Why we provide food

This is the text of a column that I wrote for publication recently in the Connecticut Mirror.

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote more than a century ago about “the sickness that is not until death.” He did so in an essay about despair, loss, and fear.
Notwithstanding the gloomy topic, Kierkegaard, was an optimist.
The sickness about which he wrote, after all, is “not until death.” The sickness until death, he wrote, would be a deeper sickness—the one that comes from the separation of one’s soul from the spiritual core that is deepest part of one’s being.
Welcome to the world of Connecticut higher education, college and university-style, circa 2017.
For me and for my colleagues in the Connecticut State College and University system, our collective soul is being wrenched from its spiritual core. The same is true, tragically, for our students
And it is getting worse.
I teach History and English at Tunxis Community College. I have been here, full- or part-time, for more than 20 years. I can attest that our students are not receiving the quality of education they did even five years ago. And they are hardly receiving the quality of education that they deserve.
This is not due to a lack of effort on the part of my students or colleagues.
We are working harder than ever—but we are no longer working to make things better. We are working to keep things from getting worse.
Kierkegaard might say that we and our students are facing the death of our intellectual souls.
The number of full-time faculty members at Tunxis has dropped. Vacancies in all departments from faculty to academic support to the Library are not being filled.
Yes, courses still are offered, but they are increasingly being taught by part-time faculty members. Many of them are excellent instructors, and we are blessed to have them. Still, they are part-time, paid a remarkably small sum to teach, and only to teach.
They have other jobs and other priorities in their busy lives. That means they often are not here to offer ongoing academic and career advice that can be provided only by a full-time presence.
What about counseling and tutoring, the vital supporting services? Cuts there as well.
The Library? Closed on weekend—closed to our part-time students with full-time jobs for whom Saturday is the only time to do the in-depth study and research that they need for the exams and papers that they must complete to succeed.
Are we making progress anywhere? Not really, except in the peripheral places.
We are trying—but we are pushing back against a tide of soul-eating loss. Tunxis, for instance, joined many of our sister institutions in opening a new food pantry this year to provide decent nutrition to our students and their families.
Its business is robust, which is both good and sad.
“Food insecurity” has been identified in study after study as a critical problem in higher education. The reasoning is simple: Students who are hungry, or who have children who have nothing nutritious to eat, are not likely to stay long in higher education.
So we offer food.
We are here to teach, to advise, to counsel. That is what we WANT to do, why we choose to be here. But we know that we can’t help our students to learn if they and their families don’t have food to eat. That is why we volunteer our time to make sure The Pantry (its official name at Tunxis) is open when it needs to be open.
We are doing what we MUST do.
Our elected leaders are trying to figure out how to balance the state’s budget—and every plan to date has called for devastation of higher education.
Last week, the Democratic leaders of the General Assembly, both the Senate and House of Representative, offered their own “plan” to stop the state’s budget hemorrhage: Cut the state colleges and universities (excluding UConn) by $100 million over the next two years.
Where? Don’t know. How? Can’t say. Why? Because it’s easy.
The numbers appeared on a partial spreadsheet—no supporting details, no justification, simply numbers that seemingly were plucked out of the air in order to make the spreadsheet work.
On a recent airing of WNPR’s Wednesday morning, The Wheelhouse, one of the analysts said that the “plan” looked like something submitted by a high-school student who realized at the last minute that he had to turn in an essay that he had forgotten to write.
How soul-affirming that is.
The fact is that any cut of the proportion envisioned by our Democratic legislative leaders would mean the closing of at least one community college, the evisceration of already diminished services, and ever more extraordinary challenges for our students in achieving the education they deserve.
Lest this be regarded as special pleading on behalf of my colleagues and me, I fully recognize that a cut of this proportion would mean layoffs or reductions in staff that might reach into the hundreds. So be it.
Even if that were not the case, a cut of $100 million would destroy our system.
CSCU President Mark Ojakian has proposed a strategy designed to cut our spending by more than $40 million over two years. It involves consolidation of service functions for our state universities and combination of administration for the 12 community colleges.
Some of my colleagues in the state college and university system have criticized the plan—or at least the way it was offered in April. They have offered alternatives to the plan. But the purpose of this article is not to assess either the blueprint put forth by President Ojakian or the analysis of its critics.
I would simply say this: The pain it would inflict pales in comparison to that which would result from anything that remotely resembles a cut of the magnitude envisioned by the Democratic leadership.
When we read the type of “plan” that the Democrats advance, it truly does chill the soul. That’s not quite the same as actually killing the soul, but it comes pretty close. And that’s the case for those of us who are merely trying to offer opportunities to those who might otherwise have no opportunity.
A cut of $100 million to the CSCU budget would kill the opportunities for hundreds, even thousands, of our students.
These are the students who need a food pantry to make ends meet, who have no means of transportation beyond the range of the bus that takes them to the closest campus, who will have no time to blend a minimum-wage job and a college education.
Throw in an inevitable tuition increase and the number of students shut out from the system will only grow.
So what to do?
How about this: Rather than pick a number ($100 million) out of thin air and rip it from the soul of higher education, take the time to look at the entire state budget, approaching $30 billion, and deal with the systemic dysfunctions that exist but no one wants to face.
Former state Sen. Gary LeBeau proposed in recently in The Hartford Courant a return to county government.
That may be a good idea. At least it’s headed in the right direction. A handful of counties, properly administered, could allow the state government to cut the millions that it offers annually in aid to local government.
We could have fewer school administrators, fewer local police chiefs, fewer grants supervisors, fewer bureaucrats—and services could still be provided.
Here is the bottom line:
Cut the CSCU system by $100 million and at least one community college probably will close. And maybe more. This will make life immeasurably harder for the single parent, the laid-off factory or office worker, the young person who wants desperately to succeed.
Their hopes will wither and perhaps die.
Find another way, demonstrate the courage that real leadership sometimes requires, and we may actually avoid that catastrophe.
Sadly, we will still need our campus food pantries. At least then, however, our students will know where to go for the food that they and their families sometimes need—and they will still be able to cling to the belief that is at the heart of the American dream: the belief that education is the key to a better tomorrow for all of us.
That, surely, is better than the sickness that, to Kierkegaard, led to death.

