Brunswick Review Issue 2

Rise Of The Global Commentariat

The boundaries between financial reporting, in-depth analysis and independent commentary are becoming increasingly blurred.

Business and financial comment is proliferating, particularly online, and is establishing itself in the mainstream of general news.

Commoditized news and the breakneck speed of competitive reporting have become important realities in the new media world. Another significant change is the rise of the so-called commentariat, or punditocracy, a development which has presented both a huge challenge and an exciting opportunity for communicators. 

What is at stake here is not just the growing impact of views in the blogosphere but the way the mainstream print and broadcast media are now responding to financial events through news and commentary. The same people who report and break the day’s leading financial stories are often expected to tell audiences what to think about them.

Our analysis of the issues highlights some significant variations between regions – notably the United States, Europe and China, as discussed below – but the overall message is clear. Companies everywhere need to engage with a new breed of writers who may crunch their own numbers, speak to executives on background and care little for officially sanctioned comments. The rules of engagement are changing, and a wider range of journalists, commentators and other pundits are shaping the agenda. 

United Kingdom’s pioneering role

Financial commentary has been a central part of the financial media in the UK for many years – but in the past it almost always focused on specific comment sections such as the columns of financial or business editors of daily or weekly papers, or more specialist investor-based columns such as Lex and Tempus. All have long traditions of daily commentary on news stories, as opposed to the weekly columnists whose output is more akin to that of political sketch writers. 

Comment writers themselves were generally separate from daily news journalists. That, however, is now changing on many newspapers in response to cost saving pressures and competition to turn instant news into instant reviews. 

The UK pioneered online comment through the creation of Breakingviews, whose dedicated comment journalists have been syndicated in print all over the world. Now Reuters is developing a commentary service with a clear sense of global ambition. The Financial Times has also responded by recreating its Lombard column and the genuinely new FT Alphaville.

America’s new punditocracy

The rise of a financial punditocracy is a new phenomenon for the US, where for decades reporters did not venture into columnists’ territory and columnists rarely broke news. Now, a virtual army of financial journalists, bloggers and commentators may weigh in on a company or sector at any given time.

US financial commentary has mushroomed in the past 18 months, with the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Dow Jones all jumping into the game. Bloomberg runs comment by both contract and staff writers, and wants to run more op-eds by “big names.” The New York Times runs columns by Breakingviews, hosts blogs written by outside lawyers and economists, and gives its own leading columnists top play. Even The New Yorker has a business blog, as does The Atlanticmagazine. The range of financial commentary reflects the diverse backgrounds of those providing it, with growing numbers of commentators coming from the ranks of finance and consulting rather than traditional journalism.

The continental (European) confection

Continental Europe’s supply of new sources of financial commentary is comparatively less rich, but the landscape has begun to shift in both Germany and France.

Germany

In Germany, business is the new show business. Economic reporting in print media has been on the rise for the past 15 years, spurred by the economic boom of the 1990s and marked by developments such as the founding of the Financial Times Deutschland in 2000. At the same time, the wall between news and commentary has become less defined, and the tone of business reporting in the business sections of Germany’s “relevant six” newspapers (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Handelsblatt, Financial Times Deutschland, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt and Börsen-Zeitung) is more lively – sometimes rising to the level of a shout. As Börsen-Zeitung asked in a commentary piece last year: “Apocalypse? Destruction? End of the world? Or solely an escalating financial crisis?”

The growing prominence of economic reporting is partly due to the way business journalists and newspapers have become increasingly “political” in handling economic issues. While German business journalists often focused solely on company news in the past, they are increasingly covering a greater variety of topics, such as political and regulatory issues. That shift, coupled with the financial crisis, has resulted in a growing focus on newspapers’ business sections by mainstream readers. 

The influence of bloggers on the business sections of Germany’s major publications, however, has been limited when compared to the impact of their US counterparts. While top newspapers have an online presence, the only truly influential blog is Handelsblatt reporter Thomas Knuewer’s new media blog, “Indiskretion Ehrensache.”

France

When President Barack Obama gave an interview to French television before his June visit to France, he chose to give it to the upstart, hip pay TV cable network Canal+, not to France Télévisions, the state-owned network, or even to the biggest private channel TF1. But if President Obama had wanted to discuss financial issues, he would probably not have opted for TV or an online publication, but rather one of France’s long-established business daily newspapers.

If not reading the hard copy or online editions of Les Echos or its main competitor, La Tribune, the French often turn to two other news sources. One is what they call lettres confidentielles, or weekly newsletters, available by subscription only, such as La Lettre de l’Expansion or La Lettre A, which offer a mixture of comment and brief – sometimes unverified – items on impending transactions or announcements. The other is one of three weekly personal finance publications, InvestirLe Journal des Finances and Le Revenu, which closely follow French publicly-traded companies and make stock picks and recommendations. 

