Archive for the ‘Community issues’ Category

If you still think Twitter’s all about what-I’m-having-for-breakfast, you probably weren’t following the @StLukesCR Twitter feed this morning and early afternoon:

Surgery tweet

That was the fourth 0f 126 tweets in a live twittercast of a robotic surgery at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids Monday by Sarah Corizzo, media relations specialist/writer for St. Luke’s, author of the @StLukesCR Twitter feed. (more…)


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This will be my column in Monday’s Gazette:

Good enterprise journalism in the digital age starts the same way it always did: with a journalist’s curiosity, initiative and persistence.

One of the end results is also the same: A page-one story.

Good enterprise journalism in the digital age also uses new tools and techniques that let us gather and analyze facts more efficiently, present them differently and to engage directly with our audience as a story unfolds.

Gazette journalist Adam Belz is using old-fashioned curiosity, initiative and persistence as well as digital and interactive skills to analyze and present information in his examination of the “hot 100” spots for Cedar Rapids police.

If you read the print edition of The Gazette, you saw Adam’s front-page story Saturday, accompanied by Liz Martin’s photo, about the only single-family home in his list of the 100 locations visited most often by Cedar Rapids police last year. The two-story white house at 1410 Bever Ave. SE is owned by Vinnie Huskey Properties LLC, a company incorporated by Kevin Bachus. City inspectors shut the houses down Feb. 27, three weeks after a man was stabbed there. Police visited the house 71 times in 2008.

Journalists have been uncovering stories like this for ages. Such work used to be more time-consuming. In 1993, I worked on a story for the Omaha World-Herald, tracking what happened to rape cases investigated by Omaha police and filed in Douglas County courts. I spent weeks combing through the records and charting the cases on legal pads, eventually documenting how few rape cases actually resulted in convictions. It was one of the best stories of my career and won a few awards. And it was an inefficient way to gather and analyze information.

A couple years later I started learning how to gather and analyze data. In my first story using a spreadsheet, I was able to document (and got state officials to concede) that the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality’s fund to clean up leaking underground gasoline tanks was broke and that work to clean up the contamination would have to stop for more than a year. That story took a couple of days, and I started to see the power of computers as a reporting tool.

I have exhorted journalists for years to develop skills in gathering, analyzing and presenting data. Spreadsheets and databases are as essential tools for a journalist today as notebooks, cameras and cell phones.

Adam is demonstrating how today’s journalist has to work.

He obtained data on police calls from the Cedar Rapids Police Department and analyzed the data to identify the city’s “Hot 100” places where police were called most often for matters other than routine checks and traffic accidents.

In addition to Saturday’s page-one story, Adam produced a series of blog posts, telling about other “Hot 100” properties (he’s profiled five so far). After Adam listed the top 25 on his blog, a reader put those properties on a Yahoo! map and posted a link in the comments on Adam’s blog. Adam then developed his own interactive map, showing all 100 hot spots, including information such as rank and number of police calls.

Other residents joined the conversation on Adam’s blog, helping him improve the map, suggesting questions to ask when he manages to reach property owners and in one case leaving a property owner’s phone number (they haven’t been returning his calls).

Interest in the hot spots was so strong that Adam’s blog reached its highest traffic level ever Friday. And the map got even more traffic than the blog.

This is the approach we will use increasingly to provide information that is important for our community: With a mix of new and old techniques, we will find the answers to important questions in the community.

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Do we really need to discuss race in 2009? Isn’t it time, with a man of African heritage in the White House, that we can lay this issue to rest?

I wish. Without question, the strides this nation has made on race have been huge. And last year’s election did topple a major barrier. The conversation has changed, but it’s not over yet.

If you’d like to continue that conversation, join The Gazette’s panel discussion on race this Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. I will moderate a discussion with at least four community leaders about how race remains an issue in our community and our country.

The discussion is part of Linn Area Reads, a program of the Metro Library Network. The program has encouraged people in the community to read two books that explore themes of bigotry: Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, set in a Colorado town outside a World War II relocation camp for American citizens of Japanese descent; and Harper Lee‘s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, set in Alabama in the 1930s.

The institutionalized barriers described in those books have disappeared today, but we still have plenty of bigotry. Though debates over immigration and same-sex marriage involve valid policy issues, you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find some ugly examples of hatred toward people who are different. And while we didn’t herd Americans of Arab heritage into relocation camps after 9/11, we saw disturbing examples of individual violence and discrimination.

Certainly Barack Obama’s election as president represented a huge symbolic milestone in our nation’s struggle with racism. And the facts that his first victory came in Iowa and that he easily carried this state that’s 93 percent white showed that voters are increasingly looking past race. While I received many letters and emails with subtle or blatant racial overtones during and since that campaign, the simple fact is that those voices of hatred and ignorance got drowned out in the election.

But triumph at the top levels of society doesn’t translate into equality everywhere. In Iowa, the median household income for white families is nearly twice as high as it is for black families. The percentage of people in poverty is more than three times as high for blacks. Whether you examine health, family, education, crime, housing or economics, statistics continue to show a discouraging difference between life for black and white Americans.

The disparity starts at birth. Black babies in Iowa are more than twice as likely as white babies to be born to an unwed mother or a teen mother or to die in infancy.

Native Americans and Hispanics also lag far behind in most measures. Among racial minorities, only Asian Americans, the group featured in Tallgrass, now live a life that’s statistically comparable to the lives of whites.

Yes, while we celebrate progress, we still have plenty to discuss about race in our country and our community.

In Thursday’s panel discussion, Derek Buckaloo, chairman of the Department of History at Coe College, will start with an overview of race in America and why we have such a tough time with the issue.

Hazel Pegues, executive director of Diversity Focus, will discuss Iowa’s increasing diversity and the  challenges and opportunities it presents.

Karen Brown, director of diversity at Rockwell Collins, will discuss diversity issues in the workplace.

Christian Fong, chairman of the Next Generation Commission and head of AEGON’s real estate capital markets division, will offer a young professional’s views on race and diversity.

Dale Todd, former City Council member, will offer observations about race and diversity in Cedar Rapids and, in particular, his experiences in leading the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association and his service in city leadership.

After opening presentations, I will ask the panelists questions. I’d like your help in choosing questions to ask. Through emails, letters, phone calls or comments on my blog, I invite you to send questions about racial issues. Please include your name, daytime phone number and your own racial or ethnic heritage with your questions. I will use some of them in Thursday’s program.

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I spend a lot of my time involved with digital communication – blogs, tweets and multimedia. But occasionally I have to lose myself in an old-fashioned book.

I recently finished Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas and will start soon on Harper Lee‘s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. I could read them digitally if I could pry the Kindle away from my wife, Mimi. But sometimes it’s good to just stretch out with a good book and turn some actual pages.

I’m participating in the annual Linn Area Reads program of the Metro Library Network. People are encouraged to read these two books and participate in a series of programs reflecting on them. We started with a March visit from Sandra Dallas, author of Tallgrass, March 1 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. I hadn’t read the book when she visited (wish I had), but I finished it last week.

Related programs continued Saturday at Collins Road Theater with a screening of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the book in years. I look forward to reading the book again. Usually the movie version of a great book disappoints me. But with this one, you marvel at the storytelling skill of either version.

I’m trying to recall whether specific scenes from the movie were even in the book and how the book treated them. I’m trying to recall whether anyone ever nailed a role better than Gregory Peck did the role of Atticus Finch.

Organizers of Linn Area Reads picked the two novels because of their similarities. Each book examines racial prejudice in a small town: Tallgrass is set in southeastern Colorado during World War II outside an internment camp for American citizens of Japanese heritage, relocated from California in one of our nation’s most shameful episodes; Mockingbird examines racial injustice in Alabama in the 1930s.

The books had other parallels: Each is told through the eyes of a young girl (Rennie in Tallgrass, Scout in Mockingbird); each girl’s father is the moral rock of the story, standing strong against bigotry; each book examines other prejudices (against unwed mothers and people with mental disabilities).

