Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Flack Buried the News Somewhere

This is the news; the bracketed info shows where the fact first appeared in today's front page story.

Ramar Group [graf 6], home-based in an unreported city, sent its preliminary proposal for a 4,000-acre housing development in DeSoto County [graf 2] to Central Florida Regional Planning Council [graf 6] Monday. The action begins a review process that [the developers said] will probably take between two and three years [graf 17]. The Ramar proposal will require amending the local comprehensive land plan [graf 15] which has designated the boondocks [yes, he wrote that in graf 2] of eastern DeSoto County for an unreported other use.The plan must undergo evaluation by several state agencies [graf 12], including Swiftmud [first reference and nickname used to vilify Southwest Florida Water Management District].
The published lead: Government wheels started turning Monday for a proposed local development that could change DeSoto, and experts say, Florida’s Heartland; however, for the time being the Villages of Valencia Lakes is just a dream with a million-dollar price tag.

Skipping to the unattributed 5th graf, with any substantial news still held in abeyance, our journalist cranks up his editorial comments and mind-reading skills.

Don’t think in terms of a new neighborhood – think in terms of the pyramids of Giza, the Colosseum, Machu Pichu. Enterprising developers hope Valencia Lakes will be a landmark community – not only because of its size, which is massive enough to include two square miles of open space, but because they hope it will serve as an example for other developers in the area and set the bar for communities to come.*

Please. No, the developers don't care to "serve as an example." They hope to sell a lot of houses and make a lot of money. Worse, this reporter’s interjection of the last National Geographic special he watched turns him into a flack for the man, not a skeptical watchdog in the community.

As Flack for the Man, he has no motivation to remind readers of four failed, grass-growing-in-the-roadways developments closer to home. As Flack for the Man, he has no motivation to tell readers whose land was bought for the development. As Flack for the Man he has no reason to describe any of the development's potential regional impacts (which gives the preliminary proposal its official name), or how the developer plans to finance the operation. Who are the backers and partners? Have they done other developments of this size? Even the crucial "why" is missing from the story. The Flack for the Man gives the Man's vague idea in the third-from-last graf that inland communities are more affordable than coastal developments -- but why DeSoto? Why dig lakes on Four Mile Grade? Does the developer expect there will be jobs for 30,000 households 40 miles from, well, nowhere?

And what's with this "experts" thing? The only people quoted are the developer, a regional planning council member, and a county administrator. More Flacking for the Man/Men.

*Here's the "example" and the "bar" set by the examples:

The development will be an imperial monument, built with blood money by dictator-developers to glorify their social status and perpetuate power, reflected by accommodations arranged according to a rigidly structured social-hierarchy, with slaves at the bottom.

After all, the Pyramids at Giza are tombs built by slaves for Egyptian pharaohs. The Colosseum is a symbol of Imperial Rome paid for largely by Vespasian's spoils following his victory over the Jews in 70 A.D. Some 9,000 animals were killed in its inauguration; it is perhaps most famously the place where Christians were supposed to have been fed to lions, although the historical accuracy of this widely held notion is debated. Seating arrangements for spectators "reflected the rigidly stratified nature of Roman society," Encyclopedia Britannica says. And Peru's Machu Piccu is a mountain top Imperial-era (15th Century in the Western Calendar) Incan fortress and prison erected by a culture that practiced human sacrifice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Disclosure Helps But Doesn't Make it Right

Readers expect legitimate newspapers (as opposed, for example, to penny advertisers and tabloids) to be reasonably objective. Readers also know pure objectivity is probably impossible; the very act of selecting one story for front page display and another for a three-paragraph brief entails judgment and selectivity. Nonetheless, attempting the high standard of objectivity is one of journalism's canons. Among the first skills reporters are expected to master and use are techniques to help them present news relatively free of personal bias or favoritism for one advertiser or source.

Sun readers this week have been treated to several items that missed this mark – widely.

The most recent is a Sunday story written by Harold Lanni who writes about new accreditation standards medical-equipment suppliers must meet to remain Medicare suppliers. The problem is, he’s an employee of the company featured in the article, and his specific title is disclosed as “accreditation manager.”

On one level, I thank editors for disclosing the writer’s affiliation. Disclosure helps me understand why the one-source story is a slick, superficial and glowing report of one firm’s path to accreditation.

Despite the disclosure, the story remains a sorry piece of reportage. Lanni does not help Sun readers understand equipment-billing fraud has plagued Medicare to the tune of $2 billion a year, by some estimates. He fails to mention south Florida is the specific target of several federal investigations and pilot programs to detect and root out fraudulent medical-equipment operations. He fails to report that more than three dozen medical equipment providers serve Sun’s readership area and fails to report if any, besides his own firm, are accredited.

None of this is his fault; he’s paid to make his employer look good. The editor, however, is not an employee of the firm; she does know better, and she chose to sell our her credibility – and that of the entire Sun-Herald Newspaper company.

The second instance of being too chummy with a source comes from the business pages. Editor Bob Fliss wrote last Tuesday:

It's always a good feeling when one of your ideas comes to fruition -- never mind the fact that a whole bunch of other folks probably had the same idea.

After all, didn't our beloved Ronald Reagan once remark that people could accomplish amazing things once they ceased fussing about who got the credit?

Team Punta Gorda will be holding its third annual meeting Nov. 8, and their keynote speaker is a businessman who could play a big role in shaping the future of this community.

Tom Wilder is a principal in the Boston-based firm The Wilder Companies, which is planning to develop a 1.2 million-square-foot retail center on Jones Loop Road, just west of the new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The tract covers about 200 acres, and Wilder removed any doubt that he was serious about the project by buying the land late last year -- prior to getting all his approvals from Charlotte County.

I don't mind admitting that every time I've interviewed
Wilder by phone, I've gently prodded him about hooking up with Team Punta Gorda for a public meeting. I'm glad to see my friends at TPG have had the same notion.

Chummy, chummy, chummy. Every reader should be asking Fliss some pointed questions: How objective will you be when it comes time to report negative news about a man who did you the favor of "hooking up" with your civic group? How fair is it of you to appear to disclaim credit for prompting the nice developer to meet your friends in one paragraph but left-handedly claim it in the next? How much influence did your position as an editor and reporter have in persuading the developer to meet your lunch bunch? How much objective reporting can readers expect if tomorrow's news happens to involve your friends at TPG?

I know we're in a small town, where everyone knows everyone. But, this is a business column; Fliss is an editor (and not an inexperienced one) who has, by virtue of his position and experience, a duty to deliver something more than chummy takes on his lunch buddies.

Monday, October 29, 2007

If a Reporter is Present, It Must Be News

A local editor writes about her excellent adventure in the third person. (The paper edition gives her byline at the top, unlike the e-version in the link.)

I'm not sure which is stranger: the third-person thing or the news judgment. If this had happened anywhere but the newpaper parking lot it wouldn't have made the paper.

"Hey, Charlie! Old Word Wolf just phoned in a hot tip. There's a cat in the engine compartment of her car. Drive out there and get that story! Take your camera! We'll run a picture in the late edition!"

More Evidence Editors Don't Have to Read a Story to Write a Headline:

The entire story, such as it is:
How long has it been since you've been to the dentist? The American Dental Association estimates that 30 percent of Americans do not regularly go to the dentist. While many of them cite cost as the reason, one third of Americans who have dental insturance still don't go -- sometimes for years.

They just don't want to hear the diagnosis," says Dr. Kimberly Harms, a dentist in Farmington Minn., and an ADA consumer adviser. Two thirds of people who believe they are in bad oral health -- the people who need to go to the dentist the most -- do not go, according to a study cited by the ADA.

The Health and Fitness tab editor's take: Some people go back to the dentist after years

Next headline: Five things you didn't know about hot tubs
Uhm, as a matter of fact, yes I did. See Fortune Cookie entry, below.

Attention J-school professors: If any of your students fail Headline Writing Week, just send 'em over to the Sun with a letter of recommendation. Climate is nice; salary and sinecure do not depend on reading ability.

Two Reasons to Avoid a Cliché

In a land that declares “all men are created equal,” reality has produced a cynical corollary: “Some are more equal than others.” As true as the addendum might be in a social sphere, slathering the cliché all over a news story is lazy and misleading. Both reporter and desk are guilty this morning.

