Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A New Model for the Hometown Papers

So here I am back from a five day absence. Blogger productivity is a function of ire and free time, and the last couple days I've been a bit shorter on both, not to mention mentally spent. It happens, but I'll try not to have it be too often.

A thought came to me the today on the subject of The Herald and its future as I was reading The Advocate: How is it that a free newspaper like The Advocate is not in any trouble while The Herald is on the verge of collapse? It can't be the measly 50 cents. It could very well be the lucrative income from about 10 pages of porn ads in the back section, which obviously is not a realistic solution for The Herald or the The Bristol Press, but I did think of some aspects of The Advocate that might suit the hometown dalies well if they are to survive into the future.

The first thing that struck me is that The Advocate is a weekly publication instead of a daily. This offers it a lot of advantages over a daily paper. It doesn't have to run the press every day, keeping production costs down. It gives journalists more time to work on their stories, resulting in better writing and better journalism (a subjective opinion, of course, but I challenge you to read a Herald article and an Advocate article and compare - which one was more informative on the subject? And which was more engaging?). It frees up the editors from having to fill an entire day's news cycle. Slow news days are common in New Britain. Slow news weeks are much easier to handle. It offers advertisers a better bargain to buy one ad and have it circulate around town for an entire week. It may also allow the paper to sell for a dollar and still pass along savings to regular readers while simultaneously cutting overhead. We wouldn't have to fill out page after page with statewide, national, and international news, plus the same classified ads and community calendar every day just to come up with enough material to justify printing; a week's worth of local happenings could easily pack a single edition.

So how to handle mid-cycle news in such a format? Daily updates of major breaking news could be made available on the website and then followed up in greater detail in the following week's edition. The website, in this case, would even require less maintenance, instead requiring one major weekly update followed by small daily updates when warranted. Gee, almost sounds like on of those new-fangled Blogs that the kids are using these days!

Somewhat-hyperbolic analogy time: Think of it like the music industry, which was tanking not because of illegal downloads, but because it kept producing, at ENORMOUS overhead, full albums from which the public only cared about one or two tracks. Apple has made a killing off of iTunes because it found a way to return the industry to a single-song format with very, very low overhead. Think of a weekly publication as a "Greatest Hits" album - the kind people still buy because the product is a sure thing and the record companies love because the overhead is pennies - and the product is a sure thing. Think of online updates when necessary as iTunes downloads. I still feel like I'm not describing it well, but I've been sick for the last three days so I may still have mucous on the brain.

And now, shifting gears a little bit: My humble opinion on any kind of bailout. I am not opposed to the idea of bailouts AS LONG AS there are some serious strings attached. IF the taxpayers are going to bail a company out, then there has to be one of two arrangements made:

1. The bailout is considered a debt and the taxpayers are, in time, entitled to their money back plus interest at the going rate.

2. The taxpayers now own the company as the collective majority shareholder and have the power to vote on how the company is run.

Some of you may be complaining that this idea sounds Socialist. I don't recall ever saying I was a free-market crank. However, I am not advocating state ownership in this particular case. State ownership of a newspaper is a horrible idea waiting to happen. Such an arrangement could be easily set up as a co-op with an elected Board of Directors, of which all citizens have an ownership stake. There would be no need for any government agency to be involved once the buyout is complete. Models such as this have used to great effect in the mixed economies South America's Southern Cone during the Developmentalist era (before the criminal goons from the University of Chicago helped the juntas decimate the region) and have made a comeback in countries such as Argentina in this century, albeit on a more grassroots level.

Just something to think about. I'm spent.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Election 2009 Part 3

Before I dive back into the Decision '09 series, I want to extend a warm welcome to all of our new followers, contributors, and readers. Feel free to respond and post your ideas! And now, part three of our series on how the Democrats can win in 2009:


Perhaps one of the biggest advantages we could have that no local candidate has had in recent memory is the massive wave of new voters that Barack Obama has so kindly created for us. If we can keep the momentum for Barack alive and redirect the need for change in America to change in New Britain, we can not just win, we can win BIG.

The first step to keeping that wave going is to think like Obama. What gave Obama the ability to succeed on the grassroots level was his background as a community organizer. This experience was central to his entire campaign, as he essentially used the principles of community organizing to organize the entire nation. Compared to an undertaking like that, organizing New Britain should be a piece of cake. Of course compared to an undertaking like that, winning the Superbowl is a piece of cake. So let's stay realistic but positive.

