On Saturday, April 28, 2012, I attended a panel on business journalism at the CAJ National Conference in Toronto. There were a lot of complaints about problems in the Canadian finance industry, what journalists were doing wrong, and what everyone was missing due to the constraints of time, staffing and lack of access. There was a lot of yelling. When it came time for questions, I found myself yelling back.
Some of my arguments:
People, especially young people, aren’t really interested in business reporting.
FALSE. Interest in finance is everywhere. It’s on the cover of The Grid. Everyone is talking about debt from credit cards, student loans and ballooning mortgages. A generation of young people are facing the possibility of never being able to own a home due to astronomical prices. Gail Vaz-Oxlade is practically omni-present. A recent Maisonneuve cover feature on the snow-removal racket in Montreal has led to Hollywood agents calling editor Drew Nelles.
The problem isn’t a lack of interest, it’s reframing stories about money in a way that makes “non-business” people interested. When you remember everything has to do with money, then almost anything can become a “business story”. Sometimes making something interesting and appeal to the general public require additional resources and interesting approaches to storytelling, like Jennifer Wells’ coverage of Haiti’s mango industry in the Toronto Star or NPR‘s Planet Money podcast.
Becoming an qualified expert in business reporting is intrinsically expensive and more difficult
One of the panelists pointed out it would be great if we could have more journalists with backgrounds in business, finance, economics, or other related fields. But the costs of undergraduate degrees in these areas are now often significantly higher than a Bachelor of Arts because there is an expectation the person will soon be earning enough to justify that difference.
Yes it would be great for new journalists, business or otherwise, to complete the Canadian Securities Course, a Certified Accountant qualification or a Master’s in Business Administration. It would help them better understand, well, everything. But none of these programs are cheap and very few publications offer to help subsidize or fully cover costs.
This kind of financial education would also normally qualify someone to become a financial analyst, work on Bay Street, or do any number of things that would pay significantly more than journalism.* Everyone knows journalists aren’t in the industry for the money.** But asking the ones interested in business reporting to put themselves in an expensive position to better educate themselves for a job that will pay them significantly less than anything else in the finance industry is grossly unfair.
Dearth of in-depth reporting is due to constraints in general newsroom resources
One of the presentations was on the lack of access and resources available in Canadian media organizations for covering the oil sands. It was pointed out that there was no one reporter assigned to cover it full-time. I pointed out despite the growing demand for business journalism, most business reporters are facing the same problems as their general reporter colleagues. They’re also expected to do more and cover more, all on less time while also reporting on complicated daily subjects like commodities, market gains and jobs reports.
Publications like Report on Business, Canadian Business, Profit, MoneySense, and even Maclean’s are doing a lot of money-related features and investigative reporting. However the reality of television and radio, especially outside of programs like Marketplace or newsmagazines like W5, mean most people are getting short, quick hits on personal finance and easy-to-understand subjects like consumer reports. There will always be television spots of people at the pumps the day before a major spike in price because it’s a simple thing to film and produce. Explaining why those prices are going up is going to take more than a two-minute spot and a few streeters with irritated drivers.
I pointed out to Mike Eppel of 680 News it would be great to hear more about things like the background behind rising gas prices, but his station would never have time to tell that story because their popularity is based on broadcasting traffic reports every 10 minutes.
It is easy to complain, it is harder to change systemic problems
Journalism schools are also partly to blame. When I attended Centennial College for their joint-program with the University of Toronto Scarborough, there were no classes on business reporting. There was no time for them. The curriculum barely had enough time to do a semester on journalism law and ethics. And everyone kept joking they chose the major because they were bad with numbers anyway. The reality is there may not being enough time or additional resources for many journalism programs to devote entire classes or semesters to the subject. However, in any class that deals with writing and reporting, educators can still encourage students to look for business stories that matter to them or think about the role money plays in a particular story.***
The future of business reporting
Business is one of the few places in journalism that’s actively growing and recruiting new people. It’s a lot like sports: there are winners, losers, key players, earnings reports, weird trends, scandals and even specialized equiptment. I don’t know if business reporting needs a specialized school or program like the ones that exist for sports reporting.
All I know is I have realized that business reporting is what I want to do for a career and it was incredibly disheartening to hear people complain about problems in the industry without providing any actual solutions beyond buying their book.
*Tim Kiladze wrote a great column about what it was like to switch from Bay Street to a job at the Globe and Mail: “I no longer met the $60,000 minimum salary for the Infinite Visa I once used to pay my bar tabs at Bymark and Vertical“.
**This is lesson #1 in journalism school, right next to scaring us about crappy hours, the likelihood of working in small towns, and the sharp decline in jobs for new graduates.
***The journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax is one exception. Program director Kelly Toughill (MBA, Queen’s) and Steve Proctor both regularly teach courses on business journalism.