Columbia Panel Examines Business Press Post-Crisis: “They Followed Conventional Wisdom”

Last night’s panel (from left to right): Ackman, Starkman, Madrick and Morgenson

Last night, we headed up town to Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism for a panel discussing the future of business journalism.

The panel, which was called “Now What? Business Journalism After the Meltdown,” featured New York Times assistant business and financial editor Gretchen Morgenson, investor Bill Ackman, Jeff Madrick, editor of Challenge Magazine, and Dean Starkman, managing editor of The Audit, The Columbia Journalism Review‘s online critique of financial journalism. Starkman also wrote the CJR cover story critiquing the business press before and after the credit crisis and housing meltdown.

Moderator Bill Grueskin, the dean of academic affairs at Columbia J-School, opened the discussion by asking the panel how they thought the business press had fared in its coverage of the recent economic crisis and what lessons they had learned.

Morgenson said she felt that the mainstream media had followed conventional wisdom — to its detriment. Business reporters and editors should have remained skeptical, she said. However, a bulk of the housing crisis involved complicated securities and political machinations in Washington, making it difficult for reporters to cover, she pointed out.

Madrick agreed, blaming the press for building up the “new economy of the late 90’s.” “They justified crazy stock market speculation,” he said. “Beware of those words, repeated in bubble after bubble: ‘This time is different.'”

Starkman reiterated the tagline of his article, “The business press did everything but take on the institutions that brought down the financial system,” he said.

The rest of the night’s discussion — which lasted for an hour plus almost an hour of questions from the packed house at the end — revolved around journalists’ sources and motivations. All of the panelists agreed that journalists are only as good as their sources, and sometimes reliable whistleblowers are hard to come by. Sometimes, blogs that do original reporting and dig up stories that the mainstream media can’t get to — whether because of time, access or budgets — are more helpful to consumers, Morgenson said.

“The blogs and Internet sources that are the most effective and can really help investors and consumers are the ones that are doing original reporting,” she said. “I would welcome that because there are so many stories out there and there are only so many [mainstream business reporters].”

At the end of the night, when the panelists were asked what the future might look like for the business press, the answers were mixed. Madrick suggested that the business model was not strong enough for online content providers like The Huffington Post. He said blogs and the like might even disappear in the coming years.

Many agreed that there is a future in printed media, like Ackman who pointed out that he is willing to spend thousands of dollars a year in subscriptions to specialized publications like The Economist. “But there has to be some solution between $30,000 a year and $2,” he said.