters has, as a result of staff cutbacks, been increased.

Like any other human beings seeking to make a living they have sought to provide what was demanded by their employers – articles.

In order to do so they have gone to the easiest source of information. In this particular case it has been the Town Manager – whether it was Clayton Carlilse, John Healy or Christopher Clark.

The Town Manager was happy to provide access to the press. It helped him to further his agenda.

Simultaneously, any rational person can realize, there was an unspoken but realistic assumption that negative comments about the Town Manager or his agenda might restrict access. Such a restriction on access would clearly limit the ability of the reporter to have material for the articles that are the foundation of their income.

Thus, over time, reporters became advocates for one point of view. This was not any kind of insidious conspiracy. It was purely a case of enlightened economic self-interest to provide what was needed to keep their jobs. That, folks, is co-optation.

Numerous examples can be cited.

Perhaps the first is the still controversial proposal by Loin and Hayes to bring the PIMS project to the industrial park.

After exhaustive research, Linda Cocalis and I determined that this was not worthy of consideration.

We attempted to bring this to public attention.

The response from the then Editor of the Evening News, Walter Bird was:
” Sent: Mon, Apr 06, 2009 04:58 PM
Hi Ken, we typically run press releases from organized or established groups (i.e. police department), not citizens. Our letter to the editor page is suitable for that. However, this particular entry would need to be checked for facts as well, because one of the people you apparently sent it to is disputing many of them.
Walter”


Keep in mind that this was shortly after a number of articles promoting the “Future of Southbridge” group that clearly advocated the administration’s agenda. However, a release by a former town councilor and a member of the Sturbridge Board of Health was not deemed worthy of credence.


The content of that press release was as follows:

  Press Release

Monday, April 6, 2009
For Immediate Release

On Monday, March 30th, a presentation was made to the Southbridge Town Council about plans for a new business to be located at the proposed Southbridge Industrial Park.

The presenters, Gregory Hayes and Michael Loin made a number of representations regarding the status of their business, its affiliations, and a projected time frame for decisions by the Town.

The key points of that presentation were:
1. That their sponsors (Heritage Capital Partners Fund, HCPF) had acquired the British company ERT. “Heritage Capital bought ERT in an acquisition made final Friday, Mr. Hayes said.” Worcester Telegram and Gazette (T&G) April 1, 2009.
“Heritage Capital Partner’s Fund’s Envirotech Division…completed purchasing Environmental Recycling Technologies, the British firm that owns the patents, on Friday, he [Loin] said.” Southbridge Evening News (SEN) March 31, 2009.  However, in an email dated March 31, Ken Brooks, CEO of ERT wrote, “We were most definitely not sold last Friday!” In a follow-up email on April 1, Mr. James McKeon of HCPF wrote, “ERT is a publicly traded company and these things are not treated lightly.”
2. That HCPF was committed to this project. “A financial group, Heritage Capital Partner Funds, is committed to building a campus in this area, Mr. Loin said…”T&G April 1, 2009. “The proposal is being funded by a hedge fund, Heritage Partners Capital Fund [Mr. Loin said]”. SEN March 31, 2009. However, in an email from a party associated with HCPF to Ken Brooks (CEO of ERT) with a cc to James McKeon of HCPF, it was stated, “I have heard of these two gentlemen. They are not our people although they met with Jim and his group in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago.  I believe that they have spent a lot of time with Jerry Bilton and the group out of Atlanta, but have become disillusioned with them. I have not spoken with Jim yet, but it appears that they jumped to conclusions and made assumptions that had no basis in fact. I do not believe that anyone from Jim's group said anything that would have suggested anything along the lines of the announcement they made. Their pronouncement is a complete surprise.”
3. There is a very detailed business plan. “Hayes noted that there was a ‘very detailed business plan’ but it became moot when the hedge fund bought the British company.” SEN, March 31. However, In a phone conversation with James McKeon of HCPF on March 31 Ms. Cocalis asked about a business plan and McKeon told her that they are working out the details and it would not be ready for about a month. He told her that Gregory [Hayes] was using someone else’s business plan and they told him to discontinue using it.
4. There is no relationship with Casella. “The recycling material would be fed to the plant from the Casella Waste Systems-operated landfill, with which none of the partners is affiliated, Mr. Loin said.” T&G, April 1, 2009. However, in the same phone conversation cited above, Mr. McKeon said that HCPF has been talking with Casella. When asked if he knew Gregory Hayes or Michael Loin, he said that he had met Gregory [Hayes].  When asked who Gregory [Hayes] was Mr. McKeon said that he was a broker for Casella.
5. The project is dependent upon agreement to build the access road in six to eight weeks. “Loin and his partner Gregory Hayes of Framingham and others hope to make the new technology the core of a new company moving into the town’s industrial park, and specifically right next to the landfill. But for that to happen, they need the access road built.” And further,  “Loin and Hayes said they’d need to be sure they can get a parcel in the industrial park within six to eight weeks to stay in town. If they saw the town’s commitment to build the road, Loin said they’d be willing to build the plant while the road’s under construction (after the base coat of pavement is laid)….” SEN, March 31, 2009. However, again during the March 31 phone conversation, Mr. McKeon was asked if they had a time frame on a project in the 6-8 week time period and he said that, no, that they haven’t even looked at sites yet.

