American History of Business Journalism

A Glimpse of the Future of Business Journalism

In: Stories Mar 2013 Comments: 0

By Amy Zipkin
Amy Zipkin

Amy Zipkin is a freelance journalist who covers personal business, business travel, small business and especially management and the workplace. Her stories have appeared in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Huffington Post and Next Avenue among others. From 2000 to 2010 she was a contributing corporate management columnist for The Times.

Social media and technology are givens, but who will our future business journalism readers be and how will they get their news?

At John Kerry’s confirmation hearing in late January 2013 the new Secretary of State made it clear foreign policy is economic policy. He said. “It is urgent that we show people in the rest of the world that we can get our business done in an effective and timely way.”

With this observation he underscored the increasing importance of business and perhaps pointed the way to another potential beat for business journalists to add to a portfolio that’s only grown since the Great Recession.

This burgeoning significance comes as the craft makes the transition from print to digital. And while paywalls seems to be drawing new readers at some news organizations, there are still dark clouds on the horizon. Will readers stay with us through the shift? In an era of smart phones, tablets and apps, how will we harness technology to improve our stories? And with money continuing to be tight, what might be challenges in the future?

Some think there is cause for optimism. “Business Journalism is made for the digital revolution,” says Ken Doctor, a media analyst for Newsonomics. This is a profession that deals in milliseconds, is data based, requires comparisons over time and is deft at crunching numbers in real time.

In the last decade this has proved to be true of at least some of the subscriber services, say Bloomberg or Reuters, but now there is some suggestion the coming years may see a more consumer centric approach.

In January 2013 Chrystia Freeland assumed the new role of managing director and editor, consumer news for Reuters. She wrote to colleagues, “The new website and apps are an essential element of Reuters’ drive to create a consumer news platform, which is a valued and effective showcase for all of our journalism, in every medium and around the world.” And so it appears the thirst for new readers will continue apace with a wider net being cast.

Reuters is not alone in its quest. Quartz, which claims to be the first digitally native business site, launched in fall 2012. Instead of beats, it prefers to concentrate on a few select areas of specialization it calls “obsessions.” And it is drawing reporters with international backgrounds posting correspondents as far away as Asia.

Who Will Our Readers Be?

For a glimpse of a possible future, The Center for the People and the Press at the Pew Center provides some clues. In a study released in September 2012 – “In Changing News Landscape, Even Television is Vulnerable” — the striking finding is that many young people don’t connect with news on any given day.

“Fully 29 percent of those younger than 25 got no news yesterday from either digital news platforms, including cell phones and social networks, or traditional news platforms,” the report concluded. Even readers over 40 seem less committed to news than a decade ago, with 30 percent of those between 40-50, 24 percent of those between 50-64 and only 17 percent of those over 65 going without news the day before.

While the numbers aren’t vastly different over the decade, they are a marked comparison to nearly two decades ago, when newspapers were flush with display and commercial advertisements and were perhaps more focused on their individual communities.

As far as specific business stories, at the end of 2012, Pew evaluated the top stories. The presidential election and the mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., drew the most attention. Next was rising oil prices (52 percent) ran neck in neck with Hurricane Sandy (53 percent), among all readers, and those stories bettered the economy (44 percent) and the fiscal cliff negotiations (40 percent).

In that Pew survey — “Wide Age Differences over Many Top Stories” – the news preferences of younger readers do not favor business journalism. While 41 percent of those 18-29 closely followed rising gas prices, in the same age group, the numbers fell to 25 percent for the fiscal cliff negotiations and 26 percent for news of the economy. Those numbers rose to 47 percent for gas, 32 percent for fiscal cliff and 36 percent for the economy among readers 30-49. And for readers 50 and older the percentages for those same stories were over 50 percent.

The lack of appetite for business stories among younger readers stories doesn’t come as a complete surprise to Hannah Seligson, a business journalist who covers innovation, entrepreneurship and Gen Y and author of the recent e-book, “Mission Adulthood: How the 20 Somethings of Today are Changing Work, Love and Life.”

“News isn’t really geared for younger readers,” she said. She said she perceives a vast majority of business stories are geared to an older largely male readership. “For millenials, the focus is jobs, jobs, jobs, and entrepreneurship,” she said.

