Comments of the Week

January 25-29, 2010

Every Friday, we excerpt some of the most insightful, articulate, interesting, and entertaining comments we receive each week. Think we’ve missed something? Well…comment! (This article has been expanded since it was first posted.)

The Great Paywall Debate

After news that Newsday has drawn only 35 Web subscribers since its site went behind a paywall drew scorn from some industry-watchers, Ryan Chittum pushed back a bit, noting that when it comes to traffic, quality trumps quantity, and that in the paper’s core audience—the New York metro area—traffic hardly declined in 2009:

Every for-profit web site’s goal should be to get valuable traffic, not high traffic. Local traffic is more valuable than search traffic. And local traffic that you can target - by location, demographic, reading habits, etc. - is the most valuable of all. Newsday could lose half its traffic and still increase revenue if it got rich data about the remaining half and used it to sell high-value targeted ads. And pay walls are great ways of getting rich data.

— Mark

It depends who your ad buyers are. My company, a niche B2B publisher, wants to attract the right readers, not the right number of readers. But our problem is that our advertisers are too focused on numbers. They ask us, Why should we advertise with you, when Fox Business gets so much more traffic? And then our sales staff has to go into a long explanation about how for every 100 Fox Business readers, 99 of them don’t care about what our advertiser is trying to sell.

— Jeff

O’Keefe’s Arrest

On Tuesday, news broke that James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who embarrassed ACORN with his undercover videos, had been arrested along with three other men after allegedly entering the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu under false pretenses and attempting to “interfere” with the phone system there. The next day, Greg Marx rounded up commentary from the conservative media world, and CJR’s commenters weighed in too. (Note: while some comments may presume or assert that O’Keefe was planning to bug the phones, that has not been alleged by federal authorities.)

Sorry, I don’t get it. When ABC or NBC or ‘60 Minutes’ would use subterfuge (posing as the employee of a Food Lion grocery store, say) to plant hidden cameras, etc., that was called ‘investigative reporting’ and no arrests were made. Any objections, let alone arrests, were described as having ‘chilling effects’ on investigative journalism, even if the transgressions were on private property. One Congresswoman famously was a party to taping a Newt Gingrich conference call with other GOP leaders in the 90s. We can agree that bugging someone’s office is some kind of offense, dating back to Watergate, but I don’t understand why arrests weren’t made in the cases I mention above.

— Mark Richard

Hi Mark, the answer to your question is complicated but basically comes down to consent. Most Federal and State statutes derive from one-party consent. So in the 60 Min example, as long as the “subterfuge” was included in and consented to the taping, no criminal laws are broken (they could still be open to civil action). Had 60 Min aired or published parties that did not involve the “subterfuge” and who did not content to being taped, then a possible felony occurred. This is why an arrest was made in this case, they were intending to bug or tape conversations they were not a party to. Hope this makes sense, there is plenty to Google regarding consent laws.

— David Black

When this kid took down ACORN with a silly pretense and a Handycam, the “watchdogs” here at CJR sat on the story for days - even as Congress rushed to ditch ACORN in a Friday night vote in the only bipartisan action taken during the Obama administration.

… But the kid in the video gets busted so NOW this kid is newsworthy, Mr. Marx?

Don’t get me wrong- if the kid tried to tap a phone, he should go to jail and so should anyone who helped him.

However, what’s the bigger story? “International activist organization that receives milllions in dollars of taxpayer’s money is staffed coast-to-coast with corrupt employees and Congress suspends further funding”? Or “stupid kid gets busted trying to bust a Dem. congresswoman by messing around with her office phone”?

— padikiller

It seems clear to me why this story is bigger.

When O’Keefe “broke” the ACORN stories, he was a nobody. He dug up some dirt that appears to follow his party lines. And yeah, maybe some major news outlets were embarrassed that they didn’t discover what O’Keefe did at ACORN. But it’s a stretch to call the ACORN videos paramount investigative journalism. It is not. Yes, he found malfeasance, but his process is terrible. Dressing up like a pimp? Are you serious?

So, now that O’Keefe became a public figure (not official, figure), he subjected himself to faster news coverage. That’s the way it works. He’s a somebody.

Now, he’s a somebody who allegedly trespassed federal property.

— Christian

The Daily Grind

Also Wednesday, Megan Garber took a look at the “Open Newsroom” project launched by the Berkeley-based investigative startup California Watch. Reporters from the outfit fanned out to coffee shops with WiFi access, and invited their readers to stop by, chat about the news, and suggest stories:

Some coffeeshops are dropping people off of wifi after an hour. I wonder if story bylines will appear with “powered by Peet’s Coffee.” I’m seeing underwriting potential here. Personally, I need the buzz of coffee to write, but I find it hard to concentrate amidst the buzz buzz buzz of a busy cafe.

— JulieDrizinMQ2

I am a deputy editor of a newspaper in East London, a small coastal town in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. I am fascinated by the idea of an open newsroom.

As a newspaper we are also facing huge challenges in terms of connecting with our core audience and who knows maybe the open newsroom idea could actually work for us this side.

Keep it up California Watch and keep us posted on the developments.

— Bongani

’Kickback’ Case Kicks Up a Storm

Another piece by Marx questioned the conclusion drawn by some reporters, including Time’s Karen Tumulty, that voter discontent over Congressional deal-making on health care—and in particular, the “Cornhusker Kickback”—drove Scott Brown’s win in Massachusetts. The piece drew on points raised by other commentators to warn that voters’ explanations for their choices are not always reliable:

Fair enough, but a problem with reporters talking to voters about their votes is that voters may feel the need to cite specific reasons for a more general attitude. If the ‘Cornhusker kickback’ had not occurred, Brown still would have probably won. Support for the health care bill was waning even before the deal. Sometimes people start with an ‘attitude’ and then find reasons to justify that attitude.

In this case, the attitude is very skeptical of the political sector of U.S. society. Bewildered journalists have spilled much ink on the question of why the public is hostile to this wonderful health care gift from our thoughtful leaders. Well, we have free and universal K-12 education in this country, just like the proposals for universal health insurance. Now, do a little thought experiment.

— Mark Richard

Brown’s success in Massachusetts is not all that complicated.

1. Coakley was a poor campaigner, running on a complex record — as a state prosecutor she built a strong record helping child and female victims, but was soft on Catholic clergy sex offenders. Tough even for good campaigners to explain.

2. She was the “moderate” among four Democrats in the primary, and not endorsed by the Globe and many other media outlets.

3. Massachusetts residents already have a better health care plan than the proposed national plan, and it has glaring weaknesses on the subscriber-cost side. So the very issue that was of most interest nationally was not of greatest interest locally. Scott Brown voted for the Massachusetts plan, which was, after all, brokered by Mitt Romney. Yes, THAT Mitt Romney.

4. Voter turnout was stellar. On a cold, snowy/rainy winter day, turnout was 53% — comparable to turnout in presidential elections. But it was 70% in Brown-leaning districts, and 38-43% in Coakley-leaning, including Boston, Cambridge and other big cities. If Boston/Cambridge turnout had been 55%, Coakley would have eeked out a victory, erasing Brown’s 110,000 vote margin (out of over 2 million votes cast).

All in all, it is clear from the voting patterns that Brown, a vastly better campaigner with a record that was easier to explain (legislative records are generically easier to explain than prosecutorial anyway, and Coakley has John Kerry’s gift of gab) had a leg up, once he got national funding support. And, as he was far further to the right than Coakley was to the left, he was bound to get a better turnout.

… She was still a passing-fair candidate, but only marginally competitive under the “national Republicans will pour money into this race” scenario. And that scenario should have been expected.

— Steve Ross

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s president, Drew Altman, has today released the results of their analysis of the Washington Post poll, done in cooperation with colleagues at Harvard University, which tends to support the conclusions of Karen Tumulty. Notably, they have observed that “Brown voters’ top complaint about health reform was not about the substance of the legislation itself or its perceived impact on them or their families, but about a policymaking process that they seemed to think had gone badly wrong.” As revealing seems to be what many of those who voted for Brown now expect of their newly elected Senator. I think the piece is well worth reading and contributes to thoughtful analysis of the Massachusetts vote.

