Dean Starkman on the Importance of Business Journalism for Democracy

“It’s not going overboard to say that great business writing is the vital link between the public and the institutions that shape our economic lives.”—Dean Starkman, The Best Business Writing 2012

The Best Business Writing 2012The following is an excerpt from Dean Starkman’s introduction to The Best Business Writing 2012. In this excerpt, Starkman describes the role the business press has played in the past and continues to play in the present:

The crash and ongoing crisis remind us that, in a democracy, it’s not enough to understand only political events and actors, but economic and financial ones as well. The debate can’t be left to experts and cognoscenti (clearly) and must be opened to as wide a swath of society as possible, even people who don’t normally think of business news as their bag. Put another way: hopeful ignorance about matters business and financial is no longer an option, if it ever was.

In assessing the early-twentieth-century Muckrakers, the historian Richard Hofstadter said their importance lay in the fact that their sweeping, investigative style of journalism allowed “any literate citizen to know what barkeepers, district attorneys, ward heelers, prostitutes, police court magistrates, reporters and corporation lawyers had always come to know in the course of their business.” That certainly describes Ida Tarbell’s sober, fact-laden nineteen-part expose of Standard Oil, which became a national phenomenon and changed the national discussion about industrial consolidation, the great economic issue of that era. What insiders already knew, Muckrakers revealed to the general public. They were the great connectors.

That role is now played, more or less, by the business press, supplemented by the general press when it ventures into business, economics, and finance (e.g. The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, This American Life). The definition of the business press has changed radically in the last decade or so. It has exploded with the rise of new media and has also shrunk as industrial-era news-gathering institutions—particularly great metropolitan dailies including the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post—have seen once-formidable business desks hollowed out. For now, the public still relies to a great extent on what are known as “legacy” news organizations for news gathering and investigations, supplemented by a gusher of economic, financial, and business commentary and analysis from new players, some of it quite fantastic (examples of which are included here)….

It’s true, business news has an image problem. Many believe it’s too technical or geared to insiders and people already in the know. There’s some truth to the perception. Business news began as form of elite communications, a pragmatic messaging tool to aid investors and markets, and, until not so long ago, that’s all it was. Indeed, the book you are holding is a result of business news’s long, tortured fight from the cultural margins to the mainstream….

Of course, business news, like the rest of the media, has continued to evolve. The mid-1990s saw an explosion of business news to accompany Americans’ stampede into the stock market (much later than many imagine). In 1996, by one count, twenty-two new business publications were launched. CNBC rose from cable TV afterthought to cultural icon. The 2000s brought even more dramatic changes—the tech wreck, a severe advertising recession, and the rise of the Internet started a great unraveling of institutional media and triggered the emergence of new journalism forms. We are now in a transitional moment: weakened legacy institutions bobbing in a vibrant, conversational, chaotic, and atomized digital sea. The degree to which what was lost from mainstream media is offset by gains in new media is a debate for another day.

The important thing is that great business journalism is going strong in both new and old forms and media. In this volume, the point is forcefully driven home by Zach Carter and Ryan Grim’s X ray of the Washington debate on bankcard swipe fees for Huffington Post and by Jesse Eisinger and Jake Bernstein’s expose of crimes and misdemeanors at Merrill Lynch for ProPublica, which won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a piece that never appeared in print. Morgan Housel’s deconstruction of bubble-era policymakers “Greenspan, Rubin, and a Roomful of Hypocrites,” The Motley Fool) obviously represents the tip of a huge iceberg of amazing online economic commentary and analysis.

It’s not going overboard to say that great business writing is the vital link between the public and the institutions that shape our economic lives. That’s why we’re proud to present Best Business Writing 2012 and even prouder to do it now when the economic currents are so complex and the stakes are so high.

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