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Do newspapers matter? Can we prove it?

The trajectory of your home-town newspaper over the last 20 years probably hasn’t been upward. As the chart above suggests, starting even before the rise of the internet, major daily newspapers have steadily seen their audience erode (and possibly die, literally). Pew has covered the dissolution of the newspaper industry in great detail over the years, notably in annual reports on the state of the news media. It’s probable that this isn’t news to you…on the other hand, if you’re one of the many who doesn’t read a paper anymore, maybe it is.

Anyways, over the past few years many voices in the public sphere have bemoaned the collapse of newspapers. Paul Starr wrote convincingly of a looming problem with corruption. Clay Shirky wrote about their doom. Even the FCC lumbered onto the scene with a take on how to inform communities in the future. But should we really care about the decline of newspapers? Are they actually important? At this point, if so few people are reading them, does it matter if they exist? Isn’t the internet better at delivering information than mashed up dead trees?

For whatever reason, there is very little empirical, scholarly research that indicates that newspapers actually matter. A smattering of projects over the years have shown a correlational relationship between newspaper readership and various outcomes: voting in a local election, knowing more about local politics, having greater civic responsibility. But this work is only correlational — not causal; in other words, it shows that newspaper readership and various local civic/political outcomes are related, but it doesn’t show that newspapers cause any of these outcomes (like knowledge gains). What’s the problem? How could people learn about local politics if not from newspapers? By attending city council meetings? Who does that? Maybe it’s just hard to measure the importance of newspapers because they have been so pervasive…

Until now. Now, newspapers are falling from their perch at the center of local civic/political life. In fact, some of them are just disappearing entirely.

Which is terrible. But also, an opportunity.

Accordingly, I’ve been working on a research project that uses the closure of two newspapers, the Rocky Mountain News from Denver and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, to search for empirical evidence of the civic/political effect of newspapers upon their communities. The project isn’t done yet, but if you click through you can see some preliminary results.

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Strangely enough, I was on local Portland TV a couple weeks ago. The NBC affiliate here was looking to do a story on the roll-out of Google’s new privacy policy (see below), and they came to PSU for some ‘expert’ commentary. My phone rang, and 30 minutes later reporter+cameraman were in my office, filming. I don’t think I was chosen for any specific reason — certainly not because I’ve published on Google in the (distant) past. That said, I do have some familiarity with Google’s privacy policies so I tried to serve up some pithy, punchy quotes for the folks at home. Wish I’d been looking up towards the camera, but as the saying goes, any press is good press…

1/24/2011: The Day Google became MicroFlix

Wait, what’s this? I’ve woken from my blog stupor? Was I having a good dream? Hard to say, but I know that the first thing I read this morning didn’t make me feel good: Google’s new ‘privacy’ policy.

So, tech companies change their privacy policies all the time — no big deal. But this time? When Google announced that it’s integrating its data on users across virtually all of their services, whether you like it or not, across any device? They’ve gone too far for me. This time, I’m actually doing something about it. So what’s the problem? Well, Google claims it is supportive of data freedom — but their offer to people who might not want every search they make, from every location, associated with their phone number & social network profile is pretty ugly: take it all, or leave it. Either use all of Google, or nothing.

Basically, this reminds me of two ugly tech management episodes of recent history:

  1. Microsoft’s decision to force Internet Explorer on the public by virtue of its monopoly in operating system.
  2. Netflix’s decision to abruptly tell consumers what their service should be & would be — regardless of how consumers felt about Netflix.

What are the parallels?  To me, Google’s new policy sounds like a monopolist exercising unfair market power — just like Microsoft in the browser wars. Like Netflix, this policy is completely declarative: we know what’s best for you, the consumer, and you’re gonna love it. So take it & shut up.

Really? Well, no matter how many billions Larry & Sergey have, how many happy Googlers ride their wifi buses from SF to Mountain View, or what the share price is: I, the consumer, get to decide whether my privacy is worth a spell check that knows how to correct my friends’ names. Wait…I like my privacy more.

If Google really cared about ‘privacy’, then it would let me, the consumer, make my choices about how data about me is aggregated (even if I can’t really control how that data is sold or used down the line). They’d let me do this by having a panel that allowed/disallowed data across products and devices. Most people wouldn’t do anything with that control, but I would. Instead? They try to cram a policy that is clearly very lucrative for them (the holy grail of market research: your life in a database) down my throat — and call it a spoonful of sugar. Give. Me. A. Break.

Do I think Google is evil & wants to violate my privacy? Not really — but I think the company is making an arrogant miscalculation: that it knows what’s best for me better than I do. And that’s just wrong.

So, guess what? Google has this achilles heal: something like 90% of its revenue comes from search ads. And guess what? Those ads are especially lucrative on mobile devices.

I love many Google services — which is why leaving entirely isn’t really an option. But you know what I can do?

Disable Google Search on my iPhone. Settings/Safari/Search Engine: Bing. Bing is now my search option in Firefox too: all you have to do is click the little icon next to the search window & select a new provider. Bye-bye! Bing is a totally viable alternative for knowing whether or not Drive got any Oscar nominations — I lost no utility, Google loses a key piece of info, Google loses its cash cow.

That’s my message here — and I wonder if other users will react similarly. Netflix felt the backlash that happens at warp speed these days last summer, will Google? My sense is they should — declarative and creepy policies like this shoul make people feel uncomfortable, and this should lead to pushback. And one wonders, when does this gorilla-in-the-segment behavior attract real antitrust attention?

Alright — gotta go teach 160 folks about mass media. (Wonder what I’ll say about Google today…)



goin’ lumberjack: making my own live-edge hardwood desk

This project started with three ideas.

1. I’m moving to Portland.

2. In Portland, they’ve got wood.

3. In Portland, I’ll need a desk.

So, without really thinking anything through, I found Urban Hardwood Recovery online and emailed Tyler, the owner. After he gave me an idea of hardwood pricing & convinced me that making a desk wasn’t crazy (even for somebody who has no woodworking skills), I decided to go to his warehouse in Aurora, OR.

In Aurora, I found Toby J’s Wood Art. And at Toby’s, I found a huge selection of wood. After looking over the wood & assessing my budget, I decided that I could afford to build my own live edge hardwood desk.

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tying up loose ends

I just uploaded a new article that I’ve had accepted in Public Opinion Quarterly. The article – Local Political Knowledge and Assessments of Citizen Competence – has been working its way through conceptualization (procrastination) for a very long time now. But, in the midst of lots of upheaval, it is now ready for its global debut.

The basic gist of the piece is simple: sweeping assessments of the American public’s political competence are skewed by not considering local politics. Different issues resonate with different (groups of) citizens, and accordingly political knowledge is spread unequally throughout the population. Political scientists typically study national politics, and based on analyses of national political knowledge there is a certain perspective of the competence of the American electorate: it isn’t very competent. Beyond that overarching conclusion, the general view is that the people most likely to be competent are high SES white men.

My piece seeks to present a more rounded view of competence, by assessing it in the context of both local and national knowledge. When this is done, it appears that the American electorate as a whole may be slightly more competent than typically thought. And, certain groups that are often thought to be less competent (women, minorities) may just be less knowledgeable about national politics — not all political matters. So, it’s a slightly more optimistic (and balanced) analysis of citizen competence.


making moves: into sociology (and beyond)

A Katrina article (conceived in 2006, written in 2007, published in 2010) that I worked on is still kickin’! Just heard from a friend-of-a-friend that it showed up a sociology magazine this month? From Contexts, a quarterly publication from the American Sociological Association:

Ben-Porath and Shaker believe the inclusion of a victim photo is a classic example of priming. The photos made white respondents sort of “forget” structural forces and think more abstractly about the person in the picture. Although this loss of critical analysis didn’t hold for all groups, this research reminds us that presentation can change interpretations.

I would say that the contribution of the article is, in part, exactly that the “loss of critical analysis” doesn’t hold for all groups — this sort of illustrates the relative strength of the framing effect. Framing matters, but sometimes you run into real, firmly held beliefs and a little manipulation like switching a photograph can’t alter these convictions.

It’s always interesting to see who finds your work & what they do with it. Along these lines, a friend recently sent me a link to Google Scholar’s new citation tool. The tool isn’t perfect, but it does allow you to quickly & easily tab articles that you’ve written and then peruse articles that have cited them. It picks up some noise and misses lots of signal, I’m sure — but possibly worth a click or two.

more coverage…

More coverage of the Political Behavior Sex & Race scandal article – this time from The Monkey Cage. They don’t say much, but it’s pretty cool to have the gist excerpted on their (much more widely read!) blog. Thanks!

