Tag Archives: Commentary


Does the biz media get stories wrong?


Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic responds to “The American Pravda,” a provocative article by Ron Unz of The American Conservative that dissects why American media is so bad.

Here is the argument regarding business journalism, and Friedersdorf’s response:

Having described the failure of the press to uncover impending doom at Enron or Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund, Unz writes, “In many respects, the non-detection of these business frauds is far more alarming than failure to uncover governmental malfeasance. Politics is a partisan team sport, and it is easy to imagine Democrats or Republicans closing ranks and protecting their own, despite damage to society. Furthermore, success or failure in public policies is often ambiguous and subject to propagandistic spin. But investors in a fraudulent company lose their money and therefore have an enormous incentive to detect those risks, with the same being true for business journalists. If the media cannot be trusted to catch and report simple financial misconduct, its reliability on more politically charged matters will surely be lower.”

This is unpersuasive. As a matter of both law and prevailing norms, journalists have a lot more access to government officials and public information than to goings-on in most private enterprises. The typical journalist also understands the worlds of politics, policy, and government better than business or finance. And while almost every journalist would agree that furnishing the information a democracy needs to function is a core duty of the profession, it is unclear, at least to me, that saving wealthy New Yorkers from unscrupulous hedge-fund managers is something media outlets ought to develop a capacity to do better, even having failed. No one had a better incentive to detect the risks of investing with Madoff than his investors. If they couldn’t succeed in doing so, why would journalists be expected to do better?

Why would they prioritize trying?

As a public company that got its share of fawning profiles before its collapse, Enron is a much more damning example. It is still false to suggest that business journalists had as big an incentive to catch the fraud as investors. In fact, my sense is that business journalists generally have an incentive to cheerlead for “hot” companies rather than questioning their apparent success, which inevitably results in push-back from powerful actors and less access granted. (I am unfamiliar with the trade press, which may well perform a lot better on this metric.)

Read more here.


Criticizing the gestation period of a llama


Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review has an excerpt from Ann Davis Vaughan, a former Wall Street Journal reporter that is a contribution to Ink Stained: Essays By the Columbia University Graduate Journalism Class of 1992, edited by JJ Hornblass, Michele Turk, and Tom Vogel. The book is self-published and on sale today at this link.

Vaughan writes about how the culture at The Journal has changed away from business journalism and away from investigative reporting.

She writes:

I do not deny for a minute that the Journal is News Corp.’s paper to run, and that the business model must change for newspapers to survive. Good for them for trying. I also still believe the Journal is a quality business publication with terrific journalists, and it will continue to be one of the few papers with long-term staying power. But it is debatable whether subscribers to a flagship business newspaper like the Journal really want less financial and corporate news. Murdoch and Thomson love talking about how journalists at establishment papers feel entitled and presumptuous. I will concede this is sometimes true. But I would turn their point around: News Corp. feels entitled to ask highly skilled journalists to produce commodity journalism, in return for a relatively low salary in a dying industry.

If talented business journalists care at all about the long-term portability of their skills in a shrinking media world, succumbing to pack journalism in the crowded general news category is no way out. It makes senior, expensive reporters expendable. That was not the direction I wanted my career to be heading…

My career shift is not necessarily good for business journalism or Main Street investing. Increasingly, investors are paying investigative reporters like me to go digging exclusively on their behalf rather than publish our findings for a wider audience. But the exodus is inevitable as newspapers offer less space, time and money for investigative reporting. At least the investment world, which is infamous for missing red flags and failing to ask painfully obvious questions, is now getting more of it.

Read more here.

Dave Lieber

Dallas paper hires consumer watchdog columnist


Dave Lieber, the consumer watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who was laid off after 20 years at the paper in January, has been hired by the Dallas Morning News.

Lieber’s inaugural column with the Morning News will be published on Friday, May 31. His column will run every Friday and Sunday.

“Dave has one of the most trusted voices in North Texas and our newsroom is honored to have him here,” said Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News, in a statement. “For 20 years, people in Tarrant County knew they had an advocate, someone in their corner to help them solve problems with business or government. We’re lucky to have him, and we think readers across the region will feel likewise.”

