ChinaBeat - Timing Is Everything!

Sep 302008

With so many things in life -- marriage, stand-up comedy, purchasing bank stocks -- there’s truth to the maxim “Timing is everything.’’

So it’s important to state at the outset that I didn’t know the U.S. financial system was going to tank when I agreed to teach Global Business Journalism at Tsinghua University this fall.

With credit drying up virtually overnight, Wall Street’s shadow is already falling on Main Street, where businesses and consumers can’t qualify for loans. “There’s no business like no business,’’ a sales director friend of mine back in Miami recently quipped in an email.

So much for the business part of the program. On the journalism side, I was fully prepared to teach my students -- who are wonderful, by the way -- about the clear advantages and distinctions of privately owned media over those that are state-controlled. I personally believe that.

Tsinghua is a sophisticated place, and my Global Business Journalism students come not just from China but from across Asia and the Pacific Rim. So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that, as I started to discuss publicly held media companies one day, a student asked me who owned my former employer, The Miami Herald.

When I said McClatchy, she asked how they are doing. “I was forced to admit they are renegotiating their crushing debt load and cutting staff.

This was shortly after we had visited studios of the Chinese national broadcasting concerns for radio and television. And incidentally, both of them have facilities that would astonish their U.S. counterparts.

OK, so things haven’t gone exactly according to script. I had to essentially throw out several lectures I’d worked up about the topics I just mentioned. Given current events, my initial arguments don’t exactly hold water. (Example: “One strength of an unregulated economy is it absolves the government of funding unprofitable enterprises, thus saving taxpayers money.’’)

Still, from the somewhat insulated vantage point of Beijing, watching the events unfold on Wall Street and Washington has me thinking that the market crisis of 2008 is, perhaps, a rare teaching moment, whether the subject is U.S. economics or the state of American media.

What’s happening is scary to view. It’s wild, it’s chaotic, it’s political and it’s almost certain to produce a less-than-perfect solution.

And that’s democracy. As a child of the Rust Belt who still drives a Ford because -- well, I don’t want to have to tell my mother I don’t support the employer my father worshipped -- I sincerely hope the U.S. avoids a recession. I know how traumatic it can be to live in a community where the economic pillars begin to crumble. And picturing New York without a Bear Stearns or Lehman Bros. while AIG clings to a government lifeline is extremely unsettling.

At the same time, I have to convey to students that economic dynamism depends on allowing creative destruction to occur. Even when it hurts. Even when you have nothing but regard for the companies that fail.

In that regard, what the current market is forcing me to teach these students is that capitalism provides the efficient mechanisms for societies and individuals to reinvent themselves as circumstances change.

It isn’t always pretty, and it’s almost never sentimental. But the process, however imperfect -- and if it were perfect we wouldn’t need business journalists, really -- can be a powerful catalyst for the personal and economic development that makes for more prosperous people and greater global prosperity.

All right, maybe I need to temper that last statement before the students conclude I’m Alan Greenspan in a blonde toupee.

But the underpinnings of my argument are just as valuable in discussing the state of the American news media at the moment. I received an email from a U.S. friend who said, “Aren’t you glad you’re not back here covering this?’’

My reply: “Actually, it’s killing me.’’

It is, I suppose, ironic that so many of America’s fine business journalists are covering the collapse of Wall Street even as their own jobs often hang in the balance. In all good humor, it reminds me a bit of the time, as a cub reporter, when I was sent to cover an apartment fire. Turns out, it was mine.

Just last week, my longtime editor at the Herald, who routinely improved columns that, ironically, I received credit for, took a buyout. My friend who covers banking has asked for one. A college roommate who was a top editor in the Midwest left for a mutual fund.

Meanwhile, the finances of the newspaper industry are dire. Network TV is scaling back. Business magazines are much thinner than they used to be.

And yet. Because I teach a multimedia course as part of the Global Business Journalism program, I’ve seen eyes light up when I tell them to grab a camera and go ask people what their dreams are. They like learning economics is producing interconnections between their hometowns and, say, mine. I frequently refer to Bloomberg, which offers solid business journalism on video, audio, the Internet and in print.

As a teacher, I have developed an ability to see when the gears in young minds start spinning. And in this case, it’s clear that the next generation of media are being born in places like the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. I’m just glad I get to watch it happen.

Where does that leave me? Well, I’m apparently going to be teaching a lot longer than I anticipated, now that my 401k is worth no more than a couple of grande lattes. (And because of the tainted milk scandal, they haven’t been available in Beijing, anyway.)

More importantly, it means I have to stress to my students that this is the most exciting time in history to be a business journalist. The global economy is being restructured even as we watch. So is global journalism.

Their timing for studying both couldn’t be better.