Sunday, April 22, 2012

Government handouts

Now here's a form of government welfare that really gets my dander up, whatever a dander is.

Industrial Development Agencies, or IDAs, are supposed to help attract business to certain towns or regions. It's hard to argue with that as a concept, since helping companies start up or expand seems like a good idea. But there's a problem with it.

It was highlighted nicely in today's Buffalo News. You can read the story here. Go ahead, I'll wait.

I know, you might not have read the whole thing, but that's fine. You get the idea. We're spending thousands and thousands of dollars to provide tax breaks for companies that provide very few jobs or simply are moving from one town in Western New York to another. It's not even a zero-sum game, it's less than that, since money comes out of the general pot.

It's part of a general problem. Politicians love to say they are helping to create jobs in their district/town/state. So they are anxious to throw tax breaks at new companies. The problem is, this does absolutely nothing for existing taxpayers who are simply moving along from day to day. I can't blame firms for asking, but it all seems quite unfair.

I once talked to a state government employee about the situation. She said there would be far fewer such tax breaks for companies if politicians didn't send out constituent newsletters. How often have you seen such a mailing, complete with Senator Glenn Locke with a shovel and the headline "Locke brings jobs to our state"? I know, you'll have to use your imagination to ponder the concept of Senator Locke if you know him personally or read his blog, but that's OK.

Is it too much to ask to have a level playing field in our tax policy? Sometimes it seems to be.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

For what it's worth...

Now that we know who the two major contenders in the Presidential election are -- with apologies to Newt Gingrich -- it's interesting to think of how the candidates will approach the election.

For one of the candidates, it strikes me as relatively easy. Mitt Romney starts off with the "I'm not Barack Obama" platform, which is good for 40 percent of the vote. There have been plenty of Republicans who have been waiting for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November (in other words, election day) since November of 2008.

From there, Romney can certainly use the "Are you happy with the way things are going? argument. That's going to carry some weight. A majority of Americans feel we are on the wrong track, whatever that means. Tapping into that ought to be good for some votes.

Barack Obama's task is more difficult. That's usually the case with those who are actually in office. It's easier for the challenger to use hindsight and say, "Boy, was that a mistake! Here's what I would have done."

Add to the fact that the Obama Administration hasn't been too good at defending its record in areas that should prove popular. For example, no one believes that our health care system is delivering care efficiently right now, but somehow an alternative package was never sold to the public properly. (As in, is it really the best idea for the poor to go to the emergency room when they are sick and have their costs covered by states?)

So here's what I would do: I'd go back to 2008 -- not to blame President Bush for everything, but as a justification (if no doubt oversimplied, because this is a world of sound bites) for some of Obama's actions.

I'd argue that the Republicans had control of the White House under Bush, and did such things as cut down on regulation of the financial systems and the environment. What happened without adult supervision? The economy drove off a cliff. So what are the Republicans proposing now? Give us the keys to another car. That would seem to be pretty risky.

Obama also can highlight some of his accomplishments in that area. Did you really want a ruined financial system in the fall of 2008? No, so a rescue of some sort was necessary, as even the Bush Administration knew. Was letting the American auto industry go under in 2009 a good idea in our financial state? I would guess not.

Big budget deficits probably have been necessary under the circumstances, although the Obama Administration probably needs to be quicker in cutting back on that department down the road. I don't think the President needs a reminder on this, but killing Bin Laden and getting out of Iraq ought to be popular too.

I'm still making Obama the favorite in the election, but along the way we'll see how well the two sides stick to the scripts. And if anyone of authority is reading this, remember that you get what you pay for.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mr. TV Announcer

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a fellow sports reporter who was out of town on assignment. I said to him that a local sportscaster in Buffalo (OK, it was John Murphy) had called for the firing by the Sabres of general manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff.

After a quick reaction, I added something like smart-alecky like, "He didn't have time on the newscast to give any reasons." And the reporter said, "Boy, have you got that right!"

That's the shrinking state of sports news on the local television newscasts these days. It's another reminder that nothing lasts forever.

