What do Steven Slater, the Barefoot Bandit, Wells Fargo and Apple all have in common?

Let’s look at some of the cultural stars of the summer of 2010:

> The Jet Blue flight attendant who wouldn’t bandage his head cut and couldn’t wait a few more minutes to visit the airport bar.

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation.

> The 19-year-old man, a future movie subject no doubt, who ransacked homes, stole airplanes and eluded police.

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation.

> The big national bank ordered last week to pay California customers $203 million in restitution claims because a judge found it had manipulated transactions to boost the overdraft fees it could charge its own customers.

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation.

> The iconic techno company that knowingly lied for years about the strength of its signal bars on iPhones.

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation.

Every summer has its own personality. The hot summer of 2010 will be remembered for a growing despair among the people, as the economy turned downward, once again.

Amid this, we gasp at the successes (through his life’s failures) of the Barefoot Bandit, aka Colton Harris-Moore. We marvel at the chutzpah of Steven Slater, the airline attendant who now says he wants his old job back.

We give Steve Jobs and Apple a pass on the phone screen that lied to its customers for every day of usage. Well, he put up a slide that acknowledged, “We’re not perfect.”

And we accept the Wells Fargo court finding as business as usual in America, even though, U.S. District Judge William Alsup wrote, “The bank’s dominant , indeed sole, motive was to maximize the number of overdrafts and squeeze as much as possible” out of overdrawn customers. This story did not receive the attention it deserved (hence this quick post).

In your mind, how you would rank these poor acts of citizenship during the summer of 2010 in terms of their maximum damage to the American culture? And to you?

For me, the least upsetting is the Barefoot Bandit. My house wasn’t involved, and he didn’t steal my airplane (cause I don’t have one). He’s an amusing distraction. Look for the movie out next fall. Perfect, since he seems like a character out of the 1930s anyway.

#3 in harm is Apple. Any company that takes over the music industry and is about to take over the publishing industry is actually worthy of being a villain in a James Bond movie. Too big for its own good. But I don’t care. I’ve got a Blackberry.

Runner-up for most heinous is the Jet Blue dude. He’s in charge of the safety and well being of those passengers. They come first — or at least they’re supposed to. The only good he did was expose the lax security for those leaving JFK Airport. As one spokesman said, we’re good at watching who enters the airport; we’re not so good at watching them leave.

The winner? For me, founder of Watchdog Nation, it’s a no brainer: Wells Fargo.

You hurt your own customers.  You processed their biggest payments first, which increased your income from overdraft charges. Meanwhile, penalties for smaller charges piled up on customers, causing tremendous harm for them, and now, finally, great shame for you.

The Barefoot Bandit and the others have nothing on you.  They are a distraction. You took money that a judge says doesn’t belong to you. From your own customers!

# # #

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber book that won two national awards for social change.

Training the next generation of storytellers

One of my current projects is to train a new generation of young writers and photographers to be the very best storytellers of the future. I’ve been working as a volunteer for four years with the students at Westlake Academy on their monthly newspaper, The Black Cow.

This story appeared in the September issue of Editor & Publisher magazine, the highly-respected journal and online site that serves as the bible of the newspaper industry.

I’m proud of this next generation of watchdogs and how they are receiving national publicity! Way to go, kids!   — Dave Lieber

Shoptalk: Stoking the Passion

By Sam Chamberlain

Published: September 01, 2009

The easiest way to measure the success of The Black Cow, Westlake Academy’s student newspaper in Texas, is probably by the numbers. The Black Cow launched in August 2005. At the 2006 Texas Interscholastic League Press Conference (ILPC), the paper won five awards. The following year, it won 27; the year after that, 47; and this past April, it took a whopping 55 awards.


