In its own eyes, CNBC saw itself as a force for the democratization of finance. Its executives claimed their mission was to provide everyday people the same information as that available to professionals. By the end of the ’90s, as the tech-heavy NASDAQ stock index roared from 450 to more than 5,000, CNBC had attained an influence far beyond the size of its viewership, which has bounced around the 250,000 range for years, a fraction of the circulation of the Journal. Celebrities like Regis Philbin, Charles Barkley, and Andre Agassi declared themselves fans. Joey Ramone wrote a song about Bartiromo (“What’s happening with Intel? What’s happening with Amazon? I want to know … Maria Bartiromo”). Print journalists trooped to CNBC’s studios in New Jersey to proclaim its cultural ascendency. “The Revolution Will be Televised (on CNBC),” said Fast Company, in an 8,000-word story that called the network “the live feed of the new economy.”
The story was dated May 31, 2000. The NASDAQ was at about 3,400, already falling sharply from its all-time highs.
Other commentators sensed a problem. In a Columbia Journalism Review special issue at the end of that year, “News in the Age of Money,” Diana Henriques, a New York Times reporter, worried about changes to business media’s sense of purpose:
As the 1980s rocketed along, our “readers” became “consumers.” As the 1990s unfolded, those “consumers” morphed into “investors….”
A sad thing has happened along the way: as our intended audience has gotten narrower, so have we. Business news today rarely sounds the sonorous chords or heart-lifting themes of great journalism. Most of its simply buzzes and squeaks, a reedy clarinet against a rhythm section of cash registers and ticker tape.
Even Lipin conceded that something in business news changed as outlets multiplied in the 1990s. As he told Mahar:
The flood of news forced all media to be more aggressive. And as a mergers-and-acquisitions reporter, there was an immediacy to my job. Company A may be buying Company Y. You don’t want to be irresponsible, but you don’t want to be beaten by the competition either. Do I wish I had been more skeptical? Given that all the acquirers have blown up and half of them are in jail? Yes. But at the time, when you’re covering daily events, you can’t always sit back and reflect. In retrospect, should we have done more of those reflective stories? Maybe. But rightly or wrongly, we also took our cue from how the market reacted to the deals.
It’s worth pointing out that, as Lipin indicates, many of the mergers and acquisitions trumpeted by news organization turned out to be value-destroying disasters (and, yes, as he indicates, some, like WorldCom, ended in fraud). One classic book on M&A, Mark L. Sirower’s The Synergy Trap, written in 1997, argues that a majority of mergers destroy value in the acquirer.
Meanwhile, what about business stories in the broader public interest? They still get done. In fact, CJR will showcase some of the best of them in our upcoming book, Best Business Writing 2012, this spring. But in a CNBC-ized world, such efforts need support.
In a 1999 study of coverage of the “financial revolution” in mass media (not the business press), including newsmagazines (like Time) and newspapers (like The New York Times), Harvard scholar Richard Parker documented a sharp rise in M&A and personal-finance reporting accompanied by an absolute (not relative) decline in coverage of business-oriented, public-interest topics, such as “reform and regulation,” “Glass-Steagall” (then in the process of being repealed), and “redlining and community reinvestment.” The study concluded that the press produced an “oversupply” of market and personal finance news, and had done “remarkably little to play an aggressive ‘watchdog’ role” on financial and economic issues. It certainly seems that way to me, too.
Deal reporting has had one clear beneficiary: news organizations themselves. Such reporting played a key part of the rise of CNBC for one example. While CNBC’s David Faber never approached Lipin’s record on M&A scoops, the significant scoops that he did obtain went a long way toward establishing his network’s bona fides as a player in newsgathering, as opposed to opinion-making.
A similar claim could be made of a Financial Times reporter of that era, Will Lewis. Though the London-based paper had been publishing in New York since 1985, its presence on the US business-media scene was marginal through most of the ’90s. That began to change in 1997 when its parent, Pearson PLC, made a $160 million global-expansion push that included launching a US edition and publishing it in seven US cities. US circulation grew from just 34,000 in 1996 to 125,000 in 2001.