Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Paulick Report anniversary a time for celebration, contemplation

I noticed upon a visit to RaceDay360 that the "Paulick Report" is celebrating its first anniversary today. That's red-letter date, not just for Ray Paulick, former editor in chief of The Blood-Horse, who started his site after leaving that job, but also for all of racing journalism.

Paulick has noted that turf writing, as it's called, has long lacked the independence necessary to be a wholly reliable source of information on the industry. The Blood-Horse, for instance, is published by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association and thus controlled by a board of directors that also includes members of The Jockey Club; obvious potential conflicts of interest there.

Regardless of ownership, at many trade publications there is an ongoing struggle between journalists and, as Paulick calls them, "bean-counting publishers," over whether honest, sometimes by necessity critical journalism compromises the publication's ability to sell advertising to the very individuals and businesses the newsroom is covering. In the case of turf writing, those businesses include racetracks, stud farms, wagering sites and other horse- and racing-related concerns.

But in one year of his site, Paulick has proven that good, honest journalism can attract an audience, and doesn't completely repel advertisers.

In a brief item on the front page of his Web site, Paulick reported that in May his site saw 135,786 user sessions. That's an average of 4,380 per day. Some of those might be the same people returning to read new stories later in the day, but for a year-old "maverick" online publication, it's healthy traffic nonetheless.

And, Paulick's pages are smattered with advertising from key players in the industry. A quick glance this afternoon shows support from Airdrie Stud, Walmac Farm, Liberation Farm, McMahon of Saratoga, Werk's eNicks, Buck Pond Farm, Margaux Farm, Team Valor and TVG, among many others.

This advertising appears despite the fact that Paulick for the past year has reported extensively on troubles, squabbles or even outright scandals in the thoroughbred industry, ranging from extensive coverage of the Ernie Paragallo horse-abuse case, the furor created by the Breeders' Cup's December decision (later overturned) to ax its special stakes program supplements and how the Breeders' Cup's "old guard" and "new guard" have struggled behind the scenes for control of the series. He's joked about TOBA giving an award to its own Sales Integrity Division, and either he or his guest writers have tackled issues like drugs in racing, the antiquated tote system, and machinations in track management from Magna's mangling of its holdings to Churchill's power-play to push wagering through its Twin Spires account-betting system.

Most of that coverage you wouldn't see from the mainstream publications; at least not in the depth and with the honesty Paulick has provided.

In the interest of depth and honesty, I'll confide that I e-mailed Ray Paulick on June 11 wanting to discuss precisely these issues (and the market for independent turf writing) and I haven't heard back from him yet. I still hope to. I'm sure he's busy and he doesn't know me from Adam.

That stated, on the occasion of the Paulick Report's anniversary, for full depth and honesty I'll go on record with my one legitimate quibble about that online publication. Amid the mind-boggling array of dozens or even hundreds of links to Paulick's reporting and aggregated racing news stories and blog headlines is one link that gives me pause: "Donate to Paulick Report."

I hope Ray Paulick makes out well with his advertising sales and is richly rewarded for his renegade turf-writing efforts. But my personal journalistic code makes it difficult to accept "independent" and "donation" in the same conversation.

Advertising is a commodity. Even industry players who have quarrels with how Ray Paulick reports on racing might continue to advertise with him if they see that the readership he generates is a healthy market they can't afford not to reach. So a business deal takes place: Paulick Report's stories generate readership; that readership lures advertisers who pay Ray Paulick for space; the advertisers receive said space and thus reach Paulick's readers. ... End of transaction.

Yes, it's the very same business transaction that goes on between any of the racing industry pubs and their advertisers, with the lone difference being that Paulick as an individual can, and does, show more backbone in his reporting, in spite of the threat of lost advertising revenues as a punitive response to coverage that steps on toes or wasn't flattering. (Which does happen in the media business when advertisers get offended. Trust me.)

But donations are different. A donation is, by definition, a gift. And while in an ideal world, a gift is given without expectation of anything in return, we all know that isn't always the case. That's why, in my own journalistic code of ethics, I'd never leave myself open to the negative possibilities -- that a financial contributor would come back on me later expecting favorable coverage, or that readers could be left with any question in their minds whether my list of anonymous donors holds even the slightest sway over who and what I'm covering, and how.

