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The Vacuous Article Template: Campaign Fundraising Edition

2012 August 5
by Eric Horowitz

This weekend’s “Would’ve gotten a ‘C’ in a high school journalism class” award goes to Dan Eggen for his Washington Post article on the effects of fundraising emails. It’s not an easy award to win, but when you adhere to the Vacuous Article Template as strictly as Eggan, your competitors don’t have a chance.

Here is a primer on the vacuous article template, but for those unfamiliar with it, it consists of four key sections:

1. The existence of a difficult-to-prove trend is proposed.
2. The author quotes an expert in an attempt to support the existence of the trend, but the quote actually contains no real evidence.
3. One statistically insignificant person is introduced as evidence the proposed trend exists.
4. Information is given that seemingly supports the hypothesis, but actually has nothing to do with it.

Here’s how Eggan’s story fits the mold:

1. The existence of a difficult-to-prove trend is proposed.

Eager to gain advantage in a tight and expensive election year, political campaigns are drowning their most ardent supporters in a deluge of messages begging for cash.

[...]

But political strategists from both parties warn that campaigns must be careful to avoid alienating their most devoted followers with an endless tide of fundraising e-mails.

There you have it. Campaigns may be on the wrong side of the fundraising email “laffer curve.” More emails may actually be leading to less money.

This premise should strike you as absurd. Campaigns have an enormous number of people experimenting with ways to maximize fundraising, and thus it’s highly implausible that they would engage in activities that reduce the amount of money brought in. In fact, the article mentions this point, but not until the end.

Many campaign strategists on both sides say e-mail fundraising has become so sophisticated that there is little chance the Obama campaign is angering too many followers. Peter Daou, a digital media strategist who worked for the presidential campaigns of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), said electronic solicitation efforts “are almost a hard science at this point.”

“We had it down to such a science that we would study the position of the donate button, the shape and color of the donate button, the language used on a donate button, to determine what worked best,” Daou said. “Nothing in an e-mail solicitation from a campaign at this point is accidental. Nothing.”

Journalist: Hey Editor, you know that article premise I’ve been working on? It turns out most people involved with what I’m writing about think it’s false.

Editor: Don’t worry. Just stick a paragraph about their views near the end. Have it my Inbox by 5.

2. The author quotes an expert in an attempt to support the existence of the trend, but the quote actually contains no real evidence.

“The question really isn’t whether or not an aggressive e-mail plan will produce money, because almost all fundraising e-mails will,” said Austin James, vice president for digital strategy at Gridiron Communications, a Republican consulting firm. “It is about the frequency and tone with which you ask for money that plays into the overall health of your list and perception of your campaign.”

Gee thanks, Mr. Expert. You say all emails raise money, but that they could hurt if not done right. So you’ve proposed two potential opposing outcomes without providing any evidence or explanation about what will lead to them.

3. One statistically insignificant person is introduced as evidence the proposed trend exists.

Michael K. Wilkinson, a photographer from the District who receives multiple Democratic fundraising e-mails each day, worries that the urgent messages from Obama are “making him look like he’s scared” and turning people off.

“The tone of the e-mails has shifted from ‘Hey buddy’ to ‘the ship is on fire,’ ” Wilkinson said. “Their whole strategy is based on grass-roots, small donors, which is great. But I worry that maybe they’ve over-relied on us to the point that not only are we not responding, they’re getting on our nerves.”

Oh no! Photographer Michael K. Wilkinson is worried about the tone of the emails! Does Axelrod know?

4. Information is given that seemingly supports the hypothesis, but actually has nothing to do with it.

In trolling for cash, nothing approaches the sheer assertiveness of the Obama campaign, which had 13 million names on its initial e-mail list and has pushed into overdrive after falling behind Romney in monthly fundraising. The Romney campaign and its affiliates raised $183 million in May and June, compared with $131 million for Obama’s operation.

ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative journalism Web site, has collected more than 600 separate fundraising e-mails from the Obama campaign this year, nearly all of them sent in the past three months. The group has tallied about 100 similar messages from the Romney campaign, which is less focused on small-dollar donations.

We get it, the campaigns are sending out a lot of emails. But the premise of this article is that an abnormally high volume is harmful. To show that the article should first prove that the number of emails is significantly larger than four years ago (while controlling for the global/national increase in email over the last four years), and then cite real evidence demonstrating that this is having a negative effect.

Bonus Vacuous Section: Get suckered into printing a random campaign attack.

“Obama is stuck with the problem of trying to re-engage people who were highly motivated for him last time,” said Jeff Roe of Axiom Strategies, which helps Republican congressional candidates. “If there was more excitement he wouldn’t have to be so aggressive.”

Editor: Good work on the article, but you know what it needs? A random Republican “strategist” taking a shot at Obama. And make sure that the quote you get has no actual evidence and adds nothing to the article.

#####

What’s interesting about Eggan’s story is that it’s written more like a soft-news-ish puff-piece than your standard analytical campaign article. It’s as though it was drawn up as a puff piece, but an editor decided it wasn’t strong enough and that the way to save it was to turn it into a more serious piece with supposed implications for the election. That’s generally a recipe for disaster.

As usual, here’s my standard takeaway regarding the vacuous article template (note: I’ve written this paragraph before):

The worst thing about these articles is that they crowd out actual news. Nobody is canceling stories about government corruption in order to write about Kristen Stewart, but those corruption stories could  end up being replaced by stories like one above. Soft news is a waste of resources, but at least we know it’s a waste of resources. Stealth soft news stories like horse-race articles or phony “savvy” analysis are dangerous because we imagine them to have nonexistent benefits.

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