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Media Notes: Howard Kurtz on the Scott Brown story

Joyless: Maura Pensak, of Cambridge, Mass., right, reacts as Senate candidate Martha Coakley concedes defeat Tuesday.
Joyless: Maura Pensak, of Cambridge, Mass., right, reacts as Senate candidate Martha Coakley concedes defeat Tuesday. (Steven Senne/associated Press)

A Jan. 7 editorial said that even with polls tightening, "Scott Brown still needs a political miracle to win." And a Jan. 10 Globe poll seemed to seal the deal, giving Coakley a "solid" 15-point lead among likely voters.

Frank Phillips, the Globe's statehouse bureau chief, says he missed the last few days of the campaign by taking a personal trip with his wife that he finalized a couple of weeks earlier. "I made a decision at Christmas that this was not going to be an important race, others could handle it, I could be out of town," Phillips says.

But he says Brown was going nowhere earlier in the campaign: "What would you have written? 'Things were heating up'? Things weren't heating up. It would be unfair to say we had missed it, because it wasn't there."

While the Globe gradually reported signs of a closer race, it wasn't until Jan. 16 that Phillips definitively signaled the shift. He wrote that Coakley's strategy of ignoring Brown "turned out to be a major miscalculation" and that national Democrats were "now panicked about a neck-and-neck race."

She wasn't the only one who made a major miscalculation.

Honeymoon is history

It's hardly a news flash that President Obama's media coverage has turned sour. But he still outshines his recent predecessors.

Obama wound up 2009 with balanced coverage -- 49 percent positive, 51 percent negative -- according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which studied the network newscasts, Time, Newsweek and the New York Times front page. But he swooned from 59 percent positive in the first four months of the year to 39 percent positive from August through December.

The researchers, from George Mason and Chapman universities, found the president drawing 46 percent positive evaluations on the NBC, ABC and CBS evening newscasts. By comparison, those networks were harder on George W. Bush (23 percent positive), Bill Clinton (28 percent) and Ronald Reagan (26 percent) in the first year of their terms.

In a sharp contrast, Obama drew 22 percent positive coverage on the first half-hour of Fox News's "Special Report," which most resembles a newscast. The study found his evaluations "consistently negative" all year, skidding to 14 percent positive in the last four months.

Surfing the news

Those who believe Google is hurting newspapers online got some new ammunition last week.

Forty-four percent of those polled by Outsell Research said they scan headlines on Google "without accessing the newspaper sites." For many users, the report says, "headlines are enough and valuable, and that's been the crux of news wire and news companies' increasing complaints about Google's 'unfair' use of the news supply line."

But for all the whining, there's nothing "unfair" about it. Newspapers could have dominated this space if they had been more aggressive about linking to ostensible competitors. Instead, 31 percent of those who want news right away said in the survey that they turn to an aggregator -- which could range from Google or Yahoo to the Huffington Post -- while 8 percent said a newspaper site and 18 percent some other Web site.

Newspapers are built around the smorgasbord model, but search engines increasingly drive news appetites online. That's one reason the New York Times announced last week that it will begin charging non-subscribers in 2011, using a metered approach after a certain number of articles are provided free. That means all Times pieces can be linked to on Google, while the heaviest users pay the freight -- as opposed to the paper's last attempt, when columnists and special material were put behind a pay wall.

The Times -- and all the other papers studying the problem -- badly need more online revenue. But the danger is that readers will surf off after they hit the wall, especially for material they can find elsewhere. As blogger Jeff Jarvis put it: "Why charge your best customers? Why single them out? Why risk driving them away?"

Skeptics doubt that most consumers will pay for news stories the way they do for songs on iTunes. But the Times and its rivals have to try to change that mind-set, or their newsrooms will keep on shrinking.

Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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