Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cars I have known and loved, or hated

In my newspaper career I wore out a series of cars. All American brands, by the way. Back in the late 1960s I owned two Volkswagens. One was a beetle the other a camper that my first wife and I had when we got married.

But pretty much since 1970, I've owned a succession of American cars. For sure since I moved to Michigan I have owned mostly GM cars, with a few Fords and one Chrysler sprinkled in the mix.

During my police department days in the early 1970s, my first wife and I used to buy some of our cars from a tow truck operator that I met while working at the police department. He would sell me the wrecks that no one claimed for the price of the tow and storage.

Some of them lasted several months, others we had for a long time. I remember one that I bought that had a very bad running engine until I bought a $1.50 air filter and then it ran like an Elgin (an old guy reference to a fine watch).

It was like car roulette. But at least we didn't have a car payment much of the time.

As a reporter, I drove hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand miles a month for my job.

Chasing fires and police calls would quickly tally up the miles. And newspapers have been notoriously bottom payers for mileage. Usually 15-30 cents a mile less than most other corporate or government mileage rates.

Buying and replacing cars, in my mind, was just part of the cost of doing a job I loved.

All the cars I used ended up with mileage well north of 100,000 and worth so little that most of them were donated to a local high school auto shop class. The tax deduction was worth more than the resale value.

Reporter car No. 1: A 1974 Ford Gran Torino I used while I was editor of The State News. A great car until there was icy roads and then it was merely a street ornament. I once lent the car to a reporter (Kim - the guy I recently referred to as the best feature writer I know) and warned him not to park the car on ice. An hour later, after he hoofed back to the newsroom he handed me my keys, told me where he had left my car and said it wouldn't move because it was parked on ice.

This is the same car I took on road trips with State News sports editor, Joe, in 1978 that we used to travel to several away football and basketball games (yeah, Magic). Joe and I bought beer in Madison, Wisconsin and invited several players from the MSU basketball team (Not Magic Johnson or Greg Kelser) but some names MSU alums would remember from that National Championship team to our room.

They sat around our hotel room the night before the Big 10 season ending game against Wisconsin drinking our beer. All against team rules and some were probably underage. The team had already clinched the Big 10 Championship in Minnesota the day before. Forget the journalism ethics of such a lapse in judgement.

The next day the Spartans lost that last game on a 3/4-court shot by a kid named Wes Matthews. On the way back to Michigan I told Joe that Jud Heathcote better never found out we filling half his players with beer the night before the game.

Reporter Car #2: A 1982-83 blue Ford Escort. Purchased for its good gas mileage the Ford Escort was not a bad car and gave me several years and about 116,000 miles of great service. It's only flaw was a round dent, the exact size of a headlight assembly on an International station wagon. The International station wagon rear-ended my Escort in a blinding snow storm on a freeway near Holland in the early 1980s. The situation was so treacherous we just waved at each other and continued on.

I never repaired the dent and it rusted into a perfect circle. It was given to the Oxford High School auto program.

Reporter Car #3: A 1980s Chevrolet Chevette (or shove-it, as I like to call it). This was the car that had been used by my second wife, Susan. When she got a company car - she was a police detective for the City of Pontiac police department - I got rid of the Escort and started work on wearing out the Chevette.

Although it is a GM car, one I believed that was designed to meet government mileage standards so GM could make and sell cars people really wanted, this was my least favorite car ever. It was cramped, slow and made me feel like I was driving a roller skate. When it finally went over 100,000 miles it ended up in a high school garage.

Reporter Car #4: A 1990s Ford Escort station wagon. A small, but reliable vehicle that we purchased new. It got good gas mileage, but was cramped. It was severely damaged in a side impact accident that occurred while I was on my way to work at the Flint Journal.

The person that hit me, an Oakland Press newspaper carrier, ran a stop sign and caught me broadside. I ended up in the walk-in emergency room for a bump on my head and leg. I took the rest of the day off. After it was repaired it lasted for several more years.

Reporter Car #5: A 1984 Pontiac station wagon. A nice, large car that I got as part of the divorce settlement from Susan. The wagon got decent gas mileage, but had that awful blue paint that GM and Ford suffered from that flaked off.