A story about the problem a local military vet had finding a vaccine leads off with: “It would appear that when it comes to shingles shots at the VA clinic in Port Charlotte, some VA clinics are more equal than others.” A lazy page designer repeats the lead to write the headline. (Proving once again, reading stories isn’t required to get a Sun paycheck on Friday.)

Nothing in the story suggests all VA clinics are (supposed to be) created equal. The expense and demands of medical materials and procedures make it impossible to install MRI machines, obstetricians, and (as we learn) shingles vaccines at every location. The reporter discovers this particular vaccine needs special refrigeration unavailable in Port Charlotte, which is why it isn’t stored locally.

In the absence of a governing principle that all VA clinics are supposed to be created equal, slapping the empty cliché on this story insults and misleads readers. The kids on the copy desk thought it sounded profound enough to move the page to press. The seasoned writer, who should have known better, got lazy. It takes about two seconds to see it’s wrong because it’s shopworn, but it requires a bit of critical thinking – maybe about five seconds – to determine it’s also wrong in fact.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Things Editors Should Catch So Readers Don't Have To

What’s Political Party Got To Do With It?
ATLANTA (AP) – [...] With water levels at all-time lows, Georgia has taken more steps to conserve water in recent weeks. Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered public water utilities this week in north Georgia to cut water withdrawals by 10 percent [...]. The Republican also declared a state of emergency in north Georgia and asked the federal government to release less water downstream.

Perdue acted in his capacity as governor, not as a party member.

Editors: Please Save Reporters From Themselves

A story about tourism taxes says the bed-tax is charged “anywhere people visiting Florida stay for six months or less a year.”[sic]

Wrong. The story and a nearby cutline report 10 Florida counties, including two local ones, don’t charge bed taxes, no matter how short the stay. Thus, the tax is not, being charged "anywhere people" visit. Also wrong, because the badly garbled last clause should read “stay for less than six months.”

Carefree gulf beaches [...]

Since when do beaches have cares that some can become carefree?

The cutline says:

Right: All but 10 Florida counties tax accommodations – condos, motels and hotel rooms and short-term rentals – to fund special projects and tourism development.

The unnamed woman is neither a condo, motel, hotel room, nor a short-term rental, that we know of.

“The Florida Legislative Committee on Intergovernmental Relations says DeSoto had some $138,133 in unrealized tourist tax revenue. [...] At 2 percent, Rawls’ referendum could generate around $98,000 in revenue for DeSoto.”

The reporter fails to explain the period the legislative committee report applies to, creating a disjunction with the next sentence about the county.

Rawls want tourist tax dollars in DeSoto to [...] Provide a marketable brand name that fits with DeSoto’s personality, while meshing DeSoto’s hitherto “clustered” tourism efforts with county funding.

What is a clustered tourism effort and how can something so abstract be meshed with county funding? The reporter is mouthing a source’s jargon without much skepticism, analysis, or willingness to ask what the source means.

There are genuine fears that without representation in the right regional arenas that typically exclude areas with low populations, transportation plans and state infrastructure dollars could bypass leaders in Hardee, DeSoto, and
Highland counties if they don’t speak up.

Where are the fears described as there? Why are they genuine? What’s the right arena? Why would leaders be bypassed? Speaking up isn’t the criteria for participation; having enough people to meet population-based entry requirements is.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Inverting the Inverted Pyramid

Every reporter in the state who covers local government should be acquainted with the basics of comprehensive planning.

It’s part of the job description, on a par with understanding the electoral process, knowing the fundamentals of law making, learning the ins and outs of property assessment, taxation, school funding and “Sunshine State Standards” (Florida school curricula and our annual winter FCAT debates), and a host of other core topics huddled under the umbrella of civics and political science.

Comprehensive planning is a subject a journalist can’t write intelligently about without at least a little background knowledge, which is what a DeSoto Sun reporter tried to do this week. That the reporter had to cover a meeting he knew nothing about is painfully clear on this morning’s front page. This particular young man has been in town a couple of years now, and the comp plan has been in development for all of that time. He should be able to describe it in terms my mother would understand.

Back in August, local commissioners sent the local comp plan to the state, knowing it had shortcomings. Basically, they said, “Let’s throw it on the wall and see what sticks.” The modus operandi was let the state tell them what's wrong and revise accordingly. Which is exactly what happened. An alert citizenry might question if this is the best way to create policies and draw maps that will affect local homesteads and businesses and ranches for decades to come.

But let's overlook the reporter’s sorry grasp of the subject. There’s no excuse for a badly constructed story that leads with obscure administrative processes, buries the news somewhere down in the 15th graf, and is anchored with self-serving quotes from friends in local government. If the document on which his story is based was released Wednesday, this reporter had two days, at least, to make calls, get an education and sort things out. He didn't use his time wisely.

That’s the editorial. Here are the facts:

Headline: A comprehensive setback

Comp plan scrutinized by state expert; found not "in compliance" with Florida law.

By Jon Sica, DeSoto News Editor

ARCADIA -- The Florida Department of Community Affairs has reviewed DeSoto County's Comprehensive plan and found it wanting.

Department leaders issued a statement of intent to find the comp plan "not in compliance" Wednesday because it is inconsistent with state law, the state's comp plan, and Florida's administrative code. The department's rejection letter outlines 10 reasons why the comp plan failed to comply. Now, county leaders are hoping to fix the comp plan for the state's satisfaction and garner its approval as soon as possible -- preferably before county leaders would have to meet department experts during a judicial hearing to decide its fate
Readers are two paragraphs and four and a half sentences into the story with no clue about why the state rejected the local comprehensive plan. Readers learn the rejection letter includes 10 reasons, but the reporter gives no hint about what even one of them might be.

A reporter who has followed local comprehensive planning would be able to sort through the points and pick one or two of the most significant, giving readers a reason to read the story.

Based on what I’ve read in the papers (ahem), bouncing a plan for this largely agricultural, sparsely populated based on "urban sprawl" seems an eminently newsworthy place to begin. Another the bullet point mentions central water and sewage -- subjects that are always red flags waving a dollar sign. Either of these important issues might have given readers an entrance into the story and the reporter a basis for organizing the rest of the information.

The reporter’s time reference in the second graf to Wednesday is confusing. Was there an unscheduled commission meeting that day? If this is the date the state sent the letter, let's be clear that the commission hasn't held a meeting and the news story is based on a letter that's a courtesy, a heads-up, from the state to the locality.

The language of the bureaucracy needs to be translated. A well-informed and well-read reporter knows a letter about “inconsistencies with state law, the state’s comprehensive plan and Florida’s administrative code” is largely legalese. What, pray tell, readers want to know, does the mumbo-jumbo mean?

Instead of answering any of the “inverted pyramid” items such as who, what, when, where or why, the reporter abandons today’s news and uses the third graf to retreat to the safety of history:

The comp plan was approved by the DeSoto County Commission Aug. 28 after a two-hour long public hearing on the subject. The goal of the plan is to keep local growth and development on the county's terms; balancing the demands of population growth, development, local ecosystems and economic expansion -- all within the boundaries of myriad state laws and regulations.
Let's ignore the passive voice, punctuation problems, abstractions, and the writer’s final cop out phrase, “myriad state laws and regulations.” All in all, this paragraph tells readers the reporter is in over his head. For one thing, the goal of the state-mandated comprehensive plan is not "to keep local growth and development on the county's terms." If anything, it's quite the opposite -- it keeps localities from going whichever way they choose at the expense of the region and resources. So perhaps, we hope, he’ll go to an expert, the county’s own land planner, for an explanation. Instead, readers get this:

"(Department of Community Affairs) staff has complimented this plan, which is kind of strange to hear," said Jason Green, planning manager. "But there are portions of it they are very happy with and, overall, they think it's a good plan."

Green said the department's staff even went so far as to
tell him they may use DeSoto's environmental polices as an example for other counties.
Okay, we live in a small town, and Reporter Jon may well belong to the same gym as Land Planner Jason. I’ll let him have his softball quote, but I do expect some substance soon.

Most of the department's objections in the letter of intent -- which was authored by Mike McDaniel, chief of the department's office of comprehensive planning -- centered around the comp plan’s density and zoning clauses
Now readers learn who “authored” the letter of intent, as if that's truly important at this particular point. Unfortunately for this reporter, the letter likely "authored" by an urban planner or two within the DCS and drafted for the chief's signature.

