When the media doesn’t do its job

The Wisconsin Newspaper Association convention is this weekend. (No, I’m not going.)

I wonder if this Politico Special Report! will get discussed:

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn’t do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.

POLITICO’s findings — which put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context — were drawn from a comparison of election results and subscription information from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The findings cover more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level.

President Donald Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may be rooted in statistical reality: An extensive review of subscription data and election results shows that Trump outperformed the previous Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in counties with the lowest numbers of news subscribers, but didn’t do nearly as well in areas with heavier circulation.

POLITICO’s findings — which put Trump’s escalating attacks on the media in a new context — were drawn from a comparison of election results and subscription information from the Alliance for Audited Media, an industry group that verifies print and digital circulation for advertisers. The findings cover more than 1,000 mainstream news publications in more than 2,900 counties out of 3,100 nationwide from every state except Alaska, which does not hold elections at the county level. …

“I doubt I would be here if it weren’t for social media, to be honest with you,” Trump told Fox Business Network in October. Without it, he said at the time, he “would never … get the word out.”

POLITICO’s analysis shows how he succeeded in avoiding mainstream outlets, and turned that into a winning strategy: Voters in so-called news deserts — places with minimal newspaper subscriptions, print or online — went for him in higher-than-expected numbers. In tight races with Clinton in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, the decline in local media could have made a decisive difference.

To assess how the decline in news subscriptions might have affected the presidential race, POLITICO made a county-by-county comparison of data from AAM. Almost all daily newspapers report their subscription numbers, print and online, to AAM for verification in order to sell to advertisers. (Some of the smallest outlets do not, though, including weekly publications.) After ranking the counties on subscription rates, POLITICO compared election results between counties with high and low subscription rates, and used regression analysis to determine the correlation between news circulation and election results.

Among the findings:

• Trump did better than Romney in areas with fewer households subscribing to news outlets but worse in areas with higher subscription rates: In counties where Trump’s vote margin was greater than Romney’s in 2012, the average subscription rate was only about two-thirds the size of that in counties where Trump did worse than Romney.

• Trump struggled against Clinton in places with more news subscribers: Counties in the top 10 percent of subscription rates were twice as likely to go for Clinton as those in the lowest 10 percent. Clinton was also more than 3.7 times as likely to beat former President Barack Obama’s 2012 performance in counties in the top 10 percent compared to those in the lowest 10 percent — the driest of the so-called news deserts.

• Trump’s share of the vote tended to drop in accordance with the amount of homes with news subscriptions: For every 10 percent of households in a county that subscribed to a news outlet, Trump’s vote share dropped by an average of 0.5 percentage points.

To many news professionals and academics who’ve studied the flow of political information, there’s no doubt that a lack of trusted local media created a void that was filled by social media and partisan national outlets. …

Starting in the 1970s, when the control of the nominating process shifted from party elites to primary-election voters, a common sight at rallies, conventions and debates was small groups of journalists, men and women, most of them having traveled in from Washington, gathering to compare observations. Together, they would decide what news had been made — which candidate handled himself better, which exchanges were the most relevant, which assertions were the most questionable.

In the days before the Internet, about a dozen news outlets dominated national political coverage. They included the major television networks, weekly news magazines, The Associated Press, and about a half-dozen newspapers. Wire services such as The New York Times News Service and The Washington Post-Los Angeles Times service sent out their articles to smaller papers across the country, guaranteeing vastly wider circulation for their stories.

There is a giant error here. (Actually more than one, but follow me for a bit.) To call an area — say, Ripon, where I used to live — a “news desert” because it doesn’t have a weekly newspaper is a gross misrepresentation. Ripon has a weekly newspaper, and an award-winning weekly newspaper at that. A lot of communities have award-winning weekly newspapers that are doing better in a business sense than the nearest daily newspaper.

In fact, across the newspaper industry weeklies are doing considerably better than dailies. Dailies face more competition for the advertising dollar (which is the majority of income for newspapers) than weeklies in smaller markets do, and often competition that relies on ad revenue for all of its revenue (radio and TV).

