Tag Archives: New York Times

Market failure

Proof that supply and demand are not always in perfect equilibrium, at least in the realm of quality journalism:

What a contrast. Silicon Valley: where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C., where ideas go to die. Silicon Valley: where there are no limits on your imagination and failure in the service of experimentation is a virtue. Washington: where the “imagination” to try something new is now a treatable mental illness covered by Obamacare and failure in the service of experimentation is a crime. Silicon Valley: smart as we can be. Washington: dumb as we wanna be.

Tom Friedman is the most embarrassing of a truly amateur-hour op-ed operation at the Times.

On “Planet Hillary,” no one has a name

In tomorrow’s New York Times Magazine, Amy Chozick delves into the political intrigue surrounding Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions. The online hubbub over the article, titled “Planet Hillary,” actually began on Thursday, when the magazine cover art was released, to widespread bewilderment:

Anyway, I got around to reading the piece today and couldn’t escape an uneasy feeling about it. It took me a few minutes to realize that “Planet Hillary” was a vintage Politico-esque creation. It deals almost entirely in political maneuvering and the “who’s-in-who’s-out” hysteria endemic to public figures and their extensive entourages. More damningly, it is almost completely devoid of policy discussion.

Granted, there is a place in political journalism for fluffy, narrative-driven, gossip-heavy recaps of the Washington social ladder. But generally speaking, The New York Times has not been that place. (The reliability of that axiom is one major reason I’m a subscriber.) In fact, it is perhaps because of the Times’ historical reticence to portray the constant power shuffling within American politics as equivalent to its counterpart in a typical high-school cafeteria that “Planet Hillary” seemed to meander so aimlessly and conclude in such a random way: the Times simply isn’t good at this kind of thing. Which is itself a good thing.

But after several further minutes of reflection, I noticed a much more specific problem with the piece: it is utterly stacked with anonymous statements and characterizations. To quantitatively confirm my suspicions, I re-read the article, this time marking every statement by any source (including quotes, paraphrases, and descriptions) that met the following criteria:

  • It was made to Amy Chozick in the course of her reporting for the article (so “James Carville has compared the Clinton world, perhaps not so originally, to an onion” doesn’t count, because that statement happened outside of Chozick’s reporting)
  • It was attributable to one person only (so “Several people close to Clinton have already discussed installing someone to play the role of ‘chief listener'” doesn’t count either, since it represents an aggregate of multiple conversations)
  • It was explicitly attributed, whether anonymously or otherwise, to a person (so “When Ready for Hillary held a seminar for donors at Le Parker Meridien hotel last fall to discuss what it would take to win in 2016, Bill Clinton personally checked in with an attendee to ask what was being discussed and who was there” doesn’t count because the anecdote wasn’t directly attributed to any particular source)

Keep in mind that these are extremely conservative criteria. There are, for example, multiple statements attributed to “several people close to Clinton,” “several people close to the Clintons,” “several others,” and “others,” to name a few examples. These I did not count, as it is conceivable that the sources’ collective anonymity was more a function of Chozick’s concision than her sources’ desire for discretion.

I was also, of course, careful to include all instances of named (that is, not anonymous) sources. Consider the following passage from the article:

A few months later, over lunch near the White House, Reines laughed as a couple of meddlesome emails popped up on his BlackBerry from two older Clinton loyalists who had re-emerged since she left State. In between bites of a shrimp cocktail, he called these noodges “space cowboys,” referring to the 2000 film in which Clint Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland play aging pilots who reunite to disarm a Soviet-era satellite on one last mission.

I counted this as a named statement, despite the fact that it’s only two words long (“space cowboys”). I’m also counting it as a separate named statement from another quote earlier in the same paragraph by the same source, solely because the statements occurred at different times chronologically. (Elsewhere, I counted him again in an innocuous comment about the names of his kittens.)

