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Stop the Press!

Recently, I have become somewhat concerned about the inability of the general business press to distinguish between very large and very small numbers.

While perusing the "Business Briefs" section of my highly amusing local paper, I noticed an item about the recurring travails of, an Internet startup co-founded by the voluble, combative, ubiquitous money manager James Cramer. The Web site, which purports to be an indispensable investment tool, finds itself in the embarrassing position of having seen its stock drop like a stone since its IPO, thus casting some doubts upon its overall indispensability.

" said it will close its analyst-ranking division and fire five employees, or about 2 percent of its workforce," the news item read. "The company wouldn't say if any more job cuts were possible."

Frankly, when a firm has just laid off 2 percent of its work force but has only axed five people, we're not talking about an enterprise with enough employees, revenues, or profits to warrant discussion. The only reason this bagatelle was reported was because is some sort of bellwether for the fortunes of the Net, serving as a proxy for all those other Web content providers having trouble making money--as well as a media darling whose fame is totally out of proportion to its size or influence.

This is the sort of thing that used to happen with the hippie capitalists Ben & Jerry, masters of media manipulation whose japes and pranks invariably generated journalistic attention that larger, more profitable companies would have given their eyeteeth to receive (if, in fact, they had any eyeteeth). But at least Ben & Jerry's was and is a company of size, with credible revenues, a substantial workforce, and a history of turning a profit. By comparison, is a joke.

Directly above the article about the misfortunes of was a slightly larger news brief reporting that Warren Buffet had cut his stake in Walt Disney by roughly 32 percent--or 8.8 million shares--during the previous quarter. With the stock trading north of the $30 range at the time, the money involved was not insubstantial. What I'd like to know is what these two business briefs were doing in the same section of the paper. Do the results of the YankeesRed Sox game get reported in the same section of the newspaper as the results of the softball game between the Sleepy Hollow Headless Horsemen and the Pleasantville Fighting Gophers? I mean, wasn't there any real news to report that day?

My second quibble with my colleagues in the business press is over the use of the term "chief executive officer." Increasingly, I find myself reading about some glitzy Web startup with microscopic revenues, no profits, and three employees, which hopes to become the next by marketing some indispensable service (delivering still-warm cappuccino to peasants working in the rice fields of China or downloading deeply-discounted nuclear torpedo specifications to online naval buffs). Invariably, the article will include a few self-serving quotes from the 23-year-old who started the company, a Brent or Kayla or Trent who will identify himself or herself as the CEO of the company.

I think that the term chief executive is misapplied here. Just as it would be inappropriate for a military figure to refer to himself as a "field marshal" when his entire army isn't numerous enough to field a bowling team, it seems a bit pretentious for a person heading a firm with eight employees to identify himself as a CEO. For starters, to be the chief executive officer, one must be supported by other executive officers. Also, to be a bona fide CEO, one usually needs to have been around for awhile. Indeed, it is a measure of the phantasmagoric nature of our economy that so many people describing themselves as CEOs in fact have never held any other position.

Much as I admire the feistiness of such entry-level CEOs, I must question the use of that title. A true CEO is almost always someone who heads a large, complex organization with substantial sales, impressive technology, a sizable workforce, and a parking lot, whereas the entry-level CEO is basically a kid working out of a closet. To clear up any resulting confusion, and to restore the tarnished luster of the term "CEO," I suggest that journalists begin referring to entry-level CEOs as "founders," "bosses," "top dogs," "presidents," or even "studs"--but leave the term "CEO" out of it. Calling the head of a tiny start-up a CEO is like calling a witch doctor the Pope.

Let's show a little respect.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal
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Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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