Must read: A call for ‘democracy’ in our towns

Editor’s note: One reason I enjoy writing this blog — an avocation, not a vocation, mind you — is the thoughtful, signed responses I’ve been receiving: about 170 of them in less than three months. It clearly shows the demand for civil, intelligent dialogue in our communities on relevant, deeper issues — something I’ve believed for a long time. A good example is the response of Steve Frisch, president of the Sierra Business Council, to my blog post “Go wider rather than deeper” in small towns. I republished his response here because it’s so insightful. Put your partisan politics and preconceived notions aside for a moment and just *listen* to the message. You can be sure people are going to be talking about this more publicly in the coming months. I doubt you’ll be reading it in any of the small town newspapers — too touchy of a subject with the “powers that be” and advertisers — so I’m glad to be raising it here. It makes me wonder about the market for a nonprofit, serious-minded newspaper somewhere in the Sierra, funded with many small contributions. The background is here. I’ll ponder that one. Anyway, this is *exactly* the kind of thoughtful dialogue I hope to help facilitate. Thank you Steve and others.


Thanks for sharing this insightful article. I the last 6 months I have spent a great deal of my time traveling to the small town in the Sierra Nevada usually catalyzed specific requests to help identify economic strategies to adapt to the recession. There are about 150 communities with populations between 100-2500, and 30 with populations between 2500 and 30,000, in our region. I am hearing about the “decline of civic infrastructure” everywhere I go.

I am noticing that in many cases “decline” may be the wrong word. There is another cultural and demographic trend playing into the change we are seeing: we are witnessing an intergenerational transfer of power within our civic infrastructure concomitant with our recession.

The traditional economic power centers in our small towns (chambers of commerce, economic development commissions, large single employers and old line multi-generational families) supported the more traditional economic development strategies of growth for growths sake and many younger people are seeing that as a failed strategy.

The intergenerational transfer is driving key changes that civic leaders should be aware of and could adapt to in order to improve results.

1) There is a strong desire for greater ‘democracy’ driven by discontent with the old order in our communities. Many younger business people and community leaders, more attuned to the values of a younger generation, want a greater say for more people in civic processes. Many people believe that unresponsive government has disempowered large segments of our communities, business organizations have valued the status quo over change, and we have allowed oligarchic decision-making processes.

2) There is a growing respect for and acceptance of diversity in class, ideology, political philosophy, gender, race and thought. New leaders are put off by divisive language and personal attacks often seen as a lack of respect for equity.

3) There is a changing definition of leadership with the old order possessing a command and control leadership style where power is rarely shared unless forced and position and turf is jealously protected. The younger leaders preferring a collective leadership model where power is deeply shared and decisions are more collaboratively developed.

As the WSJ aptly points out, civic leadership has been concentrated in too few hands. I suspect that we have also allowed the baby boom generation, my generation, too hold too much power for too long. We need to learn how to share power.

If we can embrace a key business and ecological theory, that diversification of a system creates resilience and increases adaptability to new conditions, we may be able to turn the current recession, and 20% correction in the global economy, into an opportunity for civic improvement.

The following quotes are from an August 2007 article in the Harvard Business Review titled The Next 20 Years: How Customer and Workforce Attitudes will Evolve, by Neil Howe and William Strauss:

Defining the baby boom generation (born 1943-1960 now age 47-64), “…Boomers loudly proclaimed their scorn for the secular blueprints of their parents—institutions, civic participation, and team playing—while seeking inner life, self-perfection, and deeper meaning.”

Defining Generation X (born 1961-1981 now age 26-46), “…Xers learned early on to distrust institutions, starting with the family, as the adult world was rocked by the sexual revolution, the rise in divorce, and the R-rated popular culture. …..After navigating the sexual battlegrounds of AIDS and blighted courtship rituals as young adults, Xers have dated cautiously and married late. Many of them have begun to construct the strong families that they missed in their childhood. In jobs they prefer free agency over corporate loyalty, with three in five saying they want to be their own boss. They are already the greatest entrepreneurial generation in American history; their high tech savvy and marketplace resilience have helped America prosper in the era of globalization.”

