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Pssst! Here’s a Secret: Business Reporters Can’t Do Math

Published: February 17, 2006       Updated: July 13, 2024

2 min read

business reporters math

Hugh Macleod, after boasting that he is “doing nothing but make money via blogs,” ripped into the recent Slate article, “Twilight of the Blogs: Are they over as a business?”

In his usual style, Hugh goes for Big Media’s jugular:

Because they generally don’t do anything, except write endlessly about the people who do, their opinions are always based upon second-hand sources. Which makes for a pretty murky lens to view the world through.

Ouch. Since we have been personally ad-hominemed by Hugh for our “secret, hidden motives,” we’re sensitive to his off-the-cuff causticity. But we agree that the Slate article was not particularly well thought out.

Unlike Hugh, we actually like reporters and think they do important work. In fact — on average — we think they’re smarter than most of the folks we’ve met in the business world.

They’re just not very good at math.

No, really. Talking Biz News covers this problem well, citing an interview with former Wall Street Journal editor Richard Holden:

Part of the problem is embedded in the culture of the profession, Mr. Holden says: “Journalists always prided themselves on knowing so little about math.”… He also points out that many journalists can sail through college and journalism school without taking a class in math or statistics. Numerical knowledge often gets acquired on the job. “You learn by doing, and learn somewhat from your mistakes,” he says.

Talking Biz News adds:

… I started reading the profile of NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in this week’s Sports Illustrated. The second paragraph reads: “Take league revenue: $5.7 billion this year versus $975 million in 1989. (Major League Baseball made $4.1 billion in 2004, the NBA about $3 billion.)”

The word “made” is what bothers me in this sentence, and it shows a lack of knowledge about what “revenue” means. Revenue is not money “made.” Net income, or profit, is money “made.” When I see something like this in a major publication, it makes me question what’s wrong in the rest of the issue.

Bottom line: Business reporters are better at telling the human stories behind business — for example, the great anecdotes in the recent Enron movie -- than they are at unearthing Enron-type scandals in the first place.

They’d have to be able to read the numbers to do that.

So their predictions regarding the prospects of the blog business — or any other business — are based on what Hugh calls “second-hand sources.” Most business coverage is the equivalent of entertainment writers asking Hollywood gossips whether the next Angelina Jolie movie is going to be a hit. It’s guesswork until that opening Friday night.

Our guess is that Hugh’s business — and other blog-based businesses — have a lot of room to run yet.

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