Archive (2007)

Junket Makes the Papers

Area papers are all over the Kuhl Junket story.  Reader Elmer sends the Corning Leader's front-page coverage [pdf] and jump [pdf]  The Hornell Evening Tribune has a long story on the trip, too.  As usual, the Democrat and Chronicle has the shortest story of the region's papers, but they front-page a picture of Kuhl along with a paragraph from the A2 story.

The last graph of the Leader story is priceless:

Kuhl spoke to reporters Thursday via a cell phone.  His phone went dead prior to the end of the call and Kuhl's office did not return emails asking how much the trip cost taxpayers.

The Smugtown Gazette on the Internet: It Ain't Pretty

The Democrat and Chronicle's Internet presence is, to put it mildly, a mess.  To be fair, the D&C isn't alone.  Newspapers have had a tough time figuring out what to do on the Internet, and many have made a number of missteps along the way.  But the D&C's presence is notable because it clearly costs them a lot of money, yet most of that money is spent for naught.

To keep this post manageable, I'll focus on two of the many issues with the D&C's web presence:  ads and community blogs.

Looking at the D&C's advertising is like setting the wayback machine to the year 2000.  Ads have little relation to content, or to Rochester, for that matter.  An Oreck XL ad pops up on one page, with no mention of a local dealer.  The biggest ad on the home page is for the D&C, and D&C promotions are sprinkled on the page like jimmies on a sundae.  Ads are presented on the bottom of the page even if the story is one paragraph long, where nobody will scroll down to see them. 

The D&C website shows what happens when you take the newspaper model of advertising and try to jam it onto a web page.  A web page just can't tolerate as many ads as the D&C is trying to push, and making some of them blink only exacerbates the problem.  Take a look at the City News page if you want to see better ad placement, or how about this newspaper

I'm no fan of ads, but If the D&C can't master advertising, they will fail.  After we stop reading paper newspapers, a new competitor will come to Rochester and replace the D&C, since you don't need to build a multi-million dollar printing plant to compete in the written media anymore.

Like the D&C's ads, the D&C community blogs reflect the paper's arms-length relationship with the Internet.  The D&C has built a walled garden where "community bloggers" are allowed to exist, but only on strict terms laid down by D&C editors.  From what I've heard, bloggers can't scoop the D&C on important stories, so anything the D&C usually covers is off limits until the D&C posts a story about it.  And the D&C is quick to reprimand bloggers who commit an infraction, real or imagined.

Since D&C management has made it clear that they're comfortable only with a steady stream of drivel,  for the most part, community bloggers provide it.  The Pittsford blogger, an elderly gentleman who likes to bold the first few words in every paragraph, writes about leaks in his house and luncheons he attends.   Just read a page of the Chili blog and tell me if it represents what's happening in Chili.  There are exceptions, like Gates, but they're rare.

I don't mean to be snarky and mean to a group of unpaid workers, but much better has been done by unpaid area residents.  A prime example is Jason Crane's new blog, Rocbike. In politics, Mustard Street, the Water Buffalo Press and Rochester Turning are head and shoulders above what the D&C publishes.

In addition to the dull content, the setup of the blogs in general is technically incompetent. The D&C doesn't offer RSS feeds for any of its blogs. Instead of posting "permalinks", the reader needs to work figure out the URL of the post, so it's hard to link to their content.  The D&C uses a major blogging tool (Blogger), but they've removed all of the Blogger features that let blogs interact easily with the parts of the Internet.  It's hard to believe this was done by accident.

It's just obvious from the content and the presentation that the D&C hosts community blogs out of pure duty.  They wish this "whole blog thing" would just go away, but if it won't, they're going to make sure that it isn't a threat to the "real journalists" at the D&C.

Next up:  A small local paper shows the D&C how it's done.

One to the Hoosegow

Because he was unwilling to pay a fine or do community service, one of the Bath protesters was sentenced to jail at the trial yesterday.  The other four were let go with fines, community service, and the promise to go forth and sin no more.

Memo to Bob Van Wicklin

[We interrupt our regular programming to add this important memorandum to Randy Kuhl's chief of staff.]

Dear Bob,

I have to say that I'm surprised by this junket blow-up.  Up until now, I was pretty impressed with how things were going on planet Kuhl.  Your new press secretary is doing a good job, and Randy's blog is a nice addition to his website.  After a bumpy start, the town meetings went well.  I was figuring that things would be quiet around here until after Christmas.

