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Monday, June 14, 2010

Is The Scranton Times Perpetuating the "Poor Coal Miner" Mentality?

I've read several times over the years (in the Scranton Times) about how abysmal the economy is in NEPA. For example, in an article dated June 2, 2010, Times reporter David Falchek wrote:

"Scranton/Wilkes-Barre's [unemployment rate] was the highest of the 14 metro areas [in Pennsylvania]."

Given that I've heard this kind of thing so many times, I've been meaning to research the actual numbers to basically make the case that our economic development officials (including Austin Burke Sr., now on leave to the state) have failed us miserably. Then of course I looked a little deeper into the actual facts, and while there probably is a post waiting in the wings centered around economic development failures, the facts aren't quite as black and white as you would tend to think.

Specifically, while I don't doubt that the Times reported the comparisons between MSAs correctly, I had a tough time believing that the economy is much worse here than, in say, Northwestern Pennsylvania, an area I've had occasion to visit. So for me it was off to dig up some data. What I found was pretty interesting.

To construct this comparison, I found the US Bureau of Labor Statistics unemployment rates by Pennsylvania county (you can find this via Google or by going to I then constructed two groups for comparison:

NWPA - including the following counties...
Erie, Crawford, Mercer, Venango, Warren, Forest & Clarion.

NEPA - including the following counties...
Susquehanna, Wyoming, Lackawanna, Wayne, Pike, Luzerne & Monroe

I will spare you the details about population density and such, but suffice to say the NWPA group includes the city of Erie, which is roughly equivalent in population to Scranton & Wilkes-Barre combined. NWPA also includes a number of smaller municipalities such as Clarion, Franklin, and Oil City. NEPA includes smaller muncipalities such as Carbondale, Dunmore and Kingston. All told, it seems to be a reasonable comparative group.

Next, I found the March 2010 unemployment rates by county & by group. To keep things simple, the total for the group is really the average of the averages. I could have done a something different with that (such as calculating a combined rate from the base population & employment data), but why add the complexity?. The results are summarized below:

Erie 10.6%
Crawford 10.8%
Mercer 11.9%
Venango 10.1%
Warren 9.2%
Forest 12.6%
Clarion 11.1%
NWPA Average 10.9%

Susquehanna 10.0%
Lackawanna 9.7%
Wyoming 11.0%
Luzerne 11.0%
Wayne 9.2%
Pike 11.3%
Monroe 10.2%
NEPA Average 10.3%

Not quite the same as the "highest in the state".

For the record, I'm not in any way, shape or form trying to...

...claim that these high unemployment rates are acceptable
...claim that officials in NWPA are not doing their jobs

...or anything of the sort. Rather, this is an exercise in "is this really true?" relative to the information provided by the Times.

Again, I started this little exercise trying to make a point, but as is often the case when dealing with data, the point you start out wanting to make sometimes isn't the point you end up making when you are finished. Some additional thoughts on the data:
  1. Overall - Unemployment rates are very, painfully high. In total, as of March 2010 Pennsylvania's overall unemployment rate was 9.4%; the rate for the United States as a while was 10.2%. Both are high, but NEPA is not dramatically higher the national rate. Lackawanna County's rate is a half percentage point above the state average.
  2. County by County - In Pennsylvania, county unemployment rates varied from a low of 6.7% (Centre County, home of Penn State) to a high of 17.3% in Cameron County (located northwest of, you wouldn't have guessed it, Centre County). Again, parts of NEPA actually look like they are holding their own.
  3. Metro Areas - Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) had an unemployment rate of 8.3%, while Philadelphia County's rate was 11.3%.
  4. Not All Rural Counties Are Created Equal - As noted above, very rural Cameron County had a state high rate of 17.3%, but other rural counties had rates that were significantly lower. For example...Bradford Count/8.1%, Potter County/11.5%, Perry County (where I once lived)/9.7%, and Tioga County/9.7%.

I've often wondered why the "poor down-trodden coal miner" mentality persists, and while I'm not ready to blame The Scranton Times, I will say that they don't help matters much. I know that this particular story is just one piece of journalism, but you can add it to the multitude of other little things to see a pattern of continuing to tell people what they want to hear. In many instances, people around here want to believe that things are much, much worse than anywhere else in the state. The motivations behind that kind of thinking number more than there are bars in Pittston, but I think that some of it lies in a desire to control and a distaste for change. Again, the Times is not to blame here, but...

Regionalism - The Times works against regionalism by maintaining this bizarre Chinese Wall-esque separation between Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. Case in point: for whatever reason, the Times continues to print dramatically different editions between W-B and Scranton, despite the fact that many thought the purchase of the CV in Wilkes-Barre created an opportunity to develop a true NEPA newspaper (one that could tell more of a regional story). No one particular city, town or patch in NEPA can make it on its own...the world is simply too big a place, and regionalism is a proven driver of success.

Business Development Efforts - When was the last time you read an article that was critical of the local Chambers of Commerce? I have nothing against Austin Burke Sr., but let's be honest: has he really done such as a specular job as the local business promotion guy that he deserves a (all be it temporary) promotion to Harrisburg?

Cronyism - You see the same names and faces in the Times as region All-Stars. Gary Drapek? Check. Chris Doherty? Check. Austin Burke? Check. UofS Jesuit President? Check. (up until recently) Bob Mellow? Check. And the list goes on. Note that I have nothing against Drapek, Doherty & others (except for Mellow...) but come on...; Hell, the only thing that keeps former Scranton School District Superintendent John R. Williams out of the Times it the fact that he moved away. Find a critical story about Scranton Prep or the University of Scranton and I will buy you lunch.

Perpetuating Stereotypes - The Sports section of the Times is over 4 pages long. Typically, the business section is a page, if that. What does that tell you? Does the phrase "Bread and circuses" mean anything to you?

Lack of Aggressive Journalism - Quick, what was the last big story that the Times broke? Kids for cash? Nope. Culture of Corruption? Well not really, as the Times got all over it, once people started to get indicted. Bob Mellow's seeming inability to do much else than serve himself? Well yes, all be it 20 years AFTER he started doing this stuff. I realize that journalists have to report facts, but I also realize that journalists have to take chances. The Times rarely takes a chance.

In the final analysis, my beef with the Times comes down to this: they could be a driver for change in the region, but they mostly chose not to for reasons that I don't fully comprehend. As I started out noting in this post, they could have talked about the region's unemployment rate a few different ways, but instead they took the easy way out and simply left things at "lowest of the MSAs in PA". That kind of reporting doesn't run afoul of the region's historical "pity us poor coal miner"mentality, which seems to be often the point.

What do I want? Simple: I want the Times to be an aggressive change agent in NEPA. They are uniquely suited to do just that, if they would only chose to do so.


Tom Borthwick said...

This is an awesome post. I sent it over to a woman from the New America Foundation, which just did a study on media in Scranton. I think they'll love this.

Stephen Albert said...

Thanks Tom.