Despite all of these precautions, 18 of the 36 statements — exactly 50% — that were made to Chozick in the course of “Planet Hillary” were anonymous (19 of 37 if I’d counted “a foundation spokesman,” which didn’t seem designed to provide discretion, but rather to avoid introducing too many irrelevant names). Here were a few representative examples:

  • “Legally she could not participate in fund-raising or political activity, and so the period, noted one staff member, seemed like a quiet four-year pause.”
  • “Until recently, her seven personal aides worked out of a tiny Washington office (‘smaller than my first N.Y.C. apartment,’ one aide said in an email) on Connecticut Avenue.”
  • “She ‘inspires loyalty, and she’s loyal back,’ another person close to the inner circle says.”

(Emphases mine. You can check my count by viewing my spreadsheet here. Yellow-highlighted rows represent anonymous statements.)

The “Guidelines on Integrity” document available from The New York Times Company’s web site has this to say about anonymous sources:

Anonymity and Its Devices. The use of unidentified sources is reserved for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. When possible, reporter and editor should discuss any promise of anonymity before it is made, or before the reporting begins on a story that may result in such a commitment. (Some beats, like criminal justice or national security, may carry standing authorization for the reporter to grant anonymity.) The stylebook discusses the forms of attribution for such cases: the general rule is to tell readers as much as we can about the placement and known motivation of the source. While we avoid automatic phrases about a source’s having “insisted on anonymity,” we should try to state tersely what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, especially when we can shed light on the source’s reasons. The Times does not dissemble about its sources does not, for example, refer to a single person as “sources” and does not say “other officials” when quoting someone who has already been cited by name. There can be no prescribed formula for such attribution, but it should be literally truthful, and not coy.

Similarly, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage states:

[A]nonymity is a last resort, for situations in which the newspaper could not otherwise print information it considers newsworthy and reliable. Reporters should not offer a news source anonymity without first pressing to use a name or other helpful identification…

If concealment proves necessary, writers should avoid automatic references to sources who “insisted on anonymity” or “demanded anonymity”; rote phrases offer the reader no help. When possible, though, articles should tersely explain what kind of understanding was actually reached by reporter and source, and should shed light on the reasons. Anonymity should not shield a press officer whose job is to be publicly accountable. And, given the requirements of newsworthiness and substance, it should not be invoked for a trivial comment: “The party ended after midnight,” said a doorman who demanded anonymity. (If the doorman simply refused to give his name, that is a less grandiose matter, and the article should just say so.)

Anonymity must not become a cloak for attacks on people, institutions or policies. If pejorative remarks are worth reporting and cannot be specifically attributed, they may be paraphrased or described after thorough discussion between writer and editor. The vivid language of direct quotation confers an unfair advantage on a speaker or writer who hides behind the newspaper, and turns of phrase are valueless to a reader who cannot assess the source.

It is quite clear that the three nameless quotes I excerpted above, as well as others like them, fail to meet the Times‘ threshold for granting anonymity. In some cases, Chozick’s usage is directly contradictory to policy. If anonymity “should not be invoked for a trivial comment,” then the statement by the “one aide” (quoted above) on the size of Hillary Clinton’s Washington office, for example, is certainly a violation of the rule.

Anonymous statements have long been a source of contention with readers, a point Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has raised multiple times. (A 2009 article by a previous public editor for the Times, Clark Hoyt, cited a study finding that almost 80 percent of anonymous statements in the newspaper failed to meet the official New York Times standard.)

“Planet Hillary” seemed to me to be an especially egregious case, as the underlying substance of the article was already paper-thin. The anonymous statements simply added to the puffy feel of the piece itself and contributed to an overall sense of (mostly banal) palace intrigue. Here’s hoping to see less of this in the future.

A tale of two platforms

My New York vignette sneaked its way into The New York Times (excerpted below):

Like Bill de Blasio’s New York, West Fourth is a tale of two platforms. And although the teeming masses on each level probably earn similar incomes on average, a yawning gap separates the have-trains from the have-not-trains.

Above lie the A, C and E; below, the B, D, F and M. Separating the two is a cavernous expanse in which the stairways to the levels on either side stretch outward toward the invisible way home.

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Journalistic civil war

David Carr has really hit the nail on the head with his latest:

The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.