But, Bob, I'm afraid you missed the principal lesson of the last campaign, which was to keep Randy the hell off of military airplanes.   The last time he went up on one of those damn things, he gave Massa quotes that the guy still repeats today.  This time, he's in trouble before even opening his mouth.  I'm guessing that Massa's already planning campaign ads about Randy's first-class vacation South of the Equator.

I've added a little table after the jump that you should study very carefully.  It's a list of everyone who headed down to Rio for a little sun and distilled sugarcane (and I don't mean ethanol, if you get my drift.)  You'll notice that one of these things is not like the other, and that one thing is your boss Randy.  Unlike the rest of the motley crew that went down to shop and see waterfalls, Randy isn't in a safe seat.  Everyone else kicked double-digit ass in 2006, so they've earned the right to screw the taxpayers any way they want.  Randy doesn't have that luxury.

See, the way it works in the House is that you take these trips when you have what they call a "safe seat".  That's the kind where you need to end up in bed with a live boy or a dead girl (or the other way around for the ladies) before you start worrying about losing your seat.  Randy doesn't have it that good, not by a longshot.  He needs to watch his p's and q's, especially since they're going to elect a new Decider next year, which always gets more  Democrats off the couch come election day.

So, Bob, I think you need to tighten things up at Chez Kuhl if you don't want to be polishing your resume this time next year. 


Your Internet Pal, Rottenchester
table.votes { border-width: 1px 1px 1px 1px; border-spacing: 0px; border-style: outset outset outset outset; border-color: ; border-collapse: collapse; background-color: white; width: 90%; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto; } table.votes th { border-width: 1px 1px 1px 1px; padding: 1px 1px 1px 1px; border-style: solid solid solid solid; border-color: rgb(204, 204, 204) rgb(204, 204, 204) rgb(204, 204, 204) rgb(204, 204, 204); background-color: #FFF5EE; } table.votes td { border-width: 1px 1px 1px 1px; padding: 1px 1px 1px 1px; border-style: solid solid solid solid; border-color: rgb(204, 204, 204) rgb(204, 204, 204) rgb(204, 204, 204) rgb(204, 204, 204); background-color: white; }P.S. Here's the table I was talking about:

Party District # of Terms Re-Elect %
Marsha Blackburn R TN-7 3 34%
Ben Chandler D KY-6 2 70%
Eliot Engel D NY-17 10 52%
Virginia Foxx R NC-5 2 14%
Bob Inglis R SC-4 3+2 32%
Sheila Jackson-Lee D TX-18 7 58%
Randy Kuhl R NY-29 2 4%
Gregory Meeks D NY-6 5 Unopposed
Randy Neugebauer R TX-19 3 38%
John Salazar D CO-3 2 24%
Cliff Stearns R FL-6 10 20%

Update: The original table left out Bob Inglis.  Why 3+2?  Bob ran on a term limits platform, so he took a break in the late 90's. After term limits weren't an issue anymore, he got right back in. 

Massa on the AMT

Reader Elmer sends Eric Massa's letter to the Corning Leader [pdf], addressing Randy Kuhl's earlier op-ed on Charlie Rangel's tax proposal.   Massa has a slightly different take on what Kuhl calls the "Mother of All Tax Increases".  

Massa on the Junket

Whatever you think about Eric Massa, he sure isn't boring.  Today's press conference was a prime example.  The television writers might be on strike, but Massa writes his own material.  Read on to learn more about Massa's take on Kuhl's junket. After wishing everyone on the call a Merry Christmas, Massa got down to it.  He said that one thing that he learned from the 2007 elections is that it's important to listen to your constituents:

I believe that our Member of Congress is not listening to our citizens.  There's no explanation for a Member of Congress to go on a Congressional junket for 6 days, and to believe that it serves anybody in any way in this district.  Kuhl provided headlines by saying he wasn't elected to go to Congress to raise taxes, but by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to go on a military chartered jet, and to stay in five-star hotels, Randy Kuhl is doing that
Massa said he heard about the trip because of a call from a reporter.

