Financial reporting, for pros and the public

A panel of top financial journalists consider their true audience

Do business journalists write for professional traders or for the general public? That was one of the main questions in play at a financial journalism panel on Tuesday morning, hosted by the website Capital New York and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

Moderated by Capital editor in chief Tom McGeveran, the panel featured Edmund Lee, media reporter for Bloomberg News; Kevin Delaney, editor in chief of Atlantic Media’s business site Quartz; and Felix Salmon, Reuters blogger and CJR contributor.

Salmon and Lee explained that Reuters and Bloomberg’s core audience is small (and rich): the professional traders that purchase expensive subscriptions to Bloomberg and Reuters’s financial information services. Everything else the media companies do—general news, opinion, Bloomberg TV, and so on—is “financially irrelevant” to those companies. Professional traders read the news so they know which stocks to buy and sell, so that’s what the wires focus on.

Salmon argued that these incentives create a “culture of chasing micro-scoops,” in which journalists write their articles with “actionable trades” in mind and race to publish news 15 seconds before their competitors. The focus is on letting readers know which company’s stock to trade, not on informing them about the world.

And the readers need not be human. Salmon explained many Reuters stories are fed directly to “algo-bots” that scan the headlines and then use algorithms to decide whether to buy or sell the stocks of the companies named in the stories. This prompted Delaney to mention a company called Narrative Science, which uses computers to produce stories about companies. These stories are then “read” by algo-bots that trade based off of them. It’s “a machine loop,” Delaney said.

Quartz is different, since it makes its money by selling luxury advertising, not subscriptions to financial services wires. Rather than cater to professional traders, the site tries to attract a large audience by providing a broader perspective on financial news. But financial news organizations don’t necessarily need to choose between catering to professionals and reaching a large number of general readers. Thanks to the Web, Delaney said, financial news organizations can focus on both. The Wall Street Journal, he explained, had 1 million subscribers last year, but received 35 million unique visitors to its website. A financial publication, Delaney argued, can be invaluable for professionals and still attract a general readership.

Not that most financial coverage, particularly from the wires, will attract a general readership. Reuters and Bloomberg, Salmon complained, are “aggressively boring” since financial journalists, assuming that their audience is finance professionals, don’t explain basic financial concepts to their readers. “The first thing people in Wichita do when they get the paper is throw out the business section,” Salmon said, and he doesn’t blame them.

Another way for financial journalists to appeal to general readers would be to expand their focus, reporting on trends and patterns rather than the actions of individual corporations. Quartz is already doing this, but the wires could as well. McGeveran described the wires as “lots of boots on the ground” but “not a lot of perspective” while Quartz offers perspective (and, Delaney chimed in, “few boots on the ground”). But there’s no reason that the wires couldn’t ask their army of reporters to collaborate on bigger-picture stories.

Lee said that Bloomberg already encourages its reporters and editors to collaborate and contribute to an internal memo called a “Global Note” that includes tips and reporting from different journalists. This way, editors can identify patterns and reporters can learn important context for their own stories. This might not be necessary at a smaller organization, where all reporters work in the same newsroom; Lee explained after the panel that the “Global Note” began among mergers and acquisitions reporters, who were all reporting on the same industry but didn’t interact much with one another since they were based in different parts of the world. As a result of such collaborations, Lee said, “many [Bloomberg] stories have multiple reporters’ names at the top.”

Reuters does not have a “Global Note,” but it does provide broader analyses through its bloggers. Salmon joked that he has “a cottage industry in translating things [e.g. financial reports] into English” for his readers. Unfortunately, he said, his posts “live in a bloggy, opinion ghetto.” Reuters privileges hard, “objective” news, so Salmon’s blog posts analyzing and explaining the significance of financial news are generally not displayed on the homepage, which is the domain of (arguably less informative) straight news articles.

Of course, one does not have to be Felix Salmon to explain the significance of financial news. Unless they’re writing primarily for algo-bots, financial journalists would be wise to provide more context in their stories and explain complicated concepts. This would be helpful for general readers, obviously, but it would also be good for professionals, who, Salmon said, don’t always know as much as financial journalists assume. “You’d be amazed how many successful, rich people don’t understand marginal tax rates,” he said. “It’s not just people in Wichita.”

Capital New York and New York Law School have uploaded full video of the panel. You can also view this Storify to see what journalists tweeted about the panel.

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Peter Sterne is an editorial intern at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @petersterne. Tags: , , , , ,