Other readers might wonder what’s the intent of a “letter of intent,” and if that's something different than the letter of rejection. But, they are not going to be informed.

Readers learn something’s wrong with “density and zoning clauses.” Do the clauses have poor punctuation and spelling? I doubt it. I suspect that there's something wrong with the county's policies about density and zoning. Maybe the local land planner can explain:

"There are two issues: too low of density and too many units," Green said." (The department) is worried about form of development and how it's going to occur -- to make sure you have enough open space and preservation of valuable resources, and stuff -- that's what we have to address."
Form of development – what exactly is that? Open space – is that pastures or parks? “Preservation of valuable resources” is good in a circular-reasoning universe, but is there gold in them thar hills or does this mean the Peace River, Horse Creek and Joshua Creek? Is the reporter trying to tell us the comp plan was thrown out because it fails to protect the watershed?Readers deserve to to know that. About “...and stuff,” I have no comment.

Our reporter has already reported there are 10 points of failure, but now the land planner says there are just two issues. If I think I get what’s going on, it's not because the reporter has made anything clear.

Urban sprawl, need, concurrency and Development of Regional Impact standards, commonly called DRIs -- the state picked apart the comp plan's policies about these issues.
Is this sentence part of the local land planner’s statement? It sounds as if it’s a paraphrase, and if so, it needs to be attributed to him.

More importantly, an alert reporter would know to ask the planner to explain to readers how a sparsely populated region suffers from "urban sprawl." A reporter who understands the subject would locate and share the technical meaning of “need.” I happen to know what the next item, “concurrency,” is. But it’s also a technical term most readers would appreciate a snappy definition of from a knowledgeable reporter or the land planner. Just saying that “Development of Regional Impact” is phrase commonly known by its initials does not explain it.

And, what exactly are the local policies the reporter -- or land planner (at this point, readers don’t know exactly who) -- mentions that got picked apart?

"It comes down to an interpretation of what you're trying to accomplish,"Green said."Everybody has their own opinion. I think overall it's a good plan -- we're proud of it -- we have to figure out exactly what the department wants. That's the million-dollar question."
Another defensive, self-serving quote from the (I think) gym buddy, a quote that no self-respecting reporter would included in a first-day news story.

To bring the comp plan into compliance, the department said county leaders must do the following:
Finally, readers get to see the points the DCA says are problems. Unfortunately, not one item defined, explained, ranked in terms of cost, importance, substance, or any other factor that might help readers understand what the state is asking local government to do.

* Revise the five-year schedule of capital improvement to include road deficiencies on U.S. 17 and State Road 70, noting the funding sources for each. If this cannot happen, the department said the county must lower land-use assignments to reduce the impact on those highways.
* Revise the capital improvement and future land-use policies to require the roads and parks serving permitted developments be completed or under construction within three years of board approval.
* Revise future land-use policies, which allocate land to residential and nonresidential land uses, to accommodate the projected population of DeSoto in the year 2030, by reducing the amount of residential and nonresidential land shown on the future land-use map to reflect the needs of projected population.
* Adopt "innovative and flexible techniques and strategies" that will reduce urban sprawl by centralizing developments in hamlets, villages and towns.
* Clarify public land and institution polices that define the types and uses allowed in this category.
* Revise mixed-use community policies to make the number of nonresidential uses allowed proportional to the size of the residential community.
* Revise mixed-use standards to make it less difficult to interpret and implement the comp plan's standards.
* Revise policies 1.6.10 and 1.6.15 to require the same
conditions for connection to central water and sewer.
* Revise DRI standards to "not only define the density and intensity of uses, but the proportion of the mix of uses allowed." Ideally, it should ensure "an appropriate and proportional balance between the residential and non-residential use."
* Create an industrial land-use category in the comp plan and "assign that category to lands in the urban area that are determined to be suitable for industrial development, or restrict industrial uses to suitable urban land-use categories."
Interim County Administrator Bart Arrington said most of these changes can be easily made on paper, but the rest may take some time.

Uhm, okay, which ones will “take some time?” Maybe those are newsworthy, lead-graf items to bring to the top. Did the reporter ask the administrator which ones might “take some time” and what that time might be, or what made some things more difficult than others? If he did, he doesn't report it.

"I believe these things are fixable," Arrington said. "I don't think it's an impossible task; we can get these things settled in the time we need so we don't have to go to the hearing."
The hearing was mentioned the very beginning and now it's time to explain it a bit more. (I’m skipping the self-serving, save-my-job quote.) A few readers may know that if a deficient plan isn’t remedied, the state can impose fines, withhold funding, and order other community sanctions. But this isn’t reported, because, as readers probably know by now, if the reporter knows, he not sharing.

Arrington has not talked to the department leaders yet, but said county staff will be working closely with them in the coming weeks to revise the comp plan exactly how the department wants it. And he hopes to do it in about 30 days.
Mike McDaniel, chief of comprehensive planning in the Department of Community Affairs up in Tallahassee is the last-named “department leader.” Is he the person the reporter is referring to? The tired phrase, "county staff will be working closely" with these folks is another self-serving platitude.

Is the county administrator’s “about 30 days” estimate for those things that he said earlier will “take some time”? The reporter may have asked about this, but he didn’t report it. Instead, like a good novel writer, he treats readers to a cutesy but meaningless “summary quote” from his good buddy.

"It's better to shoot for the sky and miss, than aim for the ground and hit it," Arrington said.
The only reason to include a quote like this is to make the source feel good about having said something that seems profound. It’s self serving and meaningless. No professional journalist would have thought for one second about including it in a first day story.

Friday, October 26, 2007

An Anecdote Isn't Data

"The bill comes with two months remaining on a year that has witnessed some of the most high-profile gang violence in Manatee County history, including the Easter Sunday gang shooting on Coquina Beach that left three brothers seriously wounded; and the May 21 shooting death of 9-year-old Stacy Williams III. Three reputed members of the SUR-13 street gang were charged with murder in the case," Nick Azzara reports.

Azzara's reporting does many things right. Readers appreciate that he locates knowledgable people who articulate relevant cautions about this staged announcement. He's a little vague about whether this is a national funding proposal or a local one, but by reading twice and using common sense, an assiduous reader can deduce that all $900 million is unlikely to fatten the local sheriff's budget. He's also good to point out the politician's proposal lacks co-sponsors and a funding source.

The problem is the reporter omits any data that would inform readers, residents and voters about the big picture. We get an anecdote about two events and are told they are "high profile." But readers never learn if there are two shootings a year, a week, or every day. Readers are told about one gang, but are there others? (I know, I know: gangs are like lawyers; you need two to make a fight.) With "local law enforment officials" on the dias next to the pol, it would have been easy to pry loose even a round-figured indicator, if not a good current number. Elected sheriffs keep these numbers fairly handy, in my experience.

If DeSoto Sun editors had spotted this huge hole in the story, I'm sure they would have grabbed at least one reporter off the third-day homecoming dance piece and asked her to boogie over to the local sheriff's office and find out if gangs are a problem out here, 60 miles east of Coquina Beach. The congressman's district includes our neck of the woods and editors and reporters owe local readers a local story.

Another Question Where A Headline Should Be

A question hed is bad enough; when the story doesn't answer the question, it's superbad.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Recycle Cans, Not News

Sun publishers are occasionally guilty of recycling what passes for news in these parts – typically the newsprint equivalent of index cards thumbtacked to a laundromat’s bulletin board and going by the euphemism “community briefs.” But, not content to limit please-attend-time-date-and-place items to the calendar page, our news jockeys are whipping old horses to trot one more lap. Editors now promise cow-country readers a feature that’s typeset to look like news, but isn’t: “Five good things about DeSoto County.” Here’s a summary of the starting gate lineup, with recycling notes.

-- The high school football team won a game Saturday. Readers enjoyed advances, pictures, and daily stories and scores starting last Friday and continuing throughout the weekend and again today.
-- The high school kids held a pep parade and homecoming dance: advances, stories and photo packages began showing up Thursday and Friday and have continued daily throughout the weekend, most of this week, and again today.
-- Habitat for Humanity will hold a local groundbreaking: This story has run every day this week – so far.
-- Health Department will hold a “drive-thru” flu-shot clinic: announced Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday after its first announcement in last week’s county commission roundup. Oh, and it’s in the community calendar again today.