Lieber won the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award in 2002 from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, for work that “best exemplifies the high ideals of the beloved philosopher-humorist who used his platform for the benefit of his fellow human beings.” Lieber is also a sought-after speaker, appearing in front of more than 100 audiences each year.

The Morning News, named Texas’ best newspaper by the Associated Press Managing Editors, added Mitchell Schnurman as a business columnist last year.

Read more here.


WSJ names Nixon its chief Euro commentator


Thorold Barker, the Wall Street Journal editor who oversees coverage of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, sent out the following staff promotion on Monday:





I am delighted to announce that Simon Nixon is appointed Chief European Commentator of the Wall Street Journal.

High quality commentary and analysis is an increasingly vital part of our business. This is particularly true in Europe, as our readers try to make sense of the region’s debt crisis which continues to threaten the global economy. In his new role, Simon will write two major columns a week for all digital and European platforms, with at least one per week appearing in the U.S. paper. He will write blog posts and develop new digital initiatives, while also playing a leading role in building awareness of the WSJ brand in Europe.

Simon is well-qualified for this role. Through his own writing and his leadership of the London-based Heard on the Street team, Simon has established himself over the past four years as an incisive analytical voice on European issues. His weekly Agenda column is well read among senior business and finance executives as well as policymakers across Europe. Earlier this year, Simon was the only journalist for an English language publication short-listed for the best commentator award in the inaugural European Press Prize.

Before joining The Wall Street Journal in 2008, Simon was executive editor of Breakingviews.com, now the financial commentary arm of Thomson Reuters. Before that, he was City editor of The Week and a founding editor of MoneyWeek, now the U.K.’s leading retail investor magazine. Simon spent the first five years of his career working in investment banking. He has a first class degree in History from Trinity College, Cambridge.

Please join me in congratulating Simon on his new role.


Access is one of the biz media’s problems


Brett Arends of Marketwatch.com writes about the problems in the media, and includes one that is particularly an issue in financial journalism.

Arends writes, “In early 2007, when the subprime crisis first blew up, some executives at big mortgage lending companies were going around telling everyone that their companies were okay. But I reported at the time that several of these executives were also quietly dumping stock in their own companies as fast as they could. Six months later one of the companies had plunged into crisis and was sold off cheaply. The CEO was interviewed on TV about the industry. Not once — not once — did the big-name interviewer ask him about the way he had dumped his own stock.

“There’s a reason the interviewer didn’t ask that question. It wasn’t her job. She wasn’t paid to break news. She was paid to get what the TV crowd calls ‘the big ‘get.’’ In other words, she was paid to get access. Her job depends on getting the honchos to come on her show. And to get them to come on her show, she had to promise them — implicitly — an easy ride.

“A few years ago a Wall Street tycoon was so incensed by a plan to eliminate one of his tax loopholes that he invoked the memory of the Holocaust by comparison. He is still welcome on TV channels. He is still invited to give speeches at lucrative media conferences. That’s because he still has money and power, and the media cannot give up their access to him.

“No one who asks tough questions will ever get ‘access.’ And an increasingly powerless media needs access. Work out what will happen.”

Read more here.


Getting lit up: How PR people become the story


Every now and then my email will suddenly become inundated with emails from friends and colleagues in the PR industry all emailing me one story.  Before evening opening any one of these notes I know exactly what the content of the story will be — a story featuring some PR person doing something stupid.

Sometimes it’s just poor a quote or subtle reference to tension between PR and reporter but most likely it’s a full story focused squarely on something a PR person did to irk a reporter.  For an industry dedicated to speaking with reporters on a daily basis, it’s a little ironic how paranoid we can be about ending up in a media story.  I wonder if the people who juggle flaming sticks are equally amazed when someone in their field inadvertently sets themselves on fire.

