Journalism is a good place for a pessimist.
There’s no shortage of people on even the most respected journalism programs in the country who will happily tell you about the profession’s downfall. It’s economically unsustainable, long gone are the glory days of smoky newsrooms, gruff crime reporters on their third divorce and all the burnt coffee that sweet, sweet advertising money could buy.
And I’ll admit it, refreshing the front page at 10pm doesn’t work the same way as a deranged editor yelling “Stop the press!” when the late news comes out.
Chris Roush’s new book, The Future of Business Journalism, Why It Matters to Wall Street and Main Street, tells a familiar story: Business journalism used to be lucrative. Newspaper business sections had plenty of disposable income readers to spread around, and ad salespeople were smart enough to tell the owners at the local appliance store, salon, or whatever.
Newspapers began cutting their business reporting staff around the financial crisis of 2008, just when the country needed, more than ever, to know what was going on in their local economies. Advertising dollars disappeared, especially as local businesses realized they could reach more people on new social media channels and online.
Then came Mike Bloomberg and his colorful keyboards. It turns out that people are realizing that good data and good journalism can make them a lot of money, and today places like Bloomberg and Reuters, which combine big data with big-scoop journalism on expensive subscription platforms, have the biggest editorial staff.
The problem with this? Business news is still available and valuable. It just goes to the people who can pay it (and they pay a lot). It’s also mostly national news, leaving people in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Atlanta struggling to understand what’s happening in their communities or how major news events affect them.
So it’s all still pretty bleak. Where did it leave people like me, a 20-year-old at the University of North Carolina, walking into Roush’s business reporting class for the first time? I took classes in business reporting and economic reporting with Roush, now dean of the School of Communication at Quinnipiac University, when he ran the business journalism program at UNC.
Sure, reporting is fun and can be valuable, but it’s not worth much to me if I can’t make a career out of it. Shit, maybe I should listen to my parents and go to law school. Or worse, in public relations.
But what sets Roush’s new book (and his courses) apart is his insistence that good journalism and profitable journalism are one and the same. Fortunately, I didn’t go to law school after being in Roush’s class. Instead, I went to work at one of those local papers that everyone liked to talk about.
They were one of the lucky ones who had a desk largely intact, but the empty chairs in the newsroom echoed the story Roush told in his book. Yet local business leaders pushed for our coverage and complained that it wasn’t enough. This, Roush suggests, is not just a civil error, but a missed business opportunity.
Consider this post. American Banker writes about banks across the country, and we’re one of the few publications providing special coverage for community banks. But how much of the story are bankers in Omaha, Nebraska missing if they only read our bank stories but don’t see the layoff trends at the meatpacking plant just across the border in Council Bluffs, Iowa?
On a larger scale, most financial reporting now focuses specifically on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C., and how the three intersect. Of course, these trends are important to understand, but so are the actions of state regulators, the contours of local economies, and the personalities of people in the city. It can’t be the Wall Street Journals, the Bloombergs, or even the American bankers of the world telling these stories. There must be people deployed in these places.
Roush also points out that financial journalism is predominantly white and largely still male, in a way that reminds us that the good old days never existed the way we want them to. Business journalists might have picked up on the problems brewing in the housing market earlier, he reasoned, if there had been more black reporters in newsrooms at the time.
Reading my old professor’s words, I realized that criticizing the ways in which business and financial journalism goes wrong is easy, and the world certainly doesn’t need a Chris Roush to do it. Where his book really excels is in his nuanced presentation of the value of business journalism and, perhaps most importantly, how to fix its flaws.
It’s no secret that business journalism, especially that which produces local coverage, has a complicated economy. How do you get people to pay for a product they expect to get for free? Maybe we should all welcome the mouse and try to get bought by Disney or fight for a place in the increasingly crowded newsletter market. Perhaps media startups like BuzzFeed are the key. Pick your favorite celebrity and I’ll tell YOU which regulatory agency you are!
After all, startups like Axios have made a big push into local news.
The big picture: Axios saw an opportunity in that local market that I told you I worked on earlier, and I launched a vertical and a newsletter there.
• But Axios is betting much of its growth on a professional “Pro” service that will once again serve a high-paying business audience.
Roush has some practical suggestions for reporters: Make better friends with PR people, look through bankruptcy filings and zoning documents to dig up good local stories, and start thinking about health care, in particular, as a story that affects everyone. aspect of economics.
Local newsrooms could invest in artificial intelligence that relieves some of the burden on overworked reporters, freeing them to tell more compelling stories. Editors need to start building better channels for non-white reporters.
Perhaps most importantly, publishers and executives across the country need to literally take a page out of Roush’s book and start to frame business journalism as a competitive advantage.
Ultimately, however, none of this can happen unless there is demand. Local communities have to decide if business journalism is something they value and if it is something they will support.