September 14, 2009

More Anchors to Sink

A Christmas card addressed in a shaky handwriting was delivered to KHQ-TV’s newsroom shortly after I began working there. Randy and Deb, Spokane was all it read.


Talk about name ID. No last names, no street number, no zip code---just two first names and the city. Even the Postal Service knew that you didn’t need to follow the rules to get a piece of mail to our long time, extremely popular anchors Randy Shaw and Deborah Wilde. These guys are bulletproof I thought.

Shortly thereafter Deborah was eased out; Randy was sacked.

Bigger wow.

But I didn’t even raise an eyebrow when I learned that Nadine Woodward was gone at KREM. Popularity, credibility and a 19 year tenure were no match for a high salary, enormous changes in TV and savvy management. Her departure was inevitable---others are as well.

As Woodward’s contract came up for renewal she was apparently asked to take a 15% pay cut and renegotiate favorable working hours. According to the Spokesman Review she acceded to a reduced salary but was unwilling to give up a flexible work schedule which included coming in an hour late, a two-hour dinner break and Friday nights off. OK…fair enough…making six figures in far less than 40 hours a week works for me. But KREM’s management didn’t see it that way and declined to renew her contract. Woodward says it’s all about money and that KREM can get someone to read the news for half her salary.

Yup---that’s TV. Broadcasting’s like any business---the bottom line is the bottom line. So when the bosses in a corporation based outside Spokane tell local managers to cut the first place they look is the high priced talent. Technology has allowed broadcasters to reduce staffs while producing about the same amount of content; colleges keeping graduating more TV majors than there are on-air jobs. Of course TV station owners take advantage---they too would soon be gone they didn’t.

And this surprises people? It shouldn’t.

The Journal of Business recently explained how local media are just following the national trend of steadily declining ratings owing to the Internet, the economy and diminished relevance. Woodward’s just a high profile example: KREM had a huge lay off this past spring including Nadine’s husband which led to speculation that she wasn’t far behind, KXLY dumped its weekend news earlier this year and KHQ started cutting back long before I left.

I tell people that I never get attached to my golf balls because I don’t see them for very long. Local news is the same. I left TV news a step ahead of the executioner---Woodward didn’t, alas. I’m sure other long time, highly paid Spokane anchors are looking over their shoulders for the man in the hood…if not they should be.

August 31, 2009

Shame on the GOP

Seems that the GOP is trying to raise money by saying it's representing the U.S. Census Bureau. Check out this BBB newsrelease. If it looks like a scam....

August 25, 2009

A Different Spokane

An interesting thing happened during a recent impromptu barbeque with my neighbors the other night: optimism broke out. It wasn’t the typical good humored banter I normally hear when folks living in our downtown lofts get together over briquettes, burgers and beers---no summer vacation plans, reviews on the new neighborhood saloon or “’hell’s up with the Mayor?” comments. The conversation centered on the joys of unemployment instead. Three neighbors—all professionals who recently lost excellent jobs---explained that idleness was great, that they now have a rare opportunity to do something they really like and…get this…they have no plans to leave Spokane.
What? Stay in Spokane?
My neighbors are not the first ones who been laid off since the economy tanked last fall who have chosen Spokane over Seattle, Portland or Boise. At least a half dozen friends who suddenly found themselves cut loose decided that Spokane’s the best place to leverage their considerable skills and forge long term, and it is hoped, lucrative opportunities for themselves.
This is clearly not the same town that chased me away during the last big recession in the early 1980s. Cuts in broadcast newsrooms had cost me two jobs and almost a half-year of unemployment; the economy was bereft, Expo 74’s momentum had sputtered and died, and attitudes were as grim as downtown’s boarded up buildings. So I left.
During my decade long absence I watched as my adopted communities thrived; new ideas were tested, innovation was embraced and dynamic leaders made bold decisions. My cities grew, solutions to difficult problems were found, and new opportunities arose. It was infectious; I hoped the optimism would be catching as I returned to Spokane in 1994.
And there were glimmers of change. Downtown was starting to come back, television news had definitely kicked it up a couple of notches and who is this Walt Worthy guy, I wondered? Lots of stops, starts, detours, and vestiges of “we can’t do that” were still apparent (still are in some quarters, alas) but folks eventually realized that progress is possible and that positive changes invigorate and strengthen a community’s heart and soul, not damage it.
Almost overnight it seemed that billions of dollars were invested in Spokane and creative solutions to difficult problems such as the health of the Spokane River were found. Energetic people were pushing big cultural and business projects such as the Armed Forces and Aerospace Museum, Mobius and the University District. The Spokane I left never would have supported the YWCA/YMCA $40 million collaboration---the first of its kind in the country. A refurbished Davenport Hotel? A restored Fox Theater? Not a chance.
It finally hit me during one of the many times I was standing in the rain or snow telling my TV viewers that it was raining or snowing---time to quite being an observer and join the fun! I left broadcasting and am actively involved in public issues, projects and discussions that my previous profession rendered off limits.
Which brings me back to my neighbors who are eagerly embracing their unexpected, mid-life freedom, plotting their next moves and taking advantage of new opportunities. Thanks for believing in Spokane. Losing your talents, skills, enthusiasm and vision to another community would diminish us all. Having the courage to stick it out here will help ensure our continued success and create an even better community.

