Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A Challenge to Nathan Alford

The week after every Saturday feature, the Daily News will run some sort of editorial about it. There wasn't one this week about Wal-Mart, the topic of last Saturday's paper. Then today, publisher Nathan Alford wrote this:

COMMENTARY: Let’s maintain our community perspective on Wal-Mart debate

Wal-Mart issues continue to brew in our communities. You haven’t seen an editorial on our opinion page taking a strong stance one way or the other. There’s a reason for that.

Our four-person editorial board doesn’t agree. Like many in our communities, we are evenly divided; some favoring Wal-Mart and others favoring restrictions to varying degrees.

Without consensus or middle ground, a Daily News editorial stance is unlikely. Every editorial published on the opinion page is the by-product of the collaborative editorial board process. If we don’t agree, we don’t write it.

I admit, I’m holding up the editorial process on the Wal-Mart issue. It’s not the first time.

We also differ on issues relating to gay rights, abortion and capital punishment. That’s to be expected on hot-button issues. Wal-Mart is no exception.

I sit precariously perched on the figurative fence with my back toward the pro-Super Wal-Mart camp, my two feet kicking about, poised and ready to leap into the camp favoring across the board big box restrictions.

I’m open about my personal and professional conflicts with the board and now you.

Two Super Wal-Marts in Pullman and Moscow would have a negative net effect on our community newspaper. That’s proven to be the case in smaller communities across the country.

Why?

Two mega Wal-Marts will challenge a large number of smaller businesses in our communities. In turn, the advertising dollars for small business owners, truly providing some of the First Amendment fuel for community newspapers, will shrink.

The result?

Economic hardship for small business and indirectly the community newspaper. Newspapers in Wal-Mart-dominated markets take a hit when it comes to town. Declining advertising dollars means newsrooms often have to cut staff. It’s the number of people working in a newsroom that defines the depth and character of a newspaper.

What does that mean to you, the reader? Potentially, less local reporting and fewer eyes and ears on the streets.

This effect on small market newspapers is an often overlooked secondary effect of the retail giant’s market domination.

That’s the professional conflict of interest.

My personal conflict is based on Wal-Mart’s arguable unfair labor practices, minimal benefits, the potential damage to the intimacy and character of the local business community, and Wal-Mart’s unprecedented and dominant control over suppliers.

Those issues have been well-debated on our opinion page and in coffee shops across the region.

I’m sympathetic to concerns about personal property rights. I also appreciate and respect the laissez faire notion of capitalism and local tax benefits, especially in Pullman.

Our local policy makers are charged with the task of balancing these competing interests, and whether or not a Wal-Mart Supercenter or other comparable big box stores are the right fit for our community. Dark store provisions, square footage caps and zoning restrictions, among others, are the tools at their disposal.

Regardless of the outcome, our communities and newspaper will adapt and thrive. I don’t fall in the doom and gloom camp. I’m confident most of our local businesses – the Daily News included – will get by. We’ll simply have to adapt. Change is an inevitable part of business and growing communities. I accept that.

That doesn’t mean I won’t be disappointed if both of the proposed Super Wal-Marts become reality. And I won’t be surprised if we realize what I predict will be an economic pinch and a homogenization of our retail landscape.

Again, I’ll be disappointed. But there’s a difference between being disappointed and letting animosity blur the line between passion and aggression.

That’s the key.

Divisiveness, passion and emotion sometimes get the best of our communities. Make no mistake, that’s much preferred over indifference. We’ve got the necessary spark and vigor to be great. The potential downside to our emotional investment and vocal participation is the potential for a wall to grow between the different camps.

Regardless of the decision, let’s not let disappointment – on either side of the figurative big box fence – turn into destructive frustration.

Sure, I’m philosophically opposed to consciously sending my dollars to corporations outside our communities. And, I’m proud to say that I’ve never been inside a Wal-Mart.

But I’ll still support the decisions of local officials and appreciate their effort in navigating us through the choppy big box waters.

In the meantime, each of us has the right to have our voices heard. We all have the opportunity to shape the business landscape and character of our communities.

Let’s let the public process work. Let’s offer our input along the way. Let’s respect the efforts of the Pullman Alliance for Responsible Development and Businesses and Residents for Economic Opportunity. Let’s respect the efforts of the Moscow Civic Association and the newest grassroots organization – the Moscow Greater Alliance. That’s part of the process.

Let’s have the debate and accept the results.

But, let’s not be so upset that we create factions and impede the necessary cooperation on the positive efforts, which outnumber the divisive issues 10-to-one.

Shaping the direction of our communities is complex. The discussion I had with fellow editorial board members prior to this column hitting the press further illustrates the point. We debated whether this column indirectly puts the newspaper on one side of the issue or the other. So let’s be clear: the newspaper hasn’t taken a position on the Wal-Mart issue. Nathan Alford has.

All sectors have different opinions for different reasons about Wal-Mart.

I remember outgoing Idaho Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb, a well-known conservative, outlining to me in a visit at the statehouse how his home town of Burley, Idaho was devastated by a Wal-Mart. He also was concerned about Wal-Mart encouraging employees to apply for state medical benefits. It’s not a politically partisan issue.

Let’s engage each other in a civil manner on Wal-Mart and other contentious issues. And, much like the Daily News editorial board, let’s have a cup of coffee afterward and continue working together based on our strengths, rather than dwelling on our less common differences.
I appreciate Alford's non-apocalyptic approach (i.e. Wal-Mart is not the end of the world as we know it), his attempt at even-handedness, and honesty.

