Vanguard Failed to Tell the Full Story About Where Voters Get Information on City Issues

Davis-city_hallBy Dan Carson

I am a supporter of the Davis Vanguard, financially and as a regular contributor to these pages. With the support of Vanguard editors, I have agreed to occasionally play the role of media reviewer. It’s a credit to its editors that they are willing to accept and even encourage such self-scrutiny, which I believe in the long run strengthens its credibility as a journalistic enterprise. So, I have some criticism to offer.

Back on September 2, the Vanguard pointed to a recent city survey of registered voters as evidence that the local Davis Enterprise was on the decline while their online publication was on the rise as a source of information about city affairs. It repeated those assertions in a September 19 piece.

However, the accounts provided by the Vanguard to its readers failed to include a critical data point that undermines its thesis. The Vanguard told its readers that the poll of registered city voters by Godbe Research did “not mention the Vanguard by name.” That is incorrect. The Vanguard has repeatedly failed to report data from the very same poll indicating that a paltry three-tenths of one percent of those surveyed identified the “Vanguard” or “Davis Vanguard” as its most important information source for city news.

David Greenwald has stated to me that the omission of this information from the Vanguard was an unintentional mistake. I fully accept his explanation, but believe a correction of the record is overdue.

Below is part of what the Vanguard stated on September 2 in an article titled, “What We Can Learn From the City Survey Results”:

Source-Information

“From our standpoint, however, we will focus on two specific findings (of the poll).

“First, the source of information has changed and changed rather dramatically. In 2007, the Vanguard was a fledgling website, having just been launched in 2006. The Davis Enterprise represented the source of a large plurality of residents getting their information. 48.8% of residents got their information from the Enterprise compared to 26% for the internet and Davis website, only 2.5% got their information from the Sacramento Bee, and social media was a non-factor, not even asked.

“That has changed, as the Davis Enterprise remains the top plurality but their reach has shrunk by nearly one-third, and now only 34.7% people get their source of information from the Enterprise compared to the Internet/Davis website now reaching 29.5%.

“While they do not mention the Vanguard by name, (emphasis added) the influence of the Vanguard is seen quite clearly here. Readership even over the summer still reached over 4000 unique views during the week for the Vanguard.”

These assertions were repeated in a September 19 article in the Vanguard, “The Next Era of the Vanguard Starts Today”:

“Our new website will enable us to continue to develop and innovate. This year, our readership has soared – some months we have averaged between 5000 and 6000 unique visitors per day. The city’s recent poll showed that seven years ago, the Davis Enterprise was by far the most utilized source for local government information. By June of this year, the polling showed that the Enterprise market share had collapsed and they had been nearly caught by the internet.”

So, here are the complete 2014 poll results on the question of where city voters are getting their information, with one important result relevant to this discussion highlighted in boldface:

Source-Information-2

Obviously, the failure of the Vanguard to report the full list of responses which show the rarity with which poll respondents cited them by name as a source of city news changes the discussion tremendously. The assertion that the poll shows that the Vanguard has become much more influential becomes debatable, to say the least.

It is true that some persons who rely on the Vanguard as a source of news about city affairs may have failed to remember its name and included themselves in the “Internet/Davis website” response category. But it is also possible that a number of poll respondents who placed themselves into this category were persons viewing the Enterprise’s own website – not the Vanguard’s. In other words, the online readership of the Enterprise may be growing at the expense of its paper edition. That alternative possibility was not even considered by the Vanguard. That’s another weakness in the piece, in my view.

Dave Ryan of the Enterprise offered a much more fair and balanced account of the poll findings – one that honestly acknowledged that the paper may have lost some influence – in a piece that was published on the front page of the paper on September 4.

The story initially noted that “The Enterprise remains the No. 1 news source in town despite the city website, word of mouth, social media and television seemingly taking away some market share since 2007, when the city did a similar poll.”

The Davis Enterprise far outstripped other media outlets for the attention of local residents, at 34.7 percent of the survey share — down from 48.8 percent in 2007 — with television news coming in second at 7.6 percent, The Sacramento Bee at 2.3 percent and The California Aggie at 0.9 percent. Other local media outlets include the largely defunct website Davis Patch at 0.4 percent of the survey share and the 8-year-old Davis Vanguard blog at 0.3 percent of market share.

“At least, that was when respondents could remember the names of their media outlets.

