Friday, October 09, 2009


My first act every morning -- after I check my email -- is to read the Great Falls Tribune except for the sports section. I only glance at classifieds except during the Russell Auction week where there is a lot of art for sale. (I don’t buy/sell. I just like to look.) Some people find it much easier to call me up to see what the paper said than to actually subscribe. How do they wrap their fish and start their fires?

When I was doing media relations for Multnomah County Animal Control I discovered something valuable: it is as important to educate the newspaper editors and reporters as it is to get one’s story into the paper that arrives on my doorstep every morning. (“Pajama service.”) In Portland the ladylike editorial writers and the just-out-of-college reporters had a lot of strange ideas about dogs and their management. They were hard to change. I laughed with recognition when a person on my environmental philosophy listserv complained that every time he tries to explain ag issues, the serious scholars could not resist mooing and making pig jokes. In my case they all barked. I don’t know what sounds they make when infrastructure is discussed: truck noises? Humming?

Once upon a time newspapers were serious business and not just an excuse for advertisers to fill up the bottom of every page to the high-water mark. It’s interesting that the reservation recognizes the old Anaconda newspaper strategy -- keeping local newspapers under the tightening coils of censorship to prevent criticism -- and tries to start a new “peoples’” newspaper every few years. It never succeeds so the need remains.

Not much has been said in recent years about the importance of newspapers (and I’m not hung up about them being printed on paper -- online is okay with me) as a bulwark of democracy. Even the alternative newspapers have been seduced by “who killed Cock Robin” sensationalism. But we are told that local weeklies have not been suffering the losses that send the dailies reeling. It’s not just that we want to see our kids succeeding. We want to know what’s going on.

That’s why I was delighted to see the article about Valier’s power gaps in the Great Falls Tribune this morning. I’d just about worn out the official Northwestern Energy answer line with one inquiry after another. Everyone was “out of the office,” “only on voice-mail,” in a meeting in Minneapolis. The sweet voices who relayed this to me were in Butte, South Dakota, and -- well, not India as nearly as I could tell, but possibly in a reservation answer center. It took the prestige of a big (for us) newspaper to squeeze a human being out of the woodwork, though she wasn’t particularly informative. We were getting more details out of the local repair persons.

There are two issues to address now and they ought to be addressed by our town council, besieged as they always are. One is some kind of system to warn us when something like this is happening. Many people, both households and businesses, took damage from the blackouts and brownouts. The latter are the more destructive because they burn out motors. To prevent trouble one must hustle around to shut off the TV, the computer, the microwave, the refrigerator, and so on. It shut down the gas pumps, the cafe, the embroidery business. No doubt the NW Energy lawyers will reject claims for recompense on grounds of “user failure” to shut things off, but it doesn’t work if you do it AFTERWARDS. And this doesn’t count having to go around the house re-setting all the digital clocks three or four times a day.

So the second issue is some kind of central reference point that keeps track of what’s going on with the Valier infrastructure: electric outages, low well water, bridges out, road accidents -- it changes what we do, the plans we make. Maybe a website is the best strategy or maybe a phone answering line. The town council has had much concern about whether people would move to Valier if the street signs weren’t new and the grass uncut. I would suggest that it is far more discouraging if the power is off, one can’t put gas in the car, and one’s refrigerator is smoking. (Of course, this has been a nice windfall for repair persons.)

I live in Valier, the 350 or so people at the core of an area that includes as many as 900 scattered around on farms and the ghosts of crossroads settlements. I like being close to the land and the people who work it. The sort of news I appreciate is crop reports and funny stories about people I know. I like the worldview, unsubsidized by what someone wants me to do or buy.

“Where were you when the out-of-season big blizzard hit last night? Have you got a lot of green tomatoes this year? Too bad the pheasant count is down this year.”

But there are some things that only a formal “big” newspaper can tell you and behind that is a crew of savvy people who must sort through what they actually know to find what they can say without starting a lawsuit or a riot. It’s always worthwhile to get to know these folks. Some are kids but others are old pros who have been around long enough to understand the patterns under events and make shrewd guesses about what it means. Sometimes they are notable enough, like Eric Newhouse, to receive major prizes and develop his investigations into books.

Blogging has not changed this. In fact, blogs can complement and strengthen the formal print media by analyzing, representing another point of view, bringing up forgotten or unknown facts. I do NOT believe in newspapers “owning” paid blogs. They are really non-print columns. I think that the relationship of a private blog to the print newspaper ought to be like that of the print newspaper to the government/corporate/military establishment -- that is, a kind of flying buttress that stands outside but supports and acts as a conscience.

This power incident opens many bigger questions: why does no one at Northwestern respond? Was the transformer knocked out by fire or did it start the fire? What is the Northwestern plan for the renewal of overwhelmed and ancient equipment? What are their expectations for the demands of the area in the future? Why was there no good rerouting option? And so on. Curious readers want to know.

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