What is local news? That new Pew report raises some fundamental questions.

Photo (cc) 2005 by by Chris.

Previously published at WGBH News.

What is local news? A new report by the Pew Research Center claims to measure Americans’ perceptions of journalism in their communities. But the results show that the largest share of the 35,000 people who were surveyed — 38 percent — say their medium of choice is television.

Moreover, the kinds of news that respondents say are “important for daily life” are an exact match for the typical fare of a local TV newscast. Coming in first was weather (70 percent), followed by crime (44 percent), traffic and transportation (41 percent), and news about changing prices (37 percent). The fifth-most-cited topic, government and politics, was far behind at 24 percent. (The survey includes a wicked cool interactive on how people are consuming local news in different parts of the country, including Boston.)

Reaction to the Pew survey has focused mainly on the fact that 71 percent of respondents seem to think their local news outlets are doing just fine financially, with only 14 percent saying they’ve paid for local news during the past year. “These findings unnerved those who believe that local news is hugely important in our culture and that it needs public support to survive,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. She quoted David Chavern, president of the News Media Alliance, as saying, “I found the survey results to be really sad and disturbing.”

Sullivan and Chavern are right if you’re talking about the sort of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves. But that’s not really what Pew measured. To me, the more disturbing finding isn’t that those surveyed misperceive the financial crisis facing local journalism — it’s that they don’t understand what local journalism is. In fact, as Laura Hazard Owen pointed out at the Nieman Lab, local TV news is doing OK financially, at least in comparison to newspapers. But the mission of TV news isn’t really local. It’s regional.

I have not come to bash the newscasts offered by the Boston television stations and similar newscasts around the country. They perform a service. There’s no reason to be snobbish about a roundup of breaking news, the weather, sports (even though it did poorly in the survey), and the odd waterskiing squirrel or two.

Yes, TV newscasts should offer more political, governmental, and investigative reporting than they do. (My Northeastern colleagues John Wihbey and Mike Beaudet are studying how to improve local TV news in advance of the 2020 elections.) But it’s not their job to cover the routine occurrences of community life — that is, what’s going on at city or town hall, schools, police, fire, and why isn’t anyone fixing that huge pothole on Main Street? Nor is such news in the wheelhouse of city dailies such as The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, or of public broadcasters such as WBUR or WGBH. Rather, community news is uniquely the purview of local newspapers and, in a few places, various types of digital startups. And that is precisely where the crisis in journalism is unfolding.

Let’s go back to the Pew survey. About half of those who responded, or 47 percent, said the local news they get “mostly covers an area other than where they live such as a nearby city” (my emphasis). A slightly higher proportion, 51 percent, said their local news “mostly covers their living area.” Those findings correlate with how satisfied people are with the local news they consume, with higher percentages of those who believe their news has more of a local focus reporting that the news is accurate, thorough, and fair.

Needless to say, small daily and weekly papers are the source of most local news. But only 17 percent of survey respondents said they “often” get local news from daily papers, and a minuscule 7 percent get it from non-daily papers. Even though many papers have been eviscerated because of changing market forces and the depredations of corporate chain ownership, they still stand out as the main source of news about what’s going on at the community and neighborhood level. (In Massachusetts, state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, has proposed a special commission to study the state of local news, an effort I’m involved in.)

We often hear about the need for media literacy, and who could oppose it? Last November, though, I wrote that we actually need civic literacy first. People aren’t reading newspapers or visiting community websites because they don’t understand that what’s in them affects their lives and those of their neighbors.

What we need is to rebuild the infrastructure for local news and to educate the public about why it matters. Recently the Knight Foundation announced a $300 million, five-year investment for “reimagining local news, funding tested solutions, experiments and basic research,” according topresident and chief executive Alberto Ibargüen.

“Local news is the foundation of American democracy,” Ibargüen wrote. “But it’s in crisis. Internet platforms have decimated their business model. The past 15 years have been marked by layoffs and shutdowns, leaving swaths of the country without a broad and common baseline of shared information. When there is no agreement on fundamental facts, misinformation and disinformation proliferates, coursing through social media and search platforms, further eroding our trust in media and in each other.”

