This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 28, 2011 - let's face budget realities

Let me make my position clear at the outset: I think everybody else is crazy, and I'm not too sure about myself.

I do know that the current budget discussions at the national, state, and even local levels are really about the purpose of government. But that never seems to get directly addressed.

At the federal level, Paul Ryan's budget seems incoherent to me. He claims that we are in such dire economic shape that we must cut programs that benefit the elderly, the sick, and the poorest among us.

Yet, he continues, we must also cut taxes for the wealthiest among us. If the combination of these two is "revenue neutral," as Ryan claims, then we haven't solved a budget problem, have we?

Meanwhile, Forbes magazine reports that GE and Exxon, who owed a combined $25 billion in taxes last year, paid no federal income taxes at all, mostly by transferring assets overseas.

Perhaps Ryan believes in "trickle down economics." But that has now been thoroughly tested in both the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. It has one wholly predictable and reliable result: a transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the wealthy. Today, the top 1% of U.S. society has more money than the combined total wealth of 95% of the bottom.

If it's bad, if it's "socialism," to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, then why is it good when redistributed in the other direction?

At the state level, Speaker of the House Frank McNulty calls for more sacrifices from state employees. These are the same state employees who (a) haven't gotten a raise in three years, (b) have in fact had their salaries reduced through forced furloughs, and (c) have had their salaries reduced again through forced increases in their retirement contributions.

When McNulty points out, truthfully, that many businesses have made even more drastic cuts, he ignores a crucial fact: businesses make cuts because they aren't as busy as they used to be.

But precisely that same set of circumstances means that state government is busier than ever, particularly in health care and human services.

Asking state employees to "share in the sacrifice" of a recession caused not by the public sector but the private, when demand for public services is increasing, not decreasing, when mega companies get generous tax breaks and subsidies is, if I may be so bold, asking the wrong people.

The purpose of government is not to promote business; it is, to quote the preamble of the Colorado State Constitution, to "promote the general welfare." They're not always the same.

Are all government programs worthy of increased funding, without end? No.

Are taxes too high for some businesses? They are, although clearly not for the big companies. In Colorado, the problem is something called the Gallagher Amendment. It adjusts tax rates between business (29% tax rate) and residences (7.96%) to give homeowners a disproportionately low rate.

We can fix that. All we have to do is vote, statewide, to even things out. We could raise our residential taxes to lower the taxes of local businesses. It would be more fair. It would improve our economic environment. Of course, by itself, it wouldn't generate any more money, either, just change who pays it. To raise money will take even more tax increases.

Is the electorate willing to do that? Are you?

If not, demonizing and further punishing the state's beleaguered employees - at a time when the demand for their services is greatest - won't be enough to solve the state's budget crunch. We will, instead, cut the only place that remains to be cut in the state budget: K-12 education.

It's either wishful or deceptive thinking - or just plain crazy - to pretend otherwise.
LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April 21, 2011 - library interviews community leaders

The Douglas County Libraries has been trying something new. We call it "the community interview." In brief, a group of librarians identified some 30-50 community leaders around the county (government, business, non-profits, and faith-based), then met with them to ask three questions:

* What are the key concerns of your constituents over the next one to two years?
* What do you wish you knew to help you make good decisions about those issues in this next year or two?
* Who else should we talk to?

Why did we choose interviews rather than surveys? It's true that interviews may not be quite as statistically significant as a scientific poll.

On the other hand, people who occupy positions of leadership, whether elected, appointed, or assumed, by necessity spend a lot of time talking to other people. And what humans do by nature is seek patterns. Leaders, by sifting through many other sources of information, become an information source in themselves. What's even more important is that they make meaning; they find the pattern in the data.

Why were we doing this at all? There are two reasons.

First, having a solid grasp of what's going on in the community helps the library to plan better. Every institution exists within a larger social environment. Identifying some of the movers and shakers in Douglas County and gleaning their insights helps us anticipate what people might look to us for.

Second, librarians have long responded to our patrons' needs on an individual basis. But might there be something we could do to help the community at large? Are there ways in which the library can add value by helping to clarify the bigger picture?

We've completed most of our interviews, and met with one another recently to try to make sense of the findings. Three main concerns came up over and over:

* Economic recovery. Concerns ranged from individuals looking for work or worried about foreclosures, to small business owners wondering how best to survive or even thrive during a recession.

