Friday, January 30, 2009

Does Opinion writing have a future?

On Monday, I’m scheduled as the guest speaker for a University of Iowa class on Editorial and Commentary Writing. I’ve been asked to talk about how I pull together and then write up the institutional view of the Press-Citizen Editorial Board. The students are supposed to read the Opinion pages for the past seven days and to have at least two questions ready to ask me. They also are supposed to write two institutionally voiced editorials of their own.

It’s an easy enough assignment — lord knows I can talk endlessly about my job — but I’m struggling over how to begin the discussion.

In order to frame what I actually do at the Press-Citizen, I think it’s necessary to talk about the constraints of a one-person Opinion shop — especially given that there are many more one-person (or even less-than-one-person) Opinion shops than there were just a few months ago.

If these young journalists really want to learn what opinion and commentary writing is all about, they’ll need to understand how the newspaper business is evolving (devolving) right before their eyes. In addition to what gets printed in the paper, they’ll need to develop an online presence for their Opinion sections as well as an online presence for themselves — one independent of the newspaper they work for (this Web site is my my first attempt). And while they develop their own independent voice, they’ll need to learn how to exploit the lingering vestige of institutional authority when it can help give a little more credence to their opinions.

And, unless they’re lucky enough to land a job at one of the dwindling numbers of newspapers who employ multiple editorial writers, they’ll need to learn how to write opinions that don’t fully match their own. They’ll have to learn to be faithful to the consensus opinion of their editorial boards without breaking the National Conference of Editorial Writers’ Basic Principle No. 6: “The editorial writer should have the courage of well-founded convictions and should never write anything that goes against his or her conscience.”

While I definitely don’t want to paint a rosy picture of the industry, I also don’t want to scare off the kids completely. Nor do I want to come across as just kvetching about my job.

Do you, dear readers, have any suggestions for how I should frame this broader discussion? Or perhaps I should just stick with a tutorial on how to:

* State the main point clearly,

* Grab readers’ attention,

* Avoid piling on facts and statistics that have little to do with your main point,

* Avoid sounding like you expect your words to be chiseled in stone and

* Go after your opponents’ best — rather than worst — arguments?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Does 'The Oxford Project' count as Young Adult literature?

I’ve never thought about “The Oxford Project” (Welcome Books, 2008) as being a Young Adult book. It’s a work of photojournalism in which photographer Peter Feldstein and journalist Stephen Bloom collaborate to tell the story — in words and pictures — of how a small Iowa town changes over the course of more than two decades. I’ve always thought of the entire project as being extended, Iowa version of Australian writer Peter Carey’s short story, “American Dreams” (“The Oxford Project, Sept. 25, 2008).

But it seems that the people over at the Young Adult Library Services Association — a division of the American Library Association — read the book very differently. They’ve selected “The Oxford Project” as one of the 10 books this year they’re recognizing with an Alex Award, an award given to books that interest teens.

The award makes sense when I keep in mind how Joel Shoemaker described Young Adult literature in an interview last summer (“Getting books into teens’ hands,” Aug. 27). Shoemaker, the librarian at South East Junior High in Iowa City and a former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, said he’s always looking for “something on the border, something on the edge, something that’s going to push the limits.”

In its blending of photos and transcribed dialogue, “The Oxford Project” conflates a number of different genres as it tells a patchwork of interconnected stories. The book doesn’t require a reader to plow straight through its hundreds of pages. It instead offers a chance for readers of every age to choose which stories and photos they want to know more about. And it provides teenage readers with a chance to contrast what people look like in their teens and what they end up like in their 30s — no doubt a very scary revelation to the adolescents skimming along.

Shoemaker’s comments also help explain how “The Oxford Project” could earn this award even if Feldstein and Bloom didn’t have a Young Adult marketplace in mind.

“When Robert Cormier wrote ‘The Chocolate War,’ he didn’t know he was writing a book that would change YA literature,” Shoemaker told me last summer. “He was a newspaperman from the east coast and was as surprised as anyone to find out he was a YA author. He spent the rest of his life writing critically acclaimed, interesting books that teens would read.”

The members of the Young Adult Library Services Association seem less interested in rewarding publishers who pander to teens and more interested in finding books that make a strong connection with readers who just happen to be teens. They’re working to recognize good books that can resonate deeply with adults and teens — albeit on different levels.

That’s what we want for literature,” Shoemaker said, “To change readers.”

Congratulations to Feldstein and Bloom for finding a broader audience than they may have intended, and congratulations to the Young Adult Library Services Association for constantly being on the look out for good books whatever their original audience might have been.

Iowa governor's budget includes $4.2 million to sustain programs for victims of domestic violence

There’s going to be plenty of bad news connected to the trimmed budget that Iowa Gov. Chet Culver released Wednesday. But one bright spot is that the Big Lug seems to have listened to the concerns of domestic violence advocates and called for nearly $4.2 million for programs that provide services to crime victims.

Earlier this month, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller called on the governor and the Iowa Legilsature to provide $4 million to maintain these “lifesaving services.” Last week, the Iowa City Press-Citizen Editorial Board echoed the attorney general’s request and urged state leaders to find a sustainable source of funding for these programs (“Don’t leave abuse victims out in the cold,” Jan. 24).

“‘This problem is not a result of the current budget crisis,’ said Beth Barnhill, the executive director of the Iowa Coalition against Sexual Assault. ‘This is a problem of long-standing that came to a head in a terrible economic time. We're not asking for any new money. We're only asking to maintain our funding — which is still at 85 percent what we were receiving seven years ago.’”

Many state leaders have spoken in support of the programs — which in Iowa City include the Rape Victim Advocacy Program and the Domestic Violence Intervention Program. But it wasn’t until Wednesday's budget proposal that the program directors were sure whether that support was just lip service or was likely to result in sustainable funding.

UI Health Care conflict of interest policy: A long time comin'

We’re glad that University of Iowa Health Care has caught up with so many other institutions in developing a comprehensive policy for reducing conflicts of interest between its employees and health care companies. Given the huge number of university staff and physicians covered in this policy — everyone in the medical college and the hospital as well as in dozens of university departments — the drafting process for the committee must have been onerous and time consuming.

The very size of the committee — 40 members — demonstrates:

* How seriously UI Health Care officials take the issue and

* Just how much money is at stake if the policy is either too stringent or too lenient.

Now that the heavy lifting for the policy is done, we hope UI Health Care officials work to create a less onerous process by which the policy can be updated on a regular basis. That way, UI Health Care can live up to its slogan — “Changing medicine. Changing lives.” It can become a leader in the efforts to anticipate the conflicts that could arise in today’s rapidly changing medical landscape.

The new restrictions — which will be implemented by June — come after a UI-requested audit showed that administration needed a better way of monitoring potential conflicts. The audit, performed by the Iowa state Board of Regents audit committee and released in May of 2008, made a number of eyebrow-raising discoveries, including:

* Some UI doctors were paid for private consulting while on the clock for the university;

* Some UI staff had purchased equipment directly from companies with which they had financial ties; and

* Nine doctors out of more than 800 failed to file required reports in 2006 disclosing their potential conflicts of interest.

In response to those and earlier conflicts, the new policy prohibits employees and student trainees from:

* Accepting gifts, even those below the state's $3 gift limit;

* Accepting any free food;

* Distributing free drug samples or vouchers for free samples to clinical care patients; and

* Using free samples for themselves or their family members.

The policy also would:

* Prohibit sales representatives from being in patient-care areas (with some exceptions for training), and

* Require employees who consult for a private enterprise to complete a contract stating what tasks they will perform for the company and what their compensation will be.

Cynics might say, “If it takes an audit for UI to come around to something this obvious, we wonder what else is going on.” But the university itself initiated the audit as a means of increasing transparency in the relationships between researchers and industry.

“Not all of these relationships are ‘bad,’ if that’s even the right word,” said pathology professor Michael Cohen, who co-chaired the 40-person committee. “But they need to be managed. You can only do that if you have this sort of transparency in place.”

The current policy — if updated regularly — will help to mark when a relationship between a physician and manufacturer stops being in the best interest of patients. It will improve the likelihood that, when UI Health Care is purchasing a multi-million-dollar piece of medical equipment, it’s because the equipment meets the hospital’s needs and not because a UI researcher had such a good time with a sales rep at dinner.

Concerns about the Iowa City School Board's five-year facilities plan

The final version of this probably will be trimmed quite a bit, but here's a draft of our editorial response to Tuesday's meeting of the Iowa City School Board.

