At various points over the past few years, I’ve been invited along to seminars to discuss the role of journalism during the financial crisis. The opinions expressed at such events tend to vary, from those who feel journalists covered themselves with glory during the Great Recession to those who reckon they bodged it and also deserve some blame for the disaster in the first place (I’m closer to the latter than the former, for what it’s worth, but that’s a debate for another day). However, the meetings usually end in a similar way:
“Well,” the chair will say. “Thank you all for coming. Lots of views on both sides here. What I think we can all agree on is that we really are terribly fortunate these days: never before has there been quite so much detailed, considered and probing coverage of what’s going on in financial markets and the economy.”
Everyone nods, smiles, exchanges business cards and goes home.
It’s very easy to assume that our economics coverage these days (and I mean on every medium) is more sophisticated and better-evolved than it’s ever been – just as it’s easy for policymakers to assume that their handling of crisis will of course be better-informed and better-effected today than it was, say, in the 1990s or the 1930s.
However, having spent much of the past three or four years digging through contemporary reports about the Bretton Woods conference, for my forthcoming book The Summit, what I discovered was quite the opposite. Far from being less sophisticated and less innovative than today’s coverage, financial journalism back then was great.
Here are a few examples of things I thought were relatively recent innovations but were around in the 1940s:
1. Q&As and innovative explanatory journalism.
Bretton Woods was really, really complicated – to the extent that it’s often poorly explained and understood by economists today. But at the time journalists did a tremendous job of explaining it. There were Guardian pass notes-style Q&As, such as this one from the New York Evening Post:
There were simple cartoons and diagrams, such as this one from PM:
2. “I can reveal” style journalism.
If you’ve watched or read news much recently you’ll undoubtedly be familiar with journalists who like to preface every story with the phrase “I can exclusively reveal” or “my sources tell me”. Now I wouldn’t necessarily classify this trend as an “improvement” in journalism practice, but I used to think it was rather a recent innovation. In fact, as this story from Paul Einzig of the Financial News and Financial Times shows, even in the 1940s hacks wrote up their scoops in a similar way.
Einzig, incidentally, was a pretty amazing character, who managed to break the news that the Americans and British were working on competing plans ahead of Bretton Woods, forcing them to publish the White and Keynes proposals, much to the annoyance of President Roosevelt. This scan is from the National Archives – you can see Keynes’s handwritten comments on the right hand side.
3. Gossip and colour
Even those of us who concede that financial journalism seventy years ago might have been just as sophisticated and well-informed as today’s variety (if not more) might assume that it was a tad more drab. Where were the anecdotes, the stories, the fun?
As it happens, they were very much there on the page as well. Below is one of hundreds of gossipy diary columns filed by reporters from the conference – in this case the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In fact, my own impression is that coverage of the whole Bretton Woods conference was even more colourful and entertaining than most of what has been written about the euro crisis in recent years (though the material in recent years has been just as promising). For one thing, journalists were allowed to wander freely around the Mount Washington Hotel. These days at important conferences and summits the hacks are usually consigned to a press room miles from the venue itself.
It’s tempting to assume we journalists are wiser and more finely-evolved than our predecessors, but this simply isn’t the case. There is much talk these days about the “future of journalism”; about data, explainers, Twitter and all that. But the reality is that almost every single variety of what people call new journalism today is simply a remix of what came before. The internet has made it far easier and quicker to transmit our thoughts. Graphic design and coding has made everything look a bit more snazzy and made datasets occasionally more interactive. But the act of journalism – the simple task of telling people about the world and how it’s changing – has barely changed at all.