Back when I was growing up, the local television sports anchors were way up the totem pole in terms of the pecking order of media personalities. Here in Buffalo, it seemed that Rick Azar, Van Miller and Ed Kilgore were around forever. In fact, Ed is still around, although he has cut down on his schedule a bit. I used to jump around the dial, seeing what stories and highlights they might have on a given night. Channel 2 came first, and Channel 4 was last, but there sometimes was time to see part of Channel 7's show as well.

The local sportscasters used to get three or four minutes per show, I would guess, back in the Seventies and early Eighties. They broke stories every so often, too. Speaking as a competitor back then in my radio days, I had to keep an eye on what they were doing.

Happily, I also discovered that, once I got to know them, that Buffalo sportscasters rarely had a case of big egos. They were good people, from the veterans mentioned above to others too numerous to mention over the years. In fact, they still are.

But somewhere along the way, in a subtle manner, everything changed.

I can probably point to a couple of factors. ESPN came along with hour-long sportscasts at 6 and 11. Anyone with an interest in a national sports story didn't have to wait until 6:20 or so for a report; it was on at 6 o'clock sharp and could have 10 minutes of coverage if necessary. Plus ESPN had highlights from everywhere; there was no way to compete locally with that aspect of it.

In addition, inevitably, the stakes for ratings points on local newscasts got higher. The consultants took surveys and figured out that sports was low on the priority list for viewers. You might not know that ratings are taken from 6:00:00 to 6:07:30, and from 6:15:00 to 6:22:30. Care to guess where sports news is located? Yup, after 6:22:30. Any later, and sports anchors will be wrapping up the segment and tossing it directly to Brian Williams and David Letterman. The weather turns up right after 6:15, by the way.

Meanwhile, the television stations' news staffs aren't immune to the budget cutting in the news business. There are fewer bodies working in sports departments there, just like at newspapers. That means the remaining staffers have to work very hard just to get a show on the air, without much time to try to research stories. I've heard it's practically a new job description for sports workers these days.

It's a development that surprises me a bit. I know how important local sports news is at our newspaper. If you look at page one of the sports section, local stories usually are featured when possible, and they pop up on the overall front page every so often too. Sports does more than its share of driving traffic to our website.

The television stations do take good-sized local sports stories and move them relatively high in the show (in other words, closer to the top of the hour) when necessary. And they are all over Bills' games in season. It makes me think that there's a niche there, waiting to be exploited. A television station could make an effort to become "your local sports leader" and try to make it a drawing card. It might cost a little money, or at least some reshuffling of resources, but it at least sounds like an interesting gamble.

It's tough to argue with the analysts who have charts saying such a move would be a waste of time and money. Still, I'm old enough to say that I liked things better in the old days. I don't think I'm the only one that feels that way, either.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Silly season

If you've been paying attention to the political landscape for the past week, you might have noticed the latest controversy to grip the Presidential race for a couple of days.

Hilary Rosen, a Democratic activist, went on CNN and criticized Ann Romney this way: “His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.”

Let's forget about the statement for a moment. The discussion about working outside the home vs. staying home has been going on for more than three decades, and we're reached a rough consensus that women (and men) should be allowed to choose which path to take in that area. I think that's progress.

Me, I'm more interested in the whole all-news approach to politics.

Turn on the TV at almost any hour of the day, and you'll probably hear something about the campaign. The usual format is to have some "Republican strategist" and a "Democratic strategist" on to talk about some issue of the day. They usually aren't identified fully, and they go on the air with generally predictable views. In other words, few come up with anything interesting to say. So ... I ignore them. Give me David Gergen anytime.

In this case, though, Rosen said something that wasn't part of the prepared text of anyone. She didn't represent anyone but herself. All of a sudden, that viewpoint was a big story. Democrats are declaring war on Motherhood, etc.

A bigger question, though, is: Why? As in, why do we care what she has to say? And how did anyone notice through all of the clutter?

There's probably a legitimate discussion to be had about the role of a candidate's wife to be had in an election, although it probably ranks about 413th on the list of issues that matter. But worrying about Rosen's brief comment on TV seems like a waste of time.

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Friday, April 13, 2012


Here's a story that might be instructive when it comes to the nature of history and of the Internet ... and if that scares you off, give me a minute.

