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.
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.