Facing the Fracture

S IPA Media and Economic Conference takes a deeper look at business journalism in the face of the economic trough.

By Gillian Tee

An uncomfortable truth spun the trajectory of discussion that took place at Facing the Fracture, a media and economic conference recently hosted by Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs: the business press has been performing autopsies ever since the economic crisis culminated. At a time when the fourth estate is undergoing transformative change, business journalists have thrown down their gauntlet in examination of their coverage of the economic trough, facing their lack of prescience when the great recession hit. Even as they look back on their struggle to keep pace with the recession and its workings, they look forward to address their future role in explaining fast-moving and complex economic events to the world. In the midst of journalism’s alteration, the conference and its throngs of panelists – including names along the likes of Arianna Huffington, Joseph Stiglitz, and Peter Goodman – addressed critical questions on effective business news coverage: how can business journalists, in particular, perform more biopsies rather than autopsies? How can they broaden their coverage to include new ideas and sources from Main Street? What are the current newsroom realities they face today?

The first take at addressing these questions was Arianna Huffington, who commenced the conference by stressing the importance for the press to “get there early, and ahead of time.” “The spotlight moves quickly, and only a small window would appear where the public can influence political decisions and developments,” Huffington said. When questioned how the Internet has altered economic reporting, she highlighted the essence of the “linked economy” – a subversion of the traditional economy such that a surge of online competitors such as “The Daily Caller” would also drive visitors to the Post. The Post’s visitors have risen to 23 million per month and according to Huffington, advertising revenues have grown in correlation to visitors.

Certain online journalism business models are obviously sustainable. “The Post has captured the public imagination, citizen journalists and bloggers have become eyes and ears for us; I see a hybrid future of the journalist, a convergence has happened due to online media and it will continue to be so,” Huffington added. “Legacy journalism,” to the entrepreneur, has failed to cover the two main events of the century – events leading up to the Iraq war and the financial crisis; the linked economy has presented itself the countervailing force to these failures. But the future of journalism, she added, is not an “either or situation,” all forms of reporting, whether traditional, nonprofit investigative, and on the linked economy will contribute towards a different news landscape.

What about the future and sustainability of original reporting and longer form journalism? Some at the conference suggested that the evidence was thin that the linked economy can support these crucial forms of journalism to a needed extent, and that long-form writings have notably seen a decrease. Chi Chi Wu, one of the conference’s panelists and a staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit focusing on marketplace justice for low-income consumers, has seen the traditional media’s increasing lack of resources affecting the “types of reporters that helps them with their work,” Wu noted during the panel, “A high level of retrenchment cuts off information supply to regional think tanks and NGOs.”

Amidst the bulk of criticism of the US financial press for “being captured by finance and mainstream thinking,” one of the panels addressed the economic crisis as an opportunity for many reporters to broaden their breadth of vision and coverage to Main Street. Steven Pearlstein, a columnist at the Washington Post, saw that powerful reporting was connecting the dots in the newsroom to create the whole picture. “Anecdotes need to be connected to data, and journalists must increasing play the role of the connector; there has not been enough people attempting this task.” “Journalists have often fooled themselves into believing that they have connected the dots…they at times suffer from cognitive capture,” Jeff Madrick, senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute added.

When it comes to the financial crisis, one must then connect the microeconomics to the macroeconomics. Joseph Stiglitz and Martin Wolf, in a brief discussion, noted the complexities involved in the financial crisis, and cited a capacity failing in the local news industries that led to journalists missing the key analytical points of the crisis. “There was an obvious intellectual failing,” noted Wolf, who also pointed to the monopolistic nature of the news industry that had in a way contributed to the failures of the press to keep up with various economic mechanisms.

Peter Goodman, national economic correspondent for The New York Times, warned against the convenient task of attacking the strongman. “The truth is that journalism need to have it all. From reporters distilling the truth in a way that is accessible to a broader audience, to journalists spending time with people whose job description do not involve talking to press.” The panel discussion strongly echoed the need for greater diversity in the newsroom intrinsic to a broadening of perspectives embodied within news coverage.

The economic crisis has also had an impact across the globe. In regions of the world where advertising revenues have fallen dramatically, newsrooms have been slashed and news coverage cut back. In other regions such as Africa, the constraints in education, information and resources present challenging prospects and opportunities to business journalism.

Sabah Hamamou, Business Deputy Editor at Al-Ahram newspaper in Cairo, emphasized the low return of investment and lack of proper statistics and news evaluation processes plaguing less developed areas in Egypt that has helped kept private investment in the news low. “Business is all about numbers, and we lack the means to obtain credible ones; the Internet has helped cover politics but not finance and business.” said Hamamou. Dame Babou, the North American correspondent of Sud Quotidien, the first independent daily newspaper in Senegal, also pointed to the lack of financial expertise and formal journalism training in West Africa. Both strongly called upon the importance of drawing investment to local and regional reportage in order to avoid marginalizing voices from less developed parts of the world.

Amy Goodman, the main host of Democracy Now!, stressed the importance of independent media as closing remarks to the conference. “Journalists need to be in a position of access, and the only way for us to reach the topics underreported or ignored by mainstream news coverage in to be independent,” Goodman said.

A brainchild of Anya Schiffrin, Director of the International Media, Advocacy, and Communications program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Facing the Fracture was organized to pull together a plethora of voices not excluding the non-journalistic community. Conducted via panel discussions, the conference brought forth the kind of debates and interaction Schiffrin was anticipating. “Controversy is good; the commitment and role of the business press in society merits much consideration.” Schiffrin, who spent ten years working overseas as a journalist in Europe and Asia and is now working on a book on the topics covered by the conference, said. “These debates would no doubt help bring about deep contemplation of the role of the business press in society.”

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