The silliest, and most destructive, debate in journalism

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 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

For 10 years I’ve included “associates” links to 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, [email protected] $11.67
Q3: 11 @ $11.67, 12 @ $12.21
Q4: 15 @ $12.21

The data supports the hypothesis that prices vary on 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.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. I believe the first idea of involving people while the story is still in progress won’t appeal to many journalists – primarily because it will delay the news item; and journalists won’t like to spread the story ideas.

    But your second idea is surely a good one and I believe many media websites have the comment system now – although my personal experience with comments in Nepal’s news media websites is not that pleasing one.

  2. Don’t you think there is a danger is letting unknown people alter data (reporting) that a reporter has worked on? Couldn’t Amazon just as easily add data that would skew the results in their favor?

  3. Jeff Wilson says:

    I agree that the Times should have a comment section at the end of stories like this. Several major media web properties do, and I enjoy seeing reader’s reactions to articles.

    But comments on stories aren’t citizen journalism. It’s just more “man on the street” reactions to legitimate news. And gathering open-ended input from readers before publishing a story is just asking for trouble.

    As far as the St. Paul piece, I think it’s correct. Where would blogging be without the mainstream media? Few of us have the resources to cover news the way they do, and even fewer of us have the training and raw talent.

    To me, to be called a journalist, mainstream, citizen or otherwise, you have to fulfill some requirements. Real journalism answers who, what, when, where and how. Journalists write in as objective a manner as possible. They provide fair and accurate accounting for both sides of a story. That’s not to say they can’t write opinion, but I think opinion ought to be labeled as such, just as it is in the newspaper.

    So to the extent that bloggers write in such a manner, it’s fair to consider citizen journalism as real journalism. I guess the question is: what is journalism, and do we value the concept?

  4. Graham, I never suggested that anyone alter the reporter’s data, just that they might be given the opportunity to add to it. (Which, I suppose alters the dataset, but not necessarily in a bad way.)

    I’ll be revisiting the “what is journalism” question in future columns, but I don’t think I’m giving too much away in saying that I believe the proper definition of journalism looks more toward what it is than how it was produced. Yet most definitions of journalism I’ve heard from people in the so-called “mainstream media” focus on process and production methods than on end results.

  5. Well said. As a print journalist and blogger ( I’ve watched as the melding of the two continues, and that’s a good thing. The MSM needs to quit thinking of the bloggers as the enemy, and the bloggers need to quit thinking of the MSM as some sort of monolith. We are all consumers of news and better journalism is the result when the two combine their efforts.

  6. I often say that journalism to me means helping people tell their stories. I believe there are many different ways to do that. How anybody can be opposed to that baffles me.

  7. Mark Oller says:

    The difference between blogs and the mainstream press is lack of censorship. Communist newspapers are less censored than American newspapers, not including The Washington Examiner. No one can accuse communists of being the grand inquisitors of pro-homosexual orthodoxy. One of the few redeeming virtues of communist totalitarianism is its total lack of interest in homosexuality.
    Nor do communist newspapers censor any anti-Christian or anti-Jewish opinions. Or course, tiny minority religions are fair game in this home of the free and the brave.
    Let’s stop censoring any opinion which might offend the powerful, and start engaging in free debate. Only falsehoods need to be protected from disagreement. This truism is the most explosive idea that can possibly be uttered. It is an ICBM aimed at every lie.

  8. Most of our people are invited.What they(Corporate,Political persons,High Official Persons) for lunch or dinner and a good gift.Then obviously,one can not just criticize.The persons invited are surely from known press.Say if in India,then,PTI,UNI or some local news papers.
    Code of conduct should be there for journalists as well.And mostly,their office must protect them for their free reportijng.Equally one deserves punishment for biased reporting.

  9. Andrew Brenner says:

    The frame is inaccurate and inadequate, I agree. The onslaught of citizen journalists should be framed as a renaissance of civic repsonsibility, a result of social forces colliding with corporate interests.

    Many of us who “do” citizen journalism see media conglomeration and top-down corporate bottom lines as the force that drives the revolution in the processing and filtering of information. We have in our hands technology that begs for two-way communication and most corporations aren’t really interested in two-way communication and the open exchange of thought — unless it drives profit.

    When the all the journalists, citizen and professional, realize that the renaissance is more about decentralization and two-way communication than it is about capitalism, the paradigm will shift from the interests of the Gannetts, Tribunes, Foxes and Viacoms back towards a more egallitarian form of shared responsibility and community.

    The idea of news and information as a business doesn’t have to be thrown away, mind you; however, it needs this renaissance – humanity needs this renaissance.