25 Years of Change in Business Journalism

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BARUCH COLLEGE, NEW YORK, NY—Changes in technology have altered how news is researched, reported and presented, while globalization has vastly increased areas of coverage and the audience for business news. How well journalism has responded to these and others challenges is a matter of continuing debate, and at a recent [May 8] panel of prominent business journalists at Baruch College, the verdict was mixed.

“I think we're overwhelmed with information and we're underwhelmed with explanation,” said Bruce Nussbaum, head of the editorial board at Business Week. But other panelists were quick to praise many aspects of current business journalism.

Broadcast journalism's coverage of business news has “given people a sense of empowerment over their own finances,” said Martin Schenker, Bloomberg's top editor for broadcast news, adding, “On a daily and an immediate basis, people could watch their portfolios and their individual stocks rise and fall and feel a personal attachment to it.”

Barney Calame, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, identified personal finance and mutual funds as areas where coverage has become “increasingly sophisticated.” Business journalists, he said, have also been particularly adept in reporting on “the world of business in American politics.” And in instances of “corporate misbehavior,” Calame said, “there are certainly places where we have not done a great job, but overall...I think we've done a pretty good job.”

Nussbaum declined the invitation of the panel moderator, Diana Henriques of The New York Times, to name what he considered the best of business journalism in the last quarter-century, saying he preferred to link the best and the worst. And he had a long list:
“I think we've been very good at playing gotcha and very bad at explanation; very good at covering conflict and very bad at providing context; very good at covering celebrity, very bad at providing theory; very good at having smarts and pretty bad at being smart; very good at covering companies, bad at understanding political economy; good at accepting conventional wisdom, bad at challenging authority.”

The panel on “25 Years of Change: Business Journalism Finds New Audiences, New Media and New Challenges” was sponsored by the Museum of American Financial History and the journalism programs of Baruch College, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Dollars & $ense, the college's award-winning magazine of business and society.

Twenty-five years ago, business news was mostly “something to wrap around the stock tables,” Henriques noted, and readers can readily see the evolution of any business section. Though the panelists were charged with discussing the past quarter-century, much of the talk focused on the last few years of technological advancement, corporate fraud and globalization. The bursting of the technology bubble and subsequent eruptions of financial and accounting fraud has forced the business press, in the last 18 months, to conduct a self-examination.

“In the heyday of the bubble, the Bernie Ebbers of this world were on the covers of magazines and were heralded as heroes bringing great value to investors,” said Schenker, referring to the former CEO of WorldCom.

Not only were publications glorifying the boom, journalists were inappropriately acting as investment advisers, Nussbaum said. “We had no business telling people to put their investments in international stocks or to put their investments in fancy leveraged this or that,” he insisted.

But while journalists may have failed to fully understand the market bubble, they were publishing some skeptical stories, Calame reminded the audience. “Major publications, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, two years ago were writing about spinning” and “about how IPOs were being handed out,” Calame said. “Questions were being raised about how IPOs were being manipulated.”

Another challenge for business journalists, the panelists agreed, is learning to take advantage of the Internet without becoming overly dependent upon it. “The Internet is mostly for me a big fat tube of information data coming at me,” Nussbaum said. “Occasionally. there will be a person or a site or something that provides me with context.”

Schenker said that in the bubble years “all kinds of information was flowing freely though the Internet and much of it was nonsense, and no one really emerged to expose that on a daily basis with the immediacy and the quickness with which the Internet could reach people. And by the time some of those successes did get exposed, it was too late to undo what was done. So, I don't think that business journalists participated in that as much as they failed to recognize what was happening and do something about it.”

While the power of the Internet has affected journalism immensely, of equal importance, the panelists asserted, has been globalization. Journalists have had to learn “what is driving other countries and what can cause them to change monetary policies,” Calame said. And Nussbaum observed, “We're all writing stories into a global world or covering globalization per se, and that has changed what we do.”

An expanded audience has also influenced the profession, and has put business news more at the mercy of corporate interests. “In broadcast terms you have big corporations who are really driven by ratings, and their interest is to get the most number of people to watch their programs,” Schenker said. An emphasis on “getting circulation and advertising and audience,” he said, has come “at the expense of explaining how the business works.”

To a large audience of students, faculty and practicing journalists, the panelists recommended some specific tools for business journalists in the years ahead:

  • “Content knowledge and expertise in the world that you cover is ever more critical” (Henriques)
  • A solid understanding of global economics (Calame)
  • A better understanding of political economy (Nussbaum)
  • Study Mandarin (Schenker)


    And, everyone agreed:
  • Study accounting, especially forensic accounting
  • Remain skeptical, and think critically
  • Maintain the highest ethical standards