Jim Kern of Brucemore will lead a discussion of those similarities Thursday, April 9, at Barnes & Noble. I need to finish Mockingbird by then. Wouldn’t want to comment on parallels between the scenes where the fathers stand up to potential lynch mobs if the Mockingbird scene was in the movie but not the book.

A “Buseum” traveling exhibit of “Held in the Heartland,” about German prisoner-of-war camps in the Midwest, will come to the Westdale Mall parking lot Tuesday, March 31. Linn Area Reads will conclude with a “Stage to Page” discussion with cast members of the Classics at Brucemore production of To Kill a Mockingbird. The discussion will be Friday, May 8, at 6 p.m. at Marion Public Library. The play opens July 9. 

I will moderate and The Gazette will sponsor a “Race in America” panel discussion Thursday, April 23, at 7 p.m. at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

I’d be interested in hearing how you view racial issues in our country and in our community. In the 1930s era when Mockingbird was set or in 1960, when it was published, it would have been impossible to imagine an African-American president. We have come a long way. But I receive too many emails and letters loaded with overt or subtle racism to think that one election wiped away centuries of bigotry.

Tell me the questions and issues you would like us to address in this panel discussion: If you are a racial or ethnic minority in our community, how do you feel included and excluded? What barriers remain? What opportunities have you had that were denied to your parents? If you are in the majority, how has your understanding of other races grown in recent years? In what matters, if any, do you think that race becomes a false issue?

If we are so fortunate as to have a Harper Lee in our midst today, what issues would she address in a novel that would still touch hearts a half-century later?

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Leaders at all levels are failing Cedar Rapids.

We need to get tough. We need to get mean. And we need to do it now.

I remember after last June’s floods, I got tired of all the e-mails I would receive, both from Iowans and from people outside the state, who found some sort of virtue in comparisons between gritty Iowans who weren’t begging for federal handouts and the pathetic people from New Orleans who did.

That was balderdash then and it’s way past balderdash now. The federal government and the state government have an obligation to help in disasters. Iowa leaders at the local, state and federal level need to be loud and insistent about meeting that obligation faster and stronger than anyone has so far.

This is no handout we need. No community can absorb a disaster without help. Iowans’ tax dollars have supported federal relief for disasters ranging from hurricanes to earthquakes to terrorist attacks. We shouldn’t be begging for a handout, but insisting on justice.

B.J. Smith of Cedar Rapids runs a pleasant blog called “Iowa Nice,” celebrating how nice this state is. That’s an admirable trait to our culture, but let’s not forget that Meredith Willson also described us in “The Music Man” as “Iowa stubborn.” We need to put Iowa Nice on the shelf for a while and turn Iowa Stubborn loose on Washington and Des Moines. Along with Iowa Furious and Iowa Indignant.

At the local level, we are leaderless. From the day the waters hit, people have been asking where Mayor Kay Halloran was. Some council members have been more prominent than she has in responding to the challenges of the flood. City Manager Jim Prosser is an administrator, but the city has no strong leader.  

The change in city government is no excuse. Leadership is not a function of structure but of the ability of the leaders and how they respond to challenges.

County supervisors are not in as strong a position as city officials to lead in this disaster response, but they certainly have enough power that someone could fill this vacuum.

Gov. Chet Culver and state legislative leaders sounded downright timid in their explanations about why the Legislature did not meet in special session last year to address this problem. They feared that making state money available would mess up our chances for federal aid. Or maybe a swift state response, accompanied by strong leadership demanding a swift federal response, would have underscored the urgency of the problem.

Instead, nearly eight months after the floods, the Legislature last week approved less than 1 percent of the need.

Senators Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley have more than a half-century of experience combined in the U.S. Senate. What good is that experience if they can’t deliver better federal aid more swiftly than they have following the worst natural disaster in their state’s history?

President Barack Obama (and for that matter, President George W. Bush before him) got his launch to the White House from Iowa. Both of them visited flood zones and flood victims. Was that a photo opportunity rather than a call to action?

