First year as a columnist has been fun

March 31, 2009

I became a columnist a year ago this week. It has been a fascinating journey, exploring Kentucky places, people and ideas.

I hope you are enjoying it as much as I am.

I took you to the last Great American Steamboat Race between the now-retired Delta Queen and the Belle of Louisville. We had a great view, too: the Belle’s roof, just outside the pilot house.

We went to Graves County for the 128th annual Fancy Farm Picnic. Sure, I wrote about the political speeches. But what I really went to write about were the folks of St. Jerome Catholic Church, who each year cook fresh vegetables, homemade pies and 18,500 pounds of the best barbecued pork and mutton you’ll ever taste.

I brought you the sights and sounds of Danville’s Brass Band Festival, the Kentucky Derby and the state high school marching band championships. I took you to meet the “green jacket” men and women who help make Keeneland special and the Lions Club members who organize the Blue Grass Fair.

We sat around the boardroom table with the Dawahare cousins as they talked bravely about the demise of their family’s century-old chain of clothing stories.

You met some fascinating people and their work: entrepreneurs Pearse Lyons and Pete Mahurin; artists Verna Mae Slone, Seth Tuska and Lino Tagliapietra; journalists Al Smith, Don Edwards and Don Neagle; and innovators such as architect Helm Roberts, who designed the unique sundial that honors Kentucky’s Vietnam veterans.

I have reached into the past for wisdom that could help Kentucky build a better future. Lessons came from the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Henry Clay and Thomas Clark — and from a faded, forgotten book I found in the Lexington Public Library’s basement.

I looked for new ideas that could make Kentucky a better place — innovation, entrepreneurship, environmental stewardship, smart growth and sustainable development — and the people working to make those ideas reality.

A year ago, many people in Lexington were upset about developer Dudley Webb’s plan to demolish a downtown block to build the 35-story CentrePointe tower with a luxury hotel and million-dollar condos.

The old buildings, which dated to 1826, are now gone. CentrePointe has yet to rise out of that crater, and I doubt it ever will.

I wrote a lot about CentrePointe because I saw the controversy surrounding it as a turning point for Lexington. More people than ever seem interested in downtown revitalization, citizen participation in development decisions and creative reuse of the old buildings that reflect Lexington’s history and character.

The old style of adversarial development seems to be giving way to a more community-friendly process. Lexington has several developers who understand good urban planning, and a couple of true visionaries, Barry McNees and Holly Wiedemann. Even some of the old dogs are learning new tricks.

Development decisions say a lot about what kind of future a city sees for itself. Is it about making a quick buck, or creating sustainable quality of life? The latter requires innovation, and sometimes returning to tried-and-true principles like two-way streets, mixed-use neighborhoods, good pedestrian and bicycle access and reliable public transportation.

I’ve shared some things Lexington could learn from Austin, Columbus and Louisville. And some things other Kentucky towns could learn from Berea and Morehead.

I’ve complained about things in Kentucky that frustrate me: The lack of respect for knowledge and education; petty politics; wasteful highway spending; the power of the coal industry; the fear of change; and the reluctance of political leaders to create a modern tax system.

During the nearly 10 years I was managing editor of the Herald-Leader, I got a lot of calls and e-mails from readers. But, as a high school principal once told me, “Your job is like mine. Nobody calls because they’re happy.”

One of the joys of being a columnist has been getting a lot of calls and e-mails from people who like what I write. Of course, others write or call with other views. Often, those lead to good discussions. Most people who don’t like a column prefer to leave anonymous comments online, and that’s fine, too.

I get a good laugh when a critic begins by saying that he never reads my column or the Herald-Leader, but just happened to see this particular piece. Those people often are the first to send an e-mail or leave a comment online. And they do so repeatedly.

I like to hear from readers, whether it’s compliments, criticisms or ideas. Some of my best columns have come from readers’ tips and suggestions.

During the next year, I hope we’ll continue to have some fun, learn a few things and perhaps share some knowledge that could make Kentucky a better place.


Restoring Fairness Doctrine a bad idea

March 29, 2009

Talk radio is right about one issue: Bringing back the Fairness Doctrine would be a bad idea.

Of course, it’s not really much of an issue. While a few congressional Democrats have suggested some sort of new Fairness Doctrine, there’s little support for it. President Obama is on record against it. It won’t happen.

But the mere suggestion has been enough to send right-wing pundits into a frenzy.

They always need a good frenzy.

Fear, paranoia and calls to “take back America” have been these guys’ stock in trade for years, even though their favored politicians have run the country most of that time.

Left-wing talk show hosts and bloggers are no better. All fanatics like to take a thread of fact and spin it into a web of nonsense. Their opinions are often based on ignorance, distortion and speculation. Nothing energizes them more than a good conspiracy theory.

There’s no more reliable formula for profit in the media business these days than partisan outrage — the more outrageous, the better. As writer H.L. Mencken observed nearly a century ago, nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

The Fairness Doctrine governed the owners of radio and television stations between 1949 and 1987. It required on-air discussions of controversial issues of public interest to be fair, equitable and honest.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Fairness Doctrine didn’t violate the First Amendment guarantees of free speech and the press because the limited public airwaves belonged to the public, not to the owners of broadcast licenses.

But the trouble with the Fairness Doctrine was that values such as fairness, equity and honesty are subjective. In practice, many broadcasters simply avoided controversial topics for fear of getting in trouble with the regulators.

During the 38 years the Fairness Doctrine was in force, the justification for it grew steadily weaker as new technology emerged and the power of over-the-air radio and television diminished. Now we have cable TV, satellite radio and the Internet, the most egalitarian communications medium in history.

Talk radio didn’t result so much from repeal of the Fairness Doctrine as it did from deregulation that allowed a handful of companies to buy up most of America’s radio stations. Those companies maximized profits by cutting local programming and replacing it with syndicated talkers.

Right-wing provocateurs dominate the medium because their views sell. The result is that many Americans now confuse the right lane with the middle of the road.

While new technology has broadened the menu of news and opinion, it has made it easy for people to restrict their diet. Many Americans now want to read or hear only things they agree with. They dismiss other opinions or facts as “biased.”

It has long been fashionable for conservatives to complain about “liberal bias” in news reporting. But, as every newspaper editor knows, there are plenty of vocal liberals, too. Left-wingers accuse journalists of suppressing “the truth” to protect corporate profits, the wealthy power structure and the status quo.

No wonder so many people hate The Media: It reflects more than them.

How could a new Fairness Doctrine possibly work? Would it apply to cable and satellite broadcasters, too? What about the Internet? Who would decide what’s fair?

It’s never a good idea to limit public discussion. No freedoms are more vital than speech and the press. They are what keep government and other powerful institutions in check and the pendulum of popular passion from swinging too far one way or the other.