When I became single again in 1995 I used the wagon for work, but leased a 1995 red Chevrolet Monte Carlo for fun. We were well paid in those days. The wagon had a lot of miles on it already, but I drove it until 1999 when I got married again.

Reporter Car #6: My new wife, the one I'm still married to (yeah!), had a Dodge Shadow that was just crying out to be worn out. This was me second least favorite car (next to the Chevette) but it served me well for several years. It was also the car that ended up in a national news shot for the Buell Elementary School when I simply pulled it up on sidewalk and left it outside the school where a first grade boy had shot to death a first grade girl classmate.

Our other car was a leased Buick Century. In 2000 we bought a Chevrolet Impala for our pleasure driving and I continued to drive the Shadow until 2003 when I purchased,

Reporter Car #7, a 2003 GMC Sonoma pick-up truck. The last reporter car. The truck was handy and I used it on and off duty.

I didn't keep track, but in 30 years of reporting I had to have driven more than 200,000 chasing after stories.

Secret company, seeking new reporters, staff

A company listed as 'confidential' is seeking reporters and a variety of other individuals for the publishing business. Here's another ad for a graphic designer.

A commenter sent this version.

Wonder why this is "confidential." There is nothing as secretive and non-transparent these day than a newspaper company. It is a pathetic example they are setting. Besides the ads really make it clear who this is.

Also no listing for wages either. I'm going to apply under an assumed name and see if I get a call and find out what they are paying.

Recently, the Flint Journal did a great story (now pratically a series) on the appointment of a former politician to an $89,000 a year parole board position by the governor. The issue in the story is that the State hired this person without posting the job or competitive interviews.

Just like Booth does.

To be clear, it is wrong no matter who does it. Just interesting that it only gets written about when it is someone else.

Besides, we all know what this is about. It's about getting rid of the high-priced help and replacing with cheap.

The right way to listen to classical music

A friend sent the following to me:

Oh, did I mention it was a 'guy' friend.

First come the layoffs, now the new hires

If you looking for something to be curious about today, as it relates to the new Booth world of publishing, head over to Inside Out and read about how they are now running house ads looking for new people.

So you tell people you are downsizing, dump the long-standing lifetime job pledge and then start advertising to replace those folks you didn't need.

Stop over and take a read.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A remembered investigation, brings a small smile

A small smile came over my face the other day as I drove by a local accountant’s office. Not because accountants amuse me, but I was recalling how the path of this particular accountant crossed mine several years ago.

Local government beat reporting can be tedious, but with persistence and sources it can also be very rewarding. When I listed my most memorable assignments I considered putting this story on the list, but decided it was too routine to make the list.

It was one of those stories that came about because I had become familiar with my beat and had developed good sources. There was a certain amount of good luck as well. It is always better to be lucky, than good.

At the time, Lapeer County Commissioners were supposed to submit their mileage every month for reimbursement. If they were on time, a check was cut and the mileage paid and unless, or until, someone requested the mileage records, no one would ever be the wiser.

The only exception to the pay-as-the-bills-are-submitted rule was when a Commissioner (or any county employee, for that matter) let the mileage reports stack up for more than three months. Then the bills had to come before the Commissioners for final approval.

One Commissioner, the accountant, liked getting paid one lump sum check for his mileage at the end of the year. Sort of a Christmas club account. So he would wait until December, file all his mileage forms together and look forward to a $3,000-plus mileage check just in time for shopping.

So in early December, I arrived at the Commissioners meeting and picked up my meeting packet and noticed the neatly typed and printed mileage forms, all signed by the Commissioner under the penalty of perjury.

So far, it was no big deal, although I noticed the amount was quite large, $3,300 or so.
As I took my place at the press table Lenny, a county resident, one of those great citizens who comes to every meeting (and doesn’t get paid for it like a reporter) walked up to me and asked if I had looked over the Commissioner’s expense report.

Lenny, who also served as a planning commissioner in a local township, directed my attention to the November mileage sheet. He pointed to line in the mileage report that showed the Commissioner/accountant had billed for mileage to the planning commission meeting in Lenny’s township.

