This Week in Fossil Fuels: It’s all over now

By Christopher B. Daly 

Even the Saudis get it: fossil fuels are ready for the dustbin of history.

One of the rising princes in the House of Saud announced this week that his oil-dependent nation is taking steps for life after oil. Some Saudis may actually have to develop skills and do work that the rest of the world values; some may even have to pay taxes. (In fact, my hope is that all Saudis soon have to pay taxes, as the government’s share of oil revenues declines. That way, Saudis will feel a growing sense of ownership over their own government. As it is now, the government can tell its people to get lost, because they don’t pay for it. In the future, the Saudi people may come to resent a regime of taxation without representation. They may even decide to overthrow the whole rotten system.)

Not since the collapse of the whale-oil industry have we seen such a dramatic shift in economics and ecology.

Elsewhere in fossil fuels:

–BP reported quarterly losses of about half a billion dollars. (Remember that p.r. slogan “Beyond Petroleum”? They might want to bring that one back and say it with feeling next time.)

–And China (usually tied with India for worst polluter on the planet) has decided to put the brakes on more coal-fired power plants.

All of which makes me wonder: How long before Obama pulls back his “all of the above” energy policy and declares that the faster America moves into renewables the better it will be for the planet and for the U.S. economy?








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This week in Fossil Fuels: Coal giant bankrupt

By Christopher B. Daly

The market is trying to send a signal: the age of coal is over.

Is anyone listening?

In today’s news, the headline is the decision by Peabody, the largest coal producer in the U.S., to file for bankruptcy.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.32.39 AM Value of stock shares in Peabody (stock symbol BTU)

That step, combined with the recent prison sentence imposed on Massey’s top boss in pro-coal West Virginia, signals the collapse of coal as an economically viable fuel and the demise of coal as a political force in the states where it has long been a factor. (Are you listening Mitch McConnell?)

Those are the headlines. The trend they reflect is a decisive step away from burning carbon. There are now far more jobs in the U.S. in the emerging renewable-energy sector than in the moribund coal industry.

King Coal is dead.

At the funeral, I’d like to hear “Paradise” by John Prine:

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there’s a backwards old town that’s often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.


Then the coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.


When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I’ll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin’
Just five miles away from wherever I am.


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Trump is dangerously wrong on libel: Why journalists need Constitutional protections

By Christopher B. Daly

In his recent remarks, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump issued a thinly veiled threat to the news media: if he’s elected, he will (somehow) change the country’s libel laws to make it easier for him and others to sue the news media. It’s an issue with a history that is worth remembering.

Here’s Trump (from CNN):

“One of the things I’m going to do if I win… I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” Trump said during a rally in Fort Worth, Texas.

“We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” he said. “We’re going to open up libel laws and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”


Trump in Fort Worth (Getty)


Trump, who has lost a libel suit in the past, took his usual menacing tone and framed the issue as a conflict between himself and the media. The party that is missing from that formulation is the American people, who are the real clients of the First Amendment. That is the amendment that says, in part: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of the press.”

And that press freedom extends into the realm of libel, as I explained in my history of 51zTMdE6eDL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_this country’s journalism, Covering America. Trump is not the first public figure to try to use the libel laws as a backdoor way to achieve the ultimate goal of intimidating and controlling the news media. Here’s an excerpt from Covering America:


One of the greatest potential threats to the national coverage of the South arose in 1960 in Montgomery, Alabama. The means of intimidation was not the usual one—violence or the threat of it—but the legal system itself. At risk was the ability of the news media even to cover the movement in an honest, independent way.

The threat first arose in April 1960 as an unintended consequence of a decision by a group of civil rights activists to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Times decrying the “unprecedented wave of terror” being imposed on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and student activists. The ad stated: “Again and again, the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence. . . . They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child. They have assaulted his person.” For good measure, the ad charged “grave misconduct” on the part of Montgomery officials as a group.

The city’s police commissioner, L. B. Sullivan, was incensed and decided to sue the Times for libel. (It didn’t matter that the offending passages were in the form of an advertisement and not a news story produced by a Times journalist; under U.S. law, a publisher is equally responsible for all content. It also didn’t matter that Sullivan was not singled out by name in the ad; under U.S. law, if an individual can reasonably be identified, that is enough.) Sullivan sued for $500,000 in an Alabama state court, charging the Times with publishing damaging falsehoods about him. The threat was clear: if Sullivan won, no paper could afford to cover the civil rights movement. “Silence, not money, was the goal,” as one recent history puts it.

