Wednesday, March 18, 2009

And you wonder why newspapers' fortunes are in the toilet

"Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We in the media don’t purposely shut down anyone not with a D or R after their names. We do want to encourage all candidates. But we do have a reality to face. How much space and effort should we devote to a candidate who legitimately has little or no chance of winning? Is that fair to our readers and the candidates? We do try to cover legitimate third-party candidates when we can. But Mr. Sundwall, until the last day or so, wasn’t on the ballot, so voters could not have voted for him. Mr. Cerro is not on the ballot at all and didn’t try to get on it. How much coverage should they expect? If you can’t generate a lot of support, then why should the media be expected to devote a lot of time to your candidacies? This forum was supposed to be about negative ads and their impact, so we’ll go back to that now. But I just wanted to explain a little bit of our position." -Post-Star editorial page director Mark Mahoney on a forum.

His words. Not mine.

To summarize:

They can't afford "much space and effort" to candidates they've arbitrarily decided have "little or no chance of winning" (because calling up Eric Sundwall and asking him a few questions would take a ton of time). But they do have resources to run fluff pieces of Tedisco with his dog and of Murphy eating dinner with his family as well as a piece on the "flap" about what Murphy wrote 20 years ago when he was a teenager.

They don't "purposely shut down" smaller party and independent candidates. They just choose not to give them any coverage.

They do "want to encourage all candidates." They do this by only covering the major party candidates.

Thanks for that clarification.

Actually this is one of the useful things about the paper's forums. It allows you to draw out the editors and goad them into actually saying what we all know they're thinking.

Note: What Mahoney and the paper's managing editor Ken Tingley would contend that their bias against smaller party and independent candidates is standard practice in the corporate media. Tingley said exactly that to me an email -- which, for ethical reasons, I won't publish or quote from. Given the well-documented troubles of the print media, is this really the right time for The Post-Star or any other newspaper to be content with just following the herd? Ultimately, newspapers that continue to fail to provide distinctive, useful information like this that readers want will remain in the herd as it waltzes off the edge of the cliff. Unlike many bloggers, I wouldn't welcome this one bit. But no one could say it wasn't self-inflicted.

13 comments:

Mark Mahoney said...

I wasn't goaded into anything. Occasionally, I forget that it's pointless to try to explain things to some people and I go ahead and try anyway. Here's the explanation I used with a prominent person who runs a local bakery: He's got popular breads that a lot of people like, and he's got flavors of bread that only a few people like. Will he, in the interest of fairness to all breads, stock the same amount of each bread and display each with equal prominence in his tiny display window? Or will he stock and more prominently display the breads most that the majority of his customers are likely to buy? If only 1 or 5 or 10 percent of voters favor a candidate, why would we be obliged to give that candidate 33 percent of the coverage? It makes no sense. It's not our responsibility to help make a candidate popular with voters. If they can't do it on their own, they don't warrant us giving them space in our paper.

Brian said...

Mark,
Thanks for your comments. There are many ways I could respond, but it would be long-winded and a repetition of many previous essays (which I can link to if you're interested). And I suspect this will be rambling enough. I won't repeat points about the self-fulfilling prophecy nature of your premise. Instead, I will focus on a couple of points you made that I haven't addressed before.

You could have even used the obstacles faced by Sundwall to editoralize in favor of ballot access liberalization, in favor of real democratization. You could've pointed out the legitimacy he has after having to convince 7,000 ordinary citizens that he deserves a chance in contract to Tedisco and Murphy who only had to convince literally a few party bosses. You could have made the links between the lack of real democracy in NYS and many of the other ills you properly decry such as out of control spending and closed government (both positions you share with Sundwall incidentally).

Instead, you basically blame him for the system that's rigged against non-Democrats and -Republicans. He was too busy fighting just to be on the ballot so it's his own fault he hasn't raised enough campaign bribes to run ads to raise his popularity to the point where he can get coverage. He hasn't gotten enough paid publicity so you won't give him any free publicity. How does that serve the public?

You want to know why so many people don't vote (another fact your editorials decry). It's because so many people feel disenfranchised by the system. And you are part of the cause. This is why newspapers are failing all over the country: they're not providing the information that people want. Contrary to what you may think, I DON'T want the Post-Star to disappear. As flawed as it is, it has the potential to provide a great service to the community. I spend 50 cents every day in the hopes that maybe it will do that. I don't want it to fail. I want it to get better. I live here. I grew up here. I want something that's going to serve our community in the way it deserves.

I've been to the local bakery. Although it doesn't claim a public service role for its sales, it does give their breads equal prominence. There aren't any breads that are given two or three racks. Thus, the local baker can easily measure which breads are popular and which breads are not by what sells. Because they are all given equal prominence, he can assess this in an accurate manner. The baker lets the consumer make up his own mind without manipulation. The baker treats his customers with respect. That's why his business is improving. A model to follow, if you ask me.