The last thing America needs is another Fairness Doctrine. Instead, each American needs to adopt his or her own Intelligence Doctrine. Citizens of all persuasions need to recognize their biases, challenge their assumptions and be more skeptical. They need to read widely and think for themselves.

Don’t whine about the media, whether it’s Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann, Fox News or The New York Times. Newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the Internet have put a world of information at your fingertips.

Do your homework. Think critically. Prove H.L. Mencken wrong.


Joe Hall: UK coach’s job about more than basketball

March 26, 2009

In any high-profile leadership role, some responsibilities are obvious. Others, while less obvious, are every bit as important.

It’s true for a corporate executive, for a mayor, a governor, a president or a coach — especially if that coach wants to succeed as the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky.

If the Big Blue Nation’s romance with Billy Clyde Gillispie ends in divorce, it won’t be because of his teams’ uninspiring performance on the basketball court these past two years, although that certainly hasn’t helped.

It will be because Gillispie has refused to embrace the less obvious — at least to him — responsibilities that come with being the spiritual leader of Kentucky’s secular religion.

Kentucky fans will never accept the notion that the Wildcat dynasty is just another basketball program, or that coaching Big Blue is just another job. And they won’t long tolerate a coach who thinks otherwise.

Here is the point in this column where you can insert your own thoughts about whether Kentucky’s basketball obsession is healthy. You might say Kentucky would be better off if the average citizen cared as much about education, good health and a cleaner environment as he does about Wildcat basketball.

But, you know, it is what it is.

So, given reality, let’s hear from the man who knows more than any other about UK fans’ expectations of their basketball coach. In 1973, Joe B. Hall succeeded the dynasty’s founder, the sport’s winningest coach. Adolph Rupp led UK for 41 years — three years longer than all five of his successors combined.

When I called Hall’s cell phone Thursday, he was having a late lunch with friends and talking about, what else, the state of Kentucky basketball.

Hall came to the hottest seat in coaching well-prepared. He grew up in Cynthiana as a UK fan, played for Rupp and spent seven years as his assistant. He understood how important UK basketball was to Kentuckians, and how important Kentuckians were to UK basketball.

“My behavior was dictated by what was good for the program,” said Hall, who turned 80 last November.

“If it meant standing at the state tournament and signing autographs for an hour, then you had to do that,” he said. “If it meant not going to bars and getting in fights with irate fans, then that was something that you had to do. If it meant being seen in communities throughout the state, looking at the local talent as much as possible, to let people feel like you were aware of your in-state talents … There’s no end to what responsibilities you have to the public.”

Hall declined to comment on how Gillispie has handled his public responsibilities.

“I haven’t been all that close to what he does to know firsthand,” he said. “I don’t care to repeat rumors; I think that’s very unfair. Personally, every contact I’ve had with him has been a pleasant one.”

Kentucky fans may demand more of their coach off-court than fans at other schools, but that’s not unfair, Hall said. Any good college or high school coach understands that his athletic program isn’t an end unto itself, but a part of an larger educational mission. And for that mission to succeed, it must have the support of its community.

“I worked at it to make the team a part of the community,” Hall said. “You wouldn’t believe the things that we did. We went around during Christmas and sung Christmas carols to the president. We had special events for the students. That’s how we started Midnight Madness, was to invite the students to a practice. Our sole aim was to make the students feel that we were doing things for them.”

Hall’s teams had Halloween parties for UK faculty children at Wildcat Lodge and played scrimmages out in the state for fans who might not otherwise see a UK game. “I could go on and on to tell you the things we did to try to show the fans that we were human and we were involved in activities that included them,” he said.

If there is a new coach, Hall said, his first question is sure to be this: “What’s expected?”

The coach’s success will depend on how that question is answered — and how well he understands that the job is about a lot more than basketball.


Hoping for action, but not getting it

March 24, 2009

Don’t underestimate the power of a diverse group of 21 church congregations that have identified a serious problem in the community, proposed a proven solution — and won’t take no for an answer.

That was the dynamic on display Monday night, when more than 1,200 members of those congregations filled the Immanuel Baptist Church sanctuary for a meeting of BUILD, which stands for Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct Action.

It was a well-organized group, with ushers wearing yellow toy hard-hats. I saw at least a couple of local judges in the audience, and one corporate CEO. At least two Urban County Council members came to observe.

The meeting’s moderator, the Rev. Ron Luckey of Faith Lutheran Church, joked about seeing so many Lutherans and Presbyterians there, noting that those denominations aren’t exactly known for pushy activism.

In the six years since BUILD began in Lexington, it has achieved some impressive results by pointing out problems to city officials and institutions, proposing solutions and demanding action.

BUILD’s accomplishments include getting the city to establish a women’s drug treatment program at the jail, working with police to fight crime in drug trafficking areas and getting the city to improve code enforcement at trailer parks and provide relocation assistance to low-income renters displaced by redevelopment.

There were two items on BUILD’s agenda Monday night. The first was following up on an agreement last year with local hospitals, nonprofit clinics and the Fayette County Health Department to develop plans for providing primary care to an additional 6,000 uninsured adults over three years.

BUILD leaders had earlier reached agreement with officials on a series of next steps, and at 7:37 p.m., according to the meeting’s precise agenda, Dr. Rice Leach of the Health Department, was called to the pulpit and asked if he would coordinate those efforts. He agreed, to loud applause from the crowd.

The next agenda item was more difficult.

At BUILD’s formative meetings several years ago, one issue that emerged was affordable housing. Research showed that an approach that has worked well in Charlotte, Columbus, Austin and nearly 600 other communities nationwide is an affordable housing trust fund.

At the organization’s urging, Mayor Jim Newberry last May appointed a 47-member commission to study the issue. It was a broad-based commission, including Urban County Council members, legislators, representatives of non-profit charities, neighborhood leaders and experts from the homebuilding, real estate, banking and apartment rental industries.

The commission issued a thorough report in September that said 36 percent of Lexington’s 48,357 renter households spend more than 30 percent of gross household income on rent. About 18 percent — 8,753 households — spend more than half their gross income on rent. Many adults in those households are fully employed, but at low-wage jobs.

The commission also found that about 1,250 people at any given time are living in Lexington shelters, and an estimated 200 more live on the streets.

Meanwhile, the commission found that rental rates have risen more sharply than income in recent years, while federal money directed toward affordable housing has fallen 80 percent since 1980 and other public assistance has fallen since 1996.

The commission recommended creation of a trust fund that could be used to leverage conventional financing and other funding sources to build and repair affordable housing. It estimated that a $4 million annual investment in the fund could leverage $28 million each year for affordable housing — building 360 new units or renovating 1,400 existing units each year.

That level of funding also would create 448 jobs the first year and an additional 176 each year afterward, the commission estimated. It also would generate several times the investment amount back into the community as new economic activity and tax revenue.

