Nearly everyone knows that this is a trying time for news media. People are drifting away from major television networks, radio, newspapers and magazines — and too few make up the loss by getting news from the Internet.
But there's a surprising oasis in this parched landscape: A host of changes in the economy, technology and demographics have made business and financial news — traditionally one of the least sexy fields in journalism — into a hottie.
"I would call it the last growth industry in the (news) media world," says Chris Roush, a professor of business journalism at the University of North Carolina. "In 1970, only 10% of households owned stock in the market. Today it's more than 50%. There's greater interest in wanting to know what's happening in the business world. We're more and more affected by it."
That's a big reason some of the media's most powerful companies are bulking up to battle for business news dominance.
• News Corp. nws CEO Rupert Murdoch is leading the charge with his $5 billion deal for the Dow Jones dj business news and data empire, including The Wall Street Journal. He'll also challenge NBC Universal's CNBC business news cable network with the Oct. 15 launch on cable of his Fox Business Network.
• Thomson bought Reuters in May for $17 billion, creating a company that would top Bloomberg in providing financial data — mostly to traders and other professionals, but also to consumers.
• Condé Nast recently launched a lavishly designed business magazine, Portfolio, that could poach readers and ad sales from industry leaders Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek.
The surge of interest in business news comes just a few years after a spectacular fall from grace. Business TV ratings, print circulation and ad sales for both plummeted after the Internet bubble popped in 2000 and the economy fell into recession.
The field also suffered from consumer disillusionment when it became all too clear that all too few reporters asked tough questions that might have exposed corporate scandals that disintegrated highflying companies including Enron, WorldCom and Adelphia Communications.
Several business news outlets still are struggling. For example, Dow Jones stock fell about 23% in the three years before news of Murdoch's $60-a-share offer leaked out. Ad pages have fallen over the last few years at Fortune, Forbes and BusinessWeek.
So, why is business news a hot business?
Rich people like it.
It's certainly easier to attract big audiences with stories about Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Orlando Bloom than it is with features about stocks, corporate strategy and retirement plans.
But news media outlets are multiplying — including more cable channels and websites — and becoming more specialized. That makes the competition for advertising dollars increasingly intense.
In that environment, it makes sense to focus on appealing to the well-to-do rather than courting a mass audience. Advertisers pay top dollar to reach people with cash to burn. Purveyors of luxury goods and financial-services companies, including lenders and brokerages, are especially eager to reach the rich.
Just look at CNBC. Its ratings are unimpressive: Its business news attracts about 300,000 viewers most weekdays, according to Nielsen Media, the commonly used source for this data (though one that CNBC disputes because Nielsen doesn't count people who watch the channel at work).