Thursday, October 2, 2008

Wall Street needs small-business principles, ethics


Shock waves from America's Wall Street crisis unleashed a virtual economic earthquake in the world's money markets. While we don't fully know the impact yet on Main Street, not even the smartest experts seem to have a handle on how bad it will get or how long it will take us to recover from these dark days.

As the analyses continue, it is clear that big business and national political leaders share mammoth culpability for what is surely a man-made disaster. And a tight presidential race now becomes more turned by the misfortunes of a national economy in shambles.

In the end, we are likely to learn that our national leaders in business and politics have hurt us all by their own stunning deficit in the principles, ethics and integrity that are abundant among hardworking American families and the millions of small businesses that employ them.

How did the national powers go so wrong when, in every town, small businesses and citizens readily reflect the good values that have perilously disappeared in too many major institutions?

Record single-day losses in the stock market cut trillion-dollar holes in the savings and retirements funds of everyday people. As political and economic leaders bicker and blame each other instead of solving the problem, their disunity ensures one outcome: Our citizens/financial victims have become political victims, too.

It's twisted and ironic that iconic financial giants collapse under the weight of bad debt as ordinary citizens and small businesses continue the noble daily struggle of going to work, paying their bills, caring for their families and making proverbial ends meet.

All the while, the average American wonders: How could this happen, who is responsible, and can it be fixed?

The answers to those and other most disturbing questions will likely be pondered and debated by historians for decades. But unlike America's Great Depression — etched in time as a monumental crisis endured and overcome by a nation made stronger by the experience — there is no such confidence today.

Americans are justified in feeling downcast about this topical depression, because the leadership in Washington and the captains of industry don't inspire confidence about having the ability to right the battered financial ship of the United States.

If there were a deeper commitment at the national level to the honest values that live in modern America's small businesses, we might not be in any crisis at all.

Honesty, responsibility and commitment to doing the right thing are the basic values that are the daily guideposts for small businesses throughout our country. Ordinary as those values seem, today's crisis shows just how extraordinary they have become.

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published a dramatic condemnation about major shortcomings in America's public education system. The report's most notable and quotable passage suggested that "if an unfriendly foreign power had imposed our schools upon us, we would have regarded it as an act of war."

Similarly, if a foreign entity had unleashed an economic crisis on the U.S. of this magnitude, it would surely be considered an act of war. But we know, sadly, the enemy is within for this crisis.

No matter the solutions — bailouts, buyouts, mergers, government controls at unprecedented levels — citizen confidence in our national government and big business is undermined and lowered beyond immediate repair. When such a basic trust is broken at this level, it may take a generation or more to repair.

Whatever instruments are applied to resolving the crisis, one sure way out of it would be to require a return to the core principles that made our democracy and economy great. For any mega-CEO or national politico who needs to see what that looks like, visit a small business in Tallahassee, Toledo, Taos — or anyplace else in the country — and learn from the real experts.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We may be witnessing the death of aggressive enterprise journalism that protects a free society


Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be newsies (with apologies to Willie Nelson).

Unlike the golden eras of the past, today's terribly changed news media push into a gory new frontier. We may be witnessing the death of aggressive enterprise journalism that protects a free society.

Corporate media layoffs, buyouts and reductions in force reflect a tough economic climate for news organizations.

The result is fewer experienced reporters asking probing questions of our leaders and institutions. Translation: dangerous potential exists for an unchecked era of chicanery and corruption.

In this capital city, where many of Florida's daily newspapers can take pride in having long-established bureaus, the cutting and gutting registers in a regular body count -- akin to a serial killing of the watchdog function our media perform.

As our news media lose their ability to cover the daily events and emerging trends of the state's three branches of government and other key institutions, the political forces seeking to influence them will win their narrow, special-interest agendas. That is a threat to our very democracy.

Before it's too late, here's one solution: Create a "super bureau" in which multiple news organizations share their dwindling resources to better cover the political/power scene. The competition factor -- a mixed bag in capital journalism -- should give way to a creative, coordinated and cooperative new ability to get the job done, together.

This idea isn't radical -- but it is practical. The use of "pool" reporters and photographers who share what they get with rival journalists is not uncommon in selective situations, such as presidential news conferences and campaign reporting. Now, it is time to standardize it -- rather than witness the atrophy of capital media's muscle.

Sharing costs and responsibilities would mean the few remaining reporters in the Florida Capital Press Corps wouldn't all cover the same news conferences or stories every day, which often has produced only multiple versions of the same canned news.

But deploying those reporters to cover different stories means all media -- and the public -- would better be covered where it matters most. And some new enterprise journalism might emerge.

There is modern precedent. Back in 1994, multiple Florida newspapers and TV stations collaborated in the "Voices of Florida" project to cover a spirited governor's race (Lawton Chiles versus Jeb Bush). Though aspects of this coverage were controversial (at least one newspaper opted out rather than be part of what it called a "cabal"), the coverage was aggressive and comprehensive.

After the 2000 presidential election debacle in Florida, news organizations cooperated again in a noble effort to analyze what went wrong. The outcome was a proud body of work for journalism.

The harsh fiscal realities in media today make the super capital bureau a near necessity. Staffed by reporters from various news organizations, it may be the only way to vigorously ask the tough questions and cover the news that impacts nearly 19 million people.

The journalists themselves would likely prefer working together in a strong and effective news bureau rather than feigning competition in a shrinking press corps. The bureau chief's responsibility could rotate among the journalists whose pursuit of the truth is the best hope for this idea actually working.

So, let this plan emerge now, before the Capital Press Corps is reduced to a press corpse. If it can work here, in Florida's capital, perhaps it might work in other markets and capitals. The captains of the media industry must care as much about the bottom line of journalism as their profits -- and the super bureau's funding and survival is one way to ensure both improve.

The number "30" was affixed to the end of a news story in newsrooms of old. Let's hope, for the sake of Florida, that there is more, not a "30," to the ongoing work of our Capital Press Corps.