By the time Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford immortalized Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” the bug was loose. A whole generation of new journalists was inspired to take on the craft in search of the next Watergate.
But sadly, financial journalists’ role in the painstaking forensic unraveling of the Enron, WorldCom and Tyco scandals won’t necessarily breed a budding generation of new business journalists.
There’s been an explosion of business-oriented media in the last decade. That has fueled the need for reporters with fiscal savvy. Business reporting curricula in journalism education is making progress, but it still isn’t ubiquitous.
It should be.
“Every story has money in it,” said Tsitsi Wakhisi, professor of journalism at the University of Miami.
But business reporting, and the perception that there’s a lot of math involved, has kept students from going to J-school, Wakhisi said. One of her students would get ill – literally – at the sight of numbers in stories.
“The only time she was dealing with money was how much she was going to spend at the mall,” Wakhisi said.
Then that student landed her first job at Bloomberg in New York. She did well, and was transferred to London. Recently, she was recruited by the Financial Times of London.
For most business journalists, business reporting is a specialty they just fell into.
It wasn’t what I set out to do. But I’ve been doing business journalism for 11 years, currently as managing editor at the South Florida Business Journal. For me, it wasn’t until graduate school that my career found a track – like most, by accident.
In 1992, I began a master’s program at the University of Miami. I was back in school at age 30, after nearly a decade working in multicultural and environmental public radio.
Graduate school classes in media law and business reporting yielded me publishable stories, and those steered me into internships. I had a job before graduation.
I was hired as a $24,000-a-year reporter at the Miami Daily Business Review, a business daily. When I was told I’d be covering real estate, I remember thinking, “how boring.” Then I got scared.
Sources spewed jargon, spoke quickly and were steeped in multimillion-dollar deals. Learning to ask the right questions took time. To explain it to readers meant understanding it myself. I felt stupid. It took months for me not to rehash the jargon and legalese of my expert sources in my copy. They said things that sure sounded right.
But in Miami, where real estate has been hot for years, great stories were everywhere – from mortgage scams to slum lords.
Hard-nosed, experienced business editors pushed me to be a critical thinker every day. In Miami, a utopia for speculators and spinners, to question everything isn’t editor-speak. It’s a survival mechanism.
I began to beat the dailies on important stories.
Mine is a common experience shared by business journalists.
Professor Stephen Solomon knows many business reporters who fell into jobs for one reason or another. He founded New York University’s Business and Economic Reporting master’s program in 1999, which aims to give journalists a firm grounding in the subject before they get to the newsroom.
“To do it well, you need specialized knowledge, or at least know how to learn on the job,” Solomon said.
NYU’s program is one of a handful in the country that have decided to make training in business reporting its academic core. It helps that the program is in Manhattan – a vortex of the financial world. Staffers from Forbes, Dow Jones and CNBC pass through for pizza. Students visited the trials of Martha Stewart and Dennis Kozlowski on recent field trips. They land meaningful internships, and graduates are finding jobs quickly.
“We placed two students last week at Dow Jones,” Solomon said.
At NYU, they teach the craft. But students also take specialized classes in business writing. Add to that a helping of MBA courses in accounting, finance, economics, business history and marketing. Faculty at NYU’s Stern School of Business work with the 12 students picked annually in the 18-month program. The goal: Learn the language of business.
The good news is that there’s been an increase in applications at NYU’s program. At the Las Vegas-based Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Reporting, 60 one-day workshops are scheduled around the country in 2004, and it just launched BusinessJournalism.org. Established programs at Baruch College at City University of New York, Boston University, the University of California at Berkeley, Missouri, and others indicate business reporting education is maturing.
But there are more than 300 journalism programs in the United States, and overall, a business reporting curriculum is yet to be considered paramount. The business reporting class at the University of Miami that inspired my career path: gone.
“We don’t have it anymore,” said Wakhisi. “It’s a battle I knew I was going to lose eventually.” A qualitative and quantitative communications theory class was substituted. Wakhisi understands the benefits those courses bring to an understanding of critical thinking, but they appeared in part, Wakhisi says, to satisfy elders that the university wasn’t becoming “a trade school.”
“We are going up against a century of journalistic education tradition,” NYU’s Solomon said. Go to J-school based on the medium of choice. That’s always been the model. “It’s a much more complicated world now, and it’s clear that if you have specialized knowledge, you have a great advantage in covering it accurately,” Solomon said.
At Emory University in Atlanta, a 60-student program is getting competitive. Its focus is on ethics, history and thinking skills. There’s no public relations component, said professor Catherine Manegold.
Two years ago, she was the first to develop a business journalism course.
“No matter what kind of story you are covering, even sports, there’s a need for fairly sophisticated business skills,” she said. “It’s not sexy, but it’s crucial, and the challenge for educators is getting that message out – that you can’t do responsible coverage without understanding the money.”
Too often, young journalists’ instincts are to focus on “what’s hot and what’s not,” she said, amplifying the need to promote the public service component of business journalism and its role as a watchdog.
Emory’s first business reporting class had a waiting list. But it ended up composed mainly of business school students wanting to improve their writing.
“It’s not attracting more of our journalism students, and so we’ve had to modify the course,” she said.
To me, that means more focus on news and people, source development and beat mastery, a key to breaking news. It’s about teaching reporters to constantly ask themselves, “Why should our readers care about this story?” – a weekly news meeting mantra at the Business Journal.
More importantly, it means constant skepticism about stated facts.
At NYU, one of professor Susan Antilla’s students was describing the background of a profile subject, quoting a brief in Crane’s New York.
“So I said, ‘Well, did you check that?’ and she had a blank look and said, `Well, no,’ “ Antilla said. “It’s fascinating to them the level of depth you have to go in questioning things.” Antilla knows. Her series for USA Today detailed how a small business “entrepreneur of the year” was ripping off banks across New Jersey by repeating the same mortgage scam.
“I can’t tell you how many times, while I was at The (New York) Times, someone from another desk needed help from the business desk,” Antilla said.
It’s all about tools. Clearly, those needed for business journalism could help improve all journalists. That’s something editors know already, but in the halls of journalism education, it’s a topic that deserves continued soul searching.
Alexis Muellner is managing editor at the South Florida Business Journal and an adjunct professor at Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Miami.