American History of Business Journalism

By Lawrence Ingrassia

In: Essay Apr 2013 Comments: 0
Larry Ingrassia

Larry Ingrassia

Born 1952, an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, was business editor for nine years, starting in 2004. Before that, he worked as reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal in various places – Chicago, Minneapolis, London, Boston and New York.

It was 1983, and I was a young reporter for The Wall Street Journal. I was interviewing the president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, Gerald Corrigan (who would later become head of the New York Fed) not long after he had visited the Iron Range in Minnesota.

After giving a talk there about the economy, he told me, a hand shot up, and a mining union official in the audience asked: “Mr. Corrigan, I got a question for you. Why was M1 down $3 billion last week?”

It was a eureka moment for me: When you’ve got union guys in northern Minnesota asking a question like that, you know that the business pages are no longer just for executives in corner offices. Even local union officials knew that high inflation – then in the mid-teens – was damaging the economy, and having a direct impact on the livelihoods of their rank-and-file members.

Until around then, few people felt that business news was important to them. Yes, there have always been ups and downs in the economy. But outside corporate suites and Wall Street, not many readers paid much mind to economics.

Indeed, I think it is fair to say that – with few exceptions – the business of business reporting was a backwater at many newspapers, often a place to send reporters who weren’t aggressive enough for the national desk or the metro desk or who had performed many years of service and were coasting toward retirement. Newspaper reporting about business and the economy was dominated by The Wall Street Journal, which was considered a niche publication, and was mostly an afterthought everywhere else.

Flash forward to today, and that has changed, and how. The globalization of business in the 1970s and 1980s made economic news of interest to readers who never thought it mattered. For the first time, Americans found that their jobs were being directly affected by competitors overseas. Trade pacts – snore! – became front page news, along with trade deficit figures and the monthly jobs report.

Another milestone that increased interest in business news was financial deregulation. When the government deregulated savings deposits, and allowed people to take their money out of low-interest bank accounts and put it into money-market accounts with much higher yields, the average reader had to get educated real fast. Then there was the advent of 401(k) retirement funds and the shift away from traditional pensions. All of a sudden, a much larger percentage of Americans became direct investors in the stock market – for better or worse, in the unfortunate case for some people.

At times in the last few years, in fact, economic news has dominated coverage, even during presidential elections. Think about the financial meltdown of 2008, or the ongoing European debt crisis. Or how about the debate about health care, which is largely a debate over costs? Then there is technology, a truly global industry that is changing the way we live and work in ways that we are just beginning to understand. When I was a young reporter, there was no Microsoft, no Google, no Facebook, not even Apple. Today they are among the biggest and most recognizable companies on the planet.

No wonder that The New York Times has substantially increased the size of its business news staff in the past 15-20 years, and the fastest growing news organization is Bloomberg News, which itself didn’t exist until about 25 years ago.

My prediction for the next 25 years: More of the same. Global economic competition will grow. Job creation, technological innovation, tax policies, growing income inequality, energy production, retirement – all will be big issues around the world. All in the end, of course, are about money.

To the next generation of business and economic journalists: You’re covering what may be the biggest story of our time. Have at it, and do us proud.