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Mark Penn’s Completely Invented WSJ Article


PUBLISHED: April 21, 2009

Professional pollster and PR guy Mark Penn writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that “more Americans are making their primary income from posting their opinions than Americans working as computer programmers, firefighters or even bartenders,” and that “there are almost as many people making their living as bloggers as there are lawyers.” This is wrong. This is not just wrong, it’s wrong by several orders of magnitude. The mind reels at how an apparently-bright guy could write such a fundamentally inaccurate article and get it published in a major U.S. daily. I want to catalog some of the most egregious factual sins present in this piece.

By way of establishing credentials, I’ve been blogging since 1996, I’ve run blogs with substantially more than 100,000 monthly unique readers, I’ve derived varying levels of income from blogging, and I am, at this very moment, being paid to write this blog entry. And, for what it’s worth, I had a small role in exposing Stephen Glass as a fabulist.

Penn’s thesis is that average American citizens are becoming professional bloggers, offsetting the loss in journalists, with millions enjoying a revenue stream from blogging and nearly half a million making a living at it. That’s wrong on its face. There’s simply no way there there’s more than, say, 10,000 Americans are paying for their basic life expenses purely through blogging.

Let’s look some of his claims individually:

The best studies we can find say we are a nation of over 20 million bloggers, with 1.7 million profiting from the work ,and 452,000 of those using blogging as their primary source of income.

Almost two million people generating income from blogging sounds like a lot. What’s his source on that? blogworldexpo.com, a website promoting a conference for bloggers. But that dubious source actually claims something very different:

1.7 million American adults list making money as one of the reasons they blog.

That’s not to say that they make money, just that they want to make money. Many people write novels because they want to be rich, but that doesn’t mean that all aspiring novelists are wealthy. So we can see that claim—one of the pillars of Penn’s article—is totally invented.

And what’s the source for the claim that 452,000 people employing blogging as their primary method of income? An undated GalleyCat blog entry that’s repeating Technorati’s state of the blogosphere report from last year, which reported that 2% of “personal bloggers” claim that “my blog is my primary source of income.” And where did Technorati get that number from? They conducted an e-mail survey of 1,290 adult bloggers from 66 countries. (Given the self-selecting audience, respondents are bound to be more likely to people for whom blogging is an important part of their lives, which is to say people whose livelihood depends on it.) Technorati doesn’t extrapolate any of their figures, referring only to the percentages of their sample set, so where does Penn get this 452,000 figure from? Well, if he figures that there are over twenty million American bloggers (say, 22.6 million), and 2% (of international bloggers) claim that blogging is their primary source of income, then that works out to 452,000 (Americans, apparently). So Penn has taken an internally-valid 2%, extrapolated it out using the manufactured number of twenty million, and concluded that 452,000 Americans are making a living on blogging.

How good of a living is this? Penn explains:

It takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year.

Well, those are some very specific numbers, so they should be easy to check. Technorati explains the $75k figure:

The average annual blogger revenue is more than $6,000. However, this is skewed by the top 1% of bloggers who earn $200k+. Among active bloggers that we surveyed, the average income was $75,000 for those who had 100,000 or more unique visitors per month (some of whom had more than one million visitors each month). The median annual income for this group is significantly lower — $22,000.

That doesn’t mean that “it takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month to generate an income of $75,000 a year,” as Penn claims. It means that among those with at least 100,000 visitors—and as many as a million—the average income is $75,000. And, again, that includes “the top 1% of bloggers;” given that Technorati surveyed 1,290 bloggers, that’s a number based on a survey of…13 people. This is a bit like saying that in a room with 99 homeless men and Bill Gates, the average net worth is $580M. Accurate, but not helpful.

And what of bloggers who make money not from advertising, but instead are paid to write blog entries for others’ sites? Penn writes:

Bloggers can get $75 to $200 for a good post…Most bloggers for hire pay $80 to get started, do it for about 35 months, and make a few hundred dollars.