For the Times’ Southern correspondent, Claude Sitton, the suit meant that he had better hightail it out of Alabama to avoid being subpoenaed, so he headed straight for the Georgia line, leaving Alabama essentially uncovered for the next two and a half years. For the paper’s lawyers, however, fleeing to another state was not an option, though they tried. It was difficult even to find a lawyer in Alabama who would agree to represent the Times. When one was finally found, the lawyers decided that their only recourse was to argue that the suit did not belong in an Alabama court, since the paper did hardly any business in the state. The jurisdictional argument didn’t work. The paper lost in the circuit court in Montgomery (where the judge criticized “racial agitators” and praised “white man’s justice”), and Sullivan was awarded the full $500,000—the largest libel judgment in that state’s history. The Times appealed, only to lose again. Further appeals did not look promising, since the U.S. Supreme Court had held that journalists had no constitutional protections against libel claims. So far, the use of the courts to silence the press was working.

The passage through all those courts took years, but the Times did not give up. Whatever the publisher and editors thought about civil rights, they were professionally committed to upholding ournalistic principles and prerogatives. The final appeal was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on January 6, 1964. The stakes were high. “The court would decide nothing less than how free the press really could be,” one observer has noted. “If the decision went against the Times,would reporters be vulnerable to every libel claim filed by a ticked-off sheriff?”

And it wasn’t just the Times that was at risk. All told, Southern officials had filed some seventeen libel suits against various news media, seeking damages that could total more than $288 million. If they succeeded, the cost of covering race in the South would be so prohibitive that even the wealthiest national news media would have to pack up and go home.

On March 9, 1964, the Court issued its unanimous ruling in the Sullivan case—in favor of the Times. The ruling, a milestone in expanding press freedom, rewrote many of the rules under which journalism has been practiced ever since. The key finding was that the law of libel had to yield to the First Amendment. The Court held that if the award to Sullivan were allowed to stand, the result would amount to a form of government censorship of the press, tantamount to a de facto Sedition Act, forcing every journalist to prove the truth of every statement, which would in turn lead to self-censorship. Instead, the high court said that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

To make sure that journalists had the breathing room they need to report on and editorialize about the performance of public officials, the Court determined that libel should not be used to trump press freedom. Public figures like Sullivan, who voluntarily enter the public arena by seeking office, must expect to take some criticism. Henceforth it would not be enough for a public official who wanted to win a libel suit just to prove that the published material was false and defamatory. Plaintiffs would have to meet a higher burden of proof, which the Court defined as “actual malice,” a legal term meaning that the material in dispute was published with the knowledge that it was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth.

Either way, public figures would have a much harder time winning such suits. The Times—and the rest of the media—were free to go back to Alabama and wherever else the civil rights story took them. . .

For more on these issues, see the classic work by NYT journalist Tony Lewis, Make No Law. There is also a very worthwhile discussion in The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff.


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Is the New York Times building a digital ark?

By Christopher B. Daly

What’s going on at the most important institution in American journalism?

Hard to say, but let’s engage in a bit of speculation.

Recently, the New York Times announced two developments, which the paper reported in a single story, giving rise to the notion that they are somehow linked.

Item #1: An earnings report. As usual, the Times reports about itself in a glass-half-empty way.

Buoyed by strong digital growth and cost savings, The New York Times Company reported on Thursday an increase in quarterly profit but said revenue was flat as its print business continued to decline.

There is not all that much news there — just a continuation of two long-running trends. Digital revenues (the money that comes in from online advertising plus the money from digital subscriptions) continues to rise. Print revenues (the money that comes in from display ads in the printed newspaper, plus money from people who subscribe to the print edition) continues to fall. The digital revenue is rising pretty briskly, but from a small base. The print revenue is dropping relentlessly, but from a large initial base. Someday, those trend lines will cross, but not just yet.

Later, the story added this:

Digital revenue remained an area of growth. Digital advertising revenue increased 11 percent during the fourth quarter, to $70 million, a number representing about a third of the company’s total advertising revenue.

And this:

The company said it added 53,000 net digital subscribers in the quarter, the most added in a quarter in three years. The Times now has close to 1.1 million paid digital-only subscriptions.

So, that’s the good news. All those digital ads are starting to add up, and the blessed new digital subscribers are finally pitching in and paying a greater fraction of the cost of delivering all that journalism. All told, the digital revenue is approaching $400 million a year, or about a quarter of total current annual revenue. The paper has set a goal of $800 million in annual digital revenues by 2020.

The existential question for the Times is this:

NYT newsroom

Is that enough money to sustain the newsroom?

In other words, if the newspaper got out of the paper business altogether (as it one day must) and laid off all those printers, truck drivers, and others who are linked to the print edition, could it survive on a budget of digital-only revenues?