The Black Cow meets once a week after school. Photo by Terri Bahun

The Black Cow meets once a week after school. Photo by Terri Bahun


Impressive stuff. But according to the paper’s adviser, longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram metro columnist Dave Lieber, the awards don’t even begin to measure the passion the students have for their work. And now there’s a new book, The Best of the Black Cow, a collection of writing from the paper’s first three years selected by Lieber.

“I feel reborn when I work with these kids,” says Lieber, who also provides an introduction for the book. “I go to my normal job, and all I hear is talk about layoffs and job cuts. I come here, and I feel fantastic about the work they do.”

The work is even more impressive considering that the Black Cow is entirely self-sufficient, surviving primarily on advertising ($7,500 buys a full-page advertisement in all eight of its yearly issues) and subscriptions. Furthermore, because of the paper’s status as a K-12 free public charter school (40% of the students are Westlake residents, the rest are selected by lottery), some of the senior editors have been working on the paper since its founding four years ago.


Executive Editor Nick Ford working on layout. Photo by Jaymi Ford

Executive Editor Nick Ford working on layout. Photo by Jaymi Ford


One of those students is Nick Ford, an 11th grader at Westlake who started at the paper as a 7th-grade photographer, and has worked his way up to executive editor. He’s primarily in charge of laying out the 40-page edition. “I was a photographer my first year, and the person in charge of layout was going to a different school so he showed me how to put the paper together,” says Ford. “It usually takes a whole week, working two to three hours a day to put it together.”

“He has tremendous instincts,” Lieber says of Ford. “I like to watch him work with the layout, and graphics and figuring out what goes where.”


Sarah Titus is Editor-in-Chief. Photo by Nick Ford

Sarah Titus is Editor-in-Chief. Photo by Nick Ford


Sarah Titus is another long-timer, who started at the Black Cow as a book reviewer in the 6th grade. “I was always a big reader, and when I saw the school had come out with a newspaper, I thought, ‘This is cool,’ so I went to Mr. Lieber and suggested a book review.” Titus graduated from that review to a monthly opinion column, “Sarah Says.” After becoming managing editor for news and photo last year, Titus was named editor-in-chief for the coming school year.

Among her plans as the Black Cow’s top editor are a mentoring program for younger students (some kids as young as the third grade are involved in the paper) and a series of team-building exercises to strengthen enthusiasm. “We’re pretty motivated already,” she says, “but I think these programs will help us get even better.”

Titus’ writing is among those featured in The Best of the Black Cow. (For info on ordering, e-mail westlakepaper@ hotmail.com). One of her featured pieces is a tribute to classmate Taylor Moon, who died suddenly in February 2008 of a rare strain of flu.

“Taylor had already mastered all the skills needed in the game of life,” Titus wrote at the time. “But God allowed him to stay longer, teaching others his traits and characteristics, giving him time for his qualities to rub off on us.” The piece won a first-place award for personal column at that year’s ILPC.

“I was amazed,” says Lieber about putting the book together. “I read work that made my eyes well up and I read stuff that would make me laugh hysterically. I mean, these kids aren’t even old enough to drive legally, and they’re producing this great writing that touches all these emotions and comes from the heart. Just about the only thing they can’t do is make a deadline.”

The book, which runs 223 pages, bears the unmistakable red cover and design familiar to readers of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. According to Lieber, the resemblance is not coincidental. “These kids are the Holden Caulfields of the 21st century,” he says. “They’re rebellious, sharp, keen, witty, haven’t quite figured it out, but they’re successful. I thought it would strike a chord.” The book even opens with a quote from Holden. It also includes the original flyer announcing the newspaper and calling for staffers, and the name-the-paper contest form.


The kids' book is the winner of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Education/Academics

The kids' book is the winner of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Award for Education/Academics


It closes with a song lyric by ’80s popsters Timbuk 3: “I’m doing all right/Getting good grades/The future’s so bright/I gotta wear shades.”

“I looked at the editors when I first started and they seemed to have so much on their plate,” says Titus. “But then I realized that if it’s something you really enjoy doing, you’ll find the time to do it. And with the writers we have, who are so inspired by what they do, I think the Black Cow can go far.”

