one for on the road

29 June 2008


I’m not sure a drunken commute is really the ideal we need to be aspiring toward.

I don’t know about that. It may be more dangerous to outlaw alcohol on transit than to allow it.

economics of journamalism, 2

22 June 2008

By the time Bartley Hubbard found a place with Mr. Witherby on the Events, he had already learned something of the relationship between business and the press. Arriving in Boston newly married and unemployed, Bartley put his experience as a small town newspaper editor to work and began to write free-lance, developing a relationship with a number of papers, among them the Chronicle-Abstract. His first article was an account of life in a New England logging camp; his second – at his wife Marcia’s suggestion – a look at the world of Boston boarding-houses:

He had the true newspaper instinct, and went to work with a motive that was as different as possible from the literary motive. He wrote for the effect which he was to make, and not from any artistic pleasure in the treatment. He did not attempt to give it form,–to imagine a young couple like himself and Marcia coming down from the country to place themselves in the city; he made no effort to throw about it the poetry of their ignorance and their poverty, or the pathetic humor of their dismay at the disproportion of the prices to their means. He set about getting all the facts he could, and he priced a great many lodgings in different parts of the city; then he went to a number of real-estate agents, and, giving himself out as a reporter of the Chronicle-Abstract, he interviewed them as to house-rents, past and present. Upon these bottom facts, as he called them, he based a “spicy sketch, which had also largely the character of an exposé. There is nothing the public enjoys so much as an exposé: it seems to be made in the reader’s own interest; it somehow constitutes him a party to the attack upon the abuse, and its effectiveness redounds to the credit of all the newspaper’s subscribers. After a week’s stay in Boston, Bartley was able to assume the feelings of a native who sees his city falling into decay through the rapacity of its landladies. In the heading of ten or fifteen lines which he gave his sketch, the greater number were devoted to this feature of it; though the space actually allotted to it in the text was comparatively small. He called his report “Boston’s Boarding-Houses,” and he spent a paragraph upon the relation of boarding-houses to civilization, before detailing his own experience and observation. This part had many of those strokes of crude picturesqueness and humor which he knew how to give, and was really entertaining; but it was when he came to contrast the rates of house-rent and the cost of provisions with the landladies’


that Bartley showed all the virtue of a born reporter. The sentences were vivid and telling; the ensemble was very alarming, and the conclusion was inevitable, that, unless this abuse could somehow be reached, we should lose a large and valuable portion of our population,–especially those young married people of small means with whom the city’s future prosperity so largely rested, and who must drift away to find homes in rival communities if the present exorbitant demands were maintained.

The success of this piece earned Bartley even more work and

As the spring advanced, Bartley conceived the plan of a local study, something in the manner of the boarding-house article, but on a much vaster scale: he proposed to Ricker [editor of the Chronicle-Abstract] a timely series on the easily accessible hot-weather resorts, to be called “Boston’s Breathing-Places,” and to relate mainly to the seaside hotels and their surroundings. His idea was encouraged, and he took Marcia with him on most of his expeditions for its realization. These were largely made before the regular season had well begun; but the boats were already running, and the hotels were open, and they were treated with the hospitality which a knowledge of Bartley’s mission must invoke. As he said, it was a matter of business, give and take on both sides, and the landlords took more than they gave in any such trade.

Mr. Ricker thought Bartley could make more money as a free-lance than as a regular reporter, but both Bartley and Marcia – who still harbored hopes that her husband would leave journalism for the law – preferred to have a more secure and steady source of income. Bartley had tried to sell his logging-camp sketch to Mr. Witherby before turning to the Chronicle-Abstract, but Witherby rejected it; they had never worked together. But now Witherby needed someone to run his paper, and though neither man was fond of the other, they had come to an understanding. Mr. Witherby just had one more request, which Bartley’s free-lance experience had rendered him more than capable of fulfilling:

“Oh, by the way,” said Witherby, “there is one little piece of outside work which I should like you to finish up for us; and we’ll agree upon something extra for it, if you wish. I mean our Solid Men series. I don’t know whether you’ve noticed the series in the Events?”

“Yes,” said Bartley, “I have.”

