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  • OPINION - The grim truth about our paper mills

    Posted by Chris Conley

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    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The nerve of that hedge fund full of millionaires. Starboard Value LLC might as well have Gordon Gekko as its CEO. At the upcoming Wausau Paper shareholders meeting, you can almost imagine someone grabbing the microphone and telling the assembled audience that “greed is good.”

    (Ironically, in Wall Street the fictional company that Gekko launched a proxy fight against was also a paper company - Teldar.)

    We think of Wausau Paper as our company. We’re part of their name. Some of their mills have been operated in Central Wisconsin for a century. Some people have worked there for generations.

    But time spent in a company’s employ doesn’t make you an owner. It’s not your company. It’s Starboard LLC’s company. They own a large chunk of stock... enough to make the board of directors sing their tune.

    The sad but true facts are this: the Brokaw mill was a money-loser. Management said years earlier that the economics of that property were poor. Now its been closed down. The types of paper made at the mills in Rhinelander, Mosinee, and Brainerd are also less profitable and are also money losers. So stock-holders are asking a completely rational question to company management, “what are you doing to stop the losses?” The answer cannot be to keep operating low-profit or no-profit facilities just because hundreds of people work there. Tissue paper, which is the most-profitable part of Wausau Paper, needs to be focused on and expanded. Product lines that are losers need to be changed, sold off, or dropped.

    People say we need a community response to save mill jobs. Wrong. We need a community response to return these mills to profitability. Without that, the jobs therein will always be at risk.

    What if the community came to Wausau Paper and asked what paper products could be produced here at a profit? Why should tissue paper be made in Kentucky instead of Mosinee? Would communities be willing to forego property taxes on the mills while they’re being converted to a new product line? Would workers agree to temporary layoffs during the conversion? Would the state step up with low interest loans for modernized equipment and retooling? Is there willingness for work rules, pay, and benefits be adjusted if the margins are tighter and the market is more competitive? All of that involves sacrifice: from employees, from the communities that host these plants, from the taxpayers. I’m not sure people are willing to make those sacrifices. I’d heard management-labor relations at the mills are poor, and salaries and other expenses are bloated. That’s led us to where we are now.

    Don’t be so certain that a magic buyer can be found for these mills, and that they can suddenly succeed where Wausau Paper failed. And don’t expect Starboard LLC to stand by while their investment loses money.

    Chris Conley
    1/16/13

  • OPINION - How?

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) A One Rocket was a low-level racehorse – the kind that rushed to the lead when the race began but grew tired. On a cold December morning at Aqueduct Racetrack he was entered in a cheap race with little indication that he’d run any differently than before.

    But run he did. The gate sprang open and A One Rocket went right to the lead. But on this day he didn’t grow tired. After a quarter-mile he’d already established a clear lead, and was leaving his competition further behind. He ran the second quarter-mile in a faster time than the first – unheard of except for stakes horses. In the home stretch he was still widening on the field, and crossed the finish line far in front. The track announcer told the crowd that A One Rocket “…ran like a champion today.” Indeed he did: 6-furlongs in 1:08 3/5… only two-fifths of a second slower than Spectacular Bid’s track-record time.

    A One Rocket was the favorite; unusual for a horse with a lackluster record. Several sports books in Las Vegas reported big losses from large off-shore bets on the race. An investigation was launched.

    The fix was in.

    A One Rocket’s trainer went to jail for drugging his horse. The horse’s owner and 15 others, many with mafia ties, were indicted.

    The biggest flaw in the scheme was the horse ran too well. How’d they do it?

    Some horse races are fixed. There are probably more fixed races than there are test-result positives. Arrests and prosecutions are rare. When someone is caught, the number one question is ‘how?’ Before someone gets any leniency, like a plea bargain, they should have to tell-all.

    That’s my question surrounding Lance Armstrong. I don’t follow cycling. I have only a passing interest about whether the sport is on-the-level. My assumption about Armstrong was that if he wasn’t clean, he’d be caught. He was probably the most-tested athlete in history. And test-after-test, year-after-year came back negative.

    Armstrong confessed. He admits he was a cheater. So, Lance, how’d you do it? That needs to be part of the confession. The key part. And I’m fine if he faces lawsuits or criminal prosecution to bring out the ‘how’.

    The A One Rocket mystery was eventually solved. Before the race on December 3, 2003 a garden hose was placed down the horse’s throat and a mixture of water and baking soda was poured directly into the horse’s stomach. The chemical reaction that occurred delays fatigue during racing by reducing lactic acid. The only evidence is increased Co2, which didn’t show up in post-race urine tests. Today the practice of ‘milk shaking’ a racehorse is easily tested and is illegal.

