‘Leading News Source’ Lags, Misleads With Its Column Placement

May 8th, 2014 · 3 Comments · journalism

By Denise Tessier
The Albuquerque Journal recently unveiled a new design for its front pages that not only changed its appearance, but changed its long-time tag line — from the “State’s Leading Newspaper” to “New Mexico’s Leading News Source.”

A daily review of headlines from at least one other newspaper, the Santa Fe New Mexican, provides enough evidence for one to argue against that new claim, as the Journal on several occasions has run a story the same day as the New Mexican, or sometime after, if it runs a given story at all.

As evidence, let’s begin with Monday’s UpFront column (May 5), which was problematic on another level as well.

Not only was “Out-of-state money and the gov.’s race ” problematic in terms of its timing, but even more important, it was tricky in terms of its placement, the latter of which appears part of an ongoing trend that exacerbates and further erodes any remaining distinction between news and opinion in the Journal.

First, there was the timing. Because this was an UpFront piece by Journal investigative reporter Thom Cole, it likely was written and ready the Friday before its Monday publication. Editors no doubt thought the piece would hold without a problem. And normally, it would have.

But for purposes of this post, timing became an issue because of the story’s placement.

Journal editors put this UpFront column in the top right-hand slot of the front page. (They also put a Leslie Linthicum UpFront in this slot two weeks earlier; we’ll get to that in a minute.)

It’s pretty safe to say that up until recently, for as long as even its most senior audience has been reading the Journal, the upper right-hand space of the front page has been reserved for hard news. Even “news features” would rarely get this space.

A human interest or feature story worthy of the front page might get three-quarters of the top of Page One, with photos and a big box outlining the whole thing. Hard news, however, would be in its rightful place in the right-hand column. And if the big front page news was hard news – as was the case Monday with “APD: Man was mentally ill ” — then the right-hand column traditionally would still be hard news.

But on May 5 readers got a political feature that led with:

A quiz:
In the race for governor, whose campaign is relying most heavily on out-of-state donors?

The column’s answer was that it wasn’t Gov. Susana Martinez, “who has made several trips outside New Mexico in recent months to raise money,” but rather “Santa Fe businessman Alan Webber, one of five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to run against the Republican Martinez in the fall election.”

Cole had crunched some numbers from campaign finance reports for the six-month period that ended nearly a month before (April 7), coming up with the premise for the column, which said Webber was relying more on out-of-state donations than Martinez:

Excluding the money he has given and loaned his campaign, Webber reported nearly 840 donations totaling about $380,000 for the period . . . with about $155,000, or 41 percent, . . . coming from New Mexico contributors.

Cole continued that Martinez’s campaign “raised about $500,000 from donors outside New Mexico – more than twice that of Webber – but her out-of state contributions accounted for only about one third of all money taken in.” (Note here: How is $500,000 “more than twice” $380,000?)

Readers don’t learn until the final paragraph on the inside continuation of the story that Martinez now had in her “war chest” 10 times what Webber had raised: Martinez, $4.2 million, Webber, about $440,000. And no word on how much of that $4.2 million came from out of state.

So, why is there a timing problem?

Cole wrote that Martinez said in a fundraising email to supporters last month that Webber had been “raising money at exclusive champagne brunches and holding events from San Francisco to elite members-only clubs in New York, hoping to raise campaign cash from a network of national liberals.”

Alert readers might at this point have wondered if Cole would mention that the billionaire Koch brothers just last summer had flown to Albuquerque in their private jet to attend a fundraiser for Martinez at the tony, some would say “exclusive”, Tamaya Resort near Bernalillo (a story the Journal barely covered at the time.)

He did not mention that fundraiser. But he did mention Charles and David Koch, apparently because Webber brought up the subject. Webber said that if he wins the Democratic primary, he would make the election a referendum against the billionaire brothers. (On Wednesday, The New Mexican provided links to a Webber Koch ad and to an ad by Martinez ; the story fact-checked both. Note that Martinez’s ad criticizes Webber for having a higher proportion of out-of-state donations, which likely came from Cole’s column.)

