Journalism has a Davos problem

On Wednesday—Day Three of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—the digital newsroom Semafor came out with the third installment of its “Davos Daily” newsletter, a one-stop template for how the media covers the WEF and the global rich.

There’s the cocktail-party scene-setting (“plates of toothpicked olives and Gruyère cubes”), the hungry search for a narrative (“the vibe is dour, and I’d expect that cement to harden by the end of the week”), and the obligatory swipe at the myopia of the entire enterprise. (“A short list of things the Davos crowd missed: the 2008 crash, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, slowing global growth in 2018 and 2019, and the pandemic in 2020.”)

And yet the journalists continue to come, in wave after wave, eager to make fun of the scene while making sure that they show up at the right parties. In 2012, The New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten made his own pilgrimage, mainly in the hope of figuring out why everyone else was there. He wrote:

People like to project onto Davos their fears and fantasies about the way the world works. Right-wingers see insidious, delusional liberalism, in its stakeholder ethos and its pretense of world improvement.… Left-wingers conjure a plutocratic cabal, a Star Chamber of master puppeteers, the one per cent—or .01 per cent, really—deciding the world’s fate behind a curtain of heavy security and utopian doublespeak. The uninvited, the refuseniks, and even many of the participants see a colossal discharge of hot air, a peacock strut.

Nothing, apparently, has changed in the intervening decade. And Davos still captures in microcosm how the press miscovers the rich, and the economy in general. There’s the gleeful buildup and inflation of hype (around the since-fallen Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, for example, or the since-fallen crypto billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried); the competitive scramble to document the downfall of such characters; and the doe-eyed analysis of why no one saw a given meltdown coming (including, one presumes, the reporters whose job it is to follow up on such things). Lather, rinse, repeat.

I attended Davos once, on the eve of the subprime crash, when I was a senior editor at Condé Nast’s Portfolio, a glossy magazine that covered global business. The magazine died when the economy tanked. Before that, I spent a decade at the Wall Street Journal. I both hated and wallowed in Davos as much as anyone.

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But it’s gotten to the point where none of this is funny anymore. Never in my career have I seen such a disconnect between the state of the global economy and the stories that the business press is serving up to cover it. The colossal, historic scale of income inequality; the global economic dislocation brought about by the climate crisis and deindustrialization; the quiet, painful struggles of families unable to keep up with debt and inflation. These are dark times, too, for our global workplace, but they do not make up most of what continues to pass for business news.

Perhaps we need to rethink the very notion of business journalism. Why does it need to be siloed from national and political reporting? Why does it continue to revolve around CEOs and their press machines, rather than the workers and customers who should be at the heart of the story? Why does the skepticism the press applies to politicians not always seem to apply to the broader global elite?

It feels uncharitable to pick on Semafor, which is having a rough week; the New York Times reported that the site has decided to buy out ten million dollars in startup money that it raised from Bankman-Fried, who was, of course, a speaker at Davos last year. Semafor was itself hatched at Davos, when Ben Smith and Justin Smith, the site’s (unrelated) founders, attended in 2018. As Adam Piore reported in a recent profile of Semafor for CJR:

Ben was at Davos, sitting on a bench outside a room in the main conference center. He was staking out Steven Mnuchin, the secretary of the treasury. Justin spotted Ben and took a seat beside him. “Do you think,” he asked, “there’s space in the media industry for a new independent global news outlet?” The conversation was to be the first in a series that would result, four years later, in Semafor.

Given its origins, you have to give Semafor credit for reporting the single best analysis this week of Davos and journalism. It came from Jill Abramson, a former executive editor of the Times, who wrote this in an email to Ben Smith:

I noticed (after I was gone), much more “news” coverage in the Times of Davos, quoting the attendees and speakers at those endless panels. Of course, the coverage was a sweetener to flatter the CEOs by seeing their names in the NYT so that they would then speak at high-dollar NYT conferences and—of course—get phony news stories from the conferences into the paper.

It was—and is—a corrupt circle-jerk.

You can read Piore’s profile of the Smiths here. And for a more well-rounded view of how journalism covers the world, check out CJR’s Global Issue, which we published in 2019 and which still holds up well. You’ll find contributions from Atossa Araxia Abrahamian on the trouble with nationalism, E. Tammy Kim on disinformation in Korea, and Maria Ressa on threats to the press in the Philippines, where Ressa this week won a long-running tax evasion case as part of her heroic battle against the government.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: Margaret Sullivan on the coverage of Biden’s documents

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

TOP IMAGE: DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 17JAN11 - Aerial Photo of Davos, the biggest tourism metropolis of the Swiss alps, captured before the opening of the Annual Meeting 2011 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 17, 2011. Davos is in the middle of Swiss Alps and the city for holidays, sports, congresses, health, development and culture. Copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler / World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons