Who's Taking Care of Business?
Editors have a hard time finding qualified applicants for business desk jobs.
By Richard Sine
Richard Sine is the Hitachi Fellow on Corporate Citizenship at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
This spring, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette listed openings on JournalismJobs.com for city desk and business reporters. "The city desk was immediately swamped with about 40 applicants," says Assistant Managing Editor/Business Roger Hedges.
And how many applicants did the business desk get?
After recasting the ad to focus exclusively on business reporters, the Democrat-Gazette finally got about 15 replies. From those candidates, it will also try to fill a business desk slot in northwest Arkansas that has been open since December, when Hedges advertised for that job and found no qualified takers. Northwest Arkansas is the home of Wal-Mart, one of America's largest and most controversial companies, and Tyson Foods.
"A relatively low proportion of newspaper reporters are willing to go into a field that's regarded as more technical and numbers-oriented," Hedges says.
Hedges is not alone in his recruiting difficulties. Sixty percent of daily news executives said it was harder to find talented business reporters than for any other desk, according to a 2002 American Press Institute poll. That problem had serious consequences for the quality of the desks: Just 14 percent of news executives rated their business staff "excellent." By comparison, 43 percent of news executives used that description for their metro department.
The dearth of experienced business reporters may be especially acute in smaller markets. Dave Bundy, editor of North Dakota's Bismarck Tribune (circulation 27,000), says business openings almost always require a nationwide recruiting effort because his metro reporters rarely want to move to the business desk. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill business journalism professor Chris Roush, who has trained journalists around the country, says it is not unusual to find business reporters at smaller papers who cannot comprehend an income statement.
But the talent famine affects the top of the profession as well. "Some papers are taking a very long time finding business editors," says George Haj, the Houston Chronicle's business editor. Haj, who joined the Chronicle last October, was charged with expanding the paper's business coverage. "More papers are trying to improve their business sections," Haj says. "So it's significantly harder to find experienced business journalists, more so than a good metro or statehouse reporter."
The API poll inspired the institute to establish the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, which has been hosting intensive one-day training seminars for working journalists across the country. Reynolds Center Director Andrew Leckey says business or economics angles can be found in most beats, but numbers-shy reporters can't ferret them out. Meanwhile, business has become the country's top college major. "These are your readers, and a lot of people coming out of college are sophisticated in these matters," Leckey says.
Part of the blame may lay with journalism schools. "With the exception of maybe five or six schools around the country, most journalism schools are not preparing students to work on the business desk when they get out of college," says Roush, author of one of the only textbooks on business journalism, "Show Me the Money." "It's sad, in a way, because business journalism has been one of the fastest-growing fields in mass communication."
In the past few years, a handful of j-schools such as New York University and Boston University have established business journalism chairs, business journalism master's degrees or certificate programs. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the gap is far from filled. A glance at online job boards indicates that business reporting and editing openings are among the most common. Meanwhile, business journalism courses are virtually absent from most j-school curricula. A random check of 10 accredited schools revealed not one business journalism course.
J-school administrators told API that accredited schools can offer relatively few specialized courses because their students must fulfill many core requirements to graduate. Yet many schools offer editorial writing, online writing, magazine writing, science writing, arts writing and other specialties that seem to be less in demand than business reporting.
Roush suggests that journalism deans and professors hit their professional peak at a time when business journalism was considered a backwater, a less prestigious newsroom role. For some deans that perception may linger, despite the explosion in business publications and a general upswing in the professionalism of business coverage. The result: a reluctance to recruit faculty with business journalism experience.
George Harmon, a professor at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism who has been teaching business journalism for 25 years, says it can be difficult to interest undergraduates in business journalism. "Students regard the
business page as something impenetrable," he says.
But students find there are more job opportunities and often better pay if they can show some aptitude, he adds. "Plus, the news is pretty interesting once you get to know something about it."
Rex Seline, managing editor/news at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, says the complicated world of business has attracted and molded some of the profession's best reporters. "Business journalism, done well, can be far more challenging than some other entry-level disciplines," Seline says. "And, for that reason, it can be far more rewarding."
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