Say this for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl: The guy knows how to keep himself in the public eye.
As noted here yesterday, the mayor has gotten plenty of attention for "changing" his name to "Steelerstahl" prior to this weekend's AFC Championship. And judging from this LOL-worthy post at the 2 political junkies, apparently Ravenstahl got national play for this stunt. No surprise there: Pittsburgh's sports fanaticism is a well-established media narrative, and Ravenstahl's stunt plays into it perfectly.
And now he's done it again, getting a story from our friend Rich Lord at the Post-Gazette, thanks to a pledge to convince the Census Bureau that it is undercounting the city's population. Census Bureau estimates have shown Pittsburgh losing population for years -- to the point where the city now numbers only 311,218 residents. As Ravenstahl tells the P-G, challenging those numbers is "something that we're considering."
Credit where it's due: This is a vast improvement on the old Potemkin Village approach. In order to "prove" the success of Tsarist Russia, Grigori Potemkin had to go to all the trouble of building entire fake towns. Pittsburgh officials, though, are saving on lumber: All they're trying to do is get the Census Bureau to twiddle with some numbers on its spreadsheet. Voila! So much for claims the city is shrinking.
And as the P-G previously observed, other cities have managed to tweak their estimates upwards already. In the process, they have been able to make the case for more federal aid.
But a couple things are worth thinking about here.
First, so far the evidence for a dramatic undercount seems spotty. City officials claim that there's been a ton of new construction in town, and surely this reflects growth that the Census Bureau should take into account.
The thing is, the Census Bureau already takes new construction into account. As a statement on their methodology explains, to get a population estimate, the Bureau compiles household population data that includes an estimate of total housing. And to track changes in the number of housing units, Bureau officials
So showing the Census Bureau permits for Downtown condos, for example, probably isn't going to impress them -- they've already taken that data into account.
But Ravenstahl apparently believes he has other evidence in hand, according to the P-G:
There's anecdotal evidence that the decades-long tide of population loss is slowing, at least, [Ravnenstahl] argued, citing increased enrollments at some public magnet schools.
But of course, overall enrollment for the city school district is down. If I was the mayor, I'm not sure I'd bring up school data with the Bureau. Census officials might just use it to revise their estimates downward.
Finally, is this really a smart use of time ? The P-G informs us that the city has already missed its chance to officially challenge the Bureau's estimates -- the deadline passed more than a week ago. And remember that an actual Census will be conducted in 2010 -- just a year away. It seems strange to raise questions about estimates that you can't change -- and that won't be valid for much longer anyway.
Then again, if your goal is to get yourself a couple days' worth of headlines ... mission accomplished.
Just when you thought Pittsburgh's sports fans couldn't get any more devoted -- and that its politicians couldn't get any more shameless -- we just received a mayoral press release with the following header:
Yes, that's right -- according to the release, "Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced today that he will be ceremonially changing his last name from RAVENStahl to 'STEELERStahl'" until the AFC Championship game this weekend.
The STEELERS, you see, are playing the RAVENS this Sunday. And the mayor is concerned that people may be confused about where he stands. (Though, actually, if you look closely at that banner, you can see there's a trademark after the Steerlers logo. So unless the team is waiving its copyright, presumably the mayor's correct name is "STEELERSTMTAHL.")
So this morning, Ravenstahl went to the county's court-records office and adopted his new name. Immediately after that, he went up to the Elections department, where he ceremonially deposited a $50,000 check -- mysteriously drawn from an account in his newly adopted name -- into his political campaign.
OK, I made the last part of that up.
In any case, the mayor said: "From now until Sunday, all references to my name will reflect Pittsburgh's love and support for our Steelers."
Well, maybe not all references, Mayor Ravenstahl. As the release points out, "stahl" already means steel in German -- a fact the mayor attributes to "a strange coincidence." (But is it really?) Which means his name would be the awkwadly redundant "Steelersteel."
But who am I to judge? The press release enlists a German professor at Pitt to assert that the mayor's new "name change [is] even more appropriate" because of its German root.
