Analysis of media outlets in the 29th District.

D&C Circulation

The Democrat and Chronicle's circulation numbers are out, and it's a good news/bad news story.

The good news, via reader Elmer, is that, by one calculation, the D&C's combined online and print "reach" is 86% of the Rochester market, one of the higher numbers for mid-size markets.

The bad news, via Gannettblog, is that the D&C's print circulation is down another 5.1%.

The reach numbers are interesting, but as always the question is whether the D&C can replace lost print advertising revenue with online revenue.

Checking In at Gannett

Jim Hopkins, editor of Gannettblog, has written a couple of posts that might be of interest to those following the fortunes of the 29th's "paper of record", the Democrat and Chronicle.

Jim notes that the D&C is a two-time winner of the Gannett in-house diversity award.  He also wonders if Gannett's focus on diversity has yielded the results they're shooting for.

Jim also looks at the conundrum of "resources".  A resource shortage is one of the excuses given for the light coverage of the 29th at the D&C.  Jim relates his experiences at another Gannett property, the Idaho Statesman, which is now owned by McClatchy (emphasis mine):

The Boise paper employed about 65 folks in its newsroom when I worked there in 1991-96; I suspect employment under McClatchy hasn't changed much. But my experience, working for one of the best editors I've known, shows that a small number of staffers, managed well, can produce very good work. The editor, John Costa, had come to the Statesman from Florida's St. Petersburg Times. Costa was an outsider; he had not worked his way up through Gannett, so his hiring was a little unusual.
Costa was an old-fashioned First Amendment journalist. Over and over, he preached the importance of using freedom of information laws to hold powerful people accountable. Once, for example, when I was reporting on a state prison story, I found myself in a federal courtroom, hearing a judge about to seal an important court document from public view. During a hearing break, I called Costa and asked what to do. He told me to return to the courtroom, and ask the judge to reconsider. When the hearing resumed, I stood up at the back of the very big courtroom, and called out to the judge -- startling the assembled attorneys. (In response, the judge offered a compromise.)
Costa's approach to producing great journalism was simple: Take the best stories, assign them to the newsroom's most talented people -- then get out of the way, and let them do their jobs. He believed readers would remember big, impactful stories long after they'd forgotten the routine stuff we produce daily, just to fill tomorrow's paper. If a reporter was working on a project, and Costa saw her name attached to a daily on that morning's budget, he'd demand to know why. 

Gannett and a Little Lesson on Transparency

Jim Hopkins, the proprietor of Gannett Blog, has made a very careful study of the charitable contributions made by the Gannett Foundation.  One interesting discovery relevant to Rochester is that the Gannett Foundation gives around half of its donations to charities in the Rochester area.  Jim thinks, and I agree, that this is guilt money from Gannett, which is still feeling bad about moving their corporate HQ to the Washington, DC area and leaving us with the Democrat and Chronicle.

Those of you interested in the role of blogs in journalism should take a look at Jim's series on the Gannett Foundation.  By carefully reading required disclosures, he found that Gannett executives had a special program in the Gannett charities that allowed those execs to target donations to their favorite charities.  Of course, those executives took advantage of the program to donate to their alma maters.  For example, though the overall mission of the Foundation is to support charities in areas where Gannett has newspapers, the CEO chose to funnel contributions to his beloved University of Texas.  Gannett doesn't have any papers in Texas.

He Said Journalism and NRCC Spin

In today's Syracuse Post-Standard, the Washington notebook column  solves the he said/she said dilemma by simply ignoring the other side of the story.  Columnist Mark Weiner re-prints National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spin without analysis or balance.

The main subject of Weiner's piece NY-25, where it looks like there won't be a primary.  This means that Democrat Dan Maffei, who came within a few thousand votes of beating incumbent Jim Walsh in 2006, will be the candidate in the general election.  The NRCC spin is that this is a good thing, because Maffei's possible primary challenger, Syracuse Mayor Matt Driscoll, would have been a better candidate.

Perhaps there's a tiny bit of truth in that, but fact-based conventional wisdom is that primaries eat up campaign chests and bloody up primary opponents, so the lack of a primary in NY-25 is probably good news for Dan Maffei.  Since Weiner is writing a column, which is an opinion piece, he could have just said that.  Or he could have called up Maffei and gotten a reaction quote.  Either way, getting some factual balance into his column would have been easy, so he's either a biased or incompetent "analyst".