“The question was asked open-ended, allowing for respondents to show that the Davis city website/unknown general Internet sources made up 29.5 percent of the market share, up from 26 percent in 2007. As The Enterprise and many other media outlets have Internet presences and Google pulls news from random media sources, it’s unknown what that figure means, except a strong showing for the city website and perhaps confusion among the public about where they are getting their information.

“Speaking of confusion: Word of mouth, no information sources and respondents who specifically said they had no idea where their information came from showed significant gains from 2007, up to 14.7 percent combined from 4.5 percent in 2007.

“This seems to show more people are disengaged from news sources than in 2007, far more than those who have turned to social media (2.3 percent), radio (1.4 percent) or any local news source created in the past decade combined. In fact, ignorance may be the single largest growth category among likely voters.”

That last point made by Ryan bears further consideration.

As an old newspaperman with, admittedly, my own biases toward print, I didn’t like the almost gleeful tone of the Vanguard piece in describing the drop in Enterprise poll numbers. The loss of readers for American newspapers, and the closure of many of them, is a tragedy. The more competition in news and opinion, in my view, the better off the public will be. That’s why I contribute to the Vanguard, and why I will continue to subscribe to the Enterprise. The poll provides further evidence that the greatest danger to both Davis news organizations, and to our democratic institutions, is a growing public disinterest in public affairs among our youth that could leave us with a generation of voters ill-equipped to make the difficult choices we face as a community.

Carson was graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union for 15 years as well as the Oakland Tribune, the Bureau of National Affairs, and other news organizations. He also was a regular contributor to California’s now-defunct journalism review magazine, feed/back.

About The Author

Dan Carson worked for 17 years in the Legislative Analyst’s Office, a nonpartisan fiscal and policy adviser to the California Legislature, retiring in 2012 as deputy legislative analyst, and serves as a member of the city’s Finance and Budget Commission. This commentary reflects his views only and does not represent the position of the commission on this issue.

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24 Comments

  1. Barack Palin

    “David Greenwald has stated to me that the omission of this information from the Vanguard was an unintentional mistake.”

    Now come on David, you wrote an article about the decline of the Enterprise and the rise of the Vanguard and cited a poll where you left out the 0.3% Vanguard readership stat by an unintentional omission? Hard to believe.

    Now I don’t believe for one second that the 0.3% figure is accurate, that many Vanguard readers fell under the Internet/Davis website entry, but the same thing can also be claimed by the Enterprise as they also have a website.

      1. Barack Palin

        Okay, I read the report and can agree with you that if you just looked at the cover pages without looking deeper at the actual survey that you could’ve honestly missed it. Now not so hard to believe.

  2. DavisVoter

    These findings make so much sense. Consider my own story:

    I used to get my information from a “local blogger” but I wasn’t satisfied, so I started reading the Vanguard instead.

    But that didn’t work for me either, so I tried Facebook, Patch, the Enterprise website, and the Bee website.

    I still wasn’t satisfied, so I just said “Forget it, I’ll just use the Internet.”

  3. Matt Williams

    When I read this article I relatively quickly had three thoughts:

    1) That Dan’s criticism of the Vanguard’s handling of the poll information is fair and reasonable, and I look forward to reading the comments it gets from the readers.

    2) That the survey appears to have a significant flaw in its design. That flaw doesn’t change Dan’s criticism of the Vanguard in any way, but it does add a layer of nuance to the interpretation of the survey results. Specifically, newspapers are (for the most part) point sources of information. Sometimes the point sources come in pairs (Enterprise and Bee, or Enterprise and NYT, or Bee and NYT, etc.) In rare cases they come in trios (add the WSJ to any one of the pairs above. If you drive/walk/bicycle around Davis in the morning before rush hour, or in the evening just after rush hour, and look at the driveways you pass, those point sources lie in the driveways you pass.

    The internet, on the other hand, is anything but a point source. All one has to do is to click on the Bookmarks in a person’s browser to see how expansive and diverse that person’s sources of information/news are.

    So the survey was in effect creating an apples and oranges comparison when it asked for the names of its participants’ sources of news/information. If I were designing a future iteration of the survey, I would have the surveyers ask the respondent to open their browser’s History menu and read to the survey taker the various websites that reside in just one day’s History of that person’s website visitation.