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Where Trump Was Right

Donald Trump was right about one thing: The U.S. electoral system IS rigged. If it were not, then Hillary Clinton would be president-elect this morning and Trump would be declaiming to the heavens about how unfair it all is . . . might even be encouraging his supporters to take it to the streets and might even be leading the assault.

Some of Clinton’s supporters indeed did take it to the streets, though surely not on the scale that would have been the case if Trump had lost.

Demonstrators protested in several U.S. cities from sea to shining sea (Los Angeles on the Pacific to New York and Washington on the Atlantic). “Not our president,” they chanted peacefully.

Sorry, but they’re wrong–under the rigged rules that led to Trump’s election.

The Electoral College, enshrined in Article II of the Constitution, determines who should be president. Its makeup penalizes the states where most of the people live (California, New York) to the benefit of places where most of the people don’t live (Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming). True, Trump carried Texas and Florida–our second and third most populous states. But he lost California and New York by large margins–in California, in fact, by a landslide. And Trump achieved landslide victories in those states where most of the people don’t live.

If all the votes had been counted equally, then the election would have turned out differently. The people spoke and, by a narrow margin, they chose Clinton. Yet Trump will become the president in January.

This is the second time in 16 years that we have witnessed this travesty of democracy.

Remember 2000? Vice President Al Gore received more than a half-million votes than Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Yet Bush became president because he (perhaps) carried the state of Florida by fewer than 1,000 votes.

Another election determined according to the rules of a rigged system–another election that cheated the progressive candidate.

Back in 2000, the fate of the Electoral College seemed very much up in the air. People did talk about the unfairness of it all–about the inequity of losers becoming winners. Nothing happened, though.

Maybe it was because the process of amending the Constitution is so complicated–because the amendment process has never been used to tamper with the text of the Constitution itself, except perhaps in the case of the 13th and 14th amendments which ended slavery (not directly mentioned in the Constitution) and extended Constitutional protection to ex-slaves. Or perhaps it was because no one thought anything like this could happen again anytime soon.

Now it has.

It looks as if Clinton’s popular-vote victory will be a bit smaller than Gore’s in 2000. With 99 percent of all the votes counted, she had a lead of about  230,000 over Trump. This may be small, but it’s significant enough to give her a one percentage point lead (48 percent Clinton, 47 percent Trump).

Know who has opposed the Electoral College as the arbiter of election victory? Trump himself. In 2012, when it looked early on as if Republican Mitt Romney might win the popular vote over President Obama yet lose the Electoral College, Trump had this to say: “The electoral college is a disaster for a democracy.” In the end, of course, the president won both the electoral and popular votes–and Trump went silent on the topic.

You’ll surely not hear him attacking this democratic disaster now that he has used it to win the game. To Trump, winning has never been the most important thing; it has been the only thing.