And it’s not just editors who toil in anonymity that ride old nags. An editor in a face-over-her-byline column (“The Week in Preview,” for gawd's sake) assembles half a dozen twice-and-thrice-announced events, including one by a children’s-pageant profiteer, a party in the park (which has a full story four inches right on the same page), and a radio-station’s self-promotion disguised as a cancer fundraiser.

I love recycling – when it’s bottles and cans.

Don't click to read more; you'll get this page recycled.

While Editors Slept

Sun Pundit this morning addresses a phosphate-mining agreement that’s pretty controversial in these parts. His editorial on the topic points out half a dozen or so restrictions in the pact and concludes: “We do suggest that it is time that we ask of ourselves the same standard as we ask of others in protecting our environment.

Here are the standards Sun Pundit describes: 1. Ban lawn fertilizer. 2. Treat all lawn and road water runoff in retention ponds. 3. Treat retention-pond water until it's cleaner than the creeks it flows into. 4. Prohibit septic tanks. 5. Run sewer to new houses, “regardless of cost” and “no matter how remote.” 6. Prohibit future construction and roads in the 100-year flood plain. 7. Agree to binding arbitration with no appeal to settle disputes.

Pundit acknowledges that “not in a million years” would Charlotte or DeSoto counties agree to any of this. Nevertheless, and I repeat it for emphasis, he concludes: “We do suggest that it is time that we ask of ourselves the same standard as we ask of others in protecting our environment.”

As a tree-hugging eco-maniac, I applaud DeSoto Sun, Charlotte Sun, all their sister publications, and most of all, the editorial board for articulating this forward-looking position. I happily anticipate future columns and editorials that encourage this position, marshal citizen support, and prod local governments to implement plans and policies to further this vision.

Okay, okay, I get it. The writer is struggling to say there’s lots of safeguards in the mining agreement, safeguards that don’t apply to anyone else except the mining company, so let's quit bitchin'. But that’s not what he writes. Pundit needs an editor – or at least a composition coach.

And, while editors slept, page designers fed these bon mots to the presses:

Columnist: “Give me the choice of being thrown to hungry lions, getting pulled apart by wild horses, being sawed in two, or lethal injection, and I’ll take the latter every time. And they won’t even have to worry about dirty needles.”

Headline: “Fired teacher wants job back”
In the story: “Kimble, who served as liaison for the school district, said Cline blew the incident out of proportion...”

From the police blotter: “Reports say a man carrying a king’s ransom in methamphetamines got busted Thursday during a routine traffic stop. [He possessed] a bag holding 25.3 grams” of the drug. (An editor would have asked the writer if, at $100 a gram, the drug’s value of $2,530 constitutes a “king’s ransom.” A sentence coach would ask if the elegant English reference to “a king’s ransom” marries well with the American slang “got busted.”

Photo caption: “This native Florida cactus is tended to by local resident [...], who captured it when it briefly opened this gorgeous bloom.” Did he use a net? Did it resist?

Sorry; this is getting too easy.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Headlines Are Not Fortune Cookies

Back in Journalism 101, the nice professors professed that a headline rightly reflects the news that unfolds below it. A corollary is: When a page designer peers into the future and speculates about what might happen in that unknown land and time, he/she is writing for a fortune-cookie factory, not a newspaper.

"Students could be off to Mexico" is a fortune-cookie prophecy. The morning story reports a lot must happen before students queue up for their security screening at Tampa International. First, sponsoring teachers must ask for and receive the school board's permission to sign a contract with a favored tour operator. And then, in the words of one of the teachers, they must "recruit and sign up students and chaperons [and] raise the money."

With all that, the page designer could have prophesied with equal certainty that "Students might not be off to Mexico." After all, it's just one headline writer's opinion, and it's time that will tell if his opinion will be borne out by the facts. There'll be a news report.

"California blackens in hurricane-force firestorms," says the Web head. Wrong. The story reports gusts reached 70 mph. As every hurricane savvy editor in southwest Florida knows, hurricane-force winds start at 74 mph -- sustained winds. Small difference? Maybe. But the guiding principle is "Don't lie to the reader, if you can help it."

"Malpractice dilemma eases," says the headline over today's big story. I'm reading and reading and reading, and I find no report of a dilemma. The news is malpractice insurance premiums in Florida have, on the average, declined a little bit, reversing a long trend of large increases. Doctors say there's still reluctance to practice in high-risk specialties, the reporter reports. And even with the slight decline, many doctors still pay $100,000 and more a year for coverage, so more legislative-level tinkering with "tort reform" (rules about who can sue whom and for what) is expected. So where's the dilemma and how did it ease? There isn't one, of course. A page designer thought it looked good, sounded sufficiently snappy and important but still was vague enough to probably work. Readers know real headlines get to the heart of the story; they don't make us wonder what we missed.

And finally...

Over in the local section, instead of news, we have Anne Klockenkemper’s “Now I need a cruise,” leading with the announcement that the writer is back from a week of “living in the wedding universe.” It’s a diary her experience as a bridesmaid to Sarah. She never reports why Sarah’s wedding warrants 24 inches and a photo in the DeSoto edition. Klockenkemper is reporter assigned to a town about 30 miles southwest of here.

Instead of news that might help us better understand southwest Florida (schools, local governments, crime, growth, local economy, what the pols are spending, just for starters) we learn Klockenkemper is tired. We learn she stayed up too late and got up too early while “living in the wedding universe.” Exciting things happened in that universe. She reports giving a toast and some people complimented her on it. She reports dancing the bossa nova. She reports the bride has five sisters, and she reports the first names of her fellow bridesmaids. We read about the sad little gifts (saltwater taffy, for heaven’s sake) in the “out-of-town gift buckets” (did the buckets drive themselves or fly? And gift buckets!), and we read Klockenkemper’s hairdo required 72 bobby pins. And finally, the big news: “Michele, who’s wedding is [sic] in April and for which I’m also a bridesmaid [sic]” is about to start “asking me for help.”

So this is first in a two-part series, maybe? Dear editor: Just writing something down, doesn’t make it news. Just because a reporter attends a event doesn't make the event newsworthy.

Monday, October 22, 2007

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Perhaps

News judgment – it’s an intangible, subjective quality, so it may seem unfair to criticize. But Charlotte Sun editors have been especially puerile lately (see last week’s Sasquatch feature). At breakfast this morning, I digested this tidbit, presented by a gullible page designer as Important World News: “Man sews mouth closed in protest.”

Of all the short news items available on the AP wire last night, a dozen items might have helped Sun readers better understand the world’s relationship to Our Town. But lacking adult supervision, a page designer chose to pour the maximum eeew factor into a five-inch news hole.

I might have let it go; children will be children. But the young ’un needs to develop a healthy skepticism if he seeks long-term success in the news business. This item has all earmarks of a fake story. I think the Sun got taken.

The central character in this apparent work of fiction is a man with his mouth sewn shut. Despite that handicap, he “demanded” – not “wrote a demand” or “demanded through a spokesperson,” but he himself articulated a need for government assistance.

The man-with-his-mouth-sewn-shut “told the Associated Press on Saturday that he started the peculiar protest five days ago” – not "wrote the AP," or "signed to the AP," or "tapped out in Morse Code to the AP," but he himself with his mouth sewn shut for almost a week “told” these things. And the story the man-with-his-mouth-sewn-shut told is fairly complex: He bought shoes for his children, couldn’t pay the rent and was then locked out of his apartment. It takes more than a grunt to convey this sad series of events.

In the third paragraph, our gullible page designer read for the second time the man-with-his-mouth-sewn-shut is “demanding” something; he demands “a loan to jump-start a cottage textile business and pay health care bills for his wife and children.”

Now, I did a little Internet search to find out who wrote this story with no byline. Only the Turkish Daily News (“More Turkish, More Daily, More News”) seems to have run the item, and like the Charlotte Sun was able to credit only the wire service – no name, no reporter, no second source, no corroboration. TDN ran a longer version which refers to “shocked residents” but not one is actually quoted or interviewed. Our Sun editor simply chopped out this inconvenient red-flag.

