Felix Salmon has replied to my post Monday on the question of financial journalism's responsibility to make complex material accessible to a broad audience. Salmon, as usual, offers a reasoned response, though I think in some cases he's exaggerating what I actually wrote. My earlier post did not say that we had no responsibility to make material accessible, only that we tend to write for our core audiences, which in our case consists of financial professionals. On that score, it's far more important to write with sophistication than to try to simplify for a broad general audience.
Salmon makes it a little hard to tell whether he's talking specifically about us "trade" publications, financial journalism or financial blogging. I won't speak for any other publication, online or off, than The Deal.
That said we try to write as accessibly as possible across a broad number of related disciplines. I think that if Salmon had read us, particularly our magazine, The Deal, over the past six years or so, he would find any number of stories taking that "broad view" he seems to find synonymous with writing for a general audience. Did we fully capture what Salmon calls "the big picture"? No. But who did?
We did, however, touch on a number of subjects that later proved important. I've been going through our 2005 magazines this week for an anniversary issue in the fall and was frankly surprised by how relevant a number of columns, features and news analysis pieces turned out to be: We were skeptical about bank consolidation and the universal bank model, discussed the Fed's first fears about credit derivatives, raised questions about our ability to price risk (particularly in buyouts and M&A), tried to get clarity on the relation between stock prices and M&A success or failure. We also called the General Motors Corp. bankruptcy -- in 2005, mind you -- and raised questions over and over again about corporate governance, regulatory dysfunction and bubble forecasting.
Were there many stories we missed, either out of ignorance or because they weren't part of our mission? Absolutely. We lean toward advisers and investors, not traders (with the exception of risk arb); institutions, not consumers. We are not called The Deal for nothing. But I would also argue that many business and finance magazines have lost their way because they no longer know whom they're writing for or why.
The larger point here is not that we're so smart, it's that we tried to deal with subjects of broad interest -- true, not subprime -- in some depth. And while we know our core audience read us carefully, our discussion of M&A, say, or GM, rarely seeped into the outside world. Perhaps it was, as he broadly suggests, that we were simply offering up dry, lengthy "trade" material, leaning on PR people or writing too quickly. Well, everyone has an opinion. Our features do run up to 3,000 words, which in a bloggy world -- or among traders -- may seem long. But I don't agree that we wrote or edited too quickly; many of these features were worked over as heavily as anything in consumer magazines. And his shot about PR dependence is absurd and insulting. True, we do fill our pages with words (as does the notably successful Economist), often on subjects that general readers, particularly circa 2005, had no particular reason to care about.
Arguing against accessibility is like questioning Mom, the flag and apple pie. Accessibility is "good." Who can question that? But accessibility also exists in a tension with the demands of sophistication. Although I haven't seen his traffic reports, I suspect that much of Salmon's audience overlaps with ours. If he paused to define "collateralized debt obligations" or "alpha" every time he used the term, those readers would lose patience and drift away. If he started to write about electoral politics, say, or pop culture he would need to find a new audience. Increasingly, and this is part and parcel of the changes wrought by the Internet and blogging, we're all "trade," in some form or another. And in that narrowcasting world, the trade-off between accessibility and sophistication becomes more and more important.
Robert Teitelman is the editor in chief of The Deal.
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