Samuel Chamberlain has been an E&P intern the past two summers.

America loses Watchdog columnist

One of my comrades on the journalism battlefield has fallen, and anyone who cares about fighting the bad guys should take note.


George Gombossy of ctwatchdog.com

George Gombossy of ctwatchdog.com


George Gombossy, the hard-charging Watchdog columnist for the Hartford Courant, was fired last week because, he says, of a dispute with his editors about covering negative stories about top advertisers. His career at the paper had lasted 40 years.

“We’re on the precipice of real danger in society here,” Gombossy told me Sunday night. “This is not about me. I’m fine. I’m going to be 62 in less than a month. I can retire. That’s why I’m in a position to raise this issue.

“We’re in a very dangerous situation where most media companies including the Hartford Courant are run by marketing people now instead of journalists, and they do not understand why we have the ethics that we do.”

Gombossy’s former paper is owned by the Tribune Co., led by Sam Zell. The company is now in bankruptcy reorganization.

Gombossy and I do – or, in his case, did – the same job, although at different newspapers. There’s less than a half dozen real consumer investigative columnists left in America. Yet these kinds of columns are widely popular with readers, especially these days.

The column that got him fired was about Sleepy’s, the largest mattress chain in the United States. Gombossy caught the company selling used beds as new. State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal told him he was investigating.

But The Courant killed the column. You can still read it here on Gombossy’s new Web site.

After he was fired last week, Gombossy wasted no time. By midnight of his last day at work, Aug. 14, Gombossy had quickly launched an online version of his life’s work at ctwatchdog.com – now only a few days old. He says he will soldier on for the cause.

Gombossy informed readers of his departure in his final column that appeared on Sunday, Aug. 16. The real reason is not mentioned. Some may learn of it by reading this post.

There are two versions of that final column: Read the one the paper ran that didn’t mention his firing here. Read the unedited version on his Web site here.

Gombossy says he has hired one of his state’s top employment lawyers and “we’re committed to going all the way.”

Executives who made the decision to end his career at the paper are not bad people, he says. “They are very creative and trying to save newspapers from extinction, but they don’t understand the basic foundation of journalism which means that you don’t protect anybody.”

At his paper, he says, any stories about any of the top 100 advertisers have to be approved by top editors before publication. This extends to the public’s blog postings, too.

But Gombossy discards the argument that advertisers will cancel if they get angry and that could cost the paper money – and jobs. In his four decades at the paper, he says, advertisers may go away for a little bit in anger but they come back. “They advertise at the paper because they need to,” he says.

Gombossy’s Watchdog column was one of the paper’s most popular features. He estimates the newspaper and its sister TV station spent close to half a million dollars in the past two years promoting his place in the paper and his Friday TV piece on Fox61‘s Friday morning news. Gombossy lost his TV gig, too.

“My picture was on every bus in Hartford over the last two years,” he says. “TV ads of me and a dog that looked like me with my glasses were running until last week.”

Yet he says he doesn’t even feel like he was fired personally.

“It wasn’t the George Gombossy column. It was led by readers. It was readers that pointed out every single major column I ever wrote.

“It was the people’s Watchdog column. It wasn’t George Gombossy that got fired. It was the readers that got fired.”

Gombossy was told the paper will replace his feature with a milder, less investigative, help-you kind of column.

Now Connecticut consumers will have to develop a new news habit – Gombossy’s ctwatchdog.com.

Our ranks are growing thinner. I tip my soldier’s cap to you, George. Guys like us don’t give up the fight so easily.

Final note: Sunday night, as I prepared to post Gombossy’s side, I called the newspaper, but couldn’t get through its crummy voice mail system. If an editor or spokesman reads this and wishes to tell the other side, please contact me here.

Dave Lieber is The Watchdog investigative columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a century-old newspaper which still believes strongly in watchdog journalism.