The NRCC and its Democratic counterpart, the DCCC, are full of spokespeople whose entire job is to spin any seemingly negative fact for their party into a positive.  For example, the Democrat just won a special election for Denny Hastert's old seat in the Illinois 14th.  The NRCC spent nearly 20% of their cash on hand defending the seat.  The last time a party lost the Speaker's seat, in 1994, it signaled the beginning of a dozen years of Republican dominance in the House.  Clearly, this is bad news.  The NRCC's response is typical:  "one state does not prove a trend [...] not a bellewether of what happens this Fall." 

I don't fault the NRCC for spinning NY-25 or IL-14.  But journalists should not be basing entire columns on what these people say.

By the way, I stumbled on this piece because Weiner mentions NY-29, saying that Kuhl is running despite widespread retirement rumors.   He got that right, at least.

Blogversation 3 and The D&C's New Site

Ontario GOP and Exile at Rochesterturning have posted their responses in our continuing blogversation, and Evan Dawson has begun the third part with a lengthy post here.    There's a lot to digest from Evan, and I'll get to that in a later post, but first I want to mention that the D&C has redesigned their site.  Those of you who are interested in my take on it, and how it relates to Joe Klein of all people, can read on after the break.  Anyone tired of watching me mount the D&C hobbyhorse can go read GOP's, Exile and Evan's posts instead.
Site design is a matter of taste and I think the D&C's is a bit of an improvement on their old design to my eye.  It's way, way too much information on a page, and it falls all over itself pimping other Gannett properties, but that's consistent with most newspaper sites. 

What's more significant is that they've junked their old "storychat" comment system, and replaced it with a new system powered by Pluck.  In addition to allowing comments, Pluck gives the D&C some social networking capabilities. Users can maintain profiles, host their own blogs, and call other users "friends".   Pluck looks like a great piece of technology, but it doesn't address the real issue with the D&C's comments section:  they're full of trolls and morons.

Here's an example from today's edition.  As one of the commenters asks, "I am curious how this went from a discussion about an article reporting an alleged crime to name calling and insults and insinuations."   Meet the new D&C forums, same as the old ones.

An Internet forum is governed by laws similar to thermodynamics:  absent any other energy, it moves towards maximum entropy.  The energy that's missing from the D&C's forums is intelligent moderation and participation by D&C editorial staff. If the D&C staff took the time to engage commenters, perhaps accepting corrections or amplifying a point, I think the tone and content of their forums would improve markedly.  Right now, nobody's listening at the D&C forums.  So the participants who like to shout are shouting louder, and thoughtful people who pose intelligent questions go away after nobody answers.

The D&C might think this policy is just OK and what a "real newspaper" ought to do, but I want to point to a "serious journalist" who tried the "I don't have to deal with this" tactic and didn't fare so well.  Time's Joe Klein was absolutely savaged last year by Glenn Greenwald.  Unwilling to concede that he made a basic mistake in reporting, Klein was pushed into saying that he didn't "have time" to figure out who was telling the truth about a relatively simple factual matter.

Klein took a lot of heat from the journalism community for that, and I think the lesson hit home (a little).  Now, instead of ignoring commenters and behaving defensively, he's adopted a little common courtesy.  Here are two examples from this week.  First, in a post on IAEA, he updates twice based on comments, taking a correction gracefully and answering a question.  He says something dumb in public and immediately apologizes, without being prompted. Incidentally, on the same Time blog, Ana Marie Cox takes a "terrific" question from a commenter and asks it at a Clinton press call.   Time is by no means a leader on the Internet, but even they are learning how a conversation between reporters and commenters on their blogs can build community.

In contrast, the D&C blogs remain a walled garden.  They still don't have RSS feeds, and the comments are managed using Blogger, not Pluck, so all of the commenters on blogs are part of a completely different online community. This leads to the following absurdity:  I can create a blog with a D&C address that accepts Pluck comments and has a RSS feed, but the D&C editors can't. 

Center of Excrescence

As I noted here earlier, when I tried to cancel my subscription to the Democrat and Chronicle, it took them over a month to get the job done.  I assume part of the reason was the D&C's decision to move its customer service to a "Center of Excellence" in Louisville, Kentucky. 

The D&C isn't the only Gannett paper having problems with this genius cost-cutting move.  As Gannettblog reports, the Utica paper was struggling with outsourced classified sales and customer services.  When Gatehouse Media purchased the paper, one of its first acts was to move customer service back to Utica.  Here's what the publisher said about that:

It was costing us more to out-source these operations, and others, than to run them ourselves. Plus, we knew in our hearts that our customer service would improve, our classified ad sales would grow, and a whole host of other parts of our operation would be better run if they were here. And now they are.
One of my suppliers at work has a good expression:  "Stepping over a dollar to pick up a dime."  Gannett's customer service outsourcing seems like a good example of this phenomenon.

