McGuire on Media

Call to arms: The economy demands new coverage ideas

(This entry also appears on http://www.businessjournalism.org/)

Polls are telling us the economy is more important than Iraq. Business journalists on businessjournalism.org site told us in late 2007 that economic issues were going to crucial this year.

The starting question is does your news report reflect that? All aspects of the economy should be appearing more on your front pages, your business covers and on your web sites. Then you have to examine whether your coverage is compelling, insightful and more helpful than any competitor.  This should be the kind of story at which a newspaper organization excels.

Recently I tracked down a a fun web site which poses the questions media should be asking.  As I perused that site I found a particularly interesting guide for media covering the tepid economy.  I love guides and I love to add my two cents so let’s take a stab at McGuire’s guide to covering economy 2008.

Let’s start where every news conversation in the country starts today: at the resource question. I contend the guiding premise must be the economy of 2008 is a master narrative.  It should be the overriding story–the refracted glass through which you look at all your local coverage.  If the story takes that center stage then the story encompasses your newsroom and demands resources beyond the business page. The best business editors need to lead that coverage, design it and cheerlead for it, but if you try to cover it alone with just business staff you are not going to do right by readers.

The next step is to make sure your economic coverage is twenty-first-century- based and not 1970’s oriented. The recent economic stimulus package provides a great example. Economic stimulus packages were big when America manufactured its own goods.  Government provided taxpayers with an extra six or seven hundred bucks to buy a new TV, dishwasher or stove.  That  purchase benefited the local merchant, the truckers and wholesalers who delivered the goods and the manufacturer in some Michigan or Ohio town. globalization has changed all that, but did your coverage change. I saw precious little analysis of the stimulus package that put it in a 2008 reality where those goods are manufactured in Mexico or China. We needed to tell readers if a stimulus package is going to affect the economy in the same way it used to affect it.

The mortgage crisis is another example of how this recession looks different than others and illustrates how our readers are crucial players in the economy story of 2008 and not just observers.  I think we start by calling it a mortgage crisis and not the "sub-prime" crisis.  I can almost hear the condescension in that term "sub-prime." This story is bigger than the defaults that are hitting a lot of homeowners. Most Americans have a huge part of their net worth tied up in their home. I am not seeing the story covered that way. Our readers have a huge stake in that foreclosure down the block and in the difficulty in getting home equity loans. Readers are frightened. Great journalism will address those fears head-on.

Certainly these stories are being covered. I am concerned they are not being covered with the intensity and the human drama inherent in them. These stories have compelling written all over them and human, insightful, "value-added coverage’ can make newspapers really important.

In all our coverage of the economy we have to make connections for our reader. The gasoline price story is an example.  Major family decisions are being made because of the price of gas. Readers are scrambling at the same time they are perplexed about why it’s happening.  A student in one of my classes last week said with great conviction, "There is nothing we can do about gas prices." The look on her face when i said we could walk, take the bus, or move closer to where we work was amazing. connecting our behaviorsc to the economic outcomes is not only good journalism, it is morally required.

It seems as if we have been talking about "news you can use" stories since I entered the news business in the early 70’s.  If there was ever a time for that journalistic orientation it is now. An entire column on your business cover of tips, insights and guidance for spending money, saving it and investing it would not be overdoing it.  In the same way we should try to knit together the economic developments of the day into a cohesive whole that explains what’s happening with the economy rather than bombarding readers with disconnected parts which only serve to confuse.

Recently there’s been some media talk about stagflation. Some of us old folks have been through stagflation.  Most of our audience hasn’t.  Journalism has the unique ability to teach and guide without being pedantic. The treacherous economic issues we face in the next several months offer journalists the opportunity to metaphorically take the reader by the hand and help them through this difficult time.

We all know that the declining influence of newspapers has come because fewer readers NEED newspapers. I have often been accused of dating both Polly and Anna,  but I believe if newspapers make compelling coverage of the economy the top local news priority there is a great chance to establish a new bond with our readers based on fulfilling a crucial need in millions of homes.