Media, Place Blogging: A Leader in Detroit

Not long before she died earlier this month Molly Ivins, the great Texas political columnist, noted that the conventional American news media had an odd business strategy: Giving customers less and less of an ever duller and out of touch product. Newspaper readership has been declining since its peak in 1992. Now, instead of individual papers going out of business, entire chains are biting it. Almost a year ago Knight Ridder, which had squeezed the intellectual energy out of Pulitzer Prize winners in Miami, Philadelphia, and San Jose, sold all of its holdings to McClatchy. 

The other side of this story, though, is the rise of independent news rooms on the Internet. They are taking many forms. Yet one of the most intriguing at the moment is the place-based blogs that are telling very different narratives about their communities, and attracting growing audiences. The place bloggers tend to be more immediate, interested in much more detail, less inclined to point cynical fingers, and much readier to probe and keep probing. Here’s a good example from Watertown, Mass.

I’m interested because one of those narratives is the Mode Shift that is the focus of this blog, the emergence of a new green, clean, energy efficient metropolitan development strategy. The new economic model is yielding authentic benefits for residents, businesses, and regions. Salt Lake City, for instance, built a LEED-certified energy-efficient Intermodal transit station (see pix) to serve as the hub of its 145-mile regional light rail and commuter rail system that is reshaping development patterns in one of the fastest growing metropolitan regions in the United States.  

saltlakeintermodal.jpgA great example of how these old media/new media trend lines cross is now occurring in Detroit. If you happen to read the Detroit Free Press or the Detroit News, southeast Michigan’s two dailies, it’s like following an on-going regional funeral, and not only because of unrelenting bad news from the auto industry. The papers don’t appear terribly interested in digging out the new narratives of entrepreneurial activity in any sphere. I’ve worked for years in Detroit and know 50 great stories about terrifically dedicated people in business, government, law, academia, institutions, philanthropy and the non-profit sector whose work is making a huge difference. 

You’ll find some of those people, though, in Model D, a blog launched in July 2005 that looks at political issues, social and economic trends, real estate news, and the people involved in finely hewn and intelligent journalism.  Yesterday’s edition had a very solid profile of Bruce Katz, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, and one of the important researchers and strategists in American metropolitan affairs. Bruce’s group produced the Charting Maine’s Future report mentioned earlier this month in Mode Shift. 

Bruce has been involved for several years in conducting research and shaping the various strategies Detroit could embrace to improve its well-being. The Model D piece is the best treatment of him and his work I’ve read in any Detroit media. Model D’s journalism falls into the realm of “appreciative inquiry,” which is a new school of reporting that is much less cynical than the frame of the conventional media. Model D’s report highlights the promising business trends that are shaping what Detroit is now and will be in 25 years.   

The transformation of metropolitan regions in the United States into places worthy of attention and investment, places that attract the brightest minds and best companies, hasn’t received nearly the focused conventional media treatment it deserves. I’m in Salt Lake City this week, one of the greenest, most energy efficient, politically progressive cities in the United States . It has received scant attention for its good work.

One important reason this is so is that the American Mode Shift is essentially a story of change based on collaboration and optimism. It’s not a story of conflict, not about bad news.  And because it isn’t, it violates one of the basic tenets of conventional American journalism.

Jeremiah Owyang, the director of corporate media strategy at Podtech.net and one of the astute observers of social media, attended the WeMedia conference in Miami earlier this month and reported in his blog on the dynamic tension between the conventional media and the new Internet media. That growing and fractious distance is due to the speed of technological change and practices that has influenced where readers and viewers are found now. It’s also due to how the old media look at and cover the world. See Jeremiah’s postings from February 10, 2007.

The Great Western Train Race

SALT LAKE CITY —  In the 1990s, before one of the most successful and popular regional rapid transit systems in the United States was built at the foot of the Wasatch Front, the very same criticism of light rail and commuter rail now occurring in Detroit, and to some extent in Grand Rapids, was also heard here. It’s too expensive. Nobody will ride it. The region is too spread out. It makes no sense. Build highways not rail. 

All this week I’ve ridden Salt Lake City’s 19-mile Trax light rail system, which opened in 1999, and now carries nearly 60,000 passengers a day. The system is fast, safe, convenient, and cheap. It cost $4 a day to ride anywhere, anytime. I didn’t need to rent a car. The light rail conductors care so much about their line that they pasted Valentine’s Day messages to riders on the windows.

Last year, ridership increased 23 percent, more than any regional rapid transit system in the country. People like rail so much that last November voters in Salt Lake County and neighboring Utah County approved a tiny sales tax increase (2.5 cents on a $10 purchase) to speed up construction on an extension, three brand new lines, and to double the length of a new commuter rail line that is set to open later this year. Suburban communities that were the most virulently anti-rail in the 1990s are clamoring to be the first to open new stations. 

saltlakeplatform.jpgAs an icon of efficiency, usefulness, environmental-sensitivity, and metropolitan prosperity, regional rapid transit is hard to beat. That’s especially true when contrasting Michigan’s largest and sagging metropolitan region with the modern, fast-growing, clean and green cities of the West. A great train race has broken out across the Rocky Mountain region and the Pacific Coast, with cities challenging each other to build the best transit systems and to find new ways to raise money to do so, including taxing citizens and leveraging federal dollars.

