M&A reporting, once the concern of specialists, also took off, propelled in part by a dramatic rise in M&A itself. The volume of M&A stories jumped from about 1,100 to about 4,600, more than 300 percent, from 1989 to 1999. According to ProQuest’s tagging system, which provides a rough guide, this rise was even faster than the number of deals themselves, which rose 187 percent, from about 12,800 to 36,800 during the period, according to Thomson Financial. (Both deal stories and deals dropped and then rebounded after the Tech Wreck in 2000, but continued to grow to about 4,900 and 43,000, respectively, in 2009.)
Meanwhile the nature of business news was changing. The changes were reflected in the very names of the new outlets: The Street (launched in 1996), Marketwatch (1997), Fast Company (1995). The names promised an insider’s perspective, a fixed gaze on markets, and the latest news, no matter how granular.
But even as it expanded, business news, paradoxically, was narrowing. Following the middle-class stampede into stocks, business news ramped up quantity but increasingly shifted its gaze toward investor concerns.
I like to call this shift in emphasis the “CNBC-ization” of business news, after the network that so definitively represents it. CNBC emerged in its current form in 1991. Yet the shift also seems to represent something less modern: a return to the business press’s early twentieth-century roots as a servant to markets—and a retreat from its later role as watchdog over them.
CNBC-ized news emphasizes speed over depth, immediacy over context, internal metrics (e.g. earnings) over external costs (say, predatory lending and its aftermath, or income inequality and its roots). It is about insiderism, incrementalism, and scoopism. It tethers itself to the daily flow of corporate and government announcements (e.g. deals) and avoids the harder job of exploring systemic problems. Its definition of what is and isn’t a business-news story is as narrow as its definition of who is and isn’t a business-news source.
The conceit of providing news in “real time,” in fact, tends to substitute fragmented, context-free data for a comprehensible narrative. And let’s not kid ourselves: the latter is a lot harder, journalistically, than the former. This staccato news style suits the production imperatives of live TV, and, unfortunately, the Internet, at least for some journalists. It may cater in certain ways to the needs of the cognoscenti, the people already in the know. But it has little to do with the way in which a curious layperson—what historian Richard Hofstadter called the “literate citizen” (that is to say, most of us)—comes to understand complex problems.
Of course, CNBC-ized news isn’t all of business news, just a strain of it, just as investigative, accountability-oriented business reporting is another strain. The problem is that, since the 1990s, it’s become the Andromeda Strain. This is not about choosing between the two. It’s about balance.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, an argument broke out between news professionals and a segment of the public over how well business media had performed its watchdog role in the years leading up to the crisis. The disconnect was crystallized in Jon Stewart’s celebrated interview/dressing down of Jim Cramer, the CNBC personality, in March 2009. Stewart’s critique wasn’t perfectly well articulated but it resonated as an essentially valid question: How could so many journalists covering a beat so closely miss something so big so completely?
Insiders tended to dismiss the critique, believing either that the premise was invalid (the business press didn’t miss the story) or that Stewart was talking to the wrong person (whatever Stewart was looking for—muckraking? accountability journalism?—that’s not what Cramer and CNBC actually do all day).
Yet Stewart had put his finger on a fundamental tension within business news itself about its role and its audience: Whom does it serve, investors or the public? The argument over what business news actually is has never been resolved within newsrooms, or even properly articulated.
And it needs to be. Investors and the public are two very different audiences, requiring very different approaches to newsgathering. Serving the public requires an accountability orientation—a frame broad enough to take in social and external costs, as well as the time and space to lay out a case. Serving investors requires a Lipin-like approach: access to insiders, speed, and a focus on internal metrics like earnings.
This divide actually goes way back. Historians trace the market for business information to seventeenth-century Europe, when a financial press rose to track growing shipping and commerce, and then greatly expanded in the early eighteenth century with the growing popularity of joint-stock companies, including the notorious South Sea Company. (Economist Robert J. Shiller has pointedly noted that the first financial bubbles arrived at the same time as the first financial newspapers; one fueled the other.)