Friday, December 20, 2013

Twisted route to Ashland BRT


Only in Chicago can it be surprising when a municipal hearing involves not only questions from the public, but answers too.

There have been nothing but questions about the CTA's plan to devote two lanes of Ashland Avenue to express buses. Bus-only lanes were on the drawing boards five years ago along Jeffrey Boulevard, Halsted Street and several east-west streets. A Jeffrey route saw daylight last year with a downscaled 2-mile bus lane. But the others seem to have been abandoned – until this summer, when the Halsted plan resurfaced on Ashland to the surprise of long-time community activists. There were public hearings along the way, but with few signs that the public was invited.

We've come to expect town halls to be stage-managed. When the city closed neighborhood schools this summer, asking questions required signing up before entering the hall for 2 minutes of microphone time. The format included a court reporter dutifully recording the testimony, plus steady cross-talk of Spanish translation for parents, but no response. School administrators and the police commander referred the audience to planning documents collated in binders. Shades of Mitt Romney.

I was hoping for more back-and-forth from the stage at the CTA's Dec. 20 Ashland BRT "open house" at the Pulaski Park fieldhouse. This time, no one was on the stage. Instead, two rows of easels displayed slide-show pages summarizing the plan, and CTA staffers and consultants nearby to field questions.

While I had a lot of questions, mostly I got the same answer: Great question! Write it down on this comment form, or the court reporter will take it down. Or, you can look for details in those binders over there.

At least it was an answer. Despite the cue-card format and house-hunters billing, the open house was indeed a public hearing under the project's federally mandated environmental assessment. However the CTA came to consider Ashland Avenue for bus lanes, the agency can't be faulted for rejecting the status quo.

The quickest way to get from one end of Ashland to the other on the CTA is first to take the L downtown. A drive along the route between Cortland and 31st streets raises questions about how the how vehicle traffic would move with two fewer lanes, especially when traffic idles for a delivery truck, a parallel parker, a narrow underpass or a queue of turning cars.

Other options seem to have faced little serious consideration. Logic would dictate that continuation of the status quo would have some effect, good or bad; in fact, the CTA assessment asserts "the inadequacy of the No-Build Alternative to address persistent growth and mobility needs outside of downtown." Yet the study assigns no impact to this alternative.

The CTA "Build Alternative" takes out left-turn lanes to make room for new bus stops at the median. It was chosen from from a half-dozen scenarios identified in 2012. There's little evidence that round of open houses was publicized or open to members of the press, much less the community. Yet any feedback was considered definitive. Even now it is difficult to evaluate what options were considered or why they were rejected.

The final scheme in fact bundles several approaches, from articulated buses to left-turn restrictions to greeen-light signal priority. It's likely that each does not contribute equally to the success of the project, yet there is no opportunity to evaluate each on its own. If funding is limited (and when is it not?) there is no guidance on what priority to assign each element. For instance, signal priority alone might provide the greatest on-time benefits at little cost or disruption.

Impact on side streets is suggested – for instance, although parking is restricted to residents along much of the study area, enough open parking is assumed to absorb a 12% loss of parking along Ashland. There is no traffic study for Noble and Wood streets, the closest local arteries parallel to Ashland, although they are very likely to take on additional traffic. When bike lakes were added a few years ago on Damen Avenue, this relatively simple diverted traffic to Wood and other north-south streets as well as Ashland and Western.

Left-turn wait times at rush hour already are judged as unacceptable at 13 intersections, yet there is no examination of the options available to reconfigure these intersections, or their effect on traffic patterns. Right-turn lanes presumably would face backups comparable what left-turn lanes now encounter, yet parking remains in place in the far lanes, forcing traffic backups in the single forward lane. Backups or increased exhaust emissions are not considered.

Mayor Emanuel launched the plan as building a "world-class transit system" but as concerns spread he appeared to hedge. There's still no money allocated for operation, which the CTA assumes will cost no more than current service, for the $10 million-per-mile construction cost, or even for the next engineering round. If the route has any chance of getting built, the current plan will have to survive further federal review.

So objections like these (ultimately submitted via email, not comment card) have a reasonable chance of making an impact. Chicago is full of surprises.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Another day at the office


July 2013: The Stanley Cup visits the newsroom, but the news watch never stops.

