MEDIA ROUNDUP: Wall Street: Market watchers keep eye out for next big scandal

As financial outlets move their focus from IPO success to management mishap, one trend stays steady: the machinations of the market remain front-page news.

As financial outlets move their focus from IPO success to management mishap, one trend stays steady: the machinations of the market remain front-page news.

Over the past 10 years, coverage of Wall Street has exploded into a national obsession as the majority of Americans moved from passive spectators to active traders of publicly held stocks. "Ever since people got 401(k)s, they all started watching the market," says Joseph Finora, EVP of corporate communications with Royal Alliance, which represents more than 3,500 independent financial planners. The media responded to this trend by routinely moving Wall Street to the front page. Along with a flood of information on individual stocks, bonds, and IPOs, they offered up anecdotal tales of housewives-turned-stock-wizards or janitors and secretaries at start-ups who found themselves paper millionaires. Then when corporate scandals started to break amid an already-reeling economy, the focus of coverage changed, and business news became dominated by stories of financial irregularity and mistrust. Where they had been accused of being cheerleaders rather than critical observers during the stock market's meteoric rise in the late 1990s, there's no doubt journalists who cover Wall Street today are more than happy to fuel public distrust. It's not that these corporate scandals don't deserve the space. But PR pros are saying that's all Wall Street journalists are interested in these days. The search for scandal "The overall environment for business and financial reporters over the last three years has become a 'gotcha' view," explains Paul Marrone, director of media relations, private client group with UBS Paine Webber. "Journalists, as a rule, are only interested in stories that report on misconduct and businesses that have gone awry. They're mostly disinclined to report on positive business stories about a company, product, or service, or some positive response to a new law or regulation and how it's working correctly." This tone is not only impacting the day-to-day coverage of the markets, but also the personality profiles and other features that provide insight into an individual company or sector. From an era when coverage of analysts such as Henry Blodgett or CEOs such as Dennis Kozlowski helped turn "financial visionary" into yet another celebrity category, the mood has shifted to the point where few people want to be considered the sole public face of a company or sector. "Editors and producers feel a little bit burned by that coverage, and certainly PR folks do," explains Tom Joyce, partner with Carmichael Lynch Spong, and a former corporate communications executive with American Express. "If Fortune magazine called and said, 'Hey, we'd like to put your CEO on the cover because you're having a particularly good quarter or good year,' you'd have to think twice about that. Two years ago, you'd do it in a heartbeat. The thinking now is, 'If I make my CEO a celebrity, I may be fattening him or her for the winter kill.'" The surprising thing is that while some financially themed outlets such as The Industry Standard went under, Wall Street journalism has largely survived the stock market's multiyear decline. "I don't know if the number of reporters has changed that much, but the focus sure has," says Chris Tofalli, managing director with Broadgate Consultants. "There's a laser-like focus on the market and the issues surrounding it." Joyce concurs, saying, "Journalists are digging deeper or having sources that they trust pour over financial statements like never before. They are using an electron microscope on some of the numbers, whereas in the past they might have accepted them whole cloth." In general, this type of scrutiny might be considered a good thing for the public, though much of it has come too late for many people and their retirement plans. But in some cases, it's evolved into a kind of journalistic overkill, as coverage of the big picture of a financial statement gets obscured by reporters looking only to focus on minute issues, such as the details of executive compensation. "Pulling out footnotes just to let people know you've read it can be an incredibly frustrating thing to deal with from somebody on our end of the phone," Joyce explains. Talking to the experts Part of the problem is that outside of top-tier publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, and BusinessWeek, a high turnover of reporters at various beats is related to the market. "I'm finding more reporters without much knowledge of the subject," says Finora. That also means PR people have to be a bit choosier when looking to develop relationships with the press. "Fifteen to 20 years ago, there was only a handful of important outlets, so building relationships was easy," Joyce says. "But now you need to be selective in how you spend your poker chips. At certain outlets, the reporter you are going to get to know will be gone in two months." Marrone counters that PR pros representing financial institutions can't afford to handpick only those reporters and outlets they prefer to deal with. "Relations are maintained with all because even the smallest news outlets can be significant in terms of what they publish," he says. "There are small newsletters with stories that assignment editors at the major dailies read. So you don't discount anyone." There are, of course, some Wall Street reporters who are held in the highest regard. They include The Wall Street Journal's E.S. Browning, Charles Gasparino, and Karen Damato; The New York Times' Jonathan Fuerbringer; Josh Friedman and Debra Vrana of the Los Angeles Times; BusinessWeek managing editor Mark Morrison; and CNBC's Maria Bartiromo. To their credit, many media outlets have taken to heart criticism that they weren't looking closely enough at fundamentals during the tech-driven stock market bubble. Major financial broadcast networks, like CNNfn and especially CNBC, are now trying to deepen their coverage by noting, for example, when an analyst has a financial stake in a company being discussed on the air. Perhaps a more valid criticism, and one that still isn't being addressed, has been the role Wall Street coverage - especially television - has had in shifting the public's focus away from long-term financial planning. "Broadcast journalists are still inclined to focus on the moment," says Marrone. In the end, what every viewer or reader following Wall Street wants is perspective and analysis. But with the analyst community currently under a cloud, as well as a little gun shy due to allegations of perceived conflicts of interest, that expert commentary is increasingly being given by, surprisingly, other reporters. The most high-profile example is the CNBC deal that has Wall Street Journal writers appearing daily. Despite the strict SEC rules to which financial institutions adhere regarding the disclosure of information, many PR pros say they are routinely called to comment on rumors and gossip involving their clients. "We get calls all the time...and you can't just say, 'We don't comment on rumors,' and count on it going away," says Tofalli. "From the reporter's perspective, it's not a rumor. It's news from a trusted source. But you can steer reporters, and remind them about the dangers of calling a game at halftime." ----------- Where to go Newspapers The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Financial Times, Investor's Business Daily Magazines BusinessWeek, Forbes, Fortune, Money, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, Fast Company, Bloomberg Personal Finance, Inc., Harvard Business Review, Smart Money, Business 2.0, Red Herring Trade Daily Deal, Institutional Investor, Investment News, On Wall Street, Registered Rep, Bond Week, Bond World TV & Radio CNBC, CNNfn, CNN, evening network newscasts, PBS, Bloomberg, Fox News, NPR Internet TheStreet.com, FT.com, Motleyfool.com, WSJ.com, NYTimes.com, Hoovers.com

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