They do point out that this article is ‘timely’ given the recent Weinergate brouhaha. Certainly, the article came out on basically the same day as John Edwards’ indictment – something that had some bizarro symmetry in my eyes. That said, I hadn’t really thought much of this article in reference to Rep. Weiner, but… It seems like no matter when you publish an article about politics & sexual scandals, if it’s in a quarterly publication, there’s bound to be some sort of scandalous dust-up that falls into that same 3-month window. So, pretty much no matter what, you’re guaranteed to be timely!

Finally: a way to dodge the time-lag problem of academic journals: publish on an evergreen topic. You know, like sex scandals involving politicians…


in the news!

This would be a regular, boring update: a couple articles that I wrote / co-wrote have migrated from my harddrive into print. One, in Political Behavior, examines the relationship between race, sex, and scandals in politics. One, in Newspaper Research Journal, explores the function of community newspapers in local political campaigns. (Versions of both articles can be found by clicking through to the articles page on this site.)

Of course I’m happy to see these articles enter the public domain. But what I’m really happy about is news coverage – OMG, I’m kind of in the Boston Globe! OK, well, if you scroll down for a bit there’s a blurb about the Political Behavior article on boston.com which mentions the first (alphabetically speaking) author by name. So I’m almost mentioned, almost in print, most of the way through the story. But hey, this qualifies as big coverage for an academic article – I’m et al! I’m breaking out of the ivory tower! (Or my home office, as it were.) Anyways, to save you the trouble, I’ve excerpted the blurb below. But, if you feel bad about taking ad revenue away from Boston journalism, you can still click through here.

Sex scandals and race In 2011, we take it for granted that Barack Obama and John Edwards have led very different political lives, but, just a few years ago, this was not the case. Edwards and Obama were upstanding family men, of similar age, both lawyers, both senators, both liberal Democrats, and both seen as charismatic seekers of the presidency. Their most obvious difference was race. Taking advantage of this juxtaposition, political scientists polled a national sample of whites before the 2008 presidential primaries to test reactions to a news story about a fictitious sex scandal involving one or the other candidate (this came before revelations about Edwards’s actual infidelity). When the news story didn’t mention race — except that the candidates were pictured next to two white women — Obama lost more approval than Edwards and was judged as more liberal, especially among politically interested and racially resentful whites. When the news story did mention race, there was no difference in how much approval each candidate lost.

Berinsky, A. et al., “Sex and Race: Are Black Candidates More Likely to be Disadvantaged by Sex Scandals?” Political Behavior (June 2011).


Bah! Had to take this blog offline for a couple weeks til I could find the time to clean out the Levitra spam. I haven’t found a new money-making scheme, I’m not shilling pills – I just let my blog get hacked. Maybe this explains why I wasn’t raptured over the weekend…

Anyways, as you see the site is back online, hopefully somewhat more secure. For now, it’s free of spam links — but some of the page formatting is off as well. Sorry ’bout that.

Newspapers Turning the Corner?

David Carr has a nice piece in today’s NY Times about the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In short, the paper has recently posted some increases in circulation (partly fueled by a Groupon!) and actually made enough money to distribute profit sharing checks to its employees. A feel good story for Carr – who is from Minnesota – and the publisher Michael Klingensmith, a local kid done good in NYC who came home to run the paper. Extrapolating from this one piece, the gist is that maybe, just maybe, newspapers have a future & that the business is stablizing. There are definitely people out there paying for print papers. There are even more people reading the content online. And there are still challenges (getting revenue from the digital audience) in front of papers. But, after dramatic layoffs and some bankruptcies, maybe papers have ‘right-sized’ (oh, management speak) their way to a tenable position. In the Star Tribune’s case, the equation is this:

…at the start of 2010, $500 million in debt had been reduced to $100 million in the reorganization, costs were way down because of the cuts, and revenues from both advertising and circulation had begun to crawl back.

To my eyes, that $400 million reduction in debt is huge: Wall Street (often via private equity buyouts and other M&As) saddled newspapers with ridiculous debt loads that made their financial positions hopeless. Dialing this debt back dramatically changes the equation – hopefully papers in places like Philly that have also gone through bankruptcies will be as adept as the Star Tribune at capitalizing on their new opportunities…