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If Facebook = journalism = Facebook, why does the world need journalism?

This might be the number one issue facing journalism today, but it’s unclear whether it is recognized by all journalism businesses. And newspapers, TV stations and news websites are businesses. 

Make no doubt about that. They live as businesses or they shrink to something like this website surviving mainly, and for who knows how long, on contributions from people who share a belief that facts matter in a society where thinking individuals now have to wonder if facts really do matter anymore.

Facebook is seldom about facts. It mainly about opinions.

And a lot of journalism today is channeling Facebook. Emotion, not reason, has become the product.

Case in point: The “most read story” in the Anchorage Daily News Thursday morning had this headline: “I’ve dedicated my life to teach in Alaska. Here’s why I’m leaving.”

It was commentary. There’s nothing wrong with commentary in the local newspaper. Properly vetted commentary is good.

But sadly, no one had bothered to vet the latest episode of “why I’m leaving.” This was commentary without substance. There were no facts. It was not journalism; it was someone blowing smoke to which the Daily News attached the imprimatur of journalism.

It was a letter to the editor, with the low standards for letters to the editor, boosted to the status given informed opinion. News organizations need to do better.

This is not meant as an attack on the ADN. There are lots of publications doing exactly what the ADN was doing in opting for click bait over informed commentary. Unfortunately, in so doing, all of them appear willing to devalue journalism in exchange for short-term, online traffic.

Readers of major news sites can be enticed to read anything with the endorsement of “we think this is something you should read,” but when what are you endorsing turns out to be bunk, readers eventually figure it out.

Faulty conclusion?

Then again, this is a value judgment based on the belief that the value of journalism is integrity;  the belief that facts matter; and the belief that public policy debates in the absence of facts – entertaining though such yelling matches might be – don’t further discussions but diminish them.

Commentary stuffed with unsupported claims performs the disservice that used to get former Alaska Dispatch News editorial page editor Scott Woodham in trouble with Alice Rogoff, the former owner of the newspaper. Woodham believed commentary should contain facts to back opinions so a rational, thinking person could weigh the value of the commentary.

He also thought facts should be facts, not just more opinions, which really ran contrary to the “just-run-it-as-they-wrote-it” view of Rogoff.

Rogoff had the Mark Zuckerberg view news. Facebook, his wonderful and cursed invention, encourages everyone to write something and post it. There are no editors on Facebook. People can post anything they want, and they do, and that’s a good thing.

Free speech is a key part of democracy. It lets people express their feelings. It lets them vent. It lets them rejoice. It lets them mourn.

Journalism, however, isn’t just about feelings. Journalism is, or should be, mainly about facts.

And journalism is supposed to ensure news and commentary are fact based. Did Brinna Langford – the author of “I’ve dedicated my life to teach in Alaska. Here’s why I’m leaving.” – deliver fact-based commentary? 

No, although the wholly correct answer would be that there is no way of telling because she provided only one real fact; she has no Social Security.  A reader is left to trust that Langford has some evidence for her long list of conclusions, even though some of her conclusions don’t hold up so well if you actually go looking for the facts.

Not journalism

So let’s “break this down” as the sports analysts says. Here’s why her story is not journalism, and why the editors at the ADN should have fixed it to make it more like journalism before giving it their tacit endorsement.

Doing that would have been good for journalism, good for the community, good for the ADN and good for Langford. But it didn’t happen; so here’s what readers got:

“As a teacher hired after 2006, I have no pension,” Langford writes. “I am enrolled in TRS Tier III which means I have a defined contribution retirement plan.”

This might be a bad thing. It might also be a good thing. Langford could be worse off with her money in the “retirement plan,” Alaska’s form of a pension plan, or better off. There is no way of telling because she offers no clue as to how much money she has in the retirement plan.

She needed to tell readers how much money is in that TRS along with how much she might have accumulated in a traditional retirement plan elsewhere.

“Even with my contributions and planning,” she writes, “my financial advisor informed me that I would have less than half of what I need to retire comfortably by the time I’m 65.”

