My name is Julie and I’m a news addict.
I’m a D.C. Metro commuter. Like many other people in the Washington D.C. area, I am also a news junkie. It’s about more than staying up on current affairs, though. I need ALL the news. I lost count of my RSS feed subscriptions when it reached 70; it may be in the 100s now. My problem started in 2003 when I moved to Northern Virginia to work in politics. At the time, I couldn’t afford a subscription to the Washington Post or a blackberry, and so I had to endure my commutes without any news. That is, until the glorious day when the Washington Post brought a free publication with short versions of the day’s news into my life. They called it the Express, and it made my commute noticeably more enjoyable. I felt smarter AND quickly became a Sudoku master.
At some point I noticed another paper similar to the Express – the Examiner. It seemed comparable to the Express – it was free, published daily, and handed out by a friendly person at the Metro each morning. But the headlines seemed too sensational for me, and it was of a decidedly partisan slant – quite the opposite direction of my own leanings. I decided to stick with the Express, and so it was for a few years.
Fast forward through a few more years during which I lived in locations where the Metro was not a convenient option (and thus did not read the Express). This year I moved back to NoVa and settled back into a Metro commute. Obviously technology changed a lot during that time, but I don’t currently have a tablet and my smartphone doesn’t get reception underground in NoVa, so I started reading my trusty Express again. This time, I found it lacking. It’s free, so I can’t complain too much, but c’mon Washington Post – I know you can do better than that.
I started to notice the Examiner had some real visual appeal. I began to grow curious about whether there might be other differences between the two options. Thus began the journey which I share here today. I picked up copies of the Examiner and the Express for five days. I measured both on various metrics, and I was honestly surprised by what I found. My preferences have changed: I now read the Examiner.
My key findings can be broken down into two main points, which highlight the plusses and minuses of each publication, as well as the different preferences of other kinds of commuters. The methodology section below details how I calculated these numbers.
- The Examiner covers more news.
- It turns out I wasn’t just imagining things when I thought the Examiner might be more visually appealing than the Express. The Express has a lot more ad space (40%) than the Examiner (22%). Since the Examiner has less ad space, it makes more room for news coverage (51%) than the Express (34%). (See Figure 1 and Figure 2)
- The Examiner is longer. It averages 49 pages to the Express’ 38 pages. (See Figure 3)
- The Examiner offers about twice as many articles as the Express. This is logical since it’s longer and has more room for news coverage. (See Figure 4)
- The Examiner includes more in-depth coverage. The Examiner averages 51 long articles while the Express averages just 19 long articles. Both papers include a comparable number of short articles. (See Figure 4)
- The Examiner covers more unique topics. There is generally not a large amount of overlap between the two publications, but on average, a third of the articles in the Express are covered by the Examiner while just 10% of the Examiner’s articles are covered by the Express. (See Figure 5)
- The Express gives more things to do.
- The Express offers slightly more entertainment coverage (10%) than the Examiner (8%). If I’m looking to make some weekend plans or if I need to catch up on celebrity gossip, I will pick up the Express.
- The Express also has much more space devoted to “fun” items such as games and comics (8%) when compared with the Examiner (3%). If I need to kill some time waiting for an appointment later in the day, I will grab an Express that day.
- The Examiner is partisan. My recollection of the Examiner’s partisan tilt still holds true. The Examiner includes a sizeable opinion section whereas the Express has no opinion pieces, and the Examiner’s editorials are admittedly conservative.
- I also discovered that the Examiner has an email newsletter each morning and a pretty good website (compared with what I suppose is the Express’ website). If I had a tablet that could download the full copy of the Examiner, or if I could get reception underground, this would be useful to me. The Washington Post’s Lunchline email is like an express version of the Express and it doesn’t come out until…well, lunchtime…but the Express website also offers a downloadable PDF of the full version, so again, that could be useful if I had a tablet. Essentially, both offer appealing options for certain audiences, but I can’t utilize either’s online features during my morning commute.