His call for civility, however, is rather naive. Alford should know better than anyone the rabid obsession of the anti-Wal-Mart crowd. They don't follow Robert's Rules of Order and will stop at nothing. The battle for our community's future is a street fight, not a church social. PARD and No Super WalMart don't want concessions, compromise, civil debate, etc. They want total victory and compliance with their world view. We must constantly expose their left-wing agenda, even as they try to hide it under a veneer of "community concern.". I wish PARD would heed Alford's advice to accept the results of the local process, but as we have seen on two occasions now, they won't. Can you imagine any compromise that PARD WOULD accept?

I'm also disappointed that as a professional journalist, Alford has bought into all the gut feelings, apocryphal stories and urban legends about Wal-Mart, even though there is much more scientific evidence to support the benefits, or at least the benignity, of Wal-Mart. Plus, Alford boasts he has never even set foot in a Wal-Mart. What kind of journalism is that? Not suprising though, I suppose, for a member of the family that publishes both the Daily News and the Lewiston Tribune. I wonder where he DOES shop? Perhaps if Alford were to go into a Wal-Mart, he would see the average, everyday working class people that Wal-Mart benefits. Maybe that would change his mind.

Alford's assertion that Wal-Mart hurts local newspapers doesn't hold water. Small businesses probably don't have much money to advertise in local papers as it is. I hear many more Pullman businesses advertise on the radio. In Section A (the prime spot) of today's paper, I only found one ad for a store that would possibly compete with a Wal-Mart Supercenter (Crossroads Nursery). The rest were for banks, auto parts and dealers, insurance, public announcements, schools, casinos, etc.

Advertising inserts in the Saturday paper bring in a lot more money than a small 3 1/2" by 5" ad. In today's Daily News, the retail advertising inserts were from Safeway, ShopKo, Big 5, and Office Depot. Those are all national chain stores. He seems happy to take their advertising dollars. Does Alford not think that money from those stores leaves the area, as well as Wal-Mart? It's a proven fact that a Wal-Mart Supercenter will bring in more national chain stores, as well as new local business, and that will only add to the Daily News' coffers.

I also appreciate that the Daily News hasn't taken an official stand on Wal-Mart. I find the reporting of Steve McClure and Michelle Dupler in particular to be refreshingly fair. But you can't tell me that when the guy who signs the paychecks is against Wal-Mart it doesn't color the coverage a bit.

My challenge for Nathan Alford is simple.

First, since you are opposed to two Wal-Mart Supercenters, would you support a Supercenter in Pullman only, especially since you are "sympathetic to concerns about personal property rights" and "appreciate and respect the laissez faire notion of capitalism and local tax benefits, especially in Pullman?" It is an undeniable fact that the land is zoned for the purpose Wal-Mart wants to use it for and that Pullman is suffering high sales leakages.

Then, go into the Moscow Wal-Mart. Walk around and talk to the people that are shopping there. Find out what Wal-Mart does for them. Talk to the employees. That is a true "community perspective," as opposed to something you heard or read from somewhere else.

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4 comments:

April E. Coggins said...

I am going to give Nathan Alford the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is too young to remember how the Daily Idahonian became the MOSCOW-Pullman Daily News and why a town the size of Pullman doesn't have it's own newspaper. He might want to learn the history of his own newspaper before he complains about a mega conglomerate closing down the local voices of the community newspaper. That's exactly what his newspaper did (with the help of the Pullman city council) to our own Pullman Herald. Back in the mid-1980's the Daily Idahonian undercut the Pullman Herald's bid for the city's legal notices, which are required by city code. The Pullman Herald's staff pleaded with the Pullman city council to not award the unfair bid to the Idahonian. They claimed that the Idahonian was pricing their bid under cost to win the contract away from the Pullman Herald and if the Idahonian was awarded the bid, it would put the already struggling Pullman Herald out of business. The Pullman city council decided that it was a competitive bid process and the lowest bid would be awarded. The Idahonian won the bid, the Pullman Herald did go out of business and now we have the MOSCOW-Pullman Daily News. Apparently predatory pricing is acceptable as long as the Alford family never needs to shop in a Wal-Mart.

I don't believe for a moment that Wal-Mart is going drive down the Daily News advertising revenue. But even if it did, why should the city of Pullman feel obligated to protect the Alford's family fortune at the cost of nearly a million dollars a year in tax revenue?

Sarcastic Housewife #1 said...

I find it difficult to believe he has never been in a Wal-Mart. Does he consider it slumming?

cc said...

I'll bet a bunch of his employees, and his father's employees at the Tribune, shop at Wal-Mart.
I wonder, do the Daily News and Lewiston Morning Tribune pay ALL their employees a living wage and benefits?

April E. Coggins said...

CC: No of course they don't pay living wages. The people in circulation make below minimum wage because the newspaper lobby is a strong lobby. After all, they control the ink we read everyday. I am old enough to remember the special interest laws that exempted newspapers from paying minimum wage and their special exemptions from child labor laws. My business can't hire a 15 year old to learn about motorcycles but newspapers can hire him and pay him $2.00 an hour (or less) to deliver the daily wrapper.

It must be nice to sit in an ivory tower, never needing to rub elbows with the likes that shop at Wal-Mart. And those of us that do, should be ashamed of ourselves.