First off, the current, official retirement age in the U.S. is 66 years and 2 months, and it is slated to go to age 67 for those born after 1960. So unless Langford is over 50, and it doesn’t appear she is from her six-year lifetime experience as a teacher, she shouldn’t be expecting to retire at 65.

Why is she being treated so unfairly that she has to wait until she is 67? Because back when Social Security, the federal pension plan, was started in 1935average life expectancy in this country was 61 years.  

Most people were dead before 65. That seriously reduces pension payments. The average lifespan now is 78.6 years. Pensions are paying to support people a lot longer, and thus more money is required, which brings up another problem.

Langford provides no idea how much money her financial advisor suggested she would need to “retire comfortably.” That figure itself is highly variable depending on where one plans to retire. Some places are hugely costly; others aren’t.

Langford could have less than half of what she needs to retire in Honolulu and still have enough to retire to Beckley, WV, according to data compiled by Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Since Langford provides no numbers, there is no way of telling how much money she thinks she needs or what her idea of “retire comfortably” means.

She once again needed to put numbers to her opinions.

“Where we’re moving I’ll have a real retirement,” Langford writes. “After all, every other state in the country has a pension plan for their teachers.”

Since she doesn’t say where she is moving to, there is no way of telling what sort of pension plan she will have, or whether it comes with or without a 401K to which her employer contributes as is the case with the  Alaska state TRS plan in which she is enrolled.

Fake news?

Meanwhile, her suggestion that every other state in the country has a better pension plan suggests retirement benefits for teachers are better in all the other states, but they aren’t.

“Alaska earned a C for providing adequate retirement benefits for teachers,” according to the website, which analyzes pensions for teachers.

 “Alabama earned an F for providing adequate retirement benefits for teachers,” the site says. And Alabama was not alone. California, Minnesota, Hawaii and a number of other states also flunked. Washington state got the same grade as Alaska. Oregon got a B.

“Poorly researched news stories often appear in the national media portraying Alaska as a destination for teachers looking for a top-paying salary,” Langford writes. “At one point this may have been true, but when I signed my contract in another state teaching exactly what I’m teaching now, I’ll be making nearly the same amount as I do in Alaska, and that is without carrying over all of my years of experience. The cost of living is a fraction of what it costs to live in Alaska and my caseload will be less than half of what teachers in the Anchorage School District are forced to endure.”

One cannot argue with the first observation. Poorly researched news stories are so common these days one need not cite examples. An alert reader will catch a story lacking research almost every day.

But that also doesn’t necessarily mean all news stories are wrong.

The National Education Association ranks Alaska 25th for teacher salaries. So it’s not the best destination if you’re a teacher solely interested in “a top-paying salary.” But if you are a teacher interested in certain quality of life issues – where else can you grab a dipnet and go catch a year’s supply of sockeye salmon now $9.99 per pound at the local Costco? – Alaska isn’t a horrible deal either.

As to what Langford is making here and what she will be making elsewhere one can only guess because she doesn’t say. And it’s the same for her observations on class size and cost-of-living, not to mention that it’s hard to believe the claim the cost of living will be “a fraction of Anchorage” simply because it’s not that expensive to live in Alaska’s largest city.

“Anchorage is 23 percent cheaper than Seattle,” according to the cost comparison at Sperling’s Best Places. Minneapolis is 19 percent cheaper than Anchorage, but mainly because housing there is 25 percent cheaper. Anchorage is 4 percent cheaper than Portland; only 6 percent more expensive than Denver; and  50 percent cheaper than San Francisco.

Are you beginning to see the problem? Given the lack of facts in Langford’s commentary – facts like what she’s getting paid now and what state she is moving to – it is impossible to tell whether she is speaking truth, half-truth or making it all up as some politician are prone to do.

Every Alaskans pain

“(Leaving Alaska) is one of the hardest decisions my husband and I have ever made,” Langford writes. “Unfortunately, it’s been made easier by the fact that our state, and our school district have continued to cut positions, programs, and possibilities from our schools.”

We should all feel for Langford having to make a hard decision, but here she fails to mention even in passing that Alaska is in the midst of a major recession. The state population has been shrinking and with it the number of students. The Anchorage school district lost 600 students this year alone.

