Journalists still too lazy to report truth about Black Friday

firesale-savingsBlack Friday/Cyber Monday news stories are as inevitable as taxes and death but nowhere near as reliable. It goes like this: “Great Black Friday sales numbers mean a big shopping season. Insert somebody’s numbers to support this and then a quote or two from an analyst.” Publish, forget, and hope no one notices that they are ALWAYS — even in good economic times — WRONG. In the past these stories have been an embarrassment at best. This year they are irresponsible. We have gone from whistling past the graveyard to bringing an entire symphony of wishful thinking.

This is the press release version but it isn’t all that different from the putative news stories on the same topic:

According to the National Retail Federation’s 2008 Black Friday Weekend survey, conducted by BIGresearch, more than 172 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 147 million shoppers last year. Shoppers spent an average of $372.57 this weekend, up 7.2 percent over last year’s $347.55. Total spending reached an estimated $41.0 billion.

Which is almost exactly what CBS News “reported”:

Despite all the talk of an economic slowdown, the holiday shopping season is off to an “energetic” start, according to a retail survey out tonight, reports CBS News correspondent Randall Pinkston. The survey says 172 million shoppers visited stores and websites this weekend – up 15 million from last year, and the average shopper spent more than $372, up 7.2 percent from a year ago. (The “analyst” in the CBS story is “a manager for the largest mall company in America.”  He says its going to be a great shopping season. What a surprise!)

And CBS is hardly alone. There’s this from MarketWatch:

Then, as inevitably as the Cubs not making the World Series, we get:

After a robust start to the holiday season, many stores struggled with disappointing business in December, and a shopping surge in the final days before and after Christmas wasn’t strong enough to make up for lost sales.

The above quote is from last year when the mirage of our economy was still going strong. Fortunately(?) this year we are not having to wait for the final numbers to come in for corrections to the original stories to be run.

But the question remains as to why the above articles don’t run every year. The only story there could possibly be here is if someone did a little research to see if there is EVER any correlation between the Black Friday numbers and actual holiday season shopping results.
And on the topic of Cyber Monday — it is nothing but PR piffle. The heaviest online shopping days of the holiday season are a week before Christmas as the shipping deadlines approach.

Facebook-causes-suicide story spreads even as facts recede

As noted earlier this week, Facebook and other social networking sites have been blamed for a wave of teen suicides in the UK. This was simply too good a story for the press to pass up — regardless of the facts in the matter.

Now comes word from Down Under that:

Psychologists in Australia have warned about the power of glamorising death through social networking sites in the wake of a spate of suicides in the UK

Translation: A reporter or editor saw the story and said “Localize it!” So someone called around to a bunch of local head shrinkers and asked for their opinions. To no one’s surprise the psychologists said this is a bad thing. No one seems to have told the mental health types the only fact contained in the entire story.

However, a police spokesman in Bridgend said there was no evidence to date of a suicide pact and that the theory did not come from police.

So the news  (a.k.a, the lead) is buried in the fourth paragraph and contradicts the basis for the rest of the article. Thus an accurate headline would read: Cops say suicide pact story is nonsense

What makes the article even better (better here meaning “an improved quality of stupidity) is the fact that the final paragraphs feature a medical person saying stories like this could exacerbate the problem.

Dr Jonathon Scourfield, a lecturer in social sciences, said cultural and social influences were influential in the decision to commit suicide.

“The more stories that appear about young people having killed themselves in your area, the more it might appear to you to be a reasonable response to a particular kind of crisis,” he said.

Sometimes it is difficult to remember that the only thing worse than having a free press is not having one.

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Why you shouldn’t read any stories about Black Friday

There’s nothing worse than having to fill a newspaper or broadcast over Thanksgiving weekend. Nothing happens in the US. Well, nothing happens that any beat reporter is covering, which is what the US press means when it says nothing happens. Of course, the US consumer being the US consumer, things happening in the rest of the world aren’t of any interest. Nonetheless the media still must fill all that space with something. This is why every year we get something like:

Preliminary data showed welcome and unexpectedly strong shopping figures for the Black Friday weekend.

