Why Media Coverage of Business is So Bad–and Why It May Be Time for CEOs to “Adopt” a Journalist

It all comes down to a simple idea creating quality takes money. The best quality of business and economic information [...]

April 19 2006 by William J. Holstein


It all comes down to a simple idea creating quality takes money. The best quality of business and economic information depends on a news organization having a global infrastructure of experienced reporters, editors and producers. In my 30-plus years in this business, I personally have seen this done best at United Press International, Business Week and U.S. News & World Report. You need some young hard-chargers who are maybe hired locally but you also need seasoned pros who have been through multiple assignments and multiple news cycles.

But creating these human infrastructures is expensive. And now news organizations, with the exception of a handful such as The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press, Bloomberg and Reuters news agencies, are walking away from quality business and economic information. Here are the dirty details:

The networks get cut back. Fortune magazine now has one full-time staffer on the ground in Asia and one in Europe. That’s it. Business Week has folded its international editions and downgraded its Tokyo bureau to local hires. Forbes has scrapped Forbes Global. And forget television. The major networks have largely demolished their bureau networks. Fox has never built one. CNN has demonstrated that it can’t make a go of it in business news, aside from Lou Dobbs’ latest tirades. And CNBC has long ago forgotten any global aspirations.

The quality of people get cut back. Tens of thousands of seasoned journalists have been fired, downsized, outsourced or just plain canned in the past few years. The mantra is, “Let’s bring in the children.” The folks in charge, with marketing or technology or financial backgrounds, don’t see a difference in the end product, whether produced by experienced staff or newbies. But it’s obvious to me, a practitioner, that the product has been degraded. You know it as well. When CEOs see business reporters coming in the front door, they are usually unseasoned and naïve.

Real business coverage gets cut back. There seems to be a stampede toward covering business as an extension of lifestyle, whether fashion or music or games or sports. Fortune magazine now has a managing editor with absolutely no business journalism experience and its new photo editor comes from, get this, Details magazine. No wonder the Big Three business magazines are in trouble with business readers they’re turning themselves into consumer-oriented magazines. The Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition also has flopped with business readers largely because you don’t have to read it.

The line of business coverage has gotten “stuck” in a kind of ideological, anti-CEO rut. Okay, bad things happened at Enron et seq. But, hey, that was years ago. Business editors can’t seem to identify the next wave of coverage (In my view, it ought to be about how America can retain its relative economic position in the world through innovation and better competitiveness.) So long after the worst abuses have been cleaned up and Sarbanes-Oxley has created a profoundly different climate in boardrooms, the media is still harping on “the evil CEO” bandwagon. The world has moved on. The U.S. business media hasn’t.

What can you as a CEO do about it? My best piece of advice is to identify one journalist or one news organization and cultivate a relationship. It could be as simple as inviting one or more representatives from that organization to come see you periodically so that you can explain what a CEO does for a living. Most journalists don’t really know. Explain how you take risks to create wealth for shareholders, employees and other constituencies. Explain the complexity of the competitive challenge. And explain that the gains you make have a bearing on American competitiveness and living standards. You’ve got to make those connections. Because left to their own devices, news organizations can’t, or won’t.

What are your thoughts? eMail me at bholstein@chiefexecutive.net.


Bill,

I agree with your dismal view of the journalistic landscape, but nurturing a relationship with one reporter may be a naive solution, if only because reporters change beats and employers so often. Instead, CEOs need to empower their PR professionals to pro-actively seek balanced coverage from (those few) well-informed seasoned reporters who cover their industry. Most importantly, CEOs must understand that the intrinsic value of the 4th Estate lies in its objective reporting. On a practical basis, this means CEOs must accept the fact that the press is not an extension of their PR department, which should not be called to task for anything short of a “puff piece” on their company. This is often a difficult concept for CEOs to grasp, because media relations is one area in which they have no control.


Gordon G. Andrew
Highlander Consulting
Princeton, New Jersey


Perhaps, the CEOs should offer to be guest speakers and cover the topics you suggest at the universities or maybe at business journalist conferences if such things exist.