My response was that this is incorrect information.  There's no way a Member of Congress with as many challenges in his district would be so callous as to get on a military luxury jet and fly to Brazil on vacation, and say that he's doing it to study ethanol.  If you want to study that, might I invite you to go to Iowa.  If you want to know about sugarcane, National Geographic had a full-color story on sugarcane a couple of months ago.  I think it costs $3.50, and I'll buy him a copy.
A reporter (I think it was Joe Dunning of the Corning Leader), asked if he saw any value in the trip whatsoever:

Absolutely not.  What is the connection between the 29th Congressional District and this trip?  Randy Kuhl will say it is to talk about ethanol production.  Like I said, there's a state called Iowa.  It's very close.  Arguably, it's cold, and not very comfortable.  There aren't a lot of five-star hotels.  I've been to Brazil.  Trust me, there's nothing in Rio that connects to New York State.  [I read in the Washington Post that] Randy Kuhl is going to see waterfalls.  There's a place called Niagara...
Question:  "So, if you're elected, and you have the opportunity to take these types of trips, will you?"

Absolutely not.  My life experience has given me the ability to know where Brazil is, or Israel, or Iraq.  If you want to talk with foreign countries, invite them here to meet with you.  They can pay the money to come here.  That's not why we send people to Washington [...]

Randy Kuhl ran against the cesspool in Washington, and then he went there and made it his personal hot tub.
That last remark got Massa a couple of laughs.  He continued:

I was just down at Donna's [a restaurant in Corning], my home away from home.  I go there on Wednesday because she makes the best cinnamon buns.  Donna's was full of people who don't know whether they're going to be able to pay their heating bill next month.  That's no exaggeration.
The home heating assistance money, called HEAP, is in the labor bill.  Randy Kuhl just voted against it.  He voted against people getting federal tax money, that they've paid in, back.  [...]  Then he goes on vacation in Brazil.
If the voters of this district favor me with election, under no circumstances can I see taking one of these junkets, unless it's related to national security.  Last year, or the year before, Kuhl went to Iraq and said that the troops were gaining weight eating lobster.  This year he went to Brazil.  Next year, he needs to be home.
The next question was about Massa's take on ethanol, in general.  Massa said he had learned about ethanol at some kind of lab in Maryland (I missed the name).  He explained that there are two kinds of ethanol, carbohydrate and enzyme-based (cellulosic).

[For carbohydrate ethanol], in the US, you take corn, separate out the corn sugar, distill to alcohol, and burn it as fuel.  [...]  The problem with our current carbohydrate ethanol system is that it takes a much, or maybe a little bit more, energy to make it.
The future of ethanol lies in enzyme-based ethanol.  This is where organic enzymes break down sugars to make alcohol.  That takes a fraction of the heat necessary [for carbohydrate ethanol].  That's why things like switchgrass are so promising.  A lot of work is being done at Cornell extension on this -- it would be a great thing for New York State to grow a crop like switchgrass.
Massa said that Brazil may have achieved petroleum independence using sugarcane because they have the climate to grow it:

I didn't need to go to Brazil and spend $100,000 to figure that out.  Congress didn't need to be sending Members of Congress and their wives on shopping trips.  They actually have a "spouse coordinator" to put together shopping trips.
By the way, I think that the plane they took was a 757, all fitted out with first-class accomodations.  They eat steaks and fancy desserts [...] all paid for by taxpayers money.  The government reimburses the Air Force at the rate of a first-class ticket purchased within 48 hours.
Massa said he'd calculated the cost of that ticket at $11,000, and "that only gets you to Rio".  "He didn't need to go to Rio, just to Cornell".

Along with Joe Dunning, Rob Montana of the Hornell Evening Tribune was also on the call.

Randy Wants Some Sugar In His Bowl

Ladkiddo at Rochesterturning has been having some fun with Randy Kuhl's junket to Brazil.  Kuhl is in Brazil right now, as part of a bi-partisan trip to understand Brazil's successful ethanol industry.  At his Allentown town meeting, Kuhl said that he was making the trip to be "fully informed".

Here's a little information:  Brazil uses sugarcane to make ethanol, which yields 8 gallons of ethanol for every gallon of fuel consumed to make it.  Corn-based ethanol yields 1.3 gallons of ethanol for every gallon of fuel.   Brazil produces [pdf] 300 million metric tons of sugar per year.  The US produces [pdf] less that 24 million, and we grow it only in Florida, Hawaii and Louisiana and Texas. 

