Minnesota’s media finally starts questioning methodologies

It is no coincidence that it was a Minnesotan, Sinclair Lewis, who popularized the word “Boosterism” in his 1922 novel Babbitt. As I’ve noted before, much of the state’s media is constantly on the lookout for good news stories, asking few questions when they come along.

Back in July, for example, WCCO gleefully reported “Minnesota ranked as a top state for businesses, surpasses Texas.” This was the infamous CNBC ranking of top states for business, which doesn’t actually measure whether a state is a top one for business or not but, quite explicitly, measures how politically “progressive” a state is and passes that off as a business ranking. For progressives, it is a useful substitute for actual data.

Nowhere in its report did WCCO bother to kick the tires on this ranking. Instead, it took it at face value and read like a DFL press release, hailing the ranking as a “huge milestone for the great lake state.”

If Boosting is your game, of course, you don’t look too closely at good news. And, by the same token, you become skeptical as anything when bad news threatens to poop your party.

Last week, WCCO reported “New study says downtown Minneapolis has one of the worst post-pandemic recoveries, but there are questions about methodology.” Emphasis added.

This refers to data I have written about before from the University of Toronto’s School of Cities which looks at cell phone activity at points of interest in the downtowns of the top 66 cities in North America and compares the most recent period to pre-pandemic spring 2019 to assess the recovery of these downtowns from COVID-19. The latest update shows that downtown Minneapolis has recovered just 56% of its pre-pandemic activity, ranking it 64th out of the 66 cities.

How can this be? WCCO reports:

“Cell phone ping data is one thing,” said Steve Cramer, President and CEO of the Minneapolis Downtown Council. “What I see every day when I’m downtown and what I hear from the people who are here is another thing.”

It is another thing indeed. It is an anecdote. My anecdotal evidence indicates that downtown Minneapolis is a ghost town in a death spiral. We use data to adjudicate between such anecdotes.

“As far as the validity of the results, it all depends on your definition of ‘downtown,'” WCCO goes on:

The convention center and U.S. Bank Stadium fall outside the measured area. So too does the North Loop, which is a popular area for restaurants and night life.

Two things here:

First, for the University of Toronto’s School of Cities‘ numbers to be wrong because they don’t include the convention center and U.S. Bank Stadium, it would have to be the case that the decline in activity in downtown as they define it has been offset by a surge in activity round the convention center and U.S. Bank Stadium. Is that the case? Anecdotally, I’d have to say no.

Second, why would you include the North Loop in downtown? Nobody, as far I’m aware, ever has before.

As I’ve said before, whenever you see data or rankings like this you should always question it whether it goes your way or against it. But questioning ought not to be confused with blithe dismissal based on spurious objections such as these.

Finally, bear in mind that much of Minnesota’s media is trying to sell you a narrative. They will look for stories that support that narrative and ignore or attack those which don’t. Apply that filter and you’ll get a better idea of what is really going on.