This could have been written in 2006 (“The nation’s retailers had a strong start to the holiday shopping season, according to results announced Saturday by a national research group that tracks sales at mall-based stores.“), 2005 (“Steep discounts, enticing rebates and expanded hours drew hordes to the nation’s retailing meccas Friday, and merchants saw hopeful signs that consumer spending will be lively for the holidays.“), 2004 (“In an early sign that buying will be strong this year, Visa USA said Saturday that the total of its credit and debit card transactions was more than $4.1 billion, up 15.5 percent from the same day last year.“), etc.

Just as surely as a Cubs collapse, these stories are followed by stories later in the week and/or month which say

But the hot streak cooled down over the weekend as stores returned to their regular hours and promotions were scaled back.”

The truth is that Black Friday sales numbers are as accurate as sheep entrails when it comes to predicting the holiday season’s retail sales. The only real news here is that anyone actually pays attention to these numbers.

Bad editor! No latte for you!

Further proof press will run any study that blames Facebook for something

(cross-posted from Business & Networking)

Two Australian press outlets (and counting) have come up yet another way Facebook Is Destroying The Economy: The Age & The Courier Mail both have reports today on how, “a growing number of young Australians are becoming addicted to online social networking.”

Of course you don’t just make charges like that without substantiation. Both publications site the same study — and nothing but that study. This study was put together by one Julian Cole, an interweb strategist with the Aussie ad firm Naked Communications. As is usual in these things, Mr. Cole and his research are the only source cited in either story.

In a previous version of this post I incorrectly implied that Mr. Cole’s research may have been biased because of where he works. Mr. Cole has graciously written in with a very important correction:

The thesis was actually part of an Honours degree at Monash University. Naked Communication just happens to be the place that I work.

My apologies to Mr. Cole. I should stick to what I know best — making fun of lousy press coverage. Nowhere in the stories I read was it made clear that this work was done for his thesis. That is the fault of the reporter, not Mr. Cole. I have no reason to believe or even suspect Mr. Cole’s research is anything but scientific and accurate.  I was lead astray by lousy reporting. Again my apologies and thanks for the note.

My personal congratulations to Facebook for being accused of the same crime that the Athenians got Socrates with: Corrupting the youth. That’s some pretty damn good company you are keeping.

Yahoo! News has five other outlets reprinting the same story. Well, it’s early in the news cycle here in the US so I have no doubt that number will grow.

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Facebook is not only destroying the economy, it’s helping the Mob

Today’s example of ridiculously bad sensationalist journalism comes once again from Australia, where the idea of having more than one source for a story seems to be unheard of.

ORGANISED criminals are increasing their efforts to steal sensitive data from the computers of company chiefs, British-based IT security firm MessageLabs warns.

Go here for more details.

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Facebook CONTINUES to destroy the economy!

This time it’s in the UK & the BBC are doing the PR work for the company with a vested interest who has produced the study:

Workers who spend time on sites such as Facebook could be costing firms over £130m a day, a study has calculated. According to employment law firm Peninsula, 233 million hours are lost every month as a result of employees “wasting time” on social networking.

The only person quoted in the story? Someone from the law firm. Here’s the key quote that’s being picked up by other outlets too lazy to actually do any reporting on the story:

“Why should employers allow their workers to waste two hours a day on Facebook when they are being paid to do a job?” said Mike Huss of Peninsula. “The figures that we have calculated are minimums and it’s a problem that I foresee will escalate.”

If we could link this to Iraq, Global Warming & Brittany it would be the perfect media storm.
USAToday sources the story by saying “the BBC reports.” That’s a stretch of the word reporting. Google comes up with 22 outlets that have either picked up or re-written the story.

I’m still waiting for a reporter to

  1. Check the methodology of these studies
  2. Interview ANYONE ELSE about it
  3. See if anyone knows how much time was being “wasted” prior to the advent of MySpace/Facebook, et al

Is that really too much to ask? Apparently, yes.

My other favorite not-as-yet-questioned-by-press study about time wasting, computers & work:

Among white-collar workers surveyed, nearly a quarter (24 percent) said they play casual videogames “at work.” 35 percent of CEOs, CFOs and other senior executives also said they play at work, according to a PopCap Games survey targeting white-collar workers, reports MarketingCharts.