Hey. Got a second? When the boss sends email like this, I grab pen and notebook: Whatever's on his mind is rarely brief. But it doesn't take long to get laid off.

Two vice presidents give me the news. There's not much to say: It's not performance, just the newspaper business. Details slide across the conference table at 11 a.m. in a navy blue folder from Staples – outplacement flier in the left pocket, severance agreement on the right, business card from human resources wedged in place. A reorganization memo circulates simultaneously.

At this point you might expect me to denigrate, disparage, damage the reputation or otherwise convey an unfavorable impression of a longtime employer. Language in the blue folder anticipates as much. But then why would I stick around around so long? A business with a First Amendment charter needs no legislation or consultants to spell out its ethical responsibilities. It's a righteous place to work.

Still, anyone reading a newspaper knows its long-term prospects are sketchy. I've spent 16 years in print at one newspaper and 16 years online at another. One short conference, a handshake and the next 16 years are in front of me. I phone my wife. Whatever happens at work, if I have a job when I call it's a good day. We've talked about prospects for a bad day. It's still not a good call.

After years quietly desk bound, I'm going out chatting. I head upstairs to talk to my team. The social-media producer flashes the blue folder, a secret sign. I continue across the newsroom, gathering condolences and business cards. An editor offers a freelance contract for my folder.

I find my supervisor, now thrown into another restructuring. We get coffee and tea. I walk her through the folder's contents, and remind her that she survived the last shakeup with grace. I make it my last assignment to deliver similar messages to ex-bosses who must summon that grace again, and say goodbye to friends whose jobs just got tougher.

I haunt at least a half-dozen floors, still carrying the Blue Folder of Death, retracing my dotted lines on the org chart. I compare notes and half-baked theories with reporters; the extent of a layoff is rarely clear when the night shift has more to come. I look for familiar faces in other departments. I wonder who's still here.

One last mid-afternoon trip to the break room: I summon the nerve to read the separation agreement, then head to Human Resources. The advisor has been wondering when I would show up. We have a long talk about the severance package, the outplacement consultant, the Toastmasters club, the human-resources team.

Cleaning out my desk will wait till the next day. My night-shift counterpart is gone, her desk cleared of family photos. My personal items fill a small backpack. I leave a Tony Fitzpatrick show poster pinned to the cubicle wall and two employee awards in the corner, a Day of the Dead altar.

My supervisor has kept some direct reports and inherited others, and is meeting them one by one. She returns long enough for me to leave my entry pass and locker key, and as she walks me out she starts clapping. City desk editors join in, then reporters and producers. We swing past the studio and the app developers are all standing. I'm getting an ovation. It's a newsroom ritual by now: When we hear applause we ask who's leaving. Now it's my turn.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Journalism's pressing issue: Just the facts


What do you think is the most important problem facing journalism in the U.S. today?

The thought gives pause. Indiana University asks practitioners every decade as part of its survey "The American Journalist." How would a journalist answer today?

Five years ago Yahoo! Answers posed the same question to its readers. The "best answer" was that journalists are biased, uninformed, lazy, repressed and insincere. This crowdsourced response is found in the same Internet search as a newspaper's 600-word announcement that its writer will participate in this year's I.U. study. The reporter is "excited and humbled" by the opportunity but fails to note that the research is a 20- to 30-minute commitment by randomly selected participants to take an online poll. Reading this news, it seems the community on Yahoo! has a point.

It's understandable if journalists see their issues as existential. Layoffs have been a continuing threat as as my employer, my previous employer and media companies nationwide worked through bankruptcy. More joining the ranks monthly, most recently GateHouse Media. Other publishers have sold at half their value of a few years ago. Yet this is old news. Newspaper circulation has been in a 60-year decline. Newspapers were merging or folding throughout my high school and college years, leaving many cities with a single daily newspaper. The Chicago Tribune I read in the 1970s was the same size as today's product. Business and sports did not even rate separate sections.

The consolidation continues, yet news in print has far from disappeared. Printing plants in Chicago are busy publishing The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Growth in broadcast and online media have assured there's no monopoly on the news; the pain point is that there's no monopoly on advertising either. Entertainment channels and websites sell to local audiences, sapping news outlets of their pricing power.

