Sunday, July 29, 2007

Don't believe the doomsday predictions about newspapers

Published July 29, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Here's hoping that some things never change. The Civil War memorial statues on Wisconsin Ave. in Milwaukee, no stadium naming rights to Lambeau Field and the Menomonee River Parkway in Wauwatosa will all, with God's good grace, remain unaltered in my lifetime.

What you're reading at the moment is a local newspaper that has existed in various incarnations since 1837. Different names, different mastheads and different owners, but, nonetheless, this paper has been a part of our consciousness for a long time.

Some of us are old enough to recall a time when we'd pluck out The Green Sheet from The Milwaukee Journal and read Mrs. Griggs' advice column. For some, the memories go back even further. Many have heard prognostications about a trend away from newspapers as consumers demand more information via computer and the Internet. Some maintain that since more people than ever obtain their news and entertainment online the inexorable death of the old fish wrapper is just a matter of time.

Nonsense! I doubt that the printed newspaper will ever become extinct - and not just because I want to doubt its demise. My reasoning is more practical.

A newspaper enables one to consume information with so much ease and so little dexterity that it cannot be duplicated. You just can't argue with good design. That is to say, is it conceivably easier or more satisfying to hold some wafer-thin (albeit newspaper-sized) screen and scroll through your daily pixels of news and pictures? Not for me. I'll never give up my pulp-based reading. Information technology can be a great enhancement to slake our thirst for information - and also a great waste of time.

For example, I've used two different handheld devices to support all of my phone, calendar, Internet and e-mail needs. The first device I loved because it was intuitive to learn and easy to use. I have a different device now that I detest for several reasons, not the least of which is that it is the most over-engineered contraption I have ever encountered. It was made by geeks for geeks who love the thing because it's state of the art, whatever that is.

But information technology and its beguiling ecosystem - the Internet - can't be judged so simply. It's a blessing, it's evil and it's a waste of time all at once. Creeps use the Internet to prey on children, but it also helps parents stay close to their children when separated by great distances. Porn sites proliferate, but so does some exceptional blogging and grass-roots reporting that help to equalize and make more transparent a very complex world.

Journalists are becoming increasingly reliant upon and held more accountable by just about any serious person with a modem and a hankering to share something important. Teens and adults fritter away countless hours playing games, but on the other hand . . . well, you get it.

It's the content that remains important - the digital and paper platforms will remain only as catalysts to slake our thirst for information, and they will continue to coexist. Whether you want news electronically or prefer to rattle those pages between your fingertips as I do, what's important is the quality of what we pull off of the platform.

Is it fair? Is it accurate? Is it useful? So don't write off the newspaper. It may be an aged medium, but it's one as comfortable as those trusty pair of shoes you'll never part with.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Still weary about our punitive state tax burden

Published July 5, 2007 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Watching our state's political budget process is not easy. There are so many additional taxes - and some with such vast implications - all under discussion at once. One billion, 2 billion, 3 billion, 15 billion: all numbers I have seen to describe potential tax increases.

The characters involved mirror stereotypes of both political parties: Democrats are seeking a broader governmental role in fixing our problems through tax increases and government spending. The GOP is digging in its heels, wanting to hold the line on taxes and government spending and government's increased involvement in our affairs.

Reminiscent of the high stakes budget showdown that occurred between President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich in 1995, Republican Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch stated he would block the process if the budget delivered to him contains tax increases. By any credible measure, we live in a high-tax state, and this budget season reminds me of the myriad ways government can tax us and how far Gov. Jim Doyle and his coterie of party faithful are prepared to go in order to exercise their views about what government ought to do. But what about the long-term picture beyond the current two-year budget cycle?

I was troubled by a June 24 column by John Tornius that referenced a credible third-party analysis of our state's annual "structural deficit" of $2.2 billion ("State's accounting doesn't pass muster"). The analysis revealed that relative to population, Wisconsin is at the top of all deficit-running states in the nation.

That's more than a little disconcerting if you or your children care about life in Wisconsin more than a couple years from now. Many of us grouse about the need to reduce taxes. That's personal income taxes, real estate taxes, corporate personal property taxes, gas taxes, home-selling taxes and they-don't-give-me-enough-space-to-list-all-the taxes. Others counter with, "That's not realistic; our needs have increased." Or my personal favorite, "But look at our fine educational system and park system and whatever system."

Even if I agreed that we derived an equivalent value from the punitive tax burden we've paid through the decades, we cannot afford everything any longer. As opposed to making more hard choices, I read about things like the governor's proposal to increase by some $55 million annually the cost of state-owned lands in "far-flung natural areas" beginning in 2011. What percentage of us has a desire, let alone need, to traverse additional land already owned by the state in the wilds of Douglas County when our long-term fiscal condition is so bleak?

Other troubling budgetary facts:
• The $15 billion universal health care plan is an 11th-hour power play, and whether you believe such a plan is the answer to our health care conundrum or not, the issues and implications are too complex, too far-reaching, too everything to contemplate now. That patient is dead.
• The new gas tax on oil companies that ostensibly would be borne by oil companies and not passed on to you and me has zero chance of success. If it makes its way into law, it will fail in practice or the courts.
• Lifting any real estate property tax cap will diminish any hope I have left in government.

What we will wind up with this budget season is anyone's guess. The only safe prediction is that if any tax increases get out of the Assembly, there will be a run on bumper stickers that read, "Don't blame me; I voted for Green."