    The multiple point nature of the Internet as a news/information source puts remembering the names of individual sites into context. It isn’t that an Internet user can’t remember the names of individual websites, rather it is that not only is a user hard pressed to come up with an ordered list of the sites he/she has visited that day, but the ordered list changes from day to day, week to week, month to month. As a result, it is not hard to see why the catch-all phrase “the Internet” is the easy way out when answering the question posed by the survey..

    3) The third thought is purely an opinion on my part, but an opinion based on very active personal use of the City of Davis website. I believe that any person who goes to the City website for “news” is on a fool’s errand.

    Setting aside the fact that the site is a navigational nightmare, and its search capabilities are a one way ticket to Hades, there is no news on the site. Documentation, yes. News, not a prayer. Right now there are 28 links on the City website’s Home page. Two (2) of those links are News, and one of those two is the recruitment announcement for Commissions, which really isn’t “News” at all. Only the YRAPUS suit settlement announcement is News, and it is several weeks old. The City website is like a line from the Treasure of Sierra Madre, “News? News? We don’t need no stinkin’ news!”

    I believe that 2) and 3) above add nuance to the survey results that the survey designers clearly did not account for.

    Those are my thoughts. I hope they are helpful additions to Dan’s article.

  4. Davis Progressive

    greenwald inexcusably screwed up. it’s easy to miss the findings originally. however, once you do, you have an obligation to your readers to correct it. that he did not is inexcusable. that he allowed this piece to be printed tempers my criticism. i agree with others that the poll was flawed and the finding relatively meaningless.

  5. South of Davis

    Dan wrote:

    > However, the accounts provided by the Vanguard to its readers failed to
    > include a critical data point that undermines its thesis.

    The fact that David printed this on the site will go a long way to getting more readers since it is very impressive to get stuff like this out there (I was also very impressed by the way Rob White was open to discussing who pays him yesterday)…

  6. Frankly

    Davis Demographics has been trending such that more and more readers are those unfamiliar with getting their news on anything other than physical paper, and the rest spend their “news” time exclusively on electronic media getting professional sports and celebrity news in between posting cute pictures of cats.

    Vanguard readers and posters are a growing demographic abnormality.

    Some innovation parks will change that though.

  7. Anon

    Nice piece, Dan. I appreciated the additional information. I suspect readers are becoming disengaged with the news for several reasons: 1) constant sensationalism; 2) political bias; 3) unreliability of news outlets to obtain facts. I try and get my news from many different sources, because I do not trust any one news source. The news media has moved away from reporting the news, and is more about publishing opinion than fact. It also tries to make it seem like there is a daily crisis – like crying “wolf” one too many times, so that the reader becomes desensitized to crises.

    1. Rich RifkinWDE 73

      I suspect readers are becoming disengaged with the news for several reasons: 1) constant sensationalism; 2) political bias; 3) unreliability of news outlets to obtain facts.

      I have found, without exception, that the people who bemoan the political bias of mainstream news outlets are themselves people with the most extreme political biases. It is not so much that being biased bothers them. It is that they want their news provider to have their same extremist bias. So they listen to radio shows and cable news outlet which confirm what they already believe.

      1. Anon

        I look for facts, not political opinion clothed as fact. I am pretty much a centrist, and try and keep political bias out of my decision making as much as possible. Frankly, I think that is what most people are trying to do – find facts.

    2. Dan Carson

      Let me add another factor to consider. I’m not confident that our schools are doing all they can to teach our kids good citizenship and the importance of community service. For example, while Davis High commendably offers opportunities for kids to carry out community service projects, there is no mandate that students perform a certain number of hours of such work each year. Some private and public schools in California do so. I think kids need to be connected more closely to their community and society. There is too much of a focus on “me.” Changing that might eventually result in more engaged adult citizens who will demand to know what their government is doing.

  8. Rich RifkinWDE 73

    What I would find illuminating is to know how those who primarily get their local news from one source compare, in terms of factual understanding, to others who primarily get their local news from each different source.

    My guess, despite the relatively high level of education and income among Davis adults, is that the vast majority are woefully ignorant of most major issues taking place. The one exception to that is probably among parents of school-aged children. I suspect they are well informed as to what is going on with the schools and the school board.

    But otherwise, I would guess most people in Davis have very little idea what is going on, unless it is directly impacting them. And I think if you compare that with the Davis of 30, 40 and 50 years ago, people are far less well informed today and far more ignorant about their community.

