The case for building better business journalism

Business journalism, if done well, is community journalism. 

The beats converge in stories about burgeoning small businesses, from a new grocery store that serves an underserved Hispanic community, to the giddy launch of a trading-card store. Business journalism seeks to answer the “why” behind the persistence of sexual harassment at restaurants. And it explores quirky topics, like the surprising connection between K-Pop fans and coffee-cup sleeves. 

Students from my Business Journalism class at Columbia College Chicago wrote those articles—but nary a story about the stock market, Fortune 500 companies or the best way to manage a 401K. When I told my students in the first class meeting that reporting about money is reporting about social equity, I got their full attention. And they responded to my challenge, writing about local businesses and workplace issues in news-deserted Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs, doing interviews in Spanish and writing in English, making the rounds of stores and restaurants in their neighborhoods. They found business angles on topics they vibe with: sports, fashion, music. 

Photo by Ahmad Nawawi via Flickr

The dean of the business beat

When I set out to revamp my department’s long-running business reporting class last year, I kept veteran business reporter Chris Roush’s “The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters for Wall Street and Main Street” on my desk. I quoted him to my students, highlighting his contention that if diverse groups don’t see themselves reflected in business reporting, they won’t read it. 

“The news media spends way too much time in coverage of the stock market, even though 90 percent of all stock are owned by the top 10 percent of the U.S. population,” Roush told Zip06, a local news website in Connecticut.  

“If I’m a Fortune 500 company or a big company like Facebook or Amazon, the business media covers me every single day and everything you ever wanted to know about those companies, but that’s not what most people and most business owners need in terms of their business news and information,” says Roush, who’s also the dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University 

That information vacuum cropped up in a story one of my students pitched. She spoke with several Spanish-speaking business owners who clearly could benefit from some mentorship from a small business development center. Those services are available, but what news outlet is writing about them—in Spanish?  

If business newsrooms continue to be majority white, Roush writes in his book, if the high cost of access to smart business journalism is out of reach and the easy option for financial advice comes from sponsored content from a financial services company, then audiences will miss out on useful and inspiring reporting. 

He points to growing efforts in business journalism to do better by people of color and women (through fellowships with historically Black college and universities, for instance), but “more work needs to be done, especially in making newsrooms more diverse.”

A need for financial literacy

In my class, my students learned how the stock market works, how social responsibility is connected to nonprofit status, and what lies ahead for Social Security. They consulted sections of the AP Stylebook they’d skipped over before to learn business terminology. 

However, when it came to more tangible topics, ranging from credit cards to credit ratings, they were wobbly. Turns out, my college’s middle class and first-to-college students needed financial basics. They’re not alone.  

Financial illiteracy in America is widespread, and people of color and women have less financial knowledge than others, according to the Financial Educators Council. When the group tested Americans about basic financial literacy, about 70% of adults passed the test, with about 60% of teenagers passing. That’s a lot of people who could use some help deciphering compound interest. 

So where do young adults turn to learn about entrepreneurship, how to negotiate a lease, or what business trends could affect the products and services they love, such as smartphones or streaming services? Free, quality options are scarce. 

In my class, they wrote those business stories themselves, homing in on the people and topics they care about. My hope is that after all my cheerleading—and reminders that business journalists tend to earn more than other journalists—they’ll see the value of follow-the-money storytelling. 

Where the stories are

The numbers that illustrate the financial impact of minority- and woman-owned businesses should be front and center for any business journalist looking for story ideas. Here are some highlights of the Census Bureau’s analysis of 2020 Census Bureau data, released last year (all numbers are estimates of 2020 data): 

·       Women-owned businesses had $1.9 trillion in sales of goods and services in 2020, the largest number in this group. Veteran-owned businesses were next, with $930 billion in sales.

·       Among minority-race groups, Asian-owned businesses had the highest sales ($841.1 billion).

·       Hispanic-owned businesses grew about 8% from 346,836 in 2019 to 375,256 in 2020.

·       A quarter of the 140,918 Black- or African American-owned businesses are in the healthcare and social assistance sectors.

·       And businesses owned by American Indian and Alaska Native (40,392 businesses and 243,523 employees) and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders (8,822 businesses and 60,000 employees) made up the smallest groups. 

As a dedicated fan of business journalism, I’m primed to read an article or listen to a podcast with a narrative arc and a dollars-and-cents focus that tells the story of, say, a trail-blazing startup in Oahu. 

Dollars-and-cents and DEI

Business journalism excels at exploring labor both critically and compassionately. It prepares people for what’s on the financial horizon for the things deeply affected by social inequity: jobs, healthcare, education, housing and families.

My hope is that media outlets reconsider reporting on business as a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in their communities. The upper-middle class and the 1% aren’t the only people who need solid information about business to live well. Journalists can find relatable and informative—and perhaps inspiring—stories about local, independent businesses that appeal to underserved readers. 

They’ve got your back: Great sources of education, advocacy, inside scoop

Business story ideas can come easier than on other beats. Quality data is at reporters’ fingertips, and numerous groups are there to help. At the top of my list is the Reynolds Center for Business Journalismat Arizona State University, which advocates for and educates business journalists. Their Two Minute Tips email is a weekly treat. The Journalist’s Resource from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center brings clarity to research data on economic and public policy topics.

There are loads of good business-news focused newsletters, columnists and job boards that help build skills and community. Here are my favorites: The indefatigable Chris Roush publishes Talking Biz News, a must-read website for job seekers. The Hustle and Quartz newsletters are witty and wise, and if you have the cash for a subscription, Bloomberg is best for overall business reporting.   

And as in any corner of the media industry, professional associations create a sense of community. The Society of Business Editors and Writers champions great business journalism, while the American Society of Business Publication Editors doggedly supports the shrinking world of business-to-business journalism.

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Betsy Edgerton is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. She has three decades of journalism experience in magazine editing for business publications, including several of Crain Communications’ business-to-business magazine, where she was executive editor and managing editor. 

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