The future of business journalism

The dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University takes a hard look at the profession.

The future of business journalism

Chris Roush offers a bleak view of the current state of reporting in his book, “The Future of Business Journalism.”

“Society faces a crisis when it comes to business news and information,” he writes. Most daily newspapers have gutted their business sections, the result of a harsh downturn in revenues and bad business decisions, he writes. In smaller towns and cities, a quarter of all newspapers have gone out of business.



Public relations people might readily agree with Roush, dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University. They struggle to win the attention of those reporters and editors who remain and are stretched thin to cover all the newsworthy stories. He offers a thought-provoking account of the state of business news, even if some readers won’t agree with all of his conclusions.

‘In the lurch’

Reporters and editors think in terms of story formulas. Perhaps Roush’s editor should have suggested that this should be a “Tale of Two Cities,” always a newsroom favorite.

Even as local newspapers perished, big business news outlets, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, CNBC and Fox Business News, have flourished, he notes. Specialty news operations, such Reorg Research and Law360,  have also successfully launched and expanded.

Roush says the success of those media outlets is part of the problem. The “shift in business news content away from many consumers and small business owners on Main Street and toward Wall Street investors, money managers and Fortune 500 executives is one of the most misunderstood inequalities in twenty-first-century American civic life,” writes Roush, a former professor in the School of Media and Journalism at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Business desks now cover big, national companies and major economic trends of little interest to small business owners and consumers, he writes. The specialty news sites “are targeting readers with a higher socioeconomic status, leaving workers and consumers in the lurch, scrambling to find bits and pieces without any coherence.”

Roush’s nostalgia for small business coverage may, like most nostalgia, be a longing for things that never quite were. While the collapse of daily newspapers has unquestionably reduced coverage of local businesses, newspapers may never have covered small companies the way Roush remembers. Big names and big numbers have long been a crucial element in determining newsworthiness. The large employers in any town have always received the most coverage.

He also says the cost of subscribing to some of these news outlets is beyond the reach of many. Readers who were accustomed to paying little for news reporting still have a hard time adjusting to this not-so-new reality.

Google it

Roush also downplays the beneficial effects of the very thing that has done in so many newspapers: the internet. Newspapers, magazines, books and specialty newsletters were once the primary source of business information that is now widely available for free with a Google search: from how to write a business plan to how to price products, as well as studies and surveys of every kind. Consumers, too, have more information than ever before at their fingertips on their phones.

Roush rightly puts a premium on journalism. There’s irreplaceable value to the objectivity, analysis, scrutiny, clear writing and powerful storytelling that good journalism can bring to bear on a topic. But to correctly judge the state of “business news and information” requires a bigger picture than Roush offers. The Information Age is the best of times and the worst of times.

Roush spreads around the responsibility for the current condition of business journalism. There’s what he calls the “fractured relationship between business journalists and the public relations people who represent businesses.” PR people are largely to blame, with their penchant for spin, and worse, occasional prevarication. So are CEOs, who try to erect force fields against the news media yet actually hurt their companies’ reputation in doing so.

‘Symbiotic relationship’

Indeed, we often work with our clients to break down that distrust. In its place, we explain how to develop relationships with journalists that are focused on what reporters need and then on what message we want to give them. And Roush devotes a chapter to the “symbiotic relationship” between business and journalists, summarizing research showing how news coverage benefits companies, despite many corporate leaders’ hardnosed view of the media.

Roush doesn’t assign much responsibility to reporters for the dysfunction. He is a journalism professor, after all. Instead, he faults media for its obsession with the stock market, indifference to unions and workers, and disregard of health care as a business.

Amid a scarcity of skilled business reporters, journalism schools share blame by failing to adequately train enough students, Roush writes, acknowledging the complaints of some corporate leaders that the reporters covering them don’t know their business.

So, what is the future of business journalism? In his concluding chapter, Roush offers eight possible solutions. Some of them are praiseworthy, such as increasing diversity in newsrooms, but none of them will change the economic forces that continue to turn the news business upside down.

“Despite the obstacles that have caused the problems with business journalism, I’m optimistic about the future of business journalism, both for Wall Street and for Main Street,” he writes.

After 178 pages, it’s hard to see why.

Except that, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, it is both the spring of hope and the winter of despair.

Tom Corfman is a senior consultant with Ragan Consulting Group where he leads the ESG practice. An attorney, he is a former business reporter with the Chicago Tribune and Crain’s Chicago Business. Schedule a call with Kristin Hart to learn how we can help you improve your communications effort with training, consulting and strategic counsel. Follow RCG on LinkedIn and subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.


One Response to “The future of business journalism”

    Ronald N Levy says:

    This writer Tom Corfman is terrific in recognizing: “Roush’s nostalgia for small business coverage may, like most nostalgia, be a longing for things that never quite were.”

    Corfman is right because the most important thing about business news has always been not who it’s about but who cares about it, and all those people who can care are still around. So the PR challenge is and was to show not why THEY matter but how the YOU may be affected.

    If you look online as I did at Corfman’s biography, you see that he started as a civil rights litigator. Importantly, one can only litigate civil rights if there are civil wrongs, real or imagined and it’s that way with business news. The key to interest value is not so much the THEM, who the news seems to be about, but the YOU. If we start by thinking not about who’s paying for the PR but who the target is, we may have a better chance of hitting the bullseye or some other important part of the newsworthy animal.

    If Corfman is lecturing somewhere it can pay well to go because the key to earning top dollar at PR is not just how well we do it but our training in deciding what we should TRY to do. That’s a common difference between those who get along in PR and those who make the biggest bucks. In all PR as in business news, what we try for can determine what we get.

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