    So, what exactly did Lance Armstrong do? How’d he get away with it all this time?

    Chris Conley
    1.15.13

  • OPINION - For those who never take a day off

    Posted by Chris Conley

    U.S. doctors feel pinch of early flu season, push for vaccinations

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) “Welcome to the retirement dinner for James Alwaysthere. He’s worked for the company for the last 40 years, and has never taken a sick day. Day after day, James was always at his desk – sure as the sun rises each morning. Even when he wasn’t feeling is best, James soldiered on.”

    Truth is, over his career James came into work many times when he was carrying a cold, or the flu, and made dozens of his co-workers sick. We admire hard work and perseverance when we’re not feeling our best. But should we really be giving out laurels when one sick employee can infect an entire department. James’ stick-to-it-ness could have led to dozens, maybe hundreds, of co-worker sick days over the course of his career.

    Companies and schools should re-think perfect attendance awards. When someone’s sick, especially when they’re contagious, it’s more admirable for them to stay home.

    At the radio station, many of us work in small broadcast studios. We touch the same equipment and talk into the same microphones. We try our hardest to wash hands, wipe down surfaces and spray disinfectant… and we’ve still had some illness this winter.

    The flu season is bad this year. You can have it for 2-3 days before you have symptoms, and during that time you’re spreading the virus. Once you’re sick, please, do all of us a favor and take the day off.

    Chris Conley
    1.14.13

  • OPINION - Our final Packers game (of the season)

    Posted by Chris Conley

     NFL Mouse Pad - Green Bay Packers - "Our quality NFL mouse pad features a silk screened Green Bay Packers logo. 8"" x 7"""

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Saturday night will be our final Packers game on WSAU.

    Even if they win and advance to the NFC Championship Game, and then win again and move onto Super Bowl XXLIIV we won’t be able to air the games.

    Here’s why:

    NFL radio broadcasts are divided into two categories: team affiliate broadcasts and national radio network broadcasts. We’re an affiliate of the Green Bay Packers radio network. But the conference championship games and Super Bowl are network broadcasts only.

    This is a matter of economics. Radio networks pay big money for their NFL broadcast rights and they can’t get top dollar for their advertising if the same game is heard on dozens of team-affiliate radio stations.

    When the Packers win on Saturday, we’ll still offer some Packers programming even if we can’t bring you the play-by-play. Bill Michaels, who was a long-time host of the Packers post-game show, will join us after the NFC Championship and Super Bowl. We’ll also have Packers features and insider reports during the week.

    Chris Conley
    1.11.13

  • OPINION - Fuel on the fire

    Posted by Chris Conley

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    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Earlier this week I blogged about the latest newspaper project: a data base of public employee salaries and the costs of their benefits. The response has been curious.

    The newspaper has printed a series of letters to the editor criticizing the reporting. Many have a common theme. Public employees were vilified under Act 10 last year. They’ve been the whipping-boys for the state budget shortfall. Letting people know how much they make adds fuel to the fire. (One important caveat: we only know about the letters the newspaper publishes. There’s no way of knowing if they’re getting letters with an opposite point a view that aren’t being published.)

    This is strange thinking. Everyone who works for the government knows that their salaraies and the costs of their benefits are public information. If people want to find out, they can.

    Some of the salaries that have been detailed in the Gannett reporting are unconscionable. Consider: Technical college teachers who’ve nearly doubled their salaries through add-ons like grading extra papers or teaching additional classes on weekends or over the summer. A tech teacher who earns $90,000 already gets a generous salary; if they earn another $80,000 in ‘overages’ – taxpayers should know about that. And college professors, who are paid less on-average than tech instructors, still get generous salaries and spend minimal time in a classroom. Similar investigations by other newspapers reveal absurdities like overtime for municipal bus drivers that total more than $100,000 annually.

    There are two main points: First, many public employees are paid far more generously than the taxpayers who fund their salaries. Second, there are strong objections to allowing the people who are paying the freight to know about the costs.

    Chris Conley
    1.10.13

  • OPINION - A warm place

    Posted by Chris Conley

    Homeless Man

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU)   I failed. Last year I failed a basic test of human compassion. I’m ashamed of myself.

    Last winter, on a very cold early morning, a homeless man was camped out in the lobby of our radio station. (Our outer doors are open all the time – the inner doors that lead to our offices are locked after hours.)

    I threw him out. I told him he had to leave – immediately -- and I told him I’d call the police if he didn’t go. He bundled up a plastic shopping bag filled with his belongings and trudged off into the bitter darkness. He probably wandered the streets for hours until the sun came up.