    I think there are several reasons for this, led by the changed nature of people’s lives, where folks are just kept busy all day long by so many things with their jobs and families and household responsibilities that they lack the time to engage in civic affairs at any level. But another important factor is the precipitous decline in literacy*. People simply read far less of everything, save what they are forced to read for work. Most who claim they get their knowledge on the Internet read very little news content. Newspaper reading is way, way down. Same with magazine reading. And book reading is at its nadir in the post-WW2 era. It really does not matter what the medium is for reading, most people just don’t read anything.

    I suspect there are two main reasons why folks don’t read (and as a consequence are so poorly informed): one, the nature of people’s lives today (see above); and two, the gradual shift, due to technology, toward video. Instead of reading a biography of Franklin Roosevelt, for example, most today would take the easier, lazier road and watch a Ken Burns documentary on the subject. Yet as everyone who reads books knows, a documentary only scratches the surface of any topic. People who read really learn something deeper.

    When newspapers and printed news magazines finally go away–probably will happen in our lifetimes–I highly doubt anything equally informative will replace them. A small share of people who get a kick out of civic participation will read online blogs or online news. But most will just live life uninformed, even more so than today.

    *By literacy here I don’t mean the functional ability to read. I mean the act of reading itself.

  9. Alan Miller

    I can’t imagine the Vanguard being anyone’s “primary” source. Having said that, I scan it most days to see if there are any postings of interest. Many people may have it as a source they visit frequently, but I cannot imagine anyone has it as their “primary” source, simply because it focuses on a few issues. The 0.3% is probably David. That doesn’t mean however, that the Vanguard isn’t viewed daily by a lot of people as a secondary, tertiary, etc. source. The question was wordly poorly in an age of multi-source information. Like the question was leftover from the days of newspapers on every doorstep, dial phones, and three network channels on VHF TV.

  10. Bill

    While I find the info in this article interesting, I’m not sure what it’s meant to accomplish. It seems like a non issue to me if the original VG article wasn’t written as a blatant attempt to deceive (which I don’t think it was).

  11. Antoinnette

    Well, I find it respectfully big of David to allow this to be posted….he could have chosen the coward’s way out and not put it up here, and to me that would be the real deception. But he allowed it and be it wrong or incorrect of him to not put the true results, he still owned up? and took the criticism which is often not easy….

    This is a good piece though…but I am inclined to believe more are reading the Vanguard than we think….just been my personal experience.

    It is probably wise not to rely on just one source but to research any and all entities…kinda like getting a second, third and fourth opinion…

    As far as bias, whether politically or otherwise, I am having trouble discerning how any single one of us is not bias due to the fact that what we say, write or express in comment is clearly out opinion, correct? That being said, it would be safe to say…we all are, right?

    Just saying folks…

  12. Dave Hart

    I think Dan Carson is pretty far off the mark in seeing the survey as asking a meaningful question in the first place and then misunderstanding the very different purposes of the two “publications.”

    The question asked in the poll is so open-ended I question how it can be interpreted to mean anything at all. Dan Carson focuses on the report of the poll that looks at the percentage of people responding a certain way. I would be more interested in actual numbers or the context. For instance, the Davis Enterprise has a delivery circulation of 9,000. Many people scan the paper for different reasons, not necessarily to get news about the city of Davis. Some folks only read the sports page, others want a daily fix of Bob Dunning, others don’t want to miss what is happening at the Davis Art Center. The purpose of the Enterprise is like a bulletin board delivered to your house. The Vanguard has two or three articles a day devoted to deep coverage of particular stories. Totally different purposes. The Vanguard, according to David Greenwald has gotten up to 5,000 unique views per day, maybe 2,000 on an average day (David could hep here) but these are people who actively go to the Vanguard and seek it out to read something in depth. Totally different. I would see the Vanguard as being equally, if not more influential that the Enterprise. Moreover, people who read the Vanguard are better informed and thus become the source for “word of mouth” and “social media” opinions for friends and associates.

    1. Matt Williams

      I think that is a very good assessment Dave.

      Further, with the new Vanguard website there is a Community Events section that will be able to address a lot of the “what’s happening at the Davis Art Center” type of information demand from Davis residents. Further, because its space is electronic, the physical limitations that the Enterprise has to impose on its Briefly submissions will not apply to the Vanguard.

      As they say, onward and upward!

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