Daily Archives: November 21, 2014

Really, Free Press? Really?

I shouldn’t spend so much time bagging on the Burlington Free Press, but they just keep doing bag-worthy stuff. Like this — the current homepage on its website. Featuring News!!

Screen Shot 2014-11-21 at 1.40.26 PM

Yeah, we’re all, like Diogenes, in search the perfect pumpkin pie.

There are two additional bitchslaps to the corpse of Joe Pulitzer here. The first is that the pumpkin pie article was written by Candace Page, who used to do a fine job covering the environment for the Free Press; her byline is a reminder of better days long gone. The second is the tiny headline at the lower right: “Food donations ‘critically low'” at Burlington food bank. The gourmet foodie thing gets top billing, while the plight of the poor gets the shortest possible shrift.

But after all, the plight of the poor makes lousy clickbait.

This, on top of the Freeploid’s announcement of its new btvfoodie app, part of its ongoing pivot away from serious journalism and toward audience-friendly “content.” I have to say, this makes me feel that much better about reducing my subscription — er, sorry, account. “Subscription” is so 20th Century, isn’t it?

When I first dubbed the Free Press “Seven Days Lite,” I was half kidding. But it looks more and more like I was dead-on. The Free Press is doing its best to poach Seven Days’ ad-friendly endeavors while decreasing its serious coverage to alt-weekly levels.

I know, I know: the Free Press is in a tough spot, with decreasing revenues and a profit-hungry corporate parent mandating its every move. Given the situation, it makes sense to reposition the Free Press as a Burlington-centered, feature-oriented newspap — sorry, multimedia content platform.

I get that. What I don’t like is Michael Townsend insisting that the Free Press is still a serious force. It is, in fact, becoming largely irrelevant to those of us who (1) are interested in solid coverage of state politics and policy, and (2) don’t live in Chittenden County.  For us, the Free Press has fallen to fifth place, behind VTDigger, VPR, the Mitchell Family Organ, and — yes, I’ll say it — Seven Days.

Thank you for calling the Burlington Free Press. How may we ruin your day?

The newspaper business is in trouble for reasons beyond its control: new technology, changes in consumer preferences, and especially changes in advertiser preferences.

But beyond all that, the newspaper industry seems hellbent on killing itself.

call-centerI just had a most unpleasant interaction with the Burlington Free Press’ “customer service” system. Not the call center employee I finally managed to talk to after about 20 minutes of voice-mail slogging; she was perfectly fine. But everything else, good God.

Here’s my situation. I’ve been a subscriber to the digital service plus home delivery Thursday through Sunday. What I wanted to do was cut back to Sunday only delivery because, since the Free Press shut down its Statehouse bureau, it’s become less relevant to me. And the Sunday paper is basically a freebie, thrown in with digital access because they want me to get all the advertising in the Sunday paper.

First of all, I went online to the “My Account” page, and there was a button that offered me the chance to Manage Account. But when I clicked on this button, it offered me three options: “Increase delivery frequency,” “Update credit card,” and “View account history.”

See, you can increase your subscription, but you can’t decrease it or cancel it. It’s the Roach Motel of online customer service.

So I called the toll-free Customer Service line, and went straight into voice-mail hell. Early on, there was a nasty surprise: a recorded voice informed me that the Thanksgiving Day newspaper is automatically included in every subscription whether you usually receive the Thursday paper or not, and would cost more than the usual Thursday paper. You see, it offers so much “reader value,” i.e. advertising, that the costs of delivery are reputedly higher “because of the complicity of home delivery.”

Seriously, “complicity.”  That’s what the voice said. Representing a newspaper.

Aside from the sloppy illiteracy, that’s just a cheap-ass way to make your customers feel dumped on. And if I hadn’t called Customer Service for an unrelated issue, I wouldn’t have known about this extra charge until it was too late.

The voice mail prompts went on and on. And after I’d provided all kinds of answers, including name, address, and phone number, I was asked whether I wanted a live operator or more voice mail. I chose “live operator” immediately. Whereupon I was informed that my wait time would be *nine* miinutes.

If I didn’t want to wait, I was offered the option of a call-back “within seven to twelve minutes.” When I selected that, I was asked to provide my name and phone number.

Seven to twelve minutes later, I got a call back. From voice mail! It asked me for my name and other information, again. Finally, I was connected to the call center.

Where, let me stress once again, the live operator was very nice and helpful. Didn’t even try to talk me out of reducing my subscription.

She did, however, note that I’d still get next Thursday’s paper. And be charged for it.

I declined. To her credit, she didn’t fight back; she just took my order and thanked me for calling.

So now the Free Press’ “customer service” has left me upset and feeling like the mark in a three-card monte game instead of a “valued customer.” And left me hoping I never have to call them again.

Really, does Gannett even want to be in the newspaper business? They’re not acting like it.

At this rate, Lake Champlain will be cleaned up about the time the sun goes nova and the Earth becomes a cold, dead husk

Among the news stories buried in the avalanche of Grubermania are three separate developments regarding Lake Champlain. They adhere to a familiar pattern: one baby step forward, one big step back, and yet another dopeslap from the feds.

Yep, we’re making progress by… uh… well, it’s not leaps and bounds. Creeps and crawls?

A reminder before we begin on this week. The stoutly environmental Green Mountain State would still be ignoring its stewardship of Champlain if not for the Conservation Law Foundation’s 2008 lawsuit that compelled the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act for Lake Champlain. Specifically, to set a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for phosphorus, the chief nutrient responsible for our festive annual outbreaks of toxic algae.

Our pride and joy.

Our pride and joy.

Yeah, Green Mountains and, er, a green scummy lake. Nice.

In response to the suit, EPA decided to force tighter standards on Vermont. That happened in January 2010. In the nearly five years since, EPA has been chasing the state in an extreme slo-mo version of a Benny Hill scene, with Yakety Sax playing at 78 r.p.m. (Ask Grandpa, kids.)

(Historical sidelight: In January 2010, Louis Porter was CLF’s Lake Champlain Lakekeeper, and he hailed the EPA decision as signaling a new day and “a new, science-based approach to cleaning up Lake Champlain and making sure it remains a safe and enjoyable resource.” Today he’s a top Shumlin Administration official, which either means he’s a double agent working from within or he’s gone over to the Dark Side.)

Since early 2010, the state’s response has consisted of delay, baby steps, delay, lip service, promises, delay, half-baked initiatives, delay, pleas of poverty, delay, and… checking my figures here… delay.

Fast forward to this week.

First, the Shumlin Administration proposed a new fee on “impervious development” and a 1% hike in the fertilizer tax. The moves made sense, because agricultural fertilization and impervious development are two prime contributors to our plentiful nutrient flows into the Lake. Problem is, the two measures combined — assuming the Legislature approves them — would raise $1 million a year for lake remediation.

With cleanup costs estimated at $150 million, that’s a drop in the bucket.

(Addendum, 12/4/14. According to DEC Commissioner David Mears, the $1 million figure was basically a “for-example” sort of thing, and the administration wants to set the tax and fee rates high enough to produce $4 million to $6 million in annual revenue.) 

Second, the Administration released a 36-page Clean Water Initiative that promises to tighten water-related regulations and establish a Clean Water Fund (revenue sources decidedly sketchy) to help pay for needed improvements, One of the Initiative’s provisions involved a pirouette by the Governor; in August he downplayed the need for upgrading wastewater treatment facilities, but the Initiative called for more investment in wastewater treatment.

Then there was a step back. Or, at least, a refusal to step up, from Ag Secretary Chuck Ross. He decided not to mandate “best management practices” for farms in the Missisquoi Bay watershed, one of the most phosphorus-laden parts of the Lake. Ross gave two primary reasons, per VPR: 

— Mandating best practices “would be inconsistent with EPA’s ongoing process for water quality improvement in the Lake.” Which sounds downright Orwellian to me; limiting ag runoff “would be inconsistent” with EPA’s efforts to, uh, limit ag runoff?

— Also, “the state doesn’t have the resources available to help the basin’s farmers achieve compliance.” As if EPA is hat in hand, making a polite inquiry, rather than enforcing compliance with the Clean Water Act. Does Ross expect that, upon hearing his plea of poverty, EPA will say, “Oh, sorry. Never mind, then.”

And finally, a regional EPA official said the newly-minted Clean Water Initiative “does not go far enough to comply with federal regulations.” Stephen Perkins noted that phosphorus loads are still on the rise in many sections of the Lake, and said:

It’s going to take an awful lot of work to take those red trend lines and get them to bend down in a different direction.

VTDigger’s John Herrick summed up the bad news:

Even if the state’s plan were fully implemented, projected phosphorus levels in South Lake A and B and Missisquoi Bay would still exceed phosphorus limits set by the EPA. These are sections of the lake where phosphorus levels already must be cut by more than 50 percent to meet the federal requirements, according to the EPA.

And let me remind you that some of the worst pollution, caused by us Vermonters, is at the upstream end of the lake, in southern Quebec. We’re lucky Canada isn’t suing our asses.

In response to his comments, Perkins got some vintage rope-a-dope:

David Mears, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said Monday that his agency has no other proposals to present to the EPA at this time. “We’ll continue to have our sleeves rolled up and we’ll continue to work.” he said.

Mears pointed to the additional but intangible impact of “technical assistance and educational outreach” programs, which he admits cannot be quantified, “but we expect it will be substantial.”

If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d have a clean Lake by Christmas.

And then Mears pulled a Chuck Ross:

“We don’t want to put forward a plan that we can’t actually achieve,” he said.

Instead, I guess, EPA is supposed to be happy with a completely inadequate — but achievable — plan.

This isn’t all the Shumlin Administration’s fault. They’re dealing with the consequences of decades and decades of ignoring the problem and letting it get worse. But it has fallen in their laps, and their response has been… how did I put it… delay, lip service, delay, pleas of poverty, delay, half-baked initiatives, and delay. It’s safe to say the only way we’ll get a good cleanup plan is if EPA holds our feet to the fire until they’re glowing red.

For a liberal administration in a state that’s supposed to have a strong environmental ethic, this just sucks. To think that Vermont is having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to do stuff we should have been doing all along, well, it makes me doubt the existence of our strong environmental ethic.

The public response to all this has been underwhelming, to say the least. Little attention seems to be paid. Even the environmental community, which ought to be spitting fire, seems oddly passive. (I’m sure CLF would say they’re working hard behind the scenes, but I don’t see it.) We look at that $150 million figure and shrug our shoulders. What can we do?

Well, apparently, our inclination is to keep loading our prize jewel with guck, and put off our day of reckoning as long as we can.