If all this was insufficient to alert our sleepy babe-in-the-woods page designer that the story is a total crock, he/she should have been skeptical about the language attributed to the man-with-his-mouth-sewn-shut in the unsourced, uncorroborated story: “jump start,” “textile business” “cottage [industry],” “health care bills” – it all sounds more like Donald Trump than an impoverished Colombian. Even in translation it screams of a bored stringer having a some fun at the expense of at least one editor del norte. Too bad it had to be ours.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

More Copspeak

DeSoto County trauma patients can be choppered to either Tampa General or Lee Memorial, Blosser said, and six to eight patients are flown out in a typical month. When weather makes it impossible for helicopters to fly, Blosser said EMS can usually get a patient to Lee Memorial within an hour by ground.
That's what a reporter wrote in this morning's paper. And no, it's not a direct quotation. That would have been colorful. Once the writer paraphrased, however, it was time to restore the language of the land.

Don't click for more; I can't top this.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

And, We Know This How?

Most papers this morning reported Friday's release of statewide jobless data, courtesy of the Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation. But Bob Fliss, Charlotte Sun business news editor, leads us to believe he woke up just knowing all that stuff. No where in his 30-inch story does Fliss attribute the long list of percentages and comparisons he reports to the hardworking folks who were kind enough to gather, describe and make all those figures available to him.

Readers might like to know that this agency is in charge of collecting Florida's labor market statistics, among other things. Also under the agency's umbrella are the state's unemployment compensation program and its Office of Early Learning, including a prekindergarten program. The agency oversees regional workforce boards and "One-Stop Career Centers."

It would be interesting to know how the agency gathers its data and how often it releases it -- monthly? quarterly? Does the data come from the agency's own unemployement applications or from a university research department? Does it provide any analysis along with the data, such as a suggestions about seasonal adjustments, linkages to the construction or tourism industries? Sun readers, evidently, don't need to know any of this.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Community Reporting Gone Bad

Jason Witz turns in a story, headlined "Focus on Fitness," about schools that are squeezing 150 minutes of physical education into the school week. As it turns out, the story is not about fitness at all. And it falls short of doing any job readers might expect of community journalism.

In the first few paragraphs, Witz recaps initial skepticism about the program by reporting that school districts noted, feared, thought, and finally adjusted. I'm not a prescriptivist who goes apoplectic when an abstract object is said to behave in ways usually associated with real people. After all, I'm an English major, and in my department, rocks talk and daffodils weep.

I was going to let it go, but the more I read, the worse it got.

Witz manages to combine poor sentence-construction skills with the weakest type of reporting to torpedo what should have been a useful contribution to the community. Instead, Witz quotes half a dozen elementary teachers and a couple of principals, all singing the same song: It's a good thing, this 150 minutes a week of state-mandated physical education.

Witz swallows whole the assertion that one teacher's game "where students attempt to balance a peacock feather on their hands" in science class contributes to the physical-education minute. Witz willingly reports that a five-minute exercise tape played over the school's television system is "innovative" physical education. And Witz's editors obviously think a photo of a boy running at the school-bus ramp illustrates physical education.

And worse, all his sources seem to come in over the telephone. Readers get no sense that the reporter left the newsroom and visited any of the schools named. There's simply that string of quotes: teacher at School One followed by teacher at School Two followed by teacher at School Three and so on. No hallway smells, no classroom energy (and the piece is about phys ed!), no feel for the building, grounds or milling hordes of elementary school kids doing their P.E. minutes. If I were editor, I'd ask the reporter, "Did you really go to a school?"

And speaking of editors, someone cleverly inserted a little box in the photo titled "REQUIREMENTS." The editor's failure is the box lists nothing of the sort. Here it is, word for word, not a "requirement" in the list:


What area district's [sic] think about the new physical education requirements:
-- Student energy levels remain consistent throughout the day.
-- Teachers noticing less [sic] behavioral issues and student absence. [sic]
-- Students don't seem as sluggish. [sic]
-- Activities incorporate other learning skills, such as math or science.
[sic, sic]
-- Kids excited about learning as result of activites where subject and exercise combined.
[sic, sic, sic and sic]

(This is what I mean when I say picking on grammar, spelling and basic sentence construction is too easy.)
In the end, all I learned is Witz writes as if he didn't want this assignment and decided to blow it off. As a result, Charlotte Sun readers missed an opportunity to learn some important things about what happens when local schools try to meet state-mandated guidelines.

A Real Reporter Would Help Readers Understand:

0 Who thinks the "activities" that the teachers described constitute physical education?
0 What do real phys ed teachers think of a 2 - 1/2 hours of phys ed each week? What efforts are made to hold a real phys ed class?
o What's educational about running around at the bus ramp? What attempts are being made to fufill the "education" part of physical education?
0 When the order came down (and when, exactly was that?) to make room for phys ed, did the fiat arrive with guidelines or definitions? It was reported in Jason Witz's own newspaper that "walking between classes" was deemed to contribute to this program at one school. Is that so, or just a rumor?
0 Where are the schools that are trying to create a genuine phys ed program, in keeping with the spirit and intent of the mandate? Where does the funding, if any, come from?
0 Why is this worth reporting? Why is there such (frightening) unanimity among teachers? Is there a downside to the program? Or how it's being executed?
0 How does 150 minutes affect the school week? Witz found one teacher who claims her Spanish class was canceled, but I'm skeptical about blaming that on phys ed unless some credible evidence is reported to justify the cause and effect. Just because she said it doesn't make it so.
0 How effectively does the local interpretation of 150 minutes for phys ed contribute to a child's health? Every "this is wonderful" quote sounds suspiciously like the party line, the company song, to this old cynic. Is everyone really so thrilled at having sweaty rounds of jumping jacks carried out in the classroom?

There's more. But, Jason, you get the idea. You let 30,000 readers down: it's not just daffodils that weep.

All They Had To Do Was Copy the Dateline

I don't usually pick on spelling or grammar. It's too easy and there's lots of people blogging about it who really shouldn't . But the Charlotte Sun this morning, for maybe the seventh or eighth time, produced a headline that spells a place name differently than the dateline. All the sleepy copy editor (page designer?) had to do was copy, but no, someone opted out of the reading part. Philippines has one L and two P's. The two-L Phillips would Henry, who invented a screwdriver.

Don't click to read more because I've nothing else to say on this matter.

Special to the Sun and Other Thoughts on Sourcing

There's so much obfuscation at the Charlotte Sun about where our news come from -- particularly for the cow-zone edition -- that I thought I'd make a point, even if it's not a big one. I call it puffing up one's place in the news stream.

The gripe is that fake byline, "Special to The Sun." The example today is a travel piece -- not terribly interesting because it's Belize and we're not. But there is it, sprawled under the byline, "Sara Widnes, Special to the Sun."

Do an Internet search on Widnes. It turns out she's a nice PR lady based in Vermont who produces a lot of travel copy. It's all good stuff, I'm sure. Do another Internet search on her subject, Casa del Caballo Balnco's eco-lodge, and it turns out her story has been plastered -- word for word -- all over the travel-and-tour blogs since at least early September. Some sites give credit to Widnes and some don't. The point is, this space filler is not special and it's not special to the Sun. Sun editors need the ego boost, I guess, even if it's a lie that deceives readers about the the source of their news. Be honest. Tell readers the story is "By Sara Widnes, President of Widnes and Wiggins Public Relations."

The day's second tidbit is an imperative from the editors: "Look for more veteran news from Joseph McKenney that will be provided on a regular basis for the DeSoto Sun."

I hope everyone involved in produing and publishing this unpaid-for column will take care to check the gentleman's sources. Today's item, headlined "History of Veterans Day," appears to have been taken word for word from our federal government's Veterans Affairs site. Not that McKenney was the first to copy the paragraphs and not that he will be the last to copy the text without acknoweldgement (after all, it was written by the government, and those are his tax dollars, right?). Unfortunately, the DeSoto Sun isn't well known in these parts for employing professional writers who know how to produce unplagiarized work, particularly on time-worn topics.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Amusing Contradictions Form an Incoherent Editorial Postion

Iwas under the impression newspapers had editorial meetings to hammer out positions the paper takes in “Viewpoint” pages. That way, there’s consistency among the opinion pieces written by various staff pundits as they go forth to inform and recommend. Apparently, that’s not the case at the Charlotte Sun.

