Small business owners get signs back

I headed to Whispering Pines in Grass Valley for some fresh salmon from a favorite merchant, Nevada City Seafood, and noticed that the sandwich-board signs pointing to their business, as well as other signs, were up again.

I also noticed a sandwich board in front of Foothill Florist in downtown Grass Valley advertising “Valentine’s Day” flowers. (In a small town, you dig up news just by driving around, observing things and talking to your friends — a nod to “citizen journalism.” )

I wonder if GVPD had a change of heart after the controversy was publicized in The Union. I assigned the story 1/13 after hearing Nevada City Seafood and other merchants question the aggressive enforcement of the ordinance during a recession. (Again, just tooling around town and listening).

Except for getting wet in the weekend rain, the signs were out — rather unobtrusive, I would say. 

Grass Valley has the reputation for being pro business, but Nevada City has been stealing its thunder lately.

I was glad to see Nevada City cutting rents for its tenants, and some private landlords have followed suit. High rents are one of the biggest bugaboos for local merchants.

If I owned a building around here, I’d cut the rent and keep my tenant rather than hold a mortgage on a empty space.

The “for lease” sign in front of the Stonehouse in Nevada City is a glaring reminder of the bleak economy. (We got a postcard in the mail, saying the owner would consider a partnership or sale too).

It will take a village to dig us out of the recession, and cutting some slack to our local merchants is a step in the right direction.

Newspapers losing grip on police blotters

The most popular feature of most community newspapers is the police blotter. Most subscribers consider it a “must read,” because they want to know what is going on in their neighborhood.

Internet entrepreneurs have figured this out, too, and they’re out to create their own police blotters and ramping up their efforts. For example, here’s an ad from Craigslist from an outfit called United Reporting for a part-time job:

“We want freelance reporters to visit local Police Departments (in the Sacramento Valley area) and pick up or jot down arrest blotter once, twice or up to three times every week. Dispatch it directly to us, and we will pay you $25.00 per visit – averaging up to $300 – $500 per month. ”

The ad is from United Reporting — Crime Beat News, an online news service providing local and statewide crime news at

Similar services are springing up as well, some offering to sell an interactive site back to the newspapers.

Soon residents could begin bookmarking Web sites that list the blotter and arrest reports in their own community — not to mention their friend’s and relative’s — rather than get the scoop from their local paper.

The Web sites could also up the competitive ante (and win converts) by publishing the people’s names and/or exact addresses — something most newspapers choose not to do. 

This means newspapers will have to dig deeper in crime reporting to differentiate themselves. At The Union, I liked to report crime news but also probe deeper, asking some tough questions:

•Why are there so many plea bargains and so few jury trials? Is a “revolving door” of justice cost effective and successful? What about drug court graduation rates? Should they be higher with more accountability?

•Why are so many judges appointed, not elected? How can a community make sure judges are accountable for their decisions?

•What about the conflicts of interest that crop up among law enforcement, those who manage their budgets (elected officials) as well as judges in a small community? What can be done to minimize this?

•Are law enforcement officers effective at “community” policing? Are they being vigilant in enforcing loiterers?

It’s all good information but not exactly “feel good” reporting. It can stir people up (at least the subjects of the stories), who can raise a stink. You have to balance it out with “celebratory” reporting, such as the award-winning page one profile of Nevada County Chief Deputy Coroner Cathy Valceschini that Robyn Moormeister wrote when she worked here.

But the newspaper has to stand by its reporting and maintain its independent voice — a challenging task in any small town.

It’s a Catch 22, however. Newspapers are losing their grip on the police blotter (a golden egg of content) and will have to search for new ways to provide the unique, local information to maintain and grow readership.




Recession leads to more suicides

A sad fallout from the recession is a rise in suicides and calls to suicide hotlines.

Our area also is suffering. The other day another suicide occurred here that has rattled our community, coming in the aftermath of some other prominent ones last year. (My policy is not to provide details of private suicides, just as any responsible journalist would.)

You can imagine how it could happen: People got in over their head financially and found they couldn’t pay their bills. Some lost their jobs or their homes. They worried about not being able to provide for their family. Money troubles typically are the biggest cause of stress, according to psychologists.

Our area’s suicide rates already have been at all-time highs, as The Union disclosed last year. The reporting generated some concern from the self-interested types around here who always lobby for “happy” news — but the reporting shed a light on an ongoing problem we need to discuss.