Editors normally don’t like it when their bosses get involved in community affairs. It makes us uneasy because people might think that involvement will skew our coverage. The Gazette Company CEO Chuck Peters joined a trip to lobby Department of Housing and Urban Development officials in Washington last month and Publisher Dave Storey will be in Washington this month to lobby with other Chamber of Commerce members.

That doesn’t bother me right now. I can deal with any conflicts and perceptions their involvement might create. Mostly I hope they get something accomplished. This leadership shouldn’t have to come from the business community. But it’s about time it came from somewhere.

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A draft of my Sunday column:

Many of the stories, photos and videos at iowafloodstories.com will already be familiar to you. We want you to add your own stories, photos and videos to make this a complete record of the 2008 Cedar Rapids flood.

What is new about iowafloodstories.com is the presentation. You can use a map or search window to look for specific properties and click to read the stories and look at the photos and videos of hundreds of individual homes and businesses.

The map already leads to stories, photos and videos shot by staff members of The Gazette and GazetteOnline as well as photos posted on Flickr and videos from YouTube. We hope eventually it will include even more stories, photos and videos submitted by the residents and business owners who experienced the flood.

Before I came to The Gazette, I was studying the use of databases by newspaper companies. They are great tools for answering questions about a community in much greater detail than a news story can. I wrote a report on databases for the American Press Institute as one of my last chores before coming to The Gazette.

When I came here, I was pleased that Zack Kucharski already was doing outstanding work with databases, which I like to call answerbases because most people who use them don’t really think of themselves as looking for data. We want answers to our questions. Kucharski was already providing answers to questions about Hawkeye football history, state salaries, crime and other topics.

On June 11, my second day on the job, I told him we were going to do lots of interesting things with databases to provide answers to our community’s questions. Though we knew at the time that the Cedar River was rising, expected to crest at record levels in Cedar Rapids in a couple of days, we couldn’t realize yet how many questions the flood would present and how many ways we would use databases to provide answers.

In the months since the flood, Kucharski has posted databases answering questions about such topics as reopened businesses, missing pets and buyouts. We’re still working on getting records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For much of that time, Kucharski and other colleagues were also working on iowafloodstories.com.

We should credit our colleagues at the Des Moines Register for inspiring some of the format for iowafloodstories. They developed an outstanding map that told the story of each property in Parkersburg, with photos before and after the May 25 tornado and with stories, photos and videos from the Register’s coverage attached to the appropriate properties. We liked the idea, but had far more properties (more than 7,000) to chronicle in Cedar Rapids.

The Carl and Mary Koehler History Center, Coe College and Mount Mercy College collaborated in this project, helping us collect people’s stories.

Dozens of Gazette and GazetteOnline staff members contributed stories, photos and videos to the archive. Librarian John McGlothlen and Production Coordinator Diana Pesek assisted in loading stories from the Gazette archives into the database. Matthew Manuel and Matt Thiessen did the web development. Kucharski contributed in more ways than I could understand or detail here.

The result is an archive of this flood that will grow as you and we add more stories, photos and videos. We have some more work to do on it this week, so we encourage you to take a look today and to come back again and again.

Mostly we encourage you to add your own stories and photos. If you lived or worked in the flood zone, tell us about your home or business – what it was like before the flood, how badly it was damaged, about the cleanup and rebuilding.

Send us photos and videos – if they weren’t ruined – of your home before the flood. We have the static photos from the county assessor’s office, but we want to see children playing in the yard, family celebrations in the home. We want your photos and videos of the damage, cleanup and rebuilding. If you have questions, need help or have printed materials to be digitized contact Kucharski  at (319) 398-8219 or zack.kucharski@gazcomm.com.

My last note reflects a bit of vanity, but we want your help in preparing our public service entry for the Pulitzer Prizes. In emails and in person, many of you have suggested we have a shot at a Pulitzer for our flood coverage. Of course, every journalist dreams of winning the big prize someday, but my sincere answer was always that the highest honor in journalism is not the Pulitzer Prize but the respect of your community. So I am more honored that you think we should win than I will be if we do.