The example today is the on-going news that Florida lawmakers are trying to overhaul the state’s property appraisal system (there’s a special session of the legislature underway). Here’s three editorial opinions from three days, all this week.

On Monday, the house pundit writes: “Property tax reform makes system more complicated but the real solution is simplicity.” (Yes, he wrote it exactly like that.) He/she recommends a two-step solution: (1) assess all property, residential and commercial, at “true market value” and (2) collect taxes on that value.

On Wednesday, the house pundit writes that storm shutters should be exempted from a property's appraised value. Creating an exemption introduces complexity, no? Are 15-year-old shutters valued the same as new ones? Are my hand-crafted, maple-planked, Cape Cod wood and iron-hinged shutters the equivalent of my neighbor’s plywood? I don’t sense simplicity. Anyway, on with the main topic.

Today, the house pundit advocates that lawmakers create “a tax cap on all property.” So, what happened to Sunday’s simplicity: assess and collect?

Today’s editorial confusion deepens. The writer effusively praises a local representative for supporting a committee bill to “cap valuation increases on all property in the state” (but doesn’t bother to inform us if the cap is one percent, five percent, ten percent). Then, three paragraphs later, the Sun Pundit admits, “We are not convinced budgeting by legislative fiat is the best approach.” Sun Pundit thinks a tax cap might stop localities from building jails and such. He/she goes on: “We also feel the proposed measure perpetuates the inequity between those who bought homes years ago and new and future buyers.”

Let’s review – just today we have praise for the guy who votes for a tax cap in committee; we send Bronx cheers to the legislature that might implement the bill because that would budget by fiat, and we send more raspberries for a tax cap because it stems the flow of money localities can collect. And furthermore, a cap will “perpetuate inequity” among tax payers based on when they bought a house. If a tax cap does all these bad things, why does it "makes sense?" He/she doesn't actually say.

I don’t rely on the men of the Dunn-Rankin family (our esteemed publishers) when deciding what to think. And I don't fault them for taking a particular postion on this or any other issue. The crime I'm fighting is writing incoherent and disjointed assertions about a complicated topic that many readers care deeply about. Any freshman-composition class instructor would immediately detect their errors of fact (dealt with in two earlier posts) and amusing contradictions are the root of today's inability to articulate a coherent argument.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Editorial Uses Scare Tactics Instead of FCAT Math

The Charlotte Sun’s house pundit this morning advocates that storm shutters should be exempt from property taxes. About halfway down in the essay, he/she informs readers: Shutters, which can range from $5,000 to $25,000 or more depending on the size of a home, could wind up costing twice that amount when taxes on the added value are factored over time.”

Sounds scary – add shutters, pay twice as much! Here’s the reality.

Let’s assume a 10-mill tax rate (the highest allowed, although I can’t find a county that actually uses that rate). More importantly, 10 is an easy number for English majors and sleepy copy editors to deal with. And, just to review: A mill is one one-thousandth of a dollar, and a 10-mill rate means $10 in tax for each $1,000 in value.

In my head, no pencil and paper: If I add $5,000 shutters to my house and the property appraiser appraises the whole sticker price, I’ll pay $50 a year in taxes on the new shutters. At $50 a year, it would take a hundred years for $5,000 shutters to “wind up costing twice that amount when taxes on the added value are factored over time.”

I don’t do a lot of math, but I like that it works pretty much the same all the time, even if the numbers change. In my head, again: If those shutters are the expensive kind, the $25,000 shutters, my 10-mill tax bill is $250 a year. It would still take a hundred years to wind up costing twice that amount when taxes on the added value are factored over time.”

Two factors I didn’t consider here make Sun Pundit’s scare tactic even sillier: Most Florida counties’ tax rates are much less than 10 mills, and appraisers don’t add the retail sticker price of add-ons to a home’s appraisal. Either way, by the time shutters “wind up costing twice” what I paid, the grandchildren will be dead.

To be fair, I must account for local school-district taxes, which also depend on property appraisals. So, double the taxes (which really doesn’t happen), and it still takes 50 years to “wind up costing twice that amount when taxes on the added value are factored over time.”

I don’t care one way or another about this issue. I do care that when he/she writes about it, Sun Pundit uses FCAT -level math (that would be the 10th grade) instead of scare tactics to make the point.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

A Resounding Silence

Some newspaper publishers are willing to correct errors that appear in their pages. Other publishers seem willing to let errors go, expecting (I suppose) that memories are short. This seems to be the case with Sunday's editorial page fiasco, " Property tax reform needs a reality check ."

Among other things (see yesterday's entry,"Facts: They're What We Do," below) the editorial calls for tax reform because, the newspaper's writer informs readers, "In some counties, the property tax values on the tax rolls are so low that not a single homeowner pays ad valorem taxes. Not one."

I asked (in an e-mail) the Sun publisher and two top-level editors the question: Which counties would those be? The response: No response Sunday, no response Monday, and here we are, no response Tuesday.

So I had to do some digging on my own.

Because the editors who wrote the editorial and made the assertion wouldn't reveal their sources, I spent a few hours yesterday and this morning looking at Florida Department of Revenue's 2006 Databook. It's a great document that includes more than a hundred tables, nicely organized by county. The tables show the source of just about any ad valorem appraisal one might want to know about, including residential, commercial, government, and even railroad real-property appraisals. The tables also show exemptions, including ones for homesteads, widows, disabled servicepersons, folks over age 65 and more. All in all, there are more than a hundred tables of last year's tax dollar assessments compared to the four prior years, all neatly and clearly arranged for all 67 Florida counties.

In searching for places where the property tax values on the tax rolls are so low that not a single homeowner pays ad valorem taxes, I paid special attention to the five poorest counties and the counties where the tax folks reported the greatest number of exemptions.

Try as I might, I did not find a single county (much less counties, plural, as the editorial asserts) reporting all its residents were exempt from paying property taxes or because tax values on the tax rolls are so low that not a single homeowner paid ad valorem taxes.

Now, I'm not a tax expert, and the 2006 Databook has a lot of numbers for an English major to crunch. So I telephoned the property appraiser in my little town and explained to him the how, what, and why of this little investigation. He was quick.

"The paper was wrong," said Dave Williams, a DeSoto County property apprasier. He went on to explain that an individual may own and live in residence whose assessed value is less than $25,000 ("I can assure you it's not a house that you or I would want to live in," he said.). And, if that individual claimed the $25,000 homestead exemption, then he or she would pay no personal property taxes. "But that's an individual, not the whole county," he said.

Did he know, I asked him, of Florida counties where every resident has enough exemptions and/or where property tax values on the rolls are so low that not a single homeowner pays ad valorem taxes? His answer: No. The situation does not exist.

So where did the editorial writer get this information? To what extent did he or she attempt to verify the statement? Did any editor in charge of reading the editorial page question a remarkable assertion that has not appeared in any other newspaper or magazine article that I can find on the Internet during this entire year-long debate?

I don't know the answer to that one. I'll let you know when I find out.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Facts: They're What We do. Let's Get'em Right

Charlotte Sun editorial writers this morning advocated a simplified property tax system for Florida. Unfortunately, the writers mixed up and misrepresented a significant number of important facts that are well-known to even cub reporters assigned keep an eye on the local property appraiser's office.

For starters, the writer insists on referring to a property’s “true market value.” This phrase is not part of the tax code, tax legislation, or the paragraphs in the state constitution (Article VII, section 4) that tackle the topic of property taxes. It’s misleading to readers to insert a vague, undefined, and emotion-charged phrase into a discussion that’s already breaking hearts (and bank accounts) across the state.

The state’s constitution, legislation and the rules about appraising property all refer to “just valuation.” In the many places where it’s used, the term “just value” is carefully defined. Every citizen would do well to know that definition. Here it is: “Just value” is the present cash value of a property, which is the amount a willing purchaser would pay a willing seller, exclusive of reasonable fees and costs of purchase, in cash or its immediate equivalent in an arm’s-length transaction.

Perhaps the editorial writer intended his phrase, “true market value,” to mean the same thing as the recognized term. If so, he would best serve readers who want to understand the issues, who may want to write their representatives, or who plan to talk to local property appraisers by using the language of the primary documents.