The first rule of community organizing is: Don't organize people around your agenda, organize people around their agenda. Get out into the community, into people's homes, businesses, churches, community centers, meetings, festivals, soup kitchens. Find out what issues in this city matter most to them, not what we perceive to be the biggest problems. Hunt for allies, not potential converts.

And let's be thoughtful about how we approach people. Many people are naturally distrustful of politicians and their minions. We need to approach them on their terms. Reach out to college and high school students on Facebook and MySpace. Send Spanish speaking volunteers into Hispanic neighborhoods and Polish speaking volunteers into Polish neighborhoods.

Psychological research shows that the best way endear yourself to someone is to ask for their help, not to offer them yours. So get the people we engage involved by asking them to help us spread the word. Make each person who wants to be help responsible for recruiting five people from his or her community, and then make each of those five responsible for recruiting five more. That way, the task doesn't seem overwhelming for each new volunteer. When the people we've brought in are talking to others on their own, it's now a movement. Do you think Tim Stewart and the local Republicans are ready to take on a movement? I don't. Time to move in for the kill.

Once we have a buzz going and have figured out what people want done, we need to keep them in the loop. Snail mail and e-mail lists are of course standard. But what other ways can we reach people?

One outlet that has to become a factor this year is Spanish language media. The Spanish media is not a low-budget underground operation. Spanish newspapers, radio stations, and TV channels are owned by the same giant media conglomerates as their English speaking counterparts. Spanish speaking media is HUGE business, to the tune of millions of dollars a year. And it is very present in New Britain. In 2008, our Spanish radio stations, WRYM and WLAT, were instrumental in registering over 1,200 new Latino voters. Most of those votes went to Obama. New Britain's Latino community has a big heart but feels like it has never been invited to the table. Now is the critical time for us to we send a much-deserved invitation.

One of the newest and most viral methods of organizing is text messaging. Cell phones go everywhere a person goes, so text messages are usually checked as soon as they are received. A texting tree provides one of the fasted ways imaginable to spread information. Meetings and demonstrations can be organized within minutes. Rumors and campaign attacks can be debunked before they are even common knowledge, and attacks can be launched without an opponent's knowledge.

In April of 2006, when hundreds of thousands of Latinos turned out in US cities to protest the ugly House Immigration bill, cell phones and especially text messages were instrumental in organizing the protests. Demonstrations that would once have taken weeks to organize were put together in a matter of days. When controversy erupted over non-American flags being flown at the protests, text messages immediately went around from coast to coast calling for only American flags to be flown. The change happened so fast that a media talking point which could potentially have discredited the movement was killed on the spot. Thus is the power of cell phones.

Plus, be honest, how excited were you when you got a text from Barack?

Facebook and MySpace also provide powerful tools. They provide all the advantages of e-mail, but they take the now-hardy old system quite a few steps further. Groups create automatic messaging lists and discussion forums. Mass Facebook messages allow all users to see each others' responses, allowing for easy group discussion without worrying about forwarding and e-mail privacy. Users can display their support for a candidate on their pages for all to see. And most powerful of all, each user comes stocked with his or her own Friends list full of potential new supporters.

Of course, texting and Facebooking is all well and good for those who are plugged in, but for those who aren't into the technology thing or can't afford to be, nothing beats good old fashioned hand bills. Fliers have a way of getting around. They get left at bus stops, in cafes, and in grocery carts. A single flier has the potential to reach two or three people in the course of its life. Not to mention put its initial recipient in contact with a real live volunteer (recruiter).

This process takes quite a while to build, and even when it peaks we shouldn't expect to see anything like Barack had going. But if we start early, keep trying, and keep people engaged, I certainly think we can build a strong enough coalition to generate some real noise in the streets that will penetrate the walls of City Hall.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

...And on the Subject of The Herald...

The theme of the week seems to be the need to save the local dalies from extinction, so I thought that as the new kid on the block I would chime in on the matter. Contrary to what the general stance of this blog is, I do still think that there is a vital need for our local newspapers to survive.

