10 Years After the 2008 Crash: The State of Financial Journalism

September 15, 2018. This date marked 10 years since the investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, a move that is often seen as the start of the 2008 financial crisis.

Besides its economic impact, one of the largest shocks of the crisis was how few people saw it coming. For many government officials, people in the industry and business reporters, the crisis came without warning.

Since the crisis and the recession that followed, the U.S. government and financial institutions have seen changes in regulation laws and practices. Ten years later, the economy seems to be making a recovery.

While the government and financial industry began to look into how such a significant event was missed, business journalism appears to have made few changes to its practices.

“In the years before the crisis, business and financial journalists got big pieces of the story—but nowhere near the full extent,” Howard R. Gold wrote in a September story on business journalism and the 2008 financial crisis for Columbia Journalism Review.

Gold concluded that failing to put together the pieces of the story, connecting rising housing prices to subprime loan sales on Wall Street, business journalism ultimately failed.

“Few journalists understood what was gaining on, let alone passed it along to their readers and viewers,” he wrote.

If journalists failed to predict the crisis by not connecting all of the dots, did the crisis at least lead to a change in business reporting moving forward?

Largely it seems, the answer is no.

To begin with the number of business and financial focused media outlets is limited and their scope has only seemed to shrink since 2008.

Just over a year after the 2008 crisis began, while the United States economy was still in a recession, both Forbes Magazine and Fortune Magazine had seen their advertising fall.

While business and finance magazines were not the only print publications struggling to transition into the twenty-first century, they seem to have felt the effects more strongly.

In October 2009, The New York Times reported that Fortune had announced it was cutting back to publishing 18 issues per year from 25. The New York Times story also reported that advertising in Fortune had failed by 34.9 percent, nearly 5 percent higher than the average decline magazines saw at the time.

Although not all financial publications faced the same changes Fortune and Forbes did, many made changes that reflect an overall fall in revenue—the Economist introduced a paywall in 2013 and the Financial Times followed in 2015.

In a 2014 article for the New Yorker, Hamza Shaban reviewed “The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark,” a book about the history of business news by Dean Starkman.

Both Starkman’s book and Shaban’s review pointed to the decline in investigative work by news outlets as one of the major failures of business journalism in the 2000’s.

“Just as dubious subprime practices seeped into Wall Street culture, newsrooms became least equipped to examine them,” Shaban wrote.

In addition to a lack of obvious change in business journalism practices, falling revenue often means that media outlets cut back on reporters and projects with higher costs, such as the investigative work Starkman’s book highlighted as essential.

However, business and economic reporting has not declined entirely.

2008 also marked the launch of Planet Money, an NPR podcast originally created to understand the financial crisis, that still reports on money and the economy today. March 2008 was also when Nate Silver started the data-driven news blog FiveThirtyEight.

Media outlets like Planet Money, FiveThirtyEight and The New York Times’ Upshot reflect one of the changes business and economic reporting has seen since the financial crisis: a focus on accessible analysis.

While data-driven journalism such as FiveThirtyEight and The Upshot and podcasts such as Planet Money and Freakonomics might not individually provide a thorough overview of the economy, together they help explain complex financial ideas to a broad audience.

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