But that’s not even the big error. The most egregious mistake shows up about halfway down, where the writer wrongly informs readers: “Perhaps the greatest flaw in the property tax system is that by law, homestead property is on the tax roll at only 80 percent of its true market value.”

This is simply not true. Properties that qualify for a homestead exemption are listed on the property appraiser's rolls at 100 percent of their just value, just like any other property. This is "by law." The first $25,000 of the homestead's appraised value is exempt from taxes. But the property is on the roll at its full, just value: its appraisal.

The writer may have confused certain parts of First and Eighth Criteria, a Department of Revenue rule based on the first and last of eight paragraphs in section 193.011 of state statutes, where every citizen can read the language that guides property appraisals. The rule is well known to reporters, journalists and editorial writers who bird-dog the property appraisal and tax issues. It says property appraisers may exclude from “just value” the cost of “usual and reasonable fees and costs of sale, including the costs and expenses of financing,” among other, similar items. As a result, local property appraisers generally deduct about 15 percent from the recorded selling price to arrive at a just value. .

It would not be wrong to describe this process as creating appraisals that are about 85 percent of the selling price that buyer and seller agreed to in an arm’s-length transaction, or about 85 percent of an estimated fair market value, in cases where there is no recent sale and “comparable properties” are used as a guideline.

Any valuation that employs greater than a 15 percent “reduction” below selling price is justified, documented, and explained in an appraiser's narrative for each such property. There is no statute or legislation, as the editorial writer claims, “allowing property appraisers to undervalue homes, but only by 20 percent.”

Once the editorial writer corrects these mistakes, the rest of the essay pretty much falls apart. Readers who see the holes in this piece of Swiss cheese will be quick to detect a decided lack of substance. Informed readers can easily see that editorial Steps 1 and 2 are already facts of life and taxes; they are not the writer's new proposals, as he claims.

The writer’s cutsy Step 3: “That’s all,” (i.e. do nothing more that 1 and 2), is qualified by his own words: “our simple solution to tax equity would need some tweaking.” Unfortunately, he has spent 700-plus words not saying what tweak he proposes. However, his tweak will, evidently, be based on errors and misunderstanding. But even that's no so bad; many people are misinformed and still hold opinions. The sorry part is The Charlotte Sun's editorialist articulates a position for the entire paper -- and recommends to the community -- based on his own ignorance of how his government operates.

Shame on you, Charlotte Sun. Please send someone downtown to talk to a local property appraiser and bone up on the state constitution. Your readers deserve better.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sunday is Quack Day

Sunday is Quack Day at America's Best Community Daily. While the believers are in church, I’m home reading the “Health and Fitness” tab, an unending source of humor, better than the "funny papers" of my youth.

Today, for example, “Ask the Experts: Local medical professionals answer health-related questions and give straight answers on various subjects” contains this bit of hilarity:

“Q: I have heard a lot about internal cleansing, but why is this important? A: Internal cleansing is a common term used to describe the act of process of [sic] ridding the body of toxic substances that enter or are produced by the body. Harmful toxins existing in the body are of two types, those produced by external or environmental sources such as factories, industrial plants or mold. These are called exogenous toxins. The other -- called endogenous toxins – is caused by the body during its various processes. Accumulated toxins existing in the body are a serious problem. The results of numerous studies indicate that a number of toxic substances are responsible for many of the diseases prevalent today. Because of the vast amounts of toxins, the body is unable to naturally cleans itself completely. Internal cleansing assists the body with the removal of toxins. The process uses special herbs, foods and a number of other therapies and procedures.”

This little bit of Q&A compiled by De Soto Sun Editor Dawn Krebs (I don't believe for one moment a reader wrote in with this question), concludes with the note: “Gregory N. Whyte is a health education specialist and holistic health practitioner. He writes and lectures on topics and areas within the spectrum of fitness, holistic health and natural healing, and provides consulting counseling and training services."

Now, no one with an ounce of sense would read Whyte's Quack Day contribution without asking: what toxins? what studies? what prevalent diseases? what cleansing assists? what special herbs? what therapies? and what procedures?

But, silly me, I thought newspaper editors were supposed to ask these questions. After all "what" is about 20 percent of the five W's, right?

Here’s what the editor doesn't report about her featured "medical professional:"

Gregory N. Whyte makes no claim to having a medical degree, although he says he earned a bachelor's degree in phys ed from Hunter College in New York. Neither does he have -- or claim to have -- any health-related license in the state of Florida.

He does claim to be author of a book he has for sale: “Mold Management and Tutorial.” The book is a self-published book and costs $34.95. It is available only at his his Web site, “Advanced Health and Safety I.T.D. Inspection Testing Design." The Web site also sells home inspections for "air quality and other pollutants.” Whyte claims to identify “Environmental Disharmony” through poor interior design and decor.

A five-minute Internet search turns up Militant Islam Monitor, a Web site that lists Islamic activists and credits Whyte as “creator of Tiririka survival and development system.” That site's broken link to Whyte's bio is available in the Wayback Machine. It's a November 2005 page for The Truth Establishment Institute, listing a Chicago post office box address and several still-active links to stories about Louis Farrakhan and a mission statement about a "justified" society.

On his own bio page, Whyte says he has a master’s degree in exercise physiology from Columbia. He claims a fourth-degree black belt in Goshin-Jitsu and that he has “mastered” karate, judo, akido and weaponry. He says he developed a “personal martial arts system called Triririka [...] an African New World Martial Arts.” Whyte claims expertise in “African/Caribbean Folk medicine” based in part on “holistic health and herbology at the School of Holistic Health and Natural Living in New York City." On the same page, Whyte says he developed Modern Yoga.

I'm sure Gregory Whyte is a very nice man and well qualified to lead a phys ed or martial arts class. He may even have some unmentioned credential that qualifies him to detect and correct mold in the house, or advise me about decor or the arrangement of my landscape plants (another service he offers). But, Madam Editor, what makes this guy a "medical professional," and why have you directed a "reader's question" to him for a "straight answer?"

Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Check's in the Mail

Someone at the newspaper must have read my little blog. Yesterday, all out of proportion to the urgency of a third-day school board story, a rewrite appeared, over the fold, five columns wide. The nice editors must have asked Our Man in Arcadia to please, please, please tell that annoying lady which line items had been cut from the school district's budget.

The nice newsman, it appears, may have taken offense at being told to try, try again. In the rewrite, he sounds almost testy when he calls the budget cuts "state mandated." Twice. As I pointed out yesterday, this just isn't so. (see No News is Good News, just below.)

By parroting the official rhetoric -- "state mandated" -- ("Don't blame us; they made us do it) the reporter perpetuates, with emphasis, a major misrepresentation of the state's role in local education. Readers get a false picture of the way government works and the things it can and cannot do.

For details, turn to page 2.
Over at the schoolhouse, boardmembers, nice people one and all, cut some $500,000 from the local budget. The line items they selected for whacking were killed because state found it has less money to distribute to the local districts for education.

Way back in March, the folks in Tallahassee estimated they'd have about $71 billion or so in the state coffers. By September, it started to look like they were going to be short a billion, give or take a couple million. Less for the state, less for the school district. -- Take a Letter: Dear DeSoto County: Enclosed please find half-a-million dollars less than we promised.

After reading in the news story (both of them) about "state mandated" budget cuts, I called the school board chairman. It was dinner time, but he took my call anyway.

I asked him: "If I asked you to come over and get my check for $500,000, could you put back all the things you took out?" That made him put his dinner roll down: "Sure! Yes! Of course!" When I thought I heard his car keys jingling, I had to confess this was a hypothetical check.

But my fictional check is factual proof that the budget trim, however necessary and unavoidable, was not state mandated. It had to be done only because I was flat out of that kind of cash. But, had I the money, then the school would still have a travel budget and the cafeteria manager would still have a cell phone.

Yes, this is a small town, and the school board chairman is a nice guy. Report his face-saving quote. But somewhere nearby in the story, do the journalist's job of composing a sentence or two to help readers understand the facts behind the rhetoric. There are, indeed, mandates in Florida's complex school-funding formula, but this is not one of them. Readers appreciate an accurate picture of how government works and the things it can and cannot do.