Denver is building a 172-mile light rail, commuter rail, and rapid bus transit system. Portland last month opened a $57 million tram to add to its world-class system of light rail and street cars. Seattle is close to  completing a light rail system and is already planning expansions and a street car. Phoenix is building its first line, and San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles have systems in place and are in various stages of planning expansions. 

While regional rapid transit systems do not, by themselves, ensure that regions can compete in the global economy, they are essential equipment for attracting the bright minds and active people who make regions prosper. In interviews here with young entrepreneurs, every one of them said that the Salt Lake region’s commitment to rail transit was a big factor in why they either built their companies here or relocated. 

Just before the Super Bowl, Dave Barry, the Miami Herald columnist, lampooned Miami’s light rail system for its expense and low ridership. “It does not go to many other places that many Miami residents would like to go, which is why most of them do not use it,” Barry wrote. “To them, the Metrorail train is a mysterious object that occasionally whizzes past over their heads, unrelated to their lives, kind of like a comet.”

Miami’s transit problem results principally from poor planning and support. I hear the officials critical of rapid transit in Detroit cite Miami as an example of a system that is not working as anticipated. I remind them that people are pedestrians before and after they ride light rail. So to make systems work well zoning that encourages mixed use developments that connect people is just as important as economic investments that yield walkable destinations. It’s all in the linkages and connections. 

The West’s cities understood that, and none more so than Salt Lake City. The light rail system, coupled with the 2002 Olympics held here, have given this region of nearly 2 million people a new view of itself as a global competitior. Incomes are rising. New companies are piling in here, particularly those in the recreational sports industry. Salt Lake City has a federal wilderness region at its doorstep, the only major metropolitan region in the country like that. And the city’s government has been led for nearly eight years by Rocky Anderson, a Democrat who has organized much of Salt Lake’s economic development strategy around the need to be more environmentally intelligent especially in reducing the production of global warming gases. Toyota hybrid Prius’s serve as municipal vehicles.

What is occurring here, the largest metropolitan region in the most conservative state in the country, is evidence of three things. First, rapid transit, environmental progress, and economic prosperity are tied together in ways that were foreseen long ago by visionaries, but are just coming to be fully realized in the dynamic cities of the American West. Second, these issues have transcended partisanship. And third, Michigan’s largest metropolitan region, and by extension the state, is far behind and losing ground in global competitiveness every day. Detroit has an opportunity to launch a commuter rail line to Ann Arbor that by itself won’t resolve the region’s massive economic migraine, but will go a long way to showing itself and the world that southeast Michigan is a place that matters. 

   

Charting A Future For Michigan Through Maine

If you read the growing number of economic development proposals about how to solve what we in Michigan call the “one state recession,” it’s readily plain that they all say pretty much the same thing. Promote the idea that educational attainment is a priority, and make it possible for more students to attend and graduate from college. Improve Michigan’s cities so that they are magnets for talented entrepreneurial young people. Develop strategies that leverage Michigan’s treasure trove of natural resources in new ways. For instance, a state surrounded by more clean fresh water than any place on earth should be the planet’s leader in developing new companies and technology to promote its sustainable use. Michigan, in other words, has to figure out what it wants to be.

That, friends, is a new idea. And as anyone who’s paid attention to the 35-year decline of the American auto industry knows, new ideas aren’t a virtue in Michigan. The hierarchical way of doing business, learned in the auto industry and which worked so well in Michigan for much of the 20th century, is not only obsolete it’s completely unfit for the innovative, collaborative, accelerated, and competitive 21st.

Now, we aren’t the only old economy state challenged by its own outmoded rules of the game. Another is Maine, where fishing and woolen mills and paper factories are all going the same way as the American auto assembly line. But Maine, which has just over 1 million residents, one-tenth as many as Michigan, is on the verge of figuring out what to do about it. 

Last October, GrowSmart Maine, the state’s non–profit smart growth organization based in Yarmouth, held a conference that attracted 800 participants, all of whom gathered to hear what the Brookings Institution recommended for building the state’s new economy and ensuring the quality of life. Brookings spent a year studying Maine and its final report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” is a great piece of economic and cultural analysis and can be secured on the GrowSmart Maine Web site.

The report’s most important contribution was not in identifying what was wrong with Maine, but in focusing on what was right, especially Maine’s fabled high quality of life based on its maritime and North Woods culture, and all of its innovative people, many of them educated in New England’s elite colleges and universities. What was missing, said Mark Muro, the report’s principal author and a policy specialist at Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program, was discipline. The courage to decide to act. 