And their final conclusion on Gen X, “Gen X political leaders will seek pragmatic, no-nonsense solutions and will argue far less than the Boomers ever did. Having grown up in a time when walls were being torn down, families dissolved and loyalty ties discarded, they will focus on reconstructing the social frameworks that produce civic order. They will waste no time on the obviously insoluble and won’t fuss with over the annoying. To them, the outcome will matter more than the method, money or rhetoric used to get there.”

Gen X, empowered by the election of the first Gen X President, wants results, resilience, a shift in American values and the return to sanity in our politics and leadership ethic. This is exactly the sort of pragmatism and energy we should empower to overcome the stagnant leadership and self-serving turf wars that inhibit many small towns. If we can connect the Gen X desire for democracy, diversity and shared leadership maybe we can finally start making some progress.

‘Go wider rather than deeper’ in small towns

The recession has slammed our rural area: We’ve lost our two biggest car dealerships, anchor stores are vacant, layoffs are ongoing and real-estate developments are in foreclosure.

We’re not alone. In many small communities across the country, “stalwarts of these often-patriarchal areas are falling, changing the civic landscape while leaving financial and social commitments behind,” the Wall Street Journal reports in Saturday’s paper.

“The smaller the community, the bigger the effect,” a sociology professor told the paper.

As a result, some civic leaders and charities are casting a wider net. “Now instead of going to one person, you go to three people and get smaller donations,” the United Way director in a small Georgia town told the paper.

Deep recessions expose the vulnerabilities of communities, not just businesses. In the case of small towns, it’s being too dependent on a handful of longtime patriarchs.

There’s an upside, though: bringing more people into the mix creates a more collaborative, inclusive culture, making your community stronger.

Welcome Happy Morning!

Arthur Sullivan
Arthur Sullivan
Happy Easter everyone!

When I was growing up, my father and I used to belt out this Episcopal Easter hymn, “Welcome Happy Morning!”

The song is here. The lyrics are definitely “old school.” The melody is from Arthur Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. A guy named John Ellerton translated the words from Latin into English in 1868.

One guy who remembered the song was Will Hearst III, who besides being a good acquaintance is on the board of Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Speaking of old school, sometimes we used to go to an Easter service at Grace Cathedral and brunch at the Big Four at the Huntington Hotel, across the street.

This Easter I think we’ll go to Trinity Episcopal Church in Nevada City. We waiver between that and St. Patrick’s in Grass Valley. We also waiver about our son’s religious education.

The Episcopal church has come a long way since the 1800s: the naming of gay men and women into the clergy has raised a ruckus but is obviously the right thing to do.

My father died two years ago and his birthday would have been this Easter Sunday. Happy Birthday Dad! His obit is here.

Whatever your religion, I hope you enjoy the day. Spending time with your family and loved ones, or partaking in a favorite activity, is what counts. I wrote earlier about the popularity of Kosher Coke.

The Union joins the e-newsletter bandwagon

The Union is joining its sister papers in launching e-newsletters — a further shift online.

As I wrote last week, the Tahoe papers are launching a weekend newsletter.

Now The Union is hopping on board: “The Union Insider is coming soon, so sign up now for the daily e-mails keeping you in the know. E-mails will give subscribers a daily dose of what the newsroom is working on, weather, traffic, events in the evening, special features and local deals.”

Online-only publications long have relied on e-mail newsletters to boost traffic. You need to register, so it’s a good way to “qualify” your audience to advertisers — or try to. You need to provide your name, e-mail address and zip code. You also are asked to provide your cell-phone number and carrier.

The hard part is “monetizing” the traffic. This requires a cultural change in advertising staffs. It’s also risky: In a market like this, your core customers are older print subscribers. Can they migrate online?

Can Grass Valley learn from Silicon Valley?

As I’ve mentioned, I’m working with a new media startup that “reverse publishes” blogs into print.

We distribute a free full-color publication in four major cities in “beta,” with ad rates that are cheaper than traditional newspapers or magazines. We pay the bloggers from the advertising. It’s a profitable business model, not a “legacy” one.

We’re also generating some “buzz,” with write ups in the New York Times, Editor & Publisher and some other publications, with no p.r. staff.