If the rules seem to favor the other guy, attack the rules. If the rules help you to win then it’s, “Hey, everybody knows the rules.” If you lose under the rules, tell your people to take it to the streets because the whole damned thing is rigged. If you win under the rules, then forget all of that. Principles have never mattered very much to Trump. The goal is just to win. This time, he did. . .and he did it by the rules.

Yes, Trump stole this election–stole it fair and square because he did it under the rules of the game. And the system is, like Trump said all along, rigged. Rigged in his favor.

 

 

 

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Rep. John Lewis absolutely rocks

Rep. John Lewis absolutely rocks

I read today that Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has organized in the House of Representatives a sort of sit-in among Democrats on the issue of gun control.

What a great idea.

Chris Murphy, one of the senators from Connecticut (where I live), filibustered in the Senate for 14 hours this week until he actually got the Republican majority to agree to a vote on a series of gun-control votes that had no chance of passing.

At least he got them to do something–even if it led to nothing.

Weirdly, actions that seem to do nothing can achieve something.

We can have an impact just by starting a conversation. Murphy’s filibuster, coupled with the protest organized by Lewis, can force discussion on the vital issue of gun control.

A little about Lewis:

He speaks with considerable authority. During the early 1960s, when he was in his late teens and early 20s, he was also a college student and would go on to become president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee–a civil rights organization.

Lewis was one of the group called the Freedom Riders, an integrated group of students who had a vision. These people wanted to demonstrate the absolute inability of our nation to deal with the fundamental problem of racial, discriminatory segregation in the U.S. South.

Their tactic was to rent buses that would travel through the South into local bus stations.

Once they entered a bus station, the Freedom Riders would act out their defiance: White Freedom Riders would enter the restroom reserved for Blacks, and Black Freedom Riders would enter the restroom reserved for Whites.

The Interstate Commerce Commission had ordered the desegregation of interstate facilities, such as bus stations that served buses that cross state lines. The Supreme Court found the ruling to be constitutional. It was the law of the land. But in the South, bus facilities remained largely segregated.

The Freedom Riders challenged the system by showing the reality rather than the fiction.

In Montgomery, Ala., Lewis was beaten to within an inch of his life by violent, racist whites. He barely survived the beating in large part through the intervention of a white law-enforcement official.

Lewis recovered from his beating and went on to lead a distinguished life of public service.

He is regarded today as the conscience of Democrats in the House of Representatives. He is also one of my personal heroes. It doesn’t surprise me that he is leading this sit-in, but it never occurred to me that he would do this.

Go for it, Rep. Lewis. You have always had my respect. Now, maybe we can get a vote that actually leads to some place. Maybe we can save the lives of gays in some city other than Orlando and children who do not attend a school called Sandy Hook in a town called Newton located in Connecticut, where I live.

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Ali

After the weekend of praises, epistles, and hosannas to Muhammad Ali, I have nothing truly original to offer. I do have a few reflections, all of them personal.

  1. Ali messed up my mind at a time (to borrow Winston Churchill’s terminology) “up with which my mind most needed to be messed.” I was 12, living with my grandparents in mountain Virginia, on the night of the first Clay-Liston fight. Liston, the ex-con, had somehow become the favorite of white America–mostly because Clay was so loud-mouthed, sure of himself, arrogant, and profoundly stupid in his insistence that he could beat the brooding, imponderable force of nature that supposedly was Liston. Then, Clay did it. He did it even though Liston’s handlers put rubbing alcohol on Liston’s gloves and told him to rub the gloves in Clay’s eyes. Lesson one: You are as good as you want to be, good enough to beat people who cheat.
  2. The next day, he announced that he had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. My little slice of white America couldn’t quite deal with it. What, in fact, was the Nation of Islam? Whites who lived in the urban Northeast understood, as nearly as I can tell, but whites in the rural South couldn’t get the frame of reference. It confused me then, but one day I understood. Lesson two: You really do get to define yourself.
  3. He was stripped of his title because he refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War. It took him nearly four years to beat the draft-dodging rap and get back to the boxing ring. It took him longer to regain his title, but he did it, and then he did it again. Lesson three: Life requires endurance.
  4. Before they stripped him of his title, nobody could hit him because he was so quick; after he got back the title, everyone could hit him because he had slowed down during the hiatus. Still, only Joe Frazier could actually knock him down (once). Lesson four: Ali could take a punch. We can all take a punch.
  5. Eventually, all the punch-taking took its toll. We’re told he died of Parkinson’s Disease. More accurately, he died of Parkinson’s produced by acute and repeated blows to the head as a result of his boxing career. The toll of taking a punch shortened his life. Lesson five: Sometimes, we have to take a punch–and shorten our lives–because that’s what we have to do in order to live an honorable life.

