David Bullard takes umbrage at the business sections of newspapers that don’t find specialists to give quality information to their readers. It’s time to pay for expertise, as reporting on finance requires some knowledge of how it all works.
We knew as soon as he talked about “doing something on this African American deal” at the week’s diary meeting that our new business editor hadn’t been appointed to the job because of his exhaustive knowledge of the world of commerce. In fact he had no form in business journalism at all (as became apparent in the following weeks) and his only qualification for the job was that he was the current ‘squeeze’ of a friend of the editor.
Appointing completely unsuitable people as business editors and journalists not only weakens the reputation of a newspaper, it also insults the intelligence of the reader and the business community. When I worked as a trader in the bond market I lost count of the number of times I read reports of what was happening in the financial markets that bore no resemblance to reality. The introduction of derivatives like options and futures seemed to completely stump many financial journalists. Of course, they could have taken the trouble to find out how they worked but they never did. Instead they were content to be fed information which was designed to move the markets. They were, in effect, obedient accessories to insider trading although I doubt whether they even knew it at the time. If it looked good on the page then the editor was happy.
Financial journalism falls into two broad categories in the print media. There are the specialised financial publications (sadly with dwindling readerships) and they obviously try to employ people who actually understand what they write about. And then there are the publications that run a business section as a duty to the reader; just as they run a motoring section, a fashion section, a lifestyle supplement and a sports section.
The problem here is that pretty well anyone can write about cars and lifestyle while only specialised writers ought to be allowed to offer their views on business. Specialist generally means more money and that’s where so many of our print publications stumble…there is no budget for journalistic talent. If there’s no money then you have to do the next best thing. You have to dragoon a moderately talented writer from another section of the newspaper and tell him or her to write about business.
There is no doubt in my mind that few if any journalists want what is printed on a page under their byline to make them look stupid but that is often what happens when a rookie business reporter is told to write a story. The sort of people who would have mentored a young journalist have been sent to the knacker’s yard years ago to save costs. So the only way for the rookie to get a half decent story onto the page is to let the subject of the story write it for them and hope nobody finds out.
There are some very kind PR people who are more than happy to write a story about their client and allow a journo to put his/her name on the story and collect the cash at month end. Not surprisingly a “placed” story stands out a mile to those in the know and sends out warning signals about a journalist’s integrity. All of which is a little unfair because it is often desperation and a lack of adequate training that are really at fault.
Apart from a lack of basic understanding about how the business world functions (clue…follow the money trail) there are a few ‘business’ journos who seem to have a personal problem with the whole concept of capitalism. If you don’t like all that nasty stuff about profits, fat bonuses, high salaries and sacking workers then you should probably steer clear of business journalism because it will interfere with your sleep pattern.
Business journalism doesn’t have to be dry as anyone who reads the analytical pieces in the Financial Times knows only too well. But it does have to be accurate and authoritative and such gravitas costs money.
Bearing in mind that it’s the wealthy LSM 10s who mostly read the business pages I should have thought that an investment in people and training would be a top priority for newspaper management. But it isn’t, with the result that some of the best young financial journalists of the past decade have given up on a career in journalism and moved into the more lucrative fields of PR or commerce, realising that no matter how good you are, journalism simply doesn’t pay the bills.
This story was first published in the April 2012 issue of The Media magazine.