In working on items for This Day in Buffalo Sports History, I came across a note on Leeland Jones. He was a former football player at the University of Buffalo, when it was called that instead of the University at Buffalo. The item said that he was the first African-American to play in a major college football game south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the United States.

If you do a search on line for him, you'll find what appears to be an item that backs that up. For example, this one. It seems, according to the stories, that Jones and the UB Bulls played at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore in 1941. Jones was quietly sent off to a black hotel in Baltimore, away from all of the other players. He was then moved to a private house that was beautiful, and came with a bonus -- three daughters. Jones married one of them.

Jones went on to a distinguished career after graduation, and his son became a great football player at UB as well. It's a nice story.

Except ...

I wanted to get the date of the game so that it could be included in the master list. The UB football guide did not have the game-by-game schedule for it started at 1949. Therefore, my best hope was something on the Johns Hopkins website.

That school does a better job with tracking antiquity, with all of the games listed. First I discovered that UB and Johns Hopkins only played twice in their history. According to Hopkins, both games -- one in 1942 and one in 1946 -- were played in Buffalo. However, the UB sports information office says the 1942 meeting was actually held in Baltimore. They agree the second game was at Buffalo in 1946.

In other words, that "historic game," according to UB, was a year later than what was believed to be to be true.

The funny part to me is that is this is indeed a mistake, it's an easy one to be repeated. The 1941 story is written up once, and it gets repeated over and over again by anyone else who wants information on the subject ... including his obituary.

The Internet is a great tool for research. Still, it's good to check out what you've found. I'll have to remember that as this project goes forward.

P.S. Feel free to use the story in your journalism class, Elmer.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What to do?

Think it's easy to be a sports executive these days? Think again.

Ponder the situation surrounding the Buffalo Sabres. You remember the Sabres, the guys who are sitting home while 16 other teams are starting down the road to the Stanley Cup.

General manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff have been together since 1997. That's a very impressive combination; many marriages don't last that long. They've had some success over the years, including three trips to the conference finals and one visit to the Stanley Cup finals. No Stanley Cups, though, and only two visits to the postseason in the past five years.

New owner Terry Pegula came in more than a year ago with a full wallet, ready to do whatever it took to win. He certainly fulfilled his end of the bargain, as Buffalo went after a couple of free agents -- unusual behavior by recent Sabre standards. The signings raised expectations greatly ... which made the disappointment of the just-concluded season that much more dramatic and crushing.

If you had been a Sabre executive, what would have been running through your mind as you pondered the future of Regier and Ruff? It's a mixed bag, with no obvious right answer.

The Sabres have had some success at times, but perhaps not enough. Buffalo has missed the playoffs six times since Regier and Ruff came in during the summer of '97. That's not terrible in a 15-year span, but not glittering either. Some of Regier's transactions have worked out (Paul Gaustad for a number one pick), some (the Brad Boyes deal) haven't. Meanwhile, Regier has never been one to reveal much of himself to the fan base, perhaps because he's on the shy side (a rare trait for a pro sports executive).

Players often start to tune out a coach after a while, and Ruff's coaching tactics started to show some signs of staleness this season if the comments on locker room cleanout day are any indication. But, how much of this past season was really his fault, and how much blame should the players get?

Throw in one other factor: Pegula went very public in supporting Ruff when he bought the team. If he dumps Regier now, any new general manager probably would want his own coach if possible. So he'd have to move both.

There's always a segment of fans who want to change coaches and executives without much thought. They're impatient, and that's understandable. Sports teams in Buffalo haven't been good in a while. But are many of them cancelling their season tickets? I don't sense a rebellion coming, although we'd obviously have to see what happens in the next couple of months.

Team President Ted Black announced today that Regier and Ruff would be back in the fall. All things considered, that's not a bad move. I might have had a couple of "where do we go from here?" meetings, but I'm usually not a big fan of the "let's blow things up" school of management. Bad franchises seem to do that constantly.

Still, a situation can change in a minute. Ask the Red Sox, who had the most successful general manager/manager combination in their history both leave a short time after last year's conclusion to the baseball season.