A fourth such publication, La Vie Financière, recently closed its print version and is reinventing itself as a paid online publication. It is following the lead of L’Agefi, which moved from print to online a few years ago. L’Agefi now publishes a morning and afternoon edition of breaking business news, and CF News, a weekly update on deals and corporate finance activity. 

France has seen the addition in recent years of four online-only publications with a strong penchant for commentary: Rue 89MediapartBakchich and a French-language version of Slate. Although they are staffed by some highly respected French journalists, including business and economics reporters like Martine Orange at Mediapart and Pascal Riche at Rue 89, they are having a hard time gaining traction by building a solid subscriber base. Other journalists have one foot in each world: Nicolas Corri, a business journalist at the print daily Libération, complements his articles with a blog. Le Monde’s economic commentator Frédéric Lemaître has one as well, as does Pierre-Yves Dugua, Le Figaro’s Washington correspondent. But business news is still in its infancy in the French blogosphere.

Eastern Internet bazaar

Online financial commentary has substantially reshaped China’s financial media landscape.

China

China has the largest number of netizens in the world, with 316m and counting by the end of April 2009. The internet has become a major source of information and has significantly changed the way people consume news in China. The largest Chinese online portal, SINA.com, draws more than 100m visitors on a daily basis. 

Online commentary is as critical as print and broadcast media in shaping public opinion on domestic business and financial issues, and many would argue it has become more influential. Many opinion formers, including economists, journalists and editors who used to be regular columnists and commentators in print and broadcast media, have started blogs or columns online (many relishing, as Wu Xiaobo explains elsewhere in this publication, the prompt feedback from readers).

China’s most influential financial news websites can be categorized as follows:

Financial news on top-tier online portals:
Sina Finance, the financial site of SINA.com, attracts the second-highest traffic of all financial sites in China. Sina Finance formed an alliance with the leading Chinese business and financial print publications and is therefore able to publish financial commentaries by these titles. It also has a strong financial blogosphere that includes the blogs of many influential Chinese economists and business executives.

Independent financial websites: 
Dedicated financial websites such as most-trafficked Hexun.com, Jrj.com and Eastmoney.com initially started life providing financial information for individual investors. Today they attract a strong base of readers, most of whom are financial professionals who pay close attention to domestic and international investment trends. In contrast to the financial commentaries on Sina Finance, these financial blogs and commentaries focus less on the macro economy and more on specific investment topics.

Websites of financial publications:
Because of their broad international perspective, the Chinese-language websites of the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and Reuters have become major online information sources for Chinese financial professionals. The website of Caijing magazine, China’s leading financial publication, is also popular among the business community in China. A number of well-established Chinese economists and bloggers write financial commentaries on these websites. Such financial commentaries offer a different perspective on the latest business issues, and are often quoted by other Chinese print and online media. 

New rules of engagement

Given the current volume of financial coverage and the fierce competition to add value to the news, both the sheer volume of commentary and the blending of news and opinion are bound to increase, both in print and on the web. But while the amount of noise can feel overwhelming, it does not pay to be passive. 

Based on frequent interaction with editors and senior writers at leading financial media outlets, Brunswick believes today’s pundits welcome a healthy give and take with companies and are accustomed to speaking to people without attribution. Companies should take steps to determine which commentators and areas of the blogosphere are most relevant for them, and should proactively seek out opinion formers to ensure they are kept as well informed as possible. Many writers inevitably have to form an opinion with little prior knowledge of a company or even its sector.

Granted, instantaneous deadlines and the appetite for snap commentary allow little time to weigh in before a story or a post appears, but the writers making quick judgments say they welcome a debate. The trick is to be able to respond as quickly and directly as possible, whether via a phone call or email to an editor or, if carefully considered, even a direct comment in a blog’s comment box. That may not always be possible in sensitive situations, but there are times when a quick “here’s what you are missing” call or email will help, especially if it’s concise and not overly defensive.

The pressure on journalists to make an impact in a 24/7 news cycle is something that all of us have to remember when dealing with the demands of the new media world. Individually and collectively, their output has increased significantly with the combination of an increasingly globalized and digitized media. The commentariat requires particularly careful engagement as its members are determined that their views will count at the cutting edge of a new media world.

Sarah Lubman is a Director at Brunswick's New York office. She has an extensive background in Asia and worked for ABC News in Tokyo and United Press International in Beijing. Brunswick's Carl von Hohenthal, Thomas Kamm, Jinqing Cai, Kejia Wu and Xiaolu Zhao all contributed to this article.