After considering a broad range of sources for that $4 million in annual funding, the commission recommended a 1 percent increase in Fayette County’s 6 percent tax on insurance premiums. That would add a little more than $7 to the average annual cost of a home or auto insurance policy.

Newberry rejected the idea, and BUILD asked him to recommend an alternative. But when the Rev. Richard Gaines of Consolidated Baptist Church called Newberry to the pulpit to ask if he would commit to funding the trust fund, the mayor replied: “Not at this time.”

The response, which was expected, was greeted by the crowd with stern silence.

Newberry was given two minutes to explain his answer. Because of the city’s budget crunch, he said, “I do not foresee even the remote possibility” of putting city money into the trust fund. He added that the city expects to get several million dollars in federal and state money this year for other affordable housing initiatives through the Lexington Housing Authority.

Luckey of Faith Lutheran wasn’t shy about expressing disapproval from the pulpit, invoking the name of a young woman who spoke earlier to group about her struggle to afford housing on a low-wage job. “As difficult as it is to be mayor in these times, it is more difficult to be Tina Whitlock in these times,” he said.

“We were hoping for action tonight,” the Rev. Joseph Owens of Shiloh Baptist Church added. “We did not see that and we are deeply disappointed.”

Newberry said afterward that he dislikes dedicated sources of funding for programs. BUILD prefers that so it won’t have to fight for trust fund money each year. The mayor said he had sounded out several council members about the insurance tax increase and received little support.

While the trust fund is a worthy goal and he wishes he could fund it, Newberry said, “The timing is as bad as it has been for 80 years.”

Vice Mayor Jim Gray, who attended the meeting to observe, was impressed and a bit intimidated by BUILD. “This is a determined and committed group of citizens and even in the worst of times we need to reckon with them,” he said.

You can bet that Newberry, Gray and the Urban County Council will be hearing much more from BUILD about this issue and others facing Lexington.


Developer gives old buildings new life

March 22, 2009

The “AU” in AU Associates stands for “Adaptive Use.”

But if you remember the periodic table of elements from science class, Au also is the symbol for gold.

Holly Wiedemann has created gold for her Lexington development company — and golden opportunities for several Kentucky communities — through a complex alchemy of historic preservation, architectural innovation and creative finance.

AU Associates specializes in restoring once-beautiful old buildings by adapting them for new, economically sustainable uses. Most were once schools, rich in architecture and memories, and are now affordable apartments that put abandoned buildings to good use — and onto the tax rolls.

Wiedemann is working with First Presbyterian Church and Central Bank in downtown Lexington to restore a run-down Market Street apartment building from the 1800s into 10 attractive apartments that will rent for $300 to $600 a month. Old woodwork and fireplaces are being reused, architectural details restored.

“The proportions are comfortable to be in, and out each window you can see church steeples and gardens” of neighboring historic homes, she said.

That project is one of several now under way, Wiedemann said, representing $8.6 million in investment and providing 150 jobs.

“They have the right angle on the historic-preservation argument: It is first and foremost an urban-redevelopment argument,” Michael Speaks, dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Design, which includes the architecture school, said of Wiedemann’s company.

“Her firm is one of the few that is taking historic properties and using creative financing to give them new life and make communities better,” Speaks said.

Wiedemann, 53, comes naturally to her love of history and old buildings.

A great-great grandfather, George Wiedemann, started Wiedemann brewery in Newport. A great-grandfather, J.D. Purcell, started Purcell Department Store, which was in a grand old building on Lexington’s Main Street that was demolished in 1978 to make way for the Radisson hotel. “Boy, that would be a great building to have now,” she said.

Wiedemann grew up on the family farm in Scott County called The Hollys, for which she was named. The farmhouse, built in 1789, gave her an appreciation for the beauty and durability of old buildings.

After earning a degree in landscape architecture and urban planning at the University of Georgia, she worked for a major developer in Tulsa, Okla. She realized she would need to learn more about real estate finance to do the kinds of projects she wanted to do.

That led her to Duke University in North Carolina, where she earned a master’s in business administration and met her husband, Bart van Dissel, then a doctoral student. They moved to Boston, where he taught at Harvard Business School and she worked for Winn Development, a pioneer in adaptive reuse of historic buildings.

“That, for me, was the Ph.D. level education” in historic tax credits and unconventional finance, she said. It also sparked her interest in building affordable housing.

Through consulting work, Wiedemann raised the money to start AU Associates after she and her husband moved to Lexington in 1992. The firm’s first major project was remodeling the old Midway School into 24 apartments for seniors.

The Irvine mayor’s wife saw the project and got Wiedemann to do a similar one in the Estill County town. Since then, AU Associates has done other school-to-apartment renovations, with more planned in Glasgow, Winchester, Beattyville and Buffalo in LaRue County.

“These old schools are often beautiful buildings that were built to last and are located in lovely residential areas,” Wiedemann said. “Many of the people who live there now taught or went to school there and have wonderful memories.”

The firm converted an ornate former YMCA built in 1913 in downtown Louisville into 58 market-priced apartments and St. Francis High School. And it is turning a former tuberculosis hospital in Ashland into 34 apartments for domestic abuse victims.

AU Associates’ projects often are complex because they use historic tax credits, partnerships and creative financial arrangements. “We cobble together multiple funding sources to make these projects work,” Wiedemann said. “That’s why a lot of people don’t do this work.”

But the projects work, and there’s a lot of demand for them.

“The growth potential is amazing,” said Johan Graham, who along with Martha Dryden makes up Wiedemann’s core staff. “We really have as much work as we can handle just from the business coming through the door.”

The firm’s offices are on Georgetown Street in a formerly derelict pre-1800 house that AU Associates restored with a contemporary addition. Behind it is the firm’s first start-from-scratch project — ARTEK lofts, which was developed in partnership with neighbors in the Western Suburb Historic District on a formerly blighted lot.

Wiedemann and her husband live at ARTEK, which has impressive views of the downtown skyline and the Henry Clay monument in Lexington Cemetery. Unfortunately, ARTEK came on the market during the recent downtown condo boom and right before the current economic bust. Wiedemann said about half of the 38 units, priced from the low $170,000s to the low $280,000s, remain unsold.

The project’s unique contemporary architecture by Christopher Fuller of K. Norman Berry & Associates in Louisville uses a lot of concrete, steel and brick. Like the historic structures Wiedemann’s firm usually works with, it is built to last.

“In 50 years, it will be qualifying for historic-preservation restoration grants,” Wiedemann said with a smile. “It’s not going anywhere.”

Click on each photo below to enlarge it.


It is a good time to rethink retirement

March 22, 2009

Since I turned 50 last summer, I have received several letters from AARP urging me to join. The solicitations even include a little membership card with my name on it.

They always go straight into the recycle bin.