UPDATE: Thanks to journalist Gary Weiss for alerting me that The Courant has released a statement. Gary first posted it on his gary-weiss.com site here.

MORE: Here is the statement in full from Courant spokeswoman Andrea Savastra:

“The overriding consideration on stories reported by the Hartford Courant is making sure the facts are thoroughly checked out and correct. Our advertisers have no influence on what we report, including stories that may include them. This is a long time Courant policy.

“Our readers and advertisers do and should expect us to report stories we know are accurate and fully reported.  George Gombossys story needs and is receiving additional checking and verification. This is a common practice required by our editors with all Courant news stories, including columns by Mr. Gombossy, and while employed with the Courant, he was well aware of this and accepted and followed this policy over the years.

“While Mr. Gombossy’s position was eliminated, he was made aware of the newly-defined consumer reporter position that will be combined with our newspaper, television station and Web site.  He did not express interest.”

Book judges love Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation

“Highly recommended.”

“Great book.”

“I loved this book.”

Judges of the 2009 Benjamin Franklin Awards spoke highly of Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation. The judges examined the book as part of the contest sponsored by the Independent Book Publishers Association.

“Great book,” Judge #1 wrote.

“Valuable tips!” wrote Judge #2. “I just kept flipping from page to page, case to case; laughing, learning from the lead watchdog. A really useful book!”

“I loved this book!” wrote Judge #3. “It addresses, in a very clear fashion, how to stop scammers, as well as how to resolve bill disputes with AT&T, the electric company, etc. His suggestions are clear and succinct: Use dogpile.com as an adjunct to Google. Research every company before doing business with them on the Web. Utilize librarians. Highly recommended.”

Dave is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, one of the finest newspapers in Texas.

Watchdog Nation founder wins two national columnist awards

“Every city needs a Dave Lieber.”

That’s what one judge said when awarding Dave, founder of Watchdog Nation, one of his two national writing awards at the 2009 conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.

Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, one of Texas’ finest newspapers, won second place in the Herb Caen Memorial Items/Notes category and honorable mention for general-interest columns in newspapers with more than 100,000 circulation.

The general-interest columns were about a retired airline pilot who lost much of his life savings through scams, a government-sponsored research project that enrolled patients without their knowledge and a Baylor Health Care System employee whom hospital police believe stole $1.4 million. The notes columns were watchdog shorts about various items.

One judge commented, “Dave Lieber’s columns quickly and easily create a sense of outrage in a reader. He writes about rip-offs, scams and jerks who take advantage of the most vulnerable people in society. He exposes wrongs and wrong-doers. Every city needs a Dave Lieber.”

Another judge stated, “Members of the Fourth Estate play many important roles in society. Among them is that of ‘watchdog’ — the reporter/writer/editor who is adept at ‘afflicting the comfortable, and comforting the afflicted.’ Mr. Lieber fills that role very well.

“Mr. Lieber does not engage in the frequent chest thumping that accompanies many of the ‘I am on your side’ investigators who spend far too much time telling you how great they are rather than focusing on the problem.

“Mr. Lieber gets quickly to the point about who was wronged and how — and he does it covering topics of wide general interest. It’s a safe bet that businesses around Fort Worth read his articles faithfully — and with some trepidation.”

The columnists’ society (columnists.com), with 300 members, held its 33rd annual conference in Ventura, Ca. The group honored Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle with its Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

Full winners list here.

Watchdog Nation book finalist in national book contest

Indie Award Logo

Watchdog Nation has received the following communiqué:

We are writing with some fabulous news. Your book — Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong — has been named the Winner in the Social Change category of the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Congratulations!

Your achievement will be published at www.IndieBookAwards.com.

Additionally, your book will be listed as a Winner in the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards catalog which will be distributed at Book Expo America in New York later this month to thousands of attendees including book buyers, library representatives, media, industry professionals, and others.