Fewer students reduces the need for teaching positions, and falling revenues make it harder to justify some programs. Most of the cuts now underway have little or nothing to do with the devaluing of teachers as part of the community as Langford suggests.

“Alaska, you have a crisis on your hands, and it won’t get better until you reverse the damage and start seeing children and education as worthy of your time, effort and investment,” Langford writes.

She is right about the crisis, though she presents no more information to buttress that claim than any of her other claims. But the evidence is out there.

“Alaska is expected to lose jobs again in 2018, although the losses appear to be tapering,” according to the state Department of Labor. “Total employment is forecasted to decline by 0.5 percent in 2018 (minus 1,800 jobs) after falling 1.1 percent in 2071 and 1.9 percent in 2016.”

All told, the state will have lost about 7,200 jobs since 2016. People leave because of this; school enrollment shrinks; property tax revenues fall; school size decreases as does school funding.

But there’s no evidence the problem of the moment is Alaskans failing to see “children and education as worthy of your time, effort and investment,” or at least not to see them as any less worthy or more worthy than in 2015 when the recession started and everyone, even teachers, had to tighten their belt.

The problems of the moment are the problem of a faltering economy, which is not to say there aren’t problems in Alaska schools as in the schools of many other states. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to identify those and offer ways to fix them.

The Foundation hasn’t made much progress and is now turning more of its attention to what it thinks might be a compounding issue: poverty.

By turning their attention to poverty, Christopher Lubienski, an education policy expert not connected to the Foundation told the Associated Press in February, “the Gateses are tackling the ‘really big elephant in the room’ when it comes to student achievement.

“‘It’s also a much bigger, more expensive and politically stickier area to attack than simply changing the structure of schools.”

American society could use an informed discussion about how to reduce poverty and how to improve education. Alaska could really use an informed discussion about what kind of economy it might create for the future.

Newspapers were once in the position of encouraging informed discussion. Now they invite people like Langford to, sadly, offer purely selfish analyses of what is wrong. At the end of the day, the only facts to be found in Langford’s commentary are that she isn’t, in her opinion, compensated well enough in Alaska (welcome to the club, and I’d bet you’re making more than I am), and her fellow teachers aren’t compensated well enough in Alaska, and because of this the state’s educational system is failing.

But since there’s no data on which to form an independent opinion as to her first conclusion – she could be making $20,000 a year to $120,000 a year for all the average reader knows from what she writes – there’s really nothing on which to base any of the conclusions that follow, which makes the whole commentary nothing but bar talk.

Or an average Facebook rant.

You can get that in the local bar or on Facebook for free. So why would you want to spend money to get it from a newspaper?

Hyping this sort of thing in the news might make it seem more “important,” and that always leads to more people arguing about nothing in the newspaper’s online comment section, which in turn boosts online traffic.

And boosting online traffic is good for a newspaper website fighting for its survival.

The problem is this strategy is unlikely to work for long. At some point people figure out newspaper = Facebook = newspaper, and then journalism is toast because there’s really no sense paying for something that is nothing.

Now, for those who are curious, Anchorage School District records would indicate Langford is paid a salary of $83,693 per year, with summers off, and collects another $42,892.62 in benefits. The cost to Anchorage taxpayers (local schools are largely funded through property taxes) total $126,585.62.


Whether that is too much or too little is for all of the people who pay the bill to decide. That the information wasn’t disclosed….

Well, that’s just another fail on the journalism side.

Clarification: The first version of this story failed to note Langford’s salary and compensation, and that her commentary contained one fact: she has no Social Security.




















36 replies »

  1. Craig,
    Someone suggested on ADN that the state’s “obligation” to retired civil servants looking to collect their pensions is $130 Billion dollars (double the value of our PF).
    Do you know how much is allocated annually (in our budget) to pay these pensions?
    Many of these folks are now out of state and do not “give back” in any way to our local economy.
    This debt is not discussed very often.