Even with the impact that blogs have had around the nation in the last two years, they have far from arrived as the new paradigm of media. I will willingly admit to that. The traditional mainstream media is still the gold standard of What Is News to the majority of Americans, including a fellow named Joe who either has an affinity for drinking six beers at once or has very solid abs - Mrs. Palin never did quite make that clear. Despite its many, many, many, many, many, many, many faults, the MSM still carries its advantages that blogs have yet to overcome.

The MSM is accessible. It is accessible from a logistical standpoint: TV broadcast is free. Newspapers are everywhere. The Herald is only 50 cents. Even the poorest among us can easily turn to the MSM to find out what's going on in our community and in our world. That the out-of-work machinist sitting at a lunch counter sipping Folger's and circling want-ads has been replaced by the out-of-work sales rep sipping Starbucks and cruising Craigslist is not a reflection on the irrelevance of printed media, but of the very fact that internet-based media is still accessible mainly by a more affluent, better educated, more technologically adept class, and that that class is the one in highest demand by advertisers and employers. I am not suggesting we blame the internet for this shift, and I am not suggesting the MSM hasn't dug its own hole over the years with lousy journalistic standards and sensationalism. But the extinction of print media itself threatens to make this two-tiered culture of information permanent and more severe. I worry what would happen in our community if only those of us with internet access knew what was going on.

The MSM is accessible in another way: It is easy to understand. No, I am not a fan of dumbed-down media. But the fact is, most relevant blogs are in-depth, specialized treatment of breaking news within a certain domain. Daily Kos is a wonderful and informative source of information for those with a keen mind for Democratic politics. It is confusing as hell for those who don't know who the Vice President is (don't laugh, there are tons of Americans who don't know, and that's not a laughing matter), and its downright useless if you're trying to find out if the Patriots beat the Dolphins or what time the car show starts.

Blogs have their role: They feed the MSM with stories and information they would never have found otherwise. They call out and correct the MSM when it reports wrong information. They look deeper into stories that the MSM would have otherwise dropped and let die. They organize the masses and re-frame the debate that the Conservative-dominated MSM lazily casts in favor of those who would loot America for every dime it has in the name of God, Country, and God & Jesus. But at the end of the day, it is the MSM that disseminates the work of our best and brightest bloggers to the masses. We can't change minds and win hearts without it.

It is not easy to find a way to save these institutions. They are expensive to maintain, in terms of personnel, equipment, and raw materials. But the loss of The Herald would be far worse than any expense we would incur trying to modernize it.

So save The Herald. And keep dogging it until it gets the story right.

On Hitting Back: Democrats vs. Republicans

Pretend a politician lets his neighbor borrow his car (if you want you can pretend the neighbor is Joe Lieberman). After two weeks, he asks for the car back, and the neighbor tells him he's decided to keep it. If the politician is a Democrat, he apologizes to his neighbor for ever bothering him, immediately signs the car over, and gives the guy 50 bucks for gas. If the politician is a Republican, he shoots his neighbor in the face, hangs his body from a telephone pole, and calls Fox News to come take pictures of the homosexual terrorist he just caught.

This is pretty much the stereotypical response to conflict that we've come to expect from the two parties. This model is exactly why Democrats always get the short end of the stick and end up being held to higher standard. If the Democrat in this example asserts himself and demands the car back from the neighbor, he will be perceived as a nasty partisan bully. If the Republican makes the slightest effort to acknowledge the other guy, like burying the body in the back yard instead of stringing it up, his actions will be perceived as "reaching across the aisle in a spirit of bipartisanship."

By appealing to the lowest common denominator, Republicans have put themselves in position where it's easy to look good. By allowing themselves to be victimized in the hopes that the big bad bully Republicans will stop if they capitulate enough, the Democrats have put themselves in a position where it is impossible to hit back. Another analogy: think of a little brat constantly antagonizing his sister. His behavior is considered par for the course and goes unnoticed, but when the sister gets so fed up she hits back, that's when the parents suddenly notice and she gets in trouble. The brother then gives his sister back her stolen Barbie and gets a cookie for doing the right thing.