In 20 years of newspapering, I've never let a source so much as buy me lunch. And I've grown to realize that sometimes, heck most of the time, even compliments come to me only as the thinly veiled precursor to the asking of a favor, like a request to write a story about their business, or to leave out of the police blotter someone's kid's DUI.

I trust my own integrity. It gets questioned all the time, but that goes with the territory. My greatest pride in journalism has come from the many times I've been criticized by both factions of a controversial issue for "taking the other side" against them. What that really means is that I've told both sides of the story well and completely, for my readers' benefit. I haven't shortchanged one side or the other.

Since I do trust myself, I could probably accept a city manager's picking up the tab after a business lunch and know that I wouldn't sell out for an $8.95 cheeseburger and steak fries. But in a career where my motives and actions are questioned every single day by somebody, I can't accept sitting in a restaurant surrounded by others -- readers of my newspaper, in our small town -- and let them see such an authority figure reach across the table and pick up my check.

Paulick's donor list is private, but I'm not sure that confidentiality adds any measure of confidence; it only leaves you guessing about who did donate.

I do know it's tough to make it in a new business venture. And I'm fully aware of hundreds of sites that accept donations as a means of keeping them alive on the Web. When it comes to journalism, if you're National Public Radio, that's your business model. If you're an independent source of industry coverage, accepting donations is something I recommend against.

Ray Paulick knows himself better than any of us know Ray Paulick. I admittedly don't know him at all, though I'd like to. (Don't know whether I'm helping or hurting my chances here.)

I'm sure that he has full faith in his own journalistic integrity, just as I have full faith in mine. And I'm not trying to knock Ray Paulick down a peg -- as if I could -- I'm merely recognizing that in the journalism biz, sometimes it's healthy to wrestle with this sort of philosophical topic as a means of keeping everyone on his (or her) toes; though admittedly I'm at toe-level in this field, while Ray Paulick stands tall.

What I do consider to be a good sign: Ray Paulick is a guy so dead-set against even appearing to have favorites that he had to be dragged against his will into a William T. Young horse's win-photo. So he's probably a better bet for readers seeking impartial journalism than anybody else in the turf writing field.

His writing for the past year at Paulick Report has pretty much proven that. And, my reservations about donations aside, I suspect that it always will.


  1. I think you're looking at Paulick's solicitation of donations from the wrong perspective when you assume that strings may attach. Certainly I wouldn't expect the relatively paltry sum I donated to buy me anything - my donation was made because I was delighted to find a well established turf writer doing in depth, serious, impartial reporting on a wide range of issues that matter to me as a concerned racing fan. I wanted to support that effort. The Paulick Report gives the average person - like me - a chance to support independent turf writing and occasionally voice my opinions on issues currently being debated. Maybe there are big money donors with sinister motives but so far - as you've noted - there's no evidence that anyone's money is influencing Paulick's reporting.

  2. Glenn-- in response to your criticism of Mr. Paulick's request of gifts to support his journalistic endeavors, out of curiosity have you ever, perchance, heard of National Public Radio...?

  3. Yes, hence this paragraph above:

    "I do know it's tough to make it in a new business venture. And I'm fully aware of hundreds of sites that accept donations as a means of keeping them alive on the Web. When it comes to journalism, if you're National Public Radio, that's your business model. If you're an independent source of industry coverage, accepting donations is something I recommend against."

  4. I didn't know in which order these comments would appear, so I'm stuck responding to the first "Anonymous" after I've responded to the second "Anonymous."

    To No. 1, in my brief correspondence thus far with Mr. Paulick, he's told me that my concern about donations is something he did consider, and has attempted to address in a quite-interesting fashion. I intend to go into that later with another blog post, after I've hopefully had a chance to give Ray a call later in the week.

  5. In response to the second comment and your response to it, whether you're covering a specific industry, as is Mr. Paulick, or the world at large, as does NPR, you should either say it's unethical to accept private donations or it's not. Noone, to my knowledge, questions NPR's journalistic integrity; therefore, why should anyone question Mr. Paulick's for employing the same business model?

