Figuring Out The New York Times' Puppy Love Isn't So Simple

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The Columbia Journalism Review's Ron Howell claim that Jill Abramson's love of dogs is affecting The New York Times' number of dog stories is a little bit flawed--we know because we tried it before. 

Howell asserts that, "Dogs have been appearing in the paper 45 percent more frequently since Jill Abramson took over as executive editor last November," a clear indication that Abramson, a onetime puppy blogger and author of a dogoir, is obsessed with canines. In doing so, Howell plugged *in the search term "dog!" (the exclamation point allows Lexis/Nexis to find results that use the root word "dog") and made sure that the mentions appeared more than three times in a story for it to count. His final numbers: an increase from 230 to 337 mentions since Abramson took over as Executive Editor. But there's a difference between stories that mention "dogs" and stories that are about dogs, and there's a difference between the number of times the word "dog" is mentioned versus the number of times those turn into dog stories. Here are the problems:

Stories That Include the Word Dog Three or More Times May Not Be About Dogs (Canines)

Yes, it's true.  Take this story about "The Many Qaddafis" from February 2011--there are phrases like "stray dogs" or "mad dog" and an allusion about "dogs and cockroaches", which would appear in Howell's search.   That's probably not the type of story which would indicate Jill Abramson's love of dogs.  Neither would be a profile on Diane Harakawa (the chairwoman and chief executive of Riverain Medical in Miamisburg, Ohio) whose morning routine includes a run with her dog Millie and who once worked at a hot-dog hut, or these stories that mention hot dogs which would, using Howell's search terms, appear in his searches.  We conducted a search similar to the one Howell performed (using his stated method) and found around 27 results where stories included hot dog mentions but no canine mentions (right).  

Recommended Reading

Stories About Dogs May Not Be "Stories"

Take for example, this New York Times Magazine story entitled "Can the Bulldog Be Saved?".  It spurred a slew of reader responses which found their way into print--and yes, an entry into Howell's Lexis Nexis search:

Sure, the editors made a decision to run reader replies to a fascinating stories about the inbreeding and the welfare of the bulldog, but it isn't an new content nor was it any new story that Jill Abramson commissioned. Do reader replies count?  That's a bit murky. 

And What About Blogs?

There's also an argument about content on blogs. You could first argue that the creation of new New York Times blogs in the past year would make more content. Ergo, the mentions of (in this case, dog-related words) would grow as well.  That said, once you get into actual mentions, it's hard to decipher what isn't a story.  Take for example, this 1,507-word City Room blog post "Answers from a Dog Expert 2" which you could definitely say counts as part of the 45-percent increase in dog content.  But what about this 32-word City Room blog post that precedes the post? It also appears in Howell's/our results. 


Jill Abramson Might Not Have As Much Say As Section Editors:

As part of our initial research, we went straight to the sources (sort-of).  We've e-mailed Abramson to ask her about a possible doggy agenda, and haven't gotten a response yet. But writers and sources that we did speak to said she might not even have the power to pick which stories get green-lighted.

  • "She doesn't go to the section meetings. She only oversees the A1 meetings." said one person at the Times
  • "Section editors have a lot of say what goes into their pages, I'm not sure what kind of input she has over individual editors" said another. 
  • "My editor at the TIMES MAGAZINE tells me that Jill Abramson doesn't approve any story assignments there," said one more writer. 

So ...

Well Howell isn't fully off.  We conducted our own research back in February (partly inspired by the same types of stories that Howell saw), but were a lot more discriminating than Howell's search since we ran into the aforementioned problems:

  • We searched headlines and leads for the root word "dog" with at least 5 mentions (for the Lexis-Nexis savvy, "hlead(dog!) and atleast5(dog!)")
  • We then eliminated movie reviews/ what's on TV/ and breaking news stories on dogs because we were looking for features on dogs.
  • We did include book reviews because seeking those out seemed a bit different than telling us that Caesar Milan was on TV that night, and it wasn't lost on us that Abramson's book was reviewed
  • Stories, entries, posts, and replies needed to be over 300 words (to avoid those blog posts which served as a wind-up)
  • And when it came to big dog stories like Michael Vick--we opted to cover the feature stories rather than the breaking news alerts, or stories that were primarily about Michael Vick and not his dogs. 
  • Then we went through each story, eliminating stuff like the Qaddafi story, or the hot dog stories, or any kind of non-canine story 

And here's what we found (again, we were trying to find the number of feature stories on dogs, rather than straight-up dog mentions and had a more discriminating look)

  • In 2008- there were 82 stories on dogs 
  • In 2009- there were 92 stories on dogs (a lot of these were because of Bo Obama, and Jill Abramson's puppy diaries)
  • In 2010- there were 85 stories on dogs
  • In 2011- there were 125 stories
  • In 2012-  there were, at the time, 16 stories as of February 13 (though this was before the onslaught of Westminster Dog Show stories)
  • From September 6, 2011 (when Abramson took over) to February 13 (where we concluded our research--we'll get on to more research and update this number), there were 41 dog-related feature stories that ran. 

You'll notice a strong start to 2012 and a strong increase between 2010 and 2011 in the number of feature stories (but remember that Abramson only took over in September 2011). But the numbers also aren't anywhere close to Howell's (230, and 337). And by going with features we also found some fun nuggets of trivial (but still enjoyable) information that Joyce Cohen really liked writing about dogs and the apartment search, or that The New York Times' has a thing for dog stylists, and pet accessories especially and sort of can't help themselves when the Westminster Dog Show comes around.  

So yes, evidence does suggest (whether it's under Abramson's direction or not) that the best paper in the U.S. has a soft spot for certain canines (it's especially evident when you compare the lowly Times Topics cat page and the robust Times Topics dog page). 

*We tried contacting Howell about his exact Lexis search.  Mike Hoyt, CJR's executive editor, pointed us to his quote:

How do I know this? I recently did some research in the LexisNexis database, where I found that the number of Times articles containing three or more words with “dog” as the root (such as “dog,” “dogs,” and “doggie”) increased from 230 in a four-month span from November 1, 2010 though February 28, 2011 to 337 from November 1, 2011 though February 28, 2012 (the first four months of Abramson’s time as boss).

So we we used the search term: atleast3(dog!)  which would find stories where dog as the root word would be mentioned at least three times. This yielded the same number as Howell (337) in results from November 1,2011- February 28,2012.  But we got roughly (some Lexis hits may be duplicated) 226 results in the November 2010-February 28 search--four off from Howell's number. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.