Day: May 15, 2008

Young pickers

Blues musician and teacher Scott Perry held a jam session for some of his students last weekend at his Picking Porch on Willis Avenue.

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Citizens responds…sort of

Citizens Telephone Cooperative, Floyd County’s largest private employer and a company facing serious financial problems, went public this week, granting The Floyd Press an interview to discuss the company’s "challenges."

What General Manager Greg Sapp told the newspaper appears to be a lot of corporate hyperbole and double speak.

Press editor Wanda Combs asked Sapp about the reports on this web site about recent meetings with employees where the company threatened layoffs and cutbacks in service if revenues did not increase by July.  Sapp refused to respond to those comments. Instead, he offered a company brochure overview that sounded a lot like the pabulum that is offered at the annual meeting each year.

Said Sapp:

For the past 20 years, the number of telephone customers rountinely grew from 5 to 7 percent.  Over the past two years, we started losing over 1 percent of telephone customers. This year, at this point in time, we’ve averaging a 2 percent (loss). That’s a 7 to 9 percent swing in the negative. That really throws our traditional business model, stands it on its head. The difference between where we were then and now is a difference of $1.6 million dollars.

When asked about the threat of employee layoffs, Sapp again refused to discuss specifics but told the Press:

We have to continue to operate to look at the workforce, the size it is versus what we need to operate at that time. Historically the company goes out of their way to protect the interest of employees.  The Cooperative is changing to reflect the changing market and economy so we can continue to provide the level of services customers demand at competitive prices and so that we can do that for a long time in the future. On any road to the future there’s always going to be a few bumps in the road.

"Bumps in the road" is usually corporate-speak for "hard times are here folks and some of you will lose your jobs."

Several Citizens employees have told us that at an earlier company meeting, the message from management was more direct.

"We were told that the person sitting next to us might not be with the company the next time we met," one employee said.

On Wednesday, the day before the Floyd Press article came out, the company held more meetings with employees and Sapp told pretty much the same story as the one he gave Press editor Wanda Combs. The topic of layoffs and cutbacks was not discussed.

"There was a definite change in tone," one employee said. "The threat is still hanging out there but it was more subtle this time around."

Sapp told the Press that former General Manager Gerald Gallimore laid out the "challenges" the company faced when he spoke at the last annual meeting at Floyd County High School. I attended that meeting. The picture that Gallimore painted was rosier than the one presented to employees. He talked of increasing competition and challenges but did not go into specifics and he also did not say anything about the possibility of layoffs or cutbacks in service.

Sapp blamed a drop in subscribers and long distance revenue for much of the company’s problems but interviews with Citizens employees who, for reasons that are easily understandable, ask not to be identified show other factors which have brought on the company’s current financial crisis, including:

  • Construction of a "wireless broadband" data system in the New River Valley that promised to provide customers with laptop modems speeds up to 3 mbps. Suscribers have fallen far short of expectations and some reports say Citizens is trying to find a buyer for the system.
  • IPTV, a cable-TV service delivered over the phone lines, has not met projections for county-wide deployment and does not yet offer high-definition TV reception at a time when more and more homes are getting HD TV receivers. Citizens lags a distant third in subscribers behind DirecTV and Dish Network — which offer HD services.
  • Too much rapid expansion into areas outside Floyd County and costly ventures into service beyond Citizens’ core business. The company has purchased a number of ailing cable TV franchises in other counties and has expanded into some of the most economically devastated areas of Virginia.

Citizens is an aggressive, innovative telecommunications company that provides Floyd Countians with a level of telephone and Internet services that aren’t offered in many rural areas. I have praised those services on this web site many times. These services come at a price and Floyd Countians pay for them at a rate that is higher than many other areas.

But Citizens is, first and formost, a cooperative that should be more open and honest with the subscribers/members who — in effect — own the cooperative.

Says Sapp:

In no way does Citizens or its management conceal or hide anything. Citizens has challenges it must face in today’s environment. We must continue to look to enhance efficiency and productivity…to retain the right size workforce to match the size and scope of our business.

Take a second look at what Sapp said above. Read between the lines. Then ask yourself: Is this a company that is open and honest with its customer/owners?

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‘Back off…we have dirt on you’

The note stuffed in the door of our studio at Village Green was short and to the point.

"Back off," it said. "We have dirt on you."

When you ask questions that make other people nervous you get threats. I got my first threat as an 11-year-old in Prince Edward County when I wrote an essay about racism in the school system.  If I go a week without a good threat I wonder if I’m doing my job.

But I hate vague threats. "Back off" from what? I raise a lot of hell. Which of the current causes am I supposed to back off from?

