Friday, February 16, 2007

UI Held Hostage Day 391 - Feb. 16

Feb. 16, 9:00 a.m.

After the rush of stories from the past few days it's relatively quiet this morning. Our topic comes from the Press-Citizen's editorial page. (The paper also has a story about Meredith Hay in New Mexico, Rob Daniel, "Hay Gets Vote of Confidence; UI Vice President Closer to Leading University of New Mexico," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 16, 2007, p. 3A, but I'm not bothering with a link to it since it adds little to what I reported two days ago.)

Government in the Sunshine: Newspapers, Print, and the 21st Century

The editorial ("Keep Governments Printing Their Salaries and Proceedings") advocates the desirability of sticking with, and expanding, the 19th Century practice of requiring various levels of government to buy space in local papers to print public information.

The newspaper industry generally, not just Gannett's Press-Citizen, has taken a punch in the kidneys from the digital age generally, and the Internet and Web in particular, and is still reeling while trying to figure out how best to punch back. Readership is down, way down -- especially among the high school and college students who used to be avid newspaper readers. (The industry is now giving away papers for free on campus and still can't get students to read them.)

In a if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em response, most papers have simply jumped off the high diving board into the depths of cyberspace. The Press-Citizen puts its content online at

During the 1920s and 1930s there was concern within the newspaper business that radio's ability to operate 24/7 could become a serious competitive challenge to a newspaper that only presented the news once a day.

Now the Press-Citizen's online site gives it even more flexibility in its "Updates" throughout the day than a radio station has with its news on the hour or half-hour.

Nor is that the end of it. The Gazette offers not only an online version of its newspaper (not just the content, but a picture perfect exact reproduction), but a separate "Web page," in effect, for its updates throughout the day. The Des Moines Register offers slide shows of its photographs. The Daily Iowan actually produces its own, daily television news program, broadcast over the local cable system, but also available as streaming video online. And they all compete with the "blogosphere" by operating their own blogs and "forums" with the contributions from their employees or others designated for the purpose.

Moreover, the papers' online versions make it easy for readers, with a mouse click, to e-mail a story or print it out.

Which is illustrative, not incidentally, of the difficulty the industry has had in trying to figure out how best to continue as a for-profit business while giving away its product.

One way, as the number of competitors increases for what used to be exclusively the newspapers' lucrative "classified ads" income stream, is to insist that government agencies continue to be required to buy space in the paper for that which they are required to make public. It's a superficially quaint argument, given the newspapers' reluctant entry into cyberspace.

But, like the newspapers themselves, the agencies have also gone digital. They, also like the newspapers, resisted this move initially. We have Ralph Nader to thank (once again) for keeping on the pressure that eventually produced the easy accessibility we now have to agencies' online Web sites. His theory was that since the taxpayers have already paid once for the collection of much of the agencies' data and information, and that since the computer revolution they were all storing it in computers anyway, they had no good excuse for not making it available, for free, online. Why should a taxpayer have to pay a second time (and often to some for-profit publisher) to get less information, in a form less easy to use, in a hardback or paperback book, when it could be provided, at virtually no additional cost to the agency, for free, instantaneously, to anyone with a computer hooked up to the Internet?

It is easy to dismiss a newspaper's editorials on this subject as a blatant conflict of interest. On the one hand, they want to be able to publish public employees' salaries, and what goes on at their meetings, while refusing to reveal the newspaper's own financial details and salaries, the notes of reporters, or reports of their editorial conferences. The Press-Citizen editorial ridicules the cost to the agencies for the paid space as 1/20th of 1% of their budgets. But it doesn't bother to reveal what it grosses annually from this legally-required forced purchase of advertising space.

So the agencies don't want to reveal any more than they have to, and don't want to pay to have that published. And the newspapers talk about informing the public, while keeping one eye on the cash register and maintaining their own form of secrecy.

But there are real public policy issues here as well as short-sighted special interest.

The Press-Citizen's editorial says "Moving this information from the printed pages of local newspaper into the back alleys of cyberspace would help ensure that
scandals like CIETC and other government abuses go unnoticed for far too long."

Aside from the colorful turn of phrase, "the back alleys of cyberspace," I think the assertion states both too much and too little. It's unduly modest. I don't know, but my guess is that far more scandals are uncovered by the media, which has always had access to these public records, and will continue to, whether or not they are published in the paper, than ever comes about as a result of a reader making his or her way through the small print. And, to the extent journalists, scholars, activists, business persons -- and, yes, newspaper readers -- do want access to such information these days I suspect far more are finding it in those digitized back alleys of cyberspace than in the yellowed copies of newspapers they've saved for the day when they might need the information.