    As a practical matter, we can’t let the homeless camp out in our lobby. But I could have offered to make a phone call for him if there was someone who could have helped. I could have called 2-1-1 and asked what could be done for him… and let him stay until help arrived. What bothers me about that morning from a year ago is that I was unkind.

    There are homeless people in Central Wisconsin. Thankfully, not many. But they are human beings, and basic decency tells us that they can’t wander the streets in the middle of winter.

    Last night the Wausau City Council approved the final zoning and permits for a downtown warming center. The lower level of St. Paul’s Church of Christ will be open at night, providing a warm place for people who don’t have anywhere else to go. It doesn’t solve the homelessness problem. But it’s necessary.

    The next time someone is in our outer lobby at least I can tell them there’s a place a few blocks from here where they can be warm and safe for the night. I hope I’ll do better.

    Chris Conley
    1.9.12

  • OPINION - Still rooting for Notre Dame

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NOT SO FAST: Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golston can’t elude the grasp of Alabama’s Vinnie Sunseri during the Crimson Tide’s 42-14 rout in the BCS Championship game, a beatdown that left previously undefeated Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly beside himself.

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) On one end of the college football spectrum, we have the Ivy League. These are elite academic schools like Harvard and Princeton that offer no athletic scholarships. Every football player who suits up for them also has the grades to gain admittance into those schools if they couldn’t play. This insures that Ivy League schools will be non-competitive against colleges that offer athletic scholarships. On the other hand, we have Penn State – where people were willing to cover up child-rape out of reverence for the football program.

    Most college football programs fall somewhere in the middle. The U.S. Naval Academy is closer to the Ivy League – you’ll serve a tour of duty once your playing days are over. The University of Oklahoma is closer to Penn State – Billy Sims, one of their Heisman Trophy graduates – revealed that he was functionally illiterate despite somehow earning a degree.

    Years ago when I lived in Ithaca, New York, I spent an entire season watching Ivy League football. The weather was bad for all five home games for the Cornell Big Red that season: three Saturdays of steady rain, then one game in the snow, followed by Senior Day in a driving sleet. “Well,” I’d say to myself, “at least they’re really student-athletes.” But, truth is, the quality of play is poor. This low level of football would never attract big-time television ratings. Years later when I’d worked at Yale, I’d watch their football team play in front of 15,000 fans at their 70,000 seat stadium.

    But just up the road at Syracuse University, my alma mater tries to play football against the big-boys. And, as an alum, I have the nagging feeling that none of these players met the academic requirements that I did when I enrolled. They were special because they could play. About 25-percent of them don’t graduate, but, oh well, they helped out team beat So-And-So State in the Something-Or-Other Bowl. Even while I cheer for my school, there’s something less than satisfying about it. You’re rooting for a fraud.

    There are very few football programs that strike the right balance: big time athletics with solid academic integrity. Notre Dame does. They’re one of the only football schools that has a double-math requirement for Freshmen (6 credits of math in the first year, not 3). They haven’t created faux-degree programs that are designed to keep marginal students from flunking out. The religious requirements are waived for no one. It’s a top-25 university.

    It’s a football team I could feel good rooting for.

    Too bad they lost to a football factory school.

    The real score is 97 to 74. Those are the graduation rates of football players at the two schools. Notre Dame won.

    Chris Conley
    1.8.12

  • OPINION - A judge and the dogs

    Posted by Chris Conley

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) Judicial review is a part of our government. The courts act as a check on the power of the legislature and the executive branch. Judicial restraint needs to be the close cousin of judicial review. The courts should intervene only when a law is off-the-rails; an egregious violation of constitutional rights for example.

    Consider judicial review of Wisconsin’s wolf hunting rules. Several animal rights groups sued saying using dogs to hunt wolves was cruel. A Dane County judge – on the theory that every possible wrong must have a judicial solution – issued a completely unproductive ruling. Judge Peter Anderson ruled that dogs can be used. But he also ruled that dogs can’t be specifically trained for wolf hunting. Huh?

    Hunting regulations, and there are a lot of them in Wisconsin, are written by the Department of Natural Resources. And, agree or disagree with their decisions, the DNR is full of experts on hunting. They were told, specifically by the legislature in the wolf hunting bill that was passed last year, that dogs would be allowed. They, as instructed, drafted hunting regulations within the guidelines that the law required.

    Judge Anderson is not an expert on hunting. He could have struck down the dog hunting provision if, for instance, the state Constitution had specific provisions for animal rights. It doesn’t. So the legislature passed a law that passes constitutional muster. The review then shifts to the specific regulations that the DNR drew up, with the question being do they comply with state law. See above, the legislature specifically said dogs would be allowed. The judge’s ban on training dogs to hunt wolves is not only nonsensical, it’s made up out of thin air.

