Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lessons from a Shabby Man

Wednesday morning, as I was taking the light-rail train back from Phoenix to Tempe, a man stood up and began walking down the aisles, yelling “stop, stop!’’
He was a shabby fellow, dressed in a stained white T-shirt, soiled and wrinkled work pants and worn sneakers. I judged him to be in his 60s, although his sallow cheeks and hollow eyes may have been more a testament to a self-destructive lifestyle that can make a man appear much older than he is.
Light-rail has only been up and running for about a month now, so my first impression upon hearing the man pleading for the train to stop was that he must have thought the light-rail operates on the same principle as a city bus. On a bus, you can summon the bus to stop at any intersection.
Of course, I don’t know if this was what “Shabby Man’’was thinking. All I know is that he was quite sincere in his desire for the train to stop and real quick, at that.
“Look!’’ he told one of the passengers, who had made the mistake of making eye contact with him.
In his right hand, he held one of those lottery “scratcher’’ tickets. “I just won $250! Didn’t I? Look!’’ The man thrust the ticket in the face of the poor passenger, pointing to the winning combination.
The passenger did not respond, but the man seemed satisfied that he had, indeed, won $250. And I gathered it was no small sum for him, given his appearance and the reaction it provoked in him.
“Stop!’’ he said again, as the train began to slow as it approached its next stop.
“I wonder where I can get my money?’’ he said to no one in particular. “I gotta get my money.’’
The train stopped a moment later and the man stepped off. “I just won $250,’’ I heard him say again as left the train.
Now, for most people, this incident would simply pass as a rather odd happenstance. Most folks would attach no greater significance to it.
Well, you know me better than that. I have a hard time with the concept of randomness, which is one of the reasons why I’d be a terrible atheist.
So I have been thinking about this incident ever since, wondering what it could mean. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to connect it with a couple of other things that have been on my mind.
How I came to be on the train in the first place seems to fit in there somehow.
For my monthly column in the Times, I had decided to take up the topic of the woeful state of journalism by taking an impromptu tour of Arizona State’s opulent new journalism school in downtown Phoenix. For someone who doesn’t drive, the light-rail was the ideal mode of transportation.
When I arrived, I ran into an old acquaintance, Steve Elliott. He was the Associated Press bureau chief in Phoenix back when I was at the Tribune. Steve now runs the school’s new service, which gives students hands-on experience by producing stories for the area media. The money-strapped media love it because it’s free content.
I asked Steve if his students were having second thoughts about pursuing a career that, from all appearances, seems to be mortally wounded.
He said most recognized that there probably won’t be conventional jobs in the newspaper, TV or radio fields waiting for them when they graduate. The competition for those jobs is already thick with thousands of talented, experienced journalists who have lost their jobs over the past couple of years.
“There will always be a need for journalists,’’ Steve said. “But what I tell the students is that, more than likely, you’re going to have to invent your own job.’’
That stuck with me. In fact, that is what I was thinking about on the train when Shabby Man began to insist, rather loudly, that the train be stopped.
Now, these two things may seem hopelessly unrelated. At least they appeared that way to me until I sat down for coffee and began reading a book I bought about a month ago. The book - “Outliers, The Story of Success’’ by Malcolm Gladwell - examines the topic of why some people succeed more than others. It points out that the secret of success may not be as simple as we have been led to believe. Since I’ve only read a few chapters, I am not prepared to render a verdict on his ultimate conclusion.
But there was one thing in the book that did capture my attention and led me to make a connection between the two seemingly disparate incidents from Wednesday. The book begins by examining some of the long-held ingredients for success, one of them being intelligence.
On that subject, he pointed out two very different types of questions that are used on I.Q. tests. One is called Raven’s Progressive Matrices. You are probably familiar with it. The question is presented as a series of images, each one different from the previous, which suggest a pattern. You observe several images and then are asked to pick the image that should follow in the sequence.
In other words, you are being tested for your conclusive abilities. Given a number of possible choices, you are asked to select the one right answer, based largely on facts that you have been exposed to.
I think this is a good test for those fields where precision is a great priority - science, medicine, engineering, etc.
The other test rates another kind of intelligence. You are given a fact and asked to arrive at as many possibilities as you can. For example, a question might be to come up with as many uses as you can think of for the following objects: 1. A brick; 2. A blanket.
This kind of test is rates intelligence on a different perspective: creativity. Those who come up with the most diverse group of answers are generally graded the highest. There is a value in that sort of intelligence.
