Reg Rumney
Reg Rumney

Yes, business news is boring

“Is it only me, or has economic news stagnated?” asks Arthur Goldstuck, my friend and colleague from the Weekly Mail days.

No, Arthur, it’s not a new development. Business news is often boring. It has often been boring. And since it is often supply-driven rather than demand-driven, much of it is likely to continue to be boring. Advertisers think that the best way to get the attention of people with money is on the business pages or business TV, with the news content apparently an afterthought.

This is reinforced by a utility theory of business news. This holds that business news, unlike other news, is there for investors and shareholders whose desire to use the information to make money overrides other concerns such as how the information is presented.

The better business publications — and the work of the kind of business journalists who enter the Sanlam Financial Journalist of the Year award — show that business news need not be dull.

Examples locally and internationally abound. I have just ploughed through dozens of entries for the awards, a gruelling process but rewarding in the discovery of diamonds of journalistic excellence.

Arthur uses the parade of business indicators as proxy for the stagnation in business news. Insofar as this is sometimes the only pretence of business news, I agree. But indicators are probably like the crossword puzzle. Leaving them out may elicit howls of outrage. It’s what else you put in the news bulletin or on the business pages that counts.

So why is business news — and I mean news rather than market commentary — so often, like the “endless parade” of indicators, boring, uninteresting, monotonous, tedious and uninspiring?

Among other things, superficiality.

Superficiality is the mindless repetition of jargon, buzzwords and technical language. It is the uncritical quoting of sources, and even the use, as is, of press releases received from PR agencies.

Journalists exhibit superficiality because they lack zeal for the subjects covered, or their imaginations have failed them, and because too often they have no passion for their craft, be it broadcasting or print journalism. That’s either because they are in the wrong profession or they have fallen out of love with it.

I hesitate to use the overused word “passion”, but that’s what is involved.

Writers steeped in their beats can make their stories interesting because they are themselves engrossed. They will make the effort. They will do the research rather than relying on their present knowledge. They will travel into the field. They will also have some understanding of the medium: written language in print journalism, how to use sound in radio, and in TV broadcasting an appreciation of the strengths and weakness of communicating though pictures.

Business news — and I include economics and finance — differs from other news areas in that the degree of technicality sometimes requires a greater effort to understand. The reward is knowing something you never thought you needed to know. Knowledge is true empowerment. It’s exciting to be able to impart something to your audience that you have discovered.

I write of business news, rather than economic news, because what we understand as economic news is a small part of the news covered by business or financial publications. And this is part of the problem: financial news, coverage of company results and markets, has been the foundation of many business publications. It was their original raison d’être.

That is what those publications fall back on. An editor I interviewed recently told me he has great difficulty getting his staff enthused about the basic and very real problems managers face in running companies. They rather write about the results, because they don’t have to leave the office.

Business news includes the coverage of small business, unlisted companies, new technologies, trade and tax, advertising and marketing, to name just a few. It includes the problems of how to manage your time, employees and money.

Together with a lot of financial news, business news is about micro-economics, as opposed to weighty issues of monetary policy, the budget and the national accounts, which is macro-economics, and which we think of in talking about economics journalism.

Yes, macro-economic issues are important, but a moment’s thought will show that it’s all one, and economics handles the issues of the micro-economy, such as the cost of a cup of coffee, just as interestingly as it does issues of inflation targeting. Read Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist if you don’t believe me.

What the profoundly alienating language of market commentary that Arthur alludes does is to say to most people: this is not for you, peasant. Go back to reading the tabloids or watching fake wrestling on TV.

Yet with few exceptions, we are all in business, and business affects even those exceptions. News directed at us in language we understand and in a way that excites rather than confuses will keep us reading, watching and listening.