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L.A. Times and the recession narrative

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I had mentioned earlier the piece where a California newspaper built interviews with a comics shop owner into part of a series on the recession — making, the retailer said, a year of sales growth seem like a year of declines. Which brings us to California's biggest paper, the Los Angeles Times — and today's article, "Superhero Power Ebbs," which I got to see a little closer up in its production.

I was late in responding to the reporter's request for information, so when I finally contacted her, it was to fact-check data already pulled from my site. I noticed at that point that the statistic used — unit sales in the Diamond Top 300 in 2008 — was the worst single subcategory for the year, and being a subcategory, not necessarily representative of the performance of the industry. "I understand the thrust of your story," I wrote, "but I would also observe that the particular stat you're citing is the industry's weakest category for the year, and not the statistic I would say is most meaningful. The "overall" category includes all comics and graphic novels sold by Diamond to comics shops, and to November 2008 we're up one half of one percent, or $396.8 million."

The reporter agreed to add that statistic — and although you can see the unit sales statistic stood, she was willing to make edits to those portions I saw, the few having to do with information sourced from me. A mention of what happened to stores in the 1994 comics collapse was given context as having followed a boom in which the number of outlets tripled. While I may disagree with the thrust of the piece (the rest of which I did not see until now), she did make the appropriate efforts to contact me when it came to my own information, and did correct as necessary.

So she did right by me — even if it is not the story I would write. I'll leave it to readers to analyze the rest of it (media watchdog Tom Spurgeon, whom I contacted before its publication, publishes his observations here).

What would I write? Well, it's here, on the site. I readily admit the industry faces challenges — including some of a different nature than we've seen before — but The Comics Chronicles is about history, about providing the numbers that give historical context. We're kind of the Farmer's Almanac in that regard — while there might be a little prognostication now and again, we're really more about "You think this is cold? Well, in 1999..." The numbers that form that context could be misleading — again, those changing challenges — but asked to evaluate 2008 just by the numbers, 2008 feels more like the slowdown of 2003 than the collapse of 1994 -- and most people probably don't remember a slowdown in 2003. Could it change? Sure. Is there something out there numbers aren't showing? Could be. This is simply a read of the numbers we have to read.

It is the case that, in my online incarnation, I've had more opportunity to talk up the industry's performance than talk it down — because since 2001, the industry has been on an upturn. Back in my print days of the 1990s, when blood was everywhere in the industry, writing about the business was a lot more depressing. But unlike the "Dungeons-&-Dragons is demonic" and "comics are bad for you" stories where I actively truth-squadded pieces in the past, when it comes to the numbers, my interest is really more in keeping the history books right -- on the plus side and the minus side. That meant shooting down the "collecting-new-comics-is-big-bucks!" stories that came my way for comment in the mid-1990s too, which, believe it or not, national magazines were still writing long after the speculation boom had peaked.

We'll continue to watch media reports as the recession continues. It's early enough days that we're just getting the first round of mainstream media stories on the field; if comics succeed in defying the forces pulling on the rest of the economy for any length of time, I suspect we'll eventually see that reflected more.

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