Monday, November 5, 2007

Has the media's coverage of Concord's municipal races been fair? A quick analysis

There are only a few news outlets left covering Concord these days [hence the creation of] and the gatekeepers of those news organizations can shape election results, whether they realize it or not. The placement and tone of the stories in a newspaper or the amount of times a radio station plays a story, can have a positive or negative affect on a candidate's chances.
Not unlike other cities and towns, Concord municipal elections have become a sleepy affair. The city is a different place, something I will write about a bit more after the election. But the media covering Concord remains very similar to the past.
News-seekers of Concord-based news have only a few outlets to regularly rely on, like the Concord Monitor, WKXL 1450, the Union Leader, and The Hippo. For the basis of this "quick analysis," those news outlets will be analyzed to see if they have covered the2007 municipal elections fairly. This analysis will not look at editorials or opinion content, just news stories.
First, the Union Leader has to be taken off the table. It has not covered the election at all. So scratch them off the list. The Hippo also must be taken off the table. In last week's edition, Brian Early, a local print/radio journalist, has a pretty good overview of the mayoral elections in Concord, ManchVegas, and Nashua. But the council and School Board races barely received a mention [Early has done a pretty good job over there although he made one error in the story, noting that Ward 10 is Concord's ony competitive race. Actually, there are two competitive races this year: Ward 8 and the write-in vs. incumbent situation over in Ward 4, not Ward 10].
That leaves WKXL and the Monitor.
In some ways, WKXL needs to be taken off the table too. In the past, the coverage has been more thorough than it has been this year. The station used to broadcast in-house interviews and long form debates between the candidates in competitive wards. This time around, they've done a couple of stories and broadcast the Dewey-Kimball PTA School Board forum in two parts. The stories and forum were available in downloadable mp3s, which is nice for people who are busy or don't listen to the station. While the scope of the coverage seems balanced, it is not on par to what was done in the past.
That leaves the Monitor.
For the most part, the coverage seems to have been pretty fair. The newspaper has allowed both candidates to sound off on the issues the editors believe are important to readers. That information has been published side-by-side in editions.
But there has been one notable exception to the balanced news coverage: Mayoral candidate Katherine Rogers seems to have garnered more stories and better placement of those stories than her opponent, Jim Bouley.
Over the last two Sundays [Oct. 28 and Nov. 4], Rogers has received two news pieces which included her picture. One story was a feature and the other, Oct. 28's "Rogers, unions share longtime ties," was placed above the fold. This story took a press release about the municipal union endorsements the candidate received - something that was published in a story a few weeks before, on Oct. 5 - and turned it into another story, mostly focusing on Rogers' long-time work with the unions. The story did mention Bouley, but it was a very positive piece for Rogers.
Bouley had a feature published on him on Nov. 3, the Saturday edition, with a tiny picture on the cover, below the fold.
Industry-wide, historically, Saturday editions are not as well-read and are nowhere near the circulations of the Sunday editions. Some companies have eliminated their Saturday editions entirely, to save on costs and to concentrate on providing a better Sunday edition. It is an easy bet that this edition is the least-read in the Monitor's publication schedule.
According to circulation numbers provided by the Audit of Circulation Bureaus from 2005, the most recent numbers available, the Monday through Saturday editions of the Monitor have a circulation of around 7,851, with potential readership as high as 18,057 [The newspaper industry assumes that 2.2 to 2.4 people will read every edition of a daily even though they only actually sold one copy of the newspaper. Individual daily numbers are not available to the public. These numbers also do not include Web site hits, just the print editions]. The Sunday edition has a circ of 8,006, with a readership of 19,214, or more than 1,150 extra readers than the best of the Monday through Saturday editions. If all of those 1,150-plus readers live in Concord and are undecided voters, one could see how an election could be swayed by the placement of stories. Rogers received two positives stories in Sunday editions; Bouley received one positive story in a Saturday edition. Do the math: More than 2,300 potential voters received more information about Rogers than Bouley due to an editor's placement of the stories.
Bouley did get a story about his press release announcing the endorsement of most of his council colleagues on Oct. 12. But did he get a second story about this, easily a more significant occurrence than the union endorsements for Rogers, in the well-read Sunday edition, above the fold? No. Ideally, the Monitor's coverage would have been more balanced and fairer had its news department published a second story and placed it right next to Rogers' second union endorsement story, quoting the councilors in a similar way they quoted fire union folks in the Rogers' piece. They could have also published the features together, in the same editions, again, creating balance.
The one thing that throws this quick analysis off is Mayor Mike Donovan's announcement that he was endorsing Bouley in the race, a sidebar to a story covering the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce forum. The story was placed on the back page near the jump of the forum story.
Donovan's announcement was a bombshell and probably sealed Rogers' fate since Donovan is still a very popular guy in the city. But, at the same time, the Monitor allowed Rogers to play up gender victimhood, as if all of her colleagues are lying about how difficult she is to work with or that she has a "my way or the highway" attitude. Can 10 men and women all be liars?
In the end, we will see if the news side of the news Monitor's operation will be able to sway voters with the slight - yet clear - advantage given to Rogers, with the extra story and more beneficial publication placement of the other stories. It all ends Tuesday at 7:01 p.m.
Editor's Note: This piece will be followed up with two more analytical pieces about changes in Concord's demographics and the coverage of the council and School Board races, some time after the election.

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