The Brookings researchers, financially supported by a ton of money raised by GrowSmart Maine, suggested three steps to prosperity. The first two would establish a $190 million fund to revitalize cities, protect forests and farms, and make it easier for people to hunt and fish, and a $200 million fund to promote innovation and entrepreneurism.

Now right here is where Maine can help Michigan. Brookings suggested paying for the two investment funds by eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiencies in state and local government. “A top-to-bottom overhaul of bureaucracies would not only improve service and finance needed  investments, but could also make a down payment on tax reform,” said the report.croppedalan1.jpg

As Alan Caron, GrowSmart Maine’s founder and executive director (in pix left), told me earlier this month, Brookings helped his organization fashion the perfect message of the moment. Conservatives like the limited government piece, while liberals hanker for the government activism portion. Maine knows its paramount challenge is defining its place in the global economy. The state now has a message — the money saved here can be invested there — that makes such sense that the political community, including both parties and every level of government, from the town halls to the Legislature to the governor’s office, is  essentially on the same page. Bills to enact the full scope of the Brookings recommendations have been introduced. Serious debate is under way. Alan told me he expects many to be approved. A poll of 500 registered voters that GrowSmart Maine released on February 1, 2007, showed that 91 percent of those polled agreed that the  Legislature should “streamline government al all levels to free up resources for investment in the new economy and lowering taxes.”

Governor Jennifer Granholm. Legislative leaders. Michigan mayors, business executives, non-profit administrators, and citizens. Maine has pointed the way to achieving a new economic strategy in our great state.

Flip: GE’s Interactive Project to Explore Quality of Place

Flip is Mode Shift’s new feature exploring the breakthrough examples of how interactive and social media connect with commerce, land use, resource conservation, and place. Take a look at General Electric’s Geoterra Ecoimagination site, which deploys interactive motion graphics and audio to explore virtual geography. True, this is an exceptional device for marketing the company’s products. But it’s also a very strong move to prove G.E.’s  sustainable bona fides, a trend noted in last spring’s Vanity Fair green issue.

Developing high-end graphics, and inviting participation and feedback, is a keen way to explore the space  where green business and smart growth values merge. Improving the economy and quality of life. Interactive media and smart growth. Cool stuff.

Net Root Attack: Another View

How important is the Internet? We learned the answer in the old farmhouse at the top of the hill in Benzonia, where the Michigan Land Use Institute was founded. There were eight of us with the organization then, doing our research and writing at old desks topped by new computers and monitors, all woven together on an internal server that also provided access to the Internet.

It was 1998 and we thought we were pretty hip. After all, for a small non-profit we’d done well. Six months before, the Institute launched the first version of its Web site. One sweaty July afternoon, though, the site went down, and with it our internal server and email. I”ll never forget the next thing that happened. One by one closed office doors opened. privatedisplay.jpgYoung staffers, eyebrows raised, joined the middle age people in the building’s central hall. No question. Work came to a standstill and wouldn’t resume until service was restored. We looked at each other, shrugged, and creeped back to our desks to see if we were back online. We weren’t, so we took the afternoon off and rolled down the hill to the beach at Crystal Lake.

I was reminded of that afternoon when NPR and other news desks took note this week of the hacker attack on several of the important server installations that keep the World Wide Web operating. The frame for the national newsies was “what if.” The frame for techies in the blogosphere was either “we told you so,” or a surprisingly flip and almost cynical “who cares.” 

“It didn’t really do anything,” said Gizmodo, one of the most popular blogs covering technology, “at least not anything that normal users noticed.”

Today I had a conversation with an old friend who edits in New York . She asked me what I thought the attack meant, and where “it all,” i.e. the Internet, was going. I’m no soothsayer, but let’s consider a few views about the Internet that are unassailable at this point. For one, if television went down for a week, does it really make much of a difference in the course of our lives over those seven days? Perhaps for advertisers, jocks, actors, newscasters, and the few million of us who can’t live without the tube. Hardly a moment to panic. Same for radio or newspapers. If they disappeared for a week, what would it really matter?  

But if the Internet went down for a week, there would be a global economic crisis. Companies would collapse. Entire economic sectors would retreat. Business and industry would come to a standstill at the precise moment that the servers failed. The Internet is so tightly meshed into human commerce that it is impossible to exist without it. What’s more, the evolution of the Internet as the dominant invention of its age started in 1994, just 13 years ago, when AOL provided the first dial-up service.

I like to compare these first years of the  Internet to the early decades of the auto industry. At one time, around 1917, 23 automobile companies in Detroit, many of them located along Woodward Avenue, assembled more than 1 million vehicles a year. Building cars in Detroit changed the world. It prompted new wealth, union organizing, and land and resource-hungry development patterns. Cars also produced a culture of ease, convenience, and physical lassitude based on cheap oil, cheap land, and massive spending on roads and highways. 

The auto age is ending. The Internet is close to surpassing the auto economy and culture, if it hasn’t already done so. The digital backbone of the Web supports a global economic, cultural, communications, trade, entertainment, and governing infrastructure that has never been more interconnected, and can’t be replaced.