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Friday, January 17, 2014

Making Business More Interesting: Beyond the Jargon and Figures

From a historical perspective, I suspect that what “counts,” or is recognized, as discourse on business has consecutively narrowed. An enterprising scholar in the field of business and society, which itself has narrowed to managerial tools and ideological demands (under the subterfuge of knowledge), might compare the media’s coverage of business firms beginning to sell electricity, the telephone, and the auto-carriage (i.e., automobile) in the early decades of the twentieth century with reports a century later on firms bringing out life-changing products like smartphones and other applications of computer technology. Not having been around when electricity was making houses brighter and telephones as well as cars were fundamentally changing human interaction and mobility, people following the business news on Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google, and Microsoft do not have the historical perspective necessary to assess how broad or narrow the coverage is. 

I contend that what is considered business news (and discourse) is artificially constrained, in that coverage is biased toward the companies themselves (most particularly in CEO antics and financial numbers) at the expense, or opportunity cost, of attention on exciting new products. Put another way, the public discourse on business need not be so reductionist. The trajectory is not good for business or society. I contend that broadening (i.e., rather than replacing one media obsession with another) the coverage in business news to include, and, indeed, emphasize, substantive information on, as well as discussion of, the exciting new uses and wider implications of the companies’ respective technologically advanced products would render business news as well as business itself much more interesting, especially to people in the wider society. In this essay, I sketch how a product-centric approach would look in the business media; hopefully, the sheer difference between this alternative and the status quo reporting will provide a sense of how much journalistic discretion is involved in what we watch and read in business news.

CNBC and Fox Business News provide much material for analyzing the business media, and can be taken as illustrative of the default that had taken hold by the 2010s. The devil is in the details, so I want to concentrate on a particular example and reason inductively to generalize to the business media overall.

An interview taking place on CNBC. The choice of questions may be more important than the answers. (Image Source: Inside Cable News)

On “Squawk on the Street,” a program on CNBC, the anchors interviewed Harvey Spevak, the CEO of Equinox (a company in the fitness industry), answered questions on January 17, 2014. I want to focus on the importance on the questions. One of the show’s anchors asked Spevak about his company’s plan to offer genome analysis as a service to customers who would like to know how they respond generally to exercise. Rather than follow up with a question to illicit what customers would learn about the way they react to exercise, the journalist asked if the service was “just a marketing gimmick.” I submit that probing the service if only to assess its staying power with consumers would have been more useful to not only investors and stock analysts, but also people who would not be interested in watching and hearing a cacophony of numbers presumptuously assuming the high ground as “king of the hill” of business news.

One implication from the interviewer’s choice of follow-up question is that investor interests, assumed to be exclusively bottom-line financial, trump consumer and entrepreneur (or even competitor) interests. Such reductionism is unnecessary, and the numbers orientation may not actually be in the interests of the investors and financial analysts, not to mention CNBC’s ratings.

The interview then turned to company’s foray into wearable fitness technology. Here, the interviewer had little interest in making the products concrete for prospective customers and the wider public; he was satisfied with the Spevak’s vague description, which ended with, “It’s science.” The journalist made the choice to follow-up instead by asking what profits the CEO expected the company would make on the wearables, and, moreover, whether an IPO might come anytime soon. Potential investors (and stock analysts) would be better equipped to evaluate a future IPO were the CEO to have discussed what how the wearables could benefit users (i.e., what the products can do) as well as how the products might change our daily lives and society itself. The anchor then turned his guest to the subject of online advertising, hence inadvertently feeding the obsessive mentality in the American media generally by treating advertising as an end in itself rather than a means of making potential and even existing customers aware of products and services.

All too often, information and public discourse on products a leap ahead technologically (and hence seemingly unfathomable) are relegated to “print” reports of product announcements, such as of Google’s new contact lens that measures glucose levels. People with diabetes would quite naturally be very interested in how the new product would likely impact their daily lives. A huge segment of potential viewers and readers could be drawn in by any media outlet willing to stay on the announcement rather than run to vague considerations of profitability and stock charts.

Does not the true value (and significance, not to mention the excitement) of products coming out of leaps in technology or hitherto unrealized applications of existing technology lie in the stuff we can do with the new toys? As a writer, I get excited when I come up with a novel point or perspective to share with others because I have experienced what it feels like to have my perspective “opened up” from reading a unique piece. I am not thrilled in reading about grammar or composition tips, on the other hand; I do such “mechanical” reading as a means of improving my ability to communicate to readers. 

Public discourse on business too often obsesses on the means—even taking them to be ends in themselves­. Consequently, interest is typically confined to a narrow segment (i.e., the financial wonks). Ironically, Wall Street would be better served with the media giving more attention to the new products and their societal implications, with the expected financial consequences being secondary rather than excluded in yet another manifestation of tunnel vision. Reports and commentary on novel products themselves (as well as innovative ways of business) do indeed fall within the domain of business discourse. In fact, I would say the reorientation is more in line with the true significance of business (i.e., making and providing products that consumers want to use). Tapping into this core of business, while still attending to the financials, would, I suspect, attract a broader array of viewers and readers in the wider society beyond the business world. As an added bonus, business practitioners, investors, and even stock analysts might find their own interest piqued. A stock analyst excited as much (or more) about a novel product as charts and figures may do a better job in assessing a company’s value, and thus likely stock trend.

Of course, in order for more of the general population to realize that the true significance of business is actually more interesting, the business journalists would have to wean themselves and their interviewees off the snazzy jargon, nearly devoid of any real meaning and yet ubiquitous in the business world. The artificial excitement over such words or phrases as “champion,” “coach,” “growing leaders,” “driving” (not as in driving a car), “drivers,” and “leveraging” (beyond its oversold application to debt) is misguided in that the obsession and related excitement (out of vacuous boredom?) distract everyone from the true font of excitement in business. Additionally, the weirdness in both the sheer obsessiveness on particular words—flavors of the month—and the misuses themselves, and the artificial narrowing of what counts as business that enables knowing and enjoying the “language” to function as the passkey keep people outside the business world from becoming excited about business rather than laughing at its inhabitants’ discourse. Perhaps the practitioners and journalists who play in the business world figure, quite unconsciously of course, that business as they understand it is not really very exciting, and, therefore, that few if any people in the wider society would be likely to get excited about business anyway.