“He wasn’t there,” Lenny said. “I was there for the whole meeting and he was never there.”
OK, the guy made a mistake. Big deal, he’ll get a couple bucks he didn’t deserve. But then Lenny and I started looking through all the pages and the commissioner said he had been to every monthly planning commission meeting in the township. Lenny couldn’t remember ever seeing the commissioner at a meeting.

Now, I’m curious. The meeting goes on, the commissioners gave preliminary approval to pay the mileage and my mind starts racing. Within two hours I put in Freedom of Information requests to every village and township on the commissioner’s mileage sheet for minutes of meetings that the commissioner said he attended.

Grabbing my phone, I called some of the other venues that the commissioner had charged mileage for and suddenly there were more “no shows.”

I started collecting documents and traveling through the county interviewing clerks at townships who couldn’t remember ever seeing the commissioner, even though he had billed for every meeting they had during the year.

In all, I could confirm that the commissioner overbilled the county by at least $1,200 and that’s just what I could prove in documents. Where there was doubt, I didn’t count that mileage against the commissioner. Only those trips I knew he hadn’t made were counted as overbills.

So now it was time to get things in order. Before calling the commissioner, I wanted to get some county folks on the record about mileage issues before they found out what I was working on.

So I called the County Board President and simply asked him what his reaction would be to one of the commissioners overbilling for expenses. He was definitive, if it was a mistake, they should immediately reimburse the county, if deliberate, they should resign.

With all my pre-interviews done, it was time to call the commissioner in question.
At first, he denied any overbilling or mistakes. Then when I went line-by-line, including some instances where he was supposedly at two different places at the same time and date, he asked if he could have some time to review the records and get back to me.

I told him to take the time to review it, but that I wouldn’t wait forever. He called back the next day and said, yes, he had found a few instances where he may have mistakenly billed for meetings and would reimburse the county. He continued to deny the more than 100 instances of false mileage filing that I had found for that one year.

The reason this happened, he said, was that he put all the dates of the various meetings in his computer and a program that he had developed apparently “forgot” to delete the meetings he had scheduled, but didn’t attend. I pointed out that he had signed the forms as true “under the penalty of perjury.”

At the next meeting, the commissioner withdrew his mileage request until he could do a complete audit. I’m sure Christmas was a little thin at his house that year.

My first story ran on the front page, but I had already put in a new FOIA request for mileage reports for all the commissioners and for every year that the accountant/commissioner had been on the Board.

A review of the commissioner’s previous years’ filings found more of the same, thousands of dollars of mileage not driven. Too many frankly, to be any kind of mistake.

A review of all the commissioners’ mileage reports showed that unlike county employees who were not allowed to bill for mileage from their homes to work, commissioners were billing mileage from their homes to meetings at the county building. Commissioners were already being paid $17,000 a year for a part-time job.

The commissioner/accountant steadfastly refused to resign over the mileage “mistake,” but did eventually reimburse the county. He was soundly defeated in his re-election bid a few months later, a defeat many people said was a result of my stories.

The county reviewed their mileage policies and commissioners decided they should no longer bill for mileage from their homes to the county complex, and that all mileage reports would be reviewed every month and that no mileage reports could be submitted or paid after a period of two months.

In the end, an independent investigation by a prosecutor in another county did not lead to charges, although the local prosecutor believed they should have.

All of that came from an offhand comment from a source at a boring meeting. There was nothing outstanding or difficult about this investigation. Any average reporter could have, and likely would have, done the same thing I did.

But when beat reporters are missing in action, who will do this kind of plodding work? Some will say bloggers, but what impact will that have. The oversight of local government is an important role that the newspapers have filled.

I’m trying to envision who will do this kind of work in the future. I know I’m not interested in doing it for free. And what will a politician care if some blogger calls and demands answers. Like it or not, there’s a certain impact when you tell a politician you are calling from a known media entity.

When I call from “Grandma’s Recess” blog, I don’t think the politician will be as responsive, or as worried, as my accountant/commissioner was during the mileage investigation.

