How many people read business reports?

Economies determine the fates of nations and their people, and yet economic news remains disconnected from the masses of people who need to know developments that touch all their lives, concluded an assembly of African economics editors this week.

“Business news is all about wealth creation. But how many people read business reports? The problem is not with readers of newspapers, it is with us, the editors, who fail to tell stories in interesting ways that are free of technical jargon,” said Sylvestre Tetchiada, editor-in-chief of L’Univers in Cameroon.

Meeting in Johannesburg for the 4th African Economics Editors Conference, specialists in the business media from 35 African nations grappled with ways to make economics news understandable to a mass readership. Corporate chief executive officers and government officials joined the debate.

Recent democratic states like South Africa produced the most passionate advocates of “democratising” business news by freeing stories of technical terms known only to financial experts, and illustrating data on such subjects as inflation and national debt with real life stories from affected people on the grassroots level.

“Our goal as African nations is eradicating poverty and raising living standards. The press covers these more from a political standpoint than from a business point of view. But it is the private sector, the businesses and industries and services, that are the growth engines of economies,” said Chibamba Kanyama, of NSJ publications in Mozambique.

Agreeing with Kanyama, other editors noted that the public sector — government and its sponsored projects — give only the appearance of creating wealth by providing jobs and projects, while these are in fact financed by the private sector using taxes from individuals and businesses. Job and wealth creation would be better done by private businesses, who could more easily do so financially if they were subjected to less burdensome taxes.

Another consensus was that governments should be out of business, and those they do own, like power utilities and national airlines, should be privatised to make those enterprises more efficient and profitable. Privatisation would also spare taxpayers the burden of having to capitalise unprofitable operations.

But these, like most economics stories, resound mostly in a vacuum of reader indifference, because ordinary newspaper readers are not paying attention to financial news. This can also have a negative effect on fledgling democracies.

“Understanding economics news is essential for democratic growth, so people will have the information to make informed choices,” said Andrew Gower, editor of the Financial Times in London, a visiting speaker.

Press outlets are expanding throughout Africa. Not only new media like internet news are raising the number of places news consumers on the continent can go, but traditional newspapers and magazines continue to proliferate.

The good news is this growth was seen by African editors as a natural development tied to literacy. The better educated the African people become, the more they will require information sources.

The bad news is that essential information is failing to compete with political news, disasters, armed conflict and sensational stories that comprise the bulk of news coverage.

Tawana Kupe, professor of media at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, spoke of the need for “multifaceted stories with multiple stakeholders; interesting stories told in interesting ways.”

One way to make economics reporting relevant is for reporters to leave the board rooms of countries’ central banks, where interest rates and other matters are decided, and go down the street to the market and shops to see how decisions affect ordinary people.

In many African countries, the health of an economy is reflected in the activity of the so-called informal sector. The business of market hawkers, street vendors and others who do work that does not register on national economic indicators — mostly because such marginal enterprises do not pay taxes and have no fixed addresses — can show robust growth or depressed conditions nationwide.

The organiser of the conference, Nixon Kariithi, a professor of journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, which was the conference host, responded to editors who complained that informal sector data is unavailable.

“You can send a reporter to a shop in the morning. There are 20 pairs of shoes on the shelves. He comes back at noon, and there are eleven pairs of shoes. At five o’clock, there are four pairs left. You make your own survey of business,” he said.

Such detective work would result not only in a broader picture of a country’s economic performance, but would provide anecdotal material to fulfil Kupe’s vision of “interesting stories told in interesting ways.”

“The truth is, readers are more fascinated by what is going on in the local market than they are in the performance of the stock exchange. That is because in the developing countries of Africa there are few individual shareholders in companies, but everyone goes to the market,” said a delegate from Malawi. – IPS

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