There will be pressure for next season on both Regier and Ruff. The reservoir of good will is a bit low on water now, but I could see it getting empty really quickly with a slow start in the fall. But ... the management team will have a full chance to reboot the roster this offseason. Let's see how it does.

Darcy and Lindy know how it works. They've lasted 15 years, an almost unimaginable time period, and they've been well paid during that time. It sounds a little wishy-washy now, but it's true: Year 16 will be the big one.

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Friday, April 06, 2012

Ups and downs

I wrote a couple of posts ago about the passing of my mother. Before I forget, a few quick thoughts about what happened in terms of health care in her final days might be instructive. It was my first time through the process, and there was good news and bad news.

Mom had gone in for dialysis when a problem with her port was discovered. She was sent to a hospital for treatment and possible surgery. Fine. Some days later, the good people at dialysis noticed that Mom hadn't made her usual appointment and wondered what was up. So a staff member called the hospital to act.

A nurse there told the dialysis clinic that Mom was refusing treatment, food and water. That was a shock, so the worker called my sister and asked if the hospital had called to tell her. No, so my sister called me and delivered the same shock. In hindsight, I was a bit surprised that such an action didn't set off alarm bells all over the health care system. I suppose we would have found out something eventually, but it sure seemed like someone dropped the ball.

On the other hand, big credit goes to the dialysis clinic for taking action.

I had asked to speak with a social worker about the situation, in order to fulfill my mother's wishes. One eventually called a couple of days later, but she was amazingly clueless. She told me about plans for Mom's discharge, and that plans for physical therapy were recommended for my mother. I found that stunning.

Upon arrival in Florida, my sister and I smoothed out the transfer of Mom to a hospice. The people were there were absolutely terrific, making it as good an experience as possible. I must make a contribution when everything settles down.

Still, there was one last surprise the next day. I discovered the primary care physician knew nothing about the situation until his office received a fax about her death that morning. In fact, a nurse had been trying to track her down for a while.

Our health care system is big, and I expect things to fall through the cracks or act less than logically. Still, I'll try to remember that there are people that care, and care deeply, all along the way.

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

Foolish story

Now, a quick story about one of my few April Fool's Day pranks over the years.

Back in the mid-1980's, when I worked for WEBR Radio in Buffalo, we had people frequently coming and going. OK, at times we needed revolving doors, which is why that was the unofficial name of our softball team. Mike St. Peter, our news director at the time, was in charge of writing the memos to inform that staff about the latest departure.

So one April 1, I came back to the office after a game of some sort. It was 10 o'clock at night. I finished my job duties, and then went to work.

I started typing fake memos in Mike's exact style -- one for every person in the news department. Employees were off to California, the Buffalo Bills, NPR, Associated Press Radio, wherever. Since the statute of limitations has expired, I can now reveal that Sarah Britton walked in on me during the creative process, so I had to explain things. Sarah quickly volunteered to help come up with destinations for staffers. By the way, every memo's last paragraph started with "We obviously have a need for a {insert job here, like editor, etc.}." Every memo was dated April 1, by the way.

Once that was done, I took the pile of announcements and carefully placed them in each company mailbox. The careful part was that announcement A went into mailbox B, announcement B went into mailbox C, etc. I tried to put the news about afternoon crew workers in the morning staff's mailboxes, etc. to create a little more, um, confusion.

Then I quietly left the building, not to return until 1 p.m. or so.

The next morning, bombs started going off at 5 a.m.

John Gill walked in the office, looked at Greg Mott, and said, "YOU CAN'T GO!!!" People were running up to others and demanding hugs from confused staff members. Marc Chodorow was angry that he didn't get a memo on another person's departure that someone else had mentioned.

At 1 p.m., I stepped quietly in the back door and into the former garage area. I said, "Is it safe?" Marc practically applauded when he saw me. I looked a little sheepish when I saw Mike, but he kind of smirked at me as in "OK, nice job." Mike later sent out a memo that read something like, "I give up, no more memos for this crowd."

I figured that one was tough to top, so I got out of the April Fool's Day business. For a while.

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