“By no means was I treated as a hero when I first came forward. I was indicted and spent two years in court,” Mr. Ellsberg said in an interview. “But in those days, journalists were not turning on journalists. With Snowden in particular, you have a split between truly independent journalists and those who are tools — and I mean that in every sense of the term — of the government. Toobin and Grunwald are doing the work of the government to maintain relationships and access.”

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Enough with the social media articles

From yesterday’s online New York Times comes a story titled “As Social Media Swirl Around It, Supreme Court Sticks to Its Analog Ways:”

The Web is ready, too. On Thursday, after the justices once again did not issue rulings in any of the biggest cases, news organizations blared the “news” to their followers. “BREAKING NEWS: No major decisions from Supreme Court today,” the Yahoo News site announced on its Twitter feed. Another Twitter user wryly observed: “Clearly all Supreme Court judges were unpopular kids in high school and, excited by all the attention now, are gonna drag this out.”

A year ago, in the minutes before the court announced its decision on President Obama’s health care law, Twitter users posted more than 13,000 messages a minute about the court. (By comparison, there were 160,000 a minute at the height of the presidential debate in Denver last year.)

And then today, another story headlined “A Panda Escapes From the Zoo, and Social Media Swoop In With the Net:”

To help find Rusty, a raccoon-size mammal with a striped tail and moon-shaped face, the zoo turned to social media, and suddenly half of official Washington broke from Serious Events to tune in to the saga of the runaway panda.

On Twitter and Facebook, the hunt for 11-month-old Rusty, whom the zoo acquired three weeks ago as a partner to a female panda named Shama, exploded in a mix of concern, humor and, this being Washington, the goring of political oxen.

“Rusty the Red Panda eats shoots and leaves,” Jake Tapper, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, filed to Twitter.

Doug Stafford, a senior aide to Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, called the escape a cautionary tale. “If we don’t use drones to spy on everyone, the pandas will win,” he wrote.

The zoo announced Rusty’s disappearance to its thousands of Twitter followers in a message at 11:51 a.m, which was retweeted nearly 3,000 times in an hour.

At midday, mentions of “Rusty” on Twitter nearly equaled those of “Obama.” ABC News started a blog with “live coverage” of the search.

“Please help us find Rusty,” the zoo pleaded on Twitter, explaining that he was last seen at 6 p.m. on Sunday and might be nearby “hiding in a tree.”

On its Facebook page, the zoo said keepers were combing the Asia Trail habitat, whereRusty and Shama live between the Japanese giant salamander and the small-clawed otter, since 8 a.m. But in an ominous note, the zoo said it was possible Rusty had been stolen.

Look, I get it. The New York Times has discovered social media, and it is on it. But please, please — stop with the constant stories devoted to people who…tweet. Or who post the occasional snarky Facebook post.

This is not news. This is actually rather mundane, and is best replaced by an article on almost anything else.

And yes, I realize I have just made the problem worse.

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Bill Keller wants to repeat history, which would make him wrong twice.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.20.43 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-06 at 10.21.40 AM

 

Last night, New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) Bill Keller’s column, “Syria Is Not Iraq,” appeared online. (It’s seen in the above screenshot at right, juxtaposed against equally intellectually-challenged fellow columnist Thomas Friedman’s piece from last year.) As usual, it was a doozy:

As a rule, I admire President Obama’s cool calculation in foreign policy; it is certainly an improvement over the activist hubris of his predecessor. And frankly I’ve shared his hesitation about Syria, in part because, during an earlier column-writing interlude at the outset of the Iraq invasion, I found myself a reluctant hawk. That turned out to be a humbling error of judgment, and it left me gun-shy.

Of course, there are important lessons to be drawn from our sad experience in Iraq: Be clear about America’s national interest. Be skeptical of the intelligence. Be careful whom you trust. Consider the limits of military power. Never go into a crisis, especially one in the Middle East, expecting a cakewalk.

But in Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.

Keller concludes:

Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.