By the way, all but one of the links in the last paragraph are from US Government reports.  The last one is from a 78-page report by the US Department of Agriculture titled "The Economic Feasibilty of Ethanol Production from Sugar in the United States."  Randy sits on the Agriculture committee.  He could have just asked for the report instead of taking a six-day trip to Brazil.  If he did, he'd have learned that our entire entire production of sugar cane would make 468 million gallons of ethanol.  Brazil produced 4.2 billion gallons last year.  Our own corn-based ethanol program made about 4 billion gallons, too.  Sugarcane is literally a drop in the bucket, and it's not worth a six-day trip, or even a three-hour tour, to figure that out.

Update:  Eric Massa referred to this scathing Washington Post description of Kuhl's junket in today's press conference.  It is a damning piece, indeed.

Gannett, the D&C and "You"

To understand why the Democrat and Chronicle is losing readers, one needs to understand the formula it used to attract them in the first place.  That formula is a common one for all Gannett papers, and it's based on the success of USA Today.  Like USA Today, the D&C looks bright and inviting.  It is full of big graphics, color pictures, and "news you can use".  The graphics and color are fine.  It's "you" who's the problem.

Gannett's big insight in the 80's was that readers are more likely to buy papers that contain news relevant to their lives.  As a result, Gannett doesn't print what "you" ought to read -- they print what "you" want to read.   Unless something really big happens, at least one or more of the front-page stories will be designed to catch the attention of one or more of "you".

This strategy was a great one back in the 80's, a time when the dinosaurs of mass media ruled the planet.  When Al Neuharth launched USA Today in 1982, MTV was two years old and cable TV was relatively rare.  The Internet was a year off.  VCRs were just starting to be used widely.  In other words, "you" had little choice, and a paper that hit a few of your interests was better than one that ignored them all.

Fast-forward to 2007, and the dinosaurs are feeling some heat.  "You" are becoming used to reading and watching what you want, when you want.  And what you want is far more specific than the generic, formulaic categories envisioned by Gannett. 

To understand these categories, consider Gannett's other properties in Rochester, each of which is targeted at a different segment of "you". For Gannett, "you" consists of 20-somethings, Women, Men, Latinos and Moms.  The 20-somethings get the Rochester Insider, a free weekly paper full of pictures of 20-somethings drinking (because 20-somethings don't have a lot of money and only want to party).  Women get herRochester, a glossy magazine. (Because she doesn't want to get her fingers dirty on newsprint?)   The rest of "you" aren't important enough for print.  Men get, "Your home for all things manly".  (Not a joke, unfortunately.)  Latinos get ConXion.  ("Tu Conexion a todo la basura de Rochester.").  And Moms get  Gannett must think Mom is an adulterer or single, since today's top story is "The beginnings of dating".

When a paper divides the world into these giant interest groups, and then tailors content to appeal to them, they invariably write dull stories.   Consider this week's paper D&C.  On Monday, the "you" story on the front page was Thanksgiving travel foul-ups.  On Tuesday, "you" needed to know that the Public Market will be open on Sundays in December, and "you" needed to know it so badly that it was by far the biggest story on the page, accompanied by a huge color photo. 

These stories weren't  newsworthy -- they were written solely for "you".  Monday's story appealed to all of "you", because "you" need know that "you" weren't alone in getting hassled when traveling through the Rochester airport.  Tuesday's story was for "her", because "she" wants to shop on Christmas, and "she" needs to know that the Public Market will indeed have special Christmas hours for the thirteenth year in a row.  

There's nothing exciting, interesting or new about travel screw-ups or the Public Market. What's worse, these pieces divert reporters and photographers from real news to write puff pieces that serve nobody's needs.  If you need to know whether the Public Market has holiday hours, a quick Google search will get you that info.  If you're wondering whether your flight is screwed up, you'll probably look on the airport website.  Gannett might as well be selling thin ties, shoulder pads and Flock of Seagulls tickets, because their main product is written as if its still 1982.

Next in this series:  the D&C's dysfunctional approach to the Internet.

Another View of the D&C

The Ontario GOP has posted his take on the D&C's shortcomings.  His view is that the D&C shares what he sees as a well-documented liberal bias.  His post is worth a careful read, because it cites a number of studies and polls on media bias.