School board members did their jobs. The reporter should do his.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Good News is No News

Small-town, family owned newspapers tend to tread lightly. I understand that. After all, publisher, editors, and reporters all belong to the same Rotary and Red Cross organizations as their sources. They see each other at Wal-Mart. Advertisers and sources operate restaurants where nice newsmen eat and garages where the family van is serviced. But that's not a reason to surpress news the community needs and wants to know. Today's example is last night's school board meeting.

DESOTO COUNTY -- School Superintendent Adrian Cline announced last night that because of shortfalls in state revenues, the state is asking the school district to make cuts in its budget amounting to $511,000.
0 The state did not ask the school district to cut the local budget. The state said it was sending less money down the pike. If the district had found money elsewhere, it could well have kept its budget intact. I'm not saying that's possible; my point is the state did not, in fact, ask the district to reduce its budget.

The good news is, the district will not be laying off any personnel in order to meet the cuts.
0 Not necessairly. It's bad news if deadwood, malingerers or the unqualified remain on the payroll another year. I'm not saying such goldbricks exist in our little town. I am saying second-sentence editorializing doesn't serve the reader.

The School Board met in a workshop two weeks ago to prepare possible cuts that would be the least hurtful in the event such a request came from the state
0 This sentence alerts us that the lead, "announced last night," is a canard. The board knew the situation a fortnight ago -- and before that, if news reports are to be believed.

"We're ready to proceed with cuts as prepared," Cline told the board.
0 This innocuous quote adds no substance. It clarifies nothing that has gone before and foreshadows nothing on the horizon. We expect the superintendent to be ready to proceed. Here's something readers would like to know: Half a million is what portion of the overall budget? Half? 10 percent? Something in between? It makes a difference.
At the workshop, the board drew up a list of cuts that would least impact students' education.
0 If I thought it would do any good, I'd scold the writer for using "impact" as verb. But I'm really looking forward to finding out about the "list of cuts" that will "least impact" education, so I'll move on.

"We had a group that looked at our entire budget to see what we could cut from the budget or not implement from the new budget to try to save that money in anticipation of the state cutting us, which obviously they did," said School Board Chairman Ronny Allen.
0 More procedure. And more evidence the super didn't suddenly announce the news last night. It would be interesting to know who was in the group that examined the budget. Teachers? Citizens? Friends of ... ? But, hey, this is a small town and everyone gets a nice soft quote. Any moment now, the reporter will report what's on the won't-be-bought list.

Allen said the cuts came to $552,000 at that time. Since then, the cuts requested had dropped.
0 Declined. Lessened. Been reduced. "Dropped" says the budget-reduction request had been rescinded, eliminated, revoked. The reader is whiplashed -- cuts or no cuts?

He said the board could "look at every single employee opening that comes open and see if we could have that task done by an existing employee or by not implementing certain programs that do not directly impact students' education.
0 "could," or "did"? The reader has been told that the work has been done and the decisions have been made. There's no conditional left to speculate about. Give us the list, for crying out loud.
"We're going to go ahead and implement the cuts now that we've heard from the Legislature." Allen said. "Right now, legislators are trying to see if the cuts they've requested are enough to meet their revenue crisis."
0 Sigh. Since the reporter isn't ready to report what's been taken out of the local budget, this might be a good place for a crisp sentence or two recapping the state-level "revenue crisis." But the reporter seems short on info that might help readers understand the relationship between the state level "revenue crisis" and local actions.
"But we are not handing out any pink slips like the surrounding counties are," Allen said. "I don't think the general public is aware of it, but the surrounding counties are dropping pink slips right and left."
0 If the public isn't aware of it, let's insert a snappy sentence or two that justifies the source's assertion that surrounding counties are dropping pink slips right and left. Which of seven surrounding counties?

On another notable matter, the School Board gave final unanimous approval for the purchase of V-Soft, a Web-based software application that has been developed with the purpose of aiding educational facilities in tracking their visitors, students and faculty.
0 Eeeeek! We've reached the end of the budget-cutting story only to be handed a rehash of yesterday's full-length story about "tracking" visitors with software. Worse, the reporter opines that is a "notable matter." Maybe, but what happened to the budget?
The value of the purchase is $20,000, to provide and deliver Web-based visitor security identification software access, hardware, accessories and technical support.
0 I'll skip the grammar, punctuation, style, and jargon issues. I sure wish I knew exactly what those darn budget cuts were.

The software was developed by Raptor Technologies Inc. of Houston, Texas. "V-soft not only provides an effective, efficient method for tracking, but also goes beyond conventional applications by utilizing available public databases to help control campus security," Raptor states.
0 Same quote as yesterday's story. A company can't talk. Never mind, I'm still wanting to read about the budget cuts. Which ones were implemented that would least affect students?

The program enables school districts to check for registered sex offenders as people enter campus.
0 The identical sentence appeared in yesterday's story. And the budget-cuts were ...?

According to V-soft, visitors to a campus would have their driver's licenses scanned when they check into a school.

0 Read it yesterday.

The software then compares the driver's license data against databases and prints out a disposable photo identification badge.

0 Read it yesterday.

The system checks on only sex offenses, not other criminal information such as traffic tickets or warrants.
0 Read it yesterday.

So, what about those budget cuts?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Drop that serial comma, or I'll shoot!

MEDFORD, Ore. -- High school English teacher Shirley Katz insists she needs to take her pistol with her to work because she fears her ex-husband could show up and try to harm her. [She said] she's also worried about a Columbine-style attack.

A nice pearl-handled .22 also discourages students from dangling their modifiers.


More Community News: Olympia, Wash.

Okay, the world is contracting and the global village is expanding. And I, as a citizen of both, would do well to spend some time caring deeply about the folks in Olympia, Wash. I'm sure they're nice, one and all. I wouldn't mind reading how Olympians address crime, taxes, jail overcrowding, student test scores, or rural health care, to name just a few concerns our communities might have in common.
Instead, America's Best Community Daily dedicates its most valuable real estate this morning to a story from the Evergreen state about a Big Foot museum. Opening-day festivities are represented by interviews with four persons, the oldest of whom is 12. The two adults quoted are clearly delusional, although the reporter can't properly say that.
Don't bother clicking the read-more link because there isn't any.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Community News From Harrington, Del.

Today's front page headline tells a sweet story: "When cash dried up, strangers stepped in." It tops a four-column family photo of a returning war vet and a smaller two-column picture of dad in a wheelchair cradling his infant daughter.

Ahh, I thought: A story of hard times arriving on the heels of patriotic sacrifice, mitigated by the kindness of strangers. I grew genuinely excited to see the byline: Kimberly Hefling, Associated Press Writer. It's great when a national news service find a good story in little old DeSoto County or nearby Hardee, or Polk or even the metropolis of Punta Gorda over in Charlotte County. .

I dove into the story in all its tender detail: The family hails from Delaware. Dad joined the Arizona National Guard (Arizona?) and moved the clan to Phoenix when he shipped out to Iraq. He was injured. The time and expense of his recovery put the family's finances on the ropes. They were rescued from ruin by a nice couple from Pennsylvania who paid the mortgage and heating bills. Another charitable group, For Our Troops, built them a new house with an exercise room. There is just one problem.
None of this happened in southwest Florida, much less DeSoto or Charlotte counties.

The report is chock full of human interest, highlighing the plight of one soldier who came home wounded (but not so badly that he couldn't make a new baby). But it raises the question of why my local newspaper, which bills itself "America's Best Community Daily" can't find a local veteran who'd benefit from having his or her story told? This couple went from being on the ropes to getting on the wires -- and they've already been helped.

Even overlooking the omitted local angle, this story falls apart on so many other levels. There's not one number in the story reporting how many soldiers and their families find philanthropists to pay their bills. There's not one sentence about how to locate a benefactor, or how many houses the charitable organization has built for vets, and no mention of whether similar programs or services are available locally. Need I mention the picture readers get of bright pink skin, the Leave it to Beaver-era nuclear family of five, mom with nicely streaked blonde hair? This is not even a representative family.

It's a one-shot, feel-good story that says essentially nothing, helps no one, and sheds no light on what awaits the next war-wounded family -- say a single mom with decidedly darker skin. An angel who pays the bills? I doubt it.