Averages are dead

I'm serious: Can we please stop talking about averages, medians and means? Can we please top thinking like we're living in 1955? There are no average people and no average products, blogs or newspapers. Everything is a special case. Get used to that.

We can't get our heads around everything being a special case. That's far too difficult. So we roll up bundles that we call segments. Midwestern farm women aged 25-34. Major metropolitan newspapers. Well-sourced bloggers who cover insider politics in Washington. Each is interesting and clearly different from the "average" human, newspaper, blogger. But it is a crutch. Underneath, everything is a special case.

Thinking only about averages leads us to stunningly stupid blanket pronouncements. Here are two: Media must charge consumers for content. Media can't charge consumers for content. Both are obviously false. Media that's free to consumers is a spectacular success story. Media that people pay for also is a spectacular success story (and I am thinking here of book and music sales, not the paltry delivery fee paid by U.S. newspaper subscribers). Whether one path leads to success and the other to failure is a study in special cases.

Another stunningly stupid blanket pronouncement: Newspapers are dead. Get over your self-promotional media pundit self. I worked for a daily newspaper that died in 1986. My dad worked for years at a daily newspaper that died in 1978. Newspapers have been dying for as long as they've been around. The Rocky Mountain News died last week, and you can start digging the grave for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. That tells me absolutely nothing about a daily newspaper in the Gannett chain that turned an operating profit of over 42 percent last year. Is that a special case? Exactly my point.

Blanket declarations of the form "X is dead" may make for linkable headlines, but they are meaningless. That includes my title, "Averages are dead." Clearly they are not; we're all going to continue to crunch numbers and calculate means and medians. But let's connect that with an awareness that they roll up a bundle of special cases, and real success is always a special case. Look for that.


Some other categories that don't need average: 1. Average test scores. 2. Average household income. 3. Dow Jones Average In addition there are the national stats that don't say anything about real people in any specific place. 1. Housing starts..In Florida or Boston? 2. Toxic mortages ...In California or Chicago? 3. Unemployment stats . . .In Detroit or Atlanta? All nice as an easy way to tell a story. But don't help to understand what's going on.