We obviously need to keep discussing it.  

Suicide is a national problem too. Earlier this month, Newsweek highlighted the issue, pointing to the suicides of some of the world’s most financially powerful people.

“The suicide rate has already gone up, and my suspicion is that it will not go down,”  Paula Clayton, director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Newsweek. “There are data to substantiate a relationship between unemployment and suicide.”

The working class eventually pushed the suicide rate up after the Great Depression, Newsweek reported.

We have a much bigger safety net than we did in the ’30s to help counsel people and prevent suicides. Let’s hope we can help them out.

Postscript: On a more upbeat note, our new puppy “Whiskey” fetched The New York Times from the walkway this morning, a milestone.

Bulletin: County population grows (by one)!

photo-2As many of you know, we lost our beloved 13-year-old yellow lab Gretchen just before Thanksgiving. It was a terrible blow to our family and left a big void.

Earlier this month, I boarded a flight from SFO to Cleveland (of all places) and landed in a blinding snow storm to bring home a new family member: a fox red lab puppy. I brought her home under my seat on this nonstop Continental flight (the cargo hold didn’t seem right).

I went to Ohio because the breeder specialized in this type of dog, and the pup came from good AKC pedigree (all with good hips, elbows, heart, eyes, etc.). The breeder, around for more than 20 years, has a good reputation for producing physically sound, calm tempered labs. Their labs also are the “English” type, with a blocky head and kind expression. We have some good lab breeders in Northern California too.

You can’t be careful enough with labs, because they are so widely bred. We also liked the “fox red” color — rather unusual. In fact, it is just a variation of yellow, like Gretchen. (For gene freaks, the color variation is: ay_B_ C_ee = true fox-red). The first yellow lab ever recorded, Ben of Hyde in 1899, had a red fox color.

The most important point is that we love this pup dearly, and she already is a full-fledged family member. My son loves holding her, and she already sleeps at the foot of the bed (sometimes in her kennel). She frolicked in the snow the other day, and we can’t wait to teach her to swim this summer.

After some discussion, we voted to name her “Whiskey” last week. Though less PC than “Lucy” or “Ruby,” we decided it fit her color (to a tee) and UK heritage . We’re not worred if she gets lost, either. Around here, I’ve heard people running down the street shouting “whiskey, whiskey” all the time.

We’re glad to do our part to grow our county’s stagnant population and lower the median age (among the oldest in the state) — if only with a dog.

Important postcript: With the recession, we have a lot of homeless dogs. We are doing our part by making generous contributions to groups such as Susan Wallace’s “Scooter’s Pals.” If you love dogs, as we do, I hope you’ll lend your support.

A scoop: Newmont/GV settlement imminent!

An out-of-court settlement between Newmont Mining Corp. and the city of Grass Valley over its years-long dispute over toxic runoff is imminent, my sources told me on Saturday (1/24).

A press release announcing the deal is expected as early as next week (the week of  1/25).

The plan calls for Newmont to build a wastewater treatment plant to handle runoff from one of the company’s old mines in Grass Valley, as well as pay some damages, I’m told.

The situation began in 2000. The city has been forced to treat the water to meet state clean water standards. It has cost the city $1.5 million in treatment fees, and another $1.5 million in attorney’s fees.

This is good news to be sure, though it won’t help cut Grass Valley’s deficit.

The goal of this blog isn’t to scoop anybody (as with the item below on a Nevada City school closing). But I’m pretty well connected, so when I dig up things — in this case, on a trip to the gym and swimming pool — I’ll try to pass them on.

With cost cutting going on throughout the media nowadays (no local media people work much on Saturdays anymore), we need  to get our news from responsible 24/7 “citizen journalists” too.

What peaked my interest about the Newmont case was that we all knew it was going to trial in Sacramento last Tuesday, but nobody followed up on what happened.

When a big case like this doesn’t go to trial, you can assume a last-minute settlement is in the works.

More local GOP leaders who just “pound sand”?

Our newly elected local GOP leaders — 3rd district Assemblyman Dan Logue and U.S. Rep. Tom McClintock — appear to be following in the footsteps of their GOP predecessors: They go to the legislature and just pound sand.

Logue’s first bill was to suspend the state global warming act. The rhetoric is high pitched too, calling AB 32 “draconian” and the “final nail in the coffin” for the struggling economy, or a bill hailed by “left-leaning political elites.”