Dailies focus on the community whose name is in their masthead (i.e. the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), showing up in small towns only when there’s something they think is meaty. The weekly newspaper, meanwhile, covers things that don’t get the attention of the daily, such as school events, local sports, etc. The competently run weekly newspaper doesn’t focus on state or national issues except to the extent those issues affect their readers. So if Paul Ryan comes to town, they’ll cover Ryan, but they’re not going to write about politics beyond their market every week.

Chain ownership is a reality of journalism today, as it is in many fields of business. Though there is nothing innately wrong with chain ownership in the same way there is nothing innately wrong with ownership by a publicly traded company, chain ownership hasn’t worked out so well for daily newspaper readers. Gannett owns most of the daily newspapers east of the Interstate 39 corridor. None are considered quality newspapers (other than by themselves) except for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (and the JS certainly has its non-fans, which is probably a growing group, given the USA Today-ization of the Journal Sentinel). Gannett newspapers outside the Journal Sentinel run a page or two of news from the previous day’s edition of USA Today (which makes those pages USA Yesterday, actually two-day-old news, which should be unacceptable for a “daily” newspaper).

Other daily newspapers have made business decisions seemingly designed to alienate their audience. The Wisconsin State Journal decided to stop covering the southwestern part of the state at the same time the Dubuque Telegraph Herald stopped printing its own newspaper. So, you ask? The issue is that the TH’s print deadlines for a morning daily newspaper are the previous early afternoon, except for page 1 stories. Both the State Journal and the TH have simultaneously cut back on sports coverage in the area where they previously had overlap, reducing readers’ daily choices from two to none. Readers stop reading, or don’t start reading, due to (in their definition) bad product.

The Internet is a difficult problem for those who are used to getting customers to pay for their product. A lot of daily newspapers started putting their work online for free, and then discovered that people don’t like paying for something they used to get for free. The online model that seems to work best is to charge for the product but include it in a print subscription package, but a lot of daily newspapers haven’t figured that out.

The State Journal is the daily newspaper I grew up reading (starting at age 2, according to my parents, which did not compel the State Journal to hire me, not that I’m bitter or anything). It has been owned by Lee Newspapers for decades. State Journal readers if asked might say that the State Journal has gone backward in quality since Lee decided it wanted to buy bigger newspapers, such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that had increasing business problems. For all The Capital Times’ numerous faults, it was locally owned, and still is, though it is no longer a daily newspaper and still has those numerous faults.

Strange though this sounds, the Cap Times’ (as it calls itself now as a weekly tabloid) ending daily publication wasn’t a benefit to the State Journal’s non-liberal readers. The State Journal, both editorially and in its news coverage, has lurched leftward ever since then, while continuing to print Sunday screeds of editor Paul Fanlund and his predecessor, Dave Zweifel. The State Journal used to have a moderate-to-conservative editorial page, but that hasn’t been the case for years. (Similarly, the merger of the former Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel resulted in a generally slightly-less-than-liberal Journal Sentinel editorial page.)

What Politico terms “news deserts” are simply markets not large enough to support a daily newspaper. It’s pretty arrogant to assume that journalism occurs only in daily newspapers, but that’s one of the (often valid) criticisms of my line of work.

And speaking of that, David Harsanyi adds:

We’re now into our second year of theorizing about what went wrong in 2016, which is itself illustrative of the prejudice in much of political media. Most of these stories have nothing to do with Donald Trump’s policies or his behavior — topics well worth covering — and everything to do with creating the impression that the electoral process was dangerously flawed. Whether The Comey Letter swung the election or Fake News swung the election or Facebook data mining swung the election, there have been so many stories intimating that our democratic institutions have been subverted, that you sense certain people might be reluctant to accept the sanctity of the process.