No, Keller, it doesn’t. Getting Syria right starts with acknowledging how Iraq happened. But doing that would require directly confronting the central role of Keller’s paper in propagating a flimsy and ultimately disastrous case for war in Iraq. Getting over Iraq, to use Keller’s convenient word choice, is a euphemism for allowing the same source that got everything so wrong in Iraq to make the same case for war in another country — again, with no exit strategy or, even, any strategy at all.

Keller argues that our failure to arm the rebels for fear of assisting al-Qaeda is in fact resulting in the same outcome, by ceding ground to the Saudis and Qataris, who are all too willing to assist radicals on the ground in Syria. But what Keller fails to mention is the fact that, after two years of civil war, an American decision to intervene now would raise more questions than it answers and may very well cause a public opinion backlash in the Arab world. Instead of being lauded as saviors, there is at least an equivalent likelihood of rebels asking, “How many lives could you have saved if you’d been here earlier?”

That alone is not a reason to stay away. But the audacity of the clamor for intervention — led by people like John McCain and, yes, now Bill Keller, the same people who so badly misjudged the prospects for success in Iraq — is that it makes the same characterizations about Syria that it did about Iraq. You’d think once would be enough.

Keller writes:

What you hear from the Obama team is that we know way too little about the internal dynamics of Syria, so we can’t predict how an intervention will play out, except that there is no happy ending; that while the deaths of 70,000 Syrians are tragic, that’s what happens in a civil war; that no one in the opposition can be trusted; and, most important, that we have no vital national interest there. Obama conceded that the use of poison gas would raise the stakes, because we cannot let the world think we tolerate spraying civilians with nerve gas. But even there, the president says he would feel obliged to respond to “systematic” use of chemical weapons, as if something less — incremental use? sporadic use? — would be O.K. This sounds like a president looking for excuses to stand pat.

This is a sickening, absurdist paragraph. “Looking for excuses to stand pat?” In Keller’s conceptualization, then, war is the default option, and Obama is doing somersaults in an attempt to evade his natural obligations. But this is simply not the case. Obama is perfectly right to observe that no vital national interest necessitates an American intervention in Syria (although he is seemingly less confident on this score than previously thought).

Keller’s not done:

In contemplating Syria, it is useful to consider the ways it is not Iraq.

First, we have a genuine, imperiled national interest, not just a fabricated one. A failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region. “We cannot tolerate a Somalia next door to Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey,” said Vali Nasr, who since leaving the Obama foreign-policy team in 2011 has become one of its most incisive critics. Nor, he adds, can we afford to let the Iranians, the North Koreans and the Chinese conclude from our attitude that we are turning inward, becoming, as the title of Nasr’s new book puts it, “The Dispensable Nation.”

Again, Keller’s historical — and personal — amnesia, combined with his implicit but entirely unsubtle smearing of prudent foreign policy analysts as appeasers, is appalling. There is no “genuine, imperiled national interest.” The primary reason everyone’s suddenly started talking about Syria is that Israel started bombing it. As always, Israel’s security interests take precedence over our own: where two years of civilian death and suffering elicited little more than yawns and sighs of boredom in living rooms throughout America, a few targeted airstrikes by Israel are amazingly effective at focusing the hive mind.

Keller writes:

But, as Joseph Holliday, a Syria analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, points out, what gets lost in these calculations is the potentially dire cost of doing nothing. That includes the danger that if we stay away now, we will get drawn in later (and bigger), when, for example, a desperate Assad drops Sarin on a Damascus suburb, or when Jordan collapses under the weight of Syrian refugees.

Yes, let’s go to war now, risking very real American lives, to prevent a hypothetical outcome that may or may not cause mass fatalities in another country’s civil war.

Here is perhaps my favorite line:

Fourth, in Iraq we had to cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause. This time we have allies waiting for us to step up and lead. Israel, out of its own interest, seems to have given up waiting.

Israel?! That’s his example? Israel, he may recall, was perfectly onboard with the American invasion of Iraq as well. And why shouldn’t it be? Any half-conscious human being can see the natural advantage of allowing a foreign country to wage war on another’s behalf — including paying the costs in lives and massive budget deficits. Israel can stand pat and let Americans take the heat again, as we’ve been doing for years.