The professor's name, incidentally, is John Lyon. Must be a closet Detroit fan. (Is there any other kind?)I started wearying of this whole Steelers-in-politics thing earlier this week, when -- during a press conference about campaign-finance reform -- a reporter asked Ravenstahl if he'd been able to collect on his earlier "bet" with the mayor of San Diego. But it's too much to hope that any Pittsburgh politician, Ravenstahl least of all, would pass up a PR "gimme" like this one.
So, if the Steelers go on to the Super Bowl, I'm expecting Yarone Zober to change his first name to "Frenchy." And start maybe promenading around in a pair of platform shoes with live goldfish inside.
For the three people out there who are still following my obsession with the future of print media, I offer a link to this recent piece by David Carr of The New York Times.
Carr restates a problem I've discussed here before. As Carr says:
For a long time, newspapers assumed that as their print advertising declined, it would be intersected by a surging line of online advertising revenue. But that revenue is no longer growing at many newspaper sites, so if the lines cross, it will be because the print revenue is saying hello on its way to the basement.
As a report by Craig Moffett of Bernstein Research stated last year, "The notion that the enormous cost of real news-gathering might be supported by the ad load of display advertising down the side of the page, or by the revenue share from having a Google search box in the corner of the page, or even by a 15-second teaser from Geico prior to a news clip, is idiotic on its face."
Carr's solution: Create an "iTunes for News." Borrow from Apple's recently-revamped online music archive, which charged 99 cents to download songs that file-sharing sites once offered for free.
Newspapers could save themselves, Carr says, by "convincing the millions of interested readers who get their news every day free on newspaper sites that it's time to pay up." He notes that some publications, like Consumer Reports, have already built online services that subscribers are willing to pay for.
It's not a perfect solution. For one thing, I worry about what happens to stories that, while important, don't have the same audience appeal as puff pieces. Once revenue streams can be attached to individual stories, would there be even less incentive to run stories that are important, but not necessarily popular? On a local level, could this mean more stories about, like, Ben Roethlisberger's latest bout of dizziness?
Too, Carr's solution would probably work best for national publications, like The New York Times. Charging pennies per view of a story makes sense when you have the kind of volume that comes from a national audience. But would a local paper be able to count on such numbers for a piece on zoning legislation?
On the other hand, even local papers could offer online extras that people might be willing to shell out for. I ask you, my three readers, what would you pay for, say, access to Rich Lord's database on campaign contributions and contractors?
Someday, maybe, the county will follow its own law and post a searchable database online, undermining any profits the P-G might earn. But in the meantime, there's clearly demand: City Paper once offered a free (if somewhat limited) online database of contributions made to city politicians running for office in 2007. I gave up maintaining the online database after the municipal elections were over, but I still get asked about it.
Here's the thing: Entering that shit took hours. And when it was done, it was posted in a format that generates almost no revenue to the people who pay my salary, the hosting fees for this site, and for the database program I used.
It'd be awesome to have some sort of crowd-sourced effort to pick up the slack, with a legion of citizen-journalists laboring together to maintain the database. But other than the indefatigable Bram Reichbaum, I'm not sure there's another local blogger who has the staying power. Hell, plenty of them have given up maintaining their own blogs.
As Carr points out: "It's not that journalism is impossibly difficult; it's just that it takes enormous amounts of time and a willingness to stay with the story." That's got to be worth something, even if no one knows what it is.
Speaking of being uncertain about how much something is worth, I'm going to try to stop writing about this stuff now.
There's a certain kind of blogger -- well, not so much the bloggers as some of the people who comment on their posts -- who relishes every omen that the end is coming for the dreaded MSM.
And we at City Paper live to give the people what they want.
So I'll point to Pittsburgh Rides, the Post-Gazette's newish motorcycle column. I started hearing some grumbling about this -- from both inside and outside the news room -- shortly after the column launched last fall. But I'll confess that last week's installment was the first time I really looked at it.
