Richard’s last day at the Florida Times-Union was Friday. He’s left Jacksonville and, as we speak, is driving across the southern rim of the United States, skirting the Gulf of Mexico. After a stop in New Orleans to visit a friend he’ll make his way to San Antonio, Texas, where he will be starting a job with the San Antonio Express-News.
Richard enjoyed his job at the Times-Union and gained some great experience there — but the opportunity presented at the Express-News was just too good to pass up. The career of a young journalist tends to be an itinerant one, where moves from one paper to another are common. Already Richard has worked for four dailies, in Chicago, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, and San Antonio. And his move back to San Antonio is a return trip, because he worked there several years ago as an intern. Richard’s experience shows the value of internships, because the Express-News staff remembered him from his intern days and sought him out for this new position.
So it’s so long to Jacksonville, and hello again to hot and bustling San Antonio, where Richard will be doing special business reporting and investigative reporting.
Richard had another really good article published in the Florida Times-Union this week. This one is about the history of Army Corps of Engineers’ chronic underestimates of costs — and the resulting substantial cost overruns — in prior efforts to deepen the Jacksonville harbor. It’s a significant issue for the people of Jacksonville, because a new river-dredging project is being touted, and local government would be picking up part of the tab.
This kind of story is important, whether you live in Jacksonville or not, because it deals with a very common scenario. Business leaders and politicians pitch a big project, promising that it will create jobs and is needed to keep the community competitive. Politicians like big projects because they create a sense of progress and, not incidentally, the pols get to award contracts for the construction work. Project boosters produce feasibility studies and cost estimates that make the project seem like a bargain and it gets approved — but then when the bills roll in, the costs are far above the estimates and, often, the promised economic benefits either don’t materialize at all or are far below what was forecast.
In this instance, Richard used public records requests to obtain documents that show what prior Jacksonville harbor-deepening projects actually cost, which is typically many multiples of the rosy cost estimates provided before the projects got underway. It’s another good example of Richard’s smart use of access laws to report facts that help to educate the reader and provide some meaningful context to the political promises.
It’s interesting that one of the people Richard interviewed for the story, a professor who studies ports, noted that every large infrastructure project involves cost overruns and delays. We would all do well to keep that reality in mind the next time our local leaders want taxpayers to endorse a new jobs-and-progress project.
One of the great things about this story is that it goes behind the upward trend in railroad profits, and stock prices, to try to figure out what forces are at play that produced the “rail renaissance.” It turns out that there are a lot of them: industry consolidation that has dramatically reduced the number of carriers over the past 70 years and thereby reduced rate competition, investments by the railroads that allow them to carry ever more freight, decreasing number of employees, with the decline in associated costs, and an infrastructure advantage over the nation’s highway system.
Now that I think of it, I’ve had several recent experiences driving through rural areas only to be stopped by a train that was stacked high with containers and seemed to go on forever. For the railroads, those incredibly long container trains are engines of prosperity.
It makes you wonder: if rail carriers have made a comeback, is there any chance that the passenger rail industry might similarly have its own “rail renaissance”?
I think it’s a really good — and useful — piece of work because it captures the frustration, depression, and rejection that productive people feel when they lose their jobs and cannot get hired somewhere else, despite making every effort to find a new position with a new employer. They want to work and know they could make a contribution, but they simply don’t get the opportunity. You can sense the angst they feel in quotes like this from one woman who has looked high and low for work without success: “Why is it that after five years of looking, nobody wants me?” Is it any wonder that so many become discouraged and simply stop looking — or take an early retirement?
Statistics can be useful for some things, but they simply can’t capture the true story of people who are unemployed and unable to find work. That’s why a story like Richard’s piece is valuable — it brings a big national development down to local, human terms that people can understand.
Richard will be on the business desk and also will be doing some investigative reporting. He lives in an apartment in the Riverside Avondale neighborhood, which Kish says is a charming and historic area. It must be, because it has its own Riverside Avondale Preservation society and website. It’s close to the St. Johns River and has pretty areas on the waterfront, many jogging options, and some good restaurants. And today, when a cold snap means that Columbus will be lucky to hit a high of 43 degrees, Jacksonville’s high temperature is forecast to be 79 degrees and sunny.
It’s always interesting to move to a new place and learn about what is has to offer. We’ll be eagerly following Richard’s reporting and learning about this new place as he does, too.