I was quite surprised to see the difference in tone between two different Associated Press reports on retail sales Thursday.
The earlier article, unbylined and time-stamped at 10:43 a.m. at MSNBC (HT Hot Air), has the headline “Nation’s retailers post tepid June sales” and this subheadline: “Concerns about back-to-school shopping, health of recovery.” It is decidedly downbeat.
The later AP item, with Anne D’Innocienzio’s byline and time-stamped at 4:59 p.m. at the AP’s main site, is headlined “Retailers post choppy June, deepen discounts.” Compared to the morning story, this account is largely sanitized of macroeconomic negativity and dour words.
Imagine my surprise when I found a bylined version of the earlier report — time-stamped at 9:37 a.m. Mountain Time (11:37 ET) at an Idaho TV station’s web site — and learned that Ms. D’Innocenzio also wrote that report. Who fed this woman happy pills during the afternoon?
Here are some key paragraphs from the AP retail writer’s morning offering (bolds and number tags are mine):
Americans didn’t go on many shopping sprees in June, resulting in sluggish sales  for many retailers. It often took deeply discounted clothing to get shoppers to spend – and then only if they needed it.
The lackluster performance , being compared with a weak June 2009, is raising concerns about the back-to-school shopping season  and the health of the economic recovery .
The International Council of Shopping Centers’ index of June retail sales saw a 3 percent increase, the low end of its growth forecast that ranged from 3 to 4 percent. But that’s compared with a 5.1 percent decline in the year-ago period.
The figures are based on revenue at stores open at least a year and are a key indicator of retailers’ health.
… After ramping up spending surprisingly in the first quarter, shoppers have hunkered down since April. Some worry they’ll continue to be tight-fisted through the holiday shopping season .
… June is a time when stores clear out summer goods to make room for back-to-school merchandise. But analysts say discounting was heavier than expected as stores had to work hard to pull in shoppers continuing to grapple with a deluge of financial issues . Such deeper-than-planned discounting resulted in some stores, including American Eagle Outfitters and Wet Seal, trimming profit forecasts Thursday.
… Uncertainty is growing as evidence mounts – from disappointing housing data to sluggish hiring – that the recovery is stalling heading into the second half of 2010 . And that is when the benefits of most of the government’s stimulus spending will begin to fade.
Now compare the previous excerpted verbiage to what follows from D’Innocenzio’s afternoon item:
Stores deepened discounts more than planned in June to draw recession-scarred shoppers to buy summer tops and other merchandise. But shoppers bought mostly items they needed, resulting in small revenue gains.
The mixed results  from June, released Thursday, are raising concerns about the back-to-school season  and consumers’ ability and willingness to hit the accelerator on spending.
… The third straight month of modest sales gains  after a surprisingly solid start to the year underscores the choppiness of the economic recovery  and puts more pressure on retailers to come up with innovative tactics to get shoppers to spend in the critical months ahead, instead of just resorting to price slashing.
… Merchants’ come-ons are great news for deal seekers – if they have the means to spend. 
… After ramping up spending surprisingly in the first quarter, shoppers have hunkered down since April, going out to stores only to buy necessities. The volatile economic environment has made business uneven from week to week, and economists don’t see that changing until American businesses start making significant hiring.
Uncertainty is growing as evidence mounts – from disappointing housing data to sluggish hiring – that the recovery is stalling heading into the second half of 2010 . And that is when the benefits of most of the government’s stimulus spending will begin to fade.
Here’s how the tagged items compare in the two reports:
 – D’Innocenzio went from “sluggish sales” and “lackluster results” to “mixed results” and “modest sales gains” with the same information. That’s a pretty good trick.
 – The AP reporter’s concerns went from being concerned about the back-to-school and holiday (really “Christmas”) shopping seasons to only back-to-school.
 – She went from being worried about “continued health of the recovery” to merely noting “the choppiness of the recovery,” which implies that there’s little if any doubt about is continuance.
 – Going from “shoppers continuing to grapple with a deluge of financial issues” to “if they have the means to spend” is a significant water-down. The latter description also ignores the fact that a lot of shoppers, specifically the 20% of affluent folks who do 40% of the spending, have “the means to spend,” but are holding on to their money because of economy- and government-induced uncertainty. How do I know this? An AP report on July 7 — also written by D’Innocenzio (“New retail data: Luxury shoppers pull back in June”) — told me. Seriously. Those happy pills must do something to short-term memory.
 – Give the AP reporter props for keeping this accurate verbiage consistent and its placement (from paragraph 12 of 22 in the earlier reports to 16 of 24 in the latter) reasonably equivalent.
All in all, it’s clear that D’Innocenzio’s reports on the same news went from decidedly downbeat to mixed in a matter of less than seven hours. As is typically the case at the AP’s main site, the latter report survives, and earlier ones go down the memory hole.
Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.