Project Plain speak – Sense making for the financial world

6 mins read

Financial news reporting at face value – Project Plain Speak

When was the last time you read a bit of financial news and groaned? When you said this is just plain wrong, how could they not see how wrong their logic is? The last time you read a piece on your emerging frontier market nation in the economist and wished they had done their homework or spoken to someone more credible than a crusty old policy hack? The last time you wondered where could you find news coverage free of agenda’s, positions and bias. News that you could take at face value?

Welcome to Plain speak – financial news that you can take on face value.

Project Plain speak - news that you can take at face value
Project Plain speak – news that you can take at face value

Financial news in our part of the world (MENA, South Asia and CIS) suffers from poor quality journalism. While we certainly have some great journalists, finance and economics has not been their forte. Commentary is often published as is, facts are taken at face values, positions are rarely investigated and it is very rare to see a piece in this space that truly stands out on account of its depth and insights.  It is not just the shortage of expertise. Finance desks are often seen as an unnecessary burden at most cash strapped newspaper that are ultimately replaced by syndicated content from agency networks.

From a talent perspective if you understand the field, you are better off in conventional financial roles within banking, insurance and consulting rather than news media. In some markets, specially our very own, one may actually say that while old school journalism is dying slowly across conventional print media, quality financial journalism has been long dead and buried.

To be fair there is a big difference between news and journalism. The first is about creating hype and coverage, the second is about education and storytelling. But even with this lens within the space of finance and economics, news media in Pakistan scores a low D, possibly even a high F. India certainly does a little better but what holds true for Pakistan also holds true for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Afghanistan, most of Middle East and CIS.

There is a simple reason for this. Covering finance and economics without putting your audience to sleep is difficult. Finance and economics despite effecting lives every day doesn’t attract a mainstream audience. It requires some background in the industry and a large part of the world doesn’t understand finance. Not because of a lack of trying and effort but simply because effective financial news and opinion forming resources are rare. When they are available they are rarely free of political or position biases.

For instance, a large part of our middle class would like to hear neutral, agenda free opinion on simple financial topics; why did the our national really depreciate against the dollar? why did interest rate rise now? why have fuel prices at the gas station gone up? and why are we again going back to the IMF for yet another bailout program? 

Interestingly enough these are not questions limited to Pakistan.

Turkey, Pakistan and India all went through a run on their national currencies in 2018, are going through a period of interest rate hikes and frequently change and revise fuel prices at petrol and gas stations. The last one (change in fuel prices) led to power riots in Paris and shut parts of the city down in December 2018.  Riots that led to policy changes in minimum wages and taxes in France to offset the fuel price adjustment.

In Turkey the explanation given for the currency crises was an economic war declared on Turkey by foreign powers. The crisis saw the Turkish Lira whipsaw its exchange rate against the US dollar.

 In Pakistan, the explanation for the currency crisis was mismanagement and corruption by the previous political regime. In India it was corruption at high levels in the state owned banking sector that led to a loss of confidence in banking and a rush for the exits at the Mumbai stock exchange.  

From a neutral lens all three statements and explanation above had some element of bias within them which damages the credibility of reporting and the weight it carries in the minds of the reading masses. Depending on who the reporter is and where the news, commentary or analysis is printed tags the piece as neutral, biased, centrist, leftist or rightest in its orientation.

Despite our own education in finance and the work we did for the banking and financial services sector, it took us over a year to decode how complex the price setting mechanism was for fuel prices in our own country.

If we, with our background in finance and economics, struggled with understanding this concept that touches our lives every month, when prices are adjusted at the pumps, what hope does the general population have?

That is what we want to achieve and change with Project Plain speak. We would like these questions answered not in the language of economists and bankers but in plain speak language that an ordinary person who speaks and reads English can understand.

Ultimately the questions Plain speak tries to answer are the same questions that we think about every day. Why do oil prices behave the way they do? Why does it take so long for changes in oil markets to reflect at the fuel pump? What is wrong with our national currency? Where should we invest? Is the world a better place today? Will it be a better place when the time comes for children to step out in it? Why is it so hard to save and put money aside? Should I buy or lease my car? Is this the right time to enter into a mortgage? Should I immigrate to Canada or Australia for a better life? When will my employee options vest and will I make any money on them? Are my options really free? What would be the best place to park my bonus for a few years? Are the politicians talking sense or faking it? Will there really be a recession in 2019? Can I please talk to someone without an agenda?

A small part of the world understands these answers. They understand these answers because they either have access to data, to commentary to insights or because they work in a related field. While they may still drive some value from Plain speak, that is not our audience. Our audience is the rest of the world that wonders about what these answers would look like and would prefer to know more. Some of them would pay a small amount to follow the stories that pique their interest. Others may just window shop and move on.

More importantly while the questions don’t change from one market to another, the context constantly changes. And that creates the opportunity for commentary and analysis on news that is aimed at broader audiences. How is the current crisis different from the last one we saw? Will things get as bad as they got last time? What can I do now to protect my family and loved ones from inconvenience and hardship?

While the proportion that is willing to pay for commentary and analysis may not be as large as mainstream audiences our assumptions is that it does exist, however small it may be.  A group of individuals who like to read in order to upgrade themselves and their knowledge. Who would like to stay current with the financial environment and not be caught unaware by the next recession. Who need help with “sense-making”, with putting pieces of this puzzle together, with reading between the lines.

Their benchmark is the price of a café latte. They read to engage, to entertain, to educate and to pass time. They value agenda free reporting. They understand that if they are not paying for their news, someone else is with a mandate to influence, to redirect or even subvert.

The challenge: The primary leading business and financial dailies news rooms are hobbled by their print editions and their advertiser and sponsorship commitments. To do financial journalism right in our new remodeled world we have to change a few things. Rather than news and hype, the focus clearly has to shift to storytelling and education. Commentary, insights and analysis on current news has to have a clear purpose and direction. What does this mean for our readers and what can they do today to help protect their interest and their futures. The cost structure for generating stories has to change. Bias, positions and agendas have to be set aside. Print is no longer affordable. We know because we have already tried that path and failed miserably with one of our earlier experiments. However, before we throw out the old revenue model, we have to find a new one.

Is it possible to build a distraction free reader experience in a world without advertisements? Who pays for this utopian reader experience? Is there a model where we can convince readers to pay amounts as small as 99 cents for stories that engage, educate, entertain and inform? How would such an experience be different from existing models deployed by Medium (5 dollars for all the stories you can read), Guardian (Support Guardian for less than 1$ / We have a request to make if you liked this content), the Economist (buy the story you want) and WSJ and FT (subscribe to read more).  How many paid readers would we need to break even on a story? How would we pay authors and writers? More importantly are the levels of traffic and revenue required to break even supportable by our own news ecosystem.

Drop us a line if you would like to help support this effort or be part of the team that is working to bring Project Plain speak to life. If established news empires with all the resources at their disposal couldn’t get financial news right in 50 years, what hope do we have?