I agree that the D&C's editorial page generally supports Democrats.  As for the news pages, I'm not as convinced.  What I see there is a fear of offending the party in power, and that party is the Democrats in the city of Rochester. A good example of this desire was the D&C's uncritical support of the Fast Ferry project.  The Ferry was a pet project of the Democratic mayor, and it was only after it failed that the D&C began to investigate some of the questionable decisions behind the project. 

Nothing to be Smug About

Reader Elmer sent me some interesting information about the Democrat and Chronicle.  According to his analysis of numbers issued by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the D&C's circulation has fallen precipitously in the past year.  Circulation for the daily D&C is down 4.3% in a one-year period.  The Sunday D&C is down 5.6%.

In comparison, the Buffalo News' daily circulation is down 1.1% for the same period.  The Syracuse Post-Standard is down 2.1%.  The Sunday loss for Buffalo is 2%, with Syracuse losing 2.2%.

The newspaper business is going through a rough patch, with readers moving from paper to the Internet.  So it's not surprising that the D&C is losing subscribers.  What is surprising is the size of the loss, more than double that of nearby cities.   The differential must be due to something more than just Internet competition.

One hint at the problem is the other newspapers losing readers.  There are six Gannett newspapers in New York.  Most of them are losing far more readers than the average upstate newspaper.  Circulation loss for the upstate dailies in Elmer's cohort averaged about 3%.  Gannett papers, in general, did much worse than that.  The Westchester Journal-News lost 8.8% of its daily readership in the past year.  Elmira lost 5%, Ithaca lost 6.6%, and Binghamton lost 4.1%.  Only Poughkeepsie beat the average, losing 2.8% year-over-year.

In my next series of posts, I'm going to look at the "Gannett Way" of running a newspaper, and I'll try to understand why it's bad for the public and bad for business.

Protester Sentencing on Wednesday

Granolabox reports that the protesters who occupied Randy Kuhl's Bath office in August, and who were convicted of criminal tresspass in September, will be sentenced on Wednesday.  Each of the five faces a $250 fine and three months in jail.

The Smugtown Gazette

Half of the population of the 29th district reads one paper, Gannett's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.  In the coming weeks, I'm going to ask some hard questions about the D&C, and show how the 29th is affected by its lackluster performance in a number of areas.  To kick things off,  I thought it would be interesting to hear another voice on the state of newspapers in Rochester:

Emigres from less conservative climes find the Rochester newspapers conspicuously lacking in any semblance of metropolitan journalism.  They find it far simpler to compare them with the weekly newspapers of the small town -- only with more advertising.  Robust phrasing, critical estimates of civic efforts, personalities, or mores, are frowned upon. [...]
They are without serious competition.  There is no necessity to crusade and therefore increase reader interest and circulation.  Thus they content themselves with the role of mere documentation.  As one critic puts it -- "The dullest stuff from the AP wires (all of which you heard on the eleven p.m. newscasts the night previous), a puff for the Republican administration, a report on the activities of four garden clubs, the list of speeders and four columns of obituaries."

This estimate is more accurate than cruel.  Fortunately for those who must read the customary comics and day's inaccurate weather forecast, [...] there is one rewarding feature -- both newspapers have fast-moving, easy-reading and nearly complete sports coverage.
This quote is from the book Smugtown, U.S.A, published 50 years ago by Rochester newspaperman and gadfly Curt Gerling.  When he wrote, Rochester was a prosperous town dominated by Kodak.  Much has changed since then.  A firm he knew as Haloid, ("obsessed with an idea called 'Xerography' which if you can believe what you hear, is a coming thing") has risen and fallen.   Rochester has gone from "safely Republican" ("even the moderately intelligent realize that big business and Republicanism mix even more magnificently than scotch and soda") to a mix of city Democrats and county Republicans.  

Yet, amidst all this change, most of what Gerling writes about Gannett is as true today as it was 50 years ago.   Since the Times-Union closed over a decade ago, only the use of the plural form keeps the following analysis from sounding as if it were written yesterday:

Whatever may be the weakness of the Gannett publications as newspapers, they are still a monopoly and as such we are stuck with them.  [...]  [T]oo often what seems like news to them is not news to the national radio or television commentators nor the New York Times.  Rochester has not only learned to live with it but expects it.
Though Rochester is feeling less smug nowadays, I don't think its main newspaper has gotten the message. I'm not deluded enough to believe I can change the D&C, but I hope to point out how it could change, and why the 29th deserves better.