It’s not that I’m sensitive about my age, or have anything against the retiree advocacy organization. Besides, I know the AARP is just trying to increase its political clout and sell its insurance, travel and investment products.

I throw the letters away because I think 50 is too young for any healthy person to retire — at least in the familiar play golf, go fishing, putter around the house image of retirement. Slowing down too young is bad for individuals and even worse for society.

Of course, most of us will have no choice but to work more years than the previous generation. People are living longer. Health care costs are soaring. Defined-benefits pension plans are disappearing. And, if you haven’t looked at your 401k or other investments lately, don’t — your aging heart might not survive the shock.

Public employees have been shielded from some of these market forces, but taxpayers are demanding that change. Generous government retirement plans are no longer affordable.

The General Assembly met in special session last summer to shore up Kentucky’s state employee pension system. But the economy has slid so much since then that legislative leaders say more changes are needed. The system faces a $30 billion unfunded liability, both because of the system’s rich benefits and two decades of legislative underfunding.

Part of the problem is that the system has allowed many state employees to retire at 50, as a childhood friend of mine did last year. During the special session, the full retirement age for newly hired employees was raised to 57.

State Sen. Charlie Borders, a Grayson Republican who frequently speaks about pension reform, thinks the full retirement age should be 62. “Life expectancy is increasing,” he said. “For people age 50 and 55 to be able to retire, I just don’t think that’s acceptable.”

Retirement at 50 or 55 might make sense for people in dangerous public safety jobs or those whose work involves strenuous manual labor. But for most state employees, who work in offices and use their brains more than their backs, it’s hard to justify.

One justification has been that state jobs sometimes pay less than similar positions in private industry. Borders and others would like to see public employees’ pay and benefits, including pensions, more closely aligned with those in private industry.

Almost everyone agrees that any significant changes should affect only future hires, not current state employees.

Borders said young retirement has contributed to a “brain drain” in state government — although that’s more a management failure than anything else. Proper training and succession planning could lessen the problem, plus give young state workers clear paths to advancement.

Still, taxpayers should be getting the benefit of public employees’ training and experience for more years than they often do.

Likewise, society should be making the most of everyone’s training and experience. Some retirees devote their golden years to community service and volunteer work. But a life of retirement leisure is a common dream, even though some studies show it can be bad for your health.

A 2005 study of Shell Oil employees, published in the British Medical Journal, found those who retired at age 55 were 89 percent more likely to die within 10 years after retirement than those who retired at 65. The results didn’t vary significantly by gender or socioeconomic status.

If people are going to be working longer, we need to get serious about devising more flexible retirement options and creative opportunities for part-time work that is fulfilling, both economically and emotionally. Good examples include phased retirement for university faculty, the state and federal senior judge programs and programs that train professionals to teach.

One critical piece of this will be fixing the nation’s health care system. In most other industrialized nations, health care coverage is the responsibility of government rather than business. Those centralized systems cover more of the population, give workers more flexibility to change jobs and make companies more competitive in the global economy.

Opponents of change like to complain about “socialized medicine.” But if there is a better market solution, somebody needs to figure it out soon.

Although it makes sense to bring the retirement benefits of government workers more in line with private industry, we must avoid a race to the bottom that risks diminishing everyone’s quality of life.

Rather, let’s use this economic crisis as an opportunity to rethink retirement and find creative, entrepreneurial ways to keep our most experienced workers active and contributing. It will be good for them, and good for the rest of us.


Journalism is down, but hardly out

March 17, 2009

The boss’ email popped into my BlackBerry just as the smiling young lady walked into the school office to escort me to her journalism class. I would have to read it later.

I spent the next hour talking with the smart, engaged students who produce The Lamplighter at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. They wanted to discuss ways to make their monthly newspaper more interesting, relevant, inclusive and professional. I had a wonderful time.

Afterward, as I walked to my car, I read the boss’ email. It was an update on the latest round of job cuts at the Herald-Leader, which will be announced soon. It also said that, for the first time, most of those who keep their jobs will have their pay cut.

I was glad the high school students didn’t want to talk about the future of journalism, because adults ask me about it all the time. They hear about the Rocky Mountain News closing and the San Francisco Chronicle on the brink and they ask, “What’s happening to newspapers? Will the Herald-Leader survive?”

It’s complicated, I tell them. It has to do with changes in the economy, technology and the ways people communicate. Nobody knows how it will all turn out.

The irony, I tell them, is that there has never been a bigger audience for Herald-Leader journalism. Print circulation has slipped, but online readership has soared.

The Herald-Leader staff’s work is no longer confined to once-a-day, regionally distributed ink on paper. We now report news and tell stories instantly to a worldwide audience with as much copy, photos, audio and video as we can produce.

What’s more, readers comment on stories as soon as they’re published online, offering additional information, corrections and their own views. It has made journalism better and more interesting.

But as technology has changed the way journalism works, it also has changed the way advertising works. That has dramatically changed the news media’s business model.

You see, the money to pay for journalism has never come from journalism; it has always come from advertising. Companies now have more ways to advertise and, in a bad economy, less money to do it with.

That means revenues have fallen for newspapers, radio and TV stations. Online advertising isn’t as profitable as with print or broadcast. Online ad revenues are growing, but not fast enough to make up the difference.

Blogs, social networking and video-distribution Web sites have given everyone a voice, and that’s great. But journalistic reporting and commentary have been swept up into a larger universe of “media” that has blurred the lines between journalism and entertainment, marketing and advocacy.

Much popular “journalism” these days isn’t journalism at all; it’s show business, more focused on maximizing profit than in seeking truth, informing the public or promoting healthy discussion.

Take, for example, Fox News Channel’s flag-waving, rah-rah coverage of the Iraq War, or the CNBC “personalities” who touted stocks and glorified CEOs rather than doing in-depth reporting and skeptical analysis.

It’s no wonder people are confused, because journalists haven’t done much to expose these frauds or explain journalism’s values to the public. It’s sad that some of the best media criticism lately has come not from journalists but from a comedian — The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.

A decade ago, the Herald-Leader’s news staff stopped growing and started shrinking.

The same thing happened at radio and television stations. Lexington TV news has largely abandoned public affairs reporting to focus on crime, tragedy, sports and weather. There’s precious little reporting on commercial radio anymore; it’s all “talk.”

WVLK still has talk show hosts who discuss local issues, often based on the Herald-Leader’s reporting, but WLAP seems to have redefined its mission as right-wing political advocacy.

When people ask me if this newspaper will survive, I tell them I’m confident it will. The Herald-Leader remains profitable because no other advertising vehicle in this market comes close to its reach. As long as it has the journalistic muscle to be a must-read for Kentucky’s engaged citizens, it will maintain that reach. As the economy improves, advertising will return.