That’s an open question, which brings us to . . .

Item #2: Announcement of a team charged with conducting a “sweeping review” of the Times‘ own newsroom — staffing, procedures, everything. It will be led by David Leonhardt, the fair-haired boy who created The Upshot. Clearly, he’s a figure on the rise. The paper’s top editor, Dean Baquet, framed the undertaking this way:

He said The Times would always have a large newsroom, but it was “not going to get any bigger” and “we’re probably going to get a bit smaller.” He added that some areas of the newsroom, including those focused on multimedia and international coverage, could grow.

He did not rule out layoffs, but said he did not expect any in the immediate future.

So, my hunch is that Leonhardt is really charged with figuring out how the legacy newsroom could live within its digital means. Can the paper afford its traditional system of strong desks (especially if they slow the transmission of news onto the web)? Does the paper need to keep spending so much time and energy figuring out how to lay out Page 1 of the print edition? How many jobs could be pared out of sections like the Book Review, the Magazine, and T, if they were online-only?

Clearly, the Times cannot afford to haul the entire apparatus of printing a newspaper into the digital future. At some point, it will have to jettison some or all of its print operations and live entirely online. Any guesses as to when?

[Don’t take my word for it. Here is another take, by Michael Calderone at HuffPo Media.]

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Not all change is progress: Bring back Paperboys (and girls)

By Christopher B. Daly

[I am posting a longer version of an essay I wrote this week for Cognoscenti, the public discussion page run by the terrific Boston NPR affiliate WBUR.]

Lately, the Boston Globe has earned some unwanted headlines for problems with a new home-delivery service. Reporters, editors, and other Globe personnel have left their warm beds and leapt into the breach, using their cars to deliver the print version of the paper to their precious regular subscribers.

I can sympathize.

I delivered the Globe for nearly eight years, six days a week, in my old neighborhood in West Medford. By my reckoning, that was nearly 2,500 days of delivery without a miss – with help, occasionally, from members of my family who filled in (thanks, Monica!). It was a robust business that helped put me through college and taught me a number of life lessons – all in an era before corporate out-sourcing and sub-contractors.

I began my career as a paperboy (alas, no girls in those days) for the Globe in the winter of 1965. Back then, paper routes were coveted, and almost the only time of year when a route became available was during the week or two after Christmas. The reason was simple: paperboys all tried to hang in there and keep their routes through December so as to reap the traditional Christmas tips. Once they had collected that windfall, they would quit. That’s how I got my break.

The delivery system was simple. Sometime during the overnight hours, a Globe truck would slow down outside our house and someone would toss out a bundle of newspapers equal to the exact number of my customers. When my alarm clock went off, I would get up and get dressed, stuffing my feet with extra socks into the green rubber boots I wore most days in those snowy winters. I would bring the bundle of papers into the house, cut the string, and place them into a giant canvas bag that would hang from my shoulder.

On my very first day, I ventured out into the cold, dark morning, lugging my load of Globes like a tiny peddler. I had not memorized my route yet, so the first days took a long time. I had a paper list of my customers and their addresses, but it was still so dark out that I had to stop under a streetlight, read the next few names, try to memorize them, then trudge along making deliveries until I needed to check the list again.

My goal: get every paper safe and dry onto each front porch and get back home in time for breakfast and the walk to school.

Eventually, I got the hang of it and became more and more efficient. First step: memorize the route, so I would not have to keep checking “the list.” Second step: get a bike, which really speeded things along. Third step: learn to fold the papers so that I could toss them onto porches from the street rather than walking up each front walk.

Weather permitting, these simple steps greatly increased my delivery speed, to the point where I was able to take on a second, adjoining route. Now my customers sprawled over an area from the far reaches of Pine Ridge Road almost all the way to just short of West Medford Square, about a mile from end to end.

With the larger territory, I was keen to step up my pace. So, I mastered the ultimate in suburban paper delivery: I slung the canvas over 0106_paperboy_cog-592x324my shoulder and hopped on the bike. While riding “no-hands,” I would fold the papers as I went and toss them up onto the porches. Now, I could get through my whole route in no time and focus my attention on the revenue model.

The revenue model was pretty straightforward. I charged my customers whatever rate the newspaper established for home delivery. I was entitled to a share of that base figure, plus regular tips, and the Christmas bonuses. It was a pretty good business for a kid who could not even legally get a real job.

Yes, it was child labor, and it would have been illegal if the nation’s newspapers had not exempted themselves from all such legislation. Legally, I was considered an independent contractor. All I knew was that it put money in my pockets.

