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More people indulging in the business news buffet

By ROBERT TRIGAUX

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


Hungry for business news? Where you gonna feed?

Long gone are the dry snacks of economic reports. Now there's a 24/7 bacchanalian feast of business news catered by multimedia giants.

Across the country, millions of investors gorge on CNBC, CNNfn, Bloomberg, TheStreet.com and a bazillion more cable shows, Web sites, financial newspapers, newsletters, magazines, radio advice shows and commentators.

Most of these news providers did not even exist in 1990. Some were not around last week.

We've become junkies for news about dot-coms, about money, about the economy. We're groupies for the Money Honey, better known to the uninitiated as CNBC markets reporter Maria Bartiromo.

Why the biz news boom? More than ever, people are investors in the stock market.

In 1989, about 52-million Americans owned corporate stock (directly, via mutual fund or retirement account). By 1995, almost 70-million Americans were stock investors, the New York Stock Exchange says. By now, that figure's inching toward 90-million.

That's a lot of folks who want to keep up on changes in business and the economy that affect their net worth.

Is the explosion of business news good news? More choices in news providers are welcome but increasingly darn hard to keep up with. Even tougher to know what's accurate or, unfortunately, even real.

Take Emulex Corp. One Friday in late August, the small California company became the target of a false "press release" distributed to the media via Internet Wire, an electronic public relations service. The release said that Emulex had to restate earnings, an executive had resigned and federal regulators were investigating phony accounting.

The "release," issued early in the morning before company officials were around to stop its spread, was picked up by the widely followed Bloomberg News, Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-TV news sources.

Authorities say the hoax was concocted by 23-year-old Mark Jakob, who was trying to make money by investing on the resulting price swings in Emulex stock. By the time the news services learned they had been hoodwinked and corrected their stories about Emulex, Jakob had pocketed $250,000 in trading profits.

Should you care? Ask Ronald Hart.

The Broward County retiree saw the initial press release and Bloomberg report and sold about 500 shares of plummeting Emulex stock. His loss: about $15,000. He is suing Bloomberg and Internet Wire, among others, on behalf of investors snookered by the Emulex hoax.

It could happen here, too.

Like the national boom in business news, the Tampa Bay area's media machinery is expanding. For good reasons:

The bay area continues to morph from an economy dominated by big and stodgy companies to one driven by more nimble (but lesser known) mid-size businesses and young technology start-ups. All that change means more demand for news.

New technology, from the Internet to cable TV, makes it easy, inexpensive and quick for new players to set up shop and start reporting on local business news.

Ten years ago, the local providers of business news were easy to list. The St. Petersburg Times. The Tampa Tribune. The Tampa Bay Business Journal. A few regional magazines. An occasional business snippet on local TV news.

Now it's different.

The Times (about 345,000 daily circulation) and Trib (238,000 daily circulation) publish business news seven days a week. But online, the papers post their daily news on their Web sites. The Trib and WFLA-Ch. 8, both owned by Virginia-based Media General Inc., are blending some of their local news operations. Now more Trib-assembled stories, including business news, end up airing on Channel 8. Stories written by WFLA staffers show up in the Trib.

The Tampa Bay Business Journal, now called the Business Journal (about 10,000 circulation), is a weekly tabloid. But it also posts daily reports on local business to its own Web site.

Serving up daily business news online while keeping a news weekly relevant is a constant challenge, acknowledges 47-year-old Mac McKerral, Business Journal editor.

"Like Tiger Woods' 65, compared to my 101," the aspiring golfer says.

Time Warner's Bay News 9, the first 24-hour cable TV news station devoted to the Tampa Bay area, arrived here 18 months ago. Big on local weather and traffic reports, Bay News 9 plans to pump up its modest business coverage.

"We will move away later this year from strictly reporting about local stocks to broader business coverage," says Sondra Guffey, 37, business editor and on-air reporter. More local business trends. Who's firing and hiring. Who's relocating companies here.

"I think you will see more business news and less sports, weather and the "murder du jour' as news stations mature," she predicts.

The newest and most aggressive business news player around Tampa Bay is dbusiness.com. The Fort Lauderdale-based Internet news service reports on local business news in 30 (and counting) metropolitan areas across the country. One year ago, dbusiness.com reporter Bill Holland started covering the under-reported venture capital and "new economy" portion of Tampa Bay's business scene just as it began to explode.

"Tampa Bay is on the verge," a bullish Holland says. He writes from his home office in Land O'Lakes when he is not out reporting. He typically files two stories each morning and another two by mid-afternoon. His stories are posted at www.dbusiness.com (under the Tampa Bay listing).

Holland, 42, estimates there is a core group of 2,000 to 3,000 area business executives "who have a huge desire" to track venture capital and company happenings in Tampa's downtown, West Shore and Rocky Point districts, Clearwater and downtown St. Petersburg.

"I think all of us -- myself, the daily and weekly newspapers -- are only satisfying half their desire for business news," Holland says. "These readers think information is power and we are not meeting their needs yet." (Last week, dbusiness.com changed its name to localbusiness.com.)

Plenty of other players are in the Tampa Bay area business news game. Magazines such as Florida Trend (part of the Times company), the Maddux Report and the Tampa Bay Review. The Wall Street Journal's weekly "Florida Journal" section. Newcomers such as Florida Lawyer. Even the area's alternative freebie, the tabloid WeeklyPlanet, adds valuable, if occasional, coverage of business issues.

Whew. Consume all the news from these providers and it's time to let out the belt.

Any lessons here?

News organizations such as Bloomberg, dbusiness.com and, yes, even newspapers (as they put more "instant" stories up on Web sites) must wrestle with the competitive need to be first with the news against the rising risk of publishing false or inaccurate information.

Readers, especially those making instant buy-and-sell decisions on stocks, should not take breaking news on blind faith.

As a local business reporter whose stories appear on the Internet, dbusiness.com's Holland says it took him six months of writing about area companies before he earned some trust in Tampa Bay's new economy ranks.

"Because I was on the Internet and had not proven myself, at the start I was no different to readers than (Internet news gossip) Matt Drudge," Holland says. "Credibility is key in reporting business news."

Amen.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at (727) 893-8405 or by e-mail at trigaux@sptimes.com.

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