Wakey Wakey

The Democrat and Chronicle's first story about the 29th district this year gives us the timely news that Eric Massa raised more money than Randy Kuhl during the last reporting period.  Of course, every other media outlet in the 29th reported this two weeks ago, when the fundraising totals were actually released.

Next up for the D&C:  I hear this Obama guy is coming from behind, and McCain might just clinch the Republican nomination.  I think that story is scheduled for sometime in March.

Thought Experiment

Ontario GOP has a couple of comments in last night's post, alleging media bias in the 29th district.  I invite anyone who thinks that might be true to engage in the following mental experiment:

Imagine that your least-favorite Congressional Democrat (Louise Slaughter, Brian Higgins, whoever) went on a Congressional junket somewhere you think he or she has no business going. 

When you're looking through the media coverage of that trip, which would you prefer:

  1. A series of stories that examine every detail of the trip, questioning the stated purpose, and showing that your least-favorite Democrat was giving the press the run-around, and that his or her expense report probably understated the real cost of the trip.

  2. A story that re-prints Brian or Louise's press release about the trip without questioning it.

  3. A local press that completely ignores the trip, because the trip wasn't a lot of money and there are more important things to discuss.
I want (1).  While I don't agree with (3) completely, I understand that the press sometimes tends to focus on minutiae while ignoring the big picture.  What I don't get is (2), which is apparently what some Kuhl supporters expect from the local press.

Debate? Naah.

Last week the Massa campaign put out a press release essentially challenging Randy Kuhl to a debate.  The heading of the release was "Massa Accepts Kuhl's Challenge to Debate".  I read the release, and also the press release from the Kuhl campaign, which I got via the Massa campaign.  After looking both over, I decided that it was basically an attempt by the Massa campaign to get some attention based on some pretty light evidence, and didn't run the story. 

Today, the Ontario Republican posted a link to a Messenger-Post is report that Eric Massa and Randy Kuhl are planning a debate on S-CHIP, perhaps sometime in March.  The story was by Hillary Smith, one of their general assignment reporters.  Ontario GOP quickly posted a follow-up denial, which I assume he got from Kuhl's office, that includes the entire Kuhl press release.  GOP says that he thought the story was a little fishy, but he went with it anyway because the M-P printed it.

If this tells us anything about politics and journalism, it's this:  newspapers need to feed the beast.  That's why campaigns send out press releases like a deer craps pellets. Once in a while, a campaign lucks out and their pure spin gets reported as fact.   I'd bet a little money that Hillary Smith did not call Kuhl's office on this one, because she'd have gotten a pretty quick denial.  I'll further speculate that Hillary's editor will get an earful from the Kuhl press office, and M-P reporters will be a little more careful in the future.

As far as I've seen, the M-P was the only local paper that ran the Massa press release.  The other left-leaning blog in the area, Rochesterturning, has a post on it, but later included an update saying that it might just be a media back-and-forth instead of a real debate.  So even the "partisan" bloggers didn't swallow it whole.  Take from that what you will.

Local Media: Part Deux

Since I canceled my Democrat and Chronicle subscription, I'm looking for the best way to get information about my local suburban town online.

Here's how the D&C wants to meet my needs.  They've got a page for my town.  This page has stories and some links.  The obituaries link goes to the generic (all-Rochester) D&C obits, so I still have to plow through a long list to see if any of my acquaintances have passed from this earthly realm.  There's an event calendar on the page, but it's remarkably useless, since it doesn't have information about where the event is held.  And, like the obits, when I click on an event, I'm transported to the regional D&C event calendar.

Of course, the D&C doesn't provide a RSS feed for this content, so I have to bookmark the page and visit it regularly to be sure I'm up-to-date on happenings in my town.  As usual with any interaction with the Smugtown Gazette, I'm constantly reminded that the D&C isn't here to meet my needs -- I'm here to meet their needs.  In this case, they apparently need more page views, so they stubbornly refuse to create RSS feeds.

In sharp contrast, the Messenger-Post has a page that might be a little less pretty, but is a lot more useful.  First, it has a RSS feed so I can be informed when a story about my town is posted.  More importantly, the M-P has reporters post regular round-up stories on deaths, events and the police blotter.  That's all I need, and I'll be getting it from a paper that has a small fraction of the resources deployed by the D&C.
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