Debate over journalism's ethics is nothing new either; ethics codes have been part of the profession for a century. And writers largely aspire to news ethics: Outside the mainstream, minority voices are no longer samizdat – opinions can travel as far as the web can carry them. Yet lone bloggers aspire to the ethos of journalism, and Internet movie-magazine throwbacks like TMZ build reputations on getting stories fast and getting them right. If journalism is facing an ethical crisis, an Internet army is willing to pick up the gantlet.

While journalists should be concerned about ethics and the economy, they've met these challenges before. What makes the climb so steep is the that the value of news has faded in the public mind. Long-running Pew research shows negative attitudes toward the press at record lows.

Cynical readers believe news organizations tell truth to power; fairness and honesty are also widely questioned. Pew finds a ray of light in public support for investigative journalism. It's an expensive way to earn trust. Yet without a watchdog spirit, journalism's halo will dim just as non-traditional competition requires news to be trustworthy.

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is new to journalism but seems to have a grasp of the new competition. Talking with reporters and editors at the paper he's taking over, the Washington Post, he acknowledges that they can spend months on a project that the Huffington Post can summarize "in 17 minutes." Bezos wants to make quality journalism a regular habit, and there is evidence that that's a lucrative strategy. Online still accounts for only a fraction of newspaper ad revenues. Yet Google economist Hal Varian notes that if readers spend as much time on a news website as with a print newspaper, the revenues are comparable.

If media seeking an engaged audience are banking on quality in a marketplace crowded with aggregators, they had better hope customers can spot the difference. Here the signs are not encouraging. This week Popular Science dropped comments on its web posts, noting continuing "debate" over evolution, climate change and other issues long settled in the sciences. The magazine cited a University of Wisconsin finding that negative comments skew perceptions of a news report.

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, debate on the debt ceiling and health care devolved into a dramatic reading of "Green Eggs and Ham." With political debate increasingly untethered from fact, how long can journalism hang on?

It's really not up to journalists to change the state of journalism, or of politics for that matter. This weekend at the joining brunch table, a debate was raging over the media's role in the government shutdown, presenting Obamacare's ostensible faults as facts. In fact the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act, as well as its many compromises, have been plumbed for years in deep detail – in print, in broadcast documentaries and online. The details simply are not running in an endless loop every night on Eyewitness News. If voters haven't been paying attention, it's their own damn fault.

As long as voters, or parents, or shoppers are content with a shallow dip rather than a deep dive into the day's news, politicians and administrators and marketers will are more than willing to meet them with a handful of factoids. If consumers think they're not being leveled with, it's their challenge to raise the level of discourse. They need to reward the news media's curiosity with their own. It's the only hope for better journalism and a better democracy.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The last neighborhood school

Last month the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, one a daily jog down Augusta Boulevard from my house. I don't have children there, and neither do my neighbors. Which is strange, because Elizabeth Peabody Elementary School is what the school district calls a neighborhood school -- in fact, the last neighborhood school in the East Village neighborhood. Principals, police and parents will stay busy this summer figuring out how to resume classes at another school in another neighborhood.

It's a curious turn of events at Peabody. This spring I blogged about it, which made me something of a neighborhood expert. The alderman dropped my name at a public hearing downtown. (Or at least he tried -- it came out Steve Rysznyski.) Public radio called for an interview too, but not much came of it. The reporter told me I don't speak in sound bites. Maybe I can work on that, but for now this will take a couple minutes to unpack.

Neighborhood schools are the city's name for open-enrollment schools. There are 398 neighborhood elementary schools in Chicago, four times as many as all others combined. With all the attention paid to magnet and charter schools, it's a bit of a surprise that there are only 39 magnets and 20 charters.

This in fact is the 40th anniversary of the Chicago magnet school, which is a specialty school that does not have to accept kids from the neighborhood. My nearest school is a magnet: LaSalle II Language Academy, which teaches Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and Urdu. It used to be the Hans Christian Andersen Community Academy, a neighborhood school, but as the community improved the school did not. As a magnet, now there's a waiting list and an active local school council. Two parents I know got involved while waiting for a son or daughter to come off the waiting list.

Magnets are so popular that many of the community schools have become mini-magnets. Otis Elementary, where Peabody students will move this fall, is a Magnet Cluster school teaching Latin, Italian and Spanish. Talcott School, another West Town school that draws from East Village, is the city's only museum school, with three museums as partners and a lot of field trips.

