The economic challenges facing journalism are grave, but they haven't managed to kill one of the industry's most venerated traditions: the all-expenses-paid trip of dubious news value. Despite planned remarks by Democratic National Committee chairman (and recovering screamer) Howard Dean, the 2008 Democratic National Convention's Fall Media Walk-Through, staged on November 13 at the Pepsi Center, didn't promise to generate significant headlines. Nevertheless, representatives of media organizations planning to cover next August's bash flocked to Denver by the hundreds. Most of them learned next to nothing, but they ate very well.
Granted, the walk-through's breakfast spread could have been more diverse. Pepsi Center nosheries such as the Nutty Bavarian were closed, and even though the food tables sat next to displays of cotton candy and Dippin' Dots, the menu was dominated by bagels and pastries. Still, the journos seemed satisfied as they took seats along one side of the arena while images of natural wonder — mountains, streams, Denver Broncos cheerleaders — played on the overhead JumboTron. I wound up next to several representatives from the New York Times, which makes sense, since seemingly every third person at the venue wore a name tag stamped with the paper's name. (Who at the Times was forced to remain back east? A couple of interns, maybe?) The Times scribe nearest me asked a colleague, "You're staying tonight, right?" Upon receiving an affirmative answer, he proclaimed, "Party at Elway's!"
Shortly thereafter, Leah Daughtry, the convention's CEO, greeted the assembled masses and pointed out the event's primary prop: a blue balloon, affixed to a folding chair, that signified the main podium. Then, after platitudes (and precious few specifics) from a handful of other convention execs, press reps toured the facility prior to engaging in a Q&A that touched on several important matters. For instance, a WNYC radio employee complained that "the food choices in Boston," where the 2004 confab took place, "were limited to Dunkin' Donuts only," adding that "the Republicans fed us pretty well."
Democratic National Convention
"Oh, that's a low blow," Daughtry joked before asserting that Dems "have a reputation for throwing better parties.... We like to eat and have a good time. So don't worry about the food."
Attendees at subsequent breakout sessions generally had more work-related concerns — especially those at the get-together targeting bloggers. The majority of people there smiled when one of their number blurted out, "All you people need to get jobs!" But things got frostier during the presentation that followed. Joe Shea of American Reporter, an online newspaper, expressed fear that everyone present would be "relegated to a blogger ghetto" as they were Boston, where blogging types wound up in nosebleed seats with little work space.
In response, Jason Rosenberg, the convention's director of online communications, emphasized the high regard planners have for blogosphere mavens. But he also made it plain that space for fully credentialed bloggers is at a premium. Folks can apply for entry as general bloggers or one of 56 designated for each state, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories. Slots will be awarded on the basis of hits as calculated by Technorati.com and evidence of influence, including — betcha they hated this one — mentions in traditional media.
Fortunately, those who crap out will have an option. Jen Caltrider announced that during the convention, her organization, ProgressNow, is putting on ProgressCon, an event to be staged in conjunction with the Daily Kos's Markos Moulitsas. Based at the Alliance Center, near the Pepsi Center, ProgressCon will provide facilities for uncredentialed bloggers so that, in Caltrider's words, they "won't be sitting on the sidewalk trying to hack into somebody else's wi-fi."
From there, media members headed to the club level for another free feed — lots of sandwiches, salad and fruit (and no Rocky Mountain oysters). Amid the ingesting, Dean delivered remarks that could hardly have been blander; he repeatedly noted that Denver exemplifies "the new West," as he's done every time he's touched Colorado soil this year. Minutes later, he wrapped up and rushed to the opposite end of the room, where several children representing assorted genders and ethnicities waited to pose for a photo with him.
Dean smiled, cameras flashed, and no news was made. That's working those expense accounts, old school.
Behind the numbers: Radio ratings might seem simple, but they're far from it. Although Arbitron Inc., which tracks the habits of radio consumers, releases some general information, the service closely guards the majority of its digits, including those pertaining to individual day parts. However, a radio source provided yours truly with the recent Summer 2007 report about listenership among folks ages twelve and over between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m. Monday through Friday — the so-called morning-drive period. The results are fascinating for what they reveal about the audiences clicking to assorted outlets even as they show how misleading the roster of top stations can be.
According to Arbitron, Denver's number-one outlet in the twelve-plus category as a whole was KS-107.5, trailed immediately by news-talker KOA and KXPK-FM, which features a Spanish-language format. But in the morning-drive slot, KXPK looks even better, ranking number one thanks to its syndicated star, Eddie "Piolín" Sotelo. Moreover, KHOW, the eleventh-place finisher overall, holds second place due to the popularity of yakker Peter Boyles. That leaves KOA's vaunted Colorado Morning News with the bronze.
There's more to this story, though. Most ad reps dismiss the twelve-plus competition as a beauty contest; they mainly pay attention to ratings in specific demographic categories. In addition, Arbitron determines ratings by combining the number of people tuning in with TSL, or time spent listening — a formula that rewards loyalty and undermines volume. For example, approximately 89,700 people cocked an ear to KXPK during an average week — a figure lower than the ones garnered by seven of the top ten stations. But those listeners say they stuck around for six hours and 45 minutes over that span, the largest tally by far. In contrast, 158,700 people per week are said to have checked out KS-107.5, but because they only stuck around for about two hours and fifteen minutes, the outlet's morning show placed fourth.
Confused yet? Just wait. In most markets, Arbitron ratings are based on diaries, with participants guessing which stations they heard and for how long. But the firm is transitioning to the "Portable People Meter," an electronic device that monitors listening with infinitely greater precision. In Philadelphia and New York, where PPMs are already in use, stations with broad-based appeal received big boosts, since individuals with a variety of tastes sample them. In contrast, outlets appealing to niche groups tumbled because diary-keeping fans tended to exaggerate their time spent listening.
Denver goes to the people-meter approach in early 2009, and if events hold true to form, KXPK could be in for some unpleasant ratings surprises. Call it the new math.
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And away they go: The exodus of highprofile staffers from the Denver dailies continues. The latest departures from the Rocky Mountain News include Erika Gonzalez, newly hired by the Colorado Lottery, and Betsy Lehndorff, wife of Rocky food writer John Lehndorff, who says she wants to spend more time with her family. Earlier this year, Gonzalez, Lehndorff, Brian Crecente and Lisa Ryckman were asked to move from their feature-writing assignments to news beats, thereby surrendering plum gigs they worked for years to earn. Today, Ryckman's the last of the quartet at the paper. Moreover, insiders hint that several more individuals in prominent and/or behind-the-scenes positions are planning to split soon.
The same process is ongoing at the Denver Post, where fine reporter Mark Couch left to take a job with the Colorado Department of Revenue — and courts scribe Art Kane completes his stint at the broadsheet on November 16 prior to joining Channel 7's investigative team. Kane says his decision was largely inspired by the opportunity to focus full-time on investigations at a station he admires, as well as to learn a new skill set. But he was also influenced by the tough times facing the newspaper business and by his age. "I'm 38 years old," he notes. "I can't retire in five or ten years.
"When I started my career in '92 or '93, you figured you were going to finish your career in newspapers," Kane continues. "And now I think a lot of people are looking around saying, 'Is that really going to happen?'"