      • Bill,
        Thanks for that link.
        Dan was probably right to settle since no one seems to win in court these days.
        The $6.7 billion dollar figure is probably on the low side since your report stated:

        “It does not examine the state’s health care, disability and medical benefits plans.”

        Which all calculated together probably add several more billion in state “obligations”.

        Some serious budget reform is in order in Juneau, but all we have are “quiters” and drunks it seems.
        The reps are more into BDSM than working through a balanced budget.
        AK is slipping and everyone sees it, just no one will change course it seems.

      • Bill,
        I am considering politics, since unlike Langford…I have really invested my life in Alaska and without solid leadership in Juneau, it appears the lobbyists will “steamroll” us right out of our resources.
        It is ok to make mistakes along the path of life, but not recognising a mistake has been made will only further degrade the system.
        Langford and her husband are nervous with a child on the way…that is natural, but running away from a difficult situation never brings closure in life.
        The pension, healthcare, disability burden will remain for those of us too stubborn to “sell out” and run away.

      • My take on Langfords is that they didn’t recognize how behind the eightball her retirement program was until her financial advisor gave her the news. She happens to have some special skills that are in demand elsewhere (as well as AK) and they have chosen to not continue their original blunder of going with AKs tier III retirement plan.
        Of course they chose AK before the State’s huge budget deficits showed up, due to oil prices decline, so hard to say it was an original blunder except her retirement shortcoming would have been apparent even back then IMO. You and some others are referring to her running away but, in reality, she is doing what’s best for her family because she can. What is unfortunate, for AK, is that she, will need to be replaced and, according to her, there will be others.
        A few years ago UA was losing some of its profs. due to the extreme budget cuts the university was being subjected to and my guess is those professors, with the skills in demand elsewhere, asked themselves similar questions to what Langfords asked. It’s extremely shortsighted, IMO, to say they won’t be missed because the good ones will be (missed) and its also my opinion that it’s the best ones that have those skills that are in greatest demand.
        I suspect that we will be seeing more folks leaving the State for lack of jobs but also someone will be available to fill that $83k middle school teaching position. Hopefully that someone will have similar skills and lacks a financial advisor.
        Good luck in your political adventure. And I’m not going anywhere, either.

      • Bill,
        You know having a pension is not the only key to a successful retirement plan.
        Quite a few retired union guys that I know have pensions, but are a wreck financially.
        when you add up a mortgage, car loans, airplane bills, DUI expenses, divorce settlements, children’s college loans, medical bills, vacations, Christmas Spending… all kind of stuff factor into a person’s “financial security”.
        I met an attorney from Chicago who made a ton of money, but had an addiction for expensive cars and custom suits…I believe he died in debt.
        How does the financial planner know exactly what Mrs. Langford’s EXPENSES will be when she is say 65? That is impossible. He can suggest figures, but let’s say they pay off their house, sell it for a profit and move to the Valley in their 50’s? Everything would have changed. I believe after age 62, you do not have to pay property taxes in the Mat Su….that helps a bunch with retirement.
        I am just trying to say “where there is a will there is a way.”
        If the Langford’s were psyched on AK, I am sure they could make it work on her 83K a year…not too mention his contribution to the family?
        lastly, why are special education teachers paid so much more than the regular teachers?
        Is this from Bush’s disaster program “No child left behind”?

      • You know how it is with taxes, sometimes they change. In Juneau the seniors get first $150k exempt from their assessment for property tax but, as revenue sharing dries up, my guess is that perk will go away.
        Why are special ed teachers paid that much? I have to say it was news to me, but any time Federal $ gets involved you can expect such things. Someone clearly had to break some ground and show that, with special care, those special needs kids could produce. A fellow, who occasionally posts here, wrote on another blog that there was no need to worry about those behind in school because they could always get their GEDs in prison. Well, that position hadn’t yet taken hold when this money came in to help with the increased costs associated with special needs kids. DeVos is probably working up the bills to remedy that, as we speak. Heheh! I have no idea what sort of patience is required for such teaching but it sure pays the bills. My own daughter is a teacher in AK and she had no idea how much special ed teachers made, either.
        As for pensions, financial planners use assumptions on the amounts needed for retirement based on one’s income and expenses now, relative to one’s expenses after retiring (might involve moving to Florida). A 401k program can give a certain income, based on some assumptions, but just like AKs indebtedness problem was due to unreasonable ideas of the earnings of its retirement funds the same thing often does with 401ks. A pension is more of a guarantee for most folks where the 401k is more of a crapshoot.