And dirt? Of course there’s dirt out there on me. You don’t need a shovel to dig up dirt on me. A spoon will do. I’m a recoverng alcoholic. In the three decades before I stopped drinking I did a lot of stupid things. Drunks hurt people. Drunks lie. Drunks cheat. It’s part of life with the beast called alcoholism. Even in sobriety, I must fight the beast that causes a condition called being a "dry drunk." It’s a battle that never ends.

I’ve also got a enormous ego, one that has gotten me into trouble more times than I can count. I hope that age and continued sobriety has brought more humility but others can judge that better than I.

The note in my door comes on the heels of several attempts by a poster using a fake name and a changing GMail account to threaten me with "going public" about controversies on Capitol Hill Blue, a political news web site that I have owned and operated since 1994, making it the oldest political news site on the Internet. The posts were not published because we don’t allow posters who use fake names. The IP address on the posts backtraced to a Citizens Telephone Cooperative account but I believe the actions are those of an individual and not something sanctioned by the company.

But I can, and will, discuss the controversies that the poster used as a threat to "out" me. Over the past 13 years, we’ve been burned on Capitol Hill Blue twice by sources who turned out to not be who they claimed to be. The first was someone I met while working on Capitol Hill. He claimed to be a consultant with the CIA. He wasn’t and I had to eat a lot of crow and remove any information he provided from CHB.  The second claimed to be a retired political science professor and a member of both the Nixon and Regan administration. He sent us comments by email and we used his quotes. A member of our staff said she had checked him out. I didn’t double check it and it caused another round or embarrassments. But when we discovered the source was not who he claimed to be we went back over every story that quoted him and amended the story, removing his quotes and adding a note to those stories saying each had been amended.

I also wrote an apology to our readers which read, in part:

I started Capitol Hill Blue four months after taking the first of the 12 steps. In many ways the web site provided additional therapy for a drunk trying to crawl out of the gutter. For a while we both thrived, so much that I considered myself well enough to go it on my own without the support group of AA.

As Capitol Hill Blue’s readership grew I started taking more chances with stories, jumping on ones with sketchy sources, always trying to outdo the last "big" story. I had people willing to help me and they would send me info that I used often on their word alone. I would allow people to use pseudonyms because, they said, using their real name would hurt them in their day jobs. Some of the people who wrote for me worked for the mainstream media but enjoyed using Blue to write stories they couldn’t do otherwise. They, too, wrote under false names. It was something we should have told readers. We didn’t. That was dishonest.

I wrote stories based on emails from sources I never met. I would meet self-proclaimed "important people" in out-of-the way bars, taking what they told me at face value. Washington is a breeding ground for phonies and wannabes. Too often I printed what they told me because I was so full of myself that I was sure it was true and did not require further verification. It doesn’t matter if the information later turned out to be true or not. How I presented it was dishonest.

Sometimes I let sources pick their own pseudonyms. They wanted to protect their identity. I wanted a name to bolster the story. That too was dishonest.

So is going with a story when the sources have not been fully vetted. I get email tips and daily email newsletters from people 24/7. So do others who supply me with "information." If the information fit into my pre-conceived notion of what I thought was wrong with the current administration I used it without checking further. I was too sure I was right.  I let other people do work for me and write portions of my stories. As with the other practices that became part of my standard operating procedure, it was dishonest.

Despite those who believe otherwise, and they have every reason to do so, I have never made up a quote.  I have, however, accepted information from others without checking it out and have too quickly accepted that information if it fit into my grand scheme of things. I ignored warning signs that should have kept me from using material I knew was marginal. I was wrong.

Lesson learned. It will not happen again.

Blogs and web sites that supported some of the victims of our stories had a field-day with our screwup. I deserved every hit I took. I would not have blamed readers of the web site if they had left. I offered to leave and left the decision up to our editors, writers and readers. They said no and the readers stuck with us. Capitol Hill Blue continues to grow and attrack new readers. We put safeguards into place to make sure we didn’t get burned again and all my copy is reviewed by two editors before publication.  We’ve published more than 20,000 stories over the past 13 years.  We’ve had to revise or correct 83 stories in that same period.

As a recovering alcoholic I live each each day with the knowledge that I must continue, for the rest of my life, to make amends for past wrongs. I try to do so openly and honestly. When someone threatens to dish out dirt on me I can only say "go ahead."

I do find it interesting that these threats that question my honesty and integrity come from people who leave anonymous notes in my door or use fake names to try and post on my web sites.

So take your best shot. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life. I’m rightfully ashamed of them but I have nothing to hide.

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