So pardon me for a little smile as drove by the accountant’s office.

Oh, and thanks for great sources and citizens like Lenny.

Another Titanic reference for a newspaper.

Newspaper Death Watch has linked to a mock front page apparently put together by employees at a McClatchy paper unhappy with their boss.

The rich get richer, along with the bosses

Over on Fading to Black is a link to a Huffington Post article on the nice bonuses received by New York Times executives at the same time they are hacking and slashing the staff.


A great, moving story in the Flint Journal

Sometimes I know it sounds like I never find anything good about the Flint Journal. Not true, but I know that's the perception for some. On today's Journal website there is a moving story about a survivor from the genocide in Sierra Leone a number of years ago.

The reporter, a skilled young writer, has done wonderful work covering our military and now this tale of horror and survival.

It should also be noted that the reporter also had to endure a couple years of listening to crusty old veteran reporters spewing their cynicism in and around here desk. She did it with good humor.

This is the kind of work and project that newspapers are best at. And to repeat myself, folks are going to miss this when newspapers are gone.

The reporter blogged a little about her story as well.

Former Journal editor: 'Broken for 20 years'

In an amazing admission the former Flint Journal editor opined that the newspaper model has been broken for "20 years" at a recent forum on the future of newspapers.

Gees, I don't remember him telling us that during his service as our editor at the Flint Journal. In fact, it was the editor - and his predecessor - who told us that the free content model, specifically the lame MLive version, was the future.

If you go back 20 years - 1989 - you will remember that newspapers weren't doing so badly then. In fact, they were making money hand over fist. The Flint Journal circulation was high and the advertising dollars were rolling in. We were paid well, had great benefits and we got nice raises each year.

Broken, I don't think so. I think the broken part goes back about 10-12 years, or about the time the new generation of new Booth leaders took the helm of many of the papers.

But have no fear, they are coming back to fix what they broke.

North Dakota makes its way to Free From Editors - finally

It had to happen someday, but on Tuesday, April 21, someone from northwest North Dakota made his/her way to Free From Editors.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have now checked into Free From Editors at least once. So far, visitors from 72 countries have found the website.

My only regret is that it took me nearly six months to put the analytics widget on the website so I'll never know how many people have really stopped by here.

Enough have stopped by that I got a message from Google suggesting that I could make a little dough from ad placement on the site, but I'm not going to do that. At least not now.
One of these days I'll sit down and compile all the statistics from the blog and let you know how many folks have visited here and how many pages they have read.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Technology frustration puts me in the dark for 8 hours

In recent years I have become more and more comfortable with technology. I can download photos, blog, make a power point and I'm a whiz at Microsoft Word, but there are times that I'm lost in the ding weeds.

Today was such a day. In the middle of writing an e-mail, my computer Internet connection ended. Flat ended. I rebooted my computer. Nothing. I tried my wife's computer, no connection there either.

So I called our service provider. What I got was voice mail. "Leave a message for our technician and they will call you back in the order your request was received." That was at noon on my lunch hour.

Five-and-a-half hours later, still no call and still no Internet. So I called again. I mentioned that they must have a very, very long list of people to call back because I was still waiting. Of course, I left that message on another voice mail message.

In the middle of Bible study tonight, I got my return call from the Internet provider. "My tests show you should be getting a 'ridiculously' good signal," he said. Not being at home I told him I would check on the signal when I got home and would call him if all was not OK.

All was not OK when I got home. So I called again, this time he called back in about 15 minutes.

I explained my problem. The solution, he said, was to pull the plug on my router for 15 seconds and plug it back in and see if the problem was cleared up. I thought this was some kind of IT joke.

So, feeling pretty stupid, I pulled the plug on the router and plugged it right back it. Went back to my computer and sure enough, there was my Internet signal back, strong as ever.

"Why would that work?," I asked the man.

"Sometimes the routers just lock up," he said.

A temperamental router, great. But at least some IT guy will have a great story to tell his wife when he gets home about the idiot who was without his computer for nine hours because he didn't know how to unplug his router.