Once again congratulations from all of us at Independent Book Publishing Professionals Group and the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

Here is a complete list of the 2009 Winner and Finalists:

SOCIAL CHANGE

  • Winner

    Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong

    by Dave Lieber

    Yankee Cowboy Publishing

  • Finalist

    An Unlikely Family: Voices of Ethiopian and American Youth Who Are Turning Tragedy Into Hope

    by Ben Beisswenger, Christopher Beisswenger, Margaret Eldred, Zoe Dmitrovsky, Meron Foster, Carolynne Krusi

    Anemeone Publishing

  • Finalist

    Audrey on Nantucket

    by Audrey Obremski

    BookSurge

  • Finalist

    Autism ABC

    by Dr. Sherry L. Meinberg

    BookSurge

  • Finalist

    Business Revolution through Ancestral Wisdom

    by Tu Moonwalker and JoAnne O’Brien-Levin, Ph.D.

    Outskirts Press

  • Finalist

    Great Peacemakers: True Stories from Around the World

    by Ken Beller and Heather Chase

    LTS Press

  • Finalist

    Negotiating with Giants: Get What You Want Against the Odds

    by Peter D. Johnston

    Negotiation Press

  • Finalist

    No More Mr. Nice Guy

    by James Alston

    BookSurge

  • Finalist

    Saints in the City

    by Andie Andrews

    Outskirts Press

  • Finalist

    The Thinking Person’s UFO Book

    by Gordon Chism

    Avenue Design, Inc.

  • Finalist

    The Third Basic Instinct: How Religion Doesn’t Get You

    by Alex S. Key

    BookSurge

Watchdog Nation honored with “Defending the Disadvantaged” Award

Grateful for winning Society of Professional Journalists & “Defending the Disadvantaged” First Amendment Award (2009). Something Watchdog Nation is honored to have! Thank you so much! Won for story of how a Texas family with small triplets was shuffled around the food stamp bureaucracy without any help. Then Watchdog Nation citizens jumped forward and donated enough to help feed the family – about $2,000!

 

 

Here’s what really matters…

Watchdog Nation received this letter from Johnny P. We share because, although not our usual topic, it really puts things in perspective:

“Dave, i believe you are a good man. i wrote you a while back, that is my only contact with you. i need something to do so i am writing you.

i am an independent trucker… i worry every day about the job i once had. tonight that seems so trivial.

you see march 27, 2000, my wife had a brain aneurism. it has been almost 9 years since that day. i am thankful every day to have HER.

tonight i am scared. my wife went to bed. i was not tired so i stayed in the office talking to people looking for work. she called out to me. she told me she did not feel well. there are things she says that tells me something is wrong.

you see she has [the symptoms] – when her eye misses up or she has a headache things change. tonight she has both symptoms.

so here i am writing to you because i need to. you see i have been so worried about not making a living and the economy i have forgot the most important thing. my wife.

i hope my prayers will get her through the night and i will have tomorrow and many more tomorrows with her. i will be here for her and i hope she does not need me. if she does i will be here. it will be a long night.

i know this is not what you normally talk about, but in this house of silence, and as i wait for daylight and hope all is well, i needed to write to someone. that someone was you. i hope you understand.

Thank you, Johnny.”

Note to Johnny. Watchdog Nation is praying for your wife and for you. Thank you for spending that night sharing.

Wendy the hair stylist and her book sales secrets

Wendy Marthers

Wendy of Wendy’s Hair Studio won the Watchdog Nation book sales contest. She beat three other businesses with more foot traffic – a busy postal station/self-storage retail outlet; a dental office; and a popular restaurant in a gas station. You better believe you can learn selling tips from this hair stylist. How did she do it? And what does her technique show us about the ways to make people connections in an increasingly high-tech, limited contact world.

Watchdog Nation: Congratulations on winning.

Wendy: Thank you.

WDN: You sold double digits and slaughtered the competition. If the book business is hurting, you could open a store right here. What was your sales secret?