Of course we are going to enter. We are selecting our best photos and stories for the various categories where we think we have a chance. But I liked a suggestion from our financial editor, George C. Ford. When we were discussing what to submit in the public service category, he suggested asking the public.

What did we do in print or online that most helped you during the disaster itself or as the community has been rebuilding? What stories, columns, editorials, text alerts, photos, videos, databases, graphics or other information from The Gazette, GazetteOnline and GazetteToGo most served the public in 2008?

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It’s been a while since a column has drawn the response that I got from Sunday’s column (Saturday’s blog post) on Chet Culver’s refusal to call the Iowa Legislature into special session. In the interest of giving my critics their due, I will start with the only critical email. (I should note that my emailers are not bashful about being critical; columns about The Gazette possibly leaving AP or dropping “For Better or For Worse” drew plenty of criticism.)

Floyd Sandford of Cedar Rapids tipped off his view in the subject line of his email, referring to  my “nasty piece of journalism.” He elaborated: “What a missed opportunity, insinuating that all the blame for lack of response to a natural disaster over which any single mere mortal has any control or responsibility [unlike a manmade disaster such as the shambles left by the most bumbling, incompetent, tunnel-visioned president in the history of our country] is the fault of Iowa’s govenor. Was this your revenge at getting yelled at in public forum?  One would have hoped for a less petty and sarcastic piece of partisanship from someone on the Gazette’s Editorial Staff.  Hopefully, Culver will rise above your personal attack and not view Cedar Rapidians from the perspective of the nasty, whining tone you established in your forgettable article.”

Every other message I received (and some tweets as well) told me that Culver has not earned much respect in these parts with his response to the flood.

“What part of ‘NO’ don’t we all understand?” asked Sue Bailey, echoing Culver’s response to me in September when I pushed him for a better explanation of his refusal to call a special session. Bailey has two daughters affected by the flood, one who will be bought out and one who is rebuilding, and she liked my “Barelystart” reference to Culver’s “Jumpstart” program. “Each has gone through hoops with the jumpstart and SBA, not to mention the city,” Bailey wrote.

Kristi Murdock shared my reaction to Culver’s boast that he was working to provide aid “as quickly as possible.” “Too little too late from ol’ Chet,” she responded.

City Council member Chuck Wieneke, who stressed that he was not speaking for the whole council, wrote: “I could not agree with you more on the fact that the Governor’s words have not been backed up by his actions.  In my opinion the fact that we did not have a special session of the legislature called to take action on the greatest disaster this state has ever faced is nothing less that moral cowardice on his part. I have been very outspoken on this issue and have hoped on many occasions that both the Gazette and local media would have been much more active in promoting the calling of such a session to deal with the challenges we are facing. Since we have been forced to wait for the Legislature to meet in normal session I would hope that all local media will stay on top of the legislature, calling for immediate action to assist in flood recovery issues and not just put it on the rear burner to deal with the other issues facing the state which the Governor has finally become so interested in. Thanks again for a good column, I only wish more individuals were willing to call it like it is. Politics were the sole reason, in my opinion, that we didn’t have a special session and I believe that is inexcusable.”

Another local official, County Supervisor Brent Oleson, agreed on Twitter that the criticism of Culver “was spot on.”

B.J. Smith, an active Twitterer, affirmed my view that a similar disaster in Des Moines would have received a more vigorous state response.

Barry Boyer, an employee owner of Van Meter Industrial, responded to the column: “I think the state government response led by Culver is pathetic. How do we lead a revolution here in CR to really put pressure on these guys? I am ready to throw some elbows.”

Doug Schumacher of A1 Rental and the Cedar Rapids Small Business Recovery Group responded: “What you failed to mention was how much of the $100 million is in people’s hands today (very little), or the fact that several of us sat in Des Moines in July telling the Rebuild Iowa Task Force that we needed “IMMEDIATE CASH ASSISTANCE”.