In his column, Cole offered just this bit of information about Martinez and the Kochs:

The Koch brothers are major donors to conservative and libertarian causes nationwide, and their multinational company, Koch Industries of Wichita, Kan., has made large contributions to both Martinez and her political action committee, Susana PAC.

The New Mexican offered more specifics in its story May 7:

Koch Industries has contributed $4,694 to Martinez’s campaign this year and contributed $10,000 to her 2010 campaign. In addition, Koch Industries contributed $5,000 to the governor’s political committee, SusanaPAC, which mainly is used to contribute to other Republican candidates in the state.

(Note: The Journal ran a story about these two ads and specifics on the Koch donations in a Politics Notebook feature May 8, essentially the same information as the May 7 New Mexican story but without links or fact checking.)

But here’s the clincher on the Cole column’s timing: On Monday, while the Journal UpFront was reporting the governor’s language about “exclusive champagne brunches” in her emails, the New Mexican’s Steve Terrell was reporting that :

A galaxy of Republican Party stars is expected to be on hand for a lavish fundraiser in the Washington, D.C., area this month for New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez’s re-election campaign.

Terrell’s story said a minimum contribution of $500 would be required to attend the event, to be held May 21 at the home of the CEO of the American Beverage Association. Terrell credited Mother Jones magazine with breaking news of the event and providing a link to the invitation. The Journal carried this news two days later as part of its Politics Notebook feature.

And now for the placement problem.

By putting Cole’s column in the top news slot, its subject matter was given more importance. Two other news stories appeared on Page One that day, “ABQ fire chief wants to cut ER visits ,” and “Border Patrol seizes medical marijuana.”

The latter of these, written by Lauren Villagran of the Journal’s Las Cruces office, was a news story that legitimately could have run in the top slot taken by the UpFront column. By running these two articles as they did, instead of the logical reverse, one might conclude that:

1) Journal editors wanted to make a statement that Webber, who has lived in New Mexico since 2003, is an outsider relying on outsiders for his campaign (and that surprise, you thought Susana Martinez was the one getting all the out of state money), and

2) Journal editors didn’t want to appear sympathetic to the plight of a 72-year-old cancer patient and other medical marijuana users who refrain from traveling from Las Cruces to Albuquerque with their medicine because they risk confiscation and possible federal legal action.

Villagran’s story, which was a thorough assessment of the conflict between state and federal law and likely is also a story of national interest, was relegated to lesser status than the political Cole column.

It’s also interesting to contrast how the New Mexican and the Journal treated the fund-raising story. Terrell pointed out in his story that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, in an email sent to potential Martinez donors, said, “Susana is facing a fundraising deadline and your contribution will help her catch up to her opponents, who have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money into their campaigns.”

Terrell’s take:

. . . according to the latest round of New Mexico campaign finance reports last month, it’s not Martinez who needs to “catch up.” Those reports showed that Martinez reported $4.2 million in the bank last month, nearly 10 times the amount of her closest Democratic opponent, Alan Webber.

Now back to the other UpFront column that ran in the upper right slot: “Role-model governor won’t apologize .”

After Mother Jones magazine ran its April 16 story asking whether Martinez was the next Sarah Palin – and posting links revealing incriminating audiotapes – the Journal ran an obligatory story reporting Martinez’s reaction, but editorially, the Journal remained silent.

In the days after this explosive story, the Journal “laid low” in terms of coverage of the governor. A short Politics Notebook on April 18 quoted Martinez as saying no apology was in order for her private comments made and recorded and revealed by Mother Jones. The same day, her photo accompanied a story about Quality New Mexico award recipients on the Business page.

On April 23, the Journal ran a rather large photo of the governor posing with two children, which ran with a story about a summer reading program she’d announced. It ran in the back of the paper, with the legal ads, kind of hidden on C8.

Two days later, Cole had an UpFront on A1 related to the governor, “Gov.’s top aide charged personal purchases to state,” and the Journal’s editorial board quickly weighed in on what Cole had revealed with an editorial April 28 (Monday, a low readership day), “Governor needs rougher stance on misuse of credit .”