In reporting this information we are not casting aspersions on the technology involved. It has been successfully in use in Europe for over ten years. It holds great promise and potential for reducing the impact of MSW on our ecology.

Our only interest is the protection of the interests and welfare of our communities. We feel that no action should be taken until such time that issues pending in court relative to the site assignment upon which so many of the terms of the contract are dependent are resolved. We also feel that more time is needed to sift through the discrepancies that have been revealed by our inquiries. We are also concerned about indications that Casella may be involved in some way with this enterprise.

Finally, it is our hope that, in the future, the town administration will exercise more due diligence on any such proposals before they are given the appearance of an official stamp of approval.

Ultimately I had to appear before the Town Council during citizen’s forum to make these facts public. The paper subsequently published an article attempting to discredit us, but they could not provide any substantive basis. I have subsequently been told by a reliable source that one of the parties to this proposal was, in fact, grateful for our work. He did not realize that he was the victim of a scam. (I stand ready to correct this if I am wrong).

Interestingly enough, the Evening News then found the means to run an article attempting to discredit our findings. These efforts fell dramatically short.

Nevertheless, the Town Manager and a number of his acolytes still choose to cite this as irresponsible intervention in their agenda.

Compounding this has been the participation of personnel of the Evening News on local committees and subcommittees. There have been grotesque distortions of fact in reporting the work of the Charter Review Committee that were protested but never corrected. (Evidence is also available to support this). Are they an independent source of information when they are actually parties to the formulation and implementation of public policy?

Another factor has been the number of articles that the local paper has published on the issue of a leak from the Town Council relating to Executive Session minutes about the matter of the Registry of Motor Vehicles. They got this information through a source that leaked it to them. However, when I made the report of the State Police investigation into this matter public nary a word was said. Could this reflect a political bias?

As regards the T&G, there is also no reluctance on the part of the Town Manager to throw their reporter under the bus when it serves his political agenda. Nowhere is this clearer than in the previously referenced State Police report. In that document it is reported:

Clark was aware that the Worcester Telegram and Gazette had the same information that the Southbridge Evening News had regarding the RMV coming back to Southbridge. Lee was insinuating to Clark that he had gotten this information from a “little birdie”. Clark asked Lee “How big was the birdie”? Lee replied “It was Al Vecchia”! Clark was somewhat stunned by this revelation but felt that Lee was telling the truth and had actually erred by making this statement.

But, this is a consequence of co-optation. Once you have to rely upon someone for your survival, then you are a victim of their self-interest.

As a consequence, opposing views find their outlet primarily through the medium of individuals writing on the internet. These blogs become an easy target for the interests they oppose in a community that is dominated by an elderly and lower income population. A relatively small percentage of these groups access these alternative perspectives. Thus campaigns by administration sympathizers rapidly gain support because the public’s view remains largely shaped by traditional outlets with which they are familiar and thus comfortable. And as shown, these outlets almost invariably favor the existing power elite.

There is further complicity on the part of traditional media that perceive the new information outlets as an economic threat.

The end result is the abdication by traditional local media of their traditional role as a watchdog. As a function of purely economic self-interest they become advocates of the status quo and castigate views expressed by alternative media that are perceived as a competitive threat.

If a cogent opposition to the existing policy trajectory is to be successful, it must find a means of increasing public access to and respect for its product. This is the conundrum that legitimate voices of dissent must confront and to which they must find a solution.


Maybe a starting point would be to get reporters to unionize and bargain for the same residual rights to their work as Hollywood actors.



5 comments:

  1. Hi, Ken,

    You have made a great many good points. The reality of a need to generate stories for a newspaper coupled with a decrease in the workforce has certainly placed a significant stress on reporters. I have to say, though, that I don’t think that provides any excuse for abandoning the basic elements of a news story.

    A reporter must bring something to the story, at the very least assuring that the f w’s and the h are present: who, what, where, when, why, and how.

    The example you provide, that of the company that indicated that they would open a factory in the Southbridge Industrial Park contingent on the progress made on the access road, should have been an easy story in which to exercise the basic elements of journalism.

    Lots of information could have been attained by interviewing those who made the presentation. The same goes with an interview with the town manager. These questions could have been answered the night of the presentation. If the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” questions had been asked, tailored to the particular story, it may have filled in the holes that you and Mrs. Cocalis noted. If that was impossible, it would, in my opinion, have been appropriate to ask the parties involved to provide some written answers to a list of prepared questions or to arrange for an electronic interview of some type. The immediate “story” could have been the fact of the presentation and a word to the readers that questions had been submitted for a response. If the parties did not answer the questions within an agreed-upon time, then THAT becomes the story.

    Simply taking and printing information provided by anyone without any questioning by a reporter amounts to a press release. There is no need for a reporter at all.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have access to a large capacity printer. I think a small group of dissenters should publish hard copy articles like these (in English and Spanish) to distribute to the locals of Southbridge -- people who aren't paying attention, but would be outraged if they knew. The same people who have stopped reading the local papers because they never have anything of importance or depth.

    Let's reach more of the disenfranchised / disillusioned masses using a very old method from our founding fathers, such as Thomas Paine, the inspirational pamphleteer.

    Thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  3. P.S. Have you thought of running again?

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  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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