    The DNR doesn’t oversee the training of animals. In fact, even if there were laws concerning animal training (there are – training animals with live bait, in most cases, is illegal) these laws are impossible to enforce. How do we know if a drug leader is training his pit bull to fetch a stick or attack a person? How can we tell if a hunting dog is being trained to hunt a rabbit, or a duck, or tennis ball, or a wolf? There’d certainly be no way for a DNR warden in the field to discern what a dog was trained to do.

    Whether or not using dogs to hunt wolves is cruel is open to debate. The question before Judge Anderson isn’t a moral question – it’s a legal one. And he imposed his own half-a-loaf judgment in an area he should have stayed out of. The correct answer was to tell the DNR, “you’re the experts, I trust you to do what’s right.”

    Chris Conley
    1.7.13

  • OPINION - The cost of over-staffing

    Posted by Chris Conley

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    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) The salaries of public employees are public records. You can find out if you look. After all, they’re paid with your tax dollars.


    Gannett Media (your local newspaper) is compiling a statewide data base of the costs of those salaries and their benefits. They’ve already posted the salaries of people who work in the state’s technical college system and the UW. It’s valuable information.


    Those costs are only part of the story. A more basic question is “are these jobs necessary”. In the last decade college faculty employment has held steady. Student enrollment in traditional four-year colleges is also steady. But non-teaching administrators have seen their ranks nearly double. Why? For what?


    An example, UW has a Provost for Diversity, Equality, and Educational Achievement. And this is not just an individual – it’s a position that oversees entire departments: the Center for Educational Opportunity, the Office for Equality and Diversity, and the Office for Multicultural Initiatives. The goal is to recruit more minority and female students, help retain minorities and get them to graduate, and to recruit a more diverse faculty. Let’s examine the goals: the minority population at UW-Madison is 12.5% -- statewide, blacks and Hispanics make up 12.6% of Wisconsinites. Women already outnumber men at UW-Madison 52 to 48%.


    I don’t write today to criticize the goal; I write about the costs. Even if a more ethnically-diverse campus was a paramount UW objective, what kind of staffing is required to achieve it? A handful of people. Not multiple departments.


    How many other parts of our university system have similar bloated payrolls? Can we, the taxpayers, afford it?

     

    Chris Conley
    1.4.13

  • OPINION - 2013 predictions

    Posted by Chris Conley

    Horoscope 2013

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) It’s the time for 2013 predictions. The Washington Post asked some of their opinion writers, reporters, and experts to make news/current events predictions for the year ahead. Some gave not-too-serious tongue-in-cheek responses. Let’s ignore them. Others offered their best-guesses about what lies ahead. Here’s what they had to say, with a few of my own comments.

     

    George Will says before the United States economy becomes Greece, we’ll have states that go over the fiscal cliff. He says Illinois or California are likely to collapse financially:
    http://tinyurl.com/atcjyln
    Conventional wisdom is that the GOP-controlled House wouldn’t approve a state bailout. I’m not so sure. While we’ve had individual cities go bankrupt, what about a state? It’s dubious. Are you really bankrupt if you can raise more revenue (through taxes or otherwise)? California is the ghost-of-Christmas-future for the rest of us. They voted to raise state taxes last fall. Does anyone think that will solve their problems?

     

    Jennifer Rubin, who writes a conservative blog, says moderate Republicans will be in ascension in 2013 while conservative Tea Party candidates will struggle:
    http://tinyurl.com/b2btqaq
    I disagree with the thinking that Chris Christie gave the President a boost in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. If Mitt Romney lowered the boom on Benghazi and realized that his ’47-percent’ comments were being recorded, a post-storm photo-up involving another Governor wouldn’t matter. Still, I don’t think Chris Christie’s political ladder goes any higher than his current office.

     

    Greg Sergeant, who writes a liberal companion-blog to Rubin’s, says Barack Obama will press all the issues that he took a pass on in his first term: immigration, gun control, voting rights, and fiscal policy. He thinks the GOP House will act as blockers:
    http://tinyurl.com/byogsu5
    I think most people will come to appreciate the Republican-controlled House as a check on Obama’s policies. The uneasy consensus will be that it’s better than letting Democrats control everything.

     

    Eugene Robinson, the Post’s most liberal writer, believes that Castro and Chavez will die in 2013… and then suggests that they’ll be missed:
    http://tinyurl.com/bc8t896
    Allow me to state the obvious: There are people in Cuba who love Castro, and people in Venezuela who love Chavez. And even they will be better off with others in charge. Castro is a butcher; and Chavez is another reminder that socialist economic policies are failures. And, strangely enough, I agree with Robinson that there’s no guarantee the U.S. will handle the transition correctly.

