Welcome back. I hope that the New Year finds you in good health and resolved to do whatever you can to help make online journalism a more accurate and enlightened source of influence in our world.
Perhaps this will be the year that we can end forever the silliest and most self-destructive debate in our industry, that of “mainstream” vs. “citizen” journalism. (Here’s today’s example of journalists promoting this totally unnecessary division, courtesy the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)
Journalism is journalism, no matter who does it, or where. Let me show you one recent example where a “mainstream” news report could have benefited from adopting “citizen” journalism techniques, as a way of illustrating the missed opportunities that this “you’re one or the other” attitude can create.
The Los Angeles Times yesterday ran an intriguing story by staff writer David Streitfeld on Amazon.com. [“Amazon mystery: pricing of books”, Jan. 2, 2007.] Streitfeld had noticed that the price of an item he’d wanted to buy from Amazon had increased between the time he’d selected it and he went to go pay for it the next day.
Price shifts like this are not uncommon online. Most travel websites warn buyers to purchase right away, as airlines and hoteliers change prices frequently. And the price of newly issued books and music can swing wildly, as retailers put items on or off sale in an effort to dump product or cash in on a hot release.
But a two-year-old title like “The Cast Iron Skillet Cookbook,” which Streitfeld sought to buy (and, by coincidence, my sister-in-law bought me for Christmas – thanks, Katie!) usually stays the same price for a long time. When Amazon hiked the price on him 51 cents, Streitfeld got curious.
He selected a variety of other items, put them in his Amazon shopping cart, and noted what happened to their prices. Many went up; a few went down. Amazon evaded questions about its pricing strategies, and analysts offered opinions about “dynamic pricing.”
Interesting, but the story didn’t offer supporting data beyond Streitfeld’s experiment. And here’s where readers could have been involved.
Obviously, many Times readers have bought books and other merchandise from Amazon. Perhaps some of them have noted similar price shifts. But some Times readers, including myself, have access to quite a bit more than personal shopping data from Amazon.com.
For 10 years I’ve included “associates” links to Amazon.com from the statistics tutorial on my personal website. Amazon’s associates program, for those who do not know, pays Web publishers a small percentage of an item’s sale price whenever a customer buys something after clicking to Amazon from that Web publisher’s site.
Amazon provides its associates a reporting tool tracks the number and price of the items that it sells via the links from their sites. That gives Amazon’s associates access to a potentially impressive amount of sales and pricing data.
For example, by far the most popular item sold from links on my personal site is a book called “The Cartoon Guide to Statistics.” Clicking through the associates’ sales data for 2006, using the reporting tool Amazon provides, I found that Amazon had sold 90 copies of the book to my site’s readers.
But, supporting Streitfeld’s report, not all of those copies were sold at the same price. Here’s the distribution:
27 @ $11.02
14 @ $11.53
22 @ $11.67
27 @ $12.21
Clearly, Amazon is not keeping prices constant for this title, despite the facts that it was published more than a decade ago and remains in print. But I wanted to dig deeper. When did Amazon change these prices during the year?
Amazon’s associates sales reporting tool makes it somewhat difficult to plot the dates of individual sales. But I could easily break down the sales data by quarter.
Q1: 11 @ $11.02, 12 @ $11.53
Q2: 16 @ $11.02, 11@ $11.67
Q3: 11 @ $11.67, 12 @ $12.21
Q4: 15 @ $12.21
The data supports the hypothesis that prices vary on Amazon.com throughout the year on well-established titles. And that the price trends higher as the year goes on.
What the Times needed was a way for associates like me to append our data to Streitfeld’s report. That way, the Times’ reporter and its readers could, together, draw a more detailed picture of Amazon’s pricing patterns. Are price adjustments based upon time an item spends in a user’s shopping cart? Or do prices move with the calendar?
Unfortunately, the Times website [full disclosure, again, especially for new OJR readers, I used to work there] does not offer a way for readers to post relevant data to a database that could test Streitfeld’s hypothesis. Nor does it even provide a way for a reader to append a simple comment to the story, where readers like me could add our experiences.
“Citizen journalism” provides professional reporters the chance to collect many more data points than they can on their own. And “mainstream media” provide readers an established, popular distribution channel for the information we have and can collect. Not to mention a century of wisdom on sourcing, avoiding libel and narrative storytelling technique.
And our readers don’t care. They just want the most complete, accurate and engaging coverage possible. They don’t how we make the sausage, or even who makes it. They just want to eat.
So let’s resolve in 2007 to set this division aside, quit arguing about how we’ve done journalism in the past and start finding new, innovative ways to do it better in the future.