As with previous installments, this edition was written by Rocky Marks, a guest writer who, a tagline at the end of the article tells us, "is operations manager at Hot Metal Harley-Davidson in West Mifflin." (He also hosts a weekly radio program on 660 AM.) This would, no doubt, help explain why Mr. Marks' article asserts, "[w]hether you're a Harley-Davidson fan or a metric motorcycle fan, there is something to be said for the manufacturing of an American icon."
What the tagline doesn't say -- and what you can't tell from the online version -- is that directly beneath this feature is an advertisement by ... Hot Metal Harley-Davidson in West Mifflin.
This is, well, unfortunate. It's what we in the business call "advertorial" -- a case where an advertiser composes something that looks like an article -- in everything but name. And yet ... I find that I can't get too outraged by it.
For one thing, it's so obvious, with the ad right there and everything. It's not like anyone is trying to fool you ... unless you just read online to avoid paying for the print edition. In which case, as I've argued before, maybe you deserve to be fooled. (UPDATE: Plus, on further reflection, it's not quite as bad as all that. The current piece, for example, isn't really about how great Harleys are. It's about going to motorcycle rallies throughout the year. Though doubtless if you wanted to attend these functions riding a quality piece of American manufacturing, Mr. Marks would be able to give you some pointers about where to purchase one.)
For another, you're going to see this kind of thing more and more often. The Tribune-Review has already run pieces by Jennifer Antkowiak, a former KDKA-TV anchor, that were thinly veiled advertisements for some of her business interests. And even papers that know better, like the P-G, are going to find it harder to resist these kinds of deals. In case you haven't heard, these aren't great times for the industry.
Stuff like this Harley-Davidson piece is an unfortunate, but probably inevitable, response to the fact that newspapers haven't figured out how to make money from the internet. It's still the ads in the print edition that pay the bills. So the effect of the internet -- at least where print media is concerned -- is to isolate the consumer of content from the advertising that pays for it. In that sense, it's the print equivalent of TiVo, the recording device that makes it easy to skip through the ads on your favorite TV show.
In both cases, the content provider is responding to a new technology in the same way. TV broadcasters increasingly place the ads directly into the shows themselves -- I've noticed The Office is especially guilty on this score, mentioning Staples and other advertisers in the script. In the P-G's case, the advertiser is actually writing the script himself.
Of course, it's just a column about motorcycles. It could be worse. The problem is that if present trends continue, it probably will be.
Trib Total Media, which publishes the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and other newspapers in the region, announced a voluntary buyout for employees today....
It provides up to one year's pay, up to 36 months of health-care benefits and other payments to full-time, non-union employees who accept the offer.
"We are facing the same revenue issues everybody else has," said [president and chief executive Ralph] Martin. He described the current retail sales and advertising environment as "soft."
Unlike the P-G, who phased in a buyout plan by offering it to the most senior employees first, the Trib is making all of its 983 full-time employees eligible for the offer.
But even at this grim hour, the Trib can't help buy take a swipe at its rival. Of the buyout Martin says, "We know it's one of the most generous because we've seen what many other companies have offered." And two paragraphs later, the paper launches into a recounting of the P-G's buyout offers -- taking time to note that its rival "also raised the P-G's newsstand price from 50 cents to 75 cents on Dec. 15."
Stay classy, Tribune-Review! We'll all be meeting each other on the unemployment line soon enough.
Today, county executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced their new campaign-finance reform measure. And guess what? For a bill that's supposed to increase transparency, it's pretty murky.
Partly that's because they didn't even have the legislation in hand for their press conference today. But we'll get to that in a moment.
I'll leave it to others to discuss the proposed contribution limits, and the constant fretting over the "millionaire's exception" -- how to deal with candidates who finance their own campaigns. For some reason, that stuff seems to obsess everyone, despite the dearth of millionaires running for local office.
Instead, I'll focus on a few other wrinkles in the legislation proposed.
First, both Ravenstahl and Onorato want identical rules for both county- and city-level candidates."We want to see that both pieces of legislation pass identically," Ravenstahl said. When it came to councilors proposing amendments, "I don't want to rule anything out, but we would hope that our councils ... would understand the important of having a mirror-image [pair of bills]. We hope that they will adopt [the legislation] as submitted."
