I am Literate, @DenverNicks, and That’s the Problem

Back on November 15th, Denver Nicks wrote a Time Magazine’s Swampland post about a Bloomberg News story. This Time site, Swampland, claims to provide “Political insight from the Beltway and beyond”.

Nicks’ post recapped what Bloomberg reported about Amtrak’s recent financial woes, with a look at their food & beverage services. Bloomberg’s reporting explained that Amtrak’s F&B service lost $72 million last year. They went on to explain that $428,000 of those $72 million in losses were due to offering free wine, cheese, and champagne offered on long-haul trips.

But, when Nicks rewrote Bloomberg’s reporting, he used the title:

Amtrak Serves Free Wine, Loses $72 Million

While that headline is technically true, it misplaces the blame for $71,572,000 of $72m in losses.

But, surely, Denver Nicks clarified this in the post he wrote? Actually, no, he didn’t. He actually made it less clear:

Amtrak, the federally-supported U.S. national railroad, lost $72 million in food-service expenses last year, almost all from long-distance trains on which passengers get complimentary wine and cheese.

The problem with sloppy reporting like this is that people tend to believe it. This includes fellow Time employees like Callie Schweitzer:

@cschweitz on Amtrak

The LOL seems to suggest that she believe Denver Nicks’ reporting. Not that she thinks his reporting is laughably misleading, although that’s funny to consider.

@sumnums took a shot at explaining the problem with Nicks’ reporting to Schweitzer:

@sumnums on Amtrak

Also, notice how much more accurate The Hill’s story is with their title and lede than Denver Nicks’ story at Time.

I offered Schweitzer some help too:

@cschweitz It looks like the problem with your Amtrak characterization is that you relied upon @DenverNicks's sloppy reporting. cc @sumnums

To me, it seems like Amtrak has enough financial problems to solve without having to deal with people like Denver Nicks making it sound like the train service gave away $72 million in food last year. Had Denver Nicks’ story lead with “Amtrak Gave Away an Average of $2.31 in Free Food & Drink to Passengers Last Year” he would have been a bit closer to accurate than what he reported. But, that doesn’t sound nearly as alarming.

Which brings me to this Tweet I received from Denver Nicks:

@edkohler are you literate?

The thing is, that’s the problem. I am literate, and so is Callie Schweitzer. If either of us relied upon Denver Nicks’ reporting, our literacy would lead to us being misinformed about how Amtrak went about losing $72 million on food & beverage last year.

To me, this is a good reminder that we need to increase our media literacy by seeking out reliable sources for our news.

Update: Denver Nicks posted this on Twitter in response to this post:

Denver Nicks' Responses

Nicks has a good point. A lot of writers don’t write the headlines of their articles/posts. But, they do write the bodies of the stories. And, as my above post explains, the problem here is that Denver Nicks story about Bloomberg’s story reported:

Amtrak, the federally-supported U.S. national railroad, lost $72 million in food-service expenses last year, almost all from long-distance trains on which passengers get complimentary wine and cheese.

A Times Swampland headline writer, having read Denver Nicks’ story, could easily end up writing that misleading headline since they likely based it on Denver Nicks’ misleading reporting rather than what Bloomberg actually reported.

More importantly, as far as I’m concerned, is that Denver Nicks has not updated his misleading story. That “less than clear” / misleading story has been tweeted 122 times and liked on Facebook 132 times as of 8:50pm CST on 11/18/2013. If Denver Nicks is not going to be first to a story (he was aggregating content from Bloomberg) or add any value (he subtracted value) what exactly did he accomplish with his piece?

7 thoughts on “I am Literate, @DenverNicks, and That’s the Problem”

  1. I agree with your assessment, and its too bad because his point is valid, I think. Even though the $428k was not the lion’s share of the loss, it does portray that they might be spending money on things that aren’t necessary. He could have made the point without being careless.

    You do have to give him credit for apologizing for the tweet, though. The link above is broken now, which I think is ok given that he didn’t just delete it and try to act as though it never existed.

  2. @ben, at 0.59% of the losses it’s far from the lion’s share of the losses.

    As I see it, he apologized for the headline writer making the mistake of relying upon his story to craft a headline.

    Actually, he did just delete it and try to act as though it never existed. He deleted it before I wrote my original post.

  3. I deleted the tweet immediately after I wrote it, having thought better of it. I spent the weekend in the emergency room and came to work utterly exhausted – your Twitter insult just set me off, and I fired off a flippant response, regretted it, and deleted hoping it wouldn’t arrive. I’m not trying to hide anything, Ed, I was trying to not be a jerk. I’m just a guy who goes to work every day, and, like anyone else, sometimes has a bad day. You caught me on a particularly bad one.

    I’ve already initiated the corrections process to clarify the point you raised concerns about.

    Best,

    D

  4. I see that he already commented here anyways, but it seems to me that deleting the tweet before you published your post just goes to show that it was sincere, as opposed to deleting it as a reaction to this post.

    And yes, we agree that the money spent on wine and cheese was a tiny portion of the losses. Outside of the article in question, would you agree that there is something to be said for the appearance of propriety in spending? That it would have been an easy way to save $428k to not have the wine and cheese? Seems like low hanging fruit to me.

    I feel like if the Vikings wanted the city or state to spend an extra $428k on an aspect of the stadium you would be upset (and I completely agree with your posts and views on the stadium, I love your coverage of it). If Amtrak could have easily saved $428k by not providing a seemingly marginal benefit, why not save the money, given that they likely knew the fiscal realities.

  5. @ben, wine and cheese are only complimentary for sleeping car passengers on select routes. All meals are also included as part of the sleeping berth price, which, if you haven’t bought it before, is very steep. Getting rid of an amenity will of course have an effect on perceived value and demand for a particular level of service, not unlike flying in different classes on airplanes.

    The piddly $428K is an accounting trick and could just as well be booked as a cost of providing lodging instead of being called “complimentary”. I’m sure the toilet paper is “complimentary” as well, if someone wished to phrase it that way.

    See:
    http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=Page&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1241305537990
    http://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?c=AM_Accommodation_C&pagename=am%2FLayout&cid=1241210576173
    http://www.amtrakoig.gov/sites/default/files/reports/oig-a-2014-001_0.pdf

  6. @ben, I don’t know a ton about that $428k line item, but it sounds like it’s a service provided to people on long-haul train trips who’ve often paid for premium tickets like sleeper cabins. So, it may be similar to what airlines offer in first class on long haul flights compared to economy. It’s not clear to me if $428k was the cost of the food, the cost of serving that food, or a combination of those two. Or, if that is a figure representing the cost beyond what it should realistically cost to provide that service. And, I don’t know what impact not providing that service would have on ridership. Perhaps this is a cost of doing business? I don’t know.

    I’d like to think that if I wrote a post focusing on a small aspect of the public funding of the Vikings corporate welfare project, I’d provide an accurate context to what I wrote. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever written “taxpayers on the hook for half a billion dollars in VIP toilets”. While we are on the hook for a large portion of the cost of a ton of VIP toilets, they represents only a small fraction of the subsidies.

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