Another surprise finds 17 buildings preserved as "small" schools, where teachers know everyone in the building and collaborate on classwork. (The city also counts eight special-ed, five classical and four contract schools.) Peabody is not designated a "small" school, it's just small -- 255 students. In this case though, small is not favored: Size made Peabody a target for closing four years ago. But when the school showed up again on the list of potential closings, size made it simple during my morning run to knock on the door, meet the principal and learn more.

Peabody is competitive in science fairs, but it's not designated as a STEM school either. Mostly its known for a 98% low income student body that is three-fourths Hispanic, with many families of limited English proficiency. At the local hearing on its closing, there was a constant crosstalk of simultaneous translation into Spanish. Peabody has managed to work its way off a watch list, but raising test scores likely would remain a heavy lift.

Since Otis has no spare classrooms, the Peabody merger will pack Otis 30 students to a homeroom. Most likely some classes will be much bigger to free up space for Peabody's 42 special-ed students. At the neighborhood meetings, the local police superintendent was upfront taking notes. By most accounts there are several gangs operating in the mile between the two schools, making for a dicey twice-daily walk. The map the school district gave parents shows the direct route to Otis is through an alley.

Peabody does not have a high-profile school council, and I was the only person in our community group in contact with Peabody staff. Fellow volunteers all wondered what would come of the building, a red-brick Italianate dating from 1895. The city had just spent the better part of a year closing a nearby police station and finding another law-enforcemnt tenant. The school will be a tougher case, because the teachers' contract limits education uses for closed buildings and because so many will hit the market at once.

So what does it mean that my neighborhood is losing its neighborhood school? Maybe not much. Magnet schools still have rummage sales and outings and assemblies. But not everyone in the neighborhood is invited: Their kids are in the neighborhood school, and that's in another neighborhood. After 40 years of magnet schools, we still have a lot to learn.

On the TV news, students are crying and parents are angry. The drama is understandable: These schools are the only ones most pupils know. But it's difficult to see how raising class sizes will raise test scores for the displaced kids or their new classmates. And it's difficult to see this debate play out the same way with magnet schools up for elimination, their angry parents already successful at fighting for their sons and daughters' seats in class. Whatever the benefits of consolidation -- and the schools' revenue issues are profound -- the choice of targets leave parents with the feeling they were never in a fair fight.

The best result of the process is that consolidation moved these questions front and center, even if answers have not yet followed. Principals and police will be under pressure to make mergers work. But accountability also will demand that parents and neighbors keep watch, make new connections and likely fight for funds to deliver on the city's promises. We'll all need to embrace a wider concept of community and acknowledge the role education plays in our safety and success. The classrooms are gone. Our responsibilities are not.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grandpa got a gun

My grandfather was an outdoorsman. Wladislaw hunted in Wisconsin, and perhaps as a teenager in Poland -- pheasant in fall and rabbit in winter. Photos from fishing trips show his prized crappie catches, but no poses have turned up with hunting gear or trophy game. Yet lately Dziadek has been my stalking horse for thinking through the gun-control debate.

He died when I was 3, leaving no tales of tracking deer or nesting in a duck blind. But Walter Jr. and I did the things he did with Walter Sr.: fishing, camping, woodworking, swearing. Woodworking and swearing have a kind of clumsy connection in my clumsy family: My approach to planning a repair project was what I called "Stare and swear." It took years before my wife would buy me power tools because she did not want to encourage the cursing. This all must have started in the family basement when working with hammer and nails revealed the family's lack of hand-eye coordination. Dad there taught me most of what I retained in Polish, the curse words first. Psia krew. Son of a bitch.

My father disposed of Grandpa's rifles 50 years ago. Dad had no taste for hunting. Deer season brought regular news reports about hunters shooting each other. The thought alone would have made Dad queasy. North Woods hunters wore bright-orange jackets to ward off friendly fire. I still cannot imagine a serious sportsman dressing in camouflage.

President Obama we now know goes skeet shooting at Camp David. I've gone skeet shooting at Camp Long Lake. The Boy Scout summer camp established on former Pabst family property in Fond du Lac County, about 15 miles from where Walter Sr. first settled in Wisconsin. I tried to anticipate the arc of clay targets sailing across the central Wisconsin marsh, and imagined my grandfather watching the flight of ducks.

