By Jim Stasiowski
It took 12 tries by an equal number of people before someone finally succeeded in explaining to me how tax-increment financing (known as TIF) works.
Maybe 15 tries.
Even before I fully understood TIF, I knew it was a way that a government uses tax money to lure businesses.
To some, the fact it took me that many tries to grasp the intricacies of TIFs makes me look less than intelligent. But I think it makes me look good. See, I kept trying to understand TIFs. I didn’t give up when I heard about it the first time, back in the 1980s, and told the explainer: “Huh?”
What you need to know about me: Whenever I have been interviewed for a job, and my prospective boss asks the standard, “So, what are your strengths?” I always say I’m a slow learner. I mean, slo—o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ow.
I don’t say that out of some reverse-psychology ploy or a brutally honest display of self-awareness; I say it with pride, because what I mean is that I pick up details the way a bricklayer builds a wall: one piece at a time. And if one doesn’t fit – continuing the bricklayer metaphor here – I will tear down what I’ve done and start over.
Throughout my life, I’ve been around fast learners, from my parents and siblings to classmates and colleagues. Even my wife, Sharon, swiftly masters numbers and technology and puzzles and instructions and the layouts of cities. When we first got our home wired against break-ins, the security technician had barely started his script when he looked at a distracted me and said, “Sir, are you following this?”
I said, “No,” then pointed to Sharon and added, “but she is, and she’ll fill me in.”
For me as a journalist, slow learning has been an advantage. No matter how difficult the topic, I insist the source go over it until I can explain it to readers. An example: On a Friday morning last winter, I covered a meeting at which an extremely intricate legislative proposal was discussed. Despite my copious notes, I really didn’t follow a lot of what was said. After the meeting, I asked the most knowledgeable speaker – call him Roger – to fill in the details. Thinking I could get a story done for the next morning’s edition, I told him I needed an hour of his time.
Roger turned me down, but offered: “How about tomorrow?”
He was running errands on Saturday, so he called me on his cellphone. For four hours Roger helped me, brick-by-brick. It was painful to acknowledge how little I knew of the proposal, but he enjoyed playing tutor. After we talked, I made a few more calls – Reporting tip: In cold climates in the winter, many people are easily reachable on Saturdays – and I wrote a multi-source, nuanced story for the Sunday edition.
I know I should have found a way to get that story on Friday, put it online as soon as possible, then into the Saturday paper. But journalists get paid for more than just speed and clicks; in accepting a newspaper job, we also accept the responsibility of using our judgment. If I had written the story on Friday, it would have been superficial, like local-TV pieces in which, after a complex meeting, the reporter gets 40 seconds of on-camera comments from the mayor.
Yes, I could have found a different source on Friday for a lengthy interview. But here comes the judgment: In listening to the speakers at the meeting, I zeroed in on Roger as having both the broadest knowledge of the topic and the best reputation for candor. It helped that my editor agreed with me: The story needed steeping, patience, consideration. In our modern media blizzard, speed is seductive but often shallow. A murder? Massive traffic accident? Trial outcome? OK, get it online and compete to be first (and, not incidentally, best).
But a topic with profound and long-term implications deserves time to develop.
I am not criticizing fast learners; I often wish I were one. And my self-assigned “slow learner” label hasn’t inhibited my ability to swiftly turn a slender news tip into a solid deadline-pressure story.
Still, it is an asset to know what I don’t know, like how to operate our home’s security system.
Now, back to TIFs: They started as a noble workaround to develop blighted areas, but shrewd business executives exploited simple-minded politicians lusting after credit for the holy grail called “economic development,” and today some TIFs are little more than corporate welfare, larding with tax money projects that companies would have done without such help. When your local government considers a TIF, start at the bottom. First study the TIF laws, then methodically build your story brick-by-brick.
THE FINAL WORD: Although I usually reject new or trendy words, I do appreciate the utility of “workaround,” a noun the dictionary defines as “a method for overcoming an obstacle or bypassing a problem.”