Much of the Herald-Leader’s current financial squeeze is the result of debt the newspaper’s parent, The McClatchy Co., took on a couple of years ago to buy its previous owner, Knight Ridder. I can’t complain; I welcomed the McClatchy deal.

Some people think local media ownership is always best, but I’m old enough to remember when the Herald and Leader were locally owned — and not very good. Outside ownership has some disadvantages, but it also can insulate journalism from powerful local interests and protect a news organization’s credibility.

I’m proud of the Herald-Leader. Reports about wasteful spending at Blue Grass Airport are the latest of many examples of local public-service journalism you won’t find anywhere else. I expect that work will continue, even with fewer people left to do it.

Newspapers aren’t about the paper, they’re about the news. As the old sayings go, good newspapers afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, print the news and raise hell. They celebrate success, shine a light on problems and hold government accountable to the public. They tell a community’s stories, and they provide informed commentary that sparks public discussion and makes democracy possible.

Good journalism is too important to disappear. So what’s the new business model to support it? I don’t know, but I’m confident somebody will figure it out. I’m also confident there will be plenty of young people — at Dunbar High School and elsewhere — with the intelligence and commitment to do the work.

The national perspective

The Pew Research Center puts together an annual State of the News Media report. The latest report was published his week. Click here to read it.


Lexington’s bones may return to Kentucky

March 14, 2009

Why did Central Kentucky become the center of thoroughbred breeding? One reason was Lexington — not the city, the horse.

Lexington was a big bay stallion, the best racer of his time and perhaps the best sire of all time. He was born here and spent most of his life here. But he has spent most of his death in storage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and, well, Kentucky wants him back.

Lengthy negotiations are about complete to put Lexington’s reconstructed skeleton on display at the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park.

“It looks pretty good right now,” said museum curator Bill Cooke, who is expecting a call any day from Smithsonian conservators who must release Lexington’s skeleton, officially known as Catalogue No. 16020.

The effort began more than two years ago when the horse museum became a Smithsonian associate, which allows it to borrow artifacts. “The first thing I said was we want to bring Lexington back to Lexington,” Cooke said.

“I’ve always wanted to have (an exhibit) that traces the history of the thoroughbred in Kentucky,” he said. “How did we get to be the thoroughbred capital instead of Nashville or New Orleans or New York? To a large extent, Lexington determined that we did.”

Borrowing horse bones — even famous horse bones — wouldn’t seem that complicated. But bureaucracy is bureaucracy.

At the time, Lexington was on rare public display as part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. Then, that museum closed for lengthy renovations, and nobody seemed to know if Lexington would be needed when it reopened. Just a couple of months ago, officials decided he wouldn’t.

“They have been very supportive all the way along,” Cooke said of Smithsonian officials. “They believe in the project.”

The timing is good because on Tuesday — the horse Lexington’s 159th birthday — the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau will kick off a marketing campaign built around a famous painting of Lexington — with the great horse recolored Wildcat blue.

The horse-of-a-different-color idea is an eye-catching gimmick. But using the horse Lexington to promote the city Lexington is a natural, said Ellen Gregory, a public relations executive who helped develop the campaign.

Gregory said the more she researched the great horse the more obsessed she became with him, because he had connections to so many famous people and events.

Lexington was born in 1850 at the farm of Dr. Elisha Warfield, a prominent physician, horseman and entrepreneur who treated Mary Todd Lincoln’s mother, was a friend of Henry Clay and became known as “the father of the Kentucky turf.”

Lexington, originally named Darley, won six of his seven starts, becoming the third-leading money-winner up to that time. He was retired to stud in 1855 because he was going blind and stood for 20 years at Nantura and Woodburn farms near Midway.

As a stud, Lexington was taken out of Kentucky only twice — to St. Louis for an exhibition in 1859 and to Illinois for safe-keeping in 1865, when Confederates were raiding Kentucky horse farms.

Lexington was the nation’s leading sire for a record 16 years, and many of his offspring became top sires. The blind horse fathered 600 foals, more than 200 of whom became winners. His descendants included Aristides, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby.

Another famous Lexington offspring was Cincinnati, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite horse. Grant rode Cincinnati to accept Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and let President Abraham Lincoln ride him several times.

Lexington was such a celebrity that people came to Woodburn Farm from all over the world just to see him. One was Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who later wrote that visiting the horse was like being “in the sacred presence of royalty.”

When Lexington died, the New York Times published a lengthy obituary. “He was probably more famous in his day than even Man O’ War and Secretariat were in their days,” Cooke said.

Smithsonian representatives came to Woodburn Farm on July 1, 1875, not knowing Lexington had died earlier in the day. A few months later, they arranged for his remains to be exhumed and shipped to Washington, where they have been ever since.

Once he gets the word, Cooke said he will raise the private money needed to move Lexington’s skeleton and build a special glass case for it. The Smithsonian generally makes such loans on a five-year renewing basis.

“Hopefully this is going to be a long-term deal,” Cooke said of Lexington’s homecoming. “As long as we’ve worked on it, it’s already a long-term deal.”


Lyric Theatre: Opportunity disguised as a problem

March 13, 2009

From the time it opened in 1948 until it closed in 1963, the Lyric Theatre was a cultural icon for Lexington’s African American community, hosting the likes of Duke Ellington and Ray Charles.

For the past 46 years, the Lyric has been an empty, crumbling building. For nearly 20 years, its renaissance has been a dream deferred for the East End neighborhood and many African Americans throughout Lexington.

Now, as city officials move forward with a long-promised renovation that will cost about $9 million, the Lyric Theatre is something else: A building in search of a sustainable operating plan, and a great opportunity cleverly disguised as a problem.

The Lyric renovation has a long and tortured history, but it boils down to this: City officials committed to restoring the Lyric as an African American arts and culture center as part of an agreement with the state. The Urban County Council unanimously approved a design that calls for a 588-seat theater, a 2,000-square-foot African American culture museum and a 3,800-foot multipurpose room.

The city has made a commitment, and that commitment must be met. Further delay will result in hefty fines by the state.

Many good people have put a lot of time and effort into planning the Lyric’s revival. But when the Urban County Council voted this week to authorize construction bonds, it became clear that the planning hasn’t been good enough. The Lyric’s business plan, which illogically did not include a feasibility study, would result in financial subsidies much larger than those the city provides for other arts venues.

You have to give Mayor Jim Newberry and this council credit: They’ve shown a willingness to tackle tough issues. Ed Lane, Vice Mayor Jim Gray and other council members have asked good, hard questions about the Lyric, and that has resulted in Gray being asked to form a work group to develop a better business plan.

Part of the problem is that not enough artists, arts professionals and entrepreneurs have been involved in the years of discussions about the Lyric. That has led to a lot of talk about the building, but not enough talk about how it could be used.

