Michelle Millhollon! Why you gotta do ANI that way?

MisdirectionOne of my favorite hobbies is reading the local paper. Occasionally, I have to chuckle at the amateur way some of the articles are framed. Editorial or reporter bias? Probably so, but you really can’t do much about it other than roll your eyes.

Take for instance this article in the Advocate, Baton Rouge’s daily newspaper: Audubon Lost Money in ’08 by Michelle Millhollon. The blaring headline clearly intends to lead the reader to the opinion that the Audubon Nature Institute (ANI) is a money losing enterprise or at the least has a questionable ability to generate a profit. But do the facts really support this? The article correctly reports and strongly focuses on the fact ANI operated at a $187,886 loss in 2008; a loss generated across its entire holdings of the Audubon Zoo, Aquarium of the Americas, IMAX theater, Insectarium, and other smaller (non-revenue generating) research and conservation holdings.

I know what you’re thinking, but I promise you I’m not missing any zeros. So, the “big news” is that ANI posted a $187,886 loss on reported revenue of $43,557,620 per their financial statements. That loss, as a function of revenue, was 0.43% (yes, that’s a percent). A 0.43% loss for a non-profit organization? Stop the presses, we’ve got a hot one! I’ve worked with a local charitable organization in the past to determine funding levels for supported entities and all I can say is that a 0.43% loss is pretty much a non-issue for a non-profit. The whole point of non-profit agencies is to reinvest any generated profit into a cause of some sort. In the case of ANI, it is research and conservation holdings. Some years you come out a little ahead, some years you come out a little behind.

While I think the reported loss is much ado about nothing, I think the real disservice is found later in the article. After spending several column inches reporting on the loss in 2008, the following sentence is buried deep in the article:

“Financial statements provided by Audubon show the institute had excess revenue in recent years — with 2008 being the exception.”

Wait… what? You mean to say that other than 2008, ANI has been generally operating at a profit? But sure, why should a newspaper include relevant historical information?

Even more amusing is the sentence that follows that one:

“But Audubon Zoo and Audubon Park consistently showed more expenses than revenues at the end of the year.”

That may be the case… except for, ya know, 2008, the year on which the article is focusing. According to the financial statements, Audubon Zoo and Audubon Park generated an $895,831 profit from operations. It’s a cute apples to oranges comparison, but if you’re going to report on a single year measure, don’t start throwing in multi-year measurements at other points in the article without clarifying the information.

Why is any of this even important to Baton Rouge? As most know, ANI is the entity that will presumably be running the Alive! project if the bond proposal is approved this year. If the facility experiences a loss, East Baton Rouge Parish will have to absorb it. Regardless of the amusing bit of reporting above, past financial statements generally point to the fact ANI understands how to run public venues intended to attract admission-paying patrons. The organization managed to survive a situation where nearly all of its holdings were subjected to the worst natural disaster in American history. Could a less capable organization manage that?



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