Audit Notes: Reporting numbers, The Onion on the hamster wheel, info consumerism

Francine McKenna on how to handle unaudited financials

Auditor-turned-journalist Francine McKenna, writing at Medium, has some cautionary advice for journalists on reporting unaudited and unverified financial information.

She points to recent reporting on Buzzfeed’s revenues and profitability, but the problem isn’t limited to nonpublic companies that aren’t required to disclose their numbers. McKenna finds the hallowed New Yorker getting iffy with the facts on Comcast-owned MSNBC:

I called Sanneh to find out where he got the MSNBC revenue and profitability numbers in his story. He told me the estimates, not actual numbers, were previously published along with estimates of Fox News and CNN revenues and profits in the 2013 Pew Research Center State of the Media Report. Pew’s source is a firm called SNL Kagan but where does SNL Kagan get the non-public data?

SNL Kagan’s insider knowledge and perspective is what makes our proprietary data so unique and so essential. We provide detailed operational information and exclusive insight that simply isn’t available from any other source.

Sannah said he checked the SNL Kagan estimates with MSNBC sources who “didn’t try to stop the magazine from publishing them”. In fact, MSNBC sources suggested MSNBC profitability may be higher than the estimates. Sanneh went with the research firm numbers since higher company estimates could not be corroborated.

Sanneh and the New Yorker did not identify the numbers as estimates nor did they say where they came from because, according to Sanneh, they had been widely disseminated in the industry.

That’s not good enough. It may make your prose a bit clunkier, but you have to identify the source of the numbers there.

— Slate’s Farhad Manjoo has a very good piece on how the Internet, at long last, is finally catching up to The Onion. Even “America’s Finest News Source” is on the hamster wheel now, and it’s diluting the quality of its fake news:

Like the rest of the media, over the last year the Onion has gotten faster, bigger, more strident, and, to me, a little inconsistent. One of my colleagues described what’s happened to the Onion as “a disturbance in the Force.” It used to be that you could open any issue and expect a laugh riot. Now you can’t make that bet. You’ll still laugh—but not as often, and not as hard, and sometimes you won’t laugh at all…

In other words, now, more than ever, the Onion is in the same boat with the rest of the media. Writers and editors at the Onion face the same pressures as their straight-news brethren—a mandate to be faster, to do more with less, to have insta-opinions on everything even if it means sometimes being wrong. One former Onion staffer told me that when he worked at the paper, the primary formula for comedy was to keep the publishing volume as low as possible. “I felt it was better to produce five funny things a week than seven funny things and three unfunny things,” the staffer said. “It had to do with the way people perceive comedy—even if you have more funny stuff, the unfunny stuff does harm.”

As one staffer put it, “If your argument is that the Onion has gotten less funny because it’s had to adapt to the Internet, then OK—but that’s not the fault of anyone but, just, you know, the world.”

— This is a few weeks old now, but don’t miss Evgeny Morozov on what the NSA spying story says about the perils of information consumerism:

Policymakers who think that laws can stop this commodificaton of information are deluding themselves. Such commodification is not happening against the wishes of ordinary citizens but because this is what ordinary citizen-consumer want. Look no further than Google’s email and Amazon’s Kindle to see that no one is forced to use them: people do it willingly. Forget laws: it’s only through political activism and a robust intellectual critique of the very ideology of “information consumerism” that underpins such aspirations that we would be able to avert the inevitable disaster…

Right now, your decision to buy a smart toothbrush with a sensor in it - and then to sell the data that it generates - is presented to us as just a purely commercial decision that affects no one but us. But this is so only because we cannot imagine an information disaster as easily as we can imagine an environmental disaster. We have become very bad dystopians - and our technophilic intellectuals, in love with Silicon Valley and buzzwords like “innovation,” are partly to blame. But that the disaster is slow and doesn’t lend itself to vivid visualizations doesn’t make it less of a disaster!…

What we need is the mainstreaming of “digital” topics - not their ghettoization in the hands and agendas of the Pirate Parties or whoever will come to succeed them. We can no longer treat the “Internet” as just another domain - like, say, “the economy” or the “environment” - and hope that we can develop a set of competencies around it. Rather, we need more topical domains - “privacy” or “subjectivity” to overtake the domain of the network. Forget an ambiguous goal like “Internet freedom” - it’s an illusion and it’s not worth pursuing. What we must focus on is creating environments where actual freedom can still be nurtured and preserved.

Read the whole thing.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,