Newspapers should be in the business of informing their readers, but not the New York Times. Last fall I had raised the issue of putting large numbers in some context so that readers would be able to understand their significance. I was primarily thinking of budget numbers. Almost no readers have any idea what the billions or trillion mean, but they would immediately be able to understand a number expressed as a percent of the budget. The latter takes no additional research, it takes one second of a reporter's time to use a spreadsheet or calculator.
Margaret Sullivan, the paper's public editor agreed with me. So did David Leonhardt who was the Washington Bureau chief at the time and is now the editor of Upshot section. Leonhardt said that to most readers reporting a number in the hundreds of billion was the same thing as just writing "really big number." It seemed that this agreement would lead to a change in the paper's practices. However that was not to be the case.
The paper still routinely presents budget and other numbers without any context, even though everyone involved in the process knows these numbers are meaningless to the overwhelming majority of people who see them. Of course the numbers are also meaningless to the editors and copy editors at the NYT who review copy.
We got more evidence of this fact in a correction to an article on the cost of demolishing abandoned buildings in the city of Detroit. The correction told readers:
"Because of an editing error, an earlier version of the headline on the home page gave an incorrect figure for the estimated cost of ending blight in Detroit. It is $850 million, not $850 billion."
Yes, million, billion, who can tell the difference? If this number had been expressed relative to the size of the city's economy the error might have been clearer to the NYT's editors and likely would have not found its way into print.
The city of Detroit has a gross city product of roughly $35 billion, assuming that the share of the city's economy in the metro area economy is proportional to its population. This means the cost of addressing blight, as indicated in this article, would be roughly 2.3 percent of the city's annual output. By contrast, if the article had used the billion number it would have reported that the cost of blight was 2300 percent of the city's economy. Presumably an editor would have been able to realize that the latter was an implausible figure and caught the mistake before it found its way into print.
It is difficult to see any legitimate reason for not expressing numbers in a context where they are understandable to NYT readers. The failure to do so also means the numbers are less understandable to NYT editors, which means that the paper will allow more embarrassing typos into print.