This presentation was made to the Lakeland Kiwanis Club on March 2nd
Good afternoon and thank you.
I could hardly be more honored, delighted, and I must say, surprised, to find myself addressing the who’s who of Lakeland on the subject of what’s what when it comes to civic activism.
Mr. Abels flatters me to suggest it.
The people in this room and in the organization include former city commissioners, a former mayor, a former state senator, owners of prominent and important businesses, city management executives and well, you know who your are.
Collectively, members of the Lakeland Kiwanis Club contributed more than $45,000 (of about $300,000) to the candidates for Lakeland’s City Commission, as well just over $10,000 (of nearly $90,000) to the NO BOSS MAYOR campaign against the proposed City Charter amendment.
You people put your money where you heart lies. I admire that.
But, with all due respect - and much is due - signing a check isn’t the same as singing with the band. My message to you today is to please stand up and do that.
I cannot tell you how to activate your citizenship and I wouldn’t be so bold as to try. But I will tell you my story so that you might see how you can.
My sister taught me to read. Words and information were the currency in my home.
My father memorized the odd word fragments that identified the volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica which were printed each with the same number of pages, rather than one volume for each letter of the alphabet.
Knowledge was golden, but questions were the catalyst, and starting the conversation was a prized opportunity.
When I was about nine, I found a typewriter in the basement and with it a chance to meld my emerging mechanical aptitude with my growing love of language.
The whole family read the newspapers - yes newspapers - The Columbus Citizen in the morning and The Columbus Dispatch in the evening.
TV did not hold much sway in the mid ‘50s in the midwest.
In fact, whenever a question arose that would not be answered by one of us or our reference books, my mother simply suggested that we “call the newspaper, they’ll know.”
Columbus lost the Citizen-Journal in 1985. The Dispatch is now owned by Gatehouse.
As much as anything, I was fascinated by the straight edge on the righthand side of a column of news. How? Did? This? Happen? The left edge was obvious but how to predict the right number of characters and spaces to fill each line while adhering to the story?
It would be a generation later that I encountered a linotype machine in person and learned the printer's secrets, but for now I had three tools: hyphenation, half-spaces, and synonyms.
I practiced my crafts - writing and printing - with diligence, and eventually worked them into a “neighborhood newsletter” of sorts. And no, I do not know what I wrote about. But I was determined, and since my “printing press” could only make two copies at a time via carbon paper, I was compelled to type and retype until I had enough for an “edition”.
My sister obliged my ambition by taking me to the airport where she worked and letting me sell my newspaper to her friends for a dime a copy.
I am a reporter, writer, editor, production manager, circulation director, and publisher all in one! This model is the one currently being pursued by Gatehouse and the other greedy bastards who have eaten the industry alive. Ooops! Out loud?
This auspicious beginning eventually led - in 1975 - to a position with a free circulation weekly in St. Augustine. The Traveller’s masthead identified the owner/publisher and under my name the title, “Everything else”. Maybe I’m the problem?
And, in 1978, after being fired for flirting with the boss’s wife, I found myself in the composing room of the Ocala Star-Banner very much attracted by its New York Times ownership.
In those days, the newspaper industry was one that rewarded competency and results as well as credentials and I was allowed to find the sweet spot for my energy and interests. From composing to page make-up to the news desk, and then to computers when the technology shift started challenging the old school.
In 1984, I was offered the Information Technology Director’s job at The Ledger and so my wife Phyllis and I moved here to build a career and make a life. Our best decision ever.
The era from 1985 through 2000 was a wild ride, as the newspaper industry resisted change and ignored technology and watched its profits shrink while being stalked by the internet.
Now, before we all get too funereal about the collapsing financial performance of newspapers, let me tell you something you probably don’t know and might not believe. In 1983 the Ocala Star-Banner regularly produced a profit margin of - wait for it - fifty-percent. Lynn Matthews, training in Ocala for his publisher position at The Ledger once faced the awful prospect of missing that mark and, legend has it, reached into his own pocket to keep that from happening. Performance anxiety indeed!
One month, the controller was struggling to make the numbers work when a friend asked him simply, “What’s the worst that could happen?” if the Star-Banner missed its mark. The controller dryly replied, “I’m not sure, but I think the New York Times can have you killed.”