From a practicing and devout Christian: Muhammad Ali lived a most honorable life.

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Election 2016

My good friend, Andre Blaszczynski, has an apocalyptic theory about this election season: Trump can’t win, which means Clinton will win. But Clinton will be indicted before the election–despite the best efforts of the Obama Justice Department to prevent the indictment. So Clinton will have to withdraw, leaving the Democrats with a gaping chasm to be filled by (wait for it) Joe Biden as candidate for president and (wait for it again) Elizabeth Warren as candidate for vice president.

I wish.

This is as close to my dream ticket as I hope to see in my lifetime.

My first presidential vote was for George McGovern. I’m still proud of it, though McGovern went on to become, as nearly as I can tell, the second largest presidential loser in the nation’s history.

Biden is no McGovern, but he’s a solid guy–working class to his roots. He stands on the right side of the major issues, from guns to income inequality, and he would certainly be the poorest president, in terms of wealth, in the last 60 years (Eisenhower). That counts for a lot these days.

And Warren? She’s a progressive male’s political pinup girl. Yes, the ticket should be reversed: Warren on top, Biden below. But who would quarrel a lot with either result?

Bring it on.

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A Hero of My Youth

The Nation magazine asked its readers to write brief essays of 200 words about the sports hero of their youth. Here’s what I wrote about a great football player named Ernie Davis.

I was 11 the day Ernie Davis died, and I cried.

My friends thought I was weird. Who, in the white, jock South of the early 1960s, could possibly care about a black running back from Syracuse University in a faraway land called upstate New York?

Ernie broke down my own, personal racial barrier. How could he not? He outran almost everyone, and he would shake-and-bake those who kept up with him. He played both offense and defense. Watching the Saturday highlight shows, seeing Ernie break another big run or make a key interception, I realized that greatness comes in all colors.

Ernie demolished the University of Texas in the 1960 Cotton Bowl. He was everywhere he needed to be at the moment he needed to be there. Without him, Syracuse was pretty much an average team; with him, Syracuse went undefeated and won the national championship. They beat all-white Texas in segregated Dallas. It took a strong man to do that.

Ernie received the Heisman Trophy in 1963. He signed a pro contract with the Cleveland Browns. Then he was diagnosed with leukemia. He died without ever playing a regular-season game. The Browns retired his number.

I cried–cried at the unfairness, cried because my hero was dead.

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Our Students and Their Destiny

On Thursday, May 26, I read an essay by former state Rep. Jonathan Pelto that appeared in the online publication, ctmirror. It dealt with the emerging approach of the Malloy administration to community-college education during a time of budget crisis. Here’s my response, which I submitted to ctmirror.

As a community-college teacher, I had multiple reactions after reading Jonathan Pelto’s excellent and depressing column, “A Giant Step in Connecticut’s Race to the Bottom.”

The first was simply that those of us who work in the community-college system know, perhaps even better than Gov. Malloy and Commissioner Michael Meotti, the dimensions of the problem that they presume to address. We see it at the start of every academic year—students who come to college unprepared to do college work. And we’ve come, reluctantly in my case, to accept that community colleges can’t quickly solve the problems that accumulated during the first 13 years (kindergarten through Grade 12) of our students’ education.

The second reaction was that someone has to try, that “someone” historically has been us, and that no effort in higher education is more important.

After reading Commissioner Meotti’s comment that the state should “reconsider” offering a college education to those who are “likely to fail,” though, I came up with a few other ideas that could deal with the problem that he perceives and save a ton of money to boot.

We know, for instance, that 75 percent of our students are going to come here unable to do college-level work in math, English, or both. Since the deficiency rates are higher in the state’s cities than in the suburbs, why not post a sign over the entrance to every urban high school in the state—a sign that says, “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE.” I’m assuming that, since Dante Alighieri has been dead for more than six centuries now, his inscription over the Gates to Hell is part of the public domain. And it captures perfectly the spirit of Commissioner Meotti’s analysis. After all, most of these students will graduate from high school “likely to fail” anyway. Why permit them to build up hope for four years, receive a high-school diploma, and then have the doors shut in their faces? ‘Tis kinder, surely, to discourage them from wasting time on an effort that was doomed from the start. Plus, we would drive down high-school enrollment, which would save money on teacher salaries and building maintenance.

