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Inferring structural change from change


In a debate in the Commons on the 19th January, 2009, on local news media, the Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Andy Burnham said this:

Only a few years ago the press accounted for 54 per cent. of the advertising spend in this country, but the figure is now down to 43 per cent., so there are real structural changes taking place.

Grant Burnham the stated fact – a cursory search of press reports don’t contradict it – does Burnham’s stated conclusion follow from it? I don’t think it necessarily does. We have one particular facet of data: that some years before 2009, the press was 54% of advertising spend in Britain, and now it is only 43% – an 11% drop in “a few years”.

First of all, it may be the case that such things are cyclical. I’m not saying it is, but it doesn’t directly follow from the change that it is permanent. As the global warming sceptics are always so keen to point out, just showing that something changes isn’t enough to show that it is will continue to do so. If say, due to a dramatic global recession, advertising spending were to slump dramatically across all sectors in a consistent but non-uniform way, then such a figure can be explained as basically a statistical anomaly of said recession.

Secondly, it may be the case that how you define the sectors determines the result you get. What exactly is ‘the press’. We can point to particular examples of ‘the press’: a newspaper like the Daily Telegraph or The Observer is obviously ‘press’. News magazines like The Economist count too. What about lifestyle or general interest magazines? I mean, Hello! or Grazia isn’t exactly serving the same social role as the newspapers, but we are talking about advertising revenues here rather than social function. Take it as read that the press includes all newspapers and magazines. Presumably, the structural change we are talking about is a shift from money being spent on advertising in those publications to, say, money being spent on Internet advertising. Does that mean that there is a structural change taking place moving money away from ‘the press’? Depends on whether the Internet sites that are coming up count. If Grazia counts as press, then so does A case can be made for local bloggers being ‘the press’ in the same way that local newspapers are.

Governments are a dab hand at this: changing how you measure something can dramatically change the result. I’m not saying that in this particular case that has happened, but it does illustrate the possibility.

For Burnham to establish the conclusion he is attempting to establish, he would need to show that this was part of a longer trend and to show that the statistics support the conclusion he is deriving from them. I don’t believe that they don’t, but he has not made the case in this speech.

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