When I read this, I put the book down and began to think again about Wednesday’s experiences. Slowly I began to see the connection, the “big picture’’ that these events brought together.
If you have read this far, I commend you for your patience and realize that I must soon begin to connect all the dots or risk losing you altogether.
This is really a story about our struggling economy - and a possible solution for it.
I do not pretend to be an economist - and one look at my bank account would confirm why I make no such claim. But I do think that I am a reasonably bright person, one whose own economic crisis over the past couple of years has prompted me to give this subject long and careful thought.
Here is how I see it.
The newspaper industry is certainly not the only field that is facing a bleak and uncertain future. Aside from health care, I don’t know any field that isn’t suffering these days.
What might surprise you to know is that newspapers did not suddenly become unprofitable. In fact, most papers - even those who are employing the most draconian measures to cut costs - remain profitable. I think that may well be true of other industries, too, although the auto industry appears to be an exception.
So what is the problem?
It’s the Shabby Man, otherwise known as the stock-holder.
Not long ago, newspapers did not have much contact with Shabby Man. Most were privately held companies and, as such, newspaper owners often plowed money back into their product and, as a consequence, were able to sacrifice short-term profit for greater long-term stability.
When most newspapers were privately held, you could generally expect slow, but reliable growth.
But that began to change over the past 30 years when more and more newspapers were bought by big publicly-held chains. You can scarcely find a privately-held newspaper these days.
The arrival of Shabby Man, and his huge infusion of cash, meant some papers could become far more ambitious in their plans.
But there was a trade-off. In some cases, they grew more than was prudent. And there was also the matter of expectations. Shabby Man expected to see a regular return on his investment, and he expected it sooner rather than later and he expected it no matter what. He further expected that his return would grow each quarter or heads were going to roll.
Every quarter, like clockwork, Shabby Man stands up and insists that the train be stopped. “I gotta get my money,’’ he demands.
As a result, there is no re-investment. Long-term security is sacrificed on the alter of short-term dividends. Vision begins and ends with each quarter.
And there is another grave aspect of the dominant presence of Shabby Man: It created an atmosphere that greatly stifled creativity and diversity.
When Abraham Lincoln left Springfield, Ill., the town’s population was about 10,000. Yet there were seven newspapers in Springfield.
Today, 150 years later, Chicago has a population of 9.7 million and may very soon be down to one newspaper.
That’s true in many other industries as well. Somehow, getting bigger has made us smaller. It has also made us more vulnerable, less creative and less compassionate.
To a family-owned drug store one good employee is a precious asset. The owner will exhaust almost every option to keep him. To a mega-chain drug store, one employee is simply a cost unit or “FTE’’ (full-time equivalent), something that can be disposed of quite easily and without any pangs of conscience.
The ubiquitous Shabby Man is bad for consumers, too.
If you have a dozen small, family-owned deli shops, you’ll get a dozen unique and varied options. At Subway, you get one basic idea.
Shabby Man ultimately forces everyone to reach a single, “right’’ answer. But in these dark days, we all need to think the other way: We need to think about possibilities, the more the better.
Main Street has always been about that sort of thinking. Wall Street is not set up that way. It constricts, confines and consumes to appease the insatiable appetite of Shabby Man.
There is no question that Wall Street is important for our economy. But in my mind, it is Main Street that holds the key.
Wall Street looks a person like me and slams the door. Main Street says give it a shot and see what you come up with. “Invent your own job,’’ is the way Steve Elliott put it to those J-School students.
Each of us, no matter his circumstance, has some say in his future on Main Street. On Wall Street, we are at the mercy of entities who see us merely as consumers. To a small store, you are a person. I like that and I wonder what would happen if we began to invest in each other.
There will always been a place in our economy for Shabby Man, maybe even a large place. But I don’t want him on my train.
If I am going to make it, I’m going to make it on Main Street.


Geri Koeppel said...

I think this is your best column yet, and that's saying a lot. You do indeed always connect the dots. I am hopeful that some of the smaller offshoot and nonprofit web news sites (Arizona Guardian, The Zonie Report, Voice of San Diego, et. al.) out there will get us back to "real" journalism. The issue is finding a way to make enough money at these enterprises to pay "real" journalists over the long haul.

gempix said...

I would love to be able to think and write the way you do. You are able to present a scene or idea and then draw conclusions from it. My background is as a technical writer. The only commonality between these two types of writing is the word "write". I once attempted to take a community college course in creative writing. No matter how hard I tried, I could not break the mold formed by decades of technical writing.
So, let it be known that I admire and appreciate your writing, and more importantly, your thinking skills.