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Archive for the ‘recession’ Category

a call for businesses to boycott the Bloomington Herald-Times

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 28, 2010

Tonight will mark the last commencement ceremony for Aurora Alternative High School, whose doors will shut at the end of this school year after 15 years of serving the Bloomington, IN, community.

The Bloomington Herald-Times ran a nice short article about Aurora this morning, which I’m posting in a separate post. I’m posting it here instead of directing you to the article because the Herald-Times has stuck its online content behind a paywall, a decision I oppose deeply. The paywall seems even more wrongheaded and socially irresponsible during times of community crisis, as in, for example, when an economic recession paired with terribly short-sighted and heinously pro-rich tax laws force local school boards to make excruciating decisions about which programs to cut.

The publisher of the Herald-Times, Mayer Maloney, has stood firmly behind the paywall decision from its inception, arguing that it guarantees advertisers’ access to local readers who, because they live in the community, are far more likely to purchase the goods and services being advertised.

Let’s analyze this stance. First, the paywall is not an effort to recruit local readers; it’s an effort to keep non-local readers out. Which means that what happens in Bloomington stays in Bloomington, since the vast majority of readers live or work in the region.

Second, the economic value of a local newspaper is directly related to its community value, and community value is directly related to the newspaper’s penetration into the community it serves. As I’ve mentioned before, the Herald-Times is pretty much the only game in town, which perhaps explains why Maloney feels justified in prioritizing the paper’s value to advertisers over its value to community members. But eventually, I believe this approach will fail the Herald-Times. It’s inevitable that one of the following will happen: Another news outlet will provide good (or good enough) local reporting that will be made freely available to all community members; or, in the absence of another quality news source, a community whose primary news source is sequestered behind a paywall will be a community to whom local news matters less and less. Maloney has said that subscription rates have been steady since the inception of the paywall, and this may be so; but it won’t be so forever.

And even if business remains good at the Herald-Times, this doesn’t justify the social irresponsibility of making news available only to those who are willing to pay. Especially during times of crisis–and let’s not mistake this time for anything less than crisis–access to local news is essential for an engaged, politically active community.

If the Herald-Times refuses to stand down from its short-sighted position on news paywalls, then I call for local businesses to boycott the paper for the good of the community these businesses serve. If the Herald-Times will not heed the needs of its community members, then perhaps it will listen to the groups whose interests do seem to matter.

Posted in journalism, politics, public schools, recession | 11 Comments »

as goes Detroit…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 22, 2010

file under: if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.

I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it’s hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I’ve been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.

This is not the Michigan I remember. It’s not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it’s worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It’s not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it’s neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors’ signs.

Recession in Detroit doesn’t only look like this:

 It also looks like this:

And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:

The word “decimated” literally means “reduced by ten percent.” Decimated, therefore, doesn’t begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.

Because it’s not just the economy that’s imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That’s over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.

Detroit isn’t the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it’s the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it’s going to hell these days even faster than ever.

You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn’t know before: It’s not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.

But let’s say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they’re told to do–working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it–still find themselves realizing they’ll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child’s college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.

Let’s say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry’s feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we’re all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don’t have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.

It’s shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?

Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday’s historic vote mandating health care for all. It’s a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.

And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake “good” for “good enough.”

Posted in bigotry, culture, education, elections, jobs, politics, poverty, President Obama, public schools, racism, rage, recession, schools, social justice | 2 Comments »

Comment is Free (and bloggers are cheap)

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on July 13, 2009

For all my bluster about how traditional media outlets are no longer economically viable, I was still taken a bit aback when the Guardian, which pays me to contribute to CIF America, sent out notifications that budget cuts would result in a decrease in payments to commissioned bloggers. The decrease amounts to about a 30 percent pay cut per piece.

My first thought was: This is exactly what I deserve for mouthing off to Big Media. My second thought was: I wonder what I should write about next.

You see, I’m still so surprised–stunned, flattened, overwhelmed, overjoyed–by the prospect of somebody actually wanting to pay me on top of giving me what I wanted anyway (an international platform to broadcast my ideas) that even after the pay cut I still feel like I’m getting away with highway robbery. I’ve been a writer for most of my adult life, beginning as a beat reporter for a local newspaper (you get paid, but not very much, and nobody really cares too much what you think as long as you tell them how the school board voted last Thursday), then drifting toward creative writing (poetry; and no, you don’t get paid) before landing in the world of online reportage. I’m young enough to be electrified by the seemingly limitless potential of a good blogpost to draw in traffic and responses, yet old enough to not completely accept that blogging is a real, authentic form of journalism (and many of the commenters to CIF, as I’m sure they will point out, agree with me on this).

