Newspaper journalists hate working weekends, so they keep a vigil all week for a special kind of crap that they can write up on Friday and bank for publication on Monday. The crap must be as nonperishable as a MoonPie, preferably linked to a “study” or “report” that won’t be “released” until Monday but one the press can get a sneak peek of by Friday.
Serving a steaming heap of Monday crap today (May 14) are many of the nation’s top dailies. They report that for the first time since man dropped from the trees, scampered across the savannah, and started shopping for stuff online, clothing sales on the Web have eclipsed those of computer hardware and software. Aren’t you glad you know?
The source of this finding is a study prepared by Forrester Research at the behest of Shop.org—the Web wing of the National Retail Federation—and scheduled for release today. Shop.org’s flacks obviously distributed a preview of the report to the press corps, otherwise newspapers couldn’t have dressed up this industry handout as genuine news in today’s editions. Papers such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Times, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the St. Petersburg Times printed original pieces on the topic by staff reporters, and at least a dozen other publications ran the Associated Press or Reuters version of the story.
How significant a business story was Shop.org’s report? The Wall Street Journal ignored it.
Monday crap stories appeal to journalists not just because they can be freeze-dried for later consumption, but because the competition isn’t likely to waste good Saturday or Sunday ink on a crap story when they have so much Monday acreage to fill. Besides, few journalists really desire the distinction of having beaten the competition on a crap story. They prefer the protective coloration that comes with publishing the same crap story on the same day. We didn’t write or edit that crap story, they’ll tell you. It just sort of happened to all of us.
Today’s crap stories read like echoes of Shop.org’s puffed-up press release. It begins, “As the Internet grows up, computers have moved over to make room for clothing at the top of the sales list.” Well, that all depends on what you mean by “top.” By the fourth and fifth paragraphs, the press release concedes that clothing now occupies the No. 2 online-sales spot. Travel sales on the Web are four times larger than clothing sales, and Forrester predicts that travel will still be four times the player next year. If the travel industry had commissioned the Forrester report, I suspect the lede would have been all about travel’s dominance of online sales.
I appreciate the need for Monday crap stories, as I don’t like to work weekends, either. But at some point, the symbiotic relationship between groups peddling studies and the lazy press becomes parasitical, and the worm turns in the reader’s eye.
Addendum, Wed., May 16: The Wall Street Journal undermines my thesis by turning the shop.org press release into a “Wednesday crap story.”
Well, they feel like worms. Maybe they’re floaters. Poke my vitreous humor with a smart remark via e-mail: email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)