April 21, 2009

Univesity District TIF

This seems to be great news for Spokane in General and the U-District in particular. (As reported by the SR's Olympia guy Rich Roesler) Still looking for specifics...but I've seen Tax Increment Financing work wonders in other cities. About time we had more of those creative and successful development tools.

Spokane’s University District and the area between Pullman and Moscow, Idaho stand to get millions of dollars in improvements under a bill lawmakers approved Monday.Senate Bill 5045 now goes to Gov. Chris Gregoire to be signed into law.The bill allows local governments to designate “revitalization areas.” It essentially recycles some tax dollars: improvements spur economic growth, generating more taxes. And the money pays for the improvements.The law allows work on public infrastructure like roads, pedestrian bridges, landscaping, sidewalks and utilities.The bill authorizes 7 demonstration projects:-A Spokane University District project, to get up to $250,000 a year.

April 13, 2009

Blowing Up Squirrels

Are you kidding me? The Spokane Parks Department says it's going to detonate the squirrels in Finch Arboretum. I'd say this was an April Fools joke if the calendar didn't read the middle of the month! But then the Parks Department sees things a little differently. I hope they have a good PR person because this one's going to get interesting.

March 25, 2009

The City's Latest PR Problem

So let me get this straight---Spokane County is going to give the City of Spokane some $7 million for a building just to tear it down? That’s just to buy the Downtown YMCA building using Conservation Futures money. Add hundreds of thousands dollars to actually demolish the building, kick in the million bucks in non-refundable money already spent by the Spokane Parks Board and toss in another half a million dollars or so for rents and maintenance and you’ve got a heck of a bailout---not to mention a big PR problem.

The City Council originally rejected using Conservation Futures money as a bad idea. Accepting the loot now could mean that the City would have no control over the property or a clear idea of how much it will really cost to return less than an acre of property to its native state. That’s because of several conditions the County has attached:

· The Parks Board is required to pay $100,000 a year to supplement rents of the Y building until it’s torn down in five years.
· The County keeps design approval for the property which sits in the City owned Riverfront Park.
· The City would be required to pay back a portion of the grant.
· The City is on the hook for the full amount if a future County Commission changes its mind about the CF funding.

Regardless of how you feel about using CF money the bigger issue is persuading folks that this is a good use of those funds as well as a good deal for taxpayers. First step would be to spend some money to determine what people think and what messages resonate with voters. If research shows there is little or no support then politely decline the County’s offer. Otherwise, a mini-political campaign complete with public meetings, media relations and voter contact efforts would have to be created and executed to educate people about the issue.

Who would be responsible for this effort? The Spokane Parks Board should be---it’s who created the need for a bailout to begin with. Will the Parks Board step up? Doubtful when you consider that the groups’ strategic thinking about this issue is summed up in two quotes by its vice-chairman: “We have no Plan B” and “We’re on auto pilot.”

Good luck City Council.

March 23, 2009

Responding to Media Requests

I recently received an email from a friend who had been approached by a local print reporter and wanted to know how to handle the interview request. The journalist asked for details of a private business partnership that my friend was involved in that had dissolved more than six months ago. Not exactly breaking news but this was definitely a chance for my friend to tell his side of the story while relaying accurate information that could enhance his current business pursuits.

Several questions were on the table:
· Should the interview be granted?
· If so, what should be said?
· Could the journalist and the news organization be trusted to report the story fairly and accurately?

Let’s take the last one first. There is always a risk but most news organizations are professional and usually don’t set out to do a hatchet job. This local outfit has a point of view but the reporters can be trusted so the answer was yes.