Technology guru Clay Shirky writes that “the future belongs to those who take the present for granted.” He argues that young people are better poised than any previous generation to take advantage of new media platforms “not because they know more useful things than we do, but because they know fewer useless things than we do.” I’m old enough, for example, to know for sure that the privilege of broadcasting your opinions to thousands of readers is the sacred domain of the elite few. I’m old enough to believe in the scarcity model of knowledge: The right to speak is reserved for the privileged few, because if we all had the right and resources to speak then nothing would be worth saying at all.

And now I’m unlearning all of these things, because they’re less true with every new blog that gets tossed up, with every new online forum, with every drop in price of video editing software and word processing technologies. It’s not, after all, knowledge that’s the scarce commodity anymore; everybody with Internet access has a passkey to approximately the same information as everybody else, regardless of credentials, experience, or IQ. Now, the commodity is the ability to filter that knowledge, to identify key ideas and spin them in an interesting way for an information-laden audience that’s waiting to hear something new.

When we do it well, we become the touchstones for hundreds of others to weigh in and have their voices broadcast to the thousands. That’s what the Guardian commissions its writers to do. That’s why it pays. It may not feel like work to me, but then again, I suppose the best jobs never do.

Posted in awesome, blogging, Clay Shirky, creativity, journalism, recession | Leave a Comment »

Breaking: University of Texas-Austin freezes staff pay, continues to offer faculty merit increases

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 10, 2009

this despite its admission that funding sources have grown

I recently received a copy of this email that was sent from the office of William Powers Jr., the President of the University of Texas-Austin, to all UT faculty and staff.

Dear Colleagues:

The University Budget Council and I have reviewed the budget for the coming fiscal year in light of the current economy and the actions of the 81st Legislature. The University of Texas at Austin has fared better than many universities in other states. We do not face pay cuts, mandatory furloughs, and other austerity measures that peer institutions across the country are experiencing. In fact, our sources of funding will grow modestly next year and would allow for a balanced status-quo budget. But in light of what is happening elsewhere, this is an opportunity to advance the university rather than settle for the status quo. For us to move ahead, however, we must focus our available resources in areas that have consistently been identified as the most critical for progress-our competitiveness in attracting and retaining outstanding faculty and graduate students.

For this reason, we have made the difficult decision to forgo staff raises in the next fiscal year for both classified and administrative and professional (A&P) staff. We all recognize the valuable contribution the staff makes to our University and that this is disappointing news. (As I notified you previously, the salaries of University of Texas System officials and presidents, as well as our campus’s vice presidents, deans, and senior administrators, were frozen last February until August 31, 2010.) By strategic use of our limited resources, we will be able to address urgent issues of faculty competitiveness, equity, and salary compression. Faculty salary increases will be narrowly targeted-not uniform.

I believe that we must continue to strive to become the nation’s best public university-in good times and in bad. This plan will keep us on that path. With your help, and the prudent management of our resources, we will succeed.

Bill Powers

My questions include the following:

  • If the University of Texas is doing as well as Powers would have its employees believe, what rationale supports the decision to freeze staff raises just in case?
  • If this decision is an effort to get UT in front of the curve, how much money does the University expect to save through this move, and what are the plans for allocating that money?
  • Why is staff salary frozen while faculty are still eligible to receive merit increases? If belt-tightening is underway, shouldn’t it be more fairly distributed?
  • Aren’t some of the so-called “austerity measures” being undertaken at other universities intended to cut the fact that made sense during flush times and make less sense given the current budget crisis?

And lastly,

  • What do UT affiliates–faculty, staff, students and alumni–think about this and other budget-related decisions made by the university?

I’d love to hear from anyone who can help me answer these questions. You can post anonymously to this blog, but if you want an added promise of anonymity, you can email me directly at jennamcjenna(at) I guarantee to keep your identity private.

Posted in academia, jobs, recession | 1 Comment »

RT @jennamcjenna: thank goodness the Boston Globe is shutting down

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 10, 2009

From the Boston Globe itself comes notice that the New York Times Co., the corporation that owns the Boston Globe, is seeking bids from potential buyers of the Globe.