And while it was setting the bar, all of the Times regional papers - which numbered 32 at the time - were expected to reach for the same target. The feeling of woe and failure started sticking to us all when the number fell below 30 percent in the mid ‘90s.
Across the industry, 20 percent became the new normal, and dips toward 10 were cause for unbridled panic. But even today, the numbers are crazy, and Gatehouse and others are drawing the last blood from once formidable institutions reducing them to a cash crop and a pile of trash.
One more story on that subject. After life at The Ledger, which involved me getting fired again by the way, I joined a small consulting firm and worked to help newspaper owners increase operational productivity without reducing their quality.
This. Can. Be. Done.
But we soon encountered investment owners who had no need to understand or value newspapers or journalism. Their bottom line was - is - the bottom line. Might as well have been dry cleaners or canning operations. And 30 percent margins attracted a lot of investors. One such investor - Goldman Sachs in fact - sent its profit requirements to its publishers each month, and they were quite specific. A publisher in Michigan reported that he had been directed to return 32.8 percent for the upcoming month. When the number came in at 32.4 percent, Goldman called to find out what the publisher hadn’t understood about the requirement for 32.8!
Newspapers and their owners resisted change and refused to acknowledge the internet because they were making a fortune “thank you very much” and how can that continue if we give the news away?
The chaos of the early years of the new century prompted my neighbor Jim Malless to invite me to speak to this august body on the future of news and newspapers. I smugly offered a two-word answer: “New owners”.
In a statement issued following the purchase of The Ledger and its regional group cousins in 2011, Michael Redding, chief executive officer of Halifax Media, said: “The purchase of the Regional Media Group reflects Halifax Media’s belief that a good newspaper is an essential part of any vibrant community. The strong local news coverage these papers provide represents not only an important community service, but, in our eyes, a good investment.”
I realize now I should have been much more specific.
But there is still hope and I’ll get to that.
So what’s a community to do?
Who? You! Us. We can work and think together to find and support all the modern forms of the art as well as insisting that the giant media corporations either get it right or let it go.
What? Take over! There is enough financial wherewithal in this room to buy The Ledger from Gatehouse or to fund a new news-gathering enterprise to replace it.
Where? Here. In Lakeland specifically. Polk county is the same size as Rhode Island and has the same population as Wyoming. It’s disingenuous to propose that even 20 reporters can cover it properly.
When? Now please, before the rescue mission becomes a recovery one.
Why? Read Jefferson’s letter again.
How? Engage your civic activism. Join the conversation. Bring your adult voices to the arena. Ask questions. Deliver answers.
In spite of the newspaper industry’s fiercest denials, the internet is actually a thing.
Websites. Blogs. Facebook. Twitter. Et cetera.
It used to be said that one should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, implying the power of newspapers associated with the cost of entry into the business. But now, everyone in this room is able to publish news, information, and opinions, instantly and for free! No multi-million dollar printing presses required to reach almost every living soul on the planet.
Good thing. Bad thing. Yes. But mainly a real thing.
Here is my exhortation to you:
Inasmuch as the net has given a microphone or megaphone to all of us, it now becomes imperative that we develop filters and qualifiers to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the news from the noise.
It was admittedly easier when Walter Cronkite - as the “voice of God" - delivered the news of the day in fifteen minutes at suppertime, but easy isn’t the best arbiter of value. And those who find it too difficult or tedious to find the facts that matter will simply find themselves lost in the litter.
Today I am here to present three versions of the new model of information collection and delivery. There are more, but three seems like a manageable set.
The Facebook Group, Lakeland Votes, with more than 600 members, rose to some note during last year’s election season and provided classic comment threads on every aspect of the candidates and their campaigns. By “classic comment threads” I mean nearly the whole spectrum of Facebook posting styles including ignorance, indifference, and insults, but also thoughtful, insightful, and compelling. Working through the mix was tricky but worth the effort to encounter many heartfelt and passionate notions coming unedited directly from our friends and neighbors. A cocktail party conversation to which everyone was invited.
Barry Friedman’s Lakeland Now website and Facebook page with over 4,500 followers, represent a very structured form and is part of a national model known as LION - Local Independent Online News. Barry has stellar journalism credentials and is intent on providing sound, straightforward information focused on Lakeland. He is supported by donations, investments, and sponsorships.