Maybe the most disturbing aspect of the Pew report was that it measured the wrong thing, because the people who were surveyed didn’t know any better. That’s not their fault. It’s ours. In effect, our own poor efforts are being reflected back at us. So what are we going to do about it?

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From bad to worse—followed by a brighter digital future?

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Image of 1860s printing press via Wikipedia.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The story is changing for the struggling newspaper business. After years of bad news, we seem to be moving on to (cover your eyes) even worse news. Paid circulation, advertising revenue, and newsroom employment are plunging in ways not seen since the Great Recession.

The gory details are contained within the Pew Research Center’s latest State of the News Media report. I’m not here to tell you that there’s a silver lining—there isn’t, as I argued in this space back in January. Nevertheless, there are some intriguing findings in the report that could point the way to a better future.

Essentially, there are three major pieces of information about digital media that all of us who care about journalism need to grasp:

  • Mobile has overtaken the desktop just as surely as digital overtook print some years earlier.
  • Some digitally native news organizations, such as Vox, BuzzFeed and the now-venerable Huffington Post, are doing reasonably well, although profitability remains elusive.
  • Third-party platforms such as Facebook, Apple News, and Google AMP (for Accelerated Mobile Pages) have become immensely important for the distribution of news, especially since they handle mobile better than do the news organizations whose journalism they are repackaging.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing journalism is that the very services that now control so much of the distribution are also the beneficiaries of most digital advertising revenue. Consider, for instance, this tidbit from the report:

Five technology and social media companies—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and Twitter—continue to dominate the digital advertising market, accounting for 65% of all revenue from digital advertising in 2015, or $38.5 billion out of $59.6 billion. This is slightly higher than the share generated by the top five companies in 2014 (61%).

You may find yourself scratching your head, as I did, at learning that Yahoo and Microsoft are big players in digital advertising. Otherwise, though, this all makes sense, especially with respect to Google and Facebook. Google, as we know, does not share its ad revenues with the news organizations whose content it aggregates. The idea has always been that Google drives traffic to the originating site and that it’s up to the people who run that site to take advantage of the increased traffic by selling more ads. It hasn’t worked.

The situation is slightly better with Facebook, as publishers are cutting deals with the mega-network in order to share ad revenues. But publishers get nothing when, say, a friend of yours shares a story from the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Nicco Mele, the incoming director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said earlier this year that the balance needs to be recalibrated: “To a large extent, Facebook and Google are sucking up revenue that publishers of content should be receiving.” How and whether Facebook and Google can be pressured to share more of their revenues with news organizations is a matter for another day.

Newspapers, which are still by far the most significant producers of journalism aimed at holding government and other powerful institutions to account, are truly suffering. How bad is it? According to Pew, paid circulation, including paid digital, was down 7 percent in 2015. Total ad revenue at newspapers owned by publicly traded companies was down 8 percent, a figure that, again, includes digital.

But to my eye, what’s unspeakably ugly is how dependent newspapers remain on their print editions. Seventy-five percent of ad revenues still come from print. Print circulation in 2015 comprised 78 percent of weekday circulation and 86 percent of Sunday circulation.

This isn’t so much a matter of newspapers failing to navigate the digital transition as it is that their most loyal customers are refusing to give up print. And since those customers will, inevitably, be departing this vale of tears over the next few decades, newspapers have to figure out a way to vastly increase their digital presence in order to attract younger readers.

Very few are doing that, though the Washington Post has been notably successful on that front. At least digitally native news organizations have the advantage of not having to serve a dwindling but still-lucrative print audience at the same time they are trying to build out their digital side. But as the Pew report says, not all is well in digital news, either:

For some digital publishers, a quest for scale has resulted in annual revenue estimates in the tens of millions of dollars, bolstered in some cases by venture capital funding. Yet there is little evidence that many of these sites are profitable.

In an influential blog post seven years ago, Clay Shirky wrote, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” If the definition of a newspaper is something made of paper, then I’d say Shirky’s moment is upon us. I’d guess that newspapers are heading toward a mostly digital future as they move away from print, even at the expense of alienating part of their aging audience. (Caveat: Ten years ago many of us, including me, thought print would be more or less gone by now. So who knows?)