  6. Wow. If you think that nobody questions NPR's journalistic integrity, you don't get out much.

    Just Google "National Public Radio" and "journalistic integrity" and brace yourself. In fact, one of the first links (that I haven't read) is actually titled, "National Public Radio's shocking lack of journalistic integrity." Or fair.org's piece "How public is public radio?"

    Conservatives have long derided NPR as liberally biased. Not that they don't consider MOST media outlets liberally biased. But conservatives believe that, at least in part because the network is reliant on congressional funding (largely championed by Democrats), that NPR leans even more to the left than most.

    When Air America was launched, conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan suggested the network wasn't needed.

    "I have three letters for you, 'NPR,'" he said. "... I mean, there is liberal radio."

    I'm not saying that, mind you. (Although I have my own beefs about the legitimacy of NPR's "non-commercial" status. I mean, what is "This program is brought to you by ..." if not a commercial.) ... I'm just noting that if you've missed all that chatter about the integrity, bias, etc., of NPR, you might need to go blinkers-off next race.

    (Editor's note: Deleted and reposted only to fix a typographical error.)

  7. I have no juice or pull with Ray and I do not expect squat for my donations - seldom and modest as they are. But the TB game is better off a year into the life of his site than it was without. If enough small fry like me send enough, the game might be better for it. That would make a wise investment.

    This is my first exposure to your work and you should have a PayPal donation button as well.

    Imagine America with no independent press: yuk!

  8. I'm sorry, but I fundamentally disagree w/ your premise that, simply because someone accuses a news outlet of a liberal or conservative bias, that somehow calls into question the journalistic integrity of said media resource. I also disagree w/ your assertion that a request for donations is somehow appropriate for NPR, but is conversely inappropriate for The Paulick Report. In short, you can google whatever you want, but when the logic behind your assertions doesn't hold water, then google can't help you much.

  9. The statement I contested was "Noone (sic), to my knowledge, questions NPR's journalistic integrity." That statement was clearly ill-informed, as I showed you. LOTS of people contest NPR's journalistic integrity -- some of them relatively credible people. Whether I found my proof via Google or whether you agree with their arguments is completely irrelevant.

    And as a journalist for the past 20 years I'm quite comfortable in advising any other journalist that if they can't tell a story straight -- without bias, liberal, conservative or otherwise -- then they don't belong at a mainstream news source. They should either restrict themselves to commentary or work for a publication like "National Review" or "New Republic" where you can wear your politics on your sleeve. ... The integrity of your news reporting IS in part predicated on your ability to give both sides a fair hearing and equal treatment, regardless what you might believe or be thinking.

    As for NPR vs. Paulick Report, National Public Radio is run by a nonprofit corporation established by Congress, and funded in part by government, in part by contributions from businesses and charitable foundations, and in part by those irritating telethons. If that's the business model of any other widely available media outlet, please inform me which.

    I plan to speak with Ray Paulick over the weekend, if I can catch him when he isn't occupied, and I hope to turn some of that conversation into a follow-up blog post on this very subject. If we can make the connection, I think you'll find his observations interesting.

  10. Well, the Paulick Report is clearly NOT a mainstream newsource, nor, I would wager, does Mr. Paulick intend it to be one. The fact that NPR is funded by congress, in addition to private donations from businesses, foundations, & individuals has little bearing on the integrity of their reporting. They've been accused of their bias regardless of whether congress has been controlled by democrats or republicans, and noone has accused them of journalistic pandering to the political orientation of a foundation or individual who happens to give them money. You can, of course, google all this, but you'd do better to rely upon your own devises to fashion tenable arguments and not defend yourself through the unfiltered, quasi-related info. eschewed by whatever internet search engine your computer defaults to first...

  11. The return of the anonymous critic.

    Seriously, criticizing me for using a search engine to help direct you to information you denied even existed? ... THAT'S part of your complaint?

    Yes, I can Google, or Yahoo, or Ask.com, or use any search engine to find evidence that disproves your claims and positions. It isn't because Google is some sort of techno-savvy sorcery or cheating, it's because your arguments are ill-informed, losing ones, easily refuted with readily available information.

    Funny how the Interwebs work that way.

    But thanks for adding to my hits and, by stopping to rant, to the length of my user visits.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.