How journalists are giving people the economic news they want

People click on celebrity news stories, photo galleries, and videos of cute cats, but they say they’re craving something deeper: news about the economy.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism found that the economy was the top story in U.S. media in 2011, and has been for the past three years. But Pew research shows that people still want more financial news.

News sites are responding to this interest with enhanced economic coverage. But that has renewed attention to the challenges journalists face when trying to show how national and global economic issues affect people locally.

Related: Click here for story ideas and resources for covering your local economy.

Responding to people’s interest

The first challenge is to determine whether people are just saying they want more economic coverage. The journalists I talked to say no; the economic stories on their sites generate a lot of attention and discussion.

Chris Peacock, executive editor and vice president of CNNMoney.com, said readers’ interest in the economy has steadily increased throughout the past few years.

“It actually spiked in 2008 and interest hasn’t let up,” he said via email. “At first, the broad sentiment was that what happened on Wall Street didn’t concern Main Street, but that quickly changed, especially when Main Street lending froze. That was and still is, a major pillar of our coverage.”

He found that people’s interest was initially driven by the financial crisis and what was happening to big banks. Then people began to see home values deteriorating and realized just how greatly national economic issues can hit home. Now, many are wondering how the global economy could affect them.

“What has surprised me most in the last year is that our audience has had an increasingly voracious appetite for understanding China’s economy,” Peacock said. “Once considered mundane, reports on China’s inflation and manufacturing can now have a strong ripple effect here.”

CNNMoney has tried to pay attention to issues that could ultimately have a great impact on Americans. More than two years ago, the site decided to put one of its reporters on the deficit full-time.

“Back then, the deficit was far from a front-page issue,” Peacock said. “We knew it would eventually come to dominate business-government policy debate. What we didn’t know is that Congress, through the debt-ceiling fiasco and subsequent downgrading of U.S. debt, would make it one of the biggest stories of the year.”

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said the debt ceiling debate was the biggest economic theme covered in 2011, accounting for 32 percent of all economic coverage. That was followed by the recession’s impact on state and local governments at 12 percent, and the Occupy Wall Street movement at 5 percent. The debate over tax policy was the biggest economic story of 2010, accounting for 14 percent of the year’s economic coverage.

New York Times economics reporter Shaila Dewan regularly hears from readers who are interested in stories about housing, mortgages and the root of the financial crisis. Other readers, she said, just want to learn what a derivative is.

“Our readers are amazing; they read things really closely, and they ask questions. If we don’t explain something in a story, there will be somebody who wants that explanation, even if putting it in the story would have taken up an extra three paragraphs,” Dewan said, noting that it makes sense that people are concerned about the economy. “This is people’s pocketbooks, their paychecks, their homes, and their lives.”

The challenges of covering the economy

Dewan, who recently started covering economics, said she tries hard to put economic terms into plain language. But she is sometimes unsure whether to explain a term like “underwater,” which became more common in the wake of the housing crisis.

“Five years ago, people didn’t know what it meant. Now, you could easily have the impression that everyone knows what it means to be underwater, but your editor might come and say you have to explain what that means,” Dewan said by phone. “There’s a moving line about what people understand and what constitutes plain language.”

The economy is a difficult topic to cover, especially for smaller news organizations that don’t have designated economic reporters. It takes time to report on complicated economic issues, and it can be tempting to just run related wire stories instead.

“I do get the sense that our readers are interested in business and economic stories,” said Michelle McFee, who covers real estate and development for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “But the 24-7 news cycle, with its constant barrage of pseudo-’breaking news,’ doesn’t seem to lend itself to insightful, enterprising economic stories.”

McFee wonders whether journalists’ interest in the economy matches their audiences’ interest in it.

She’s seen great economic coverage from The Wall Street Journal and NPR’s Planet Money, which turns the “unraveling of complicated financial instruments into a thrill ride.” But, she says, “I just wish there was more reporting like that, that more reporters were interested in covering it, and that reporters were given the education and the time they need to do insightful, detailed economic and business reporting.”

Balancing economic and political reporting

Jon Hilsenrath, chief economics correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, said economic stories get too politicized during election season. Instead of focusing on how economic issues are affecting people, journalists focus on politicians’ stances on the issues and spend much more time covering the election in place of the economy.

“I think we populate the front pages of our newspapers and telecasts too much with political trivia that doesn’t affect people’s lives as deeply as these bigger economic trends do,” Hilsenrath said by phone.

PEJ research shows that economic stories that play out as Beltway political battles generate a lot of coverage. 

“In a way, it is easier for news organizations to cover those stories by sending folks to Pennsylvania Avenue where the combatants are often standing in front of microphones,” Jurkowitz said. “That’s why the Bush tax cuts and the battle over raising the debt ceiling tend to produce some of the largest weeks of economic coverage.”

Hilsenrath has found that readers tend to like politicized economics stories. “People like putting on talk radio and the cable channels and hearing people fight it out over an issue; they get some element of entertainment out of it,” he said. “Thinking about why long-term unemployment isn’t coming down isn’t so entertaining.”

Nevertheless, Hilsenrath said his unemployment stories still generate a lot of reader feedback. Stories about the housing crisis and the recession used to be especially popular and often rose to the top of WSJ.com’s “Most-emailed” list, he said.

None of the economics reporters I talked to were surprised that the economy has become such a hot topic. Their goal moving forward is to continue to help people make sense of it all.

“Our audience,” CNNMoney’s Peacock said, “demands the velocity of real-time economy coverage — and the insight we can provide.”

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