The best story I’ve seen lately where a PR “pro” metaphorically set themselves ablaze was when Beyonce’s PR rep emailed the infamously snarky BuzzFeed to request they take down less-than-flattering photos of the superstar.  (Note: I have no way of knowing exactly how the Beyonce issue was handled.  All commentary below is not specific to any particular situation).

It’s a situation in which almost every PR pro has found themselves dealing with at one time or another.  An important client calls up incredulous at what a media outlet has decided to publish and demands a change.  Instead of taking a few minutes to think through how best to handle the request, the PR person does exactly what they were told and fires off an email to the outlet.

No one likes corrections.  PR people don’t like asking for them, and reporters almost never like changing their story (unless it’s a simple mistake like misspelling a name).  Because both sides aren’t going to enjoy the conversation, it’s human nature to avoid conflict and opt for email.  This is a fundamental mistake on the PR person, especially when dealing with a publication that publishes stories incessantly and on almost any topic.

While uncomfortable, a simple phone call is critical.  It will give the PR person a sense of how the reporter reacts to the request and, most of all it will not give the reporter a chance to turn the request into a standalone story.

Not every reporter is looking to turn a PR person’s email into a story.  We’re just not that interesting.  However, there is a certain line where a reporter is almost required to put pen to paper and let the world know what we are up to behind the scenes.  In my opinion this almost always happens when a PR person mixes pushiness with a genuinely bad idea.

As PR people we need to defend our clients and push back against reporters from time to time.  But we also need to consider the reporter, understand the media outlet and most of all, evaluate the clients demand.

Now that BuzzFeed is launching a business vertical, I would caution my colleagues in the field to think twice before asking them to take down embarrassing photos of their hedge fund clients.

David Nicklaus

A mastery of complicated topics


Gilbert Bailon of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch writes Sunday about the paper’s business columnist, David Nicklaus.

Bailon writes, “A native of small-town Iowa, Nicklaus has worked for the Post-Dispatch Business staff for 31 years as a reporter, editor and columnist. As a columnist, Nicklaus specializes in bringing down-to-earth analysis of broad themes such as budget sequestration, the housing crisis or banks ‘too big to fail.’

“For a broad readership, Nicklaus uses his mastery of complicated subjects and terminology to provide analysis for a regional economic hub and home to a huge financial services sector. He strives to be authoritative yet accessible to a wide audience.

“Nicklaus broke into business coverage before most general-interest newspapers had begun to invest more into business news coverage.

“After starting as a cub reporter out of Drake University in Iowa, he attended the London School of Economics, where he obtained a master’s degree in economics.

“Nicklaus said he considers himself ‘pro-capitalism but not always pro-business.’ His goal is to provide missing perspective and context while sometimes challenging the conventional wisdom.

“Nicklaus has worked in the Business section dating back to when some garment makers still operated downtown and now during the continuing resurgence of downtown as a job center and lively neighborhood.”

Read more here.

Todd Gitlin

No golden age of business journalism


Columbia University’s Todd Gitlin writes about the lack of a Golden Age in journalism for Salon magazine, and uses financial journalism as an example.

Gitlin writes, “Start to finish, financial journalism was breathless about the market thrills that led to the 2007-2008 crash: the financialization of the global economy, the metastasis of derivatives, and especially the deregulation underway since the late 1970s that culminated in the 1999 congressional repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (with President Bill Clinton blithely signing off on it).  That repeal paved the way for commercial and investment banks, as well as insurance companies, to merge into ‘too-big-to-fail’ corporations, unleashed with low capital requirements and soon enough piled high with the potential for collapse.

“A Proquest database search of all American newspapers during the calendar year 1999 reveals a grand total of two pieces warning that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was a mistake.  The first appeared in the Bangor Daily News of Maine, the second in the St. Petersburg Times of Florida. Count ‘em: two.

