Columbia Journalism Review Books has just published Best Business Writing 2012, featuring pieces by Paul Krugman, Martin Wolf, Matt Taibbi, Warren Buffett, and Hugh Grant (yes, that Hugh Grant). The following is Dean Starkman’s introduction to the book Malcolm Gladwell calls “riveting and indispensible.”
In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, Damian Tambini, a professor at the London School of Economics, wrote a paper that asked a pretty basic question: “What Is Financial Journalism For?”
As it happens, Tambini found that no one could really agree what business and financial journalism is for, or even who it’s for: Is it for investors? Markets? Or is it for everybody, the public?
We believe we know the answer: Yes.
Welcome to Best Business Writing 2012, the first in an annual series that will collect the best English-language writing on business, finance, and economics. For the past several months, the editors have conducted a thorough, and thoroughly unscientific, search for what we believe is “the best.” We start out with a good vantage point. I run “The Audit,” the business-press section of the Columbia Journalism Review, and part of our job is to read as much of the business press as we can and comment on the good, the bad, and the ugly (hey, it’s a living). Beyond that, our fearless panel scoured the Internet, approached traditional and nontraditional news organizations for what they thought was their best, and asked people in our network what they had read and liked. We also asked Twitter and received some of our strongest entries. We didn’t care about medium. This book has newspapers, magazines, blogs, radio, even a movie. I’m sure some great business writing has gotten by us, but not much.
The result is a collection of nonfiction writing of the highest caliber. Never mind the subject, these are fantastic stories. You will find a riveting yarn of executive-suite intrigue at a major multinational corporation (psst, it’s Pfizer); fascinating behind-the-scenes profiles of business behaving badly (Countrywide, Massey), business behaving brilliantly (Ford), and business behaving weirdly (Ikea). You’ll read trenchant critiques of failed policy makers (yes, Greenspan is there) and business boners (Netflix, Hewlett Packard). You’ll find penetrating looks at a distorted market (psychotropic drugs) and searing investigations. We have insightful think pieces on subjects including the rise of the new elite, Steve Jobs’s genius, and Google’s omnipresence.
And authors? We’ve got the incomparable James Stewart, Gretchen Morgenson, Paul Krugman, John Gapper, Marcia Angell, Martin Wolf, Chrystia Freeland, David Cay Johnston, not to mention noted business reporters Hugh Grant and Warren Buffett. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi? Of course. (If not all of those names are familiar to you, that’s okay; that’s what we’re here for.) But so, too, are people less well known but probably not for long: Michael Hudson, Raquel Rutledge and Rick Barrett, Max Chafkin, and Nick Davies, who for several years has been driving the story about phone hacking and other misdeeds at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
For us, the value of a collection of great business and financial writing is self-evident. But we think this book is more than a good idea, more even than a collection of great reading.
In some ways, our times demand it.
The Great Crash of 2008 was, of course, a watershed event—in financial history but also in the history of the United States and the whole world. The financial crisis rocked great financial institutions, drained public treasuries, fomented political upheaval, triggered a crisis in Europe, and plunged much of the world into a long economic winter. Its total economic and human cost is beyond measure. While historians will be debating the causes for decades, a consensus has formed around one thing: the degree to which the collapse took “everyone”—financial professionals, regulators, journalists, and, certainly, the public—by surprise.
I put “everyone” in quotes because a disparate group of professionals—an economist here, a handful of Wall Street traders there, a couple of hedge funds, even a journalist or two—has been identified as having duly warned of, or at least profited from, the great crash centered on the U.S. mortgage market. Indeed, a minidebate has emerged in business-news circles (in which I played some role via a lengthy critical review of precrash reporting, [“Power Problem,” CJR, May/June 2009]) over the performance of the business press in its watchdog role over financial institutions that it purports to cover.