The Journal had no editorial comment on what Mother Jones had revealed. In contrast, The Santa Fe New Mexican ran an editorial just one day after the Mother Jones article, realizing, no doubt, that its readers would take note if it remained silent. In “Audiotapes reveal another Martinez ,” the editors led with:

Gov. Susana Martinez took center stage, if only for a brief moment, in the nation’s political theater this week.

And the editorial concluded with:

What the audiotapes do to Gov. Martinez’s carefully constructed image is unknown. But they have certainly moved the curtain aside so that voters can view more clearly the woman in the governor’s seat.

It did not criticize the governor, but merely recited pertinent points of the magazine article and the revealing recordings.

Reticent to do even that, the Journal left the heavy lifting – as it often does – to Leslie Linthicum, whose UpFront column minced no words in leading with:

I’ve always thought there must be a special place in this world for women who call other women bitches. And now I’ve found it. It’s the New Mexico Governor’s Office.

And I’ve always wondered if there is any place on the planet where people call other people “retard.” There is. It’s on the communications staff of the New Mexico Department of Human Services, which serves developmentally delayed clients.

In her spot-on column, Linthicum took Martinez to task, noting:

She didn’t call Denish a jerk or a liar (which Denish has called Martinez in the past). She used the word “bitch,” which holds special derogatory meaning.

. . .When New Mexico’s first female governor uses that word against another woman – when any woman uses that word against another woman – she’s adopting the sexist assumptions about a woman’s place, whether or not she’s doing it consciously. Adding “little,” another favorite term of the patriarchy, just makes it worse.

Martinez’s refusal to apologize for the insult also reveals a hypocrisy in her frequent finger-wagging at others.

The Journal editorial board wouldn’t weigh in, but put Linthicum’s column in the top right slot on the front page of the Sunday Journal, the highest circulation day. The paper wouldn’t take a stand, but a columnist was allowed to, as were readers in the near-full page of letters that ran two days later.

Note: The Santa Fe New Mexican also carried a story May 1 saying a Martinez attorney had contacted Albuquerque television stations attempting to keep them from running an anti-Martinez ad, which one station manager called “a first.” The Journal has not reported this story.

And, as this post was being written, the New Mexican’s Steve Terrell tweeted a link to yet another Mother Jones story about Martinez . It will be interesting to how, when, or if the Journal covers this latest development.

 

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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Susan Clair

    The ABQ Journal can—and did—call itself whatever those at the top choose to call it. It’s another example of corporate marketing and shallow self-promotion that is questionable at the very least.

  • admin

    THOM COLE COMMENTS: The following comment on this story was submitted by Thom Cole on May 9. However, we just discovered that it was appended to an unrelated story from 2012. To eliminate any confusion, Cole’s comment is reposted below. Our apologies to Thom and to our readers for this glitch:

    Thom Cole // May 9, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    $380,000 (total Webber contributions) minus $155,000 (in-state Webber contributions) equals $225,000 (out-of-state Webber contributions). $500,000 is more than twice $225,000. Also, did you see my story Oct. 19, 2013, with the headline, “Governor brings home campaign cash?”

  • Denise Tessier

    Thom, thanks for clarifying the contribution breakdown.

    And yes, good story back in October, which to recap, said “nearly half” of the $2.2 million Martinez had raised in the previous six months came from out-of-state sources. It also said about two-thirds of donations to SusanaPAC came from out of state.
    
I see the value in looking at percentages (Webber nearly 60 percent out of state, Martinez nearly 50 percent out of state as of last October), but there was no sentence in the May 5 column giving that side-by-side comparison. It would also have been nice to read how much of the other $2 million in Martinez’s “war chest” was from out of state, and whether that would change her percentage result.

    Even without the other $2 million, and if we look at totals rather than percentages, “nearly half” of $2.2 million would put Martinez at about $1 million from out of state (which no doubt would be higher if we had a breakdown for the other $2 million), which is more than four times the $225,000 Webber received from out of state. So, who is relying most on out-of-state donors?

    It was interesting to read Barry Massey’s AP follow-up Mary 13, which said Martinez had raised $561,586 in the past month – more than twice all the Democrats combined – and that she spent more than half a million in the past month, leaving her $4.2 million intact.

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