CEOs, Editors Agree: Biz Coverage Needs Improvement

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By: Joe Strupp

Business coverage in most newspapers is devoid of depth and given low priority internally, according to a report on surveys of corporate executives, newspaper editors, and journalism instructors released today (Feb. 24). They cite as the key reasons: a dearth of business training for reporters, a shallow pool of talented financial writers, and a limited understanding of business needs by journalists.

But there’s help on the way.

The surveys, sponsored by the American Press Institute, found business reporting is among the least attractive beats on most papers. And “CEOs describe business journalists as lacking a basic understanding of how businesses operate,” states the API summary of the surveys, conducted by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. “They don’t ask questions that probe below the surface and so their reports do not convey the detailed information business leaders need.”

In response to the findings, API has received a $2.9-million grant for a national program of business-journalism training from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas, which funded the surveys. The grant consists of $1.44 million for 20 business-reporter workshops each year for three years and $1.46 million for a business-reporting Web site offering information on terminology, examples of high-quality business coverage, and discussion forums.

“Business leaders and working journalists see a critical need for improvement of the business journalists craft,” said Steven L. Anderson, president of the foundation.

In the four surveys, Selzer & Co. polled 500 corporate CEOs and presidents, 301 newspaper editors and managing editors, 202 business editors and reporters, 34 journalism-school administrators, and 10 business-school administrators. Among the business executives surveyed, 62% said they read their local daily newspaper almost daily, with one in three noting they were dissatisfied with the quality of business news they found there. “They are saying that reporters don’t have the knowledge of what the story is,” said Ann Selzer, who conducted the study.

But newspapers got good marks on accuracy from corporate executives. When asked how coverage could improve, many said training from business executives on how they make decisions would help, as would business internships for reporters.

Editors and reporters agreed that coverage could be better. Several business editors contacted by E&P blamed part of the problem on the business beat’s lack of popularity. “Business reporters are often there by default,” said Paul Flemming of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, who was among those surveyed for the API project. C.R. Roberts, acting business-team leader at The News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., agreed. “It is a stiffer learning curve,” he said of financial coverage. “You need a lot more background.” But he pointed out that company executives are not the target readers for local newspapers, so they should not be the key judges of quality. “Our mission is not to write to business leaders,” he said.

Just 18% of the surveyed editors rated their business staffs as excellent, compared with 44% citing excellence in their sports coverage, 30% in metro-news coverage, and 28% in both features and political coverage. Most business-section staffers blamed this performance on a lack of training and formal business education. But when asked about receiving training now, 66% said they likely would not be able to attend any training that required two days of absence and cost more than $500, API reported.

Among news executives, only 14% rated the skills of their business reporters as excellent, while 52% awarded this highest staff rating to sports, 43% to metro news, 39% to features, and 32% to government and politics.

At journalism schools, administrators took some of the blame for poor business reporting, with only 28% saying they do a good job training students for business-journalism careers.

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