Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Inequality's Mountains

This week on the Campbell Conversations I'm talking with Pat Driscoll, the operations director for Syracuse’s Say Yes to Education Program.  Three years ago, Say Yes was rolled out with great expectations--words like “transformative” were used to describe the hoped-for impact of this program that blends an extensive in-class and extra-curricular support network with the ultimate promise of free college tuition.  Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, for example, appears to have hung her hat--and perhaps her re-election--on this program.

The program has had past success elsewhere in targeting smaller numbers of children within a school, but it’s never been applied to an entire school district.  I was curious to know whether it's realizing its promise, three years on.  The question is particularly timely, as the program is slated to be financed solely by the city  in 2013, and it would then account for ten percent of the entire school budget.  Given the layoffs we've already seen in the school district, it's likely that continuing this program will mean fewer traditional teacher lines.  I explore that question with Pat, and we also discuss just what makes the program so different from previous efforts to overcome the educational challenges that disadvantaged students face.

This interview left me thinking about those challenges--and just how steep they are for the children growing up in poor neighborhoods.  Study after study has documented the rise in inequality over the past 30 years, and the backpedaling in real terms for those living in the bottom half of the income distribution.  Housing patterns have also become more segregated during the same time period.  All of this further concentrates educational problems in certain school districts and certain schools.  I wonder whether any program rooted in the educational system, however broadly framed, can effectively address the challenges.  If the program ultimately fails to demonstrate significant measurable improvement, it may be more a testament to the difficulty of the task than a breakdown in design and implementation.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's Good for the Goose....?

This week I'm talking with Syracuse's newly appointed Aviation Commissioner, Christina Reale (she had previously been serving in this post in an interim capacity).  Her position entails the overall management of, and planning for, the Syracuse airport--and there have been a lot of recent press stories related to the airport.  We discuss the plans for the airport's renovation--and the financing for that renovation--as well as the decision to change its governance structure from being city controlled to operating under an independent regional authority.  We also discuss the airport’s long-term fiscal health, the pricing at the airport (for both concessions and flights), the growing role of women in aviation management, and the large-scale changes in passengers’ airport experiences, post 9-11. 

I left this conversation thinking about the twists, turns, and ironies in political arguments.  The argument in favor of an independent regional authority, which the Syracuse mayor strongly supports, is almost precisely the same argument that the Syracuse School Board has made to remain independent of the mayor's office--that having an independent body with one focus (either the airport or the school system) will lead to better decision-making and better management than a structure in which there are many competing objects of attention.  But also note that the new regional airport authority will have a majority of seats appointed by the mayor, so perhaps this is a middle ground of sorts that might ultimately be followed for the school board.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Silver Lining in the British Newspaper Hacking Scandal

...That is, beyond the obvious silver lining if you're a supporter of the Labour Party, as the association between David Cameron (and Andy Coulson) and Murdoch can only help Labour (note that Blair and Brown courted him as well, but it's the timing that matters in this case). 

What I have in mind here, however, is something less obvious and admittedly, much smaller beer (to use a British phrase). 

Had the plans for the full acquisition of B-Sky-B gone through, News Corp would have had to shed its Sky News channel, in order not to run afoul of the British rules and expectations about impartiality in broadcast news.  Indeed, this move was part of the plan for the acquisition. 

Sky News provides essentially the only real alternative to the BBC's main streaming news channel (aside from CNN), and is a quality product.  But it doesn't make money--it's run instead as a "loss leader" by Murdoch, and is cross-subsidized by other lucrative satellite channels, in particular sports (and even more specifically football).

Having it taken over by another independent entity would have certainly gutted the operation.  So if Sky News is spared, the Brits get to keep one additional quality news channel.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Dual Masters of a Newspaper

Tomorrow on the Campbell Conversations I’m talking with Tim Atseff from The Syracuse Post-Standard.  Prior to his recent retirement, Tim had worked 46 years for the paper (yes, 46), starting off as a copy boy and working his way up through the art department to become a managing editor, before creating and editing three regional magazines published by the paper’s parent company—Central New York Magazine (sometimes called The Good Life), CNY Business Exchange, and Central New York Sports.  In this interview, he looks back at his time with the paper, and reflects on the new economic challenges the industry is facing.  He also discusses the highpoints and lowpoints of the paper’s performance, its coverage of the Destiny project and its political endorsements, and the business models for the new magazines he created. 

The interview left me thinking about the dual roles of a newspaper—on the one hand a profit-driven business that happens to supply information as its product, and on the other a public-service institution that’s uniquely responsible for providing its community the civic information it requires in order to function democratically.  Both roles were evident in the way that Tim talked about his experiences over the years.  Clearly there are inherent tensions between the two—had there been more time, I would have liked to explore the paper’s coverage of Destiny in more detail, for example.  A former colleague of mine now teaching at Harvard, Tom Patterson, has argued that the profit-driven role leaves the American media poorly suited to fill its public service role (see his book Out of Order, among others).  I don’t have a ready substitute in mind, though in the broadcast world I am a big fan of the BBC (and of course NPR!).  The “Beeb” or “Auntie,” as the BBC is often called, provides several TV channels and a variety of quality radio stations, along with a really fine website.  I think the British citizens get pretty good value for their license fee.  But I continue to ponder the American conundrum.

Yes, there are Internet-based outlets and there are other news publications in Syracuse, and there are of course broadcast outlets, but there really is no competitive alternative to The Post-Standard for the kind of product it supplies--as Tim points out in the interview.  So given its civic role, in some important respects the paper, despite being privately owned, is a unique public institution, and we need it to act like one if it is going to fill its role properly.  It's not clear how well that fits with a business model.