Death of a

Even free publicity in the New York Times, which portrayed a tiny competitor busily "Killing," couldn't save bookseller

Published March 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

I hate to say "We told you so," but...
Actually, all right, I enjoy saying it.

A year ago, Thomas Friedman wrote a
breathless New York Times op-ed column
titled "," in which he declared that was doomed because anyone and
his garage could compete with the
e-commerce juggernaut. As evidence,
Friedman trotted out one Lyle Bowlin,
whose bookstore --
run out of a spare bedroom in his Cedar
Falls, Iowa, home -- seemed to be doing
just that. A couple weeks later,
Friedman wrote a follow-up column, "Killing"
: Bowlin's business was
going gangbusters not coincidentally
thanks to the choice coverage in the New
York Times, which placed Bowlin in the
media food chain and led to other free
publicity for his enterprise.

As I and other pundits observed at the time, Friedman's
enthusiastic broadsides showed a
remarkable ignorance about the way the
Web business works. They ignored the
toughest problem all Web merchants face:
attracting customers. If you have New
York Times columnists doing your
marketing for you free, of course you
can jump-start a business nicely. But
when the free press coverage dies down,
what happens? Goliath prospers; David
needs to find lots of capital or accept
that he will remain a garage operation.

Bowlin's business, unsurprisingly, went
under. But you will look in vain for
that story in the Times. It's told Thursday in the paper's
arch-competitor, the Wall Street


After I wrote this, Friedman did indeed publish a column, "Saga of an Online Pioneer," as a kind of post mortem to the Bowlin story. It's unclear exactly how Bowlin was a "pioneer," given the hundreds of thousands of small e-commerce enterprises that preceded his. More importantly, although the article chronicles "lessons learned" from the affair, Friedman continues to sidestep his own central role in this story: He makes only one small reference to having "helped midwife" Bowlin's saga. Bowlin, at least, acknowledges that "free advertising from news stories" was central to his tale -- but the New York Times columnist doesn't seem to understand, or doesn't want to admit, that this phrase points right at him.

By Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------ The New York Times