There is a way to save even more money: Simply close the state’s urban high schools. No schools would mean no teachers, no maintenance, and even more savings. Why, especially in a time of mandatory austerity, spend anything at all on those who probably will fail anyway?

Because, of course, one of the foundational beliefs of this country is that few among us are destined to fail.

We who work at the community colleges have seen students who should have failed by every available measure, and yet who have succeeded—whether the measure of success is graduation, a transfer to a four-year institution, a promotion made possible by success in a specific course or attainment of an academic credential, or simply the satisfaction that comes with learning something new. We have seen, by the hundreds, students have succeeded in ways that crude budget analysis can’t capture. I refer specifically to the students who needed six or seven years to get their associate’s degrees because they had to complete multiple levels of developmental English and math in order to get to college-level work, because they also had to work full-time, and because they therefore had neither the time nor the money to take more than six credits in a semester.

Like every unit in public education, the community colleges face tough choices. “Ability to benefit” is no longer an abstract and obscure phrase that we can kick around in our idle time. Enrollment at my college must remain substantially flat until we can afford to hire more full-time faculty, which seems unlikely at least into the mid-range future. So we need to craft plans that allow us to achieve our mission within available resources. As we make the decisions, however, we must interpret our mission as generously and broadly as possible.

We do have a lot of thinking to do. As we deliberate, however, we need to focus on maintaining a success rate that, if properly defined, is quite admirable.

Let’s leave the talk of destiny and failure to the politicians.

If we handle ourselves well enough, we might even get them to stop talking about failure altogether. Then we can all turn our attention to keeping hope alive, which is an effort that enriches everyone who undertakes it.

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Journalism forum

Here are the comments I made at the beginning of Tunxis Community College’s third Forum on the News Media. They both introduce the guest speakers and offer some reflections of my own about the topic, “Rescuing Newspapers in Troubled Times.” I hope they’re useful to anyone who happens to read them.

Good afternoon.

This is third year of Tunxis Community College’s annual Forum on the News Media. The forum had its inception in a grant provided through the college’s Strategic Initiatives Fund and, for the past two years, has been funded as part of the Humanities Department budget. The purpose of the forum, briefly, is to bring Tunxis faculty and staff together with persons who work in newsgathering to discuss issues of importance to the news media—and thus, ultimately, to society in general.

Past forums have dealt, in Year 1, with the potential of the ongoing revolution in technology to change the ways we think about news and, in Year 2, the continuing trend toward consolidation of traditional newsgathering organizations into fewer and fewer corporate hands.

Previous participants have included Keith Burris and Lee Giguere of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Ct., Shawn Beals of UConn’s distinguished student newspaper, The Connecticut Daily Campus, Robert Weisman of The Boston Globe and Joseph H. Zerbey of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio. They’ve been joined by several of our Tunxis colleagues—Steve Ersinghaus, Rachel Hyland, Patrice Hamilton, and John Timmons.

This year’s topic for discussion is local and specific in its focus: “Rescuing Newspapers in Troubled Times.” Our guests are two distinguished journalists—Michael Schroeder, who is publisher of The Bristol Press and New Britain Herald and James Smith, who is executive editor of the same two publications. As for the Tunxis staffers this year, well, you’re stuck with just me…for reasons that I hope to make clear in the next few minutes.

Both Mike Schroeder and Jim Smith seem to have been born, as Jim once said of himself, with printer’s ink in their veins.

MICHAEL SCHROEDER

Mike Schroeder reports that he’s been in the newspaper and publishing business since 6th grade when he began producing a two-cent-per-copy, carbon-paper newsletter. He was editor of his high school newspaper, and later of his college newspaper, The Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California. He spent 15 years at Newsday, the great daily newspaper of Long Island. Since then, he has worked on startup publications in New York, Boston, and Israel—the latter of which was published in Hebrew, which I’m pretty sure is not his first language.

Today, as I said, he’s publisher of The Herald and The Press. He says that, as publisher, he focuses primarily on the business side of the publications, but he’s always willing to write an editorial or story when he’s really fired up or (this is his own quotation) “when we’re short on staff and have a hole to fill”—an assessment that shows that he really does understand the complexities of producing a local newspapers with limited resources.

In his communities, he is active in Rotary and is on the board of Long Island Youth Mentoring, the New Britain Symphony, the Museum of American Art, and the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. During the week, he lives in an apartment in Bristol and commutes weekends to Long Island where he lives with his wife, Janet.