“Well, then, you know what they are. They consist of interviews–guarded and inoffensive as respects the sanctity-of private life–with our leading manufacturers and merchant princes at their places of business and their residences, and include a description of these, and some account of the lives of the different subjects.”

“Yes, I have seen them,” said Bartley. “I’ve noticed the general plan.”

“You know that Mr. Clayton has been doing them. He madethem a popular feature. The parties themselves were very much pleased with them.”

“Oh, people are always tickled to be interviewed,” said Bartley. “I know they put on airs about it, and go round complaining to each other about the violation of confidence, and so on; but they all like it. You know I reported that Indigent Surf-Bathing entertainment in June for the Chronicle-Abstract. I knew the lady who got it up, and I interviewed her after the entertainment.”

“Miss Kingsbury?”

“Yes.” Witherby made an inarticulate murmur of respect for Bartley in his throat, and involuntarily changed toward him, but not so subtly that Bartley’s finer instinct did not take note of the change. “She was a fresh subject, and she told me everything. Of course I printed it all. She was awfully shocked,–or pretended to be,–and wrote me a very O-dear-how-could-you note about it. But I went round to the office the next day, and I found that nearly every lady mentioned in the interview had ordered half a dozen copies of that issue sent to her seaside address, and the office had been full of Beacon Street swells all the morning buying Chronicle-Abstracts,–‘the one with the report of the Concert in it.'” These low views of high society, coupled with an apparent familiarity with it, modified Witherby more and more. He began to see that he had got a prize. “The way to do with such fellows as your Solid Men,” continued Bartley, “is to submit a proof to ’em. They never know exactly what to do about it, and so you print the interview with their approval, and make ’em particeps criminis. I’ll finish up the series for you, and I won’t make any very heavy extra charge.”

“I should wish to pay you whatever the work was worth,” said Witherby, not to be outdone in nobleness.

“All right; we sha’n’t quarrel about that, at any rate.”

the economics of journamalism, 1

19 June 2008

The future of journalism has attracted a lot of attention lately, what with all the pressure the online media have been putting on traditional print and broadcast organizations. But some kinds of pressure haven been around a lot longer. From William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance (1882):

[Bartley = Bartley Hubbard, a reporter who once had aspirations to becoming a lawyer; at the time of this conversation he has been working free-lance in Boston, but hoping to find a permanent position]

Witherby = Mr. Witherby, owner of The Boston Events, an evening newspaper]

“But of course my idea in starting the Events was to make money.”

“Of course.”

“I hold that the first duty of a public journal is to make money for the owner; all the rest follows naturally.”

“You’re quite right, Mr. Witherby,” said Bartley. “Unless it makes money, there can be no enterprise about it, no independence,–nothing. That was the way I did with my little paper down in Maine. The first thing–I told the committee when I took hold of the paper–is to keep it from losing money; the next is to make money with it. First peaceable, then pure: that’s what I told them.”

“Precisely so!” Witherby was now so much at his ease with Bartley that he left off tormenting the things on his desk, and used his hands in gesticulating. “Look at the churches themselves! No church can do any good till it’s on a paying basis. As long as a church is in debt, it can’t secure the best talent for the pulpit or the choir, and the members go about feeling discouraged and out of heart. It’s just so with a newspaper. I say that a paper does no good till it pays; it has no influence, its motives are always suspected, and you’ve got to make it pay by hook or by crook, before you can hope to–to–forward any good cause by it. That’s what I say. Of course,” he added, in a large, smooth way, “I’m not going to contend that a newspaper should be run solely in the interest of the counting-room. Not at all! But I do contend that, when the counting-room protests against a certain course the editorial room is taking, it ought to be respectfully listened to. There are always two sides to every question. Suppose all the newspapers pitch in–as they sometimes do–and denounce a certain public enterprise: a projected scheme of railroad legislation, or a peculiar system of banking, or a co-operative mining interest, and the counting-room sends up word that the company advertises heavily with us; shall we go and join indiscriminately in that hue and cry, or shall we give our friends the benefit of the doubt?”

“Give them the benefit of the doubt,” answered Bartley. “That’s what I say.”