“Why wait for the next atrocity?” Keller asks. Indeed, why? For neoconservative warmongers like Bill Keller, waiting is for appeasers. The case for intervention in Syria, like that in Iraq, recalls the title of the famous post-financial crisis book, This Time Is Different. Each time, excuses and half-justifications are lazily proffered so as to distinguish one hawkish prophecy from its disastrous predecessors. This time, let’s approach the problem differently, instead of feebly attempting to differentiate this potential foreign policy quagmire from another, very real one from the past.

 

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“Gun shops were jammed.”

The New York Times is at it again.
The New York Times is at it again.

Last month, I noted an article by The New York Times‘ Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff, in which the two reported a long-term, steady decrease in gun ownership. They explained:

The findings contrast with the impression left by a flurry of news reports about people rushing to buy guns and clearing shop shelves of assault rifles after the massacre last year at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns.”

In my post, after providing three examples of recent Times articles (here, here, and here) that had noticeably contributed to the aforementioned “flurry of news reports” about people rushing to buy guns, I concluded:

One can be forgiven for reading The New York Times and leaving with the impression that, yes, the entire country is stampeding its nearest weapons shops and loading up on anything with a trigger. This is just the latest in a long line of examples of the media helping to create a story, then reporting on the fallout from that story from a detached perspective, as if the press had nothing to do with the preceding whirlpool of artificially manufactured “news” in the first place.

Well, as you can see above, the Times has yet to lose its appetite for stories about panicked weapons rushes:

Guns shops were jammed. Gun manufacturers were angry. Gun-control advocates were thrilled. Many legislators were torn.

But as President Obama on Tuesday announced a visit to Connecticut next week in the wake of an agreement on a far-ranging package of state gun legislation, Connecticut was bracing for the consequences, intended or not.

The most immediate result of the agreement, which came more than three months after the massacre of 26 children and educators in Newtown, was a run on gun shops on Tuesday, following months of already brisk sales. Gun owners are rushing to buy weapons, ammunition and magazines in anticipation of limits on their sale and possession.

Vic Benson, co-owner of the Freedom Shoppe, a gun shop in New Milford, said that his store was not usually even open on Tuesday, but that he opened its doors in anticipation of panicked buyers, and also to get rid of inventory he thinks he will be unable to sell after lawmakers vote on Wednesday.

The only indication in this entire article that all is not as depicted is the muted phrase “Gun owners are rushing…” — meaning that it is current owners, and not prospective gun buyers, that are leading the proverbial charge.

Look, the point isn’t that the Times shouldn’t cover news. And to some extent, delirious gun enthusiasts rushing their nearest weapons depot for a recharge so they can continue to shoot their high-powered guns with impunity even after stricter gun control legislation is passed is news.

Nevertheless, I would venture to guess that the Times‘ venerable voice is not well-utilized by devoting significant space in at least four articles in just over three months to the wildly exaggerated fears of armed paranoiacs. Perhaps, for example, some of those column inches could go towards additional coverage of shooting victims. Or of car dealerships, baseball, or whatever. After awhile, one starts to get the point: a lot of people love guns, and the Times is all over it.

But the larger point is that it’s ludicrous to continue covering these gun shop rushes on the one hand, while simultaneously remarking — as Tavernise and Gebeloff did — on the misleading “impression left by a flurry of news reports about people rushing to buy guns and clearing shop shelves of assault rifles,” as if the Times itself had nothing to do with creating this perception.

This paradox is especially concerning precisely because of what Tavernise and Gebeloff point out: gun ownership is decreasing. So publishing article after article portraying gun shops as overwhelmed by the demand for their products not only makes for boring reading, but doesn’t really present an accurate picture either.

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Are online paywalls too little, too late?

Courtesy of LUMA Partners.
Courtesy of LUMA Partners LLC.

