Friday, May 23, 2008

Increase Your Appeal To Readers—Have Fun With Numbers

By Matt Baron

I like having fun. And so, I believe, do newspaper readers who all too often are saturated with hyper-negativity, from murder and mayhem to petty celebrity gossip.

So it was refreshing this week to see the extra effort that the Chicago Tribune devoted to a story on the Chicago Bulls winning the rights to the first pick in the NBA draft on June 26.

Typically, a truly pathetic team wins the so-called “draft lottery”—since the league has a formula that gives the teams with the worst records a greater shot at the coveted top spot.

Though the Bulls’ 2007-2008 season was a disappointment, they were nowhere close to being the worst squad. Therefore they had a mere 1.7 percent chance of winning the No. 1 selection.

Rather than simply state the figure as some clinical, statistical fact, the Tribune ventured another step and offered an information box with the headline “What are the odds?”

In the brief text below, the paper posed this question, “How does that stack up with some other life experiences?”

From being dealt blackjack (1 in 21) to winning the Powerball grand prize (1 in 146,107,962), the paper offered 10 scenarios. My favorite: bag being lost, delayed or pilfered at airport (1 in 132)—a timely stat in light of airlines’ new policy of charging people to check those (at-risk) bags!

There are many stories that lend themselves to this kind of treatment, if only you activate your imagination for a few minutes. Just recently, a publicist asked me to crunch some figures related to the increase in hybrid vehicles registered in his home state.

What I found is that hybrid vehicles still represented only a tiny fraction (less than one-half of one percent) of all registered vehicles. It had crept up from 0.29 percent to 0.41 percent.

But a closer look revealed a more eye-popping stat: with 7,000 of the roughly 16,000 additional vehicle registrations overall, hybrids were responsible for nearly half of the rise in registered vehicles during the last year.

As long as those numbers are kept within the overall context of the state’s approximately 5.7 million registered vehicles, that’s a rather compelling way to show hybrid vehicles’ rising popularity.

For more discussion about tapping into your imagination with numbers, see:

BARON BIT: To increase the likelihood of your newspaper having fun with numbers, think thematically about how you illustrate the figures. A story on an increase in property taxes, for example, could show five houses of varying sizes (based on the tax rate) alongside one another, with each one representing a different year.

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