Well, if the CEO is doing it then it’s got to be OK.

Also, if workers are “wasting” so much time on these sites, how come we keep getting these increases in productivity?

See also:

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What do journalists and the GOP have in common? They keep shooting themselves in the foot & then reloading the gun

From the CustomScoop blog:

In a story about the Michael Vick dog fighting allegations and his NFL suspension, MSNBC ran a quote that they attributed to the Rev. Al Sharpton, which stated:

“If the police caught Brett Favre (a white quarterback for the Green Bay Packers) running a dolphin-fighting ring out of his pool, where dolphins with spears attached to their foreheads fought each other, would they bust him? Of course not.”

MSNBC said the quote came from Sharpton’s “personal blog.” Which, of course, it didn’t—it came from a site that is clearly a parody site. The post on News Groper is so obviously a parody I can’t imagine who thought it was actually Rev. Sharpton’s blog. On the page, it has listed Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Lindsey Lohan, Dalia Lama, Paris Hilton, Mitt Romney, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “featured bloggers.” Seriously, no one at MSNBC said “hey…wait a minute…”?

The debate over the difference between bloggers and journalists is a false dichotomy. ANYONE who is willing to do the research, ask the questions, check the facts and publish the results is a journalist.

That automatically disqualifies any number of bloggers and people who are paid journalists.

As I always said to new reporters and people wanting to go into journalism: The actual basic skills of journalism aren’t that hard to learn. What is hard to learn is to think critically. That’s why I ALWAYS encourage people who want to become journalists not to major in journalism but in something that will teach you to think. Most of the rest you can learn on the job.

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Press falls for another claim that Facebook is destroying the economy

The meme goes on…

Over at the usually reliable CNET they’ve done a one-source story about how companies’ are limiting employees’ access to the site.

Half of businesses are restricting employees’ access to social-networking site Facebook, due to concerns about productivity and security. According to research by security company Sophos, 43 percent of workers polled said their employer blocks Facebook access completely. A further 7 percent said access is restricted depending on whether it’s required for a particular job.

So far 51 fools, I mean respected journalism outlets have run this story or variations on it. A random look at four of those 51 stories showed NONE quoting anyone except an executive with the clearly unbiased company Sophos.

Best line of bad journalism comes from the alleged newspaper The Telegraph: “ LloydsTSB, Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs have reportedly banned the site …”

REPORTEDLY?!?! That’s short hand for we didn’t make any phone calls to try and confirm it. The moon is reportedly made of green cheese. I am reportedly Queen Marie of Romania.

God, I hope TechDirt is going to redeem journalism on this one too. They’re my only hope at this point.

If anyone needs me I’m spending the rest of the day expunging anything to do with journalism from my resume.

BTW, Raw Feed has a nice example of a similar phenomenon happening with coverage of pollution in Beijing (which nicely ties up all of the day’s posts — wasn’t that good of me?). Media reports opposing results on Beijing smog.

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Never mind the mortgage industry meltdown, it’s Facebook that’s destroying the economy!

I love it when a really stupid idea starts to gain traction in the opinion-sphere. The current one is that workers who spend time on Facebook are costing the economy X billions per year.

I first encountered it at a blog called TechBlorge which starts off with uses a very suspect (because it is soooo self-serving) fact from a company and then follows that up with anecdotal evidence:

Social networking site Facebook could cost Australian businesses up to AUS$5 billion (US$4 billion) in lost productivity, according to Internet filtering company, SurfControl. “Our analysis shows that Facebook is the new, and costly, time-waster,” said SurfControl’s Dr Richard Cullen. “There are Facebook groups dedicated to slacking off at work, some of them are specific to employees of a single company.”

brokenThis is then followed up with a comment about the number of people in Aussie corporations who the author sees on Facebook. To the author’s credit he then points out a discrepancy in the company’s numbers (“The only problem with this calculation is that currently Facebook has just 224,000 Australian members, not 800,000 members.”). I would have lead with the fact that the company’s numbers make no sense — but that wouldn’t have been nearly as sensational.