      • Bill,
        I believe 401K’s would be a solid retirement option if we did not have JP Morgan causing financial collapses in “derivatives” on the stock market.
        I wonder how Alaskans will feel with Mike Dunleavy getting his money from his brother Fancis who is management at J.P. Morgan in Houston?
        I also wonder if Alaskans even remember that J.P. Morgan caused the financial crisis of 2008???
        I know plenty of family members and friends who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in their 401 K’s after that market collapsed.

        I also wonder if Craig is being paid by “Dunleavy for Alaska” or “Alaskans for Dunleavy”….
        Because one is instate money and the other is J.P. Morgan “super pac” funds.
        Every time I see that dam Dunleavy ad, I think of his crooked brother Francis and how J.P. Morgan hurt the retirements of those I care about.
        Right now police in Louisiana are suing J.P. Morgan over their collapsing pension system.
        I wonder how much influence J.P. Morgan had in AK dropping their pension plan?

    • Thank you Craig for an excellent article. The two threads of focus – the plight of journalism and retirement……so sad that so many people live for retirement and so equally sad that so many of today’s journalists have no esteem for facts. I appreciate good hard journalistic writing where the journalist takes the time and effort to fully research and investigate. It is pretty evident, even to the layman reader. As for the whole obsession with retirement – I have pity on those that do not have a vocation they have chosen out of passion. Sadly we have multiple generations chasing after the high paying position over what they are best suited for. I did not read the “I left teaching in Alaska…” story but from your article I would say this gal should not be teaching. If it is early retirement and money she is after, and not the passion of instilling a love of learning, then I would not want her teaching my child.

      • Elizabeth,
        I agree and feel many young teachers unfortunately get into “the business” for the wrong reasons.
        This is why I advocate for home school options with vouchers for parents to decide what “mentors” or instructors are best for their child…public school does not appear to be turning out well round individuals these days.

  2. Bill now do you understand how a great mathematician can make mistakes and have the wrong ideas and then propagate them ? Like you just did . When you incorrectly use the wrong numbers even ultra simple math becomes askew. A genius can easily make mistakes if they take one piece and don’t look deeply at whole picture. Then set back and think does this make sense did I get my math right ? Langford’s issue was super simple example but this occurs throughout current American existence.

  3. Craig, I think you are on to something here. To quote the political commentator Kevin Williamson, “But when it comes to what appears in our newspapers and magazines, some of the old rules should still apply. By all means, let’s have advocacy journalism, but let’s make sure about the journalism part of it: Do the work, ask the questions, give readers a reason to assume that what’s published adheres to some basic standards of intellectual honesty.”

  4. OK Craig, for some reason you are ignoring my comments about your posting of this woman’s teaching salary as on the order of $126k.
    Here is some back-up to my calling bullshit on your numbers:

    As you can see the median number for both salary and benefits is $90.5k and Langford is a relatively new teacher not surprisingly getting slightly less than that median amount.
    You then proceed to add on $43k in benefits that are already in her salary making her numbers absurd.
    What is your agenda here???
    Talk is cheap Craig, whiskey costs money.

    • Bill: I have no agenda. It seems high to me, too; but I got sent a spreadsheet with all ASD salaries and bennies from a source I trust. I find no reason to disbelieve the numbers. There are increases for special ed. There are increases for higher degrees. I can’t explain the ASD pay schedule, but I can read.

      I’m sorry I’m not on the computer every minute of every day. But just for you, I put a screen shot of the Langford line from the Excel spreadsheet in the story.

      The cost of her benefits are not out of line with a lot of others on that spreadsheet which contains thousand of names. I looked up several teachers I know. Their salaries were near what I thought they were getting paid.

