As the effects of the great crash grind on, however, it is time to rebalance that division, and to rethink our idea of the financial-news “revolution”—a term that has proved more literal than Fast Company may have realized a decade ago. Far from marking a break with the past, as the magazine implied, the rush to provide narrow, market-serving news was a revolving of the wheel of history a full turn, back to business journalism’s narrow origins as messenger service between market participants. What Dow, Jones, and Bergstresser did with a special stylus and a platoon of messenger boys, CNBC-ized news does with modern tools.
Investor-focused reporting was ascendant as the twenty-first century dawned, just as the financial system was entering a fateful phase. At the same time, the media business itself was undergoing a radical dislocation, one that continues. We have crossed over into a new media era, one in which the rules, norms, forms, and whole institutions are in flux. There’s reason for both hope and despair.
Still, the choice facing business journalism in the wake of the Crash of 2008 isn’t so different from the one facing the field after the Crash of 1929: you can shrug off the event and double down on market-serving news. Or you can step back, rethink the mission, and relearn the lesson of the great Barney Kilgore: serve the market while also looking beyond it. That is to say, there’s really no choice at all.
—Dean Starkman runs The Audit, the business section of the Columbia Journalism Review, and is CJR’s Kingsford Capital Fellow. This article was presented with the assistance of The Nation Institute, for which we are grateful. It will inform Starkman’s book, The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: the Financial Crisis and the Financial Press, to be published in the fall of 2012 by Columbia University Press, as part of the new Columbia Journalism Review Book Series.*
*(Credits and acknowledgement were inadvertently left off the online version and added March 7, 2012.)