Statistics would seem to bear her out. In a section on demographics and political views of the Pew study, “In Changing News Landscape, Even Television is Vulnerable,” The Economist and Wall Street Journal were overwhelmingly male, 73 percent and 71 percent respectively. Even the popular “Colbert Report,” which drew an audience of 43 percent of 18-29 year olds, skewed heavily male at 58 percent.

Another popular choice among younger readers was The New York Times, drawing 32 percent of younger readers, was 56 percent male. Still, men did not dominate all news outlets. NPR, (49 percent male) daily newspapers (48 percent male) and MSNBC (40 percent male) skewed slightly female.

Others caution there is a danger in trying to perhaps anticipate how demography might be a factor in news readership in the future. Michael Teitelbaum, a senior advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, said, “Each cohort ‘grew up’ with different technological availabilities, but I don’t think we know if the younger cohorts will sustain their current behaviors as they become older, nor can we know what the ‘new’ technologies will be nor when they will appear.”

He concludes, “Overall, I think there are too many confounding factors to allow us to simply project current age cohorts’ behaviors forward to derive shifts in the future population’s use of news media. We might be OK guessing about some of the tendencies that might arise (i.e. less print, more mobile), but using demographic data to calculate audience sizes for different types of news media very far into the future seems to me unwise.”

Where Readers Will Find Us?

While most Americans continue to get news from traditional platforms — including television, radio and print, the very young (roughly 18-30) get their news online, from Twitter and social networking — including Facebook and LinkedIn — which now comprise 7 percent of the news for that group, compared to 1 percent for those 50-64 years old. For those above 65, the percentages barely register.

In the last few years “apps” have become part of the lexicon of everyday reporting. Yet, for the time being those who are college educated, and those with some college are still relying on a web browser rather than a specific news app.

Kevin DelaneyKevin Delaney, (right) the editor-in-chief of Quartz, has one explanation. “We believe that success is a free and open web,” he says. The site debuted in September 2012 and had 1.4 million visitors in December 2012. Much of its traffic comes from other social media sites – 40 percent — and 35 percent comes from other websites. “With the exponential growth expected in tablets and mobile, not having apps also doesn’t require a download,” he said.

Customizing News

John Carey is professor of communications and media management at Fordham Business School. In 2005, he and the late Nancy Hicks Maynard, former owner of the Oakland Tribune, wrote about “The Future of News, the Future of Journalism.” At the time he tackled the idea of customizing news, and wrote, “Many news organizations will send readers an email with links only to the subjects that interest them. “

Eight years later much has changed. One journalist who has experience customizing news is Mickey Meece, a former New York Times editor and current contributor who wrote a story about news apps on iTunes in September 2011 titled “All the News You Want, When You Want It” for the Times. While reporting, she used apps like Flipboard, Pulse, SkyGrid, Taptu, Fluent News, Flud and News 360.

She wrote, “You spend less time searching and more time reading what interests you,” and she continued, “some apps require a bit of work to set up,… but noting is set in stone.” “That is why the news apps hold my attention in a way print media and even television does not.”

Now, in early 2013, Meece is less convinced about customizing as an alternative to more traditional news curation. During a recent interview she said at least some of the apps had lost appeal for her. “Unless I was hitting major news stories, I wasn’t satisfied,” she said. And she said, “It got to be confusing. It took too much on my end to make it valuable.”

Although she continues to use them, the attraction of print media has resurfaced. It turns out asking the reader to self-curate may come with inherent drawbacks.

What Will Happen to The Beat?

The beat, a longstanding function of legacy newsrooms, is changing. Newspapers are beginning to experiment with interdisciplinary reporting. And some, like The Desert Sun and Quartz are instead choosing to focus on individual areas of interest. Quartz calls them “obsessions” — topics of the moment with widespread interest.

Delaney thinks defining Quartz by obsessions allows more interesting reporting that doesn’t necessarily fit into clear categories. Obsessions in early 2013 included the mobile web, China slowdown and energy stocks among others. Older obsessions like the U.S. election and the fiscal cliff have been retired and readers would need to search an archive to find them.

Quartz is also blurring the line between journalist and developer by having them sit side-by-side in the newsroom. “We build things that are less traditional news article and more of a hybrid,” he said. In one recent example, Quartz acquired the attendee list at the World Economic Forum in Davos and categorized it by institution, country and gender (only 17 women). And, he says, the format lent itself to stories being written by other news organizations.

