By Peter Jamison
The professional world offers few examples of desiccated ritual more perfect than those to be found on newsstands the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when daily papers across the country give over their front pages to the annual Black Friday story. Every year, without fail, unlucky reporters are stuck with the Sisyphean task of taking this most mundane of consumer binges -- so named because retailers supposedly move out of the red with large volumes of sales -- and turning it into something resembling news.
To more efficiently to deal with this joyless endeavor, most newsgathering operations settle beforehand on some thematic filter for the chaotic crowds thronging Wal-Mart and Best Buy. In recent years, as the economy has gone south, the approach has been to pose a cloying question: Will stores make enough on this Day of Days to save themselves from financial ruin? Ooooooh, the imaginary reader so beloved of business editors responds. Can't wait to find out.
Not surprisingly, this sort of hooey crops up in newspapers everywhere without much iteration -- overworked, underpaid journalists can only do so much with the assignment to go watch people shop -- and this year was no exception. The premise for Black Friday 2008's coverage went something like this: Will the vast discounts offered by stores to lure strapped consumers make profits impossible? Or, as Tom Abate of the San Francisco Chronicle put it, "Consumers thronged stores and cash registers sang Friday, but it was too early to tell if the tune was an up-tempo ditty or a funeral dirge. Shoppers appeared fixed on finding bargains that could cut merchants' profits to the bone." If that lede sticks going down, give the Chron a break: coverage was pretty much identical in the other major California dailies, including the Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News.
As it turned out, however, this Black Friday was different. That's because real news broke. The fatal trampling of a Wal-Mart employee by crazed crowds in Long Island and a shootout in the aisles of a Palm Desert Toys R Us meant that reporters finally had something to write about, but the dailies' response, for the most part, was disappointing. The LAT, for instance, buried news of the violence below boilerplate about "the traditional start of the holiday shopping season." What the hell kind of inverted pyramid is that?
Here's my theory on the lackluster coverage of this year's Bloody Black Friday: Faced with something of real interest to report, the clanking apparatus of daily print journalism simply couldn't get out of its post-Thanksgiving rut. A colleague at my former daily and I used to ask ourselves: What would happen if our paper, and others, simply didn't do the Black Friday story? Would more compelling journalism have come out of this year's shopping mayhem if reporters hadn't been wearily following around stereo-laden shopping carts?
Maybe one of these years we'll find out.