I collected copies of the Express and the Examiner on September 18, 19, 20, 24 and 28, representing one per weekday, spread out over two weeks. The findings I present are averages of all five of these days.
Based on an initial set of assumptions and questions, I chose metrics to measure. These metrics were chosen because they seemed reasonably unbiased and easy to measure. I make no claims about this being an actual scientific study, and I am not submitting it to anyone for peer review so I made a list of things that made sense to me, consulted my spouse and called it a day.
- I counted the total number of pages, and the number of full page ads or classifieds.
- I categorized all the content on each page as one of the following: ads, classifieds, national news, international news, local news, sports, entertainment, fun (games, comics, horoscopes, etc.), special features (items not featured daily or not fitting into any of the other categories, such as health, housing or education), and opinion.
- The special features in the Examiner initially included the “Crime and Punishment” and “Yeas and Nays” pages but those were all later changed to be counted as part of either the local or national metric, depending on which geography each story covered. The Examiner also includes pages like Body and Mind that include health and fitness news, as well as an advice column; while those pages are regularly featured, I included them as special features throughout the analysis. The Express includes a fitness feature once a week so that topic was included as a special feature in that publication, and other items didn’t consistently fit neatly into any other category.
- I added up the “hard” news (world, nation, local) and the “soft” news (entertainment, sports, and special features) but these calculations were mostly redundant.
- I calculated the amount of space devoted to each category by measuring space used up on each page for each category, then dividing the total for each category by the total amount of space available within each day’s edition. These measurements are not exact given blank space between columns, but they account for at least 97% of each publication’s content. There were a couple editions of the Express that included extra inserts (e.g., a rental guide) and those special inserts were not included in the calculations.
- I looked at the topics covered in the individual stories and I determined where there was overlap between the two publications on any given day. I only included national, local, world, entertainment and sports news in this analysis. I did not compare content across days. Stories marked as overlapping were not always identical in their coverage; they may have covered the same topic from different angles. For instance, on one day, both publications included stories about a poll in Virginia. It was counted as the same topic because it was the same poll even though they highlighted different findings. However, two stories about the latest polling in the presidential race would not have counted as the same topic if they discussed different polls. It should be noted that this analysis focused merely on the overlap between the topics, and not on the length of the stories; in several instances, the Express would only include a paragraph or two on a topic while the Examiner offered a half page of coverage, and this was true for all news categories.
- I noted the length of stories. Short stories were a paragraph or two, as decided by the editors and where they placed paragraph breaks. Long stories were at least three paragraphs.
Not shown in this analysis is that the Examiner did include one or two reporting (not opinion) pieces that reflected a partisan bias. For instance, one particularly long article was an expose on Obama, “The Obama You Don’t Know,” separated into chapters with titles such as “The Myth of Obama as State Senate Reformer” and “Obama Brings Chicago Politics to Washington.” Clearly that’s a partisan piece. On a similar note, there were some articles highlighting issues such as labor disputes. I did not find the actual reporting of those articles to have a partisan tilt, and so I do not take issue with those articles, but I point it out because their inclusion seemed to reflect the interests of a conservative readership. However, I suspect that I am more sensitive to the inclusion of those articles than the average reader.
At this point, I would like to address an important topic not related to methodology. Some people will probably wonder why I took the time to geek out over something as trivial as which free newspaper to read. I did this for few reasons. First and foremost because I am a HUGE GEEK. Also because I believe decisions based on unbiased data tend to be more sound than those based on political leanings. While I lean strongly to the left in many of my political preferences, I don’t like to take a position without being able to defend it. In this case, I found myself reading the Express because I suspected the Examiner would be too biased in a direction I wouldn’t like…and when I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t a good justification. I wanted to give both a closer look and figure out if my own biases were the real problem. They were. I am glad I did this and now know which source I should turn to when I want certain features. Plus, the geek in me had a lot of fun.