Oddly enough, controversies about the Iowa City Community School District’s $51 million, five-year facility improvement plan seem to come less from what was actually in the plan (a new building for Roosevelt Elementary and a 12-classroom upgrade at North Central Junior High) and more from what was left out of the plan (any major improvements for the district’s two oldest elementaries and any details about moving forward with a third comprehensive high school).

The school board did not take any action on the facility plan Tuesday and plans to discuss it further at its Feb. 9 meeting. Anyone wanting more specifics should read thorugh the nine-page plan ( and attend the meeting.

Closing Roosevelt

On Tuesday, district officials unveiled their plan to replace Roosevelt over the next few years. Because a recent study found that the school needed more than $5 million in repair, the district decided that constructing a new facility would be a more efficient use of funds than updating the 78-year-old building. The school — which has handicap accessibility issues and is over capacity — also was cited by the Iowa Department of Education last year as being "racially and socio-economically isolated" because of a higher percentage of minority and low-income students.

Because the district-owned land surrounding Roosevelt doesn’t provide any suitable sites for a new school, the board and administrators are planning to expand nearby Horn Elementary, to build a new elementary on the land the district owns along Camp Cardinal Boulevard and then to redraw the school boundaries between the area elementaries.

Several parents and teachers at Roosevelt Elementary who attended Tuesday night’s school board meeting said they were generally supportive of the proposal.

What about the two oldest elementaries?

But the decision to decommission Roosevelt’s building also has parents and residents worried about the long-term plans for the district’s oldest elementaries, Longfellow and Mann. Many of those residents said they voted for a Local Option Sales Tax in 2007 because they assumed at least some of the money would be used to improve the older schools. Yet the five-year plan doesn’t include any major improvements — despite Mann already having been tagged for being out of compliance with the American Disabilities Act.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board and administrators assured those concerned that they didn’t have plans to close any schools in the next five years. But they also said they can’t make promises beyond the five-year mark because most of the board members will turn over before then. What to do about Mann and Longfellow, they said, will be the responsibility of a future board.

While there doesn’t seem to be an overt “sin of commission” in terms of current school officials actively arguing to close Longfellow and Mann, those officials may be committing a “sin of omission.” By not updating the two older buildings, the administration and board risk allowing Mann and Longfellow to continue to deteriorate until the schools will have to close sometime in the next generation.

"What they're proposing is essentially demolition by benign neglect," said Michael Wright, Iowa City Councilor and former chairman of the Northside Neighborhood Association. "With no capital investment, old buildings become more outdated and less desirable. In the case of Mann, with limited land for a new building, I firmly believe a creative architect and a school board and administration committed to core neighborhoods could assure the future of the facility."

If the Longfellow building were to close sometime in the next decade or two, the district probably would build a new school in the nearby soccer field — meaning that the neighborhood wouldn’t lose out on a school. And while there’s less land surrounding Mann, the district might be able work with the city to build a new facility in the nearby the nearby North Market Square Park — that is, if a later board were to decide the building wasn’t worth saving.

Either way, the neighbors are concerned that if the district doesn’t address their concerns about the schools in the next five years, then the current board and school administrators, in effect, are limiting the options for future boards.

Third high school

Although the plan states that the district’s “enrollment projections do not show a need for a third comprehensive high school in the next five years,” the school board is continuing to live up to its promises in the SILO campaign and to set aside $3.2 million per year for 10 years. The set aside money could be used to build a third comprehensive high school for 600-800 students, but SILO money cannot be used to pay the estimated annual operating costs of $2 million for staff and $1 million for utilities and maintenance.

Instead, the board is asking for more community discussion on what type facility the district needs to serve its growing high school population. Some the options that have been discussed include:

* A ninth-grade center,

* A magnet school or

* A comprehensive high school (which the district says it can’t afford to operate).

The plan states, “The Board of Directors and community must engage in a candid discussion of updated high school enrollments and capacity and develop a long range high school enrollment plan prior to a major construction initiative.”

But those discussions have been taking place for the past few years. Even as the district deals with short-term effects of the state budget cuts announced Wednesday, it will have to take specific steps over the next five years to ensure that another high school comes to fruition.

Those steps should have been outlined in this plan. Hopefully, they will be included in the 10-15-year plan that is scheduled to be available on the district’s Web site Friday. And, if not explained in that plan, hopefully the details will be discussed in the Feb. 9 board meeting.