We definitely have the wind at our backs. A recession is an ideal time for a startup, too. My experience with CNET, a successful startup that was sold to CBS last year, is a good learning experience. My longtime experience in newspapers helps too — knowing all the pitfalls.

It also means some travel time, however. Being a startup inevitably means a trek to Silicon Valley, home of the VCs, law firms and other businesses that you need for support.

We’ve signed up a lawyer from Wilson Sonsini, who respresents Google, as our lawyer. He will help with corporate governance and copyright issues, in return for a stake in the firm. Our printer (and an investor) is a longtime major printer in Chicago, among the nation’s largest. Our ad guy runs a big L.A. firm.

We’re also hooking up with VCs, including the guy who helped launch Yahoo and Google. I have many contacts from my years at CNET and The Chronicle that are coming in handy. People remember you.

Throughout my adult life, I’ve watched Santa Clara County (with its fruit orchards) grow into Silicon Valley.

I graduated from Saratoga High in the late ’70s. Newspapers were more in touch with their readers then: My photo ran on the front page of the San Jose paper for winning a $500 high-school journalism scholarship at San Jose State. Nowadays, papers probably wished they didn’t abandon that strategy.

Silicon Valley (once called Santa Clara County) has changed too. My dad worked for Stanford Research Institute, so I also am familiar with Sand Hill Road and how it grew up. My grandma lived in Campbell, still one of the area’s more affordable communities.

When I head back “up the hill,” however, I’m happy to call Grass Valley home. We have a lot of potential to bring more high-tech and green businesses here, with financial support from the Bay Area (not just retirees who move here and tourists).

Trouble is, the area has a reputation for being too far off the beaten path. Having lived here for four years, I can see the problem: The long timers want to “run the show.” We’re an insular bunch and not very welcoming.

My hope was that the local newspaper could provide an independent voice of reason and insight. But it’s struggling as much as any business, so you pull in your horns and become more predictable.

In short, what we need is some leadership — from government, civic and business leaders — to help raise our visibility.

It’s possible to embrace the positive aspects of places such as Silicon Valley (innovation, risk and “out of the box” thinking) without suffering from the “oh so negative” (traffic, runaway housing prices and long commutes).

Attracting a business such as Huntington Labs from Mountain View is a step in the right direction. I’m proud of Gil Matthew of the county Economic Resource Council for his efforts in this case, a behind-the-scenes story that has been underplayed.

We just have to be open to change.

Mine remediation pilot project wins support

Here are some highlights from the county’s Friday memo:

•The federal government and cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City are supporting a plan to better deal with contaminants on abandoned mine lands. All too often, the Feds clean up the land, then it gets re-contaminated by a private property source.

“The (Feds) would like to develop a model of how to deal with contaminants that involve several property owners as they predict the problem will occur more frequently in the future,” according to the memo.

A pilot project is being considered for the Hogue Mine and Davis Mill site near Bloomfield Road. It contaminates Lake Vera, a popular swimming hole. Grant funding will be pursued.

•The grassroots effort to work on a plan for the long-term retention of the courthouse in downtown Nevada City now involves the county. “We may be able to leverage our equity interest in the current facility to support a future project,” according to the memo.

•A new Public Health Officer is expected to be appointed in the next week.

•Caltrans will be piloting all the trucks detoured onto Highway 20 from the ongoing major road project to insure safe speeds are maintained — a growing concern. A brochure explaining the process is at I-80 detour.

Kosher Coke: It’s the real thing

Kosher Coke is a hit this Passover season, both with Jewish and non-Jewish people.

It’s made with sugar from cane or beets, instead of high-fructose corn syrup that Coke has been using for roughly 30 years. Some people swear it’s as close as you can get to the original formula.

“Even people who aren’t Jewish, they like Coca-Cola better at Passover,” Rabbi Mordechai Levin, executive director of the Toronto-based Kashruth Council of Canada, told the Toronto Star.

“It’s been flying out of the store,” Rabbi Alan Schwartz told USA Today.

Coke denies the taste difference.

Kosher Coke has a yellow cap on the 2-liter bottles marked with an O circling a U next to a P and the words “kosher for Passover” in Hebrew.