Friday, February 27, 2009

Newspaper Trends

If not for the fine folks at the Pew Center I'd be stuck on some days for something to post. They come through again.

The chart at the right shows the trend over the past two years from print to online. According to the report:
Overall newspaper readership declined in spite of an increase in the number of people reading online newspapers: 14% of Americans said they read a newspaper online yesterday, up from 9% in 2006. This includes those who said they read
only a newspaper online (9% in 2008), as well as those who said they read both print and Web versions of a newspaper (5%). These numbers may not include the number of people who read content produced by newspapers, but accessed through aggregation sites or portals such as Google or Yahoo.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

When Things Get Bad

From the Good News, Bad News desk, a lousy economy may be bad for business, even the journalism business, and yet, and yet ...

Here's this from a recent Pew report:
Americans continue to follow news about the economic crisis closely because they feel it is directly relevant to their lives. More than eight-in-ten (85%) say even when the economic news is bad they feel better knowing what’s going on, while 77% say they need to stay on top of economic news because it matters in the financial decisions they make.

In other words, when things go to hell, people go to the news. Sounds great, right?

The second graf arrives like a needle in the eye:
At the same time, close to half (46%) of the public says they often feel they don’t have enough background information to follow economic news stories ...

Rut roh.

So people care. A lot. It's their lives we're talking about here, they're friggin economic existence. The opportunities are there, news people. But the way we tend to tell news stories, especially economic news stories, often don't work -- at least in print. TV does this pretty well, especially CNN, in helping the average person understand not only what the hell is going on but also what it means to them personally

Other news providers, especially newspapers in dead-tree or online, need to think hard about how to make this work.

More on this later, especially on a set of famous experiments that demonstrate how we tell a story about economic conditions can influence who people blame for problems.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Who Killed the Newspaper?
A Detective Story

My captain called me at the bar where I nursed a bourbon and thought of getting out of the cop business.

“Got a case for you,” he said. “Get to the hospital.”

“Not the morgue?”

“Not yet.”

The victim lay unconscious in a hospital bed. She was oatmeal gray and bruised like an old banana. Murphy looked down at his notepad. “Age unknown. Multiple blows to the head and body. No witnesses.” He closed his pad. Murphy was never one for small talk.

Someone, maybe a nurse, had tried a little blush on the gray lady’s face to liven her up. Maybe she’d been pretty years ago, but the color made her garish and sad.

Years of detective work had taught me to check out family first. Murphy cut me off. “No husband or boyfriend,” he said. “She does have a crazy uncle who plays music and talks to himself, full of conspiracy theories and such.”

I knew the guy. He couldn’t shoot himself with a loaded gun.

“And she has a niece,” Murphy added. “Maybe you’ve seen her – too much makeup, kinda loud and full of herself. Supposedly she called the victim every morning to find out what she was supposed to say that day. Pretty, but not too bright.”

I knew the type.

Neither had alibis, but my gut told me to look elsewhere.

Yeah, I knew the old lady. She’s a tough old broad who’d been whacked around for years and still she got up for more. The doc said she might last the night. Maybe. But when I asked him if she’d ever fully recover, he just shook his head.

I headed out the door. There was another family member, one Murphy didn’t know about.

The kid, they call him. I’d seen him hanging around wearing these stupid goggles and sucking Mountain Dew. Works people, a real connector. You looking to buy? He’ll find a seller. Need companionship? He can help. He did it all, this guy, services others used to do, but he does it for less. But I didn’t think he was my guy. He might have handed someone the baseball bat, but he didn’t swing. Not his style. Mostly he just put people together, skimmed a little off the top, and moved on to the next big thing.

I had a bigger someone else in mind.

Problem was, investigating The Fat Man was dangerous business. He had cops on the payroll, and word was even the chief got a weekly overstuffed envelope with his morning latte. He’d tried a few times to reel me in, but I always found a way to wriggle free. I’m either lucky or stupid that way.

So someone had bashed the old lady enough times that it finally mattered. Motive and opportunity, that’s the detective mantra, and plenty had motive. Politicians around the city never liked her much, but she always held her own with those sleazeballs. Some local business types, they sat around their chamber and complained, but kill someone? Bad for business, plus they didn’t have the guts.

No, only The Fat Man fit the profile.

I worked my snitches until one finally spilled that The Fat Man had mishandled the old lady’s finances to the point where even he found himself in debt to the wrong people. You know the kind. Late with a payment? We’ll take a finger to remind you of your debt obligations.

The Fat Man kept a place downtown, off Wall Street. The guy had his own obligations to people he owed money and to those grown comfortable by being on his dole. Everyone expects their 20 percent of the action and The Fat Man always found ways to provide it. Word was he’d put a lot of people down along the way, left them hurting, all to service debts he never should have rang up in the first place.

Maybe the old lady finally said no to him. Or more likely he figures he can kill her off, press his case for any insurance money, sell off her belongings.

So I headed downtown.

When I got there, the place was buzzing with fire fighters, flames shooting out of his fancy office. The place smelled like burned paper.

Murphy leaned against a wall, scribbling in his pad. He looked up at me. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said, “that the bad guy got what he deserved.”

That’s how stories are supposed to end. Too bad they never do.

Turned out The Fat Man sucked all he could out of the old lady, took his cash overseas to a country club in China or India.

The fire?

Murphy shrugged and tossed a match to the pavement.

“Sometimes people just need a good show.”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

In the "I couldn't say it better myself" category, a blog (and reference to magazine article) about the death of newspapers.

Really. If you hate political corruption, or love newspapers, or both, read this.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Congressmen Know

Comparisons between the economic mess now and The Great Depression are nothing new, but a GOP congressman shows just how much history he knows this week when he blamed President Franklin Roosevelt for the Depression.

According to history scholar U.S. Rep. Steve Austria of Ohio:

"When (President Franklin) Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression," Austria told the Dispatch as he criticized the economic stimulus package currently moving through Congress. "He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That's just history."

Um, no. That's not history. Alert, brainiac -- the Depression started in 1929. Roosevelt took office in January of 1933. Listen to his comments.

Alert number 2: "Freshman Congressman Steve Austria conceded today that President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not cause the Great Depression."


Okay, so our history major is a Republican and Roosevelt was a Democrat whose Fair Deal looks similar to what Obama is trying. Clearly there are politics at play here, so much so that this guy let his political predispositions get in the way of clear thinking. Even regular people do this -- misspeaking to make a political point, even if a bad one, remembering things in ways that fit our predispositions. This guy just gets to be the ass of the week.
Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, start your engines...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

When Knowledge Items Go Bad

I'm working with a large data set now that includes several measures of political knowledge. One set of questions gets at what people know of the two candidates (their religion, state of residence, demographic stuff). The Cronbach's Alpha for this index is not great, about .55. An index of standard political knowledge items such as how long is a U.S. senator's term, how many times can a president be elected, standard textbook civics class stuff, that is only .60 or so. Not good.

But questions about the candidates stands on issues, that alpha is awful, somewhere between .40 and .50 depending on which items I use. These are way too low and, to be honest, unexplainable.

Oh it gets better. These indices, created quick and dirty to peek under the hood of my data, don't line up at all with my key independent variable. And dammit they should. This is a great theory with the data getting in the way (I'll discuss more fully at another time, closer to subbing this thing to a journal). Basically, there should some relationship here.

I've blown two long afternoons on massive data recoding and analysis, triple checking all my recodes.

I shoulda been a plumber. Named Joe.

Monday, February 16, 2009

National Priorities

What do people name as the top national priority? You're thinking, "Aha! Trick question! It's so obvious!"

No trick. Just like you guessed, it's the economy. A CBS News/NYTimes poll had 60 percent of adults nationwide saying the economy is, to borrow from CNN, job #1.

In second place? Other.

I don't know what the hell other is, given the long list of topics scoring from 2 or 3 percent. In that list you've got stuff like war in Iraq, family values, education, health care, poverty, and the ever-popular "unsure." Given the margin of error, there is a huge tie for second among nine different topics.

Other recent surveys show largely the same thing -- economy first, a host of other issues tied at a distant second. What people know out there is that things are bad, getting worse, and there's not an overload of confidence in government's ability -- Democratic or Republican -- to fix the mess. Sometimes political knowledge comes down to direct experience, and I'm betting average people out there have a hell of a lot more direct experience with job loss and tough economic times than do the suits in D.C. of either party.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Emotion and Political Information Seeking

Does strong affect (emotion) influence political information seeking? Yes, according to a study in the journal Political Psychology. But in mixed ways.

Several emotions appeared to increase campaign interest, with anxious, angry, and enthusiastic subjects saying they were more interested in the presidential race and would pay more attention as compared to those in a control group. Okay. Makes sense. And now the BUT of the study. "However, all three emotional states led subjects to take less time looking for information that was made available to them."

In other words, manipulating emotion led to them saying they'd seek out more info, but in reality they didn't.

A second experiment by Valentino and his colleagues gets at one point I'd like to discuss briefly, that anger did not "enhance the quantity or quality of information seeking" nor did it aid in learning.

Think about this in terms of TV and radio shows hosted by people who do little more than generate anger toward "the other side" in a debate. That emotional response, these experiments suggest, leads to no additional information seeking. In other words -- pissed off people don't look for more info on a topic. That's bad. That's bad for democracy, that's bad for news, that's bad for the people who let themselves get angry and it's bad that hosts use anger as a tool and play a role in getting people to not seek out additional information.

How Smart Are Americans?

A Newsweek poll asked Americans a series of questions and tells us what we know and what we don't know. It's from the summer but still interesting. Somehow I missed it.

Examples: Three-fourths of Americans couldn't name the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and over half couldn't name the Speaker of the House. All in all, sad.

Thanks to Karen Russell for pointing me to this one.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What People know, via Twitter

The fine folks at Pew have a new survey out that describes the growth of services like Twitter, which is basically an update service where, in 140 characters or less, you can share what you're up to, or comment about breaking news, or even describe what's happening. If you haven't tried Twitter, do it.

Twitter has not been terribly successful as a news tool, but I suspect it'll improve. I already get updates from the daily student newspaper on campus. I also get updates from lots of friends and students and faculty -- some interesting, some not so much.

Stories come off a bit petty and sophomoric via Twitter, and the more serious the story, the less it seems to work. In part this is the medium, in part we haven't learned how to send info in this manner. I think it really works on breaking news or commentary as news is breaking -- at least from a news standpoint, in what people know or learn. But at its heart it's a social networking shared experience for the truly narcissistic or deeply connected, meaning I check it a couple of times a day.

Do people learn from Tweets (those individual Twitter posts)? As yet to be studied, though my semi-educated hunch is no, you don't really learn from a public affairs and political knowledge standpoint. Then again, that's not why it was created. I look forward to studies on this.

Oh, and the best uses of Twitter received awards. See here.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Starbucks or McDonald's

The fine folks at Pew have done it again, a neat analysis of political ideology and its relationship to whether you'd rather live in a place with more Starbucks or more McDonald's.
Somewhere online I remember a map that showed the correlation of Starbucks and McDonald's franchises, but I can't find it now. But there is this, which shows the two companies taking over the world. And here's a neat one of New York broken down by locations of the two franchises.
Here's a fun line from the Pew study:
Where to start? Well, ever heard the phrase: "latte-drinking liberal"? Evidently there's something to it. Among self-described liberals, Starbucks carries the day, 46%-33%. Among conservatives, McDonald's prevails, 50%-28%. Moderates, you guessed it, fall in between: McDonald's draws 44% and Starbucks 37%.
Me? Not a huge fan of Starbucks. They over roast their coffee, and the new stuff by McDonald's is drinkable. But given the choice, I'd go against MickeyD.
But this is more than taste preference, it has a lot to do with worldviews and ideological takes and working class, upper class, latte-sipping liberalism versus working stuff practicalities. And that makes it great fun.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Darwin, Evolution, and Birthdays

In a couple of days it'll be the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin. Today's NYTimes had a long set of stories about evolution and Darwin and all the rest. Made for great reading. Everyone is in the act, including the good people at Pew who do so many terrific public opinion surveys. A new report includes:

Opinion polls over the past two decades have found the American public deeply divided in its beliefs about the origins and development of life on earth. Surveys are fairly consistent in their estimates of how many Americans believe in evolution or creationism. Approximately 40%-50% of the public accepts a biblical creationist account of the origins of life, while comparable or slightly larger numbers accept the idea that humans evolved over time. The wording of survey questions generally makes little systematic difference in this division of opinion, and there has been little change in the percentage of the public who reject the idea of evolution.

Read the study and poll findings. Few things really piss me off more. I'm a fairly even-tempered guy. But in a population already littered with scientific illiteracy it's sad to see so many people, even religious people (I go to church every Sunday, thank you very much) who simply don't understand what evolution means, how it works, and why everything we understand about biology relies on it in some fashion. Hell, if you don't believe in evolution, for God's sake please don't reproduce.

And don't even get me started on the crazies devoted to creationism, intelligent design, and the Easter bunny.

Please, nut cases, learn what a theory means in science, what overwhelming objective evidence means, and keep your religious beliefs out of the classroom.

Sorry for the vent. In all else political I'm a radical moderate, but this one -- jeez, we're far enough behind the world in science education as it is, don't make it worse by failing to recognize simple scientific fact.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Do You Like Rush?

Do you like Rush? Not the band, the guy, as in Rush Limbaugh, master of political talk radio who occasionally gets mentioned by mainstream journalists and politicians.

A Gallup poll asked people what they thought of him. The results? Among all respondents, he had a 25 percent favorable and 45 percent unfavorable rating. He could change his name to George W. Bush with favorability ratings like that.

But .. but .. look among GOPers. Limbaugh gets a nod from 60 percent of Republican Party identifiers. And this is interesting -- 23 percent label him unfavorable. Nearly a quarter of all GOP identifiers don't like the guy. Fascinating.

Eleven percent have never heard of Limbaugh and 16 percent said they're unsure (meaning they also probably never heard of the guy). If you dislike Limbaugh, I suppose you can take something away from the idea that a quarter of Americans haven't heard of him, a quarter like him, and half of America thinks he's bad.