The Pittsburgh Comet, and maybe some others as well, see this as a good thing. I'm not so sure. Insisting on parallel bills could constrain legislative efforts to improve the bills. Onorato pledged he "would be prepared to veto a [county] bill that had significant changes that I thought were unfair." And Ravenstahl, clearly, wouldn't sign a city measure if Onorato couldn't get what he wanted. Both executives, then, could hold each other's legislators hostage. In order to toughen a bill, councilors might be obliged to reach an agreement with both executives and the other legislative body. Good luck with that.
Second, none of these rules would apply to Ravenstahl's mayoral race this year. Ravenstahl portrayed this as an issue of fairness -- to his opponents. They, after all, would not be held to the limits in trying to compete with him.
But before we get too worked up over this angle, it's worth noting that to the surprise of -- um, nobody whatsoever -- Patrick Dowd is publically weighing a mayoral run himself. So is Doug Shields. This is great news for Luke Ravenstahl, who can only be helped by a fratricidal struggle between East Enders. Who needs friends -- even friends with big checkbooks -- when you have enemies like these?
Third, Onorato and Ravenstahl had no specific legislation to show today. They promised a bill would be forthcoming Thursday, which is nice. But even so ... Ravenstahl vetoed a campaign-finance measure proposed by City Council in June -- half a year ago. He pledged to come up with an alternative measure at the time, but for months we heard nothing. Now, all the sudden it's necessary to hold a press conference TODAY? They couldn't even wait an extra couple days when they had an actual bill in hand?
If nothing else, this is a nice way to get a two-day bounce out of a story -- coverage of the press conference today, followed by news of the bill's actual language later in the week. But one wonders whether this is the latest example of a by-now familiar pattern with Ravenstahl: Wander into some sort of ethical minefield, blow your foot off by stepping in something ugly, and then try to bail yourself out by announcing "reforms" -- reforms that wouldn't have been necessary if you'd had been a bit more discrete about gaming the old rules.
The latest Ravenstahl headache, of course, concerns Club Pittsburgh, a gay "fitness club" where a patron died recently, touching off allegations that the city ignored sexual activity taking place there: The club's owners have contributed to Ravenstahl and other city officials.
Finally, I realize I'm the only one who gives a damn, but the county was supposed to have campaign contributions posted on an online, searchable database in 2007. At today's press conference, Onorato said that was a goal, but we're going to have to wait a little longer. At the press conference, Onorato said "we're not prepared to roll out" any legislation or action on creating an online, searchable database. "We hope to do that sometime in 2009," he said, but "we'll deal with that on a different day.
As I've written before, in 2003 the county passed a law requiring that this system be set up in January of 2007. Onorato didn't mention that, and reporters didn't point it out.
I'm glad to see the issue getting some attention. Still, it's ironic that we begin this reform effort by stepping around our failure to complete the last reform effort. Let's hope that's not an omen for what's to come.
How troubled are these economic times? Here's a bit of anecdotal evidence. My father-in-law -- who co-owns a pair of Steelers season tickets -- could barely sell his tix to yesterday's Steelers-Chargers playoff game.
The fact that I couldn't buy them doesn't signify much: Journalists are supposed to be struggling. But the Tribune-Review is reporting similar hardships for scalpers around town.
With all due respect to rosy economic reports from The New York Times and resident numbers guru Chris Briem, Steelers playoffs tickets ought to be as sure an investment as government bonds. If you were looking for cause to panic -- stuff your cash in the mattress, fill up the bathtub with drinking water, and bar the door -- you may have just found it.
More than 75 intrepid souls attended today's Schenley Plaza rally on behalf of equal rights for the LGBT community. Happily, a large tent kept out a cold rain, though it also resulted in speeches being punctuated with occasional avalanches of snow from the sloping roof.
We have video highlights from the rally here. (UPDATE: And a more in-depth treatment of the protest here.) This is sort of a placeholder post to see if I can beat Sue Kerr to being the first one to post. (I'm at a disadvantage in that, true to alt-weekly form, I took the bus from the rally to the office, which necessitated 20 mintues of standing in the rain.)