— Joel Stookey

Steve and Art, you guys are in denial - like many of my erstwhile neighbors in crunchy, left-wing Lexington. The votes for Brown were by a base energized against the health care Obamination. The reason for the low turnout in Coakley districts was the previous energized Obama voters lost their religion.

But don’t take my word for it, just look at what the experts are doing. The Congressional Democratic leadership has put Obamacare on hold, possibly forever. Do you think they would take this extraordinary step if there was an iota of chance that it could pass anyway? Do you think any of them believe that a Republican was elected to “Teddy’s seat” just because Coakley was a bad campaigner?

Sometime you’re just too close to see what’s right before your eyes.

— JLD

And Tumulty responded in another post at Time’s “Swampland” blog:

Of course, I did not limit my reporting to man-on-the-street interviews. I never do. I looked at poll results, and talked to strategists. I heard from people who were working phone banks. But I still think there’s a value to occasionally switching off the cable news and talking to people.

And guess what? I’m not the only one who has come around to the belief that Massachusetts voters were turned off by Ben Nelson’s sweetheart deal. Yes, it was a Republican talking point—but it was one that resonated. As one senior White House official said yesterday in advance of the State of the Union address, it was “a galvanizing event. … We need to be mindful of that moving forward.” Nancy Pelosi said that getting that provision taken out of the bill will be one of the top demands that her members make. “That has to be fixed,” she said.

So call me outdated, but I’m going to continue talking to voters whenever I get the chance. You never know. Sometimes, they might figure out things even before the talking heads do.

— Karen Tumulty

I hate being called arrogant or unmindful of voters and good reporting, but the Harvard polling worksheets find almost no volunteering of complaints specifically on Nelson’s Nebraska deal. Left or right, voters didn’t like THE PLAN and they felt it was irrelevant to Massachusetts.

People on the far ends of the political spectrum never like compromise. As I noted (and as Tumulty seems to agree), it was the left that made Nelson resonate. But I see no proof that it was the key issue. Certainly was not among my neighbors in Revere, and people I talked to at a Columbia alumni association meeting that night. Of course, I teach that using anecdotal conversations and limited non-random voter interviews is great in a story, as long as the material is not raised to the level of a mathematically valid poll.

— Steve Ross

Dumbing Down the News and Dust Bowl Blues

Finally, in her inaugural piece for the print magazine, CJR Encore Fellow Lisa Anderson argued that newspapers are losing their most loyal readers by “dumbing down the news” in hopes of reaching a broader audience. That brought this response:

…I’ve given this whole issue a lot of thought and my current take on the situation is to not buy into the myth that technology killed the newspapers. I am now looking at the newspaper crisis as like that of the Dust Bowl in the ‘30’s. The Dust Bowl was an agrarian, human, and economic catastrophe that had multiple consequences and causes. But no one would ever say that our civilization no longer needs farming or its products because the economic model failed in the 1930’s. The Dust Bowl was caused by climate change in combination with damaging farming practices such as the failure to rotate crops. Their drought might be comparable to the collapse of advertising which supported print media so well for so long. And as farming developed an exploitative relationship with the land, it may be fair to say that media consolidation resulted in comparable consequences that could not sustain good journalism when the soil dried up and the wind blew away the shallow roots (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dust_Bowl).

One enduring aftermath of the Dust Bowl is the collapse of family farms and the rise of giant agri-business, which Michael Pollan links so compellingly to our nation’s energy and obesity crises. Good journalism might be comparable to the practice of crop rotation; its failure might be one important factor contributing to journalism’s dust bowl. I think an overlooked climate change issue is the collapse of advertising which may have been a canary in the economic coal mine suggesting that the real economy began to decline much earlier than its official onset in 2007/2008 (and might be far worse than officially acknowledged). If our culture shifts swiftly and entirely to electronic media, I believe we will experience troubling outcomes such as an unwitting apartheid of important information that reaches the desk-based workforce but leaves out other, important groups of our population. So I recognize the significance of the disruptive changes of our time, but it’s too easy to blame the Internet.

— MB

The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.