Sadly, newspaper staffs will continue to shrink, and within a few years they will be digital-only except for a weekend print edition. They won’t be able to do as much as they can today, just as they can’t do as much today as they could 10 or 15 years ago. But large regional news organizations such as the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Dallas Morning News will continue to provide most of the accountability journalism that their communities need.

That’s an optimistic assessment. The reality could be much worse. Let’s hope today’s newspaper leaders get tomorrow right.

The Globe’s Saturday shrinkage and its digital future

saturday-globe

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I thought The Boston Globe and other metropolitan dailies would still be printing news on dead trees in 2015, I’d have replied, “Probably not.” Even five years ago, by which time it was clear that print had more resilience than many of us previously assumed, I still believed we were on the verge of drastic change — say, a mostly digital news operation supplemented by a weekend print edition.

Seen in that light, the Globe’s redesigned Saturday edition should be regarded as a cautious, incremental step. Unveiled this past weekend, the paper is thinner (42 pages compared to 52 the previous Saturday) and more magazine-like, with the Metro section starting on A2 rather than coming after the national, international and opinion pages. That’s followed by a lifestyle section called Good Life.

The larger context for these changes is that the existential crisis threatening the newspaper business hasn’t gone away. Revenue from print advertising — still the economic engine that powers virtually all daily newspapers — continues to fall, even as digital ads have proved to be a disappointment. Fewer ads mean fewer pages. This isn’t the first time the Globe has dropped pages, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. (The paper is also cutting staff in some areas, even as it continues to hire for new digital initiatives.)

How bad is it? According to the Pew Research Center’s “State of the Media 2015” report, revenue from print advertising at U.S. newspapers fell from $17.3 billion in 2013 to $16.4 billion in 2014. Digital advertising, meanwhile, rose from just $3.4 billion to $3.5 billion. And for some horrifying perspective on how steep the decline has been, print advertising revenue was $47.4 billion just 10 years ago.

The Globe’s response to this ugly drop has been two-fold. First, it’s asked its print and digital readers to pick up more of the cost through higher subscription fees. Second, even as the print edition shrinks, it has expanded what’s offered online — not just at BostonGlobe.com, but via its free verticals covering the local innovation economy (BetaBoston), the Catholic Church (Crux) and, soon, life sciences and health (Stat). Stories from those sites find their way into the Globe, while readers who are interested in going deeper can visit the sites themselves. (An exception to this strategy is Boston.com, the former online home of the Globe, which has been run as a separate operation since its relaunch in 2014.)

“I don’t quite think of it as the demise of print,” says Globe editor Brian McGrory of the Saturday redesign. He notes that over the past year-plus the print paper has added the weekly political section Capital as well as expanded business and Sunday arts coverage and daily full-size feature sections in place of the former tabloid “g” section.

“There are areas where we do well where we’re enhancing in print and there are areas where we’re looking to cut in print,” McGrory adds. “It’s a very fine and delicate balancing act.”

Some of those cuts in print are offset by more digital content. Consider the opinion pages, which underwent a redesign this past spring. (I should point out that McGrory does not run the opinion pages. Editorial-page editor Ellen Clegg, like McGrory, reports directly to publisher John Henry.) The online opinion section is simply more robust than what’s in print, offering some content a day or two earlier as well as online exclusives. This past Saturday, the print section was cut from two pages to one. Yet last week also marked the debut of a significant online-only feature: Opinion Reel, nine short videos submitted by members of the public on a wide variety of topics.

All are well-produced, ranging from an evocative look at a family raising a son with autism (told from his sister’s point of view) to a video op-ed on dangerous bicycle crossings along the Charles River. There’s even a claymation-like look at a man living with blindness. But perhaps the most gripping piece is about a man who was seriously beaten outside a bar in South Boston. It begins with a photo of him in his hospital bed, two middle fingers defiantly outstretched. It ends with him matter-of-factly explaining what led to the beating. “It was because I stepped on the guy’s shoe and he didn’t think I was from Southie,” he says before adding: “It was my godmother’s brother.”

