Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Business Pages are Changing

I once had a meeting with a senior editor of Forbes magazine where he described the purpose of the business press.  He said, “The business press is about helping people make money or save money.  If you’re not doing that, you’re not covering business.”

He assumed the engine for helping people make or save money was private industry, since other than operating the printing presses the government doesn’t create wealth.

The Forbes editor said that good business coverage included everything from investing topics, to business growth, strategies and hard news.  Of course on the saving side, personal finance or investigative reports on risky investments or consumer purchases were all fair game.

One of the reasons I liked the simplicity of this description of purpose was how it paralleled the other sections of the newspaper.  People have always read the paper with their personal self-interest in mind.  What will the weather be like for my picnic today?  Do I know anyone in the obituaries?  Will my football poll bear fruit in today’s game?  Is there a good recipe for my family dinner in the Food Section? And, will my retirement accounts grow a little today?

To provide the kind of business coverage these readers had expected, newspaper editors knew that they had to place the highest priority on giving the reader “news you can use.” 

Times have changed.  Newspapers are a dying breed and now have to compete with an explosion of information sources, from cable television to Web sites, blogs and social media.  People in their 20s more than likely have never gotten into the habit of reading a daily newspaper.  Instead they pick and choose the information they receive.  The rest of us are now no different.

We browse the Internet, read the magazines and newspapers selectively, and we skip over what we don’t want.  Regardless of our habits, we all recognize we are no longer dependent on a newspaper daily as our window to the world.

In response, newspapers have had to change to draw attention or to retain as many readers as possible.  Analysis is a big part of this, which oftentimes reflects a value system the news organization believes best relates or identifies with its targeted base.  When newspaper editors today insert a thousand words of analysis into a hard news story, that’s their way of interpreting a news development as they see it or perhaps think the readers are predisposed to see it.  Story selection is an equal part of this approach.

In preparation for this blog post, I did a quick analysis of my own.  I made a list of business stories from two competing newspapers on the same day and then repeated this a few times.  The difference in their editorial approach was stark.

One newspaper clearly had decided to take a populist approach and only in a few rare cases, featured news about companies, products or actual business developments.  Instead, it focused on socio-economic issues facing people who are out of work, in transition, members of labor unions or government agencies.  I didn’t do a count, but the word “plight” is a very common one on this business page.

The other newspaper focused its business coverage almost entirely on economic issues as they affect the business operating environment, and features on businesses with new products.  Again, I didn’t do a count, but the word “opportunity” did appear on this page quite often.  It came as no surprise to me that this newspaper is the one of the two that is still holding onto and somewhat growing its readership.

Missing from both publications were features for organizational leaders on how to better manage, hire or create sound business strategy.

Perhaps the editors feel their readers can get that sort of information elsewhere, but in an industry that receives its share of bad news about its own sector every day, it would seem to me that filling newspaper pages with information readers can use to make or save money would be a good start.

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