After the Financial Crisis, Business Journalism Strives to Face a Brave New World

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DAVOS, Switzerland— A couple of years after the financial collapse of 2008, David Enrich, the award-winning Europe banking editor at The Wall Street Journal, went sifting back through his clippings from that chaotic period, looking for stories that might have anticipated it.

He came across a story he’d filed about two years before Lehman Brothers imploded. In it, he described some of the “weird new business practices” that certain U.S. banks were pursuing: buying up subprime mortgage loans and securitizing them.

At the time, it had been a minor story, mostly ignored by the finance professionals reading it and entirely missed by the wider public. Enrich was far from the only reporter to write about the “weird new business practices” that ultimately derailed the financial system; journalists from almost every major financial outlet did. The problem was that, like Enrich, nobody recognized the importance of the stories they were writing about.

“That act of introspection didn’t make me feel great,” said Enrich, while taking a break from reporting at the World Economic Forum recently.

It’s not an obscure story anymore. The financial crash and subsequent “Great Recession” changed the lives of finance journalists, propelling stories once largely confined to a corner of the business section onto the front page, often for months at a time. Writers used to writing mostly for specialist, if not niche, audiences, found themselves with hugely swelled and diverse audiences.

“Business journalism went mainstream,” said Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times.

Davos participant reading the Financial Times.

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum

Davos participant reading the Financial Times.

Going mainstream had major practical, professional and, for some, philosophical implications for business reporters. The changes wrought by the financial crisis coincided with fundamental shifts in media generally; many of the consequences, and the solutions applied to them by business outlets, have been the most intense expression of those troubling the press as a whole.

“When you look at the people who are running news organizations now, I think it’s no accident that many come from business and finance backgrounds,” said Barber, pointing to appointments at The Daily Telegraph, the BBC and The Economist, among others.

At the most basic level, though, the massively enlarged readership means that writers now face a lot more questions from editors as they try to ensure that often very complex topics are accessible.

“The simple editing process has become a lot more involved and cumbersome,” said Enrich. “And rightly so, because we’re trying to explain to 10 times the readers.”

At the same time, the financial crisis injected greater opinion and more muscular—though far from always coherent—narratives into business reporting. Commentary proliferated and, most of all, the demand for explanation. For those thrown headfirst into covering the crisis, this was the most immediate issue: how to adjust to a massive new audience with a much more limited understanding of the basics.

Peter Coy, a veteran writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, described an initial “fear that we didn’t want to dumb things down,” before realizing there was a huge demand for basic explanation. “Then some journalists really caught fire by essentially dumbing things down, except they didn’t call it that,” he said. “They would ask these big, naive questions and demand answers.”

Coy felt the result was a healthy one, forcing conventional business journalists to re-examine their own techniques. More than one finance writer described looking again at commonplace financial ideas in order to explain them to an uninitiated audience and finding he or she understood them better.

“All journalism should be explanatory,” said Coy. “Explanatory journalism was a movement that benefited the profession as a whole.”

This demand for explanation proved to be a business opportunity for financial media as a whole, converging with general trends in the media toward more analysis and greater niche coverage, which is often easier to charge for. The business press, though embarrassed by its lapse in 2008, was naturally well placed to cash in on the popular appetite for more analysis of business issues.

“Business journalism went mainstream,” said Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times.

flickr / dkshots under Creative Commons

“Business journalism went mainstream,” said Lionel Barber, editor of the Financial Times.

“Specialization has become considerably more important,” said Barber, whose FT has been breaking even with its subscription fees since 2012. “There’s huge demand for specialized financial journalists. If you look at the market, that’s where the growth is.”

As audiences sought additional analysis to understand the crisis, they turned to alternative sources, especially the online services of mainstream outlets. A 2012 study showed that in the crash’s immediate aftermath, readership figures for websites of virtually all major U.S. and U.K. broadcasters leapt, sometimes by over 100 percent.

This change happened just as the media generally was casting around for ways to reconstruct their business models adapted to a more fragmented audience, looking for more personalized information on specific topics. This appetite for explanation created a much enlarged role for the individual commentator in business media, coinciding with the global trend in the media toward analysis delivered through individual—or at least more personable—voices, largely spurred by the Internet.