Never underestimate the effect Limbaugh has on the political process. He has somewhere between 17-20 million listeners and they email or phone political leaders, and if you listen carefully to his program you'll hear his points repeated by others later, often on TV talk shows. Limbaugh sets off an echo effect beyond mere talking points, and that's where I believe his preaching to the choir has its greatest influence. What a lot of people know, for good or bad depending on your partisan take, they know from listening to him.

Friday, February 6, 2009

My Old Paper

One of my old newspapers, the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, announced the kind of cuts we've seen elsewhere in the news business, but the deepest cut of all was stopping delivery in Port Charlotte.

Why? Because I worked the paper's Charlotte bureau when we went head-to-head with the evil Gannett Fort Myers News-Press and two local papers. The county was at the time one of, if not the, fastest growing county in the U.S.

And we kicked ass. As in, a year or so after I'd moved on, the FMN-P finally moved outta town.

All that, for nuthin.

True story when I worked there -- one time the Herald Tribune created an "I" team for investigations. Says me: "Oh good. We've put the 'I' in the SH-T." Editors, unamused.

The paper will still be available in racks and stores, but it's not the same, not for the reporters and sure as hell not for people in Charlotte County. It's a business decision, maybe a necessary one, but it sucks nonetheless.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Playing with Google

Enter "political knowledge" and you get the following at the top:
  • From Google Maps, Sierra Leone in Africa? And then a bunch of others, mostly U.S.
  • From Google Web, the Pew Research Center. No surprise there.
  • From Google News, it all depends on the day and what's happening.
  • From Google Shopping, a book I've never heard of.
  • From Google Blogs, this blog shows up in a special spot, but again otherwise it all depends.
  • From Google Scholar, a good study by Delli Carpini and Keeter.
  • From Google Video (now defunct, but YouTube), this video of a kid.
  • From Google Books, this old book. Cool.
  • From Google Finance, zero hits. That explains why I'm not making any money off this political knowledge gig.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Media Variables

A coupla days ago I discussed the ANES 2008-2009 panel data and its political knowledge variables. I tried yesterday to discuss the media variables but twice Blogger decided not to save or publish anything I wrote. So I'm trying again today.

While the political knowledge items are full of promise for analysis, the media variables ... not so much.

There are four questions, all following this format:

During a typical week, how many days do you watch news on TV, not including sports?

So the response alternatives range from 0 to 7 days. The four questions cover news on TV, radio, the Internet, and "a printed newspaper." There are a few things to like here. Using "printed" is smart. Helps respondents differentiate between the dead-tree and online version. And the "not including sports" is smart too.

Now time for the but. You knew it was coming.

TV news is too general in a fragmented media market. So is radio. Respondents may confuse NPR and Rush Limbaugh and a fragment of news caught every day between Led Zeppelin songs. And mere exposure? Attention is more important, especially when studying the effects of TV news.

ANES has a tradition of mediocre media items, though there have been individual years where they surprised me, especially when a list of entertainment programming that allowed for some interesting tests to be conducted. From a media variable perspective, these are disappointing.

In a perfect world, ANES and Pew get together and marry the ANES policy and knowledge items with Pew's brilliant media questions.

Monday, February 2, 2009

More on New Data

I've just started digging into the 2008-2009 panel data released over the weekend by the ANES and the political knowledge questions look quite useful. All ANES data can be found here.

Best I can tell there are six waves of data collection, but not every wave has questions tapping respondent political knowledge. But many do. The second and sixth waves, for example, include basic questions asking people how many times a person can be elected U.S. president, how many years in a full time U.S. Senate seat, and so on. Textbook civics stuff, the kind that gives you a sense of how much a respondent understands about the workings of government.

And then there are some candidate-specific questions in the fourth and sixth waves, asking the state and religion of the two major party prez candidates, plus one each on where they worked before going into politics. Interesting.

But best of all is a set of policy questions asking where Barack Obama and John McCain stood. These offer some campaign-specific ways to test respondent knowledge. Very useful.

The great thing about panel data, of course, is they provide various answers by the same people over time so you can judge change. Using these data is tricky. There are mutiple weights that have to be applied and you have to be careful in your statistical tests, but they provide the kind of power a single snapshop can never give you. I'll be playing with these data for the rest of the semester. Got a JMCQ article already in mind.

Tomorrow, a look at the media variables in the data set.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The New Data are Here!!!

The ANES released its 2008-2009 panel study this weekend.

Data hounds, get to sniffing!

This is a 21-month set of surveys that I only just downloaded to my office computer a few moments ago. The data supposedly include political and non-political items. I've only glanced at the codebook. A raw frequency result is here, but it's not easy reading for the uninitiated.

Keep in mind this is an advanced release. Cleaner versions usually follow. And the ANES standard 2008 pre- and post-election surveys will be released near the end of the month.

Drivers, start your SPSS . . .