Davos09: What’s missing in journalism?

The media machers at Davos got together yesterday with three economists to ask what went wrong in financial coverage that did not warn of the crisis.

Like other leaders from other segments of society here in the meeting of the machers, they did not don hairshirts. I believe that will be the worst outcome of this year’s Davos: a failure to take responsibility for the failure of leadership. But blame isn’t the most productive priority. What’s more critical is to ask what to do about the failure.

I wonder what gaps the crisis reveals in journalism. That’s where the discussion finally went yesterday. (Because it was held under the Chatham House rule, I can’t attribute quotes.)

The assembled journalists insisted that the crisis had been reported, that they can point to articles that warned of the insanity. I’m not sure whether that’s an effort at industrial whitewashing: If one reporter gets the story, the entire profession gets credit. But fine, let’s stipulate that the stories were written. But one of the wiser editors said that didn’t do any good because it didn’t make an impact; it didn’t register; it didn’t go mainstream.

So is that what’s missing in journalism: the ability to bang on a story until the world pays attention? Our assumption had been that if it appeared in a major newspaper or magazine, that was the definition of attention. It assumed that the world paid attention to our news. So under this argument, we could be seeing an admission that papers and magazines have lost their juice. But let’s get past that, too. I think there is something to the idea that we aren’t good at driving a story.

In response, I quoted Arianna Huffington telling the same group two years before that journalists have attention deficit disorder and bloggers have obsessive compulsive disorder. Josh Marshall’s key skill is dogging a story until the press and the powerful do pay attention. The press can learn from that.

But then again, as an editor said yesterday, if an editor devotes page one every day to a warning that the sky is falling, no one will listen to him, either.

A well-respected journalist told the group that in economics, there is no objective truth. It’s too complex. So it shouldn’t be declarations of doom that should dominate front pages. It should be questions: How can these companies be this profitable? What is the impact of this much leverage? How can people without income get loans? It the constant poking and prodding we need.

That requires the willingness to be a pain in the ass. We journalists used to pride ourselves on being pains in the asses — or just asses. But now they like to be liked — they think they need to be. They believe that maintaining their connections is their key value. But that compromises their ability to dog.

One of the journalists complained that companies are so opaque they are hard to cover. “There’s not much a journalist can do, or anyone can do, when you don’t know what’s going on.” That’s true. And indeed, I believe the most important reform we need to enact post-crisis is transparency, an ethic and law of openness. But this argument, too, lets the journalists off the hook. It’s our job to find out what people don’t want to tell us. Maybe that is the real definition of reporting. The rest is just information.

An economist that “it’s hard to hold the press to a higher standard than the profession itself.” There was much nodding. But I question that. If we are to be the watchdogs — instead of merely the messengers — then don’t we need to try to know if not more than our subjects than at least enough to know what to dog? I’ve long argued that journalists aren’t experts, they find experts. But maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe news organizations need to hire different kinds of experts. One editor yesterday said he hired a cultural anthropologist who really was ahead in warning about the danger of derivatives because she looked at it through a different lens. An economist talked about hiring psychologists and even scientists and the emerging study of neuroeconomics. Papers have hired economists to cover finance. But papers can’t possibly afford to hire experts and people with different perspectives in every area they cover.

You’ve been waiting for me to bring blogs into this. Here’s my chance: Many of those experts and players are publishing themselves. They are questioning and arguing and so perhaps the key skill journalism needs is to curate that. (I also couldn’t get through a post such as this without saying “curate” at least once.

The risk now, many agreed, is that journalism will – as is its habit – overreact. A journalist I ran into in another session yesterday said she thinks we’re now in a “doom bubble.” American business journalism has been too American with too much reporting – including puffery – on companies and too little reporting on finance, on the markets that have such a profound impact on our lives. There are plenty of lessons to learn from journalism’s failure to warn well enough of the crisis to come. But we can’t stop at that, at incremental change in journalism: a few more of these people, a few more of those headlines, a better job with that kind of story. We need to look at the fundamentals of how news – a large, global, complex, interconnected ecosystem of news – can be and should be made now.