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Economy 4.0

Business reporting for the 99%

David Brancaccio Jan 30, 2012

Visit the Economy 4.0 blog, or bookmark this page to watch a live video stream with David Brancaccio on Monday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. MT (9 p.m. ET). He’ll be talking about the past and future of business journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

Where did business journalism begin and where does it have to go in this country? There is a cool site that offers an early answer to the first part of that question. In 1795, a paper emerged called “The New York Price Current,” which listed the prices of things for sale at the time. It was a bit like checking Pricegrabber.com for the best deal on a 52 inch flat-screen. Or checking the crawl on CNBC for the Netflix stock price. Then in 1870, Thomas Edison improved the device for disseminating stock prices, the mechanical ticker. In 1889, the Wall Street Journal got underway, but not before General Electric and Westinghouse hired their first PR experts to get their corporate stories out.

More than 100 years later, you may have noticed that business news has evolved beyond price listings and corporate profits. News about personal finance became in the 1990s like rock ‘n roll was in the 1960s, at the cutting edge of popular culture. That was when covering stocks was like covering a sport where everyone’s always winning. Of course people loved it. Now that the markets are much scarier places for investors trying it at home, personal finance coverage has deepened in useful ways. But business journalism still has a lot of work to do. Too often, coverage ignores the biggest set of stakeholders there is: the wider public.

Yes, the needs of investors are often reflected in the coverage and these days many of us are investors — for better or for worse. And, yes, the needs of consumers are sometimes reflected. But members of the wider public are not just consumers. We are also employees or entrepreneurs. We may be members of a family who work hard to keep a household going. We have creative spirits. In my experience out on the road across America, people want to know how economic, financial and business examples are going to play out in their lives. To be blunt coverage is oftentimes narrowcasted to an in-crowd.

Here’s a quick example from a recent headline. Wal-Mart is bidding farewell to a number of its greeters, the folks who salute you on the way into the store. Greeters during the overnight hours will no longer be needed. The explanation: to save money. The company and investors’ point-of-view made it into the story. But what about the greeters themselves? They are missing. There’s no reference to what this means for their livelihoods. On further investigation, Wal-Mart officials say the greeters are getting reassigned. “Where, then, is the cost-savings?” a reporter might ask.

Business journalism needs to speak to all of us. It is a rule of thumb that has helped guide some of the best of our business reporters and allowed them to uncover early warnings about key stories such as the mortgage crisis and economic insecurity. Journalism cannot go wrong by keeping a sharp eye on the grass roots. That view helped some reporters anticipate the “99 percent” meme of the year. We need to tell these stories clearly, accurately, and with all the punch that our digital, multimedia world makes possible.

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