Monday, August 17, 2009

Newspapers, the Trib, and the Problem with Newspapers

This article in the Tribune last week isn't bad, but it's everything that is wrong with newspapers these days.  The reporting is fine, the writing is clear, but there is absolutely no context to the story itself.  I read this and was dumbfounded. After the first line, one can stop reading: "Chicago Public Schools leaders want a 1.5 percent property tax increase to balance this year's budget -- a hike they estimate would cost an extra $18 a year for the owner of a $262,000 home."

So with that in mind, let me fill in the gaps -- either where the story lacks context or doesn't go far enough.

Huberman listed increasing employee pension costs and the state's money woes as leading pressures on the district's spending plans...

The most under reported story over the last few years has been the rises cost of public pensions.  It is the major reason why the State of Illinois is in debt.  And in education the way pensions often work for teachers is that you work for years, then when it comes close to retirement, the principal starts bumping up your salary.  Why?  Because you get a percentage of that salary in retirement (these are career teachers).  Also, the state itself under funds education because of the state tax system -- read about it here -- and there's more on that below.

City school officials for months have been warning of a budget gap of $475 million or more in their $5.33 billion budget. The $475 million is the largest dollar deficit since Mayor Richard Daley took over the district in 1995. Next year, Huberman is projecting a budget hole close to $1 billion...

Why the budget hole?  In part because of the stock market drop over the last year (they'll get to that in a second) but also because property tax revenues are expected to either go down or stay about the same.  And since the state of Illinois doesn't really spend any money on public education, most of CPS' money has to come from property taxes.  Would part of this hole be filled if Daley's Great TIFS Giveaway wasn't happening?  Yes.  Does the Tribune mention this?  No.  Why?  I'm not sure.

Last year, the district avoided a property tax increase by dipping into its reserves. That decision followed the biggest property tax hike of Daley's tenure in late 2007 and two sales tax increases approved in 2008.

Again, not to beat a dead horse, but these actions were taken because:
1) The State of Illinois doesn't support public education.
2) Daley's giving TIFS to developers in areas like the Loop -- one of the last places in the City that needs a TIF.

The pension issue looms large. The district is required to fund 90 percent of the pension, which previously had not been a major issue, Msall said. But when the stock market crashed, the value of pension investments dipped and the school district was required to begin making up the difference. That meant $130 million extra this year and an estimated $300 million more next year.

"I think the Chicago Public Schools system faces an enormous financial challenge this year and even more so in the coming years," Msall said. "Basically, it's a pension time bomb."

Oh and the crazy, stupid contract they've worked out with the unorganized organization that is filled with petty infighting yet is some how powerful -- the Teachers Union.  Why not point out that the deals that CPS signed with the Teachers Union are much like the deals that GM, Ford, and the steel companies signed with their workers years ago and those pension and health care promises are, in part, what is killing these companies today?  

Again, the story itself is fine -- there is nothing wrong with it from a reporting stand point.  But if you were grading it what would you give it?  Something like a C+?  Maybe a B because it has some good information, isn't poorly written?  However, there is so much context to this story -- from how pensions work to the State constitution to property taxes -- that it's easy to see why newspapers are failing.  Journalists are taught in school on how to chase a fire truck or cover a press conference.  That's what was done here.  And we have, as a public, moved beyond that in part because of TV news but also because of the Internet.  If this story was (and part of it were) posted right after the press conference that's how newspapers should use the Internet get breaking news up there quick and make it easy to find.  But the next day in print?  Why not file a story with more context, explaining more about what is going on and why CPS is in this bind and wants to raise taxes?  Then I (and we) might actually buy your newspaper, but stories like this give me (and us) no reason to do so.

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