McGuire on Media

No more ruing. Let's redesign a business section that works

This column has been published this morning on Business Journalism.org

My friends (read Peter Bhatia) give me a hard time about a line in my American Society of Newspaper Editors 2002 presidential speech when I said there was too much complaining about the plight of newspapers. I then demanded that  there be "no more ruing!"  I have tried to live by those words in the last 6 years, but we have to be honest, there has been a lot to rue.

Lately, I’ve been ruing the loss of stand alone business sections in newspapers. I’ve  written about how silly it is for newspapers to drop those sections because business has become such a powerful force in our society. I have not been alone in my cries for reason. Chris Roush  has also written passionately on the subject. But the fact is we, along with the rest of the world, are ruing. Ruing gets us nowhere. It is deliberate action, innovation and dedication to readers that can turn journalism around. Ruing will not do it.

So, the hell with ruing. Let’s do something practical and helpful by designing a standalone business section that works in 2008.

We have to start with a few givens. Resources are finite and dwindling every day.  We’re not going to concoct a "drunken sailor" plan here.  Secondly, we have to accept that, while print is definitely alive and well, we must marry our print efforts with our digital efforts.  Finally, as I said in my August 29 blog, the reason strong business sections are so important is our obligation to be an "independent monitor of power." If we really believe that the press lubricates democracy we must realize business has become an essential part of that democracy.

Let’s start there in creating our new type of business section.  The concept of being an independent monitor of power could reshape the targeting of business sections. I remember in the mid-90’s at the Star Tribune we had vigorous debates about whether we wanted to make business consumers our target audience or whether we wanted to take the Wall Street Journal’s approach and make the business "doers" our target audience. I now think choosing either one of those targets is a mistake.

Our new section should treat business as the power source that it is. We have learned in just the last few months that business decisions by banks and mortgage companies can send our economy into a tailspin. Business decisions by big oil, the corner gas station and auto companies can make buying gas incredibly destructive to a 100 dollar bill.  Let’s cover business that way. Let’s hold business accountable for those decisions.  Let’s analyze them, investigate them and monitor the heck out of them. Let’s abandon the "he said, she said" garbage and ferret out truth.  Who is shafting whom? That kind of approach would make the section indispensable to consumers, business executives and all the middlemen. Compelling and indispensable must be the goal.

There are lots of ways you can bring that to life in your town.  List the banks with the most sub-prime loans. Do a story on that clown who does the TV ads telling people they shouldn’t have any more than10 percent equity in their homes.  Get to the bottom of why gas prices are 10 to 15 cents higher in the rich suburbs  than they are in other areas of your metropolitan area. That ain’t supply and demand folks.  That is the kind of accountability we demand from governments. A business section that demanded it from business would make your section required reading.

I am still convinced business sections did not do enough to protect my grandchildren from the threat of paint in their toys. My daughter and her husband did not receive the help from newspapers they needed in sorting those toys. The did not get enough help in figuring out what to do.  Perhaps someone did it, but I never saw a story evaluating the quality of the lead testers we found buried in the back of a hardware store.  

Many practices employed by business sections in this regard need to be rethought.  Too many business sections publish executive salaries as a form of gossip. If you are monitoring power you will analyze those salaries not only in light of stock price but also in terms of jobs provided in the community, tax contributions, and corporate citizenship. Shifting the reportorial and editing mind set to "monitoring power" could yield a huge change in your section. But let’s not stop there.

For seven or eight years I have been discussing something I call the "Guide and Direct’ model, and I’m not giving it up now.  I think it could be essential to a dramatic redesign of a business section. The premise is simple. The amount of knowledge in the world is daunting.  Newspapers have the resources to guide readers to that knowledge in print, on TV and especially on the web.  In my concept of the business section, the guide and direct presentation would be high volume count, hugely helpful and would tell readers where they can find additional information and insight on scores of business developments. It would cover a wide spectrum of business with news briefs at the same time it leads readers to other sources of information.

Some critics are decrying that papers are dropping stock tables.  That is naive. Too many trees have been killed for too few readers. Stock tables are data and have provided little "sense-making" which has to be the hallmark of the modern media company.  That doesn’t mean business sections should abandon numbers. The opposite is true. Business sections need to replace stock data with numbers that mean something.

Steal a page from the investment analysts and show me why a stock is moving one way or another.  Give me numbers that show broad truths about the market and numbers that isolate big movers.  The top ten gainers from yesterday don’t tell me much.  The top ten gainers from this month with some explanation of why becomes meaningful data.  Again, follow my broker’s lead and show me valuable data in the right categories such as large cap growth, large cap value, international etc.  My portfolio is sophisticated. Why isn’t the business coverage? There are a lot of other business numbers such as imports, exports,  crude oil production and scores of others that affect your readers if you invest the time to explain them.

Finally, we need to understand there is a new day.  This "wisdom of crowds" thing is not jargon and it is not something we can use occasionally.  Daily features which allow readers to share their decisions on big issues and small ones are essential to redefining business sections.  Turn loose the youngest and most innovative minds in the newsroom and assign them to come up with ways to "wiki" the business readership. Tell these same young minds you want readers to participate in frequent business "gaming" too. Readers have to be involved in any section of the newspaper we redesign.  The paper has to be as much theirs as it is yours. Crowd sourcing and gaming are two excellent ways to do that.

Is this THE answer? Of course not. But rather than abandoning stand alone business sections let’s reinvent them. Let’s put our collective minds together and use business sections as our canary in the coal mine to figure out how newspapers re
main a viable monitor of power from government to sports to business.