How to Fix Business Journalism: A Very Meta Guide – American Banker | Team Cansler

Journalism school is a good place for a pessimist.

Even in the country’s most revered journalism programs, there’s no shortage of people willing to tell you about the decline of the profession. It’s economically unsustainable, a long way from the glory days of smoky newsrooms, gruff crime reporters on their third divorce, and all that burnt coffee that sweet, sweet advertising money could buy.

And I’ll admit, updating the homepage at 10 p.m. isn’t quite as effective as a frantic editor yelling “Stop the presses!” roars. when the nightly news comes.

Chris Roush’s new book, The Future of Business Journalism, Why It Matters for Wall Street and Main Street, tells a familiar story: Business journalism used to be lucrative. Newspaper divisions had plenty of disposable income readers to distribute, and advertisers were smart enough to tell the owners at the local hardware store, salon, or whatever.

Around the 2008 financial crisis, newspapers began to single out their economic reporting staff, just as the country needed more than ever to understand what was going on in the local economy. Advertising dollars disappeared as local businesses realized they could reach more people on new social media channels and online.

Then came Mike Bloomberg and his colorful keyboards. It turns out people are realizing that good data and good journalism can make big bucks, and today, places like Bloomberg and Reuters, which combine big datasets with shovel-heavy journalism on expensive subscription platforms, have the biggest newsrooms.

The problem? Business news is still available, and it’s valuable. It only goes to the people who can pay for it (and they pay a lot). It’s also mostly national news, leading people in places like Des Moines, Iowa, and Atlanta to have trouble understanding what’s going on in their communities or how big news events affect them.

So, it’s all pretty murky. What led to people like me walking into Roush’s economic reporting class at the University of North Carolina at the age of 20 for the first time? I took business reporting and business reporting courses with Roush, now Dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University, when he ran the business journalism program at UNC.

Sure, reporting is fun and can be valuable, but it’s not worth much to me if I can’t make a career out of it. Screw it, maybe I should listen to my parents and go to law school. Or worse, into public relations.

But what sets Roush’s new book (and courses) apart is his insistence that good journalism and profitable journalism are one and the same. Luckily I didn’t go to law school after taking Roush’s course. Instead, I worked at one of those local papers that everyone loved to talk about.

They were among the lucky ones with mostly intact desks, but the empty chairs in the office reflected the story Roush told in his book. Still, local business leaders demanded our coverage, complaining that there wasn’t enough of it. That, according to Roush, is not just a civic misstep, but a missed business opportunity.

Consider this publication. American Banker writes for banks across the country, and we’re one of the few publications to offer dedicated coverage of community banks. But how much of the story are the bankers in Omaha, Nebraska missing if they only read our bank stories but don’t see the trending articles about layoffs at meatpackers just across the border in Council Bluffs, Iowa?

On a larger scale, most financial reports now focus specifically on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Washington and how the three intersect. Of course, it’s important to understand these trends, but so are the moves of state regulators, the contours of the local economy, and the city’s personalities. It cannot be the Wall Street Journals, the Bloombergs, or even the American bankers of the world telling these stories. It must be people embedded in these places.

Roush also points out that financial journalism is mostly white and still mostly male, in a way that reminds us that the good ol’ days were never quite how we would like them to be. Business journalists might have learned about the housing market problems sooner, he muses, if there had been more black reporters in newsrooms at the time.

As I read my old professor’s words, I realized that it’s easy to criticize the flaws in business and financial journalism, and the world certainly doesn’t need Chris Roush to do so. What really sets his book apart is its nuanced portrayal of the value of business journalism and, perhaps most importantly, how to fix its mistakes.

It’s no secret that business journalism, especially that with local coverage, has tricky business issues. How do you get people to pay for a product they expect is free? Maybe we should all hail the mouse and try to be bought by Disney, or jostle for a spot in the increasingly crowded newsletter market. Perhaps media startups like BuzzFeed are the key. Choose your celebrity crush and I’ll tell YOU which regulator you are!

After all, startups like Axios have made a big local news push.

The big picture: Axios saw an opportunity in this local market, which I told you I used to work in, and launched a vertical and newsletter there.

• But Axios is banking much of its growth on a professional “pro” service that will once again cater to a high-paying business audience.

Roush has some practical suggestions for reporters: make better friends with PR people, look at bankruptcy court records and zoning documents to unearth good local stories, and start thinking specifically about healthcare as a story that touches every single aspect of the economy.

Local newsrooms could invest in artificial intelligence that takes the burden off overworked reporters and empowers them to tell more compelling stories. Editors need to start building better pipelines of non-white reporters.

Perhaps most importantly, publishers and executives across the country should take a literal page out of Roush’s book and start promoting business journalism as a competitive advantage.

Ultimately, none of this can happen if there is no demand. Local communities need to decide if they value and support the business of business journalism.

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