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.)
In the US, the first newspapers essentially were commercial papers and, as in Europe, underpinned markets and pricing systems. Indeed, financial communications proved to be a precondition for capitalism itself. Dow Jones & Company, the future parent of The Wall Street Journal, started as essentially a news-relay service on Wall Street. The dour Charles Dow and the dandy Edward Jones would dispatch messenger boys from the dingy company offices on Wall Street with pieces of paper conveying the latest corporate news to Wall Street investors. The company’s big competitive advantage was a special stylus developed by a third, and now-forgotten, founder, one Charles M. Bergstresser (I think of him as the third tenor of Dow Jones), which could produce more than two-dozen copies with a single impression. Then, as now, speed meant the difference between relevance and the lack of it. Reporters staked out corporate board meetings, and, if phones weren’t available, would run to a window to signal a colleague in the street through some prearranged system: one wave of a handkerchief might mean, “no extra dividend”; four might mean, “merger off.”
Then, as now, access to insiders was essential. Jones, who would go on to work in a stock brokerage, was known for his contacts up and down the Street. Lloyd Wendt’s 1982 history of The Wall Street Journal recalls this chance encounter between Jones and William Rockefeller, John D. Rockefeller’s brother and a Standard Oil executive, on Broad Street one day:
Rockefeller: “Edward, would it mean anything to you to get a little advance Standard Oil news?”
Jones (beaming): “Kind sir, would you dare say that again?”
Rockefeller: “Here’s something I jotted down for you, if you care to use it. Only, please, keep your authority confidential!”
And Dow Jones had another scoop (about a dividend increase).
This was highly specialized, elite communications targeted specifically at investors and not intended for the general public—which, understandably, stayed away in droves. The Journal’s circulation in the first decade of the twentieth century languished under 10,000; it was a glorified newsletter.
The muckraking periodical, McClure’s, by contrast, peaked at nearly half a million, bigger, proportionally for the size of the US population, than The New York Times is today. And while the early financial press could be surprisingly good—accurate, reliable, sometimes skeptical—it displayed no ambivalence about its role as a servant to investors. Its pages reflected that approach: a jumble of the latest corporate news, government data, commentary, analysis, and editorials (and many ads) presented with little context and with an assumption that the reader knows the lingo and the players. It was rather like an hour of CNBC today.