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Welcome to STop, the Seattle Times Opinion blog where our editorial writers and editors share their evolving thoughts on a variety of issues. STop is a place where opinion writers and readers can exchange views and readers can learn more about how editorial positions are formed.

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April 29, 2005

Hype over closures

It’s Friday, and I have an itch to pick on a competitor. Above the fold on page one of the Seattle P-I the headline, “Closures may not save money,” is a classic example of a headline that misleads. Technically it is not inaccurate, but by its emphasis and placement it is wrong.

The subhead, “School officials admit restructuring plan could worsen, not help, budget,” compounds the misdirection.

The story is about the Seattle School District’s plan to close 10 schools in order to save money. What it says is that the savings in operating expenses would be offset by increased capital expenses in the first year. This is because students would have to be moved to other schools, and those other schools would have to be fixed up to accommodate them.

That this would happen is obvious, and the school district should have pointed it out. It is good that the P-I reporter did it. But the story really doesn’t say, “Closures may not save money.” It says they won’t save money for a few years. If you read the story past the jump, you get the essence: Closing schools will cost $10 million to $24 million in one-time expenses, and will save $2.6 million the first year and $3.2 a year million after that. They will also avoid tens of millions of dollars of capital expenses that would have been needed sometime in the future on the closed schools.

Let’s split the difference between $10 million and $24 million and assume the capital cost is $17 million. Here is how the school district will do:

After one year, down $14.4 million.

After two years, down $11.2 million.

After three years, down $8 million.

After four years, down $4.8 million.

After five years, down $1.6 million.

After six years, up $1.6 million, and it’s all up after that. We don’t know what years the capital expenditures would have been needed on the 10 closed schools, but if you add them, you’re way ahead.

It’s exactly the same with stories about the federal government closing bases that the military doesn’t need. It always costs more to close bases than to keep them open, in the first year. In the long run it pays to close them, and the smart thing, financially, is to close them.

A reader could figure out the same thing from the P-I story, but the reader was not given any help by the headline.

A final note: Headlines, particularly page one above the fold like this one, are written to sell newspapers. They are not written by reporters, but by editors. Several times when I was a news reporter, back in the 1980s, I had stories on page one, and faced pressure from an editor to hype the story to fit the headline. Probably that is what happened here.

Respond to Bruce.

 
Posted by Bruce Ramsey at April 29, 2005 05:28 PM



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