“And so would any other practical man!” said Witherby. “And that’s just where Mr. Clayton and I differed. Well, I needn’t allude to him any more,” he added leniently. “What I wish to say is this, Mr. Hubbard. I am overworked, and I feel the need of some sort of relief. I know that I have started the Events in the right line at last,–the only line in which it can be made a great, useful, and respectable journal, efficient in every good cause,–and what I want now is some sort of assistant in the management who shall be in full sympathy with my own ideas. I don’t want a mere slave,–a tool; but I do want an independent, right-minded man, who shall be with me for the success of the paper the whole time and every time, and shall not be continually setting up his will against mine on all sorts of doctrinaire points. That was the trouble with Mr. Clayton. I have nothing against Mr. Clayton personally; he is an excellent young man in very many respects; but he was all wrong about journalism, all wrong, Mr. Hubbard. I talked with him a great deal, and tried to make him see where his interest lay. He had been on the paper as a reporter from the start, and I wished very much to promote him to this position; which he could have made the best position in the country. The Events is an evening paper; there is no night-work; and the whole thing is already thoroughly systematized. Mr. Clayton had plenty of talent, and all he had to do was to step in under my direction and put his hand on the helm. But, no! I should have been glad to keep him in a subordinate capacity; but I had to let him go. He said that he would not report the conflagration of a peanut-stand for a paper conducted on the principles I had developed to him. Now, that is no way to talk. It’s absurd.”

“Perfectly.” Bartley laughed his rich, caressing laugh, in which there was the insinuation of all worldly-wise contempt for Clayton and all worldly-wise sympathy with Witherby. It made Witherby feel good,–better perhaps than he had felt at any time since his talk with Clayton.

“Well, now, what do you say, Mr. Hubbard? Can’t we make some arrangement with you?” he asked, with a burst of frankness.

“I guess you can,” said Bartley.


17 June 2008

I’ve been meaning to start writing about transportation stuff ever since this post, but other things have gotten in the way. Here are some links I’ve collected in the last month:

Over at The Bellows, Ryan Avent asks his commenters, and they answer:

Why isn’t transit a bigger part of the national discussion on energy/climate change/congestion/etc.?

Later, his commenters ask him:

What are the obstacles to high speed rail in this country?

To his answer of “primarily…demand and money” I would also add state and local politics. Some routes might seem obvious when you think of them in terms of endpoints, but the ground-level details are a lot more complicated. I didn’t follow it that closely, but I remember there being a heated debate over the Bay Area end of the San Francisco to Los Angeles route: should it start in SF or Oakland? what pass should it use to enter the Central Valley? and so on. Even now when the line seems to have been settled in San Francisco’s favor, there’s a conflict with the Union Pacific company over use of right-of-ways. (If you’re interested in the California project, check out the California High Speed Rail Blog, which has much more detailed coverage of this.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that high-speed rail necessarily bypasses a lot more towns than regular rail – too many stops and it’s just a rail line with a high top speed. There’s only so much time you can save over regular rail on a Washington, DC to New York route if you also stop in Baltimore and Philadelphia and other places, but it’s hard to see those cities agreeing to be skipped over (and it’s not clear that they should). And indeed, as Avent and some of his commenters point out in the linked threads, in a number of places around the country it makes more sense to upgrade existing service rather than to build “true” high speed rail.

As a sidenote, apparently some of the high speed routes in Germany have been criticized for having so many stops that the average speeds aren’t really that great. By contrast, the couple of times I took the TGV south from Paris, the first stop didn’t come for about 3 hours – longer than the entire Acela trip between New York and DC. My anecdata is a few years old, though, so I don’t know what the European systems are like now. Aside from being better than ours.

    And speaking of Europe, Paul Krugman points out that Europe moves proportionally less freight by rail than the United States does. I have anecdata for this too: I was surprised at how few freights I saw as a passenger in Europe a few years ago as compared to what it’s like to ride Amtrak. The only place I remember with a significant freight presence was the northern end of the line between Stockholm and Kiruna, Norway, where trains carry ore from a Swedish mine to the coast. The combination of gorgeous scenery (fjords and mountains) and natural resource extraction industry (mining, the freights, and the transshipment facility in Kiruna) made the area feel almost (American) western to me.