      The document contains the names of all ASD employees from maintenance workers to superintendents. I think the lowest salary I saw was $41,000, but I didn’t go through the entire list.

      • First I want to apologize for discounting your numbers, Craig-I should know better.
        And second, I think there is something to learn here besides the fact that special ed teachers get paid a fairly high salary.
        That something is why do a seemingly high-paid middle school special ed teacher feel the need to move from the State? I’m going out in front of my skis here a bit and suggest that, due to Langford’s salary, her reasons are tending towards her retirement program. She says as much by referring to her financial advisor suggesting she wouldn’t have enough in her tier III 401K program to fund her retirement. Where she is moving she says she will have a “real retirement” that I expect means a benefits contribution retirement program which is a pension program that, according to her, AK is the only State in the country without a pension program. That is saying a mouthful IMO.
        I’ve heard from time-to-time other State employees suggest AK go back to a benefits contribution pension retirement program but this is somewhat new to me. I know that AK opted out of social security for its employees about 40 years ago when it did have a pension plan and the argument was that SS was unnecessary. Further, those retirees with a govt. funded pension plan had their SS benefits reduced somewhat due to “double dipping.” With AK getting away from its pension plan retirements, I suspect the opting out of SS is no longer as advantageous but that is still the case.
        And last, it is my understanding that special needs kids get Federal funding to help offset their increased costs and this help is approximately 40% of these costs. I have no idea whether/not these teachers get a 40% bump in their pay scale but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case in AK and some other states that also pay those teachers well.

  5. It’s just me, but another 80’s type wipe-out would be just the ticket. Leave the keys on the counter of your underwater trailer in Manoog’s Isle and, Adios! I have not a moment for these take-my-ball-and-go-homer’s. STFU and good riddance.

  6. Craig–I worked for Sen. Bartlett back in the 60’s. He told me then that the average tenure of residence in Alaska was 6 years, so the majority of the people who would re-elect or reject him would be new first time voters. I’ve always remembered that statistic and it seems to be holding today. Get what you can and skeedaddle.

  7. Craig, I’ll ask again: Are you sure this gal’s salary doesn’t already include her benefits pkg.

    The reason I’m suggesting this is that I have a relative, who has been employed since 2001 as a school teacher, that makes a salary about half what Langford makes. Always possible that Langford has PHD, etc. to boost her salary but I suspect that you have made a blunder, here.

  8. No one will miss Langford.
    Her whiny editorial makes a good case for: school budget reforms, “vouchers” for parents, and home schooling.
    One comment on her opinion piece stated the AK State Pension System is a future burden of over 130 billion to our workers and budget.
    If this is true, Alaska is in the same boat with other states in da union….Pension Crisis!
    As for “News”…nothing is new…it has always been mostly propaganda that is why Hitler operated some of the first “public radio” stations in the world the Nazis technology was used for years in voice recording and editing of commentary, before stations switched to computers and fully “digital” equipment.
    If anything, the Internet has allowed for other voices to be heard….as for Facebook…that was always a CIA “start up” with “back doors” weaved into the programs from day one.

    • Sean Hannity makes no pretense that his program is anything other than opinion, but you’ve now peed on the post to indicate that you’re one of those superior people that doesn’t countenance FOX News.

      • Chance, in my experience it is YOU that always acts superior. For quite awhile you pretended to be the tough truth guy over at ADN in the comments with a specialty in trashing unions. If I recall, you fled the state for Florida and now are back trashing just about anything and all about the state that you left then came back to. Why is that? Why did you come back? I apologize if my facts aren’t correct.

  9. Craig;
    Just a long overdue thank you for doing the work, and doing it well.
    In the days of print media I followed a couple of comic strips, and Medred. Occasionally the obits if someone hadn’t checked in.
    I know it doesn’t buy biscuits, but I appreciate your work.
    Thank you Scribner.

    • There is some question about whether/not Craig is “doing it well!”
      He has suggested that langford has earned a salary of over $126k when it consists of adding a $43k benefits package that, I suspect, has already been included in her salary of about $84k.
      I’ve suggested as much but am so far just hearing “crickets” from Craig.

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