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Editorial: Few clues with digital news

Here’s a throw-away editorial we shouldn’t have to write, except it points out some of the failings of reading news in a digital format. One such problem is that readers have to know a lot to judge the importance of news. 
In Vermont, the largest purveyor of digital news is VTDigger. For the most part, its team of reporters serve the state well with their news coverage of the Legislature and the administration in power. It’s well known they have largely replaced the news coverage that was once provided by a robust team of experienced reporters with the Associated Press, and the Times-Argus-Rutland HeraldPress Bureau that was then curated and given importance by local editors of newspapers by a story’s placement or Page 1 or Page 13, and by the headline size and boldness.
If a story appeared the front page with a 48-point bold headline that screamed of importance, readers immediately understood its urgency and pertinence; and if the story was tucked on page 24 under an 18-point, three-deck single-column headline, the reader could assume the editors thought the story was of interest, but not of particular importance.
With digital few such clues exist for readers. 
Instead, much of the time, the treatment of stories appear the same. Hence, VTDigger blared in its “politics” section last week: “Leahy named in report on ‘outlandish’ leadership PAC spending,” in the same size font and boldness as the story “House and Senate near a deal on paid leave and minimum wage,”and “House Speaker tells Senate leader to strike a deal by noon or go home.”
With those visual clues, the average reader would assume the Leahy story was certainly as big a story as the other two, and therefore a credible scandal.
It wasn’t. 
The basis of the VTDigger story was a report released by Issue One, a self-described “nonpartisan political reform group” that seeks to expose illicit political behavior of U.S. candidates. In this particular report, it looked at how politicians used funds from PACS (political action committees), which have become a common and legal way candidates often manage some campaign expenses. The authors of the report, which is based in Ohio, prefaced this report by citing “outlandish” expenses of some politicians. 
VTDigger, then, looked through the report and found that Sen. Patrick Leahy was included with two expenses that the authors’ of the report thought looked expensive. One was an expense of $1,365 at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, which the report called a “luxury resort in Vermont that advertises its ‘Austrian inspired architecture and European style accommodations’ surrounded by ‘stunning mountain views.’” The other was for $8,797 at Burlington’s Hotel Vermont, which the report describes as “chic.”
Two things should jump out at the reader: first, almost every place in Vermont has “stunning mountain views,” but I suppose we can excuse an envious flatlander from Ohio for assuming the view from the Trapp Family Lodge as exceptional; and second the amount of money this report cites Leahy spending as “outlandish” is laughable. If anyone has ever hosted a wedding or a summer party with more than 20 people, you can easily spend more than $1,365 hosting it in your backyard let alone at Trapp Family Lodge. And $8,797 for a larger weekend campaign rally in a downtown hotel in any city in the country has got to be close to a record lowamount.
The news report did contact Leahy’s longtime campaign manager Carolyn Dwyer, who reported that expenses were part of a weekend retreat that “raises money for the leadership PAC while also promoting Vermont businesses and products.”
“Senator Leahy has always supported transparency in campaign finances, reporting every contribution and expense for full disclosure,” Dwyer said, who could have then cited real abuses from others, noting that Leahy is among the least offensive of campaign spenders. The editor and reporter could have done such a comparison.
And the report also noted that while Leahy’s PAC only used 43 percent of its funding for political causes other than his own campaign expenses, the average nationwide was 46 percent — an amount that’s splitting hairs.
Michael Beckel, manager of research, investigations and policy analysis at Issue One, told VTDigger “one of the group’s primary concerns was politicians who use leadership PAC money to fly across the country, holding fundraisers while they ski in Aspen or lounge on the beach in Florida. Good for them, but since that was not the case with Leahy’s expenses, why didn’t the news report make that comparison?
“Some members [of Congress] will travel hundreds or thousands of miles to raise money at luxurious resorts,” Beckel said. “In Leahy’s case, the bulk of fundraisers are taking place in Vermont.” 
Outside of those two expenses, Green Mountain PAC had only a few other food and lodging costs over the two years in question. In 2017, it spent $1,577 at Ben & Jerry’s, $1,317 at 802 Cocktails in Milton, and in 2018, $1,415 at Sugarsnap Catering in Burlington — all of which cast the senator’s spending as fairly modest in the world of political campaigning.
So, why include Sen. Leahy in the round-up? Because Issue One hopes some media outlet like VTDigger in each state will pick up the story, blow it up, and give Issue One some free publicity — because all such political groups need recognition if their donors are to keep donating to pay their salaries and research. If they don’t create headlines, they won’t last long.
And why did VTDigger run the story? Put simply, it’s clickbait and that’s why the headline is a bit racy and why it’s played as big as everything else. It’s the number of clicks that helps determine grants as well as impressing donors for monthly appeals. 
Which is another problem with the digital news model based on donor contributions: the value of a news story is too often based on the number of clicks a story might draw, not about its importance to readers or the community.
Was this a story of importance for any discerning editor? No, and it’s certainly not a story to compete with the top 10 political stories of the week as it was on Digger’s site. Is it a story of interest? Sure, and from the perspective of keeping politicians honest, it’s not a bad idea to tuck such stories on page 13 of the newspaper in a one-column 18-point headline that says: “here’s something of interest, but don’t give it a lot of importance.” Newspapers do that effectively.
Unfortunately, the world of digital loves clicks, and clicks mean money. Furthermore, the digital format (how stories are organized and show up on your computer screen) doesn’t easily lend itself to distinquishing stories by their worth. That’s something readers have to learn; and, judging by the dozen or so posts under that story, we’re a long way from that sort of media literacy in this state and country.
— Angelo Lynn

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