Sunday, May 29, 2005

Finally a Blog Criticizes the New York Times

I hate to be another blogger bashing the New York Times -- how trite; how Instapundit -- but it's about a business/arts coverage, not politics, so I hope I can be forgiven.

Specifically, the New York Times, ran one of the worst examples of Hollywood business coverage I've seen in a major paper in a while. Since my primary job is covering the entertainment industry, this kind of stuff bothers me, because it basically shows that reporters aren't held (by the public, by editors) to the same kind of standards when covering entertainment businesses that they are when covering Wall Street or computer companies and what-not. They should be.

Specifically, I'm talking about Laura Holson's May 27 article, "With Popcorn, DVD's and TiVo, Moviegoers Are Staying Home." Someone told me this ran on page 1, although I didn't see the print edition that day, so I can't attest to that.

There are two major problems with this piece:
1. The problem it identifies doesn't really exist (and to the extend that it does, it hardly matters)
2. The evidence is marshalls to prove its point is absurdly non-representative

Let's start with 1. I'll sum it up as the New York Times did: "For 13 weekends in a row, box-office receipts have been down compared with a year ago, despite the blockbuster opening of the final "Star Wars" movie. And movie executives are unsure whether the trend will end over the important Memorial Day weekend that officially begins the summer season. Meanwhile, sales of DVD's and other types of new media continue to surge. With box-office attendance sliding, so far, for the third consecutive year, many in the industry are starting to ask whether the slump is just part of a cyclical swing driven mostly by a crop of weak movies or whether it reflects a much bigger change in the way Americans look to be entertained - a change that will pose serious new challenges to Hollywood."

Is box office down this year? Overall, yes, by a few points. But as my colleague Gabe Snyder pointed out in Variety a few weeks ago (subscription only, so you probably can't read it), there have been fewer wide releases this year, for various reasons. On a per movie basis, which is surely what matters, Hollywood is doing better. And of course last year there was this little aberration early in the year called "Passion of the Christ." Now maybe Hollywood should come out with more movies like that, but given how rare it is to have a mega-hit like that early in the year, it does make comparisons at this point a bit bogus.

It also seems a bit odd to say Hollywood is facing "serious new challenges" because people are spending a lot more time with DVDs. Who seells DVDs? The same studios that distribute movies at the box office. And in fact DVDs are a much higher margin business. So it's not exactly clear what the challenge here is.

But the worst thing about this article, surely, is that most of the evidence for its thesis that people are turning away from movie theaters to spend time on interactive media at home comes from four interviewees presented as if they are representative of a trend. But this is a not a remotely random group of people. Who are they?
-A UCLA senior
-A VP of (an Internet social networking company for college students)
-A VP of IGN (an online media company that primarily covers videogames)
-A "video game entrepreneur"

The first "man on the street" seems like a random enough choice. But the other three? Do these choices strike anyone else as laughably biased? Apparently it didn't bother the editors at the Times.

But to me, it doens't exactly illustrate a point about the public to discover that three people who work in online media and video games spend a lot of time online and playing video games. And thus they have less time for movies. Someone who works at TheFacebook spends his free time online? A VP at IGN says " video games increasingly have taken up time she otherwise might spend watching television or going to the movies?" A "video game entrepreneur" has a kick-ass, very expensive, home theater system and prefers that to the movie theater? How shocking!

I can't remember the last time I saw a better case of searching out the evidence to fit your thesis. Anyone can do it. If I was writing this article, but with the thesis that people are spending more of their free time masturbating than a few years ago, I'm sure I could find a bunch of 14 year old boys who would illustrate the trend.

Can we please put a ban on "man on the street" journalism that consists of finding a bunch of people sure to fit your thesis? If you're going to interview random people, they should be a truly random bunch of people. It's not that hard. Ms. Holson could have just asked a bunch of UCLA students in the cafeteria or gone to a local Blockbuster.

Most important would have been to seriously engage the evidence in box office revenue, overall studio profits, and whether this mini-trend of a decline this year actually matters (my answer: not really).

(Disclaimer: I'm obviously speaking just for myself, not in any official capacity as a reporter at Variety.)

Update 6/2/05: My friend and former Spinsanity colleague Brendan Nyhan kindly linked to this post on his excellent blog and pointed out that the Times recently profiled TheFacebook and that the "video game entepreneur" was quoted in a different story by Holson two weeks ago. So these people aren't just unrepresentative, they were apparently selected via piggyback reporting. Sigh.


rone said...

"Its evidence is marshalls"?

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