Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fuzzy math

With so many members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors having majored in journalism, it is understandable that they may not be enormously proficient at math.

But even a fellow journalism major, like me, can see that the ASNE’s 2007 newsroom census doesn’t add up.

After more than a year of relentless staff cutting throughout the newspaper industry, the ASNE is reporting that the total headcount in America’s newsrooms rose 4% in the last 12 months to reach a record 57,000. How could that be?

The answer, of course, is that the ASNE has changed the way it counts noses. And its new math is as confusing as the old New Math was.

The surprising surge in newsroom staffing results, in part, from the ASNE's decision for the first time to include “full-time” online journalists in its annual census, which is a good (and overdue) thing. The society says 2,000 of the 57,000 jobs are those of staffers who work exclusively at online tasks.

If you back the 2,000 dedicated onliners out of the 2007 staffing total, however, you still get 55,000 newsroom jobs, which is not only 0.4% higher than last year’s total but also higher than any staff level since the economic cataclysm of 2001. That number makes no sense, given all the downsizing that has been going down.

“Newspaper editors report the numbers and we were surprised by them ourselves,” says an ASNE staff member, who didn’t want to be identified. “Although the larger papers have been reducing staff, some small and medium ones have been hiring.”

But the real reason newsroom numbers appear to be rising, says our friend at the ASNE, is that a growing number of online staffs are being merged into traditional newsroom operations. The actual number of newsroom newbies isn’t available, because the ASNE (inexplicably) didn’t track online staffing in the past. So, there’s no way to accurately compare this year’s staffing to last year’s statistics.

The sloppy data-gathering is more than an academic issue. The ASNE’s imprecision is almost certainly obfuscating the extent to which newspaper staffs have shrunken during the industry's long-running economic crisis.

And this the thing I don’t get: Why would a group of editors want to do that?


Blogger Unknown said...

Great post and even better eye, Newsosaur.

Wouldn't a little bit of transparent breakdown from the ASNE help a little? Sure, it's hard to categorize some jobs, but with numbers like these, it renders the whole survey useless.

The Editorialiste.

8:04 AM  

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