In Depth

Broadcasters Follow the Money Trail

Coverage Refocuses as Financial Issues Move to Forefront, Ahead of Reporting on Iraq War

Job losses are on the increase. Mortgage defaults are a growing problem. And another quarter of negative growth was just reported.

“You have unprecedented situations unfolding,” said CNBC Chief Washington Correspondent John Harwood. “The Feds backstopping JPMorgan’s acquisition of Bear Stearns changed the debate on what to do for homeowners in trouble.”

Mr. Harwood noted that, not too long ago, the Iraq war was seen as the most critical issue for candidates for the 2008 presidential race. “Now the economy is that thing,” he said. “We’re focused on the mortgage meltdown and the credit crunch and what effect that’ll have on the 2008 election—which presumably is pretty large, but no one knows how.”

Pundits may debate whether the economy is in a recession, but financial correspondents are unanimous that their reporting is enjoying a bull year. “There’s a real appetite for business news now,” said Alexis Glick, anchor and VP of business news at Fox Business Network. “We’re going through a volatile, turbulent time in the market and it’s an important time to disseminate the news. People want to know the implications of what’s going on.”

“Not since the Depression do you have a Federal Reserve improvising policy on the fly, acting in unprecedented ways to manage an unprecedented crisis,” said ABC News financial correspondent Betsy Stark. “Voters have made it clear that this is an important issue to them. It’s a no-brainer that we should be paying attention.”

Financial journalists who can combine market savvy with good storytelling are in demand. “At the broadest level, business and financial reporting is a huge growth area in U.S. journalism,” Mr. Harwood said. “The economy is getting more complex and is rapidly changing at a time when increasing numbers of Americans, whether or not they’re individual stock investors, have skin in the game. People are in so much distress and anxiety over financial institutions and instruments they don’t understand well that [journalists] who can explain the financial industry and where it’s headed are at a huge premium.”

Top Issue
The popularity of financial reporting is prompting broadcasters to create more ways of reaching viewers. Fox News just launched the Fox Business Network on Oct. 15, with journalists such as Ms. Glick who are correspondents in finance or worked as traders, economists or attorneys.
“This is an incredible opportunity for us as the newer network to leverage the Fox News brand,” she said.

CNN also recently launched Issue #1, an initiative that will leverage the assets of CNN
Worldwide to bring in-depth coverage of what Americans say is their No.1 issue: the economy. “We saw an obvious opportunity to apply the same template we use for political coverage to coverage of money and how the economy is affecting our viewers,” said CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein.

Issue #1 launched with a week of programming from noon to 1 p.m. ET and special reports throughout the day, anchored by Ali Velshi, CNN senior business correspondent and host of “Your $$$$$,” and Gerri Willis, CNN/CNNMoney.com personal finance editor and anchor of “Open House.”

Mr. Klein reported that Issue #1 is the result of brainstorming between the business news coverage group for TV and the CNNMoney.com managers. “We’re trying to make clear the connection between often-bewildering financial news and your pocketbook, your kids’ college fund and your retirement fund,” said Mr. Klein. “We do it in a very plain-spoken and accessible way. We are focusing on making the economy relatable and relevant to our viewers.”

Making economic news understandable and relevant to the average viewer is a strategy also described by other network correspondents. At Fox Business News, Ms. Glick talked about her network’s mission statement as “marrying Wall Street and Main Street.”

A Human Face
Ms. Stark talked about ABC News’ “signature series” of “kitchen-table economy [stories], to take an extraordinary moment in the U.S. economy and put a human face on it.” “We look at what’s happening with housing, inflation, losing a job, facing foreclosure, trying to run a family business,” she said. “I’ve been sitting with families around their kitchen tables and telling the story from a very personalized point of view about what a downturn, what a housing crisis feels like and showing you how to cope with it.”

The 2008 elections also up the ante for financial correspondents. “What you have is, in real time, candidates adjusting their policy stances and message to fit the circumstances that are changing in the middle of their campaign,” said Mr. Harwood. “You’ve seen [Republican Sen. John] McCain try to preserve his flexibility as a free-market conservative who doesn’t want to appear out of touch with the scale of the economic problem. In the case of [Democrats Sen. Hillary] Clinton and [Sen. Barack] Obama, they’re either announcing new policies or adapting ones they’ve already announced in response to voters’ anxieties.”

At CNN/U.S., Mr. Klein reported that Issue #1 election coverage will cover the candidates’ proposed solutions for the economy. Elsewhere on the network, political stories will acknowledge that the main driver of interest in the election is the economy.

Although Ms. Stark noted that ABC News political correspondents are more likely to take the helm when it comes to election coverage, she’ll still provide “a reality check.” “Certainly I think we’ve got an activist government now in terms of policy, so it means there’s more intersection of politics and the economy,” she said. “We have to pay close attention to what’s happening on the Washington axis, how the government is reacting whether it’s the rebate checks or the federal mortgage relief bill. It adds dimension to the story.”

Web sites are another way that broadcasters can add depth to the financial information. Mr. Klein reported that Issue #1 drives viewers to CNNMoney.com, which has experienced a 40% uptick as a result. “It’s a seamless experience for the viewer,” said Mr. Klein. “You can learn more on-air and online.”

Rich Sources
Ms. Stark said it’s also her best opportunity to hear from viewers. “After I did that first kitchen-table story, we got an overwhelming response, and that became a rich source for other stories,” she said. “The Web site has multiplied the ways that we can reach out around the country and talk to anybody with a computer.”

Looking into the near future, financial correspondents see coverage of the continued Democratic primaries. “Every time there is a primary, we look at the individual state, its unemployment rate, how the municipalities look and if they’re impacted by the credit market,” said Ms. Glick, who noted the party conventions also will be a fruitful venue for stories.

What about post-election? “Unless you think the problems with the economy will be solved as of Nov. 5, I think Issue #1 will remain issue No. 1 on the minds of viewers for some time,” said Mr. Klein. “And CNN will stay on top of it.”

Mr. Harwood also looks beyond the immediacy of the elections and sees the relevance of financial reporting for some time to come. “Globalization is the central fact of our times, and economic integration is how that’s being expressed. That creates change in the U.S. and everywhere in the world, and it’s an incredibly important story,” he said. “There’s never been a better time to be a financial journalist.”