One more failing grade on the federal math test

Coda • GREG BEAN

Iwas in my senior year of college when I got called to the administrator’s office for some bad news.

Seems that in almost four years of higher education, I had managed to avoid passing a single math class. Sure, I’d started several but dropped before the failing grade I’d earned counted against my GPA.

I’m one of those people who don’t get math. Never did. I was fine when they were talking about adding and subtracting and multiplying, I was good at figuring percentages and I even sneaked through geometry. But the first day of algebra, that first equation, and I started feeling dizzy, my palms began to sweat and my stomach commenced to rumble. My brain, meanwhile, went into total freeze mode, and I think I forgot my own name. That’s the same reaction I get whenever I go to the mall, and let me tell you, it’s not pleasant.

When I explained all that to the nice lady at administration, she had a solution. Bonehead Math. The same elementary math course a lot of the football team was in.

And it turned out to be a hoot, because the professor gave us practical applications for everything we learned. We studied angles on a pool table, shooting Eight Ball. We learned odds by playing poker and 21. We learned basic algebra by going to the supermarket, where we picked up bags of potato chips that would representN, and cans of peanuts that would representY.

I got an A in that class, and I remembered everything I learned. I never drew to an inside straight again.

But I would never have been able to pass the federal math test that was in the news last week because only 34 percent of New York City’s fourth- and eighth-grade students scored well enough to be considered proficient. My mind just isn’t wired that way.

I know this for a fact, because I took a practice test for eighth-graders and failed it miserably because there wasn’t a single question on the odds of drawing a fourth Jack in a game of five-card draw.

If someone asks me tomorrow if I’m smarter than an eighth-grader, I’ll have to say no.

On the plus side, I’ve never encountered a real-life situation that required me to use an equation. I need to know percentages to know how much my taxes are going up, and how much to tip the waiter, and I need to know addition, subtraction and multiplication to balance my checkbook. But nothing algebraic, even once.

I’m certainly not bragging about my ignorance, just saying that so far I’ve been lucky.

• • •

If you want an indication of the tough times the newspaper business is having these days, take a look at what’s happened to the value of the Boston Globe. When the Times Company bought the Boston Globe in 1993, it paid $1.1 billion for the company. At that time, it was the highest price ever paid for a single newspaper, but it was considered a good investment because the Globe had always been profitable.

Then the economy changed, dramatically.

Recently, the Times Company solicited bids from potential buyers of the Globe and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, and the high bid for both was $35 million. In the end, the Times Company decided to keep both papers, for now.

Even with my admittedly dismal math skills, I know that a billion is a thousand million. That means that in 16 years, the Globe’s value has declined by $965 million, over 95 percent of its 1993 sale price — if the bids were any yardstick of actual value.

And papers in New Jersey are suffering as well. A story in the Oct. 13 edition of the New York Observer focused on our state’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, which said last year that unless it got major concessions from the unions, which included cutting the newsroom by 40 percent, they’d just close the paper altogether.

It got those concessions and made the cuts, but company officials say the revenue situation got even worse last year, and more cuts to staff are in the works.

In the end, the number of reporters and editorsmonitoring state and local government will have been reduced by half, and that should send a shiver through every taxpayer and citizen in this state.

Newspapers are the institutions that everyone loves to hate, but there’s no escaping the fact that it is reporters covering state and local governments that keep politicians from running completely amok.

With fewer and fewer boots on the ground, those politicians will be able to get away with anything, because nobody will know what they’re doing.

Who’s gonna cover your local zoning board meeting? Some blogger? Will Google send a reporter to cover the school board? And if enough newspapers cut reporting staffs to the bare minimum, who’ll provide the free Web content everyone smugly says has made ink and paper “irrelevant?”

Nobody, that’s who. And that thought scares me worse than Stephen King ever did, even when he was writing about evil clowns.

So go out and pick up a newspaper tomorrow. Don’t do it for the newspaper company, do it for yourself. Call it insurance.

• • •

In a week of bad news, it was great to hear that an agreement has been reached on the purchase of the Pulda/Van Dyke Farm in South Brunswick for open space preservation.

The 188-acre farm has great historic value and is the largest parcel of its size in the community. The price of $7.5 million will be split by Middlesex County and South Brunswick, each of which will contribute $2.5 million, and the county will use $2.5 million in state Green Acres funding to pay for the rest.

The negotiation process for this purchase has gone on for years and has been difficult. But congratulations to everyone for not giving up and providing this wonderful legacy to future generations.

I’ve written about this purchase and development in this area of South Brunswick a number of times, and I’m proud of whatever small part I played in this outcome.

It’s stories like this a journalist can look back on and say, “Yep, in this one at least, I was on the side of the angels.”

It’s stories like this that make it all worthwhile.

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.