JAMES SMITH

Jim Smith has been a part of Connecticut journalism for, as I count it, four decades. Jim was raised in New York in a newspaper family. He was at The Hartford Courant for 14 years. His first beat at The Courant was covering the city of Bristol. He worked there as city editor and sports editor. He’s been managing editor of the Register-Citizen in Torrington, The Day in New London, and The News-Times in Danbury, editor of The Connecticut Post in Bridgeport, executive editor of The Record Journal in Meriden, and currently executive editor of The Press and The Herald.

Jim has received the Distinguished Writing Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for a series of columns on the free press that have been compiled and published as a book, A Passion for Journalism: A Newspaper Editor Writes to His Readers. A Passion for Journalism was published by Plaidswede Publishing of Concord, N.H., which last year published his first novel. He’s been a Pulitzer Prize juror and president of the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Currently, he’s on the executive committee of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

Under his editorship, the New London, Danbury, Meriden, and Bridgeport publications all were named New England newspapers of the year in their various circulation categories.

Jim is also planning to retire effective December 31 of this year. This will let him pursue independent writing and editing projects and spend more time with the four daughters and two grandchildren that he shares with his wife, Jacky, who is managing editor of The News-Times in Danbury.

On a personal note, I have to say that I’m quite sure Jim has earned the right to retire. But I must also add that his retirement will be a loss to daily journalism in Connecticut.

AS FOR ME

As for me, I’m Bob Brown, professor of History and English here at Tunxis. I’m also, I have to confess, a recovering journalist. I spent a quarter-century in Connecticut journalism, working at The Courant, The Chronicle in Willimantic, the Journal Inquirer in Manchester and, most of those years, at The Bristol Press where I was reporter, columnist, editorial-page editor and, ultimately, editor.

I left The Press in 1996 and left journalism altogether in 1998 to come to Tunxis.

My decision to quit as editor of The Press was a wrenching and painful one, reached over more than a year. In the end, I left because I felt as if I had no choice. The newspaper had been acquired in the early 1990s by the Journal Register Company, a newspaper group based in Trenton, N.J. which also owned The New Haven Register and Register-Citizen in Torrington and would eventually acquire both The New Britain Herald and The Middletown Press.

It became clear to me quickly that the mission of the Journal Register Company was to squeeze out every penny of profit by cutting costs wherever possible even if it meant sacrificing the quality of the publications.

It was journalism, if you will, as practiced by bloodless beancounters.

A couple of examples cinched the point for me.

1—One of the fascinating elements in the production and distribution of a daily newspaper, at least before the age of the Internet, was this: Newspapers would buy the most advanced printing and production technology, requiring an increasingly skilled workforce, and then often rely for distribution on an 11-year-old kid with a bicycle.

The responsibility for getting the paper to those kids, and getting them to distribute it promptly, falls to the Circulation Department—and the key people in that operation really are the people called district managers, each of whom is responsible for distribution in a specific geographic area.

During the mid-1990s, The Press had five district managers. Over the course of several months in 1995, each of them left for another job. Because we were under a corporate hiring freeze, our circulation manager was told he could fill none of the positions, which meant there was no one in charge of dealing with the carriers or the complaints of readers who had not received their afternoon newspaper.

At that time, we were a newspaper essentially assembled at night and distributed early the next afternoon. Our circulation office closed at 6PM. All calls afterward were forwarded to our newsroom. For two weeks, I had one of our news clerks compile the names and numbers of people who had not gotten their newspaper. My memory is fading a bit now, but I’m pretty sure that we received well over 1,000 phone calls in a single week from more than 700 separate subscribers. And still, the hiring freeze continued.

2—For me the breaking point came in 1996. The hiring freeze had reduced the staff in the newsroom by 25 percent. Then came the order to begin publication of a Sunday newspaper—a 17 percent increase in workload with 25 percent fewer people.

It simply couldn’t be done either well or effectively. The end result would be a publication that reflected no credit on the people who put it together and offered nothing of value to the people who bought it.

I need to be clear on one point: There is nothing wrong, and everything right, with newspapers earning a healthy return on investment. A newspaper that loses money over a sustained period is a newspaper that eventually will cease to publish. Newspapers cannot FORCE citizens to subscribe. Government, blessedly, does not support newspapers through either taxation or subsidy.

It used to amuse me greatly when an outraged reader would call to object to a particular article or photograph and end by saying, “You just printed that so you could sell more papers.”

