The request was urgent. The CEO of a local company was retiring and rumors were that he was walking out the door with a hefty bonus.
The call was from a young reporter at a medium-sized newspaper in the South. His editor, reading wire stories about the latest scandal on Wall Street, assigned him to investigate the local CEO's golden parachute. The reporter was on a tight deadline. He needed help in finding the answers, and could the professor help?
The questions poured out: What documents do I need to find? Are they available online? What's the average retirement for executives in that same industry? What's the proper method to evaluate the stock options the CEO was given? How do I write the story fairly?
The reporter was overwhelmed. Like many of his colleagues, he had a journalism degree but no specific business education besides Econ 101 in college. But as a result of recent events on Wall Street, readers and viewers of business news are demanding to know more about the inside deals of American and foreign companies. For today's Americans a lot more is at stake—their retirement savings, their children's education—not to mention the future of their weekly paychecks.
Companies like Enron have unraveled, ripping away the life savings of thousands of workers and investors. Events in remote villages have sent prices at the comer gas station spiraling. It's no wonder that with world terror at an all-time high, most Americans' chief concern is still the economy.
Americans want and expect business journalists to be watchdogs of "Big Business." Just like their colleagues on the metro or political desks, business reporters must be vigilant in protecting and representing the interests of the masses. Today's public face of business goes beyond the interests of shareholders, workers, and consumers. Business and government increasingly intersect, with public tax monies used to lure workers to jobs, or build new roads or sports stadiums in the guise of economic development.
That means that journalists—even those working at smaller publications—must have knowledge of the inner workings of publicly and privately held companies. Journalists must be able to apply government statistics to local circumstances and help citizens evaluate the costs and consequences of tax breaks that fund economic development. In short, they must effectively translate the workings of Wall Street and Washington for a "Main Street" audience.