***
But here's my key point:
You ask why newspapers should cover things that only a tiny percentage care about. You do that all the time! I've heard that only about 20 pct of newspaper readers actually read the sports section. Ken Tingley says the most anger-provoking thing the paper does is to change the comics. How many people complain about that? I'm sure it's a tiny fraction of circulation.
What percentage of the circulation do the Sudoku? What percentage read the obits? What percentage care about the Johnsburg-Bolton soccer result or read the points spread? Do you plan to slash any of these sections based on their small minority status? I certainly doubt it.

What about sports? Coverage of the Red Wings and the UHL team didn't disappear as attendances dwindled. If management couldn't make the team popular on their own, why did you give them space in your paper?

There are about 1200 who live in the town of Thurman. Even if all of them read The Post-Star and even if every one of them cares about the fate of their former town supervisor, that still represents only a tiny fraction of the paper's circulation. But you still cover the story because it serves a part of your readership, even if it's a small part.

Judging from the forums as PS.com, I bet there are at least 1200 people in your readership that would like a 3rd option for Congress.

You cover things like the John Haskell story even though it only a small percentage of the readership cares because it's the right thing to do. You know what the right thing to do is. You just have to be a more consistent in following your own standards.

semi234 said...

Mark,

That is not the position your paper has argued in the past.

Your paper has always justified not covering 3rd Party canidates because "they do not have a realistic shot at winning."

Is this now your paper's new official policy?

You now no longer cover 3rd party canidates because they don't warrant the coverage.

& you know this by how exactly, by looking at the voter results that only happen (usually) less than once a year?

Give me a break.

Let's just call it for what it is. Your paper's sole focus is to make money. This is fine but to tell us that a great majority of us do not care what a 3rd party canidates has to say is a complete load of malarky.

Mark Wilson said...

Wow. I think the editorial writer for the Post-Star just equated the very essence of our pluralistic democracy to baked goods as viewed through his "tiny" window. If I thought less of Mr. Mahoney's capabilities, I'd have dismissed his metaphor as a hallmark of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Post Star editorial board and/or management, instead of a poor attempt at humor, or the mental miscue of an overburdened journalist.

Elections are not just about candidates and probable outcome, but about ideas as well. New ideas always enter the debate from outside the bell-curved comfort zone of the voting public (often from third party candidates). But they are essential to keeping the principal parties from devolving back into the ideological equivalent of primordial ooze (or, in keeping with Mr. Mahoney's half-baked metaphor, Wonder Bread). Surely a man of Mr. Mahoney's calibre understands this.

In a race that is competing with no other political story for the attention of the newspaper's talented political reporter, it is preposterous to argue that resources are too attenuated to cover the positions of the (only) two outside candidates who are investing their energy, their money and their personal and professional reputations into keeping the democratic process healthy. Whether or not they are officially on the ballot.

The extent to which the Post-Star has gone to erect false barriers to democratic debate suggests a narrowness of mind that is no credit to the proud legacy of American newspaper journalism. That, or a terribly low regard for its readers' capacity to judge facts on their own merit. Either way, it is a genuine shame to see the Post-Star so thoroughly abandon its civic responsibility.

J. Sullivan said...

Brian,

I think there must be some kind of rare astronomical conjuunction.

I can't remember a time when I agreed with you more. I'd give credit to Mr. Mahoney for coming here to defend his words. But, as your response demonstrated, his explanation holds little water.

It's unfortunate that I have to keep telling people at work they have other choices besides Tedisco and Murphy. They read the Post-Star everyday and, hence, haven't got a clue.

On a better note, I've seen Sundwall getting some press from Capital News 9.

But if the local papers with their dubious election Letters to the Editor don't even mention a candidate, well...

And the people that write those Election Letters to the Editor; Who are they? Are they just regular people? Are they prodded by the campaign as loyal attack dogs getting free coverage?

Nothing makes me hate the Editorial Page more than Election time. Out go the interesting letters, in come the campaign ads.

Sorry to digress.

Brian said...

Jim,
It's no digression at all. It's very much on point.

When I was a college journalist, we were taught that some of the most basic premises of the craft were trying to get all sides of a story, fairness and reporting news rather than influencing it. Granted, that was 15 years ago but are these things no longer standard journalistic practice?

Frankly, it amazes me that journalists and editors will bend over backward to convince people that they are not biased against Democrats or that they're not biased against Republicans, but will admit without any shame whatsoever that they are biased against smaller party and independent candidates. Why is one bias unacceptable but the other perfectly reasonable in their eyes?

Anonymous said...