Wendy: The book is right in front of my client while I work. And that starts a conversation. I say, “Have you read Dave’s new book? Sit and have a look at it.”

WDN: While you are cutting hair?

Wendy: While I am cutting hair.

WDN: So some of these books you sold have little hairs in their pages?

Wendy: Right. That’s like an autograph by me also. I’d say, “Here you go. Take a look.” People would actually sit here and read pages. Others would ask questions. I’d say, “Would you like it autographed?”

WDN: Did it trigger them telling you stories about their problems?

Wendy: Absolutely, and I’d point them to that subject in the index.

WDN: For advice on that problem?

Wendy: Yes.

WDN: What percentage of people would buy the book after holding it?

Wendy: About three-fourths.

WDN: After holding it?

Wendy: That’s right.

WDN: Is that key? Getting them to put the book in their hands?

Wendy: I think so.

WDN: So that’s maybe why the self-storage/post office, the dental office and the restaurant-in-a-gas-station couldn’t compete with you? They couldn’t get people to hold it?
Wendy: Right.

WDN: They also didn’t have a captive audience. Your client couldn’t go anywhere. So how do you avoid crossing the line and not becoming an obnoxious seller?

Wendy: Never obnoxious about it. Keep it light. Keep it simple. They either love it and want it for themselves or others – or they didn’t care for it.

WDN: What advice do you have for people selling products out of their element such as this?

Wendy: You have to talk about it. Start off simple. Then you put it in their hands. And then you play off how they handle that. You pretty much go by their vibes.

WDN: And then you ask if they want it autographed?

Wendy: Right.

WDN: Hundreds of people walked by the book in those other establishments…

Wendy: More so than here.

WDN: A postal station. At Christmas time! But just the display right by the cash register doesn’t result in the sale.

Wendy: You’ve got to chat it up. And I’m a terrible salesperson. I sell my retail products only if they ask for it. I don’t push any products.

WDN: Well, obviously you’re pretty good. You just won the $100 grand prize!

Wendy wins more by than a hair


Wendy of the not-so-coincidentally-named Wendy’s Hair Studio is the grand prize winner in The Battle of Rufe Snow sales contest to sell the most copies of newly-released Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation book.

The book is not available in stores — for now the publisher wants to stay off Corporate America’s radar — and can be found at Watchdog Nation and Amazon.

So Wendy is the top seller of a book readers are calling a must-have for every family.

What’s her secret? “You have to talk about it,” she says. “Start off simple. Then you put it in their hands. And then you play off how they handle that. You pretty much go by their vibes.” [You can read the full transcript of Wendy the haircutter’s Q&A on her book-selling secrets elsewhere on WatchdogNation blog.

Wendy earned a percentage of profits from the book sales (much higher than any bookstore would pay, by the way!) and also the $100 grand prize. She received her check the other day when she cut Watchdog Nation Leader Dave Lieber’s hair.

Coming in second in the sales contest is the staff at Rufe Snow Dental, which wins a $50 cash prize.

Also in the competition and gotta love ‘em for trying were Rufe Snow Depot Self-Storage, which also has a postal substation and the renowned Chef Point Café, the famed five-star restaurant in a gas station in beautiful downtown Watauga.

All is not lost though for competitive Chef Franson Nwaeze. When we delivered the news, he told us he had even better news. TV show host Guy Fieri from the show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Food Network spent a day at his place. The show is scheduled to be broadcast on April 6. Way to go, Chef!

And by the way, the book remains available at these locations, as of now the only retail locations in America.

Wendy’s Hair Studio at 6651 Hightower Drive, Watauga, TX.

Rufe Snow Dental at 5757 Rufe Snow Drive, North Richland Hills, TX.

Rufe Snow Depot Self-Storage at 6707 Rufe Snow Drive, Watauga, TX.

And Chef Point Café at 5901 Watauga Road, Watauga, TX.