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Long Story Short: Reporting at risk

2/3/20



 

The story behind the story behind the story

 You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in sixty years.
—Charles Foster Kane

 

Now there was a guy who had his priorities straight—at least as a wealthy young idealist. Kane was so rich that publishing a newspaper meant more to him than making money. Yes, as written, directed, and acted by Orson Welles, the owner/editor of the New York Inquirer was more or less a fictional character, but I’ve always marveled at those lines from the cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

 

Warren Buffett is no Citizen Kane. He’s all too aware that local daily newspapers are not the economic engines they were when William Randolph Hearst (on whom Charles Foster Kane is based) was developing Hearst Communications. Buffett purchased the Buffalo News in 1977 and, in his battle for dominance with the Courier Express—a fight he won, partly by switching from an evening to morning paper—he lost $1.4 million. But the Buffalo News went on to earn a reported $1 million a week for Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway media group. It was the first of many newspapers Buffett would own.

 

Changing times

By 2018, Buffett had placed almost all his other papers under the management of the Iowa-based chain, Lee Enterprises. But not the Buffalo News. He allowed his original broadsheet baby to remain independently operated for a time, maybe out of nostalgia. In 2017, the paper lost money for the first time in forty years, and, subsequently, in 2018 it underwent drastic cost-cutting staff and coverage reductions. Even so, the paper continued to struggle with declining readership. Buffett, though one of the richest men in the world, is no Charles Foster Kane. He isn’t willing to run a business that loses money year after year.

 

The sale

Last Wednesday, it was announced that the News was sold to Lee Enterprises, which becomes the third owner in the paper’s 140-year history. It will also be its first media conglomerate proprietor. Generally speaking, being bought by a newspaper chain is not good news, though it was probably inevitable given the current strained state of print media.

 

Lee is known for buying papers and reducing staff, shrinking them down to “a substantially less robust product.”  The News tried to put a good spin on the announcement, saying that Lee is the “best positioned to manage through the industry challenges.”  News publisher Warren T. Colville said, “The Buffalo News’ commitment to covering our community is unwavering, and we look forward to continuing that tradition under our new ownership.” It’s also a good sign that Lee agreed to take on existing News contracts, including its agreement with the Newspaper Guild, which represents newsroom employees. Relatively speaking, Lee is the good guy in these troubled journalism times.

 

Bad moon rising

You want to know who the bad guys are? MNG Enterprises. Operating under the name Digital First Media, MNG is owned by Alden Global Capital, a New York hedge fund known for gutting newsrooms. Alden has been branded the “destroyer of newspapers.” They are periodical pirates, print media strip-miners, and “vulture capitalists,” as the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Denver Post called its new overlords.

 

Guess who just bought a stake in Lee Enterprises? Yeah, that’s right. You can read all about in in NiemanLab, which describes Alden as a “journalism’s Professor Moriarty, Ra’s al Ghul, Blofeld, and Hans Landa, buying up chunks of newspaper companies and cutting their newsrooms to the bone.”

 

Lee Enterprises stock got a big bounce from the announcement that it had purchased Berkshire Hathaway News. Then the word went out about Alden’s filing, and the stock dropped twenty percent. An ominous sign for the Buffalo News.

 

 

Giving it the old charter try

Last week, the Buffalo News published a story about the five-year-old Charter School of Inquiry (CSI), located off the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo. The article explains that the school—founded on the concept that a more relevant curriculum for black students will spur greater engagement—has not yet resulted in improved test scores. The school uses an inquiry-based model of teaching, and a “responsive classroom” approach, which emphasizes social and emotional growth. School leaders believe the school is “poised for improved scores,” and hope to have its charter renewed.  

 

Everything about this school sounds exceptional, from its emphasis on positive self-image to its partnering with motivational role models to its mindfulness of the African concept of ubuntu (humanity towards others). Unfortunately, today a school’s success is judged largely on the results of state English language arts and math tests. Less measurable qualities aren’t considered.

 

My favorite thought experiment

Bear with me if you’ve heard this from me before, but to understand what’s going on here, and why charters are not the solution, it’s necessary to realize that there are no failing schools. That’s a term that should be eliminated from educational parlance. Imagine that the worst-performing school in Erie County, one that the state labels as “failing,” closes. Now imagine you magically transport the whole school— archaic building, overcrowded classrooms, outdated textbooks, limited equipment, the teachers, administrators, and support staff—to the most successful district in Erie County. Let’s assume that district is economically advantaged Williamsville.

 

Is there anyone who believes that Williamsville’s pupils would drop to the lowest performing students in the county? Test scores might decline a few points, but they’re still going to be largely successful despite the lack of resources, because Williamsville has a culture of high academic expectations, with children coming from economically advantaged backgrounds. They have computers at home, access to high speed internet, books in the house, and intellectual enrichment opportunities from birth.

 

The former “failing” teachers, now transported to a school with students that are largely prepared and primed in every way to learn, would be reenergized. Instead of being labeled unsuccessful, they would now receive accolades for having top performing students. Now imagine the reverse, in which everything that Williamsville has to offer is suddenly transported to the poorest performing neighborhood in Erie County (if you’re a Williamsville teacher reading this, your blood pressure is probably already rising). Faced with high rates of absenteeism, neighborhood violence, and generational poverty, the former Williamsville staff would soon experience existential angst and burnout.