Anyway, the usual crowd of progressive politicans were on hand, with their presentations livened up by an on-her-game Gab Bonesso and the head of the newly created Pittsburgh chapter of Dykes on Bikes. As for news, there were a couple tidbits:
-- City Councilor Bruce Kraus announced plans to introduce a council resolution expressing support for the county's proposed anti-discrimination ordinance, which would establish legal protections for lgbt residents and other minority groups. Kraus says the measure, which Kraus will introduce early next week, already has support from 7 city councilors, and that he hopes to make it unanimous.
-- City Controller Mike Lamb, who has been a vocal supporter of city-county consolidation, says that unless the county's anti-discrimination measure DOES pass, he will oppose further attempts to consolidate city and county services. As controller, Lamb's ability to do act on this position is limited. (And by limited I mean "non-existent.") But he was backed up on this position by City Council President Doug Shields -- who has long been wary of consolidation.
Also attending the rally -- and this is not necessarily an exhaustive list -- were: state Reps. Dan Frankel and Chelsa Wagner; city councilor Bill Peduto; county councilor Amanda Green (sponsor of the county's ordinance) and county council president Rich Fitzgerald; Presbyterian minister Janet Edwards, who has presided over a same-sex marriage ceremony; city council district
2 (EDIT: that's district 4 -- the cold obviously numbed my brain) candidate-to-be Natalia Rudiak, potential GOP mayoral candiadate Kevin Acklin, and a slew of equal-rights groups.
Not to mention a handful of CP staffers gradually losing sensation in their extremities.
UPDATE: Ha! I won!
Also, it might be worth noting two people who WEREN'T there ... Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato. (Though Bonesso, acting as emcee for the day, DID try to leave a message for him at work.)
It seems our old pal Arlen Specter is taking shots at Eric Holder, Barack Obama's choice as attorney general. Specter has previously expressed doubts about Holder, who was involved in the messy Marc Rich pardon in the final days of the Clinton era. But on the Senate floor, Specter kicked it up a notch, arguing
After our recent experience with Attorney General Gonzales, it is imperative that the Attorney General undertake and effectuate that responsibility of independence. Mr. Gonzales left office accused of politicizing the Justice Department, failing to restrain Executive overreaching, and being less than forthcoming with Congress ... I am convinced that many of Attorney General Gonzales' missteps were caused by his eagerness to please the White House.
As Talking Points Memo notes, comparing Holder to Gonzales is hitting below the belt. But perhaps this all says a lot more about Specter than anyone else.
As the Rustbelt Intellectual observes, Specter "has carefully crafted a public persona as an 'independent' and 'moderate' Republican, while voting far more often than not to hold the Republican party line."
Specter often does get lumped in with moderate Republicans like Olympia Snowe, largely because of his pro-choice stance. But Specter's voting record has shown that he is far to the right of Snowe and (now-departed) Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee.
In recent years, Specter has repeatedly pronounced grave Constitutional doubts about Bush Adminstration initiatives like warrantless wiretapping -- but he always ends up caving. The end result, if any, is that citizens get the vague, and entirely false, sense that someone in Congress is doing some due diligence on what the executive branch is up to. Obviously, that isn't the case -- or it wouldn't be possible to use names like "Alberto Gonzalez" as epithets. (Epithets Specter is using against DEMOCRATS, no less.)
And who can forget the fact that, by demonizing Anita Hill, he helped put ensure the Supreme Court appointment of Clarence Thomas -- arguably the biggest floater on the bench today?
Maybe Specter's objections to Holder will be just another in a long line of head-fakes. It's already clear that he'll be facing spirited opposition from arch-conservative Pat Toomey in 2010 ... maybe this is a sign that Specter plans to tack to the right prior to the election -- again.
Conservatives have long groused that Specter does this sort of thing every time the election cycle rolls his way. But maybe it's time for moderates and liberals to get pissed off as well. Philadelphia-area moderates have long been Specter's base of support ... but Philly went hard for Obama in November. How much patience will they have for Specter throwing up roadblocks against Obama's cabinet choices?