Blogger: A future for journalism, but not newspapers

My stepdaughter found this long, but interesting article on the future of newspapers versus the future of journalism.

I didn't take the time to read the comments, but there are 888 of them as of today.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What's a Pulitzer Prize worth?

Apparently a lay off for one of the winners.

Just three months after he was laid off from the East Valley Tribune in Arizona, Paul Giblin learns that he won the Pulitzer Prize for local reporting.

There was a time newspapers treasured good reporters, now, not so much.

And then there's this account which includes a lame comment from the reporter's former editor.

It also talks about the new online venture that Paul Giblin is involved in. Good for him. How pathetic for the newspaper who laid off a Pulitzer Prize winner.

And one more account.

Here's some help for the new

Found a couple of new "content producers" for This should be just the pair the new team is looking for.

Kind of an inside joke. But you can get in on the whole story here.

Thanks 'Inside Out' for this

Over at Inside Out, she has found a new cartoon that says it all.

Pearls Before Swine

Click on the partial cartoon to see the whole panel.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Things are getting ugly in Bean town

The war of words is getting tough in Boston between the competing newspapers there.

Sounds like the Boston Herald felt dissed by the Globe and here's the result.

A struggle in Denver to take the news online only

A new online newspaper in Denver, to replace the now closed Rocky Mountain News, is off to a slow start.

Again they are, in my humble opinion, making a mistake giving people the online news for free with some fanciful idea that after a period of time they will then pull the switcheroo and get people to pay for what they have been getting for free.

Please note the difference in staffing for the old model and new model.

I know I'm a dinosaur, but I still can't see the model for an online newspaper that is going to start out free and then try and coax people into the pay model later.

But I'm willing to be wrong.

Go Detroit Free Press! A little bragging rights for the State News too.

Congratulations to Detroit Free Press reporters M.L. Elrick and Jim Schaefer for winning the Pulitzer Prize in the local reporting category today.

Update: I see this is a co-winner with this newspaper.

Obviously, the two won for the dogged work they did in uncovering the text message scandal that brought down the administration of Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Good for the Free Press for giving them the time and room to pursue such an important story. It's these kinds of investigative pieces that will be threatened as newspapers continue to downsize their staffs.

The best part, for me anyway, is that Emrick is an alum of my favorite newspaper, The State News at Michigan State University.

The State News has its initial story.

Old dogs versus young leopards

My sister, who sends me the best forwards, sent this cute tale to me.

"One day the old German Shepherd starts chasing rabbits and before long, discovers that he's lost. Wandering about, he notices a leopard heading rapidly in his direction with the intention of having lunch.

The old German Shepherd thinks, 'Oh, oh! I'm in deep doo-doo now!' Noticing some bones on the ground close by, he immediately settles down to chew on the bones with his back to the approaching cat.

Just as the leopard is about to leap, the old German Shepherd exclaims loudly, 'Boy, that was one delicious leopard! I wonder, if there are any more around here?'

Hearing this, the young leopard halts his attack in mid-strike, a look of terror comes over him and he slinks away into the trees.

'Whew!' says the leopard, 'That was close! That old German Shepherd nearly had me!'

Meanwhile, a monkey who had been watching the whole scene from a nearby tree, figures he can put this knowledge to good use and trade it for protection from the leopard.

So, off he goes, but the old German Shepherd sees him heading after the leopard with great speed, and figures that something must be up.

The monkey soon catches up with the leopard, spills the beans and strikes a deal for himself with the leopard.The young leopard is furious at being made a fool of and says, 'Here, monkey, hop on my back and see what's going to happen to that conniving canine!"

Now, the old German Shepherd sees the leopard coming with the monkey on his back and thinks, 'What am I going to do now?', but instead of running, the dog sits down with his back to his attackers, pretending he hasn't seen them yet, and just when they get close enough to hear, the old German Shepherd says...

'Where's that monkey? I sent him off an hour ago to bring me another leopard!'

Moral of this story... Don't mess with the old dogs... Age and skill will always overcome youth and treachery! BS and brilliance only come with age and experience.

