Reporters and editors whose news stories fail to answer obvious questions drive me up the wall. One of the latest dispatches in this genre appeared in our newspaper recently.
It was UPI story from Los Angeles that said J. Paul Getty's estate of $714 million had grown by $8.7 million since Getty's death a year ago, and that the estate "will be increased shortly to $720 million due to new investments."
The thrust of the story was, "Gee, look how much this estate has grown." It should have been, "Gee, look how little it has grown." A return of less than $9 million on an investment of $714 million is just a mite over 1 per cent. The reader is left to wonder why Getty's estate has earned so little in more than a year, and how it can be stated with such confidence that the new investments will prove profitable.
When I asked Rick Reikowsky, the head of our Metro copy desk, whether he had seen the Getty story, he grinned. "I saw it," he said. "I found myself wondering whether the lawyers have been draining off a few million here and there."
Intrigued, I began began trying to guess at the answer to to the mystery. An investment of $714 million in high grade bonds, even government bonds, would yield more than $40 million a year. What was Getty's money invested in that it was producing less than $9 million?
Well, I said to myself, perhaps as much as $100 million of it is in nonproducitve things like country estates, furnishings, Rolls-Royces and works of art. And suppose all the rest is in Getty Oil stock. Let's take a look at that.
Sure enough, our stock market tables indicate that Getty Oil stock costs almost $200 a share but pays a dividend of only $2.90 per share - less than $1.5 per cent.
It's just a guess, Rick, but it may provide at least a partial explanation for one of our cryptic dispatches. But wouldn't you think newsmen would be curious enough to dig a little deeper into a story like this and replace the reader's conjecture with some hard facts?