Michael Wolff thinks so:

Without a dramatic turnaround in advertising income, there are only two strategies – neither mutually exclusive – for the continued existence of newspapers, in digital or any other form:

• Having established the paywall model, the goal, in a race against time, is to extend it to a greater and greater part of the user base. Like the paywall itself, this is unchartered territory. Rupert Murdoch’s more absolute paywalls having worked significantly less well than the New York Times’ porous wall. The Times, however, counting on its brand power and on the gradual change in consumer behavior, is trying to up the ante, recently cutting its free take from 20 to ten articles.

• Re-orient the cost basis of the business, still largely modeled on advertising income, to the much smaller subscription revenue base. That is, fire a lot of people.

This is, actually, good news, if not necessarily for shareholders or for many employees. Some newspapers can continue to exist, albeit as vastly smaller and less profitable businesses.

I have a few points in response. First, Wolff characterizes newspapers’ plummeting revenue in the following terms: “A digital advertising environment on the web – one even more pronounced in mobile – that relentlessly increases the amount of advertising space available and lowers the value of all space overall.”

Wolff is mostly right, for now. But that’s only because advertisers have yet to figure out what’s valuable. I worked in online advertising for two years (including one year for a behavioral targeting firm), and I can say with some confidence that we still don’t have adequate metrics to measure advertising success online — hence the degradation of online real estate. But soon enough, the advertising landscape will have to revert to form.

Why? Well, because advertisers don’t like paying for something that provides no value. It’s astonishing just how little advertisers still know about their own data in 2013 — that is, the audiences on their own web sites, the customers buying their products, and so on. The problem is even worse when it comes to connecting with new audiences, also known as advertising. Not only do the companies themselves not understand the data, but many of the online advertising firms that these companies have hired know little about what they’re selling as well. (Take a look at the above headache-inducing graphic of the online media landscape to understand why.) Continue reading

An odd contradiction on guns from the Times

Courtesy of The New York Times (Steve Ruark).
Courtesy of The New York Times (Steve Ruark).

Yesterday, The New York Times reported on a national trend of declining gun ownership:

The rate has dropped in cities large and small, in suburbs and rural areas and in all regions of the country. It has fallen among households with children, and among those without. It has declined for households that say they are very happy, and for those that say they are not. It is down among churchgoers and those who never sit in pews.

The household gun ownership rate has fallen from an average of 50 percent in the 1970s to 49 percent in the 1980s, 43 percent in the 1990s and 35 percent in the 2000s, according to the survey data, analyzed by The New York Times.

The story, reported by Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff, noted the data’s seeming contradiction to prevailing media narratives:

The findings contrast with the impression left by a flurry of news reports about people rushing to buy guns and clearing shop shelves of assault rifles after the massacre last year at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

“There are all these claims that gun ownership is going through the roof,” said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “But I suspect the increase in gun sales has been limited mostly to current gun owners. The most reputable surveys show a decline over time in the share of households with guns.”

The Times should know a thing or two about the impression left by that “flurry of news reports:” it contributed substantially to creating it. Here is an excerpt from a New York Times article on December 21st of last year, headlined “Shop Owners Report Rise in Firearm Sales as Buyers Fear Possible New Laws:”

With gun-control legislation getting more serious discussion than it has in years, gun sales are spiking as enthusiasts stock up in advance of possible restrictions.

Gun sales have been increasing over the past five years, with marked increases around the 2008 and 2012 elections, and after mass shootings like the one in Aurora, Colo., and now in Newtown, Conn…

There is increasing demands for guns in the United States. Last year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation conducted 16.45 million background checks for firearm sales through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, a 14 percent jump from the previous year. In the first 11 months of this year, the bureau conducted 16.8 million background checks, a record since the system’s founding in 1998.

The article goes on to check in on various online and brick-and-mortar gun shops, all of whom dutifully trumpet the massive demand at their stores. (Imagine that: a gun shop owner who’s just been given an enormous audience by a global newspaper declares that he is doing brisk business? I don’t know about you, but sounds like an “I’ll take him at his word” situation to me.)