Political correctness run amok

This is one of those stories I used to love to come across when I was a reporter. It is political correctness to the absurd degree.

Some officious state inspector decides that a bunch of women who have baked pies for a church fund-raiser have somehow violated the law.

You see, they baked the pies at home and not a "State inspected" kitchen. Of course, the state will be happy to inspect the home kitchens for a $35 fee. Sheeesh.

If you want, the whole NPR account is here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A word about journalism schools

Here's a few items about what is happening at journalism schools, it's not as dire as we might think.

Journalism schools at a dead end?

Who needs journalism schools?

Reinventing journalism.

What j-students see for the future.

The fire is still there for some students.

A charge of plagiarism

A Free From Editors reader forwarded the following comment offline to my e-mail. This must have come up while I was blissfully traveling through Kentucky a week or so ago. I've left the names in the story because I know who sent me the item and I did visit the comment thread (first link). Without seeing the first column I'm at the mercy of those who say it was a direct lift.

If it was a direct lift, and implied it was the writer's own work, that would be a serious journalistic offense. Anytime you use someone's work you should identify it as theirs, not yours.

I am familiar with other issues where journalism ethics were compromised and dealt with quietly at the Journal, even when it many of us believed the honest thing to do would have been to at least alert our readers that, say, a quote or source had been made up. In at least two cases the Journal has fired, or allowed people to quietly resign, over those issues.

Anyway, here's the comment as I received it. I'm not publishing the person's name, but they if they want to claim it (as I said I know who it is) they can publish a comment claiming it.


Did you see this letter in the Journal on Thursday?

A letter writer had accused columnist John Tomlinson of plagiarism and sloppy research.

Specifically, Tomlinson was accused of lifting the opening paragraph of a column written in "American Thinker" by Lloyd Brown for his own April 5 column. I figured the Journal wouldn't print such a letter if it's claims were unfounded, so I called John Foren to check.

He said he saw the letter and approved it. He also said that he spoke with Mr. Tomlinson about "what the paper expected of him", but wouldn't go so far as to agree with the letter writer's accusation of plagiarism.The column in question has been removed from MLive, but the "American Thinker" article is still available (

and it looks a lot like what I remember reading in Tomlinson's article.It looks like plagairism to me, but as of this morning, Tomlinson is still writing for the Journal, and no mention of the controversy has been mentioned by him, by John Foren, or anybody else at the paper, in spite of repeated requests by posters at MLive for a clarification or explanation.What do you think?"

A note from a reader

Received the following comment this morning:

"Jim, don't know if you still get the dead tree version, but Sunday's sports section included three jumped stories on Page B-4 that all ended abruptly without the concluding paragraph(s).Is there anyone left at the newspaper who actually reads the paper before they send it to the press?One story, maybe a mistake. But three stories (almost in a row) all end in the middle of a sentence.There's the future and as you said, "better than anything that has ever come off the presses before."B.S."

Checked my home delivered edition and it is a fact. I'm not willing to blame the folks who are working harder than ever.

In her column this morning the new editor talked about a comment she got from a concerned reader who doesn't own a computer about the new 3-day-a-week paper. The editor held to the party line that the new paper will be bigger and more comprehensive than the old daily newspaper.

She also mentioned two reporters that the reader had pointed out as favorites. What the new editor didn't tell the reader was that one of those "favorite" reporters was reduced to "free lance" status and the other got a pay cut. Interesting fact for a former reporter to leave out.

I tried, in vain, this morning to locate the editor's column on MLive, but simply couldn't. It may be there, but the maze that is MLive did not take me to it. If you find it please forward the link and I'll put it here.

It went up at 10 a.m. after I posted this you can find the column here.

Hey, I know they're trying to make the best of a terrible situation, but telling people that the paper will be bigger (for goodness sakes most of the sections are directed at the subscription areas of three newspaper territories) and somehow better with more investigative news pieces is, to be kind, hyperbole.

When this all shakes out there will be about 7 news reporters left at the Flint Journal to cover what 35-40 used to cover. Investigative pieces take time and lots of work. One or two reporters working on one of those will reduce even further the day-to-day reporting at the paper.