The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

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Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL: black_rod_usher@yahoo.com

Friday, November 03, 2006

FP's tangled web catches editor Bob Cox

It comes as no surprise that the Winnipeg Free Press has had some serious problems with credibility recently.

* One day the newspaper is literally making up quotes it claims were spoken at the public inquiry into the conviction of James Driskel for murder. The quotes proudly appear on Page One, but not in the transcript of the hearing.

* Another day the publisher is blaming his own reporter for screwing up direct quotes taken from a tape recorded interview. The paper claims Lloyd Axworthy said "diasporas", not "the Aspers" when he criticized the political influence of, ahem, people with dual loyalties. No transcript of the interview is provided.

* And who can forget the editor's "clarification" during the civic election campaign for all the blatant misquotes and false headlines attacking Mayor Sam Katz. Clarification is the word you use when you refuse to apologize to the person you smeared in the first place.

And then this week, as they say in radio, the hits just keep on coming.

FP editor Bob Cox was positively giggly when writing on his "blog" about the latest Free Press circulation figures.

Circulation, he claimed, is up, even if only by about one percent.

"This may not sound like much. But, to put it in perspective, the other daily newspaper in Winnipeg lost circulation, as did large papers such as the National Post and the Toronto Star."

"So we're pretty proud of the number of people reading us in print and online. I'm thankful that Winnipeg supports the Free Press and in return I hope we can continue to be the best source of information in the city."

Uh, Bobby? Who do you think you're kidding?

For starters, you would have to actually provide accurate information to the public. No made-up quotes, transcripts of disputed interviews, facts not fantasy when covering an election. And then there's the problem of your spin on the Free Press circulation.

Now, we're not talking about the claim by reporter Dan Lett on his "blog" that the FP circulation is 165,000. You may want to talk to him about that privately.

But we did notice that the FP carried a news story about your circulation success which was the basis of your "blog" posting. And we wonder about the figures quoted in that story.

We don't blame reporter Geoff Kirbyson. He was just minding his own business when he got the assignment from hell --- take these numbers, make the paper look good, and make it look like a real news story. But we have some questions about those numbers.

According to figures released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Free Press weekday circulation increased from 116,710 to 117,966, Saturday circulation dropped from 164,106 to 162,951, and Sunday circulation rose from 113,788 to 114,709.

That means your average daily circulation was 123,000 and has risen to a whopping 123,800.

Uh, Bob.... Wasn't the Winnipeg Free Press claiming back in January, when Andy Ritchie got the job as publisher, that its average daily circulation was 125,000?

Does that mean the FP lost 1.6 percent in circulation in 2006? And you're trumpeting the return of 0.6 percent?

Or did the ABC audit determine that the 125,000 figure was inflated by 1.6 percent, that the true figure was 123,000?

And did circulation increase 2 percent on weekdays, as the newspaper's owners told their income trust investors in the annual report released March, 2006?

Or has The Winnipeg Free Press's circulation fallen an average of 2.4 per cent each year over the past four years, as the Ryerson Review of Journalism reported this past summer of 2006?
You remember that story, don't you? You were quoted in it. Especially on how major newspapers are losing their readers.

"Every editor in the country is thinking about it," says Bob Cox, editor of the Free Press. He cites threats like the Internet, less time to read newspapers, diminishing reader habits and an aging readership. Cox recently asked an auditorium full of students at the University of Manitoba what their first source of news is. "Two-thirds of the room," he recalls, "put up their hands when I said 'Internet?'"

And while we're at it, are you expecting people to believe that the latest circulation figures are certified by the Audit Bureau of Circulations as true?

Tut.Tut.

With your new passion to be the best source of information in the city, you must know that such an implication is, shall we say, deceptive?

The circulation figures released by the ABC this week come from a Publishers Statement provided by Andy Ritchie. Here's how ABC puts it:

" Publisher's Statements - ABC-publisher members must file Publisher's Statements every six months. These statements, which are subject to audit, are the publisher's claimed circulation figures. Audits are conducted to verify the information in the Publisher's Statements. Newspapers file Publisher's Statements for the six-months ending March 31 and September 30. "

In other words, Ritchie supplied ABC with what he said is the paid circulation of the Winnipeg Free Press. ABC sent this figure to subscribers of its service. The Winnipeg Free Press took their own publisher's figures, claimed they were official ABC figures, and wrote a story patting themselves on the back.

We're not saying the newspaper made up the story, although, given its recent habit of fabricating quotes to create better stories, that wouldn't be so farfetched.

But full disclosure would require you to tell your readers that the publisher's claimed circulation figures still have to be verified. Here's how the process works:

" Audit Reports - Circulation audit results are displayed in ABC Audit Reports. The reports reconcile any difference between the audited findings and the publisher's claims. Most Audit Reports are issued annually, although smaller newspapers may opt for every-other-year audits. "

Coincidentally, today the Poynter Institute carried a story about declining newspaper circulation.

A Closer Look at Plunging Circulation
By Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, November 3, 2006
As was widely reported, the six-month circulation numbers for U.S. newspapers released earlier this week carried plenty of bad news: an industry-wide tumble year-to-year of 2.8% daily and 3.4% on Sunday.
There were much deeper losses in big metro markets like Boston, Los Angeles and Miami.
As grim as those numbers are, a deeper look into the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) reports and into some online data released by the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), makes the overall economic picture even a little bleaker.

Read the whole thing at:
http://www.journalism.org/node/2707

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