But, as anyone knows who has ever wondered where their peerless prose disappeared to inside the mystery known as a computer, never to emerge again, "easy come easy go" has no more appropriate application than to digitized data.

The president of NBC News once confessed to me that he discovered someone had earased the videotape that had President Kennedy's innaugural address on it to make room for some commercials. It prompted me to observe that, given the quality of paper 100 years earlier we would someday find we had better historical records of the 1860s than of the 1960s.

The Census Bureau apparently has census records stored in media that cannot be read by any currently available device. Are you old enough to have a "record" collection that includes 78s, 45s, 33-1/3 "LPs," 8-track tapes, cassettes, CDs, mpgs, and iTune files? If so, you understand my point.

Just as radio didn't displace newspapers, and TV didn't displace radio, the Internet cannot -- and should not -- fully displace print.

Just as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee says that he's right-to-life, he just doesn't think the right to life ends in the birth canal, so the newspaper industry needs to recognize that the value of public records in print doesn't end with the payment for space in one of their daily papers.

Here we are in Iowa City with one of the nation's major universities and research libraries, one of the best public libraries for a city this size, and one of the best educated populations of any county in the U.S., and many of the leading newspapers in Iowa are nowhere to be found anywhere in the county. They are not available for sale on a daily basis. And the back issues are nowhere to be found in our libraries or other collections.

Following my exprience with the NBC president I tried to embarrass the broadcasting industry into building a broadcasting museum and library. It was eventually created, so we now have some historic record of our video culture.

So I come full circle to an agreement with this morning's editorial. But not for the reasons it puts forth. I don't think the information in "the paper of the day," while useful, is anything nearly as useful as the hard copy (or microfilm or microfishe) back issues of those papers.

Just as the broadcasting industry has a responsibility for, and an interest in, maintaining some records of our audio-video history and culture, so the newspaper industry has a responsibility for, and an interest in, seeing to it that there are more repository collections of the industry's product.

Library patrons aren't buying single issues, or subscribing to the papers (although they are exposed to the ads). But if the newspaper industry wants to make a believable case that its primary interest is in informing the public (rather than merely enriching its stockholders) it needs to make sure those patrons will have access to those newspaper-published agency data when they want it.
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[Note: If you're new to this blog, and interested in the whole UI President Search story . . .

These blog entries begin with Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search I," November 18, 2006.

Wondering where the "UI Held Hostage" came from? Click here. (As of January 25 the count has run from January 21, 2006, rather than last November.)

For any given entry, links to the prior 10 will be found in the left-most column. Going directly to will take you to the latest. Each contains links to the full text of virtually all known media stories and commentary, including mine, since the last blog entry. Together they represent what The Chronicle of Higher Education has called "one of the most comprehensive analyses of the controversy." The last time there was an entry containing the summary of prior entries' commentary (with the heading "This Blog's Focus on Regents' Presidential Search") is Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search XIII -- Last Week," December 11, 2006.

My early proposed solution to the conflict is provided in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search VII: The Answer," November 26, 2006.

Searching: the fullest collection of basic documents related to the search is contained in Nicholas Johnson, "UI President Search - Dec. 21-25," December 21, 2006 (and updated thereafter), at the bottom of that blog entry under "References." A Blog Index of entries on all subjects since June 2006 is also available. And note that if you know (or can guess at) a word to search on, the "Blogger" bar near the top of your browser has a blank, followed by "SEARCH THIS BLOG," that enables you to search all entries in this Blog since June 2006.]

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Media Stories and Commentary

Editorial, "Keep Governments Printing Their Salaries and Proceedings," Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 16, 2007

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1 comment:

John Barleykorn said...

Regarding: Publishing Notices

The Press Citizen's claim is laughable that government info will end up in "dark corners of cyberspace". Nonsense. All one needs to do is go to the primary web sites of the jurisdiction in question. They all could be found easily with a Google search. In case no one can find them:

Hardly the "dark corners of cyberspace".

Why should local taxpayers in Iowa subsidize the Gannett Corporation from Virginia?

Here is their profile:

A very nice P/E ration and other numbers. Don't buy the whole open records facade here. This is all about corporate profits.