The first question is the toughest. I always advise clients to promptly respond to a reporter’s call or email. It’s the polite thing to do and helps build relationships. It also gives you a chance to learn more about the story angle, what specific information is being sought, the types of questions that might be asked and the reporter’s deadline. You may not get all your answers but you’ll be ahead of where you started. One more thing to consider---but tread lightly on this one. You must determine whether granting the interview serves your purpose. The answer is generally yes for public figures and elected officials but not necessarily so for private citizens.

Once the decision to speak to the media is made there are several things to keep in mind: Create two or three key points that you want to get across. Don’t feel compelled to answer all questions a reporter asks---it’s your interview and you can control it. And be honest---saying “I don’t know” or “let me get back to you on that” is much better than giving wrong information.

And my friend? I’m anxious to see the results.

March 16, 2009

Downtown Jail Idea May Be Shifting

Spokane County may be reconsidering whether putting a jail near downtown is such a good idea.

The push to build a new Spokane County jail near the courthouse stalled last year when two big dollar issues arose: a $250 million price tag and another $8 million a year to run it. But a much larger hurdle appeared when important and influential community groups such as Downtown Spokane Partnership indicated that they would fight putting a multi-story 600 bed jail along with its ancillary issues a few blocks from the city center. Persuading 60% of the voters to approve a quarter of a billion dollar bond issue is tough enough---throw in instant opposition from politically savvy and well funded groups makes the task even more daunting.

Now it seems that the Sheriff’s Office understands that getting community support might be the first step toward building a new jail. The Sheriff’s Office told the County Commissioners during a meeting last week that architects are exploring whether a new, horizontally designed jail would be cheaper to operate than one six to ten stories high. If so, the commissioners were told, then it might be prudent to reexamine their site selection.

A jail site study says the top three locations are the county campus near downtown, acreage just off I-90 near the Medical Lake exit and property east of the Spokane Industrial Park. The County prefers the downtown location because it already owns the land and is near the courthouse which limits prisoner transportation costs.

Commissioners are not bound by their first pick but were quick to say that the site selection process will not be reopened and that a new jail will be built on one of the three sites. However, they did seem willing to re-visit their initial downtown decision if a new design shows “a substantial savings in operational costs.”

Now might be the time for the all stakeholders---City, County and the area’s business community--- to join forces to see whether a regional solution can be found.

So what’s your take? Put the jail downtown? In a less urban setting? Is a new jail even needed? It’s your tax money---you have the right to choose.

March 12, 2009

City Sees the Signs

Who says you can't fight City Hall?

A group of Downtown Spokane folks has successfully persuaded the City that recently installed Handicapped Parking signs were confusing and hurting business. Those "old" signs...only been there for three weeks or so in the newly created Entertainment Parking District...begin disappearing today. They're being replaced by ones that are much more clear.

Contrats to DSP and other groups who helped persuade the City to jump on this problem quickly. See what happens when you work together to try to find solutions?

March 9, 2009

Challenging Economy Offers Opportunity

Challenging economic times can offer people the opportunity to create things that might have otherwise been dismissed when money was more plentiful. Here’s what I’m talking about: maybe that small, innovative coffee shop that you wanted to run Downtown couldn’t get any traction because Starbuck’s seemed to be taking over the world, rents were higher and the prime locations were taken. Is that the case today? Probably not---could be that someone might cut you a great deal just to get something in their building. A friend of mine recently checked with a local commercial realtor about the availability of low cost space Downtown---he found eight different spaces that would offer no rent for at least six months!

Another example---used clothing stores in Downtown are rare---only a couple of them. There might be the chance to partner up with an established small store, move into an empty space next door, and offer a slightly different style of used clothing. The results could be that both businesses benefit. It works for restaurants, bars and car dealers---so why not for small shops, art galleries, coffee houses, wine bars and all the other things that we want to help our Downtown continue to be vibrant and alive. Why not take a chance?

Today’s Spokane is ready to help. Two friends of mine were recently forced to leave long time, well paying jobs. But instead of leaving town they’ve formed their own companies and are making a go of using their unique skills to help other businesses continue to prosper. That’s something that never would have happened in Spokane five years ago. Downtown is primed to continue this spirit of innovation. All it takes is a bit of energy, a small amount of loot and a lot of work. There are lots of people around with the skills to help you make it happen if you ask---as that small, neighborhood shoe company says, “Just Do It.”

