The Reader: How much power do business commentators like Gottliebsen, McCrann, Frith, Bartholemuesz and Kohler really have? If you all take the same strong line on an issue does it make a difference?
Kohler: I think influence mainly comes from being correct and having readers agree with you. There is also influence in plain, persuasive writing. I know that companies care about what the commentators think because of the way they behave. If all the commentators get stuck into something it can definitely make a difference.
The Reader: How much do you get lobbied to write on particular subjects, and by whom?
Kohler: There¹s nowhere near enough lobbying anymore - lunches and story tips. The lobbying that does go on is generally from pretty well remunerated PRs who just try to persuade rather than give a story idea along the way. CEOs don¹t seem to be able to use the phone any more.
The Reader: How often do you burn sources like top-flight CEOs by commenting negatively on their business performance?
Kohler: I try to never burn a source by telling them, in person or by phone, what I¹m planning to write if it¹s negative, but that¹s not always possible because of time constraints. Usually an intelligent CEO will accept criticism if it’s in good faith and well researched.
The Reader: Business journalists earn only a small proportion of the salaries of the CEOs they cover, yet journalists wield considerable power through their writing. Is there any possibility their views could be coloured by jealousy over relative salary levels?
Kohler: Sure, there’s a possibility. But if so, it¹s harmless. Mostly it’s like sports writers who feel jealous about the fitness and skills of sports people. Mostly we just love hanging around rich successful people - they¹re usually smart and interesting.
The Reader: How smart is the average Australian public company CEO compared with the average senior Australian business commentator?
Kohler: Much smarter than the average commentator. Not as smart as the above-average one.
The Reader: How has business journalism changed over the past 20 years?
Kohler: The main change is the ascendancy of PR. The corporate world is now infested with PR people on staff and consultants, most of whom are unfortunately very good at what they do. Many companies have an internal PR department plus an expensive outside firm. God knows what they all do. But they certainly make sure no-one says anything anymore and that nothing unplanned ever happens. The result is scripted, sanitised, well-controlled tedium, most of the time.
The Reader: What’s the greatest untold story in business?
Kohler: The way companies use private placements to hand out discounted shares to their mates. I must tell that one day, if I can prove it. There¹s probably more, but if I knew them, I would tell them.
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