Although he’s considered an expert on business journalism, authored a business-journalism textbook and spent much of his career covering business, Chris Roush got his start like a lot of journalists: covering cops and courts and other basic news. It taught him a lot, he says, about covering a beat, working with people and understanding news. It also taught him he did not want to look at another dead body.
So when he got the opportunity to start covering business, he took it, just as the niche of business journalism was hitting its stride. Eventually moving from newspapers to academia, the founder of the business journalism program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and current dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University now looks back at the past few decades as the prime era of business journalism … and worries that the era is passing.
The problem? Business journalism has become dominated by publications that are so expensive that only big companies and their executives can afford them. As a result, consumers and small business owners are locked out of the news they need to make important business and financial decisions.
But Roush isn’t ready to see business journalism as yet another dead body. His latest book, “The Future of Business Journalism: Why it Matters for Wall Street and Main Street,” not only breaks down the forces that have led to business journalism’s decline but also offers a plan for saving it – a plan that includes embracing technology, improving business-journalism training, refocusing on consumers, changing the business-publication model and more.
In a recent conversation, we talked with Roush about the rise and fall of business journalism, and the factors that could help to turn things around.
Back in the 1980s, business news started getting more attention. Business sections grew and business news found it way to the front page. What drove that?
What moved it out front was, for most of the ’80s and ’90s, we had a very long period of economic growth in this country, so people were interested in what was happening with the stock market and to the value of their homes. People were interested in where good places were to work, so they expressed that to their media outlets and the media outlets responded.
More recently, that prominence has faded. What happened?
In the early part of the 21st century, we had the dot com bubble burst and the economic recessions of 2007 and 2008 and, for reasons I don’t think I will ever understand, most media organizations when they looked at how can we cut costs and be more profitable, they cut business news … at quite possibly the worst time for consumers and small businesses. That was the time they needed it the most.
For a lot of daily newspapers, it was the decision to cut printed stock prices and to move that all online to their websites [that drove this shift]. It was the printed stock pages that really were the backbone of most daily business news sections, and I think most newspaper owners, when they cut that, they said, “Well, there’s really nothing to sustain a standalone business section anymore.”
But weren’t they taking away a good advertising base?
Let’s face it: When you look at the different sections, the readership of business sections probably had the best demographics, and it just didn’t make any sense for newspapers to cut the section that had the most likely people to advertise and to subscribe to the paper.
This created a solid niche for weekly business newspapers.
I think that, frankly, the business weekly newspaper, both in print and online, is really the only place for most cities where you can get any kind of decent business news coverage. But unfortunately, they can only do so much. It used to be whatever the daily didn’t cover, the weekly did. The newsweeklies did a better job of covering small to medium size business because that was their audience.
Still, you suggest that journalists who learn about business could have an edge in the marketplace.
Part of the problem is, for most business journalists who are coming into journalism, they’re not coming into the field with any training or knowledge, because colleges and universities are not training students to be business journalists. They’re training them to cover sports, city hall and so forth. Only about a dozen schools teach business journalism with any rigor.
You know, the students who are journalism majors for the most part are very passionate about the field. They want to change the world, they want to act as a watchdog for society. I still see that. For me that hasn’t changed in journalism in the last 100 years. What young journalists could do better is, I think, that they don’t understand the need to really specialize and to develop a niche, because that is what is happening across all forms of media.
I had a student last spring who took the business reporting class I taught here at Quinnipiac, I could see throughout the semester his eyes getting wider and wider and wider. And he came to me and said, “I’m graduating. I’m going to be looking for a job. I think this is what I’m going to do.” It shouldn’t be your last semester in college that you realize, “Hey, I need to specialize.”
I was a little surprised to see that you actually advocate for computer-written stories.
If the small media organizations would just invest a little bit of money in some software that will actually write business stories, they will free up their staff.
The AP now uses software to write 5,000 earnings stories every quarter, and the reporters for the AP focus on writing the earnings stories for the biggest companies, the ones that are most important for their readers. I’m starting to see this happen at American City Business Journals papers, where they’re using computer software to write basic stories.
I am comfortable with that for the basic stories, for stories about transactions, economic data. Those stories don’t take a lot of mind time anyway for the reporter to write. Let’s free up the reporters to dig into the more appealing topics that will have more attractiveness to bring in subscribers and readers