The well-publicized struggle between Globe unions and the NYTimes has been, for the most part, depicted as a David vs. Goliath kind of fight: The Globe, the scrappy little paper in the scrappy little city that could, against a big-time news conglomerate. In general, we like to root for the underdog, though it doesn’t help that the Globe’s largest of its four unions (editorial, advertising, and business office staff) voted against pay cuts after the other three unions–representing the largely blue-collar section of the paper–ratified major concessions in an effort to keep the paper open. Here’s how the Globe article explains it:

In the last two weeks, three of the newspaper’s four major unions — representing the mailers, the pressmen, and the delivery truck drivers — ratified concessions giving $10 million back to the Times Co. The Guild — the paper’s largest union representing nearly 700 editorial, advertising, and business office staff — fell 12 votes short of ratifying another $10 million in concessions on Monday. However, the Times Co. said yesterday that it will get $10 million it needs from the Guild by imposing a 23 percent across-the-board wage cut, effective Sunday, the start of the next pay period.

I’m not, of course, actually glad to see the Globe get shut down. It means loss of jobs in a tight economy, and it may result in a kind of news vacuum, at least until reportage shifts to accommodate the gap. Even the fact that a second paper, the Boston Herald, covers city news won’t stop this from happening. All the sources, all the politicians, public figures, public servants, and reading public that was loyal to the Globe won’t suddenly defect; they’re more likely to simply…kinda go away.

But as I’ve stated before, the traditional model of print journalism is unsustainable in a new media environment. The notion that all major cities need at least one major newspaper is no longer viable and, in lots of ways, no longer accurate. Papers once served as a community’s glue, connecting people to each other when the community itself got too big for everybody to know everybody else.

Now we have lots of other new media outlets to glue a community together, and even the notion of “community” is no longer quite so bounded to geographical space.

Though we may not need or be able to support print newspapers, we absolutely still need journalism. It’s time now to figure out how to harness the tremendous energy, enthusiasm, and brainpower of all the new media-journalist types by looking at how, why, and when they report on the news. It’s time now to figure out how to support some sort of hybrid model that connects professional reporters with amateur (unpaid) journalists (brb plugging words linking to site It’s time to move past the question of who killed newspapers. Journalism is dead. Long live journalism.

Posted in jobs, journalism, new media, recession, social revolution | 4 Comments »

the MIT budget-crunch cheer

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 30, 2009


As an employee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I regularly receive email communications from MIT President Susan Hockfield. Recently, I got an end-of-year message that made a strong attempt to put a positive spin on what’s been a very difficult year for the Institute.

The letter starts by acknowledging the pressures of operating during an economic recession, pointing to successes in meeting those pressures without mentioning, in this opening paragraph or anywhere else, the number of MIT employees who have been sacrificed in the name of this success. Hockfield writes:

Around the world and in every sector, fundamental economic assumptions have dramatically changed over the last eight months. At MIT, we responded swiftly to the evolving economic downturn. Last November, anticipating a dramatic decline in our endowment’s value, we set out a plan to reduce our $1 billion General Institute Budget by $150 million, or 15%, within two to three years. Thanks to extraordinary work in every MIT unit, we have achieved 5% cuts for Fiscal Year 2010 (FY10), which begins July 1, 2009; some units and departments have already reached or even exceeded the targets set out for them. In addition, we have in place a thoughtful, deliberate process to achieve the full $150 million reduction by FY12.

We can take enormous pride in the ongoing work across the entire Institute to reset our base budget for what may be a protracted period of slow economic growth.

It’s tough, admittedly, to acknowledge the human cost of belt-tightening at the institutional level. And it’s likely that this letter isn’t the place for it. But in addition to the innovative cost-cutting approaches deployed by MIT (convening a 200-member task force, opening up an Idea Bank where faculty, staff, and students can submit and rank ideas for increasing MIT’s operating efficiency), administrators relied on a tried-and-true approach to budget cuts: layoffs.

Layoff numbers are not readily available–in fact, may not be available at all, as far as I can tell–but my experience and my colleagues tell me that layoff numbers are at least in the dozens and probably much higher. As far as we can tell, no faculty have been let go (though an Institute-wide pay freeze means that faculty and staff alike received no pay raises this year), which means the burden of these layoffs rests on the shoulders of administrative and support staff.

The tone of Hockfield’s letter is “we did it, together.” The little people who have fallen by the wayside in the “doing” of “it” get no mention, here or anywhere else. (As I wrote in an earlier post, previous letters from Hockfield take the same “we’re just going to ignore the fact that we have to lay people off in order to meet our financial goals” approach.) This makes it mighty hard to get into the team spirit mode that Hockfield would like to see.

