Business journalism remains a 'great school for life'

by James Breiner
Oct 30, 2018 in Media Sustainability

Francisco Vidal Bonifaz has worked as a business journalist in Mexico for three decades, and he sees lots of possibilities for growth in this niche.

There are not many journalists with training in this field, either in Mexico or other countries. And there are few media that are focused on the economy, finance and business. 

Vidal Bonifaz believes that there is room for new business media on the web, especially at two ends of the spectrum: in breaking news that covers the ups and downs of markets, and in longer pieces that explain the significance of these movements. "There is a story behind every number," he likes to say. 

If he were creating a new digital publication, "I would eliminate all the stuff in the middle. No stories of 300 words. I would focus on the two extremes," he told me in an interview in Mexico City. 

He might have mentioned that business publications have been among the most successful at getting online readers to pay for content because they produce exclusive information not available anywhere else, and their audience has the means to pay. The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Bizjournals are notable examples. All use some version of a freemium model that gives free access to some content but requires a subscription for total access. 

Author, professor and blogger

Vidal Bonifaz, 55, is a professor at the Universidad Panamericana and a communications consultant. He is author of the book The Owners of the Fourth Estate (Los dueños del cuarto poder) about the business of media in Mexico. He also maintains a blog called "Wheel of Fortune" ("La rueda de la fortuna") that updates financial results of media companies.

He has worked at various publications over the years, such as El Financiero, Reforma, Milenio, Excelsior and Infosel Financiero, which competed with Reuters.

I am using his blog as a bibliographical resource in a seminar on the creative industries that I am teaching at Instituto Tecnológico de Monterrey in suburban Mexico City. My students have taken advantage of his graphics and statistics in their presentations.

Vidal Bonifaz and I met several years ago when he helped me with a course I gave at the Digital Journalism Center (Centro de Formación en Periodismo Digital) at the University of Guadalajara. He showed the working journalists how to manage data in Excel. Not all journalists are inclined to adopt these practices. 

Don't be afraid of numbers

Journalists and students who are afraid of numbers and the language of business should try to get over their fears, he says. It is not hard to manage the technical part today because there are so many resources available to educate yourself: online dictionaries of finance and business, websites, blogs, not to mention university courses. It used to be harder to learn the craft; many business journalists had to learn on the job. 

"If you don't work with numbers, you are missing out on half of the world," he says. "In this world we use two types of language: the language of words and the language of numbers. Business journalism is one of the few types of journalism that attempts to link the two types of language created by humans."

Vidal Bonifaz has a bachelor's degree in economics from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and a master's in business journalism from the prestigious Carlos Septién Journalism School.  

Graduates in the humanities and liberal arts can be successful in business journalism, he says, if they put in a lot of work -- lots of reading and study. He is right about the work involved. I came to business journalism indirectly, from general assignment reporting after getting a master's degree in English literature.

An opaque industry

Media in Mexico for many years were less than transparent about their financials, says Vidal Bonifaz. That was one of the reasons he wrote his book, which was published in 2008. Gathering the information took him 10 years. He used little-known government reports to piece together a database, and then a number of companies went public and were required to report their financials.

Many journalists, ironically, are completely ignorant about the business side of the companies they work for, which was one of the reasons he started his blog - to inform them. 

These days, the print media in Mexico, especially daily newspapers, are in decline. In 2008, the total circulation of all the dailies in Mexico was 2 million in a country of more than 100 million people -- in other words, less than 2 percent of the population.

Since Vidal Bonifaz did his original study, daily circulation in Mexico has continued a rapid slide downward. One reason for the decline, he says, is that Mexican newspapers never tried to establish strong connections with readers, something that U.S. newspapers did attempt. By comparison, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times all have more than 2 million circulation.

(My own view is that the dailies have been written for and about Mexico's political class, which itself does not try hard to make strong connections to the public.)

In the view of Vidal Bonifaz, the digital media that stand out here are La Silla RotaAnimal Político, El Universal and CNNExpansión. This last, he believes, is doing the best job of business coverage in Mexico.

Advice for professionals and students

"Business journalism is a wonderful career," he says. "It has allowed me to live for many years in a very comfortable and respectable way. It is a type of journalism that in general pays salaries that are more reasonable than other media."

To get into this career, above all you have to study hard and have a passion for news about the economy, finance and business, he says. You can never stop studying and learning "because the economy is a living, changing topic." 

Business journalism offers many possibilities for specialized coverage, such as in sports and entertainment, he says. "The only journalism that is really investigative journalism is of the economy and finance." 

Business journalism can help you in surprising ways, he maintains. "It is a great school for life. It can help you better protect your income. It can help you better protect your savings. It can help protect you from economic disasters."

This post originally appeared on the News Entrepreneurs blog and is republished on IJNet with permission.

James Breiner is a consultant in online journalism and leadership. He is a former co-director of the Global Business Journalism Program at Tsinghua University and a former Knight International Journalism Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. He is bilingual in Spanish and English. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Image CC-licensed by Flickr via Dennis Crowley. Secondary image courtesty News Entrepreneurs' James Breiner.