If you’re using the ongoing global recession to explore a new career path, blogging probably isn’t at the top of your list. After all, how many bloggers are earning real money?

But blogging as a profession is something you should take seriously since there are now more professional bloggers in the United States than there are firefighters, CEOs, computer programmers and bartenders.

At least that’s according to an article published by The Wall Street Journal’s Mark Penn.

He collects some numbers, chops them up and comes to the conclusion that there are almost as many people earning a living as bloggers as there are attorneys in the United States. According to Penn, 452,000 professional bloggers ply their trade in the United States; for comparison, there are approximately 555,000 attorneys in the states.

Penn says that pros typically make $45,000 to $90,000 per year, that 1% make over $200,000/year, that a good post can earn $75 to $200 and that to reach $75,000 in income, it usually takes about 100,000 unique visitors a month.

Sounds great, right? “Where can I sign up?” Not so fast.

As a professional blogger myself, you don’t need to convince me that blogging doesn’t have to be only a labor of love. I do think that blogging is going to play an important role in the future of journalism and hope that it becomes a viable profession for more and more journalists (and writers of all kinds). But it doesn’t take more than common sense to know that there’s something seriously wrong with Penn’s numbers.

The first glaring problem: he uses a hodgepodge of sources to come up with his argument. He assumes there are 20m bloggers (based on data from eMarketer), assumes 1.7m of them profit from their blogging (based on information promoted by BlogWorldExpo) and assumes that 2% of the bloggers out there can earn a ‘living‘ from their blogs (based on Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere Report).

But the biggest problem here is not just the hodgepodge of data. It’s that the basis for many of his claims is Technorati’s State of the Blogosphere Report, which was sent to a random sample of Technorati users and which was based on less than 1,300 self-completed responses.

Assuming that 2% of the approximately 20m people who are estimated to have ‘blogged‘ at some point in the US equates to 452,000 professional bloggers simply because 2% of the 1,300 bloggers who responded to Technorati’s survey can reportedly earn a living blogging is the definition of fuzzy math.

As are the claims that these phantom 452,000 professional bloggers are all earning that living. From Technorati’s report:

The average annual blogger revenue is more than $6,000. However, this is
skewed by the top 1% of bloggers who earn $200k+. Among active bloggers that we
surveyed, the average income was $75,000 for those who had 100,000 or more
unique visitors per month (some of whom had more than one million visitors each
month). The median annual income for this group is significantly lower —
$22,000.

The median revenue for U.S. bloggers is $200 annually (and the median annual
investment is only $50).

The difference between mean (average) and median revenues is huge; the median figures are far more likely to be realistic. If the median revenue reported by the 550 US bloggers who were actually active enough to respond to Technorati’s survey was $200, what does that tell us about the 20m Americans who have supposedly blogged at some point?

A number of comments left on the WSJ article raise similar concerns about the figures presented, how they’re analyzed and the conclusions that were drawn.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the future of journalism of late and many question whether bloggers are capable of performing good journalism. As much as I love The Wall Street Journal (it’s one of my favorite print publications), I think this article demonstrates that the quality of the journalism produced by even the finest newspapers sometimes falls short too.

In this case, the author’s math simply doesn’t add up and that he would go out of his way to discuss unionization, benefits, health concerns and unemployment insurance for the 452,000 professional bloggers that don’t exist is actually somewhat amusing.

More troubling: that the 452,000 blogger figure is included in a table that cites the Bureau of Labor Statistics as its source, giving the impression that the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms that there are more professional bloggers in the US than firefighters, CEOs, computer programmers or bartenders. It doesn’t say any such thing; the figures for all the other professions were provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the blogger figure was inserted by Penn.

He concludes by asking “But for how long can nearly 500,000 people who are gradually replacing whole
swaths of journalists survive with no worker protections, no enforced ethics
codes, limited standards, and, for most , no formal training?

It’s a decent question, even though there aren’t 500,000 people out there doing what he says. But after reading this article, I have to believe that the WSJ and professional journalists have greater questions to ask of themselves.

Photo credit: fireflythegreat via Flickr.