Things are tough all over, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair or right to pretend to the world that everybody at the Institute banded together in a joint innovative approach to cutting costs. In this respect, MIT is no different from any other bulky, expensive institution, as much as it would like to make the world believe otherwise.

Posted in academia, MIT, recession | 4 Comments »

Beavers do it loaded

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 25, 2009

MIT’s pistol team, 7 other sports, eliminated

It turns out that my employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, not only has varsity sports teams, it has 41 of them. Well, it used to have 41, until pressure to cut spending across the institute led to the elimination of eight different sports teams.

The eliminated sports are: Alpine skiing, golf, men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s ice hockey, pistol, and wrestling.

In a letter to the MIT community, Costantino Colombo, the Dean for Student Life, writes: “We make this decision with sadness and with great awareness of how painful it will be to many members of the MIT community.” Colombo also explains, however, that the financial burden of supporting so many teams has weighed heavily on the Institute since before the economic downturn–mainly because sponsoring 41 sports is simply extremely expensive. According to Colombo, even after the cuts MIT still offers twice as many varsity sports as the average Division III university and will sponsor more sports than any Division III university in the nation.

Cutting sports teams is completely lame, of course, especially for the participating students. That doesn’t mean I’m going to just ignore this from Will Hart, MIT’s pistol coach:

“We’ve been a varsity club since 1937, so this is something entirely new for us,” Mr. Hart said of the pistol program, one of the top-ranked in the country and one of the institute’s most popular physical education classes.

“M.I.T. has a certain culture,” he added. “The students need release. I hope they find something else that was as close to enjoyable as their sport was.”

This sounds ominous. Do you think it was intentional?

Posted in academics, MIT, recession, sports | Leave a Comment »

OKAY already–I was WRONG

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 21, 2009

The recession will be hard on higher education. There, I said it.
I argued here that the recession might actually benefit academia and, specifically, scholarly research. I wrote:

[I]t’s possible a more “austere” academic environment will have a positive impact, if not on emerging academics, then on the pursuit of scholarly research and the progress of Big Ideas. Academics who want a secure place in the ivory tower will increasingly need to rely on their ability to network and, more importantly, collaborate with other researchers. They will need—and want—to provide regular evidence of valuable scholarly work, and they may work to present themselves as innovators and crafters of important work. It’s even possible that the days of the ivory tower are over, for good, for real this time.

That was February 10. On February 24, I wrote about the decision of my employer, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to half-secretly move toward layoffs across departments and across the institute.

On March 4, I tried to look on the bright side but basically admitted I’d changed my mind: That the recession would, in effect, “limit the contributions of the many and call instead for the contributions of the necessary.”

Bad for education, bad for research.

Now today I was forwarded this New York Times article that highlights the effects of the recession on state colleges—institution that rely on dwindling government funding. The article focuses in on the plight of Arizona State University, which has eliminated over 500 jobs, closed dozens of programs, capped enrollment and announced required unpaid furlough days for all employees. “While Arizona State’s economic problems have been particularly dramatic,” explains the article,

layoffs and salary freezes are becoming common at public universities across the nation; the University of Florida recently eliminated 430 faculty and staff positions, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, laid off about 100 employees, and the University of Vermont froze some administrative staff salaries, left open 22 faculty positions and laid off 16 workers.

Interestingly, while state colleges are feeling squeezed by the recession, the economic downturn has at the same time led to an increase in applications to these self-same state schools.

Okay, so applications to state schools are up while programs, faculty, and facilities are down. Here’s what’s going to happen:

  • Schools will be forced to reject otherwise fully qualified applicants, sending perfectly capable young thinkers and workers into a depressingly tiny job market.
  • Students who are accepted to state schools will, at the schools hit hardest by budget cuts, receive an education that will be considered substandard when measured against the criteria of even a year ago. They will have fewer course options and fewer career paths to choose from (though I imagine the opportunities for unpaid internships will skyrocket).
  • After years of work to break down the educational barrier between the Haves and the Have-nots, the expensive, elite private schools—the Harvards, the Yales, the Stanfords—will once again increasingly cater to the wealthy and the privileged–those whose families can continue to sponsor an elite education and the cultural capital that comes with it.

As Tevye would say, there is no other hand.

Posted in academia, academics, education, graduate school, recession, social justice, yidcore | 1 Comment »