I bring this up, because this week, a new Politico piece theorizes that a lack of “trusted news sources” in rural areas, rather than any particular issues, gave Donald Trump victory in 2016. It is perhaps the most unconvincing, inference-ridden, self-aggrandizing piece in the entire “What Went Wrong?” genre. The premise, basically, is that a lack of local media sources left a void that was filled by Donald Trump’s tweets and unreliable conservative sites, and that factor turned the 2016 election, “especially in states like Wisconsin, North Carolina and Pennsylvania,” where hapless Americans were unable to make educated choices without proper guidance from journalists.

“The results,” Shawn Musgrave and Matthew Nussbaum write, “show a clear correlation between low subscription rates and Trump’s success in the 2016 election, both against Hillary Clinton and when compared to Romney in 2012.” Setting aside the problem of correlational/causation and all that, every one of these stories is driven by the unstated notion that Clinton was predestined to win the 2016 election, and any other outcome means something went wrong. There’s simply no way, a year into Hillary’s presidency, that major outlets would be doing a deep dive into the viewing habits of urbanites to try and comprehend how they could have been crazy enough to elect her.

It’s true, the world is changing and also it is inarguable that places with larger populations that have the means to support local newspapers (like the scrappy New York Times) would be more inclined to vote for Clinton, while in rural areas where subscription-based outlets are more difficult to maintain, they would not not. Both these things are true. Yet, there is no data in the piece — despite nearly 4,000 words and a number of graphs to create a scientific veneer — offering any compelling evidence that the dynamics of a race would be altered if the Bedford Falls Examiner was still in business.

In the old days, we’re told, the local reliable church-going editor would run dispassionate stories from trustworthy sources.

In the days before the Internet, about a dozen news outlets dominated national political coverage. They included the major television networks, weekly news magazines, The Associated Press, and about a half-dozen newspapers. Wire services such as The New York Times News Service and The Washington Post-Los Angeles Times service sent out their articles to smaller papers across the country, guaranteeing vastly wider circulation for their stories.

For people who care about the news, larger papers and stations still exist, but they exist online. Rural Americans, like urban Americans, get most of their news online. They follow national trends in their news consumption. After decades of skewed coverage, they’ve become skeptical. But like other voters, they rarely alter their positions, and when they do seek out the news they seek our news that feeds their predominant political prejudices. You may not like that rural Republicans get their news from FOX and Sinclair rather than CNN and MSNBC, but that’s a matter of ideological taste.

It is almost also certainly true that Trump’s “relentless use of social media” had something to do with perceptions of his voters (his obsession with Hillary is another story.) But would his successful application of new media, once celebrated when the appropriate people won elections, been any less effective because there was a Washington Post wire story running in the local paper? Would Trump voters have traded in the MAGA hat for an “I’m with her” bumper sticker if they read Paul Krugman in their paper? This seems unlikely.

What’s far more plausible is that a combination of factors made Trump in 2016 a marginally more agreeable Republican candidate to rural voters than Mitt Romney in 2012. Or, perhaps, even more relevant, that Hillary Clinton was far less likeable, and had far less political acumen, than the candidate Romney faced in 2012, Barack Obama. But even without factoring in the personalities, comparing turnout and voting patterns in different years in the way Politico does is fraught with other problems. Americans are fickle, and national events, trends, local economic factors, and thousands of other variables can alter results, as well.

The idea that a lack of a local newspaper is a determinative factor in swinging enough people to turn a national election is probably a reflection of journalism’s self-importance and an inability to live with the idea that Americans could vote for Trump without being hoodwinked in some way. Because, let’s face it, Democrats never really lose an election, do they? If the Supreme Court isn’t stealing the presidency then propaganda outfits are weaponizing social media mindbots to control your vote or the Constitution is getting in the way of proper “democracy.” We’re going to keep doing this until Americans make the right choice.

Trump may or may not get reelected (or even run) in 2020. But daily newspapers have probably lost those Trump voters permanently, and that is the daily media’s own fault. Alienating vast numbers of paying customers is not a successful recipe for staying in business.

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