I agree AB 32 is flawed legislation that should be reworked.  But some elements will be good for business— more “green” jobs, for example. Local contractors I know embrace “green” building, because the margins are good and the demand is growing. Too often, the opponents to AB 32 are dogmatic, not pragmatic.

From a political standpoint, the “left-leaning political elites” control the state legislature — not the GOP. So why shout at them, Dan? Why not try to craft compromise legislation that addresses all the concerns, including local businesses that might benefit. Otherwise, you’re just pounding sand.

In Congress, I read in The Union this morning how McClintock is pledging to craft a tax-cutting plan to “counter” the new administration’s economic stimulus plan. (I’m not sure “counter” is the right word choice, since  tax cuts and economic stimulus go hand in hand, not counter to one another. “as an alternative to?”)

Anyway, I think I get the drift. Instead, Tom, why not work on bi-partisan legislation to get the economy back on its feet ASAP? Both sides are discussing tax cuts.

Just like the state legislature, the Congress is controlled by Democrats (AKA “left-leaning political elites, in GOP speak), so you need to tone down the rhetoric. 

In Congress, the GOP has been taking its own sweet time to confirm the appointment of some Obama cabinet nominees. “Oh, we’re just getting the information, not flexing our muscles,” we hear from the GOP. OK. Meanwhile, we await an economic recovery package that could help our moribund economy.

As for Logue and McClintock, the newly elected representatives should be reaching across the aisle with an olive branch, seeking to get some results (again, ASAP). Pounding sand gets us nowhere and only further undermines our confidence in our elected representatives to help us. Been there, done that.

Local nonprofit boards need to step up!

The Sierra Christian school in Nevada City will close at the end of this month after a 12 year run, my sources tell me.

A one-month effort to raise $100,000 — the call for a “miracle” — has come up short. At least one teacher will lose her job; the others will be hired as contractors by parents to finish off the year.

My wife and I saw the handwriting on the wall when this was disclosed last month, and we put our son in another school. (A midyear transition is difficult for any child, and Nevada City Elementary was full for his grade.)

It didn’t have to end this way for a school with excellent teachers and dedicated parents. As it turns out, the school has accumulated debt during the past 2 1/2 years because of the poor economy, declining enrollment and the growing inability of parents to stay current with their tuition payments.

So why wait until last month to go public with a problem like this?

I place the blame on the board of directors. Boards are responsible for managing situations like this.

This is not the only example. I’m reminded of the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City. I admire Board President Lowell Robertson for visiting me at The Union to discuss the theater’s financial problems in August. 

But it also was too late in the game. The problems had gone on for years.

I raised this issue with Lowell, the principal of the school and others. Other local nonprofits, such as the Lutz Center, also have gone under.

What’s the problem? We have a plethora of nonprofits here, but too many inexperienced board members when it comes to managing financial problems that are bound to crop up. Many board members see the post more as a social activity. Some boards are too insular — an ongoing problem around here.

Boards also have to be much more transparent about their finances. What does the balance sheet look like? How much money is going to administrative costs? Donors deserve the right to know that.

It’s going to be tough sledding for nonprofits here this year and next. Consolidation and tough times is inevitable. The boards need to step up the challenge. In some cases this means recruiting new board members.

Newspapers caught in “the big oven”

The New York Times is reporting “Editors and publishers in a relvolving door.”  


(A longer, better version appeared in print on 1/19, page B7.)

“The primary explanation is the unremitting pressure on these guys to produce journalism at a lower and lower cost,”  Conrad C. Fink, a professor of newspaper management at the University of Georgia, told The Times.

The print version of the article points out that the problem also stems from a “gentlemanly” culture where the managers don’t know how to “claw” for every dollar.

To go deeper, the problems of newspaper are a lack of being innovative on the advertising side.

Instead, the focus is on cutting costs. Now newspapers find themselves fighting a two-front war: the same “elephant in the corner” on the revenue side and a mounting one of producing journalism at a lower cost (challenging indeed).

If you could roll back the clock, papers should have jumped on the revenue problems much sooner. Don’t jump onto the Web until you can find a way to “monetize” the content. Papers had a chance, too: this is exactly what led to the failure of most Internet companies in the late ’90s — a problem they should have learned from.

It stemmed from an entrenched management culture that was too used to getting its own way for decades — almost like a utility with approved rates of returns.

The focus should have been on bringing in experienced ad and marketing people from other industries — ones that knew how to “pick up pennies off the floor,” a phrase we often used when I worked at CNET (one of the successful dot.coms).