Globe columnist and editorial board member Joanna Weiss, who is curating the project, says the paper received more than 50 submissions for this first round. “It has very much been a group effort,” Weiss told me by email. “The development team built the websites and Nicole Hernandez, digital producer for the editorial page, shepherded that process through; Linda Henry, who is very interested in promoting the local documentary filmmaking community, gave us feedback and advice in the early rounds; David Skok and Jason Tuohey from BostonGlobe.com gave indispensable advice in the final rounds, and of course the entire editorial board helped to screen and select the films.”

But all of this is far afield from the changes to the Saturday paper and what those might portend. McGrory told me he’s received several hundred emails about the redesign, some from readers who liked it, some who hated it and some who suggested tweaks — a few of which will be implemented.

Traditionally, a newspaper’s Saturday edition is its weakest both in terms of circulation and advertising. In the Globe’s case, though, the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday papers sell a few thousand fewer copies than Saturday’s 160,377, according to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Audited Media. No doubt that’s a reflection of a Thursday-through-Sunday subscription deal the Globe offers — though it does raise the question of whether other days might get the Saturday treatment.

“We have no plans right now to change the design or the general format of those papers,” McGrory responds. “But look, everything is always under discussion.” (The Globe’s Sunday print circulation is 282,440, according to the same AAM report. Its paid digital circulation is about 95,000 a day, the highest of any regional newspaper.)

One question many papers are dealing with is whether to continue offering print seven days a week. Advance Newspapers has experimented with cutting back on print at some of its titles, including the storied Times-Picayune of New Orleans. My Northeastern colleague Bill Mitchell’s reaction to the Globe’s Saturday changes was to predict that, eventually, American dailies would emulate European and Canadian papers by shifting their Sunday papers to Saturdays to create a big weekend paper — and eliminating the Sunday paper altogether.

The Globe and Mail of Toronto is one paper that has taken that route, and McGrory says it’s the sort of idea that he and others are keeping an eye on. But he stresses that the Globeisn’t going to follow in that path any time soon.

“Right now we have no plans to touch our Sunday paper,” he says. “It’s a really strong paper journalistically, it’s a strong paper circulation-wise, it’s a strong paper advertising-wise. We’re constantly thinking and rethinking this stuff. But as of this conversation, Sunday is Sunday and we don’t plan to change that at all.”

He adds: “We’re trying to mesh the new world with the printing press, and I think we’re coming out in an OK place. Better than an OK place. A good place.”

Snapchat news targets the young and the underinformed

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Previously published at WGBHNews.org and republished in The Huffington Post.

Two years ago, then-CNN reporter Peter Hamby lamented the negative effect he believed Twitter and other social media were having on presidential campaign coverage. In a 95-page research paper (pdf) he wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Hamby put it this way:

With Instagram and Twitter-primed iPhones, an ever more youthful press corps, and a journalistic reward structure in Washington that often prizes speed and scoops over context, campaigns are increasingly fearful of the reporters who cover them.

On Tuesday, Hamby was back at the Shorenstein Center, this time to tout the journalistic virtues of an even more ephemeral media platform: Snapchat, built on 10-second videos that disappear as soon as you view them. Hamby, who is barely older than the 18- to 34-year-old users he’s trying to reach, told a friendly but skeptical crowd of about two dozen that Snapchat is bringing news to an audience that is otherwise tuned out.

“Because our audience is so young, I view our mission as educational,” he said. “I think it’s OK that our mission is to illuminate the issues for young people. That’s not to say we won’t get into more serious, complicated things.”

My personal philosophy about new media platforms is to watch them from afar and to more or less ignore them until it’s no longer possible to do so. That served me well with networks like Foursquare and Ello, which seem to have faded away without my ever having to partake. On the other hand, I’ve been tweeting since mid-2008, which is about the time that Twitter’s emerging importance as a news source was becoming undeniable.

Snapchat, it would appear, has reached that turning point. It already has about 100 million daily users, the vast majority of them between 18 and 34, as Michael Andor Brodeur notes in The Boston Globe. And it is starting to branch out beyond those 10-second disintegrating videos.