“The simplification of complex things is a service,” said Lucy Marcus, a business opinion writer who has found herself in demand since 2008.

Sitting on several corporate boards, Marcus offers insights into how the boardroom functions, feeding into a greater public interest in understanding how the “masters of the universe” operate. Although she had written for years, since the crisis her profile has surged. She is now a columnist for BBC Capital (itself a post-crisis feature section “bringing a personal perspective on business matters”) and hosting her own show for Reuters.

Marcus’ friendly, confiding tone is familiar to the new all-online outlets that appeared in the years immediately after the 2008 crash and reflects what many were trying to do across all sectors of the media. Quartz and Business Insider were both reactions to this demand for a more accessible, less po-faced business reporting more flexible in its tone than traditional business media. That plus listicles, lots of listicles. The rapid rise of Quartz and Business Insider—both given enlarged presences at this year’s World Economic Forum—is just one indication of how the timing of the crisis was perhaps fortunate for business media.

But the arrival of so many new voices, particularly opinionated ones, has altered the writing process itself for beat reporters. With such massive, often contradictory narratives about the causes of the crisis, and how to fix it, circulating, journalists said when they sit down to write they now almost immediately bump up against bigger questions.

“Before it was more technocratic,” said Coy. Now “you have to address the conventional wisdom that is building up. Just telling your story in a neutral way simply doesn’t do it anymore, because people have developed their own ideas.”

Financial journalists have largely escaped the public whipping endured by their academic cousins, but in-house it’s been a different matter. From the first days after the crisis and lingering on until now, financial journalists have felt themselves dogged by a question: How did we miss it?

At the same time, most of the soul-searching, when it has taken place, has not occurred formally. While most media outlets have held dozens of meetings on how to adapt themselves to the changing media market, the adaptations made in style and content to their new audiences post-crash came mostly from the journalists themselves, largely on an individual basis.

Reporters and editors at the FT, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Economist didn’t remember holding meetings to discuss what financial news’ new position in the headline order might mean for their efforts to cover it, or why they didn’t spot the coming crisis. At least one U.S. cable network does appear to have had a more formal discussion about adjusting reporting to a wider audience.

“I think it happened pretty naturally. I don’t think there was ever a moment where we met to change how we were doing this,” said Enrich.

Lionel Barber of the Financial Times and Henry Blodget of Business Insider.

flickr / Financial Times under Creative Commons

Lionel Barber of the Financial Times and Henry Blodget of Business Insider.

Whatever their discomfort with the fact, most financial journalists I spoke to felt they couldn’t really have been expected to forecast the crisis. For most, the question of whether the financial press missed the crisis is probably less important than whether, after it happened, they were able to explain it to the public.

Most felt business media have got better at this, and a number said they felt reporters were far more alert to the warning symptoms of future crashes, though mostly out of embarrassment at having missed the last one.

There’s no doubt that there are now more options for getting business news, but it’s not yet clear what effect the new arrivals such as Business Insider are having on people’s engagement with or understanding of economic stories. The annual Pew News IQ surveys since 2008 showed that most Americans are consistently aware of major economic stories, but people are still very vague on detail, what the Federal Reserve does, for instance. A 2014 AP/GfK poll showed more Americans felt today’s headline issues were getting harder to understand, which may or may not reflect how they’re being presented to them.

Most journalists also felt the same changes that had allowed them to communicate better with their audiences had also made it more difficult for them to do the enterprising and big picture reporting essential for spotting trends in financial disasters. In particular, they said social media, while a boon for highlighting alternative voices, has sped news up, with negative consequences.

“There’s much more of a herd mentality,” said Enrich, who described how Twitter in particular tended to eat up reporters’ hours, as a tweet from a colleague drove them more quickly into chasing each other and the same stories. “There’s a lot less time for people to sit back.”

For those hoping finance journalism might spot the next financial collapse before it happens, these may be worrying words.

“Our days are just busier,” said Enrich.

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