Camp Long Lake had a large, sunny field for archery, where you could touch an arrow's metal tip with your thumb and feel its implicit danger: This was not the suction cup of a child's toy. Drawing a bow took a steady finger-hold on a taut string. Tension defined the sport.

Yet the archery range had nothing on stress compared to the firearms range, a long covered deck set against a hilly backstop. A newsprint National Rifle Association regulation target was the size of a vinyl 45 but with a tiny bull's-eye, demanding more rigor and precision than the archery range. A breech-loading rifle commanded respect. Its recoil assured it. Today's assault-style rifle gives not as much a kick as as a buffered bounce, so I understand its attraction for today's hunters. But it gives pause that semi-automatic fire makes for faster sport and that for the shooters, weapons are losing their sting.

Not so long ago, preteens were instructed in pistol fire. They still are of course, but in the make-believe world of video games. Minors may have access to firearms, but rarely to firearms training. I've heard police tell about gang-bangers' sloppy, comic-book firing style, and a recent "This American Life" report seemed to suggest that the only thing keeping gang warfare from spiraling out of control is that gang-bangers are such bad shots. Scouting locked away firearms at the range. Practice was buttoned down as well, with adult supervision instead of arcade fire or peer initiation. Camp counselors monitored the range closely, checked our protective headgear and showed us a two-handed grip, not the moving draw of Grand Theft Auto. The squeeze of a trigger had to be so slow that the discharge would be startling. Attention must be paid.

In today's gun-control debate, firearms knowledge is missing in action. When I helped organize a journalism convention, I defended the NRA's right to exhibit alongside computer vendors and wire services. What's the harm in education? Reporters should know a .32 from a 30-'06. Sadly, the NRA showed up without a journalist's guide to guns. Its interest was solely to mount a Second Amendment political defense. The bearing of arms was not demystified but fetishized.

Only one of my other siblings was with me to bounce on Grandpa's knee, and last year we sorted through ledgers and other items from his tailor shop. They included a cheap steel revolver that even in its disassembled state looked likely to turn a bad situation worse. "The Defender" was a token robbery defense, a misfire waiting to happen. Walter Sr. eventually made a flight to safety and a savings-and-loan job.

I grew up watching a TV program about "The Other 98" percent of teens who weren't juvenile delinquents. (Now the phrase means something else.) Yet a more potent armed threat was suggested during the commercial breaks, when the Civil Defense authority offered tips on surviving nuclear fallout. A CD how-to pamphlet on fallout shelters arrived in the mail, illustrated with a child calmly reclining against cinderblock reinforcements, studying for a class that likely would never come back in session. Against the magnitude of the nuclear threat, the build-your-own bunker idea had a short half-life. The urban arms race posed a vaguely similar mismatch. Black Panthers took to street patrol till the police developed their own paramilitary tactics. Weapons raised the stakes. They did not improve the odds.

Dziadek was a taciturn man, a bit of a mystery even to his son. I had to make up my own mind on guns, and I'm not sure he would agree with my conclusions. Chicago is safer with a gun ban in place, and would be safer were it better enforced. Firearms have their place in hunting season, and should be the most regulated part of the hunt. Guns should be built for safety as well as reliability, with trigger locks and without high-capacity clips. States should require gun owners to prove they can use them. Marksmanship should be taught by parents or police or church groups, not street gangs.

Walter Sr. was a soldier, whose World War I souvenirs included a wallet grazed by a bullet. Either his sweetheart's photo was his shield, or he just nearly got, well, outflanked. A less fortunate Army buddy returned to Chicago shell-shocked, and called on Wladislaw to expedite veterans benefits after he decamped from my neighborhood to a sanatorium in Poland. He was under no illusions about arms fire at close range. We see arms from a safer distance, yet our views are not nearly as grounded. We think we can secure large public buildings with a few security guards, defuse bar fights with concealed-carry revolvers, or build an ammo cache for a last stand against drones and bunker busters. What would Dziadek say? Psia krew.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

2013 Chicago Auto Show video

These are segments I produced for the Chicago Tribune website during the 2013 Chicago Auto Show. My reporter for most of the day was ChicagoNow blogger Jill Ciminillo. Here I'm the talent.

This was shot as a talkthrough, but once Jill was rolling the best move is to stay out of the shot.

One more with a nod to Jill's trademark test of cargo space.