The newsiest part of Snapchat is called Discover — channels from media organizations such as CNN, ESPN, Vice, BuzzFeed and National Geographic that provide short graphics- and music-heavy stories aimed at providing a little information to a low-information audience.

CNN’s fare of the moment comprises such material as the fight between Afghan and Taliban forces in the city of Kunduz; an FBI report that crime rates are dropping (a story consisting of nothing more than a video clip of a police cruiser with flashing lights, a headline and a brief paragraph); and the re-emergence of the Facebook copyright hoax.

Perhaps the most ambitious news project Snapchat has taken on — and the one in which Peter Hamby is most closely involved — is called Live Stories. Snapchat editors look for snaps being posted from a given location and, with the consent of those users, weave together a brief story. They disappear after 24 hours; the only one playing at the moment is “Farm Life: Worldwide,” which is as exciting as it sounds. But Hamby mentioned stories from presidential campaign announcements, the Iran nuclear deal, music festivals and the like that he said drew tens of millions of viewers. (If you want to get an idea of what a well-executed Live Story looks like, Joseph Lichterman of the Nieman Journalism Lab found a four-and-a-half-minute piece on the hajj that someone had saved and posted to YouTube.)

“At CNN we would cover an event with one or two cameras,” Hamby said. “With Snapchat we have everyone’s camera at our disposal.”

For me, at least, the most frustrating part of my brief experience with Snapchat (I only signed up Tuesday morning) has been finding worthwhile — or any — content that’s not part of the Discover channels or the Live Story of the moment. The search function is not especially useful. I did manage to friend several news organizations and presidential campaigns.

Any user can create a story that will stay up for 24 hours. So far, though, I’ve only managed to see relatively useless clips from Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. Hamby gives points to former candidate Scott Walker and current candidate John Kasich for their imaginative use of Snapchat. But as best as I can tell, Kasich hasn’t posted a story in the past day. His campaign website — like those of a few other candidates I looked up — does not include his Snapchat username, even though it includes buttons for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

Snapchat is mobile to a fault — you can install it on an iOS or Android device, but not a laptop or desktop computer. That makes it fine if you’re on the go. But for an old fogey like me, it complicates the process of finding worthwhile material. And vertical video! Yikes!

In listening to Hamby on Tuesday, I was struck by his animus toward Twitter. “I think Twitter has made the tone of the coverage more negative,” he said. “Twitter is a uniquely toxic, negative space.” And though you might dismiss that as simply putting down a competitor, he said much the same thing in his 2013 report, citing a Pew Research Center study to back him up. Hamby quoted John Dickerson, now host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” as saying of Twitter:

It makes us small and it makes us pissed off and mean, because Twitter as a conversation is incredibly acerbic and cynical and we don’t need more of that in coverage of politics, we need less.

Will Snapchat prove to be the antidote to Twitter? Count me as skeptical. Five to eight years ago, when Twitter pioneers were using the nascent platform to cover anti-government protests in Iran and earthquakes in California, Haiti and elsewhere, we had no way of knowing it would devolve into one of our leading sources of snark, poisoning the public discourse 140 characters at a time. (And I’m not sure I agree that that’s what it’s become. I mean, come on, just unfollow the worst offenders.)

But to the extent that we have to bring news to where the audience is rather than waiting for people to come to us, then yes, Snapchat may prove to be a valuable home for journalism. I just hope it whets users’ appetites for something more substantial.

Why the midterms could be disastrous for the planet

PresidentAlfredPreviously published at WGBHNews.org.

Monday’s broadcast of “The CBS Evening News” began on a portentous note. “Good evening,” said anchor Scott Pelley. “Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, higher temperatures. If you think someone’s trying to tell us something, someone just did.”

Pelley’s introduction was followed by a report on the latest study by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. According to The Washington Post, the panel found that global warming is now “irreversible,” and that drastic steps must be taken to reduce the use of fossil fuels in order to prevent worst-case scenarios from becoming a reality.