Now consider how this applies to the manufactured outrage over the recent Board of Ed. appointment. The RTC endorses a relative of the mayor to fill the vacancy in a spirit of cronyism. The newspaper, of course, never mentions this connection and makes no effort to stress the fact that while the RTC is free to endorse a candidate, it is the Common Council's decision who should fill that post. The only requirement is that the appointee be from the same political party. The Council is under no obligation to listen to the RTC. And so the Council Democrats picked a candidate who wasn't a crony of the mayor and had experience on the BoE, which was perfectly within their rights as the majority party. No rules were broken. And yet look at what they've gotten for not totally capitulating. Oh, and then there's the natural result of such negative framing and misunderstanding of politics in general.

So, are we gonna hit back or what?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Election 2009: Part 2

Continuing our series on how the Democrats can win the Mayor's office in 2009:

Be able to tell our own narrative and define our own candidate.

We cannot afford to start building up the public persona of a candidate in the midst of attacks from Republicans at the start of the campaign. We cannot afford to let The Herald or, worse yet, the comment section on Frank Smith's blog, choose for us how he or she will be defined and accept Republican input in the process. That was how Al Gore lost in 2000. But in 2009, we have weapons at our disposal that had barely come into play for him then.

Try a little exercise to see how a potential candidate might fare at this: Google the candidate's name. Since this is a local race, you may want to add the words "New Britain." What comes up? Do you see a news article admonishing the City Council? Do you see the person's listing on the City Hall website? Or do you see a candidate blog with policy positions, giving him or her a head start framing the coming debate in our favor? Or a presence on MySpace and Facebook providing instant direct access to tons of supporters? In other words, do you see someone who has been defined by them, or someone who has already defined himself (or herself)?

Setting the narrative is key. Once again, think of Obama. He offered the media a compelling story: A community organizer from the mean streets of Chicago going head-to-head with the establishment to become the first black President of the United States. Of course, he had a lot of other factors going for him, but he sold the media a story that practically wrote itself. Naturally, they vastly preferred telling his story over Hillary Clinton's (wife of an ex-President politics her way into the White House via the party establishment). In fact, she made the perfect villain in Obama's story. So did John McCain. Establishing the narrative gives the press the story the want to write, and it gives the public the story it wants to follow; the hero it wants to root for and the villain it wants to jeer.

Right now, the Republicans are winning that battle hands-down. The mayor provides the media with a natural hero of the narrative: Tim Stewart and his two allies defending their vision for New Britain against that perpetual thorn in their sides, the Democrats of the City Council. It doesn't matter that the Council is responsible for most of the good decisions that Stewart takes credit for. The press sees Stewart as the one on a mission. The Democrats are just the impediment. We cannot count on this media to tell our story. A mayoral candidate, and the party at large, needs to understand and see how these gatekeepers of the public consciousness can and should be bypassed this time.

The task before us is to build up a Hero candidate who stands for what the people want to see done, and equally important, recast Stewart as the villain of the piece. We have the ammo to do it, we just have to know what will stick. What makes a better villain, the mayor who fixed up the roads by giving no-bid contracts to his campaign donors, or the Man Who Tore Down Corbin Heights? Attack him on the technicalities, however outrageous they may be, and it won't stick. Highlight where his values run totally contrary to our own, and he won't be able to escape it.

And we have the weapons at our disposal to do just that, so long as we can steer people to them... or better yet, make them seek it out. Next time: "Mobilizing the Masses."

Monday, November 24, 2008

How the Democrats Can Win the Mayor's Office in 2009

Despite absolutely dominating the Common Council and maintaining a big presence in all other municipal offices, the Democrats still can't seem to overcome Republican mayor Tim Stewart. The road ahead is not easy. Stewart, despite a lot of shady business, has a broad coalition behind him, including the "Democrats for Stewart" who helped provide his sweeping victory in 2007. But the Democrats have many reasons to believe that this could be the year. The key to victory: Find a candidate that can build a stronger coalition than Stewart. Democrats out-number Republicans in New Britain by nearly 4:1. There is no reason why the right candidate can't rally the City behind him. Over the next few articles, I will be presenting a series of campaign strategies plucked straight from the Democratic victories on the national level in 2006 and 2008. Today I present what I consider to be the most important factor of all:

Find a candidate who stands for something.

Democrats everywhere should thank Bill Frist. In 2005, in the midst of a Senate showdown, Frist gave away the secret of Republican success when he said of the Democrats: "They stand for nothing."

