By J.F. McKenna
Eric Jackson says there is too much “noise” in business journalism. Jackson defines noise as “cutting and pasting someone else’s ‘news’ and rebroadcasting it on your platform.”
These are noisy times by Jackson’s measure. Anyone within arm’s length of a PC knows that. Jackson, for one, would like to see the racket abated. In fact, he’s willing to pay for it.
Jackson, founder and managing member of Ironfire Capital LLC, has no apparent brief against business journalists. In a recent Forbes column, he wrote: “I respect that most journalists I’ve interacted with really take their ‘craft’ seriously. They value ethics. They tend to be bright. But 95+% of them seem to only ‘report’ the news, rather than give opinions or do investigative reporting. However, I’ve got news for you—breaking—in this mobile world reporting is a commodity.”
Jackson makes a valid point. Instant communications have relegated the scoop to the confines of Baskin-Robbins. In today’s business journalism, mainly left are bits of information lacking context and savvy interpretation. Playwright George Bernard Shaw saw the first signs of such empty-calories communications decades ago, declaring that “if you leave the smallest corner of your head vacant for a moment, other people’s opinions will rush in from all quarters.” Jackson, along with others like him, is having none of it. What he wants—and is willing to pay for, no less—is “original and reliably good thoughts, opinions, ideas.”
“There is so much noise out there today, that original thought really stands out,” Jackson told fellow Forbes readers, business journalists among them. “I’d…pay for investigative journalism. 60 Minutes stuff – although I’d prefer longer-form. The old page-one detailed stories from The Wall Street Journal….If The Wall Street Journal was 90% business opinion and investigative journalism, I’d subscribe in a heartbeat.”
The business plan is therefore simple. Just cut down the noise in the marketplace. Let the good stuff reach the top. That’s where the Eric Jacksons of the world are and plan to stay.
Interestingly enough, that “tell ‘em why brand” of business journalism has had champions over the years. Just not enough of them.
Certainly the best-known of these visionaries was The Wall Street Journal’s Barney Kilgore. As the paper’s editor 27 years, until 1967, Kilgore beat journalism’s inverted pyramid into a communications plowshare. That newly shaped tool then nourished the reading habits of American business for two generations.
“Barney Kilgore was a columnist in the Journal at the age of 23. He broke new ground in forms and styles of newspaper writing, humanizing articles, making them more accessible by beginning them with anecdotes rather than dry facts, employing humor to tell stories,” writes Richard J. Tofel, author of Restless Genius: Barney Kilgore, The Wall Street Journal, and the Invention of Modern Journalism. “He understood instinctively that readers seek — even more than an account of what happened yesterday — some insight into what will happen tomorrow. Kilgore crafted the Journal’s signature What’s News summary when he was just 25. Today What’s News remains widely admired—and frequently imitated. It was the first daily news summary of the kind in an American newspaper. A brilliant young reporter and editor, Kilgore was one of the most incisive and intelligent chroniclers of the New Deal. He had not yet even begun to work full-time in Washington when President Franklin Roosevelt was already telling other reporters seeking to understand a complex economic story to read his work.”
Of special note, Tofel writes, was “the edition of the Journal on the day after Pearl Harbor…. Its lead story began not with an account of ships sunk or even lives lost but of what the Journal could uniquely observe: ‘War with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States.’”
Kilgore’s spiritual descendent was my own mentor, Stan Modic. Stan liked cookies—but not a cookie-cutter approach to serving the readers of such publications as Industry Week and Tooling & Production.
“Throughout his career Stan maintained an unrelenting focus on ‘his’ readers, always trying to serve them better with some unique project or editorial feature,” recalled Bob Gardner, who had worked for Stan at Industry Week before giving up the press side to become vice president of public relations at The Association for Manufacturing Technology. “This approach, called ‘service journalism’ by some, led him to create insightful editorial features, lead pioneering study trips to Japan and Russia and speak out boldly in his editorials.”
As I like to tell people, Stan issued the Modic Memo every day—a standing order on behalf of readers who expected intellectual clarity instead of journalistic noise.
“My basic philosophy is that, in the business press, you have a specialized audience,” Stan insisted. “And your job is not only to inform and educate them, but also to try to lead them—and tune them into the new trends that may affect their businesses.”
A year ago, so-called citizen journalism continued apace online, in many cases showing up well-heeled publishers in many areas of coverage. But regional business journalism was not one of those areas. That was Doug Magill’s thought. The morning paper’s business section, to be charitable, had become lilliputian. And no one, Doug concluded, was stepping up to fulfill the wishes of the Eric Jacksons in northeast Ohio.
Doug, a management consultant and the creator of Cleveland Business Radio, decided to create a platform for original and reliably good thoughts, opinions and ideas. He was kind enough to ask me to join him on the journey.
So here we are, just trying to keep the “noise” down in our neighborhood.
J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications specialist. Reach him at email@example.com .