Spin of the Century

The Reno Gazette-Journal has reached a new journalistic low by reporting—without context or critical analysis—the “success” of the Century Riverside 12 Theatre’s first year.

It all started last Thursday afternoon, when city officials held a press conference to announce the results of the theater’s first year. Councilmembers Sherrie Doyle and David Aiazzi joined City Manager Charles McNeely, Cal Neva-Virginian CEO Phil Bryan and numerous others to proudly announce that the theater had attracted more than 200,000 people in its first year. Some people even said 230,000.

Everyone who spoke gushed about how successful the theater was.

“We can’t believe it’s doing so well,” Doyle said.

Yeah, 230,000 is a big number, with six digits and everything. But it means nothing out of context. During the press conference, I started doing the math on my notepad—and I soon realized that the number was, in reality, far from impressive.

Here are my calculations. In all of them, I gave the city the benefit of the doubt. I used the city’s high estimate for the number of visitors. Even though the “year” the city was discussing was slightly more than a year (at the press conference, city officials said it was actually less than a year, but later corrected themselves), I only used 365 days. And I used a conservative estimate of 50 movie screenings per day; this week, there are 54 showings.

Customers per day (230,000 divided by 365): 630

Customers per hour (630 divided by 12 hours): 52.5

Customers per movie screening (630 divided by 50): 12.6

Such numbers and context were nowhere to be found in the RGJ the next day. Instead, there was a glowing story, complete with a picture of city officials getting coffee at the Riverside 12, on the front page of the Reno/Sparks section.

But the glow in the story paled in comparison to the glow in that day’s lead editorial, titled “Movie Theater: It’s Not a ‘Flop.’ “

“By just about any measure, in fact, the theater has been a success,” the editorial read, gushing about the fact that the city would get $70,000 in rent because of the “success.”

The city’s spin was bought hook, line and sinker by the RGJ. It was only after a KOLO TV report including the per-screening breakdown, some criticism by council members (including Jessica Sferrazza-Hogan, who wasn’t invited to the press conference) and an outcry by city critics such as Michael Robinson that the RGJ changed its tune—slightly. On Tuesday, an article appeared on page three of the Reno/Sparks section, pointing out that the numbers were actually below the estimates of the city’s economic analysis firm. It also mentioned that the Century Sparks 14 pulled in about one million customers in its first year, more than four times the number the Riverside 12 brought in.

The headline? “Officials Say More Amenities Will Boost Downtown Reno Theater Sales.”

There was no correction, retraction or clarification of the Friday story and editorial. There was also no mention of the fact that the $70,000 the city was raving about getting in rent was less than half of the $150,000 minimum that city officials had been promising since the theater opened.

Such coverage by the RGJ is an embarrassment. It would receive a failing grade in any Journalism 101 class. While it is true that there are great things going on along First Street with new businesses, and while it is certainly in the city’s best interest that the theater succeeds, this in no way begins to explain why the RGJ would report on the Riverside 12 like this. The coverage was factually incorrect, without context, misleading and biased.

While city officials should be ashamed for putting such a ridiculous spin on the theater numbers, the RGJ staff members and editors involved in this coverage should be punished. There is no place in journalism for this.