     

    Jonathan Capehart, a political cartoonist, predicts a big Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage:
    http://tinyurl.com/aa8rhcv
    Public opinion has shifted on this issue, and I think that will give the Supreme Court license to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. If you believe marriage is between one man and one woman, prepare yourself for defeat.

     

    Economic columnist Robert Sameulson predicts lower energy prices in 2013. He’s already written about the energy boom in the Dakotas and the dramatically-lower costs of oil and natural gas development:
    http://tinyurl.com/bhzzhmc
    The lost opportunity is that things like the fiscal cliff, the economy, and overall revenue to the federal government are all improved with more and cheaper energy production. Instead we’re working on new regulations that will keep energy costs high in the name of making windmills and solar panels seem like a better deal.

     

    Matt Miller (columnist and radio commentator) predicts that Paul Ryan emerge as the GOP presidential front-runner:
    http://tinyurl.com/bku895w
    His prediction was made before the New Year’s Day fiscal cliff vote. Paul Ryan cannot run for President and be on ‘Team Boehner’ at the same time. I’m surprised that, for now, he’s choosing the latter.

     

    Ed Rodgers (columnist/economist) offers the depressing thought that you’ll earn less money in 2013 than 2012.
    http://tinyurl.com/b2y3vnc
    If there really is a consumer-confidence element to the economy (and there is), it will be damaged if people take home less, and have a lower amount on their W2 when they file their taxes next year. No one thinks about the new, more generous health care benefits they’re getting when it comes time to settle accounts at the end of the year.

     

    For all the readers of this blog, I hope 2013 is not as bad a year as some of these experts think.

     

    Chris Conley
    1/3/13

  • OPINION - Band clowns make a brief impression

    Posted by Chris Conley

    source: Reuters

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) In the Rose Bowl, Wisconsin won the battle of the bands. On one side we have ‘On, Wisconsin” and “If You Want To Be A Badger” played by squeaky clean college kids in white and red starched uniforms, and white flat-top hats topped by a red plume. On the other had you had one unshaved rich private-school kid with a rainbow afro wig who was banging on a kitchen sink.

    Stanford has a "scatter band" – meaning they don’t play and march in formation. When I taught at Yale, their band had disintegrated into the same thing. But their football games – in the non-scholarship Ivy League – didn’t attack much attention. The one game that drew TV coverage – the annual rivalry against Harvard – the band did indeed march in full uniform. The alumni expected a full-blown game day experience, and the administration made sure they got it.


    27-million people watch the Rose Bowl on television, and the TV producers give each school’s band two minutes of airtime. It’s a chance to make an impression about your school. Maybe it’s not a big deal. Stanford is one of the elite academic institutions in the country. Yet if you knew nothing about the school, you’d think they were a bunch of goofballs. And Wisconsin is where you’d want to send your kid.


    Chris Conley
    1.2.13

  • OPINION - 10 years after "Bowling for Columbine"

    Posted by Chris Conley

    Evan Todd Describes His Experience Surviving the Columbine Shooting

    NEWS BLOG (WSAU) I watched “Bowling for Columbine” last night. It was on cable as a ‘special presentation’ in light of the Newtown,Connecticut shooting. I’d never seen it before. The Michael Moore pseudo-documentary is ten years old.

    It’s a shameful propaganda piece. (I almost turned it off when Moore took two of the wounded Columbine survivors to Wal Mart headquarters with the absurd demand that ammunition no longer be sold. The entire segment was exploitive beyond my imagination.)

    The movie is rambling and poorly put together, and almost all segments would make you believe that guns randomly fire themselves, instead of having actual people with intentions – good or bad – pulling the trigger. The psychological problems of gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are almost completely ignored.

    But I’m not disappointed that I spent the time to watch it. The school security-camera footage of the actual shooting is instructive. As difficult as it is to watch, you also can’t avoid the thought that armed security might have made a difference, either as a real-time lethal response or as a deterrent. Even anti-gun activists, and Moore certainly presents his movie from their point-of-view, have to concede the basic facts. Guns in the hands of private citizens are a part of life inAmerica. Change the laws any way you like, and that won’t change. Any strategy to mitigate the possibility of school shootings needs to use that as a starting point.

    12 people were killed that day… a decade later 26 other students were killed in their school. Michael Moore made a slanted, disingenuous movie that spends two-and-a-half hours exploiting the problem. Not a moment of film was expended on what to do about it. I want to spend my time considering productive solutions.

    Chris Conley
    12.27.12