Gray said Friday that he expects to form a diverse work group. Among those Gray said he may ask to serve: Writers Frank X. Walker and Crystal Wilkinson, UK Opera director Everett McCorvey, developer Mira Ball and architect Drura Parish.

“It’s really important that whatever is done at the Lyric succeeds,” Gray said. One key to success will be forming partnerships around town with universities, arts groups and other organizations.

One work group member will be Jim Clark, president of LexArts, the local umbrella organization for the arts. Surprisingly, previous city administrations haven’t included LexArts in discussions about the Lyric.

Ideally, artistic and entrepreneurial vision would have driven the Lyric’s renovation plan, rather than the other way around. But it’s not too late to make the facility a valuable, sustainable asset for both the neighborhood and the city, Clark said.

Clark sees great opportunities for the Lyric to form partnerships with local artists, arts organizations and the University of Kentucky. Those could include integrating the Lyric into UK’s music, museum studies and art history graduate programs.

The Lyric’s special mission will require a strong director and board, Clark said, but money could be saved and efficiency improved if some management and technical employees were shared with other small city arts facilities.

This process also should prompt a larger discussion about city-owned arts facilities, how they are managed and how they are used. “If we’re going to put the Lyric under the microscope, we might as well put the whole thing under the microscope and see what’s best for the community,” Clark said.

One example: The Opera House, managed by the Lexington Center Corp., and the Downtown Arts Center, managed by LexArts, were set up more as rental facilities than “presenters” to actively recruit performers, as Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts does. That’s why Lexington gets Broadway touring companies while big acts such as Lyle Lovett, the New York Philharmonic, Joshua Bell and the Pointer Sisters go to Danville.

What makes a cultural facility successful isn’t the facility, but what happens inside it.

Thanks to the hard work of many people, the Lyric Theatre is on its way to becoming a fine building. The challenge now is for Lexington’s most creative minds to step forward and develop an artistic vision and business plan to make that building come alive, succeed and endure.


Update: Healthcare, Wal-Mart and a Kentuckian

March 12, 2009

One of the first pieces I wrote after beginning this column nearly a year ago was about Marcus Osborne, a Frankfort native and Transylvania University graduate, who is now a senior executive at Wal-Mart looking for ways the retail giant could use its business-efficiency expertise to improve the nation’s mess of a health care system.

On Tuesday, The New York Times carried this update on one of Osborne’s efforts involving electronic medical records. Efficient electronic medical records is a priority of the Obama administration, and the economic stimulus package has dedicated $19 billion toward the effort. “We’re a high-volume, low-cost company,” Osborne says in the Times story. “And I would argue that mentality is sorely lacking in the health care industry.”


Berea is Kentucky’s first Transition Town

March 10, 2009

BEREA — What if the energy supplies, food systems and other foundations of our modern economy and lifestyle suddenly changed? How would your community cope?

It’s a notion more of us have been thinking about during the past year. We saw gasoline spike to $4 a gallon last summer, then watched our consumption-driven economy slide into a deep recession.

Berea is one of nearly 150 communities around the world participating in a project called Transition Town. It is a citizen-driven effort to develop local strategies for coping with inevitable change in energy supplies and economic conditions that are no longer sustainable or good for the planet.

The Transition Town movement was started in 2004 by Ron Hopkins, an environmental educator in Totnes, England. Most Transition Towns are in the United Kingdom and Ireland, although the movement has spread to every inhabited continent except Africa. In addition to Berea, 17 other U.S. communities have signed on, including Los Angeles, Denver and Boulder, Colo.

“The next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years,” predicted Richard Olson, director of Sustainable and Environmental Studies at Berea College and a leader in Berea’s Transition Town effort. “But what they are largely depends on the actions we take.”

Here’s why things will be different: The world’s population of 6.7 billion will grow by nearly one-third over the next 40 years amid increasing worldwide demand for dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. Fisheries are diminishing, as are forests and fresh water supplies. Climate patterns are rapidly shifting.

Decades-old economic structures, lifestyles and food-supply systems based on an endless supply of cheap oil, natural gas and coal must change. “We’re going to be using less energy — and soon — so why don’t we plan for it?” Olson said.

These changes may seem like doom and gloom, but the solutions to them don’t have to be. In fact, Olson said, smart strategies could create stronger communities, more healthy lifestyles and happier people. “A future with less oil could be better,” he said.

Transition Town Berea, an outgrowth of an organization called Sustainable Berea, has citizens groups looking at ways the Madison County town can be less vulnerable to global changes. It’s a good model other Kentucky towns should consider.

For example, how could a community increase its ability to feed itself if high energy costs made it no longer practical to truck in produce from California, poultry from Georgia and grain from Iowa? How could more support for local farmers result in healthier, better-tasting food that is less vulnerable to contamination like we’ve seen in the recent peanut scare?

Citizen groups in Berea have come up with a variety of ideas, many of which hark back two or three generations to what our conservative ancestors would have considered simple, common-sense steps.

Among them: Teach interested residents to grow gardens, put up food, plant berry bushes and fruit trees. Promote the local farmers market, the use of local food in Berea restaurants and facilitate creation of local certified kitchens and food-processing businesses.

Provide home energy-use audits and low-interest weatherization loans to promote less energy use and save people money. Partner with local builders to promote “green” construction methods and consider future energy needs in zoning and land-use decisions.

Better connect the town with walking paths and bike trails, organize car pools and convert the municipally owned utility to a “smart grid” that could gradually integrate more decentralized sources of renewable energy. Support and promote locally owned businesses, and set up internship programs at them for local high school and college students.

To challenge the community, Transition Town Berea has adopted some ambitious goals around the slogan “50 by 25.” By 2025, the group would like Berea to use half as much electricity, and have half of it come from renewable sources. It also would like to see half of local food grown locally.

More than 60 people jammed into a room at Berea College last month to see Olson’s presentation on Transition Town strategies. It was heartening to Berea Mayor Steve Connelly among them. Too often, political leaders are so focused on the next election that they’re afraid to think long-term.

Connelly said the Transition Town group’s goals for Berea are ambitious, but worth striving for. “You can’t argue that there’s a lot of truth in what’s being said,” he noted afterward. “We have to change. It’s truly in our best interest.”

Change is inevitable. How will your community survive, and thrive?


Second Sunday backers rally Tuesday in Frankfort

March 9, 2009

Second Sunday, the effort to get Kentuckians off the couch and exercising in the street, is gearing up this week for a statewide event in October that will be bigger and better than last year.

Second Sunday organizers will rally at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Capitol Rotunda in Frankfort to promote the effort. House and Senate resolutions supporting Second Sunday will be introduced by en. Katie Stine, a Republican from Southgate,  Rep. Tanya Pullin, a Democrat from South Shore, and Rep. Susan Westrom, a Lexington Democrat.  Gov. Steve Beshear also plans a declaration.