The fact is that everything that goes in a newspaper is designed to “sell papers.” The first job of a newspaper is to be read, and the way to do that is to convince people that they should buy the newspaper.

Beyond that, however, good journalists have always believed that the bottom line is not the only way to gauge a newspaper’s success. A good newspaper is a newspaper that informs, entertains, and comments on the news. It acts responsibly in gathering the news, adhering to generally accepted standards of fairness and social responsibility.

A good LOCAL newspaper, as Jim Smith has observed, performs another function: It is a mirror for the community. When the community looks at it on a daily basis, the community sees itself.

In the end, I concluded that the Journal Register Company, despite all kinds of lip service to the contrary, didn’t care about any of that other stuff—that its bottom-line only mentality had begun to affect the quality of the newspapers, that the damage would grow over time, that the communities would realize as much, and that eventually the communities would stop reading.

I didn’t want to participate in the gutting of a newspaper about which I cared a great deal, so I left and, though it gives no pleasure to say so, what I thought would happen is pretty much what happened.

In the summer of 1996, The Bristol Press had a circulation of approximately 22,000. By 2009, the number had fallen to well below 10,000. The Herald had faced an equally precipitous drop in readership. Not so coincidentally, the Journal Register Company found itself forced into bankruptcy. What happened in Connecticut had clearly been repeated in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Michigan where the company owned newspapers.

As part of its plan to reorganize, the company announced that it would close certain of its publications—including The Herald and The Press.

That event very nearly came to pass in January 2009.

The Press and The Herald were within days of closing their doors when a buyer emerged, Central Connecticut Communication, and the region met Mr. Schroeder for the first time.

As Mike Schroeder tells it, he had breakfast with a good friend who had read a New York Times article on the decline of local newspapers in New England, using The Bristol Press as its focus. His friend asked if he had ever thought about buying and publishing such newspapers. After first shrugging off the suggestion, he reconsidered. Less than a week later, he was in the area—meeting with the publisher of the two newspapers and with the mayors of the two cities. He came away satisfied that there was a chance that the two communities would give a fair trial to new ownership.

Negotiations began a week later and were concluded barely in time to keep the doors open.

Mike Schroeder himself describes the situation he faced: “A staff that didn’t know me and had taken a pounding over the past few years, working in decaying buildings that had more history than future in them, in an unforgiving economy and a rapidly declining industry.”

As he faced this reality, he also had a chance to take a good job out of journalism at a Fortune 500 company on Long Island.

He chose journalism and brought Jim Smith in as executive editor.

That was nearly two years ago. Anyone who reads the two newspapers can see a change: More professional publications, more local news, a clear focus on community journalism in all aspects from news to arts to sports.

The most obvious evidence of change is the most recent:

In October, The Herald was named best small newspaper in New England by the New England Newspaper and Press Association.

It seemed only natural to invite the publisher and executive editor to talk about how they did what they did, their vision for the newspapers and the communities they serve, and anything else that seems relevant about the process of rescuing newspapers during troubled times. I’ve suggested that Mike Schroeder speak first and provide an overview of what happened and what he hopes will happen in the future and that Jim Smith might talk specifically about the news operation. They’re free, of course, to do whatever they want.

First, Michael Schroder.

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Coke-Sniffing Monkeys and Headline-Seeking Republicans

Someone dug up the fact that the economic stimulus package of nearly $820 billion included about $70,000 to study the effect of cocaine on chimpanzees. Every Republican to the right of Karl Marx began chattering and howling like rhesus monkeys on methamphetamine. It may be good politics to go on like that, but it’s yet another case where the catchy headline and nifty sound byte substitute for real thought.

Why assess the impact of cocaine on monkeys? The reason is simple beyond belief: Because we can’t experiment on human beings.

We can all agree that cocaine addiction is a bad thing in people.

One supposes that we can further agree, though this might be giving too much credit to the compassion of some of these Republicans, that it is a good thing to help cokeheads of the human variety to wean themselves from their addiction.

Monkeys are the creatures must like us in physiology and brain structure. Experimenting on them just might offer insight into ways to help their human cousins escape what can so easily become a nightmare. If anyone is entitled to object, it’s the monkeys and their human defenders from groups like PETA. The less squeamish among us will recognize animal research of the life-saving and -enhancing variety for what it is: a regrettable necessity.

