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Signs of the Times

Robert Downes - February 9th, 2009
Residents of Boyne City were sad to see their local newspaper go under two weeks ago. The Citizen-Journal ended its 128-year run with a two-sentence farewell on page three. Like, how lame can you get?
The Elk Rapids Town Meeting also bit the dust. Both papers were owned by Up North Publishing, which in turn, is owned by the Journal Register Company of Pennsylvania.
Such are the perils of corporate newspaper ownership.
A common practice for newspaper corporations is to buy up other papers with borrowed money. Then, the corporation hollows out the paper, replacing local reporters with wire copy and cutting employees and features to drive up profits. When the paper‘s bottom line looks rosy, the corporation sells the paper to another corporation, which starts the process all over again.
Sound familiar?
But the news-corps have finally stubbed their toes with this practice, and for some, the prognosis may be fatal. Many of these chains are insanely over their heads in debt at a time when auto and real estate ads have vanished, along with classifieds.
This isn‘t necessarily what has happened with the Citizen-Journal or the Town Meeting, which were small town weeklies. But it‘s certainly a trend for mainstream dailies, and you can see this dynamic at work at the Record-Eagle, which has dropped columnists covering business, dining, drama, the outdoors and book beats in recent months.
Fans of websites such as are gloating that these are the end-days of newspapers, which will be replaced by online bloggers, Twitter activists and the like. God help us.
Meanwhile, newspapers are hellbent on committing suicide with website schemes that are pursued with the delusional fervor of alchemists trying to turn lead into gold.
But fear not; one media critic who agrees that the web model for sustaining newspapers is “idiotic,“ claims that the press may be saved by adopting the iPod model.
If people are willing to pay .99 cents for an iPod song download, perhaps they will also pay for “iNews“ downloads from their local newspaper. The alternative would be getting shut out of the paper‘s website.
I hope that the iPod model gets more consideration by newspapers, because that may be the only way to pay for the reporters who cover city commission meetings, school boards, and the hijinx in Lansing.
P.S. There‘s hope for Boyne City: an independent publisher is considering a plan to revive the Citizen-Journal...

A Vision for Division
It was refreshing to see local bicycle activists touting the Grand Vision study as if it were Holy Writ at last week‘s Traverse City Commission meeting.
Here in TC, we‘ve grown accustomed to studies being undertaken at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars and then getting tossed when it‘s time to, say, build a roundabout in town, or upgrade a traffic artery.
But members of TART Trails and the Michigan Land Use Institute are militant in their support of the Grand Vision recommendations, which were crafted through the input of thousands of local residents.
They‘d like to see Division Street remade as a safer, slower, pedestrian-and-bicycle-friendly route. Currently, the MDOT has plans to simply “mill and fill“ the road‘s surface this summer and then “maybe“ upgrade Division five years from now.
That‘s not good enough for backers of the Grand Vision. Division Street needs to stop “dividing“ our town with a dangerous highway that‘s virtually impossible for pedestrians or cyclists to cross (not to mention the hell of thousands of employees trying to drive out of Munson or Building 50 each day). Perhaps we can use the recommendations of the Grand Vision to get MDOT behind a plan to transform Division Street into an asset for Traverse City, rather than an ongoing disaster.

Word has it there‘s a trend for homeless people to take up residence in abandoned homes. Some banks are even turning a blind eye to the squatters because, in some cases, they‘re fixing up foreclosed homes and keeping them from being vandalized.
And who knows? Perhaps today‘s squatter will be tomorrow‘s home-buyer. It sure beats living in your car.
While the bright guys in Washington try to figure a way out of the mortgage crisis, it could be the problem will eventually work its way out through some sort of urban homesteading scheme.
The concept of urban homesteading is as old as Rome, but the term came about in the 1970s when squatters started fixing up hundreds of abandoned houses in the ruined inner cities of Detroit, L.A., and New York.
“Here in New York City, the government took over tens of thousands of buildings for unpaid taxes, and then simply let them sit, for decades,“ writes journalist Barry Bearak in an article on inner city homesteading. “The idea behind homesteading is not seizing another’s property, but putting unused property to use in a housing emergency.“
Needless to say, not everyone is happy with the idea of squatters taking over foreclosed homes. A press release from a PR group in southern California warns that you‘d better start “playing it safe“ around empty houses.
“These unoccupied homes have created a hotbed for vagrants, criminal activity and opportunists,“ warns real estate agent Rafael Dagnesses. “Whether happening upon a dangerous occupant, weapons and/or drugs, foreclosures can create innumerable hazards to the health and well-being of entire neighborhoods. Danger can lurk anywhere, not only in the roughest of neighborhoods.“
There‘s a deep irony here, because California is the state which was energized by the homeless migrants of the 1930s Dustbowl and Depression, as depicted in The Grapes of Wrath.
In that book, poor, homeless persons from Oklahoma and Kansas were also depicted as being “dangerous“ vagrants inclined toward criminal activity and opportunism.
Who knows? Perhaps the author of this warning had parents or grandparents who were among those desperate migrants.
So, let‘s not succumb to kneejerk reactions that our fellow Americans are “dangerous“ simply because they‘ve hit a patch of hard luck. That poor family squatting in an abandoned home could be where you‘re at someday too.

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