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Now there's a financial watchman to watch financial journalists

Last week Dean Rotbart called a press conference to berate Forbes magazine for what he calls its double standard. Forbes has a reputation for being tough on companies that do not answer questions or cooperate with it. But, Mr. Rotbart charged, Forbes has not addressed a controversy involving the magazine itself: the case of financial columnist Srully Blotnick, who left the magazine following charges of bogus expertise and methodology.

``I don't think the press should be immune from press coverage,'' Rotbart says.

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The press conference is the most recent event in Rotbart's crusade to make the business and financial press accountable to the businesses it covers, as well as help those outside the industry understand such reporting. ``We realized how much influence the financial press has over dollars and cents, yet nobody covers the business and financial press,'' Rotbart says.

The major part of Rotbart's effort is the twice-monthly, 12-page newsletter The Journalist & Financial Reporting, or TJFR, which began in April. The newsletter goes out to 6,000 paid and nonpaid subscribers; Rotbart would not say exactly how many pay the $520 annual subscription rate.

He occasionally sends out special reports or reprints, such as two on Forbes's handling of the Blotnick case and an analysis of the Dow Jones News Service's printing a false takeover story. Forbes's managing editor, Sheldon Zalaznick, says Rotbart's special report on the magazine and Blotnick ``is beneath discussion.''

Rotbart and his family fund the newsletter, with the start-up costing between $80,000 and $100,000. There are no outside investors or advertisers. ``I expect it to be profitable in my first year,'' he says.

He has hired one full-time reporter. Rotbart's wife, Talya, runs the back office. He has blitzed companies, the news media, and public relations offices in his initial effort, and he continues to send out free newsletters to companies with revenues of more than $100,000 million.

``It's an excellent idea,'' says one public relations officer at a financial services company. ``Over a period of time the newsletter will receive more attention. It's thorough in its critique, and if it's marketed properly, it should do OK.''

Among subjects TJFR has covered: the information that inside traders Ivan Boesky and Martin Siegel anonymously provided reporters; what it takes to be a guest on ``Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser''; and the press's role in ``creating'' entrepreneur Barry Minkow and his now defunct ZZZZ Best carpet-cleaning business.

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Rotbart says he is ideally suited to the position of a media critic because of his experience as a Wall Street Journal reporter and a former editor of the Journal's ``Heard on the Street'' column.

``I saw how difficult it was for a news organization to cover itself, for a paper to separate itself from its self-interest,'' says Rotbart, who replaced R.Foster Winans as editor of the ``Heard on the Street'' column after Mr. Winans was caught in insider-trading violations.

``I'd rather have someone following the press who cares about the industry. If the government came in to investigate the press, I'd stand up and scream,'' he adds.

Business reporting and reporting ethics have been improving, says Everette Dennis, executive director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University. ``In the last 10 years, this area has received tremendous attention: No area of the press has improved more.'' Complaints from companies and the discovery of the public's fascination with the topic fueled the media's commitment.

``What happens in corporate America may be more important than what a senator or congressman is doing. Take the example of superconductivity and the effect it can have on us all,'' he notes.

Paul Steiger, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, says the quality of financial reporting is at an all-time high, ``certainly better than it was 15 or 20 years ago. But there is still lots of improvement that needs to occur. The press is fascinated with itself, and increasingly more publications are writing about the media.''

In the field, response to the idea behind the newsletter, if not this particular newsletter, is well received. Stephen Fox, president and editor of Investor's Daily in Los Angeles, says TJFR is ``a good idea, because people in the media are extraordinarily sensitive to criticism - we can question people, but we can't criticize ourselves. But I'm not necessarily endorsing this particular newsletter.''

``There's nothing wrong with us giving ourselves the attention we give others,'' notes Martin Baron, business editor of the Los Angeles Times. ``I'm just not sure if there's a big enough audience.''

In the end, the bottom line may determine TJFR's longevity. ``Anything needs time to hit its rhythm, find an audience,'' says Mr. Zalaznick of Forbes. ``I believe in Adam Smith: The market will not be shy about filling a need.''

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