But that wasn’t all. Just three weeks later, the Times was back with another contribution to the “flurry,” this time with the headline “Sales of Guns Soar in U.S. as Nation Weighs Tougher Limits:”

As Washington focuses on what Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will propose next week to curb gun violence, gun and ammunition sales are spiking in the rest of the country as people rush to expand their arsenals in advance of any restrictions that might be imposed…

Gun dealers and buyers alike said that the rapid growth in gun sales — which began climbing significantly after President Obama’s re-election and soared after the Dec. 14 shooting at a school in Newtown, Conn., prompted him to call for new gun laws — shows little sign of abating.

December set a record for the criminal background checks performed before many gun purchases, a strong indication of a big increase in sales, according to an analysis of federal data by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group. Adjusting the federal data to try to weed out background checks that were unrelated to firearms sales, the group reported that 2.2 million background checks were performed last month, an increase of 58.6 percent over the same period in 2011. Some gun dealers said in interviews that they had never seen such demand.

And finally, another three weeks and a day later, on February 2nd of this year, the Times struck again, heralding “The Most Wanted Gun in America,” the Bushmaster AR-15:

Before Newtown, the rifles sold for about $1,100, on average. Now some retailers charge twice that. At Pasadena Pawn, on the wall behind glass counters of handguns, are three dozen or so AR-15-style rifles. Dangling from nearly every one is a tag that says “Sold.”

“The AR-15, it’s kind of fashionable,” says Frank Loane Sr., the proprietor. His shop has a revolving waiting list for the rifles, and a handful of people are now on it. “The young generation likes them, the assault-looking guns…”

But despite the headlines, and partly because of them, commercial gun sales are growing. Last year, they were up 16 percent industrywide, according to estimates from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, an industry trade association. Semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 are responsible for a significant share of that growth.

One can be forgiven for reading The New York Times and leaving with the impression that, yes, the entire country is stampeding its nearest weapons shops and loading up on anything with a trigger. This is just the latest in a long line of examples of the media helping to create a story, then reporting on the fallout from that story from a detached perspective, as if the press had nothing to do with the preceding whirlpool of artificially manufactured “news” in the first place.

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The Facebook engagement debate

Courtesy of comScore whitepaper from July 26, 2011.
Courtesy of comScore whitepaper from July 26, 2011.

Nick Bilton of The New York Times recently noted that, at some point following the implementation of Facebook’s “Sponsored Posts” feature, his non-sponsored posts started receiving far less exposure than before:

Early last year, soon after Facebook instituted a feature that let people subscribe to others’ feeds without being friends, I quickly amassed a healthy “subscriber” list of about 25,000 people…

Since then, my subscribers have grown to number 400,000. Yet now, when I share my column, something different happens. Guess how many people like and reshare the links I post?

If your answer was over two digits, you’re wrong.

From the four columns I shared in January, I have averaged 30 likes and two shares a post. Some attract as few as 11 likes. Photo interaction has plummeted, too. A year ago, pictures would receive thousands of likes each; now, they average 100. I checked the feeds of other tech bloggers, including MG Siegler of TechCrunch and reporters from The New York Times, and the same drop has occurred.

What changed? I recently tried a little experiment. I paid Facebook $7 to promote my column to my friends using the company’s sponsored advertising tool.

To my surprise, I saw a 1,000 percent increase in the interaction on a link I posted, which had 130 likes and 30 reshares in just a few hours. It seems as if Facebook is not only promoting my links on news feeds when I pay for them, but also possibly suppressing the ones I do not pay for.

Following this article, Reuters’ Anthony De Rosa spoke to a Facebook rep and then posted a short list of three misconceptions that he implied Bilton — and/or others like him — had disseminated. Among them:

Misconception #1: Sponsored/Promoted Content is replacing organic content on Facebook I spoke to Vadim Lavrusik, Facebook’s journalism program manager. Here’s what he told me:

“One important thing to understand is that when someone promotes a post in feed and pays to promote it, the stuff that’s getting distribution organically still gets distribution, it doesn’t get replaced from feed. It may get a lower placement, but it doesn’t get replaced. And the placement of the sponsored post or promoted post is also based on the quality of that post (so promoted content still has a quality algorithm attached to it.) If the promoted post isn’t that good, it gets lower placement, but it will get more distribution either way because it’s being paid for, but it’s still takes quality into account.

