Christopher Roush is a veteran business journalist and dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. He published a book this month entitled The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters for Wall Street and Main Street. Recently Observer executive editor James Ledbetter interviewed Roush; this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Observer: Start off by telling me how you came to write this book? What was the inspiration for it?
Roush: I had written a book about 15 years ago called Profits and Losses, which was kind of a history of business journalism and how it had affected society both positively and negatively. And so about two years ago, an editor at Georgetown University Press contacted me and said, “I read your Profits and Losses book. It’s been 15 years. I’m wondering if you have an update.” And it just so happens, I had been thinking, ‘gee, a lot has happened in business journalism in the last 15 years. And a lot of it has not been good for society.’ So I gave her an elevator pitch, and she took it to her bosses and they bought it.
In your title, you give away a lot of the focus of the book: you think business journalism can do maybe a little better by Wall Street, but a lot better by Main Street. Can you expand on that thesis a little bit?
The whole thesis of the book is that business journalism has resulted today in what I call a dissemination divide. For the people who can afford to pay thousands of dollars to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, or even pay for a Bloomberg terminal, can get the business and the economics news that they need. But it’s the 99% of us, the 30 million small business owners and the millions of consumers out there, who are no longer getting the business and economics news that they need to make important decisions either about their companies or about their personal lives.
One of the things that you chronicle in the book related to that divide is the decline in local business coverage in regional newspapers, non-national newspapers. So for example, you mentioned the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and it’s funny looking at those figures now, it’s impossible for me to believe they ever had that big of a business section.
Just to be clear, I was one of those people on the business desk of the Journal-Constitution when it had 45 people. So, I saw it happening or beginning to happen. The internet played a part obviously, when newspaper companies decided that they were going to stop publishing printed stock listings in the daily newspaper, that eliminated a lot of pages in the daily standalone business section and led a lot of newspaper companies to decide, maybe we don’t need a standalone business section anymore. The whole movement of news and information leaving the daily newspaper and going to the internet caused many newspaper companies to start looking at ways to decrease what they were printing every day, so they could maintain their profit margins. And unfortunately, one of the first things they looked at was business news coverage, which to me was an incredibly shortsighted and not very smart decision because they were making this decision around 2007 and 2008, when we were starting the Great Recession at that time when people really needed business and economics news the most.
The decision to no longer publish stock prices or mutual fund prices in daily newspapers is interesting. I suspect for some of our younger readers, they will not even understand that such things ever existed in print. Not that any of our younger readers ever picked up a newspaper. It seems to me maybe more important, and you touch upon this in the book, is the decline in the willingness of people to pay for a newspaper at all, which is also related to the rise of the internet.
One of the biggest mistakes newspapers made is when they started putting their news and information on the internet, they were giving it away for free. That led consumers to expect to get it for free online. Why subscribe to the print newspaper when I can get the same content just by logging onto the internet? And then when they realized that they needed to start charging for this, people said, “But you’ve been giving me this content for free for 10, 15 years. Why should I start paying for it now?”
One thing in the book that surprised me a little bit was you talked about the rise of regional business weeklies and also a company called Fit Small Business. Can you discuss what you see in those that might point toward a solution for larger outlets?
The business weekly newspapers, they have now kind of entered the void left by the daily newspapers and radio shows in terms of providing local and regional business news. And, they’re really the only publication in most major cities that is covering business news with any regularity or with any depth or nuance. They are what I consider the last great hope of business news in most cities and towns. And in terms of Fit Small Business, there have been some efforts to produce or provide business news and information for small businesses and for entrepreneurs across the country. Now what it doesn’t do is really provide that local business news. If I’m a local business and I’m looking to add a new location, what I want to know is where is the growth happening in my town or city, and where are my competitors adding locations.
I was the editor-in-chief of Inc. magazine for nearly six years. I think it’s gone now, but we had, for a long time, a weekly web feature called Main Street. We tended in that column to cover businesses that had been around for a long time, like 20 or 30 years. Some of them were very good. I would say though, by and large, if you ask me, are people more likely to read about the mom and pop store on their Main Street or Elon Musk, it’s going to be Elon Musk. And there were not lines of advertisers queuing up around the corner to put their ads next to Main Street content. And so if people aren’t reading it and people aren’t advertising against it, how is it going to monetize?
Those are all fair points. I would say that at least when I was at the Journal-Constitution, we were always told was that the advertisers were advertising in the business section because the readers of the business section had the highest per capita income, had the highest disposable income. And were the ones making the big money decisions at the companies that they worked at. So I don’t understand why most media companies have kind of ignored those advertisers by dropping their business sections.
As the reader moves through the book, you get a little bit more into possible solutions and changes going on in the industry. And I was very struck when you wrote that Reuters is now producing 8,000 automated stories a day. My question is a) how is that even possible? That’s just mind blowing and, but b) is that really the solution for Main Street? The sources that Reuters is using are presumably earnings announcements, annual reports. I don’t know that that’s going to exist on a local level unless the local companies that you’re talking about are public companies.
I think that you can take the software that places like Reuters and the AP are using to produce stories and rewrite the software to produce local stories, like real estate, that are important to these small businesses and important to consumers and free up the time for the journalists that you still have remaining to write the bigger, more important stories. Let’s figure out a way to use that software to automatically write stories about real estate transactions or automatically write stories about restaurant inspection reports that get lots of hits for a media organization’s website.
Can you talk a bit about the importance of education in all of this?
I devote a whole chapter to the fact that colleges and universities are not doing a good job in educating journalists on the importance of business and economics coverage. There’s maybe a dozen universities in this country that teach business journalism with any type of rigor. We make sure everybody learns how to cover education and cops and government. But business and economics is just as important to society. Yet we don’t teach how to cover these topics in journalism schools. And that’s a problem.