Investors vs. the Public

Why the business press should focus on the latter

Bloomberg posts interesting results of a poll saying that investors and the general public see Obama’s economic performance very differently.

Sept. 17 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama is rated more highly by the general public than by affluent U.S. investors for the job he’s doing and his economic stewardship.

Sixty-one percent of Americans surveyed in a Bloomberg News poll September 10-14 say they view Obama favorably, compared with 49 percent of U.S. investors in a separate poll in July. Forty-six percent [of Americans] in the latest poll express optimism about the government’s economic plan, versus 27 percent of investors.

And check it out:

Investors are almost evenly divided over whether Obama or former President George W. Bush provided better economic leadership, with 43 percent supporting Bush and 41 percent backing Obama. By contrast, ordinary Americans give the nod to Obama by a 55 percent to 28 percent margin.


The poll compared results of a survey of the 1,004 members of the public in the last few days to a poll of 400 investors back in July, a different time period, so, the comparison should be taken with an even larger grain of salt than is needed for polls generally. Still, Obama’s general numbers have done nothing but fall since July so there’s no reason to think investors think more highly of him today.

I don’t know why this split surprised me so much, but it does. And it carries a warning to the business media: there are investors, with their narrow set of interests, and there are readers, and they’re not the same thing.

Speaking of narrow, here is the explanation for investor/public divide provided by the pollster, Bloomberg’s sole source on the question:

“These groups approach economic issues with different mindsets,” says J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., the Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the polls. “Investors focus on the money with their business interests in mind. The American public is highly charged by the partisan debate.”

I see. Investors are hard-head pragmatists; the American public is a bunch of manipulable hysterics. Got it. That apparently satisfied Bloomberg’s editors, so I guess it will have to be good enough for me. Still, a reader can fairly ask whether Selzer, the president of Selzer & Co., of Des Moines, should really be treated as the last word, or, perhaps, the People of the Box could have found another source to provide an alternative explanation—maybe the public looks after its interests, too.

Now, on questions of economic stewardship, one might naturally be inclined to go with investors, like the 300,000 or so Bloomberg-terminal readers. As Bloomberg’s top editor, Matt Winkler, is given to say, they’re the smartest people on earth, or something, and, at least, they can be trusted to look after their interests, as opposed to, say, the public’s.

But, as a member of the public, who is not as smart as those savvy, sharp-eyed, hard-nosed traders who, deftly manipulating their Bloombergs all day, bark out forceful commands and place risky and heart-pounding bets with, um, other people’s money, it is difficult to grasp why an administration during which the financial system gorged itself until it had a heart attack, wiping all stock market gains and leaving the S&P 500 down 40 percent for the eight-year period is in a dead heat with one during which the market has gone up 33 percent as of yesterday. Maybe if Bloomberg had been polling gold investors (click on the 10-year chart) it would make more sense. Those lovers of political and economic mayhem clearly have reason to feel good about the past decade, but stock investors, not so much.

I know past performance is no guarantee of future results, but, still, another call to Des Moines is in order.

I bring all this up because this investors/public split, Audit readers, helps explain why the business press reads the way it does.

We here at The Audit have long argued, in various contexts, that business-news outlets have in the past decade or so increasingly narrowed their focus toward the narrow interests of investors and away from the much broader interests of readers. Call it the CNBC-ization of business news. It’s a big mistake.

Investors are people, too, as a business editor once helpfully pointed out to me, but it is not in business journalism’s own interest to cater solely to them. An investor focus leads to coverage that is incremental, reactive, access-oriented, insider-focused, and concerned with the weeds, not the big picture.

This investor orientation explains about why the business press so often misses the important stuff and can’t find the best stories with both hands.

To those who believe it was ever thus, you are wrong.

Barney Kilgore, the great pioneering postwar editor of The Wall Street Journal and chief executive of its parent, Dow Jones & Co., knew better. He tore up the narrow notions that dominated business news of his day and broadened it to include, basically, anything, a vision very much in retreat in today’s Journal, by the way, and in the business press generally.

As Kilgore’s biographer Dick Tofel reminds us, Kilgore aimed for an audience far beyond the trade:

Reporters were told they should no longer write stories about banking with an audience of bankers in mind—better to aim for the almost infinitely more numerous bank depositors. As a later article summarizing changes would put it, the new view was that “business news embraces everything that relates to making a living.”

Did he do it out idealism? No. Mainly, it was because, as he told a colleague:

“Financial people are nice people and all that, but there aren’t enough of them to make this paper go.”

His commonsense view helped increase the Journal’s circulation to a million, from 33,000 (it thirty-ipled), laid the groundwork for the Journal’s journalistic apogee of the 1980s and 1990s, and, very much not coincidentally, created the value that led News Corp. to bid for it in 2007. There is some irony here.

As Alyssa Katz wrote explaining why alt media beat the MSM to the true nature of the mortgage crisis, the wider the lens, the greater variety of people you talk to, the more problems you catch, the more interesting journalism you produce, and —as a bonus for your investor readers—the more warnings you provide.

It’s not about being better journalists; it is about being tuned to a different audience and set of interests…

First and foremost, we looked for the real-world impacts of business practices. Financial journalists tend to focus on the internal benefits (to investors and bankers) of economic activity, without accounting for external social costs. We indies saw benefits and costs as inextricably linked. We could see clearly that it was a zero-sum game, and the gap between winners and losers was growing unconscionably wide. That chasm turned out to be a critical weakness in the financial system.

How does a news outlet become great, cut through the clutter, and create real, lasting value? Rule number one: Never underestimate your audience. It includes investors but they’re a subset of a larger, perhaps wiser, group.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.