In the long term, Specter's shenanigans could mean the Dems pick up a Senate seat in 2010. But in the short term, I find it troubling. It means that we can count on Republican obstructionism despite the scope of the Democratic win in 2008 -- and despite the crisis this country is in. I know Obama wants to play nice, but I'm pretty sure the GOP isn't interested in joining the game.
The New York Times provides us with our first "what's going on in Pittsburgh" story of the new year today. And guess what? We're avoiding the worst of the economic downturn ... in part because of our resistance to change --
The big local bank, PNC, was resolutely unadventurous during the housing frenzy.
-- and the fact that we never enjoyed the good times at their height:
One reason Pittsburgh looks better in the bust is because it never had a real estate boom.
But mostly we're avoiding the economic collapse because ours already happened. We deinudstrialized to a large extent a quarter-century ago -- and as it turns out, the Times argues, our timing couldn't have been better!
Pittsburgh had the luxury of reshaping itself while the rest of the United States economy was relatively strong. Unemployed steel workers could leave for the booming Sun Belt, helping the city and region shrink to a more manageable size.
So that puts a chipper face on the age-old lament about Pittsburghers leaving: One reason we have such a low unemployment rate is that we exported a lot of the people who lost their jobs. There are plenty of unemployed Pittsburghers today, in other words -- they just live somewhere else now.
As the Times points out, though, today's autoworkers don't really have the choice of fleeing to some part of the country where times are better -- the economic downturn is much broader than it was when steel went down for the count. Detroit, then, may furnish us with an example of the path Pittsburgh didn't take 20 years ago -- i.e. what happens when all your unemployed people don't leave town.
Of course, a lot of this stuff was foretold by resident internet genius Chris Briem. (One of Briem's colleagues, Sabina Deitrick, is quoted in the Times piece -- a nice change from the usual suspects who get into these stories.) And just because I'm insecure enough to want to put my name in the same paragraph as Briem's, I'll note the Times piece dovetails with a column I recently wrote. I argued that Pittsburgh offers a vision for the future that, if not exactly hopeful, is at least less dire than a lot of other paths we might choose.
So next time you grumble about Pittsburghers and how slow they are to change ... consider the upside too.
The big question for Dan Onorato's gubernatorial aspirations these days is: Can his strength as a politician outweigh his star-crossed record as an official?
As we all know, last week Onorato was dealt a setback in his efforts to use drink-tax revenue to pay for county public-works projects. Bar owners and other critics pointed out that the tax was supposed to pay to cover costs at the Port Authority, and Common Pleas Court Judge Judith Olsen agreed.
"With today's injunction, Allegheny County now faces a $12 million hole in our 2009 operating budget," Onorato lamented in a statement issued last Friday. The following Monday, he held a press conference, wherein he announced he wouldn't challenge the ruling, and the county would find a way to muddle through financially.
(Also, there's gonna be a Steelers rally! Look! Something shiny!)
But amusingly enough -- and less noted in the press -- Onorato had another bit of financial news to report on Monday. The folks at his campaign thoughtfully forwarded a PolitickerPA.com dispatch reporting that Onorato's campaign PAC had more than $4 million in cash on hand --
making him well positioned for a likely gubernatorial run in 2010. Onorato is considered by many to be the early frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to succeed Gov. Ed Rendell, the two-term Democrat who will leave office in two years. With campaign finance reports not due for another month, Onorato's PAC did not release many details of his fundraising, but did say he had raised about $2.2 million in 2008 and $1.3 million just since the November election.
That sums up 2008 for Dan Onorato: He's been incredibly successful at raising money for himself, even as he's drawn fire for trying to raise money for the government he leads.
And the state Supreme Court hasn't even ruled on his property-tax freeze yet. If Onorato loses that suit, it means Allegheny County -- and every other county across the state -- may have to begin yearly tax reassessments. Which means communities across the state will have him to think when homeowners start getting increased tax bills.
My advice to Onorato ... keep raising those contributions. While you can.