John Kline, Hewlett-Packard


Nice story. Myopic, but nice. In deriding the news organizations for jettisoning experienced personnel in favor of “the children,” you ignore that the rest of US business does the same thing. How many seasoned executives have been downsized and replaced, during reorganization, by 20-something MBAs with virtually no business experience? How many manufacturing jobs have been lost to offshoring? How many qualified state representatives, who know how to get things done in government, have been “termed out” and replaced by new kids with no understanding of the political process?

Singling out journalists and the quality of coverage without considering the business reasons behind the changes at their publications is equally shortsighted. Those periodicals are changing because the market demographics are changing. College graduates today lack the breadth of education that their parents had and, thus, their interests are narrower. Their sophistication is less developed, if it’s there at all. And their tastes seem to remain sophomoric eternally.

Just think of “The Apprentice.” That’s the pinnacle of achievement for today’s Sammy Glicks. Careers aren’t built on skills developed over decades but on the home run mentality of a reality series: win the top spot and be set for life!

That’s not business… unless you’re in the entertainment business… and those executives know better than anyone that the prized 18-34 demo will choose titillation over quality every day of the week. It’s the return of bear baiting and the gladiatorial arena. It’s Rome. In its decline.

So don’t point the finger at journalism. Point it at executives who don’t demand more from an education system that, when test results don’t measure up, suggest lowering the requirements for passing. A system that’s turning out people who don’t seem to know that Hilton is a hotel chain and Paris is a city. It’s those graduates who want to open Fortune and see what the latest celebrity CEO is doing to pander to the increasingly dumb American population because that population is them.

Peter Altschuler
Wordsworth & Company LLC
Making Products and Services Irresistible


Excellent article. Maybe some other business publication can do an “investigative report” on it. :)

John Vitas


In your above piece, you state “The line of business coverage has gotten “stuck” in a kind of ideological, anti-CEO rut”. Unfortunately, this has become the most notable business news due to the fact that CEO pay and perk performance has far exceeded company performance. Until Board Comp Committees get the balls to stand up to these CEO’s and establish reasonable and effective compensation programs, these stories will continue to dominate the news. What are you and your magazine doing to address this issue? This issue is real and I don’t think you get it.

Where is your article demanding GM cut Roger Smith’s (your former CEO of the year) multi million dollar a year pension benefit since he did such a fine job of positioning GM for the future (that job bank sure was a great idea).

Your right, it’s time to move on, but first these comp issue must be resolved.

Best regards,

Mike Schifsky


ADOPT A REPORTER???

We have a Gannett “News”Paper in Green Bay! We don’t even have a Business Editor for crying out loud (in a market of 250,000+)! The ONE, fulltime, Business/Lifestyle reporter we have is SO overworked, he doesn’t get out to eat much less meet with a CEO! Adopt a reporter is a great idea if you can find one, but we’ve taken a different approach: 22 quarters ago, we created own business media: Business-to-Business-BY-Business-FOR-Business! Today, we report our own news, our own stats, our own trends and our own information on “retaining relative economic position in the world through innovation and better competitiveness.”

Michael Bina, principal,

IntellectualMarketing, LLC


As a business journalist, I agree with Bill. Whether it is through the CEO or the PR office, there is a lot to be said about a company forging a relationship with a handful of journalists–in a way that does not cross ethical boundaries for the journalists. But instead of focusing just on beat reporters at the top business publications or the local newspaper, I suggest companies also “adopt” a quality freelance journalist. This is something I have told many public relations directors for years.

As a freelancer myself, and one who used to be a reporter at Fortune and an editor at Advertising Age, I can tell you that out there working the freelance racket are a lot of well-seasoned journalists trained by the top publications who work hard going after each story because each one is a pay check. But here is why companies should adopt a freelancer: We write for more than one publication and cover many beats. A staff reporter covering advertising is not necessarily going to be able to convince another staffer to include information about your great employee retention rates in a workforce article, but a freelancer would be able to cover you from top to bottom and remember you with each appropriate story they write. I personally have turned to my “regulars” multiple times for articles I have freelanced for the Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Chief Executive, industry trades, etc., and the topics have run the gamut. Many of my regulars understand that I am not their mouthpiece and will do the story that needs to be done, whether it’s covering their lawsuits or their Best Practices, but in the long run it pays off.

Sheree R. Curry
CurryMedia.com