“On February 24, 2002, as the scandal of the derivative-soaked Enron Corporation unfolded, the New York Times’s Daniel Altman did distinguish himself with a page-one business section report headlined ‘Contracts So Complex They Imperil The System.’  He wrote: ‘The veil of complexity, whose weave is tightening as sophisticated derivatives evolve and proliferate, poses subtle risks to the financial system — risks that are impossible to quantify, sometimes even to identify.’ He stood almost alone in those years in such coverage.  Most financial journalists preferred then to cite the grand Yoda of American quotables, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.  And he was just the first and foremost among a range of giddy authorities on whom those reporters repeatedly relied for reassurance that derivatives were the great stabilizers of the economy.”

Read more here.

Dan McSwain

San Diego paper names new biz columnist


Dan McSwain is the new business columnist at the Union-Tribune in San Diego.

McSwain writes, “In college I pursued a writing career, eventually becoming the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper. I left college, along with a good job as a business reporter at a daily newspaper, to go back to work for my father.

“My first task was to lead the company’s automation effort. Later, as plant manager, a customer forced us into a crash program to adopt modern management practices such as just-in-time production scheduling and statistical analysis that vastly improved quality.

“In 1988, my dad sold his company, and I left to start a competing firm with my brother. It was successful. Five years later, I sold my half to focus on consuming bourbon and other drugs. Soon becoming a full-blown alcoholic, I moved quickly from wealthy to broke and homeless. It took me about four years to get sober; it’s been nearly 16 years since my last drink, drug, car wreck or jail term.

“Starting in 1998, I helped a friend start a digital media company. My role as CFO and VP of corporate development was to create the business plan, raise venture capital, help negotiate licenses and contracts, and do some user interface development. My friend sold that company to a Fortune 500 firm.

“I returned to journalism full time in 2000, as a business reporter. Over the last 13 years, I’ve also worked as a news editor, editorial page editor, editorial writer and managing editor. I’ve worked at U-T San Diego as an editorial writer and business columnist.”

Read more here.


Frankie Flack: In a crisis, focus on those affected, not the biz media


Given the events of last week, it seems appropriate to spend some time discussing communications principles in the time of a crisis for a business.

There are a number of ways to define a crisis, and in fact, there are many divergent views on how best to handle a corporate crisis from a PR perspective.

The simplest way to think about a crisis is an event that an organization does not expect and has the potential to cause significant long-term damage if not properly managed.  Properly managed means that after some time an organization and those directly impacted by the crisis are able to get back to some state of normalcy.

As with pretty much every aspect of public relations, speed is a critical component to good crisis communications protocol.  Once a crisis happens, the people directly impacted by it want to know who is responding to their needs.  This is one of the trickiest moments for a communications leader because in the chaos of a crisis there are a lot of people saying what should and shouldn’t be done.  At this time, it is best to focus on figuring out who is most affected and what do they need to hear that will assure them the business is responding.

Details are going to be sparse, but simple phrases that indicate the business is aware of a problem can go a long way in those early moments.

The key focus at this time is toward those most impacted by the crisis.  This means that reporters should not be a primary focus in the immediate aftermath of any crisis.  The challenge in staying focused on this approach is that the influx of media inquiries after a crisis can be crippling for nearly any communications team.

Just like always, all media calls should be returned, but the PR person should not get caught in long conversations with reporters.  It is important to acknowledge the company is addressing the situation and that more detail will follow.

The goal is to project to the media a sense of calm, that the company is focused on the problem and not overwhelmed.  Impacted parties will want to hear directly from the company.  The more personal it can be delivered, the better.

In addition to a staggering amount of incoming inquires, there will inevitably be a similarly sized influx of stories.  This coverage should be closely watched to ensure that in the fog of the immediate fallout damaging misinformation is not gaining traction as fact.

At the appropriate time, a company should address the media and discuss in as much detail as possible what caused the crisis, how it was handled and how the company is moving forward.  This might be considered pulling the Band-Aid off all at once theory.

Media are important vehicle to convey important messages to impacted parties, but they are also focused on addressing the totality of a crisis all at once.

Communications teams are best to squarely focus on responding to the needs of those most impacted, as aiding those groups is not only the right thing to do but will also allow the company to eventually move past a crisis.