The source for that is a blogger, who conducted an informal survey of “20 top-tier tech bloggers and social media consultants.” Using this dubious data, Penn totally mispresents the data provided by author Marshall Kirkpatrick, who wrote:

What kinds of rates are our respondents seeing? The low end of the scale was $10 per post for very short posts. Almost everyone else said they were paid $25 per post. One person said they were paid $80 per post! One respondent said they were paid $200 per item of long-form writing; bloggers often do other kinds of writing as well.

So an average of $25 and an extreme of $80 becomes, in the hands of Penn, “most bloggers” being paid $80 “to get started,” while “one respondent” being paid $200 becomes, without explanation, “a few hundred dollars” and the norm for those who “do it for about 35 months.” The linked source for that time frame is Technorati, who cites 35 months only as the average tenure of all bloggers that they surveyed. The number has nothing to do with being paid, expertise, or this “few hundred dollars” figure that Penn apparently pumped up from the $200 maximum.

I could go on, but I’ll stop with just one more tidbit, one that’s so obviously wrong I just can’t let it pass without notice. Penn claims both that “one out of three young people reports blogging” and that “three out of every four are college graduates.” There are 83 million people under the age of twenty in this nation, a third of which leaves us with 27 million young bloggers. Not only is that seven million more people than Penn says are blogging in the whole of the nation, but also a surprisingly-well educated group of kids, if three quarters of them have graduated from college.

Writers make mistakes. Editors make mistakes. Publications make mistakes. Lord knows that I’ve contributed to all three. But the series of accidents required to yield an article this inaccurate boggle the mind. Remember, Penn is a world-famous political pollster—he was Hillary Clinton’s chief political strategist for her presidential campaign and he was Bill Clinton’s pollster for his 1996 campaign and his second term. He’s not just some random guy.

Penn should, in short, know better. But if he doesn’t, why doesn’t the Wall Street Journal?

11 Comments

Connor Shaw's picture
Connor Shaw · 10 years ago
Waldo, I am standing at my computer and giving you an ovation. Bravo. If I may, you just pwned him.
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Jacob Silverman's picture
Very well done. Hopefully someone at the WSJ sees this.
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Pete's picture
Pete · 10 years ago
Bear in mind that this is the same guy who devised Hillary’s entire campaign strategy on the assumption that she would earn her proportional share of delegates from each state’s primary (thus, for example, picking off a large number of delegates from a big state like California even if Obama won the state overall), despite the well-known fact that the Democratic primaries are winner-take-all - win the state, take all the delegates. This ignorance of basic primary campaign procedures proved that Penn had absolutely no business running anybody’s campaign. Which makes it hardly surprising that he also shows a strong ignorance about the economics of blogging.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Pete, the more that I’ve learned about Mark Penn in the past 24 hours, the less surprised that I am by this. I’ve had a lot of “oh, wait, so he’s that guy?” moments. Assembling the pieces of the puzzle, I see now that this WSJ article displays the same gleeful ignorance that’s defined the man’s career.
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anon's picture
anon · 10 years ago
Bravo!
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Solitude's picture
Solitude · 10 years ago
Penns article still meets the demonstrated accuracy requirements embraced by old style journalism as a whole. It was not one whit less accurate than writing which has carried the Pulitzer.
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Liz's picture
Liz · 10 years ago
Excellent rebuttal. That entire article just left the impression of being implausible, and you explained why. But I think you didn’t go far enough regarding the 2% of people who say blogging is their primary source of income. Don’t presume that means they’re supporting themselves – I don’t think people usually consider parents/spouse/welfare as a “source of income.” I’d be interested to see how many of that 2% consider themselves unemployed or out of the workforce.
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Waldo Jaquith's picture
Liz, I could have gone on all day looking at the holes in his logic. :) I only stopped because it was 5:00 and time to go home!
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Wistar's picture
Since I started blogging almost two years ago I have “made” one comped dinner, one comped breakfast buffet, and a free book. What does that translate to in Mark Penn dollars? I’d say I’m clearing at least six figures.
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