The claim that I’ve seen explains it as if these paid posts replace organic posts, which isn’t the case. The News Feed algorithm is separate from the advertising algorithm in that we don’t replace the most engaging posts in News Feed with sponsored ones.”

This seems like a distinction without a difference. One can hardly blame Lavrusik for trying to disguise his employer’s tactics with this line of defense, but it’s not very convincing.

Why not? Well, first of all, he states that “when someone promotes a post in feed and pays to promote it, the stuff that’s getting distribution organically still gets distribution, it doesn’t get replaced from feed. It may get a lower placement, but it doesn’t get replaced.” But for all intents and purposes, being bumped to a lower placement is the exact same thing as getting replaced. Lavrusik knows this, of course, but it’s not in his — or Facebook’s — interest to acknowledge it.

Courtesy of Chitika.

Facebook’s News Feed is infinite: when you scroll down, it loads more posts. In other words, there’s no real estate scarcity going on here. As long as you keep scrolling, Facebook will keep loading. But much like Google’s search rankings, everyone knows that it’s generally the first listings that get by far the most attention. For example, this study demonstrates that just under 95% of all Google clicks come from the first page of search results. All subsequent results pages combined represent barely over 5% of click-throughs.

I’d venture a guess that the Facebook News Feed has a similar-looking curve. Of course, its average time-on-site is going to be a lot higher than Google’s, but the same laws apply — the farther down the page something is, the less likely it is that a user will see it. Sponsored Posts, by definition, push non-sponsored posts farther down the page. Ergo, they are less likely to be seen. So even if it’s technically true, when Lavrusik says a non-sponsored post “doesn’t get replaced,” he’s not saying anything meaningful at all.

My second disagreement with De Rosa on this point has to do with his conclusion:

There’s a few things that make Nick an edge case, someone who uses and experiences Facebook slightly differently than the broader membership. He was one of the privileged few who were “recommended” members to follow, which allowed him to gain a lot of followers early on. Most members have to scratch and claw to get noticed, a recommended user list gives you an opportunity to catapult your following in a less organic fashion. Just like on Twitter, it creates an inauthentic illusion of “influence,” and as much as I loathe that word and the next one I am going to use, “engagement,” the quality of that “engagement” goes down as your artificial following grows.

I also noticed that Nick tends to post a lot of links, instead of photo posts, which tend to get a lot more “likes” “shares” and comments. If they’re not getting that kind of (ugh) “engagement,” then they’re in turn showing up lower organically in your follower’s newsfeed. This is a feature, not a bug.

But as Bilton himself mentioned:

From the four columns I shared in January, I have averaged 30 likes and two shares a post. Some attract as few as 11 likes. Photo interaction has plummeted, too. A year ago, pictures would receive thousands of likes each; now, they average 100. I checked the feeds of other tech bloggers, including MG Siegler of TechCrunch and reporters from The New York Times, and the same drop has occurred.

In other words, Bilton is not comparing apples and oranges. He’s comparing similar posts from before and after Facebook’s methodology change. So De Rosa’s comment on the fact that user engagement differs by the type of content doesn’t apply here.

Anecdotally, I’m a fairly standard Facebook user: I have around 700 friends and I don’t believe I have any subscribers. (To be honest, I can’t remember whether I ever set up my profile to allow it.) And I’ve noticed very similar patterns to Bilton’s regarding engagement on my own posts. I can’t speak for Nick Bilton, but I’m quite sure I’m not an edge case.

Just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with Facebook’s strategy here. Especially now that it’s public, its responsibility is to make money for its shareholders, and the implementation of Sponsored Posts makes a lot of sense on certain levels. Vadim Lavrusik’s defense is similarly understandable: he works for Facebook, so his slick reasoning is to be expected. But that doesn’t mean any of us should be remotely convinced by it.

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