by Robert Teitelman | Published June 1, 2012 at 1:41 PM
How many times does business and financial journalism need to be reinvented? That's Friday's end-of-the-week cud-chewing question, stirred up by a visit to Atlantic Media's under-construction business website, dubbed Quartz (you reach it at QZ.com). Now let's be charitable here. Starting things is tough. New ventures, particularly journalistic ones, are always prone to hyperbole, untested by reality. The blank slate demands a certain gaseous vision -- all things are possible -- if only to keep at bay the resistance of an outside world to anything new. (We went through that phase at The Deal well over a decade ago. Oh the plans we had. Oh the smiling skepticism of would-be readers to those plans.) And with it comes a sharp discounting of the competition. It seems to be a rule of journalistic startups to suggest that everything that currently exists is dull, dead, lifeless, clueless, old-fashioned, hopelessly yesterday, moribund. There's also a belief, driven by social media of late, that hitching a ride on the latest technology is more important than the hard work of reporting and writing. And there's a corollary to this: Since what already exists is so debased, and since the technology is so cool, what matters is not deep knowledge of the subject matter but greater ease with the electronics.
That said, the roadside is littered with vehicles that set out to revolutionize business journalism and, at best, ran off the road, or at worst, hit a tree. Fast Company (boom, bust, resuscitation), Kurt Andersen's Inside.com, the West Coast tech magazines, Condé Nast's Portfolio, Slate's attempt to build out a business and finance site, and, in a slightly different category, BusinessWeek's (pre-Bloomberg) and Forbes' quests to remake themselves for a digital age. Some of these produced good stuff; some of them broke new ground; some foundered. But except for Fast Company, none of the startups made it (BW and Forbes still exist, if under new management). And none of them "transformed" business and financial journalism, even in an age of unprecedented change and instability.
And now there's Quartz. You go to QZ.com, and you hit a black site -- very cool -- with a cityscape (Hong Kong?) at night that resembles the first cover of the much-ballyhooed Portfolio. "There's a new global economy," the site declares, provoking the stray thought: When hasn't that been true? The damn thing changes every day. The global economy, circa 2012, is different than 1997, or 1981, or 1966, or 1932. Stuff happens. But of course this is an essential point to the notion that transformation is at hand. Quartz knows -- and explains with vigorous, molar-shaking verbs after clicking the link: "The financial crisis that engulfed much of the world in the late-2000s wasn't just a cyclical decline or a correction or even a bubble bursting. It was a breaking point." No, even more, it was "an earthquake shaking apart a foundation," exposing "a fundamentally new architecture underpinning the economic order." Really? What have we discovered after 2008? Europe "is no longer the custodian of a global mercantile culture," American exceptionalism is kaput, or rather "a specious idea," and the banking system is "combustible." Meanwhile, China, India and parts of Latin America are "surging." Even "much of Africa" is growing.
Let's pause and reflect. What does "Europe as a custodian of mercantile culture" really mean? Europe is an old man with a broom? And American exceptionalism isn't so exceptional? That's hardly a revelation. Banking is combustible? Since the damn Fuggers, man. True, the crisis did shake confidence in the system, but part of that also involves skepticism about simpleminded rise and fall scenarios: that China and India will easily supplant the U.S. and Europe, that anyone really knows where all this is heading.
Then comes the inevitable turn in the argument: Not only is the world "new," but the current media is old, dumb, in-the-bag and even worse, print-centric. "The traditional press that chronicled -- indeed, often cheered -- the previous economic order struggles to understand this emerging global system. They are stuck with old explanations for new dynamics that include post-nationalism, openness, and a world in which remittances can be sent from one continent to another with nothing more than a mobile phone. The primacy of their loyalty to print constrains their ability to adapt to a fluid, mobile, digital, international marketplace for information." To the barricades again! The fact that the editorial leadership of Quartz hails from warhorses like The Wall Street Journal and The Economist doesn't matter. What matters is that The Atlantic has identified an audience -- "a new class of global business executives who have more in common with each other than they do with their countrymen." These "post-national business leaders" are "leading the charge" and "hungry for information to help them navigate the complex new global economy." What makes them special besides the fact that they travel a lot? They use a lot of digital technology, mainly mobile.
The rest of the site echoes these big thoughts. Why Quartz, which suggests really nothing but a shiny stone that's not a diamond? Because, you see, it's a word with two of the rarest letters in the alphabet at the beginning and end. Yes, and so what? More important, quartz "is a component of the tectonic process." It's not a component, brother, it's a product, like rocks, clay, gravel and tall mountains. (Quartz is also used in a lot of electronics, but QZ seemed to miss that part of the Wikipedia entry.) Besides (and I'll stop soon), tectonic is not episodic but continuous. Tectonic processes grind on endlessly, producing not a "new world" or "seminal change," but occasional irruptions and cataclysms. The world changes; meteors occasionally fall. Yes, we are facing bracing new challenges, particularly in Europe (much of which Quartz will miss, because it's not ready to launch). But there is no new world being born; there's the old world undergoing its usual process of change. That "new class" of global businessmen, which always reminds me of old Yugoslav communist Milovan Djilas' "new class" of post-Stalinist apparatchiks, has been around for awhile. What's new -- and always will be -- are their toys: the smartphones, tablets and whatever, the kind of stuff Tyler Brûlé writes about every weekend in the Financial Times, another warhorse.
There's no doubt that there's a class of people jetting around the world doing business. How big that class is remains hazy. They are clearly a robust demographic, particularly for things like luggage, hotels and air travel. But do they have the same needs? Do they, echoing Djilas, have a consciousness of themselves as a class? And are they starved for information and analysis? More substantively, one could argue that this new class, rather than leading us to some transnational, converging, Tom Friedmanesque technocratic future, has been wounded by the crisis and the euro-zone mess more than any other. The policymakers and executives behind both of these twinned disasters most closely resemble members of this class; they are Davos Men, the financial architects and engineers of globalization and consensus that may have been fresh in the Clinton years. David Brooks in today's New York Times got it right, in a column warning about the belief he traces to just after World War II that "historical forces were gradually bringing about 'the unification of mankind.' " (Brooks is quoting Reinhold Niebuhr here.) That, as the Europeans are discovering, remains a utopian idea.