If reporters and editors walk out of my "Go Figure: Making Numbers Count" seminars with only one word retained in their memory banks, then that's the one I wish for.
For the umpteenth time over the past eight years, that was among the points I shared on Friday. In other words, numbers communicated in isolation--without any frame of reference--are dangerous, potentially misleading, frequently useless, and bear a variety of other story-warping ills.
(You can check out a few excerpts of the session, at the New York Press Association's annual convention in Saratoga Springs, on my Go Figure: Making Numbers Count blog.)
As it turns out, the convention's keynote speaker, Ken Paulson, (pictured with me, after his talk) emphasized the same point.
The editor of USA Today and USAToday.com from 2004 until a few months ago, Paulson is now president and COO of the Newseum. When he used the "C" word, Paulson was discussing another subject--the ostensibly imminent extinction of newspapers.
He didn't specify the publications by name, but some developments that came to my mind include the recent spate of bankruptcies (see: Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times) and closings (to wit: the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) among major newspapers.
The latest punch in the journalism gut, just this past weekend, comes from my original stomping grounds, as The Boston Globe is now in apparent peril (or at least being tough-talked in labor negotiations with its corporate parent, The New York Times Co.)
While noting that he was not seeking to minimize the real financial and other challenges besetting newspapers, Paulson remarked, "The sky is not falling."
He pointed out that baseball card sales have declined 71 percent since 2000. "In other words, it's not just us," said Paulson. "You look at anybody who published a product on paper and they're in the fight of their lives."
"You have to separate the troubled economy from the challenges we may face as an industry," Paulson added. "It's also probably worth noting that the people who are predicting the demise of newspapers the most are on cable television and are bloggers, and it's in their interests to suggest we don't have a bright future."
But perhaps the most intriguing and thought-provoking part of Paulson's keynote was his parallel-universe account of the 21st century introduction of the newspaper (had Johannes Gutenberg invented the digital modem instead of the mechanical printing press.)
In a humorous 2 1/2-minute riff, Paulson reeled off a list of strengths and benefits from "the invention of a new product called the newspaper."
Among his list was portability, a virus-free environment, "no annoying pop-up ads" and "a painstaking new process called fact-checking in which we actually verify information before we pass it along to you."
You can view a portion of Paulson's talk below: