Unemployment by the numbers, or my beef with business reporting

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Numbers don’t mean a lot when you’re not particularly affected by them. One key to great journalism is to be able to connect people to numbers by making it about their audience. Investors read business reports, because the numbers speak a personal language to them that others cannot necessarily follow. But a good business reporter can connect their readers to the numbers in ways that can make a deep impact on a community.

Knowing that the number of people drawing unemployment aid dipped by 27,000 to just under 4.5 million, the lowest number since late June, is pretty meaningless until you become a statistic. And I wonder how many Americans actually understand the significance.

I certainly didn’t until I read an interesting caveat at the end of this AP story titled:

Hopes rise as jobless claims fall, trade gap eases.

Yes, the numbers dropped significantly, and the reporter actually states that this could indicate that employers are unwilling to make deeper cuts in their workforce.

Yes, hope springs eternal!

But at the end of the article, we find that these numbers do not count millions of Americans receiving extended benefits from emergency programs put in place during the recession. More than five million Americans are listed on these extended benefit rolls.

That’s a meaningful number for me. Not only am I up against a lot of unemployed journalists for rare job openings in the media, but I’m up against a lot of Americans in the general job market as well.

As numbers go, statistics like these can be soul crushing.

And yet these numbers tell a story about where we’re at as an economy and a country. They tell me that I have my work cut out for me, and that I might have to look outside traditional job sources.

I always argued with editors that attracting younger readers to newspapers would mean reaching them through other means than a print paper and by making traditional news coverage more meaningful by putting them into the coverage and showing them how various issues do or will impact their lives.

The problem is that most traditional newspaper coverage is written for and to a mature audience. Most publishers are loathe to disturb the 50+ set for whom number reporting has remained unchanged since they purchased their first houses many years ago.

Two of the best show-don’t-tell journalism examples I can think of in the last two years happened on the radio. This American Life’s “Giant Pools of Money,” and “Another Frightening Show About the Economy” made for some of the most informative journalism I’ve seen, read or listened to ever. Period.

Yes, I’m a thirty something, and yes, This American Life appeals to my news delivery preferences. (I like to download episodes to my iPod Touch and listen in transit or during workouts or first thing in the morning while checking E-mail and the social networks) Still, the way the economic situation was simplified and brought to life in a full-hour show opened my eyes to the greater potential in number-related storytelling. Namely that numbers are a backdrop until you connect the impacted with the actual cause or causes. Once you’ve made this connection, the audience can follow the numbered pathway to its conclusion. Or lack thereof, as this continuing economic nightmare continues to show.

And if radio can do great show-don’t-tell journalism, newspapers ought to be able to take it to a whole new level.

Tim

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