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Tips for covering a volatile economy

By Flickr user stepleton

I’ve argued in a couple of venues (see here and here) that this downturn and broader economy are very different from anything we’ve seen before, certainly since the broad professionalization of business journalism took hold in the 1980s. That puts a special burden on covering such a complex phenomenon, making it understandable, and realizing we’ll run up against “crisis fatigue” on the part of many readers — and certainly top editors wanting “some positive news” whatever the reality out there.

To take a couple of examples. The old cause-and-effect stock market and economy stories can be misleading and are often downright wrong. We used to joke that the AP writers had phrases on save-get keys so they could insert them quickly and glibly. As in: “The stock market (rose/fell) today as investors (were cheered by/worried by) (insert the day’s government economic report).” The other joke was that those veteran AP bylines were really just nameplates on desks where the rookie of the week sat and wrote the daily market wrap. (Are you smiling, Marty? It’s a joke…).

Still, we should be cautious about cause-and-effect stories. The stock market is a product of billions of individual decisions taken based on varying degrees of information. Sure, a major event can move markets. Usually, however, the easy assertions of why the Dow is up or down are wrong. It’s an invitation to dig deeper (e.g., finding out about the new superfast trading some big players employ). Also, the Dow is ever more disconnected from the real economy, even if it’s a marker for the nest-eggs of millions of people. Indeed, the capital markets themselves have changed so radically that the old ways of viewing them — where capital is raised for productive, job-creating enterprises — are antiquated. We need to tell these stories, or at the least know this when we write about anything concerning the economy.

Covering the local economy is more important than ever, from unemployment numbers and government fiscal crises to competitiveness. The resources are more plentiful than ever, usually as close as an online search. But reporters must build their expertise and beware making individual blips into a “turnaround.” The housing numbers that rose solely because of the federal tax credit was an embarrassing example of this kind of one-shot cheerleading. Watch the long trends. Dig deep and build your list of gold-standard sources and resources.

A second example is personal finance. As a business editor, I always resisted doing much of this (to my professional detriment). It took away space and resources from local news (a trade-off those readership surveys never asked about), and most daily newspapers couldn’t hope to match a Money magazine in expertise and sophistication. Really, would you trust a working reporter to tell you how to build your financial portfolio? Also, there are really only two personal finance stories: Don’t be greedy; Don’t be stupid. This advice can only be restated so many ways. I was blessed with one exception at the Dayton Daily News, where June Herold took a personal finance beat and made it into a real destination, with forward-leaning coverage that wasn’t just a commodity. But writers such as her and, say, Liz Pulliam Weston, are rare, especially at smaller papers.

Now I’d argue that finding a smart personal finance niche is important. Emphasis on smart. With millions facing foreclosure, joblessness, loss of unemployment benefits and being stuck in a Wall Street many see as a casino — there’s an opportunity to localize compelling and sophisticated coverage. The danger is to trivialize such a beat with tales of “real people” — a good start but no more than that — or get punk’d by a local broker or financial planner with a sales agenda. We are in new territory, where none of the old saws about investing hold true. So reporters must be more skeptical and dig deeper — and let readers know about the unknowns.

A “great reset” will be happening in American life whether we wish it or not. If you’re fortunate enough to have a job in journalism, you’ve got the story of your life. For now, I’d take a close look at unemployment, a destabilizing plague likely to be with us for years, and the fact that we are a poorer nation after this crash (even if the rich are richer), and savings have been vaporized while wages have stagnated or fallen. And beware of black swans — deflation comes to mind, as does the continued risky business by the big banks.

The summer of 2010 isn’t the end of this economic and social discontinuity — where the future will be very different from the past. It isn’t even, as Churchill would say, the beginning of the end. Maybe, at the best, it is the end of the beginning. We’ll have to work hard to keep up.

In Basics, Beats, Economy, Featured, Personal finance, Story ideas.

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