During the last several years, it has become commonplace to refer to reporters as multimedia journalists who are expected to write, shoot, edit and produce stories on deadline using video and audio, graphics and other presentation techniques across digital, broadcast and print platforms. The future may yet call for even more versatility, perhaps even computer coding and other skills and a fluency for data visualization.

The Emergence of Social Media as a Business News Distribution Source

With news now coming from social media sites, it is likely that phenomenon will continue to grow. If anecdotal evidence is a guide, while those above 50, and to a lesser extent those above 40, are still turning to newspapers, increasingly younger readers are turning to social media.

LinkedInAccording to Pew, 38 percent of 18-24 year olds got their news from Facebook and other social media, up from 13 percent in 2010. For 25-29 year olds, nearly half (48 percent) got their news this way up, from 16 percent in 2010 – much greater percentages than the general public. Nearly a quarter of 40-49 year olds find news through the likes of Facebook and LinkedIn as do 10 percent of those 50-64. Perhaps understanding this, Facebook has a journalism program manager, and LinkedIn has an executive editor.

At LinkedIn journalists are assisted by or at least influenced by the types of algorithms that are so widely used by Google and others. Much of social media, of course, remains social in nature. But LinkedIn also makes a claim to be part of the business culture. Dan Roth, with a pedigree that includes Wired, Fortune and, arrived at LinkedIn thinking journalism could be much more of a conversation. Speaking about his experiences at more traditional news sources, he said, “There were no strong points of view and the comments were not great.”

Now, visitors to LinkedIn Today, launched in May 2011, have feeds tailored based on what other similar people are reading and sharing. The editorial decisions are an elusive combination of algorithm and human.

In an effort to develop strong viewpoints Roth developed a group he calls “influencers,” a combination of traditional journalists and so-called “thought leaders.” As of early 2013, the list included: Barack Obama, David Cameron, Jeff Immelt, Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington, Sallie Krawcheck, and Kai Fu Lee; 50+ CEOs, including those from Cleveland Clinic, PIMCO, Panera, Ideo, Rakuten, Zillow, and Spencer Stuart; chief marketing officers of GE and SAP, venture capitalists from Greylock, Andreessen Horowitz and First Round; the head of the World Bank and the Federal Communications Commission; and top journalists from Bloomberg, CNBC, Forbes, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

The contributors aren’t compensated. And they aren’t required to make minimum or maximum contributions to the site, although LinkedIn gently suggests they not go longer than two to three weeks without posting something. On a mid-February morning, visitors to LinkedIn might have found a new entry by Richard Branson who has just shy of a million and a half followers on LinkedIn. His story, “Top Six Tips to Screw Business Meetings as Usual,” had 123 comments.

Still, Roth sees a benefit in co-mingling influencers and traditional journalists. “People,” he says, “are posting ideas. The article is not the final word.” He sees a world where readers constantly return to the site. And once there, everyone will have the ability to shape knowledge.

And how will traditional journalists regard this philosophy? Writers, he predicts, will embrace it. “LinkedIn has 2 million groups, and the vast majority are sharing great writing. Articles are what start the conversation,” he says.

For some, linking back to a story written by a traditional news source is only the beginning. Sites such as Storify allow an individual or organization, to create a story by curating from social media sites. The object is to create a story using links to social media. “It’s what people are talking about, what’s affecting them in tangible ways, says CEO Burt Herman.

“Planet Money” has done a thread about unemployment and the changing nature of work. Herman allows the use of a site such as Storify might be challenging for business news, which needs to explain complex topics for ordinary people. And there is always a risk that instead of a story, a thread can seem like a random sorting of facts without rhyme or reason.

We are left with possibilities of a new era of developer/journalists, reporter-guides, social media experts or even titles that have not yet been considered in formats and on devices that are in the process of being conceptualized. A lingering question remains: How will news organizations afford original reporting?

As we peer into the future, different models are taking shape. Some are advocating for a non-profit model such as ProPublica. A few even suggest a government subsidy. The traditional advertising model remains open to debate as does the viability of paywalls. Media labs are a concept that is gaining traction.

With news organizations experimenting with different business models, some of which include event spaces, and lectures, possible cruises, continuing education courses and even selling merchandise, as business journalists we may find it increasingly challenging to uphold a traditional watchdog role.