He needs more of that. We need more of him.
You can find out how by selecting the “SUPPORT US” link at the top of every page on his website. Do this today please.
Christopher Guinn, The Ledger’s city government reporter, took note of the website I’m about to show you and by his own admission it was more than few encounters before he finally noticed and said, “I see what you did there.”
Ladies and gentlemen, The City Zen Ship
The site is fairly regular preview and review of city government activity. The commission meeting agenda, video recaps from the agenda study and the formal meeting on Monday with links to Lakeland Now, The Ledger and other news sources along with comment and commentary. One particular goal is to present the city’s organization and budget and behavior in the most user friendly format. You’ll be the judge.
Wikipedia - once maligned and dismissed by the old school - tells us that Zen emphasizes rigorous self-control, meditation-practice … and the personal expression of this insight in daily life, especially for the benefit of others.
I want you to know that I am not doing this for followers, or “likes” or “friends” or money. I am not doing it because its the “right thing”. I am doing it because its the right thing for me.
My purpose today is to illustrate a one-person version of civic activism. And again, I pay respect and homage to this body for all its good work and community engagement. You people are the real deal. And yet, I am going to ask you for more.
If you don’t already have a Facebook account, please establish one.
If you do, please use it more. Join the conversation. Make it better. Grow it up.
A recent story in The Ledger reported that bullied students will now have the option of moving to a private school to escape the bullies. Well this is completely backwards. This way the bullies win. Better to send them away to reform school. My point is that just because Facebook is littered with trolls and morons it doesn’t mean we should avoid or ignore it. In fact, it is precisely because it is littered with trolls and morons that we must get more fully involved. Your adult voices can push back the juvenile dialog and bring better thinking to the fore. We need you! And it is way too big and influential to avoid or ignore.
And don’t just read the posts. React! Facebook counts “views” - the number of users who at least had chance to see a particular post - as one way of gauging its value. Next of course, are “Likes” which demonstrate a higher level of engagement. But the thing that caused the Arab Spring is “Sharing”. This is the most powerful, effective, and important tool on the internet - which as I have already pointed out, is actually a thing!
District 8 is my Facebook companion for The City Zen Ship and was so named to reflect the political structure of Lakeland which seats six commissioners and a mayor. We, the people, are District 8 and our involvement is the most crucial.
Whether we’re talking about multi-level marketing or nuclear fission, the logic is the same. You tell two who tell two who tell two, etc.
And finally …
In a conversation with Christopher Guinn I allowed as how it was becoming my ambition to be referred to in The Ledger as “City Hall gadfly Mike Maguire”, conjuring up the image of Cary Grant speaking truth to power in his uniquely charming way.
I have since learned that the term springs from a much more noble notion originally articulated by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, in his defense when on trial for his life.
A gadfly is a person who interferes with the status quo of a society or community by posing novel, potently upsetting questions, usually directed at authorities.
Socrates, according to Plato's writings, pointed out that dissent, like the gadfly, was easy to swat, but the cost to society of silencing individuals who were irritating could be very high: "If you kill a man like me, you will injure yourselves more than you will injure me" because his role was that of a gadfly, "to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth." This may have been one of the earliest descriptions of gadfly ethics.
Ethical pragmatists think that norms, principles, and moral criteria are likely to be improved as a result of inquiry.
Ask yourself what matters most to you and then engage your civic consciousness and act on it. Please. Thank you.
Thomas Jefferson, writing from Paris while he was Minister to France in 1787, declared:
“The people are the only censors of their governors: and even their errors will tend to keep these to the true principles of their institution. To punish these errors too severely would be to suppress the only safeguard of the public liberty.
The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people.
The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
But I should mean that every man should receive those papers & be capable of reading them.”
At its peak, The Ledger newsroom was 100 strong and its circulation reached virtually every literate household in Polk county, topping 100,000 on Sundays in winter.
This is what’s left …
13 reporters and 3 photographers for a city of 100,000 and a county of 600,000. This is not the right ratio.
This valiant brigade cannot fully inform us now, and we now need more and better information than ever before.
The Ledger has retained stringers and retired employees to fill in the gaps while saving the expense of proper salaries and benefits.
But this is merely whitewash. And bullshit.