Besides, I started to get interested in the contents of all those papers. I started with the “funnies,” which were usually printed on the back page. As I got a little older, I moved forward through the paper, discovering sports and then general news. By the time I was a teenager, I

kept reading about Yaz and Russell and Orr, but I also included a pretty steady diet of news about Vietnam, protests, and the Beatles. This was, no doubt, the genesis of my life-long career in journalism.


But as good as it was, the paperboy business had its downsides. For one thing, I saw more sunrises than I care to remember, and to this day, I hate getting up in the morning. And there were the occasional disasters, such as when I would toss a folded paper onto a front porch only to see it crash through a glass storm door. Most of the time, I had to pay to replace them.

Another problem was on the customer-relations side. It was part of the paperboy’s responsibility to visit every house every Friday afternoon to collect that week’s subscription money. By going door-to-door to collect, I couldn’t help but stay in touch with my customers. I learned who really cared about getting the paper inside the storm door, who left for work early, and who tipped well.

Collecting also required me to learn a bit about book-keeping, because an astonishing number of my fellow suburbanites somehow couldn’t manage to scrounge up 50 or 75 cents at the end of the week. They seemed to be under the delusion that information should be free, or else they just couldn’t be bothered. So I had to keep track in a little ledger book of who was paid up and who was delinquent.

Then, there were the dogs. A mutt named Tammy seemed to be put on Earth just to torment me, chasing me every morning for the sheer malicious pleasure of it.

Plus, there was one special horror on my route. That was the Emery Nursing Home, a huge house set back from the road. I had about half a dozen customers in there. Delivering the papers was tolerable. I would just hop off my bike, leave a short stack on the front desk, and skedaddle. I hated the smell of the place, and I would often hear shrieks or moans coming from the upper floors.

But on Fridays, I would have to actually go in there and collect the week’s subscription money from each customer. This meant getting my courage up to walk upstairs and go room to room, hunting down those nickels and quarters that were owed to me and the Globe. For some of the inmates, I was their only visitor all week, month after month. Others were in various states of undress, dementia, or problems I could only imagine.

So, seeing as how I was an independent contractor, I made one more change in my small business: I hired a sub-contractor. My friend Bob Gillingham wanted a paper route, but I had the two routes in our area locked up. Eventually, I made a deal with Gilly: if he would take over the collections for me on my routes, I would split the week’s earnings with him. (I forget the details, but I’m pretty sure the split was in my favor.)


Despite all the problems, my route became so easy and so lucrative that I hung onto it all through high school. I would say the experience had a major formative influence on me, and I always thought it was a shame when the newspaper industry moved away from having paperboys (and girls) in favor of grown-ups driving around in cars and never stopping by to chat.

Not all change is progress. As the Globe struggles to tweak its home-delivery service, I might suggest that the newspaper’s executives consider recruiting a small army of boys (and girls!) on bikes. Globe readers would be delighted at the high level of customer service, and those kids would learn a thing or two about perseverance, efficiency, thrift, and record-keeping. They might even develop a real interest in the news.


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Free speech?

By Christopher B. Daly 

Two items today from the Department of Juxtaposition:

The New York Times carries an article exploring the issue of whether the threat of Islamic State terrorism meets the “clear and present danger” test. The piece kicks around the issue with reference to two SCOTUS cases that my students will recognize from the court’s busy 1919 session, when it took up challenges to the First Amendment raised by WWI.*

The same paper has an article about China’s latest efforts to crack down on free speech.

Critics had said that the draft version of the law used a recklessly broad definition of terrorism, gave the government new censorship powers and authorized state access to sensitive commercial data.

Can it be that both countries are over-reaching?

*(Personally, I think the First Amendment is nearly absolute when it comes to protecting the expressions of Americans in America from censorship by the American government. But I feel quite differently about ISIS propagandists penetrating America’s mindspace to incite people to criminal acts.)

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America’s military (over-)reach

By Christopher B. Daly

Among all the countries in the world, only a handful maintain military bases outside their own territory. With the exception of one country, those external bases number about 30.

The exception? The United States, of course.

How exceptional are we? We have 686 bases overseas. That’s more than 20 times more than the rest of the world combined.

Yes, they help maintain world peace — sort of, I guess. And yes, they facilitate world trade, I suppose.

But according to a new book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, there is a huge intangible downside to all those bases. They encourage U.S. military adventures, and they generate a huge amount of ill-will toward America.

While you’re thinking about that, ponder this Defense Department map:


Each one of those regions has a commander, and I would assume that each of those commanders has the ambition to make his bones by achieving some military objective. From the North Pole to the South Pole, from Mexico to Malaysia, we are ready to do something to just about everybody, everywhere, all the time.


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