It’s time for business journalism to break with its conservative past
Halfway through 2020, the world is in many kinds of trouble. We face another global economic crisis; the worst pandemic in a century; a veering back toward nationalism and authoritarianism; widening wealth and income gaps in many countries; an ongoing failure to rectify gender inequity and racial injustice; and, of course, climate change, an existential challenge that threatens us all. It’s increasingly evident that each of these systemic problems is connected by both cause and effect to the others. Journalists have an urgent role to play: We can expose those connections, explain risks, and make sense of complex events. But the media—and business journalism in particular—has not risen to this occasion.
Business publications have the access, the context, and the duty to tease out the financial forces underpinning all of these problems. But we are part of the system we report on, along with the companies we cover; our sources who work in, invest in, and study those companies; the companies that advertise with us; and the business leaders and investors who read and pay for business news.
Our perspectives have been constrained by the expectations and incentives that limit every other part of the system, as well as our perceptions of those limitations, which are not always correct. This is how so many business journalists and finance professionals failed to see the last financial crisis coming. And it’s why some business leaders, investors, academics, and journalists made cautious business cases for things like increasing employee diversity or reducing carbon emissions long after they understood that the reasons for embracing those goals went way beyond share prices or bottom lines.
To take one example further, in the United States, we are a disproportionately white profession, reporting on companies led by disproportionately white leaders, markets invested in by disproportionately white investors, and economies studied by disproportionately white economists. Not surprisingly, the readers we reach are also disproportionately white. Investors are less likely to invest in startups run by people of color; companies don’t hire or promote enough people of color and claim they have a pipeline problem; business publications rarely put non-white CEOs and entrepreneurs on their covers or in their stories and argue that it’s because too few of them exist; and this absence of representation helps keep the cycle going. We have not only failed to expose the extent of the inequities and injustices in business and the economy; we have reinforced and perpetuated them.
A more demanding form of business journalism
Capitalism is not a natural system, markets are not forces of nature, and companies don’t have minds of their own. They are all collections of human decisions, rules, incentives, predictions, and unintended consequences—and people can change them if they want to.
If we want a better, more inclusive economy, we need a new, more demanding form of business and economic journalism, one that questions the assumptions our organizations, industries, and economies are built on; investigates not only how the systems that govern them are working now, but how they might be improved; and prepares readers to take action to improve them. In other words, we need business journalism to be more progressive.
I don’t mean “progressive” in its specifically American political sense. I mean it as Merriam-Webster defines it, “making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities” and “moving forward or onward; advancing.” The word’s technical, optometric meaning is a helpful metaphor, as well—when you look through progressive lenses, you can see what lies in the distance as clearly as what is right in front of you.
In recent years, management theory and corporate messaging have swung away from the orthodoxy of Milton Friedman’s shareholder capitalism, back to a more balanced view of the purpose and beneficiaries of the firm: a company exists to serve not only its owners, including those who have contributed even small amounts of capital, but also its workers, customers, suppliers, and the community and environment surrounding it. That’s a more accurate description of whose lives and livelihoods are affected by a company’s choices, and whose needs, therefore, should be considered. But we should define and understand each of those constituencies more carefully and inclusively. In order to do that well, we’ll need more diverse and inclusive newsrooms, and if we do it well, we’ll reach more readers.
Along with the weekday sport of markets and the important work of holding the powerful to account, there’s long been an instructive streak in business journalism: What makes some companies more successful than others? What makes some people more successful than others? Historically this kind of coverage has ignored racial and social inequities and left people out. We can change that. We can make sure the examples and data we give readers to help them improve their companies, their investments, and their careers reveal—rather than obscure—the structural forces that shape individual and organizational success. And for readers who want to participate in solving the world’s systemic problems, we can provide examples and data that point toward possible solutions.
What is the purpose of the global economy?
Being progressive and inclusive requires us to ask more fundamental questions about the companies we cover. Before we consider whether a company is succeeding—whether it’s financially sustainable, improving over time, treating its employees well, or properly balancing its stakeholders—we have to look more closely at its purpose (the real one, which is often not clear in its mission statement). What useful thing has the company set out to achieve? Who does it benefit, and who does it harm? If it succeeds, what will its net effect be on society and the environment?
We need to ask these basic questions of the economy, as well. Who does capitalism benefit and who does it harm? What is its net effect? What can it accomplish? And what are the alternatives? It’s our essential responsibility as business journalists to make the goals of companies and the whole global economy explicit and debatable. We have to keep asking, what is the end?
Like business itself, business journalism can be more progressive, inclusive, and oriented toward solving big problems. This is possible now because the next generation of business leaders and investors want it to be true, and they are our most important readers. These were founding principles of Quartz when we started in the wake of the last financial crisis, and we are committing to them even more firmly now. We invite you to hold us to account on that, and to share your thoughts with us at [email protected].
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