 Greg Q. ArBuckle had nothing but disgust for the state and city in their response to the disaster: “I don’t think you could have said it better! Between the Chet and Kay, I left Cedar Rapids. I could not get any help and the city was fighting me at every turn. I was not asking for free ride, just help to get things rolling. They said I would have to replace my boiler rather than repair it. The boiler was shut down for the summer and had not electric or gas going to it. For about $6,000 I could have it all cleaned and all the outside gauges replaced, it would have been like new! A far cry from the $23,000 quoted to replace it. The city said no. This is just one of the battles I butted heads with them. So I sold my buildings and moved to Jesup, Iowa. I bought a motel and will build onto it. Here I was welcomed with open arms.” ArBuckle added, “I was a life resident of Cedar Rapids. Now the name leaves a sour taste in my mouth!”

I’m not saying that just because some people agree with me that I was particularly insightful (if I did, I’d have to admit I was off-target when the reaction goes the other way). But I think the reaction shows that Culver has a problem here in Cedar Rapids, and it’s going to take more than talk to address the problem.




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Here’s a draft of my column for the Sunday Gazette:

Pardon my skepticism, Governor.

I had to laugh when I saw the quote from Gov. Chet Culver in large type on the front page of Saturday’s Gazette: “I want to get businesses up and running as quickly as possible.” I didn’t laugh because it was funny. This was the laughter of sarcasm.

Culver also said in the taping for “Iowa Press,” airing today on Iowa Public Television, “My focus is to get these families back on their feet, to get them into their old houses that need to be repaired, to get them in new houses if their homes were destroyed.”

I thought back immediately to Culver’s meeting in September with The Gazette’s editorial board, when he gave us lame, buck-passing reasons for his refusal to call the Legislature into special session to provide emergency aid to flood victims.

Annoyed when I noted that the situation in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and other eastern Iowa communities was too urgent to wait for January, Culver turned to me, his face flushing and his voice rising, and asked, “What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” The reaction was heated enough and animated enough that colleagues parroted it back to me at comical moments for the next week or so.

But there is nothing comical about Culver’s weak and slow response to the worst natural disaster in the state’s history. I’m glad you’ll be visiting Cedar Rapids this week, Governor. Let me know if you find a single person who thinks you have done anything “as quickly as possible.” See if anyone credits the state with getting them “back on their feet.”

You will see that hundreds of businesses reopened mostly through their own investment and hard work because waiting for sufficient state aid would have put them out of business.

When Culver met with our editorial board, he was proud that he had cobbled together $100 million without the Legislature’s help to provide state aid to disaster victims in a program called Jumpstart. Thanks, but the need in Cedar Rapids alone is more than $5 billion.

This summer’s catastrophe demanded a swift session of the Legislature to consider a range of responses beyond the power of the governor. At the very least, we should have been dipping into the state’s emergency reserve fund. It’s called a “rainy day” fund and Iowa hasn’t seen rainier days than we saw this June.

Lawmakers also could have considered diverting money from other state projects to flood relief. They could have considered a bond issue to spread disaster relief over several years. They could have considered an increase in the gasoline tax to repair the roads and bridges damaged and destroyed in the flood. They could have considered giving local governments more options to raise local money for rebuilding.

You can make a good case against some of those measures. All of them wouldn’t have been enough, but any of them would have helped more than the trickle of aid from Barelystart. While Culver has dithered away seven months since the flood with no legislative action, the national recession has forced severe cuts in state spending, making it that much harder to provide money for rebuilding.

Would the state response have been this slow if 5,000 homes and 1,000 businesses plus hundreds of government buildings and non-profit organizations had been flooded in Des Moines?


Culver’s goal is to get displaced families into new homes by December 2009, which is as long as they can stay in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. No point in trying to get them out of there before the deadline, I guess. 

Culver’s excuse for the inexcusable delay in legislative consideration of the state’s disaster response was that he didn’t want to jeopardize our chance at federal money by committing state money too early. The fact is that the maximum the state could commit would not come close to filling the need. State and federal money combined will leave us far short. But the swifter we get any aid, the faster businesses and families can get on with life.

Here’s hoping that the governor’s stocking Thursday morning includes a replica of Harry Truman’s famous desk plaque reminding that chief executive: “The buck stops here.”

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