Media for the Online World: Consider the Source

If truth is the first casualty of war, then let us mourn the death of truth in tracking e-commerce. To be clear about who’s at war: the media are in combat with one another. In a shrinking economy, and particularly a shrinking media economy, each of the media is at war with one other for the clients’ ad dollars.

Envision wild animals forced to share a drinking hole, one that is evaporating in a drought. Do you think they’re going to be nice to each other? Heck, no. It’s survival of the strongest, and meanest, and craftiest. Everyone else can go pound sand.

And so it is in the media industry; all media are whacking wildly at each other so they can get just one more sip. Even The New York Times, the Old Gray Lady, doyen of American media, purported newspaper of record, has sunk to some pretty low depths in covering its competitor, the online industry.

On Nov. 8, the cover of the Times’ business section ran a story titled “The Online Holiday Outlook.” It is—and I don’t think I’m exaggerating—a stunning mixture of misinformation not worthy of a newspaper of the Times’ stature.

A few examples: The Times’ resource, Odyssey Research, shows a decrease in interest in future online shopping. Where did Odyssey’s 3,000-person panel come from? Amish and luddites? Of all the surveys that have addressed the subject of online consumer spending—and there have been several—this one stands alone in its conclusion. Others (even a Yahoo study that is quoted in the very same article) conclude that consumers’ interest in shopping online is increasing, and strongly.

But the Times dismisses the Yahoo study by saying that “nearly all the increased interest in online shopping came from people in the Northeast.” Does that make the study less projectable? Or what? I don’t understand.

Another chart shows a fairly steady rate of online spending since the week of September 11, captioned “The Sept. 11 attacks only slowed online shopping for a few weeks.” The source of the data is ComScore and its 1.5-million Internet users. But this conclusion is at odds with numbers from BizRate, which show that actual spending on a broad cross-section of web retailers has gone up, and dramatically at that. And BizRate represents hard numbers, not projections or divinations from the Psychic Friends Network. BizRate has reported increases of more than 30 percent in recent weekly sales totals since the week of September 11. Why doesn’t the Times report that figure?

I am not impugning the Times’ editorial integrity, but I do question the wisdom of the choices of research they have made, and the one-sided way in which they have interpreted the data. A close friend, a significant venture capital investor who has staked hundreds of millions of dollars in the online industry, complains that “the online industry’s research is crap. I’ve made investments based on their findings and it’s cost me a lot of money.”

Before we make conclusions based on “research,” let’s make sure we do one thing first: consider the source.

Michael Kubin is co-CEO of Evaliant.

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