    Leaving rail aside for the moment, Matthew Yglesias considers Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and worries: “What I primarily fear about BRT is that we’ll get into a “defining BRT down” scenario since it lacks a very clear definition.” In Berkeley, some BRT opponents appear to be trying to do just that.

    Finally, in the early 1980s John Stilgoe wrote a book, Metropolitan Corridor, examining the geographical changes the adoption and expansion of the railroad brought about in the United States. I remember reading a review – I haven’t read the book, but I looked up the reviews when I was in grad school for research-related reasons – which, though generally positive, criticized the book for being perhaps too nostalgic towards the railroads, given their postwar decline. That was then; Stilgoe has now written a new book on railroads, and from the looks of it, there’s no need for nostalgia.

    history: older than it looks

    16 June 2008

    If you’re reading this blog, you probably have already seen Rick Perlstein’s posts on Box 722. If you haven’t, they’re fascinating and you should go read them. I was struck by this statement in the second post:

    One thing to observe: over and over again, the Chicago Southwest Siders protesting open housing repeat a variant of the resident on 71st Street who averred that Congress “cannot legislate morals or love.” The reason this is fascinating was that this was one of Barry Goldwater’s constant refrains on the campaign trail in 1964 for why he didn’t vote for the civil rghts act. Like most everywhere else, not many people on the Southwest Side of Chicago voted for Barry Goldwater. But clearly they heard what they had to say, and took it to heart, and repeated it verbatim two years later. It’s a fascinating lesson in the mysterious ways political messages take hold.

    But while the letter-writers might have been influenced by Goldwater, the message itself has a longer history. My guess is that the general claim that it’s not possible to legislate morality could be traced to some dead political theorist; in the context of segregation it shows up in the majority opinion in Plessy vs. Ferguson:

    The argument also assumes that social prejudices may be overcome by legislation, and that equal rights cannot be secured to the negro except by an enforced commingling of the two races. We cannot accept this proposition. If the two races are to meet upon terms of social equality, it must be the result of natural affinities, a mutual appreciation of each other’s merits and a voluntary consent of individuals…. Legislation is powerless to eradicate racial instincts or to abolish distinctions based upon physical differences, and the attempt to do so can only result in accentuating the difficulties of the present situation.

    [Quoted in Charles Payne, “”The Whole United States Is Southern!”: Brown v. Board and the Mystification of Race”, which is worth reading, here.]

    clean finance

    16 June 2008

    I’ve never followed New York politics, so when the Eliot Spitzer scandal broke, I didn’t know much about Spitzer’s earlier career. I was in New York at the time and I followed the coverage fairly closely for about a month – just until a little after it stopped being a major story. Today I was catching up on some old New Yorker reading and I came across this, which I didn’t see mentioned in any of the post-scandal stories I read:

    Perhaps the most significant support came from his family. The 1994 campaign had been funded in large part by a $4.3-million bank loan that Spitzer took out, using as collateral some apartments that he owned; he told the press that he was servicing the loan with his own income. In 1998, a few days before Election Day, in a nasty race with the incumbent, Dennis Vacco, he admitted that he had been paying off the bank with a loan his father had given him on generous terms. In effect, he’d received a $4.3-million campaign donation from his father, which is well in excess of family donation limits, and lied about it. (The Board of Elections declined to investigate.) Michael Goodwin, a columnist at the News, asked Spitzer why he’d lied, and Spitzer told him, according to Goodwin, “I had to”—a phrase that Spitzer’s detractors have lorded over him ever since, as a kind of shorthand for a streak of dishonesty and hypocrisy. (Spitzer says that he doesn’t remember any such conversation.) Nonetheless, after a hotly contested recount, Spitzer won.

    From earlier in the article, which came out in the December 10, 2007 issue, when it looked like he’d have a full term in office:

    Spitzer’s agenda, broadly and loftily speaking, is to make the workings of Albany more transparent: to disentangle the corrosive influence of the special interests and to combat, if not eliminate, the nest-feathering that flourishes in the dark. Campaign-finance reform is an essential part of this.

    That said, had he been successful in this reform it probably would have been a good thing, whatever the details of his own past campaigns.