No matter. Before the night was over, Americans had turned their backs on the planet. By handing over the Senate to Mitch McConnell and his merry band of Republicans, voters all but ensured that no progress will be made on climate change during the next two years — and that even some tenuous steps in the right direction may be reversed.

At Vox, Brad Plumer noted that Tuesday’s Alfred E. Neuman moment came about despite more than $80 million in campaign spending by environmentalists and despite natural disasters that may be related to climate change, such as the unusual destructiveness of Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing drought in the West.

“Which means that if anything’s going to change, it may have to happen outside Congress,” Plumer wrote, adding that “the 2014 election made clear that Washington, at least, isn’t going to be much help on climate policy anytime soon.”

Not much help? That would be the optimistic view. Because as Elana Schor pointed out in Politico, Republicans and conservative Democrats may now have a veto-proof majority to move ahead on the Keystone XL pipeline. The project, which would bring vast quantities of dirty oil from Canada into the United States, would amount to “the equivalent of adding six million new cars to the road,” the environmentalist Bill McKibben said in an interview with “Democracy Now” earlier this year.

The problem is that though Americans say they care about climate change, they don’t care about it very much.

In September, the Pew Research Center reported the results of a poll that showed 61 percent of the public believed there is solid evidence that the earth has been warming, and that 48 percent rated climate change as “a major threat” — well behind the Islamic State and nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

Moreover, whereas Democrats registered 79 percent on “solid evidence” and 68 percent on “major threat,” Republicans scored just 37 percent and 25 percent. The Republican political leadership, anxious to keep its restive right-wing base happy, has every incentive to keep pursuing its science-bashing obstructionist path.

One possible solution to this mess was proposed in the New York Times a few days ago by David Schanzer and Jay Sullivan of Duke University: get rid of the midterm elections altogether by extending the terms of representatives from two to four years and by changing senatorial terms from six years to four or eight.

As Schanzer and Sullivan noted, presidential election years are marked by high turnout across a broad spectrum of the electorate. By contrast, the midterms attract a smaller, whiter, older, more conservative cohort that is bent on revenge for the setbacks it suffered two years earlier. (According to NBC News, turnout among those 60 and older Tuesday was 37 percent, compared to just 12 percent for those under 30.)

“The realities of the modern election cycle,” they wrote, “are that we spend almost two years selecting a president with a well-developed agenda, but then, less than two years after the inauguration, the midterm election cripples that same president’s ability to advance that agenda.”

There is, of course, virtually no chance of such common-sense reform happening as long as one of our two major parties benefits from it not happening.

The consequences of that inaction can be devastating. According to The Washington Post’s account of this week’s U.N. report, “some impacts of climate change will ‘continue for centuries,’ even if all emissions from fossil-fuel burning were to stop.”

Sadly, we just kicked the can down the road for at least another two years.

Correction: This commentary originally said that CBS News’ report on climate change was aired on Tuesday rather than Monday.

 

Debunking the “partisan shifts” on surveillance

The most important (and chilling) finding from the latest Pew Research Center/Washington Post survey is that 56 percent of Americans say they support the National Security Agency’s surveillance of phone records, email and other cloud surveillance systems for electronic traffic.

A few, though, have pointed to a chart showing supposed hypocrisy on the part of Democrats. In January 2006, self-identified Democrats opposed the NSA’s surveillance programs by a margin of two to one. Today they support those programs by an almost identical margin.

The chart is helpfully labeled “Partisan Shifts in Views of NSA Surveillance Programs.” But what really matters is a parenthetical: “See previous table for differences in question wording.”

So I did, and you can, too. The 2006 survey, by ABC News and The Washington Post, was based on the following proposition: “NSA has been investigating people suspected of terrorist involvement by secretly listening in on phone calls & reading emails without court approval…”

This time around, Pew and the Post put it this way: “NSA has been getting secret court orders to track calls of millions of Americans to investigate terrorism…”

I added the emphasis in both instances to highlight the differences. Under George W. Bush, without court approval; under Barack Obama, with court approval. And: “listening in on phone calls” in 2006 versus “track[ing] calls” in 2013. A considerable difference, regardless of what you think of the NSA’s activities (and, for the record, I’m glad they’ve been exposed).