McGuire on Media

Dropping business sections is a huge mistake

I don’t mean to pick on the Winston Salem Journal because they’re not the only newspaper that’s dropped their daily business section, but they’re the lucky winner of this week’s “really bad move sweepstakes.”

There are lots of reasons abandoning business sections is a bad idea, but let’s start with abdication.

Just last week I taught my Media Ethics students the nine core principles of journalism written by the Committee for Concerned Journalists  and presented in Kovach and Rosentiel’s Elements of Journalism. I emphasized  that journalism “must serve as an independent monitor of power. ” I stopped the class and made a special point to explain that did not just mean monitoring the executive,  judicial and legislative branches of government, nor did it mean only covering city council and school board meetings.

Today, power comes in many different forms and great journalism demands that we monitor that power where we find it.  That power, more often than not rests in American business. From the mortage crisis, to scandalaous CEO salaries, to short-sighted employee cutbacks, to outsourcing of  jobs, American business makes the crucial decisions that are determining the direction of our country.  Increasingly, it is obvious government is powerless  in stopping the business juggernaut.

It is nothing short of naive to believe anyone can prevent the abuse of corporate and even small business power power without strong, viable business sections in newspapers and on web sites. Dropping business sections is just one more sign that American newspapers think they can deal with their financial crisis by abandoning news, shirking the watchdog function and forsaking all pretensions of courage. 

It is high time we start to recognize this abandonment as THE primary media ethics question facing journalism. In March 0f 2003 I did an ethics speech for Washington and Lee in which I didscussed the notion of ethical stewardship–making the right decisions about resources allocated to fulfill our obligations to society. Abandoning business sections is not sound ethical stewardship. Rather, it is turning our back on a fundamental obligation and abandoning one of the areas of news coverage that offers us real potential to become relevant again to readers.

Obviously the question becomes, “well have our business sections actually monitored the power of business?” Too often the answer is no, but that does not mean we ought to drop business sections.  It means we ought to fix the bloomin’ things.

Editors and publishers are too often looking at challenges and deciding to eliminate rather than innovate. It is clear advertising in business sections is weak. It is just as clear readership is narrow.  It is just as clear business sections have lacked the spine necessary to be tough watchdogs.  It is clear that a lot of smart people don’t read the business sections because there’s nothing “relevant.” That does not add up to elimination. It should tell news executives the formula is all wrong.

Business sections have reported on the China Mattel problem, but as a grandpa to two toddlers I argue American journalism has not made that story matter to my daughter and son-in-law the way it must. Outside of the New York Times coverage of the mortgage crisis has been stale, and dsisconnected from readers.

There is a crucial nexus every day and every hour between American business and consumers. Lives are being shaped by business decisions.  That nexus is where aggressive journalism must be focused.

Ironically, the decisions to cut business sections show just how much business has captured our news organizations.  By putting short-term profits ahead of building a news franchise which monitors the awesome power of American business, the Suits leave little doubt that reinventing newspapers does not include responsibility or a sense of duty to readers. 

Categories: Business journalism, Leadership and Management, Media ethics

Media Musings

I might be getting to be an old fuss-budget, but the coverage of Leona Helmsley’s will was more than maddening.  Sure, bequeathing $12 million dollars to a dog is funny and quirky. Cute story. But when you had to go eight or nine paragraphs  into the story to find out that she left $4 billion to charity we are falling into the sensationalistic trap everybody says we’re wallowing in to the detriment of real news.

 And, while I’m at it…was anybody else mortified by the hammering the South Carolina beauty pageant contestant got?  The first time I saw it I admit I laughed.  By the fifth time, I felt sad and just a little sick. The high ground becomes some vague aspiration when the media hammers an innocent kid like that.  The Arizona Republic editorial page had its tongue firmly in its cheek today when it asked why we should expect pageant contestants to have answers to this sort of question, but the point actually resonated. 

Categories: News decisions