The Region

From a Journalist's Viewpoint

Correspondent reflects on economics reporting

Mike Meyers | Contributing Writer

Published December 1, 2000  | December 2000 issue

Minneapolis officials talked of simmering public demand for downtown movie theaters. But until the city offered a $39 million taxpayer subsidy, no investors put up their own money to build the 17-screen urban megaplex now in development.

Question: If the demand for downtown theaters is real, why did movie exhibitors fail to see it until a subsidy was dangled before them?

     A Page One story outlines a middle-class family's "struggle" at a time of nationwide economic prosperity. The article chronicles the frustration of family members who can't buy all the goods and services they'd like.

Question: Does anyone have the resources to satisfy all their appetites? Put another way, if Bill Gates longed to buy Alaska, would even the world's richest man have the cash?

     The owners of professional sports teams say they need new stadiums to remain "competitive," to have the money to field a winning team.

Question: When every team in the league has a new stadium, how will they all manage to win more games than they lose?

     Tales of the circumstances cited above all have appeared in newspapers. The questions, however, have not. Reporters and editors ask questions for a living. But no one can guarantee that they're asking the right questions—or all the questions—on economic issues. And economic issues insinuate themselves into all sorts of news.

The University of Minnesota, with the help of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has embarked on an education effort that promises a big payback. Its aim is to improve the odds that reporters and editors will start thinking more like economists, with a framework for examining what's doing at city hall, the state capital or businesses down the street.

Economists are held in low esteem by many newsroom folks, just as economists probably hold little regard for the people who put out newspapers. A commonly heard lament in newsrooms: Economists don't agree on anything.

Actually, economists agree on many principles, chief among them a strategy for examining the world. Economists use a lot of jargon and massage a lot of numbers, but the curbstone definition of economics is serenely simple. "What do I get and what do I give up to get it?"

That straightforward way of examining events can be elusive, especially under the pressure of deadlines. But the gatekeepers of journalism—the editors charged with planning news coverage—rest on a unique perch for getting the story right. They oversee the coverage of all sorts of topics—from sports, to fall fashion, to city hall. They're in a position to see that reporters ask the right questions—provided editors have a framework for examining the world. Economics can provide one.

Consider a story that's become familiar. Farmers leave their homesteads, having lost all hope of making a living on their small plots of land. The feed store operator laments that his son won't be able to take over the family business. The wheels of commerce no longer leave marks on Main Street. Come the results of the 2000 census, expect a new round of stories on the "Emptying of the Great Plains." Many will be sad, wistful and sentimental.

Yet is the move from the farm to city or suburb a reason for sorrow? It is for some, but surely not for everyone. The history of America is the story of economic change, geographic mobility and social advancement from generation to generation. Europe gave people names like Cooper and Baker because, from father to son to grandson, families toiled at the same tasks, whether making barrels or baking bread. A rigid economy created few fresh opportunities and moving from place to place, job to job was rare.

In contrast, in the U.S. economy—particularly for a generation raised in an era of falling unemployment, rising incomes and new technology—opportunities off the farm have never been greater. A son or daughter may take the same path as Dad and Mom, but the young have more career choices than ever before. The fact that they're seizing them and moving to new locales is a mark of a dynamic economy. News accounts, therefore, should include a dose of economic perspective to let readers decide for themselves whether to cheer or to mourn population decline in the hinterland.

Newspapers, magazines and television try to tell stories that people want to hear—or need to hear—in ways that are easily understood. Economic principles can provide insights that can inspire thought and tickle the imagination.

It may not be as entertaining as the movies at the taxpayer-subsidized megaplex, but economics can help to resolve mysteries and untangle plots in ways that Hollywood never will. Let's hope the premiere of the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis Fed seminars generates good reviews and fills plenty of seats.