 

Charters are not the solution

As an educator with forty years of teaching experience, I’ve witnessed first-hand what every related educational study has concluded—student success is closely linked to family income. On average, students from poorer families do poorer in school. Furthermore, charter schools have no impact on this deficit and neither do private schools, because they only chip at the corners of developmental deficiencies baked into children before kindergarten. Four Buffalo charters have closed over the past few years due to lack of success.

 

These are not popular things to say, but the data is there.

 

To make matters worse, unlike regular public schools, charter schools don’t have to publicly account for how they spend tax dollars. They don’t have elected boards, budget hearings, or budget votes, and there are no public records. The biggest bone of contention among non-charter educators is that when a Buffalo charter school is created, it draws students from the district’s other schools, and with them goes over $13,000 tax dollars per child. That’s money siphoned from the public-school budget to the tune of $133.9 million this year. Yet, Buffalo public schools accommodate over three times the English Language Learners of charters, with twice as many students with disabilities.

 

A solution exists, but not the will

There are remedies to so-called “failing schools,” but you won’t find them within the educational reform movement, and they don’t involve increased testing or charter schools. The solution starts with universal health care, so all expectant mothers receive proper prenatal treatment, and their children have access to quality pediatric attention. Then, there should be free or low-cost daycare for every child, from infancy through kindergarten, with at least one daycare teacher and one nurse for every twelve students. While children are attending daycare, they need to be taught social and emotional skills, because these dramatically impact student success later on.

 

Research shows that the first five years of a child’s life (and especially the first two) determines his or her success throughout the entire school career. Due to a variety of socioeconomic conditions, children raised in poverty often receive less of what they need during these years. Conversely, the needs of children raised in relative wealth are abundantly met. Ninety percent of brain growth happens before kindergarten. These are years when teachers don’t have access to students.

 

Once children do attend school, classes should be small. This means all schools should be funded 100% equally, with additional funding for students with special needs. Teacher pay should be substantial to attract the best and brightest, with high standards for training, including a paid intern period before licensing. It should be generally understood that poorer student achievement happens despite teachers’ best efforts, not because those efforts are lacking (exceptions to this rule should be identified long before an educator receives a classroom assignment).   

 

The takeaway

Will any of this happen? Certainly not in our current political climate. Maybe not ever. For one thing, this country’s enormous wealth would need to be distributed more evenly across the population to curtail poverty. The measures outlined above have proven successful in other countries, but they are very costly. The current tax structure, here in the wealthiest country in the world, does not support them. Maybe, one day, we will apply research-based education reform and fund the needs of all children. Until then, we should recognize that there are no magic bullets and charter schools are not panaceas. 

 

 

A tragedy continues: Cellino and Barnes

The looming question now is how to divide those billboards.

 

Cellino and Barnes have announced their eminent divorce. In the settlement, each got custody of his own name. Ross Cellino will run Cellino Law, and Steve Barnes is going back to The Barnes Firm (which he used previously for a year when Cellino’s law license was suspended). The ugly battle between the luminary litigators has dragged on since 2017, so enamoring the public that it was turned into an off-Broadway theater production.

 

Lingering questions

How will the two handle those billboards lining roadways everywhere? Will they divvy them up, or compete—literally—head to head? It’s not hard to imagine a day when there will be two billboards at Elmwood and Allen, one in the current location and one across the street on the equally tall northwest corner building. The two colossal smiling heads would glare at each other as each beckons drivers to sue someone using his firm. Personally, I would love to saw the existing billboards in half as performance art.

 

I was wondering who gets the ear worm jingle and crazy-eights phone number. Cellino and Barnes spent $4.6 million on TV and radio ads to promote their memorable1-800-888-8888 number. Assuming neither would get custody, I was rooting for Cellino to snag 999-9999, which is the title of a horror movie in which anyone who calls that number is granted one wish, then horrifyingly killed in a grisly accident. I figured Barnes should get 666-6666, which of course is Satan’s number. His slogan could be “Injured? Sell your soul for quick cash.”

 

No such luck

Barnes has already spent $900,000 for 1-800-800-0000, which they like to call one-eight-hundred-eight-million. I like the subtle psychological implication of “eight-million,” suggesting a hefty settlement if you’re run over by a truck. Barnes also, kind of, stole the jingle. But get this: The Barnes Firm also ran a jingle contest in California. It seems like it was mostly a publicity stunt, with the deadpan finalists and winner verging on the surreal.    

 

Cellino seems to have been caught with his trousers down. He points to Barnes new number, jingle, and ads as proof that his ex was never planning to reconcile, that Barnes was just dragging his feet in court while he prepared to get the jump on Cellino. Barnes even arranged to have the Cellino and Barnes website URLs redirected to The Barnes Firm.

 

Barnes counters that it was Cellino who tried to get an unfair head start when he started his family law firm using his famous name, complete with billboards.

 

We’ll keep you posted.

 

Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.

 

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