A major street was closed for the afternoon last Oct. 12 in 70 of Kentucky’s 120 counties and more than 12,000 citizens got out to walk, run, bike, rollerskate and participate in other health-related activities and programs. In Lexington, Limestone Street was closed from Third Street to the Avenue of Champions and it was filled by more than 2,000 people, including Mayor Jim Newberry, several Urban County council members and their families.

This year’s statewide event is planned for Oct. 11, although promoters hope to open a major street to pedestrians in some communities more often – ideally, on the second Sunday of every month. Related activites are being organized throughout the year.

The Second Sunday movement began in Bogotá, Colombia, and has been copied by many other cities, including New York. Kentucky’s Second Sunday last year was the nation’s first coordinated statewide event. It is being coordinated by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s extension service, and the statewide coordinator is Diana Doggett of the Fayette County extension office.

Jay McChord, an Urban County Council member and one of the forces behind Second Sunday, sees the event as a low-cost, fun way to get notoriously unhealthy Kentuckians to be more physically active and more involved in their communities.


Downtown lessons from Louisville, Los Angeles

March 7, 2009

Just a few years ago, two of America’s most downtrodden Main Streets were those in Los Angeles and Louisville. Their once-grand buildings had been abandoned or mangled. Vagrants wandered the streets.

Many people in those cities — like those in Lexington who cheered demolition of the old buildings on the block of our Main Street where CentrePointe is planned — thought the only hope was to bulldoze and start over.

Louisville and Los Angeles now have very different stories to tell about their Main Streets. At a symposium last week sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Design, those stories were told by the architect/developers whose innovation and determination made them happen.

Tom Gilmore of Gilmore Associates is the force behind what is now known as the Old Bank District — three 100-year-old buildings in downtown Los Angeles that have been converted into 230 lofts surrounded by a neighborhood of restaurants, shops stores and cafés. He also saved a historic downtown cathedral the Catholic Church wanted to tear down. It has become a popular concert and event venue that is paying for the restoration.

Bill Weyland, managing director of CITY Properties Group, led the renaissance of Louisville’s West Main, where he built the Louisville Slugger museum and baseball bat factory and the Glassworks complex of art studios, offices and lofts. He also restored the abandoned Henry Clay Hotel building on South Third Street into a popular complex of lofts, shops, restaurants, theaters and event space. He has several other projects under way.

At the heart of both stories was the vision each man had for restoring beautiful old buildings for new uses, and the tenacity it took to convince bankers, city officials, Realtors and bureaucrats that it could be done profitably.

The developers had many great war stories, but my favorite came from Weyland.

He had bought an old building that he thought had potential for something, but he didn’t know what. Then he read that Hillerich & Bradsby was looking to modernize its Slugger factory in southern Indiana and build a tourist attraction. Weyland pitched his building, but Slugger executives wanted visibility from Interstate 64.

To get interstate visibility from a downtown site, Weyland’s company proposed creating a 120-foot tall baseball bat to lean against the building. Slugger executives loved the idea, but city bureaucrats were aghast.

A huge bat would violate Louisville’s restrictive sign ordinance, and the trademark Hillerich & Bradsby brand disqualified it from being considered public art. But Weyland wouldn’t give up. If city officials wanted to bring Louisville Slugger back to Louisville, they had to find a solution, he said.

Finally, a code enforcement officer asked Weyland if it would be possible to vent plumbing up through the bat. Weyland was puzzled. “The guy then pointed out that there is nothing in the Kentucky building code that restricts the shape of a plumbing vent,” he said. Problem solved, new Louisville landmark created.

The American Planning Association last year named West Main Street one of “America’s 10 Great Streets.”

What can Lexington learn from these examples, and many similar ones elsewhere? Weyland and Gilmore offered these thoughts:

Downtown historic preservation can’t be just about preserving the past or creating museums; it must be about adapting the best of the past to the economy of the present and future.

“It’s a touchy subject in the preservation community, because the first word in ‘adaptive reuse’ is ‘adaptive’,” Gilmore said. “You can’t just save old buildings; you have to find ways to get people into them.”

Old buildings are often worth reusing because they were built to last and are more structurally sound than they look. They have craftsmanship that can’t be replicated, and they convey a sense of a city’s history and culture. Still, some buildings must occasionally be sacrificed to save more significant structures around them.

Developers, bankers and city officials must be innovative, flexible and think long-term. Cities must abandon precise, restrictive rules in favor of more flexible processes that allow for dialogue and big-picture thinking.

“West Main Street’s transformation almost seems magical, but it was a 30-year war in which we had to overcome the status quo and the thinking of bankers who said, ‘There’s no way to redevelop something like that’,” Weyland said.

Downtowns must be designed for people and not automobiles. The key is creating a place where people want to walk and gather. Successful downtowns must work around the clock, allowing people to live, work and play in the same area.

“It’s about building communities,” Gilmore said. “And local mom and pop businesses are the lifeblood of cities. They make them unique.”

Downtown housing is most attractive to young people and empty-nesters; growing families usually prefer the affordable spaciousness of suburbs. “Cities are for people who are young and people who are young at heart. It’s not about age, it’s about attitude,” Weyland said.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the success of our cities are about the experiences people have in them and the memories they create.”


Lexington still has close ties to Eastern Airlines

March 5, 2009

If Frank Lorenzo was the villain in the epic story of Eastern Airlines, Eddie Rickenbacker was the hero.

So I was surprised Wednesday morning to get a call from a man who said, “Did you know that Eddie Rickenbacker’s grandson lives in Lexington?”

It was the first of many calls and e-mails I got about my column that day. I had recalled my experience covering the collapse of Eastern Airlines two decades ago as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and lessons that tragedy teaches about today’s economic troubles.

I wasn’t surprised to hear from many former Eastern employees who are still grieving the airline’s loss. For them, it was more of a calling than a job. And that company spirit had its roots with Rickenbacker.

He was America’s top flying ace of World War I, a Medal of Honor winner, a race-car driver and entrepreneur. He owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway before raising the money in 1938 to combine several fledging air carriers into what became Eastern Airlines.

For the next 25 years, Rickenbacker built Eastern into one of the world’s biggest and most respected airlines, as much as anything through the sheer force of his personality. He was disciplined and demanding — and unlike the corporate raider Lorenzo, who systematically stripped Eastern’s assets for profit and to benefit his non-union airlines, Rickenbacker watched every penny and made sure it went toward building Eastern.

“He was as tight as bark on a tree,” said Bob Cole, who was Eastern Airlines’ station agent in Lexington for 29 years — from 1951 until the airline stopped service to Blue Grass Airport in 1980 after airline deregulation.

Cole never met Rickenbacker, but he saw him once, when the famous war hero came to Lexington in 1946 to speak at the dedication of what was then called Blue Grass Field. “I’ll never forget it,” said Cole, 86. “He was tough.”