* Water. There's a lot of anxiety about our relationship with this fundamental natural resource. There's a lot of confusion, too. Different communities have different concerns: Highlands Ranch is not Parker is not Castle Rock. But everyone senses that water will have a lot to do with the future of our county, and that a lot of money is going to change hands. One municipal leader quoted an old Western proverb: "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting."

* Civic engagement. At first, many of our leaders made it sound like the problem was one-way communication. How do we let people know what's going on? But upon probing, it was clear that the issue was deeper. As one pastor put it, the many smart people who have moved to Douglas County (mostly from far away) clearly exhibit most of the signs of grief. They are a separate people, disconnected from deeper webs of friendship and social connection. They go "home" for vacation.

Politics, at least as currently practiced, seems more about further fracturing our communities than about bringing them together. But the thirst for community is real.

Over the next several months, the library will be further summarizing our findings, and assembling some resources to better inform our residents about the issues they say matter most to them.

Many thanks to all our gracious interviewees. Thanks as well to the librarians who found the experiment so rewarding.

LaRue's Views are his own.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

April 7, 2011 - do you trust the news?

Suppose you're at a party and some guy quotes a "fact." You ask him, "Where did you hear that?" And he says "Fox News."

If you like Fox News, that's credible. If you don't, you're dubious.

Same thing if he says, "NPR." If you think well of NPR, then you're likely to accept it. If you're suspicious of NPR, you're suspicious of anything they say.

But suppose he tells you, "I heard it on both Fox AND NPR."

The odds of that happening may be small. But should such a remarkable consensus occur I'm guessing almost everybody would go along with it. The biases cancel out. When sources on the opposite sides of a political spectrum say the same thing, it just might be true.

That core principle - getting sources from "the other side" - is one of the principles that leads to news trustworthiness.

When Fabrice Florin, who consulted for Music Television and worked for both Apple Computer and Macromedia, approached his 50 year birthday,he found that he wanted to "give back." So he tackled what he saw as a big social challenge: how could he help grow fact-based journalism in the age of the World Wide Web?

Eventually he launched a new non-profit, called Newstrust.net. It builds and offers various online tools to help people "find, check, rate and present trustworthy news."

It's not only high school students who need to think critically. We should all be on the look-out for well-reasoned analysis, not just something that comports with our ignorance or prejudice.

The effort is timely. I just read a Pew Report that said if you're under 30, you now get more of your news from the Internet than from TV. It might be a good thing for our country if our citizens worked a little harder to sort fact from fiction.

You can see the results in a project in Baltimore. Newstrust.net uses a unique "pro-am" approach to rate the news. The idea is that a panel of invited participants, some "pro" journalists and some "amateur" citizens, scan stories in the local paper and rank them according to several crtieria:

* Is it factual?
* Is it fair?
* Is it well-resourced (citing more than one information source)?
* Do you recommend it? And finally -
* Do you trust it?

These panelists then post a review, in essence, ranking the story for credibility. Those reviews add up to a "rating" -- a non-partisan and participatory consensus about the quality of reporting.

What's interesting is that the raters are themselves rated. Readers can also rank the reviews. If well-rated reviewers comment favorably on an article, then the article carries more "weight." It's a credibility filter.

The idea is that people would work their way up the pyramid of trust: visitor, member, reviewer, host, editor, staff. But you have to get positive ratings from a lot of critical viewers to do it. At present, Newstrust.net has about 100,000 visitors, and 5 staff. The rest of the work is done by software.

Isn't that fascinating?

Newstrust.net has partnered with schools. It hasn't yet worked with libraries, although I'm intrigued enough to investigate it further. I'm also intrigued by another collaborative citizen service called Truthsquad (see newstrust.net/truthsquad). It "crowd sources" news fact-checking in a way that feels more like a game than a research project.

Newstrust.net is also interested in digital knowledge "curation" - archiving and providing public access to journalism. That's another potential role for librarians.

For more information, see this video interview: tinyurl.com/libraries-newstrust. Or visit the Newstrust.net national site: newstrust.net/about. Teachers, try this one: newstrust.net/guides/teachers.

It's good stuff. Trust me.

LaRue's Views are his own.