Now TechBlorge is a blog and not, as we all know, held up to the standards of accuracy that I’d like to think pervades actual journalism. But wait! What’s this? Good lord, now there are 57 stories on this — each dumber than the last says I without reading barely a one of them. Kudos to SurfControl’s PR people for getting people to swallow this one hook, line, sinker, fishing pole and all.

Let’s ask ourselves two questions:

  1. Has the amount of time people spend goofing off at work on the computer really increased? Wouldn’t these goofer offers just be doing something else if they weren’t at Facebook (or wherever else)? Lets remember a reality here — thanks to the PC we now live in a world with the BEST, most experienced solitaire players ever.
  2. Do you think a company that sells “internet filtering” services to corporations might not be the best source for this study?

I would love to say that this shows why we need real journalists and shouldn’t just rely on bloggers. Actually that’s true — it’s just that we need real publications to be practicing real journalism and not this crap. The Reuter’s story doesn’t even quote anyone besides SurfControl! Guys next time save yourself some “work” and just run the press release.

Facebook is indeed involved with a time waster, but it’s the press that created it.

(Hooray for TechDirt which got the story right.)

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The Joys of Journalism, part II

Oh Cindy ain’t you noticed
That several of your friends have moved on
And the street outside is just a little too quiet
And your local papers run out of news
I’m not persuading you or disengaging you
But Cindy you and me we gotta move

Cindy Incidentally by Ian McLagan, Ron Wood, Rod Stewart

Having announced my lay off from Brandweek on the blog, it is only now fitting that I announce my new job on the blog — because the blog got me the job. Starting July 30th, I will be the person responsible for social media at Spoke.com. Another title: blogmeister.

Except for a brief stint as a bartender, this is my first non-journalism job since graduating from college and I couldn’t be happier. Not only do I like the job I’m going to (it’s a really neat company) but it’s a relief to be out of journalism.

Being a journalist these days is like playing baseball for the Cubs. Sure sometimes you get a hot streak but you know that no matter how well you do your job you’re playing for an organization that really doesn’t know what the fuck it’s doing. I am tired of working at places that are still trying to adjust to the internet era. I’m tired of telling people that paper isn’t the primary means of exchanging information anymore. Print is still an essential and important medium — it’s just not the most important one. You’d think, given the amount of ink and electrons spilled on the topic, that this message would have gotten through. Yet this basic issue is still being debated in many, many corners of my for-now-former profession.

While this by itself is troubling, even more troubling is the difficulty journalism as a whole is having adjusting to the fact that they don’t get to dictate the story any more. By and large the management of journalism and the way journalists think about what they do is still mired in the top-down mentality and utter lack of transparency of the print era. Journalism — as in what you produce — hasn’t changed. A good, well-reported story is still a good, well-reported story.

But journalists want that story to come out of a magic black box that no one else gets to look into.

This isn’t an irrational behavior. It stems from the fact that a journalist’s job is frequently to listen to people tell them that bullshit is beautiful. If the journalist then runs a story saying that, “Oh, actually bullshit is just bullshit,” then someone is going to get mad at them for saying that. That person, company or organization is going to want to explain why the story is all wrong. Sometimes that person or whatever will know less about the story than the reporter does. Or he/she/it will have a very specific reason for wanting another take on the story to be aired.

A good reporter gathers as much and as many facts as possible before deadline, takes a deep breath, steps back from all the facts he/she has gathered and then tries to make sense of them. Do this long enough and you start to be able to spot patterns of behavior that you then apply to other stories. These are the priceless instincts it takes years to develop. That is what separates a professional journalist from a citizen/reporter. It is easier to fool the latter. All reporters and editors sometimes follow those instincts too closely. They fail to apply the same skepticism to their own beliefs and actions that they apply to others. Do that too long and you become a cynic. Cynicism is the inability to remember that there’s a chance you might be wrong, that you’re judgment is not and never will be 100% accurate. Unfortunately cynicism is as endemic to journalism as black-lung is to miners.

The solution to cynicism is sun light. When it comes to other people’s businesses, journalists are that sun light. They let the public in on how and why decisions are being made. Reporting may curtail cynicism on the part of the public — who didn’t understand why something was done — and it may curtail the cynical actions of the people being reported on who now know someone is looking at what they’re doing. When it comes to journalism itself, though, we’re still closing the doors and pulling down the shades.