February 2, 2009

WSU-EWU Meger?

Challenging economic times are a great opportunity for people to consider options that may not be as appealing when things are flush.

Take higher education for example: the state’s university system appears headed for big cuts so maybe mergers should be discussed. Sources tell me that WSU President Elston Floyd has contacted several Spokane area business people sounding them out about whether Wazzu should absorb Eastern Washington University. Not a new idea---big school takes over a smaller university that has several excellent programs, is located near a larger population center with more potential for growth and is definitely suffering from a leadership void. It’s also not the first time that WSU has set its sights on Eastern.

Is this a serious move? Unknown at this point because no one is really sure how the legislature will treat EWU. Nor is it clear whether the suggestion will be taken seriously in Olympia. But the folks at Eastern are aware of Dr. Floyd’s inquiries of Spokane’s key players are not taking any chances. They’ve done their homework and have their communications plan ready should the financial situation become worse and the idea of a WSU at Cheney move beyond releasing a few trial balloons.

I’d hate to see this happen for a variety of reasons---not the least of which is that Eastern’s my undergrad alma mater. But WSU can’t be blamed for at least thinking of ways to deliver its services better and more efficiently.

So what do you think? Is it time that higher education mergers be given serious consideration? Or should each school just try to take care of what it already has?

January 13, 2009

No Planning for Spokane City Bond Issue

When a multi-million dollar bond issue is placed on a ballot there are usually constituents ready to persuade voters that spending that kind of cash is a good idea. Not so with the City of Spokane’s $19.5 million dollar proposal you’ll see on March 10th.

The City’s calling it a capital improvement measure that is vital to public safety. Storing criminal evidence, euthanizing wayward pets, providing judges nicer offices and building a better police shooting range are nice ideas. But there’s been zero ground work laid that might persuade the needed 60% majority that these four things out rank the City's other needs.
Here’s what $19.5 million buys: A new police department evidence building, a new municipal court building, a new animal shelter and a new law enforcement firing range. See the problem? A campaign centered on crime, courts, cops and euthanizing wayward cats and canines is a tough sell. This bond issue has no natural support beyond the City Council and the Mayor who historically only campaign for their own re-election.

Voters also don't really know whether these projects are even necessary because the City has no strategic capital spending plan. This means we have no idea what else might be needed or how these four multi-million dollar items rank in priority. It's almost as if they've been picked out of thin air. City Councilman Mike Allen has been pleading with his colleagues for more than a year to create a strategic capital improvement plan before putting anything else on the ballot. Allen believes, correctly, that deciding what projects the City needs and then prioritizing them will at least give voters a reason to consider saying yes---especially in the current economic client. But his pleas have been ignored.

Bond issues are tough to begin with let alone when they're thrown to voters with no campaign plan, no fund raising strategy and no messages that resonate with voters. And did I mention that School District 81 is running a $28 million bond issue that same day?

It’s a good thing I’ve never written fiction because I’m not clever enough to make up this stuff.

January 5, 2009

Something New

I really had to stop and think for a bit when my friend Mark Keas of MDI Marketing asked me a couple of weeks ago whether I’d be interested in playing a reporter on a TV commercial for a local car dealer. Don’t misunderstand: I have no problems with commercials---they paid my salary for about 30 years. And while I gladly took the loot the ads provided I didn’t have to worry about whether they were clever, effective, ethical or actually worked. That was always someone else’s problem. But I quickly concluded that taking a chance and trusting another professional’s judgment was the right thing to do. So now the microphone---a rather large one at that---is in the other hand.

Was it a tough decision? No. I’ve seen Mark’s work, his client is reputable and I was familiar with the production crew. It really came down to whether a former news guy was ready to step back in front of the camera but on another side of the business. I was also curious to see what it was like pitching a product instead of just reporting on one. I’ve been out of the news business for two years now and the spot was not pretending to be part of any identifiable newscast so I had no ethical dilemma. And selling something instead of just talking about it?

The comments have been generally positive---the lighting was good, we had a well written script, the crew was easy to work with, Mark’s idea was clever and the editing was superb. I even had one person say he bought a car because of the commercial. So I’d definitely like to shoot another spot if the client and the agency are happy.

But all through this I’ve kept in mind what my old EWU Professor Howard Hopf said on numerous occasions: “It ain’t creative unless it sells!”

So my question is: Are we creative?