Brian Rickenbacker has similar memories of his grandfather, who lived in New York City and would come to his home in New Jersey once a month for a formal Sunday dinner.

“He wasn’t a real grandfatherly type,” said Rickenbacker, who was 24 when his grandfather died in 1973. “He was more one to offer advice and that sort of thing. He was a no-nonsense kind of a guy. He figured he had made it on his own and other people should, too.”

Brian Rickenbacker said his father, David, was one of his grandparents’ two adopted sons, both now deceased. Brian moved to Kentucky to attend Centre College in Danville and, like many Centre grads, settled down in Lexington, where he has lived for 32 years. He is the construction supervisor at Overbrook Farm and his wife, Betsy, is a respected math teacher and academic team coach in the Fayette County Public Schools.

“He was an interesting guy; I wish I had known him better,” Rickenbacker said of his grandfather. “He was somebody you always wanted to live up to.”

Rickenbacker said he’s not surprised his grandfather was such an inspirational figure to Eastern employees. He was both a great pilot and devoted to the airline’s success. As Eastern’s chief executive, Eddie Rickenbacker approved all invoices over $50. “He was much more hands-on than today’s executives,” his grandson said.

Rickenbacker was one of the things about Eastern that attracted Jim Graybill, who in 1961 longed to fly big airliners. “I had written to every airline, but I had my heart set on Eastern,” he said.

Graybill, 76, grew up in Shelbyville, soloed in an airplane on his 16th birthday and taught flying before he joined the U.S. Marines and became a drill instructor at Parris Island. He joined Eastern in October 1961 and flew a dozen planes for the airline over the next 28 years.

“I couldn’t have asked the boss upstairs to give me a better opportunity, a better job,” said Graybill, who worked for years as a “check pilot,” making sure other Eastern pilots were proficient in new aircraft. “It was an absolute fun job. I’ve got a one-track mind, and that’s flying.”

Graybill’s home in Nicholasville looks like an Eastern Airlines museum. Models of Eastern planes are everywhere, and the walls are covered with frames holding his insignia and other memorabilia. He, like Cole, continues his love of flying by volunteering at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky.

Eastern’s labor relations with ground workers were contentious for years, but the pilots never went on strike until 1989, when they felt they had no choice. It was clear that Lorenzo was determined to destroy the airline Rickenbacker built and they loved.

“We all got our heads together and said if Lorenzo’s going to take us down, we’re going to take him down with us. This outfit taught me that,” Graybill said as tears welled in his eyes and he pointed toward the Marine drill instructor’s sword on his living room wall.


An old story as relevant as today’s headlines

March 3, 2009

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the strike and bankruptcy that led to the dramatic collapse of Eastern Airlines.

I marked the anniversary a couple of weeks early by recycling two boxes full of court documents, interview notes and lists of long-disconnected telephone numbers that I collected while covering the story for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

I’m not sure why I kept that stuff in my basement so long. Maybe I thought I would write a book, as several others did. But the Eastern saga consumed nearly two years of my professional life, and I decided that was enough.

It was a great story, though: A titanic struggle between labor and management and, more significantly, between Main Street values and Wall Street values. It also was a soap opera with a colorful cast: Frank Lorenzo, Donald Trump, Peter Ueberroth, machinists’ union boss Charlie Bryan and the best lawyers money could buy.

About the only time I ever think of Eastern Airlines anymore is when I notice the logo on the little glass salt and pepper shakers on our kitchen table. The shakers were once used in the first-class cabins of Eastern jets. I bought them at the airline’s salvage sale.

Had my basement not needed cleaning, those boxes might have sat there a few more years. But going through them made me think about how, in many ways, that old story is as relevant as today’s headlines.

Eastern was one of America’s great companies — a pioneer of the skies and the free world’s largest airline, serving 26 countries on three continents. But Eastern also had a long history of labor-management distrust, and that escalated after airlines were deregulated in 1978 and Lorenzo acquired the company in 1986.

I was at Eastern’s headquarters in Miami when pilots, mechanics and flight attendants went on strike on March 4, 1989. I worked around the clock for days, thankful for an all-night Cuban restaurant and the new device I rented called a cellular telephone. It was as big and heavy as a brick, but a handy tool for a reporter on the move.

Five days after the strike began, Eastern sought bankruptcy protection. Using a legal loophole, Eastern’s lawyers filed their case in New York City, expecting favorable treatment from the court.

I spent many days over the next year in a courtroom with a million-dollar view of New York harbor. Watching legal legends such as Harvey Miller, David Shapiro and David Boies spar was like a master class in bankruptcy law.

At one point, Ueberroth, the Los Angeles Olympics organizer and former baseball commissioner, tried to buy Eastern. Then Trump bought the airline’s prized East Coast Shuttle, announcing the deal at a press conference in his glitzy Plaza Hotel.

The unions had long complained that Lorenzo was stripping Eastern’s assets to benefit his Texas Air Corp.’s non-union airlines. After a year in bankruptcy, the court finally lost patience with Lorenzo and took Eastern away from him. By then, though, it was too late. Eastern grounded its planes in January 1991.

Lorenzo left the airline industry, and the U.S. Transportation Department banned him from ever returning. An editorial cartoonist drew Lorenzo on a psychiatrist’s couch, with the doctor telling him, “You’re not paranoid Mr. Lorenzo; everyone does hate you.” Conservative columnist William F. Buckley complained that Lorenzo gave capitalism a bad name.

I didn’t throw out everything from those Eastern Airlines boxes. I kept a few souvenirs, such as the “No Lorenzo” and “We will survive” buttons that strikers and strike-breakers wore with equal zeal. And, of course, I kept my yellowed newspaper clippings, as well as a dozen or so interview tapes — just in case.

At the end of the Reagan decade, much of the public saw Eastern’s union workers as dinosaurs trying to cling to high pay and pre-deregulation work rules as the world was changing around them. The unions deserved some blame, at least for the conditions that allowed Lorenzo to take over Eastern.

But others saw the Eastern saga as a real-life version of Wall Street, the hit movie from a couple of years earlier. The similarities were amazing. About all you had to do was change the names of the characters: Michael Douglas as Frank Lorenzo and Martin Sheen as Charlie Bryan.

Like in Oliver Stone’s film, the collapse of Eastern Airlines showed what can happen when greed and manipulation trump sound business practices, when short-term profit overshadows long-term value and when the bottom line is all that matters.

Michael Douglas’ most memorable line in Wall Street is this: “Greed is good!”

The past few months, if not the past three decades, have shown us that greed is not good when other forces aren’t there to keep it in check. Merger mania and a lack of ethics and oversight have given us banks and corporations too loaded with debt to work and too big to fail. The money men have stuffed their pockets and left the rest of us to clean up the mess.

We should have seen it coming.