I was going to ask what conditions your district has in regards to getting your name on the ballot. 7,000 signatures you say? Then he certainly need press coverage if he will ever obtain that number of signatures. The paper is clearly in the wrong here then, and trapping Sundwall in a catch-22.
It's much easier to get the nod of a pary boss then get 7,000 of your closest friends to sign a petition.

Brian said...

Mark: Actually the number he legally needs is around 3500. However, he knew that Democrat and/or Republican hacks were trying to get him knocked off the ballot by getting enough of his signatures disqualified for bogus reasons. This happened to him in 2006. In fact, this would be a great story for the Post-Star to cover. This happens all the time in NYS and one can only speculate why they don't cover this scandalous behavior. As a result, Sundwall collected twice as many signatures as necessary to account for such disgraceful anti-democratic action. He was able to do this with virtually no press coverage whatsoever, which shows that he has some support. Any fair-minded a analysis will conclude that yes, it is a catch-22.

Editorial Staff said...

Amazing Mahoney! Keep unpopular ideas in the dark! Don't let new or untested ideas into the light!

I have to wonder what value the paper has when it so blatantly corrupts the political system. Maybe we are too used to saying that we want the Post-Star to survive for some fantasy journalistic altruism. Maybe we should take Mark Mahoney's advice - if so few people read the Post Star that it can't keep its corporate owners in sufficient wealth, it must be time to bid it farewell.

Brian said...

John,
I take your point. The PS has never been a great paper but when I started reading it in high school, it was a pretty good paper. It started going downhill about a little over a decade ago (this was even before I became a 'third party' person) and that decline has accelerated in the last few years. The reason I would rather it revive itself is because of the paucity of other options for local news. TV8 pretty much just rips off stories from the newspaper. Public radio covers too broad a listening area to do much on the Warren, Washington, Saratoga counties area. Commercial radio doesn't do news at all. The Chronicle is good for arts and culture but largely irrelevant for news. The Hill Country Observer is excellent but it's only monthly. The PS may be a poor example of journalism but it's all we got. What's even more frustrating is that it could offer good journalism if it wanted because sometimes it does. That said, I'm not sure how to make this change happen. I figure if I pay 50 cents (most days) for it, I might have a tiny bit of leverage with the brain trust. I've already cancelled my subscription. But is my 50 cents a day simply subsidizing mediocrity and giving them the excuse to put off the hard decisions that might actually get it going in the right direction? If I starve it of my 50 cents, will it reform or will it die? I figure at least for now, I'll try to convince the braintrust to make the decisions that will serve both the interest of the community and their own self-interest (bottom line). You know, give them the benefit of the doubt and try to engage them. But given the complete closed-mindedness and hostility shown to me and others by Mark Mahoney and Ken Tingley, I'm very pessimistic. I contrast this with how Brian Mann at NCPR seems to have taken the feedback he sought into account. NCPR's coverage of the 20th CD race certainly isn't perfect but Mann has shown himself willing to listen to feedback from its audience and augment its coverage. Not because he takes orders from his audience but because they gave him a point of view maybe he hadn't thought about, he considered it with an open mind rather than rejecting it knee jerk defensively and adjusted his work accordingly based on his own journalistic judgment. That's a far better strategy for survival, if you ask me.

Matt Funiciello said...

Well, the problem with Mahoney's argument about bread is simple ...

When I put a NEW bread out in the marketplace, I do so enthusiastically. I give that bread shelf space and promotion and am arguably "fairer" top it than the other more established breads so the public will try it out before deciding for itself.

Then, this new bread is relegated to holding its own against the others, sale per sale.

Mahoney's argument makes almost no sense at all to me. He is saying that when you bake a new bread, you should leave it in the back room and wait for it to show that it has developed an audience before giving it any shelf space at all.

I'm awfully glad that he's not running my bakery!

Editorial Staff said...

Well put Matt -

I'm getting tired of trying to help these boneheads understand. As Mahoney put it in his first comment - "Occasionally, I forget that it's pointless to try to explain things to some people and I go ahead and try anyway."

What really gets me is these guys make one response to a criticism, pretend we're all ignorant or obsessed and then walk away when it's been clearly demonstrated that their analysis is wrong.

They're probably too busy with the crime blotters.

Brian said...

John,
I agree with you. But what I find even more incomprehensible is their insistence that it's all okay because that's what everyone else in the mainstream media does. The question is this. There's been much handwringing about the fate of newspapers. So if you can see the herd waltzing off a cliff before your very eyes, wouldn't you at least have second thoughts about following that herd? This is one of those neat circumstances where the public interest and their own self-interest intersect. If you had a shrinking paying readership, why would you choose to ignore, nay actively alienate, a not-insignificant portion of that paying readership?