You can't run a successful campaign if you don't represent something in the human heart other than a set of policy proposals. That is because, despite the 18th Century ideas about Reason and the human mind to which Democrats continue to cling, people are not rational actors. They don't make decisions about who to vote for based on logic. They make those decisions based on their values, and then they use reason to justify those decisions.

It is no accident that Republicans always talk of values. They know it is the key to victory. Yet Democrats shy away from talking about their values because they are afraid of sounding like their moralistic counterparts. But they don't have to. Think of Barack Obama and what he just achieved. Remember the early criticisms: "He has no specific ideas, it's all a bunch of talk about Hope!"

That was the whole idea. Obama did have specific proposals, some of them very good. They were available on the website for all interested parties to see. Beyond that, he didn't waste too much time discussing them, because he knew that no candidate can win an election based on policy. Instead, when he had the public's ear, he talked about his values. His liberal values. He stood for something.

Similarly, George Bush stood for something as well. Perhaps the reason we found him so revolting was how openly he talked about his Conservative values. He spoke little about the specifics of his policies, which we mostly atrocious even by Conservative standards. It didn't matter. His values won him the White House despite John Kerry's intellectually nuanced positions on every issue backed up by white papers and statistics.

The reason Jim Wyskiewicz fell so flat in 2007 was because as a candidate, he represented the same core values as John Kerry: He wasn't his opponent. And so he was eviscerated at the polls. Today, the City sees a mayor and his two stalwarts who stand for some kind of vision for the City up against a big clump of Democrats who stand for not caring much for the mayor and calling him out on all his abuses of power and shady deals with private contractors. The problem is, where would the Democratic vision be without Tim Stewart to find so appalling?

Jason Jakubowski may have failed. But a very young and inexperienced challenger came close to taking out a popular incumbent because he ran his campaign on a vision for the future of the city that spoke to our Democratic values: Project Hope. Sound like someone else we know? He came up short because he never set the public at ease about his liabilities. A more seasoned candidate with a slightly longer resume could take that success even further.

I'm calling on all Democrats to ask themselves the question: What are our values? What do we need our candidate to stand for? I'll even submit a few to the group for consideration: Prosperity should be shared among the people rather than concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. Healthcare is a right and not a privilege. People of all genders, races, ethnicities, orientations, and creeds should equally valued and welcomed in our society and given the same opportunities to succeed. Those who have benefited the most from society should give the most back. Just food for thought.

Then we need to communicate those values to the people, which will be our next topic: "Take Charge of the Message."

I'm From New Britain...

...and I'm a Liberal. I'm a Progressive Democrat. My heroes are Obama, Dean, Wellstone, Krugman, Lakoff, and Kos. And I'm not going away.

Something big is happening in New Britain right now. The Herald, our once-respectable hometown newspaper turned New York Post-style tabloid is on the verge of folding. New Britain will need a new way to get news about what's happening around town. And we Progressives will need a new way to keep getting our message out to the community. I've started The New Britain Progressive as an alternative to the Republican-edited Courant, the ADD-oriented Advocate, and right wing blogs that accomplish little more than slandering some of our city's finest advocates.

It's tough out there. Local journalistic standards are low. Public understanding of Civics is weak. It is in these kinds of circumstances that Democrats and Progressive values fall victim to the public's thirst for simple, brute-force answers to very complex problems. But it is also in this kind of environment that we can discredit and bypass the traditional gatekeepers of the media and establish a new standard. We can reach our audience directly. We can tell our story, our way.

I am inviting all members of New Britain's Democratic community to join in. The goal I am setting for us here: To mobilize ourselves and our allies for the coming year's events - and we all know what that includes. To discuss policy proposals for how to bring New Britain back as an economically thriving, environmentally sustainable, culturally diverse community.

I am casting this blog in the image of Daily Kos, and like Kos, I am stating up front and out in the open:
This is a Democratic blog.

Debate is welcome. Dissent is welcome. Criticism is welcome. But Republican trolls and Conservative hard-liners are not. You already have space in the blogosphere, and you are more than welcome to go create more. This one is ours. I reserve the right to delete comments from those who would follow Tom Bozek down the rabbit hole.

It's time to reclaim the debate around New Britain. We have big opportunities before us and a lot of work ahead. 2009 will be a big year. Let's get started.