How to cover Greece

By Felix Salmon
May 17, 2012

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You might have heard that Facebook’s going public; certainly the editors of Businessweek have, and so they’ve managed to come up with a listicle (“five hacks that have changed Silicon Valley forever”) to put on their cover this week. The Economist, by contrast, not only has a much better cover; it has also gone with the much more important story. (Which doesn’t yet appear to be online.)

Watching the two stories play out in the news media, especially here in the US, has been fascinating. And it’s no coincidence that the London-based publication went with Greece while the New York-based publication went with Facebook. Looked at from New York, the Greece story is a horribly complex mess of players and parties and agendas, with no obvious timetable and no chief protagonist. Plus, while it’s clearly important from a global perspective, it’s perennially impossible to come up with any really good explanation of why a US audience should really care.

On the other side, looked at from across the pond, the Facebook IPO seems like much ado over relatively little: a hot company is managing to raise a large amount of equity at a high valuation. That’s fine — but in this case there’s really no reason why the average European should care: Facebook is not going to visibly change at all for having gone public, and Europeans in general don’t pay nearly as much attention to individual share prices as Americans do.

My guess is that this dynamic is going to stay in place even after Facebook has gone public and the share price has settled down: the European media will cover the Greece story in minute detail, while the US media will largely ignore it, but for the occasional dull-and-worthy piece buried where no one will find it, until such time as it starts causing visible repercussions for US banks or stocks.

For a world which supposedly globalized decades ago, the crucial and central importance of the Greece story to Europe, and its decidedly peripheral status in the US, is telling. If you were launching a new publication aimed at the “global business elite” right now, which of these stories would you consider more important? You’d try to cover them both, of course. But if you spent too much time on Facebook, your non-US audience would consider you frivolous, and if you spent too much time on Greece, your US audience (and, crucially, your US advertisers) would consider you wonky and worthy and boring. Maybe the answer is to just stick with shiny photos of a major global city at night. That always works.

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