We don’t want to talk about how the assumptions and decisions that go into reporting, writing, editing and publishing a story. That is no longer acceptable to our audience. Our audience, a.k.a. the Whole World, wants to have a conversation. Marketers are just beginning to figure this out. The smart ones are realizing that they no longer can control what is said about their products/brands. (The really smart ones know they never did.) So they are starting to have conversations with consumers. They are listening to what consumers like and dislike. That, more than anything else, is what consumers want: to know that they are being listened to and to have their questions answered. Even when the answer is “No, we’re not going to do that.” The vast majority of people will understand that they are not always going to get their way, if you are able to explain (not tell) why they are not going to get it. This conversation helps you understand what the public expects of you that you were not aware of and it is a great source of insights that you would otherwise have remained ignorant of.

The fundamental difference between journalists and marketers is that journalists have a professional responsibility to tell people things that they don’t want to know. Journalism cannot tailor its product to what the audience thinks it wants. When it does it fails spectacularly (See George Bush Desert Classic, Run up to the) and we all suffer for it. Merely confirming what the audience already believes means losing the audience’s trust. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted is still the best description of journalism’s brand value that I’ve ever come across. This is a great brand value to have. Problem is that no one except some journalists are aware that that’s what it is.

For years my standard comment about the profession I was seemingly born into has been, “We’re in the communication business, therefore we don’t do it very well.” We think everyone else knows what journalism is and how it operates. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a reporter (sometimes me) say, “He asked me why I wrote that headline for the story.” This is followed by a snort of derisive laughter as in, “How dumb can you be?” Well the reason people don’t know that reporters don’t write headlines is because we don’t tell them. We as a profession have made the classic mistake of forgetting that others don’t know the story as well as we do. Reporters and editors know that a wall exists (or should exist) between the business side of a news organization and the news side. That’s one of the reasons we laugh when people suggest otherwise. But the fault is ours, not theirs. If we don’t tell people they’re not going to know. That basic fact applies to journalism itself just as much as it does to the things we cover.

Some places address this by having an ombudsman or some such. While this is a good thing, the idea that one person is the sole liaison between an organization and all its customers is absurd. All reporters, editors, etc., need to do that. Even if they do not answer every question about a specific story they have to regularly discuss (on the interweb via blogs, podcasts, vcasts, wikis, message boards, etc.) how and why they come to the conclusions they come to. Why was this person quoted and not that one? Why was this the first story in the broadcast? When are you going to run that funny picture of Aunt Thelma and the cow that I sent you? Doing this helps to breakdown the wall between “us” and “them.” It is another way of getting out of the newsroom or of letting other people in to it.

The more journalists do this the more non-journalists will understand and appreciate what journalism is and why it matters. That doesn’t mean they will like us. The only times people really like journalism is in the wake of a major, major shit storm like Watergate. Fortunately those don’t come along that often. To paraphrase the great social activist Saul Alinsky, “Don’t worry boys, we’ll weather this storm of approval and come out hated in the end.” That’s the way it should be.

Journos sing “Ooops I Did It Again” as Black Friday sales numbers once more prove false

There are some business stories that run every year which are even more reliable than death and taxes. The week after Thanksgiving we get the stories about how Black Friday (and now Cyber Monday — which is an entirely fictitious thing now accepted as a fact by the journalistas) were great for sales and it’s going to be a great holiday sales season. This year that was only tempered by Wal-Mart saying that their sales over that weekend were not so good. As December continues the whistling past the graveyard gets louder as analysts and retailers say more glowing things about the sales numbers and reporters continue to write them up. Then, as inevitably as the Cubs not making the World Series, we get:

After a robust start to the holiday season, many stores struggled with disappointing business in December, and a shopping surge in the final days before and after Christmas wasn’t strong enough to make up for lost sales.

This is not a failure of business, this is a failure of journalism. It’s like the reporters suffer a collective brain freeze every November which doesn’t thaw until after New Year’s. At the very least every story on this subject next November should include comparisons between what was forecast post-Thanksgiving and what actually happened in previous years.