Now papers are behind the proverbial eight-ball. They fell into the  trap of cost cutting to meet short-term revenue goals. That’s easy, though some are at a point of burning up the furniture to keep the oven going — a favorite Danny Kaye tale (attributed to a Tolstoy short story) called the “Big Oven.” (

They need to regroup and focus on revenue, with three missions:

1. Again, find advertising and marketing executives from industries where you need to work harder and faster to make money. Turning to former executives is no answer: As I said, they never learned to monetize. I’d go to some hi-tech industries: middle and small-cap ones where the executives learn to “think out of the box” — or die.

2. Blow up the newspaper advertising culture. The culture still has the utility mindset. It needs leaders who can change that. In fact, you need to borrow from the skill sets of experienced newspaper beat reporters — tenacious, much more Web centric, results- and deadline-oriented and deeply focused. I see more of that in newsrooms nowadays than on advertising staffs.

3. Launch new products. Sometimes you need to spend money to make money. Newspapers are so tight with their money nowadays, they forget good opportunities exist right under their noses. They need to create new revenue streams. The opportunity to launch business weeklies exists throughout the country, including here. You can start small and grow the product. In short, you need a set of entrepreneurs within your company.

All told, the future of the newspaper industry depends on growing revenue ASAP, not cutting costs. For the most part, I see just the opposite occurring. Otherwise, you end up with the “Big Oven” scenario.

Fresh start (AKA my boss took my job!)

I swung by the office Saturday after a refreshing swim and found our publisher in the office with his son. He had said he wanted to meet with me. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked after he walked into my office. “We’re eliminating your position,” he responded. Oh.

Jeff A. (you know, the other Jeff) said it was purely a financial decision. He said it had nothing to do with performance; in fact, he said I had improved the paper since he hired me (despite the economic challenges we faced), and he thanked me for that. (My performance reviews said the same thing).

Jeff said he now is going to be the Editor (managing the news coverage) and the Publisher (managing the business) of The Union for economic reasons. Being a stickler for “conflicts of interest” (you know, the “watchdog” stuff we’ve written about at the paper), I expressed some skepticism that he could wear both hats. But Jeff vowed it could be done.

Jeff had been filling in as the interim advertising director for months (a more natural fit for a Publisher in my mind), but he has hired someone to fill that post who he thinks can make it a success.

It’s a very tough market and a tough job, even for a Publisher. (Jeff came up the ranks on the news side, not the business side). Jeff said he couldn’t afford both positions (Editor and the incoming Ad Director) at this time. It was painful to hear that, but I accepted it. We had a very professional conversation. We chatted, shook hands and left on good terms.

This was sad personally, because I had looked to Jeff as a business partner and friend. I trusted him implicitly too, since he encouraged our news coverage (positive and negative) and regularly suggested stories. Coverage that might be seen as negative (at least to the subjects), including investigative reporting, sometimes can ruffle feathers in a small town. But Jeff had been supportive (and often suggested topics).

Still, newspapers are undergoing rapid structural change, we’re in a deep recession and Jeff faces some tough challenges as a businessman. I hope The Union continues both its “watchdog” and “celebration” role as far as journalism goes. As a resident and homeowner with a school-aged child (AKA major stakeholder), we need both.

We have a lot to celebrate here but also some important issues that can’t be swept under the rug. (You know, the ones we’ve written about in the paper and some of my columns — meth/crime, conflicts of interest in a small town, holding elected officials accountable, transparency in public decision-making, good fiscal management, etc.)

As you know, we also celebrate the community — the “economic bright spot” bug featuring positive news was one of my ideas. I also have worked with county executive officer Rick Haffey to regularly run Other Voices from Rood Center leaders and law enforcement — explaining their outlook on things. The latest one (running this 1/18, in fact) was from the public defender.

I really didn’t want to write this because it is personal. I also like Jeff A. and “feel his pain.” But around here, rumor/misinformation fills the void of accurate information and becomes “truth” (AKA small town gossip). It can get downright nasty. I hope that changes sometime.

I’ll also be blogging here from time to time: focusing on the pragmatic local issues that our community’s true “stakeholders” worry about. We need more bloggers who want to engage in a fact-based dialogue, not political rhetoric.

My family and I wish you well and thank you for your encouraging and thoughtful words during the past 28 months — at work or around town. You’ll see us around town, including with our “red” lab puppy.