The specific study in question was explained favorably by Adi Jaffe, a Ph.D. candidate from UCLA, who blogs about drug addiction for Psychology Today. He writes that researchers put a series of lone monkeys that had been previously identified either as dominant or subordinate into a cage next to a large group of unfamiliar monkeys who shrieked and jabbered like, well, Republican politicians. When the ordeal ended, the monkey was returned to normal surroundings and allowed to pull on levers that would provide either food or cocaine. The evidence seems conclusive that subordinate monkeys were more likely to dose themselves with cocaine than were dominant monkeys.

A logical next step would be to search for a healthier alternative to cocaine for the weaker monkeys. If it can work on monkeys, it may also work on humans. That would be a good thing.

Now if only we can find a way to wean politicians from their addiction to cheap headlines.

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Leaving Iraq

President Obama said on Monday that our “combat mission” in Iraq would finish by the end of the month (August 2010). I’m so glad. Now, maybe we’ll figure out what the mission was in the first place.

Evict Saddam Hussein? Did that back in 2003. Kill Saddam? Mission accomplished, 2006.

Found weapons of mass destruction?

Stopped looking in 2007 because, President Bush acknowledged, they weren’t there.

“Halt the spread of terror?” Before 2003, when we invaded, there was no such organization as “al-Qaeda in Iraq.” By 2008, we had eliminated more than 40 organizers and leaders of a formerly non-existent organization. “Only” a dozen or so of the top leadership remained–again, out of none who existed in 2003.

Built a stable society based on the rule of law? Sorry, not done yet. In fact, everything we’ve “accomplished” in Iraq has achieved the opposite of civil society.

“On Point,” the NPR show hosted by Tom Ashbrook, had Jane Clayson as guest host today (August 3). She, in turn, had three legitimate experts  “on the ground:” David Finkel, whose book The Good Soldiers tells the story of the battalion with whom the Finkel was embedded; Anthony Shadid, a New York Times reporter who has written his own book on the war; and, most powerfully, Matt Gallagher, a former Army captain, whose own book is called Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.

Except for the occasional phone-in or email message, the talk was not of missions accomplished or abandoned. It dealt mostly with the pain, loss, and frustration of those who actually had to fight in the savage little war. The panelists, all of whom had seen people killed or maimed or left in trauma, talked about the toll of a war that never had a clear statement of mission and that leaves only loss in its aftermath.

They told of an officer who rescued an enlisted soldier, shot in the head by a sniper. The heroic officer carried his comrade to safety down several flights of steps. As he ran down the steps, the motion threw the blood of the wounded soldier into the officer’s mouth. Six months later, he said, he could still taste the blood. Finally, the Army has acknowledged the reality of his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

They told of a young man who lost his legs, one arm, and most of his remaining arm when an incendiary bomb exploded in a Humvee. In the hospital, his nose fell off from the burns suffered in the explosion. Eventually, after weeks in the hospital, the young man died. He was 19. As his mother said in a letter after his death, now he will be 19 forever.

President Obama talked Monday about the completion of the combat mission. One phone-in ex-soldier said that our “mission” was achieved with the removal of Saddam. At that point, he said, we should have left them to their own country because we had given them what we intended. His words were tragic almost beyond meaning.

This soldier desperately sought a “mission accomplished.” The reality is that we got rid of Saddam seven years ago and knew then that we couldn’t leave. As Capt. Gallagher said: “If you break it, you own it.” The mission for the past seven years has been to leave Iraq less broken that we made it by our invasion. It’s not the stuff of nobility, just of moral honesty.

Every Memorial Day and each July 4, we talk about veterans, living and dead. Invariably, we talk of how they sacrificed themselves to preserve our freedom at home.

We do, indeed, owe these men and women more than we can ever hope to repay. They did what their commanders asked them to do, and their supreme commander is the person whom we, the people, elected to be president. If our president (who is also their president) made a mistake, as George W. Bush clearly did, we owe them no less than if our mutual president had asked them legitimately to fight in a conflict where our liberty was really at stake.

They were brave, and their mission is at an end. It is a tragic commentary on the end of the mission that we still can’t quite define, let alone agree about, its purpose–and, even more, that the “end” will leave tens of thousands of American troops in Iraq apparently to ensure the success of what is apparently the post-mission mission. 

None of this is the fault of President Obama, who was an unknown state legislator from Illinois in 2004, though he will taken plenty of blame. That might not be fair, but it carries a certain rough justice. The president put himself voluntarily into the middle of events.

Our combat troops and veterans did not have the luxury to volunteer. They did what they were told, which is what soldiers and sailors are supposed to do.  

We owe them honor.

That is true no matter the folly of the politicians who sent them on a mission that their nation still cannot define.

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