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Covering economics: Finding local stories in the data

By Grant Hannis

Often, stories about national economic indicators will be prepared by wire services or top journalists on the big dailies or networks. So, as a local reporter, how can you use the data?

Well, for one thing, the national data often also include regional data. That means you could, for instance, obtain the wage data for your city and use this as the basis for a news or feature story. Are salaries increasing in your region? Why? It suggests a shortage of workers. Which employers have jobs to offer?
Reuters Jobs reports
Also much of the national data are also prepared by state governments at the state level. The state has its own budget, for instance, and CPI data are available by state. States are generally required to have balanced budgets – no budget deficit allowed. How does the state inflation rate compare to that in other states? Why?

The Fed regularly publishes an excellent book reviewing economic conditions across the country. Known as the “Beige Book,” for the color of its cover, it provides an up-to-date qualitative account of what’s happening in each of the Fed’s 12 districts. Use it as a springboard to talk to local business associations, lenders, etc., about market conditions. How do market conditions compare to those in other districts?

When data are published, be they national or local, seek comment from local experts and interest groups—economists, consumer groups, business leaders, politicians, unions, etc.—on their reaction to the numbers.

Make sure to spread your net widely. When news of rises in the cost of living hit the wires, talk to different classes of consumer to find out how they’re affected, including the poor. What specific goods have gone up in price? How are people coping?

Don’t forget preview stories, where you can report expert comment in anticipation of the release of data, seeking comment from local experts on their expectations for the CPI, GDP, etc. Do they expect the figures to increase/decrease? Why? How accurate have their predictions been in the past?

You can also run matcher stories. That’s when you take a story about national data and find the local angle. For instance, if national consumer confidence figures are released, you could contact local businesses. How is demand for their products holding up? You could also do vox populus, or man-on-the-street, interviews. What do shoppers at local malls feel about their financial situation?

Florida WorkfoceLikewise, with interest-rate data, you could speak to local lenders and borrowers. Who is borrowing? Why? Are lenders changing their marketing strategies or bringing out new financial products in light of changing market conditions?

When writing about employment figures, a good local angle would be to check the job ads in town. Which businesses are hiring? Which aren’t? Why? State employment offices can also be a good source.

Data on international trade can also have strong local angles. Are local businesses finding overseas markets for their wares? Are they losing out here to imported goods?

Going against the flow can also generate good stories. There’s been a lot of news about the economic downturn, but which businesses are surviving or being established?

Deeper insights into the data can also lead to strong local stories. Say an economic-research house issues a media release on a national trend among older people to stay in part-time work, rather than retire. You could contact some local businesses and/or older persons’ associations to find some local examples.

Don’t just rely on the media releases and headlining economic data. Monitor the statistical and governmental websites to find and read accompanying reports, briefing papers, etc. These can be gold mines of additional information and insight.

Google spreadsheetsYou should also cultivate relationships with the statisticians themselves. They are often happy to chat about the data, going into more detail about the figures. What stories do they think the data are telling? How good are the data? Should the government be collecting other data? This may need to be off the record, but is still valuable information and can guide your own thinking.

It’s also a good idea to develop your technical expertise. That way, you won’t be driven solely by the media releases and what the experts have to say. Maintain your own databases of the numbers and play around with the figures. Compare the recent data with those of last year, or over the past five years. Look for trends, see what you can find, and then ask the experts for their views. That way, you can avoid producing simple, repetitive stories where you report the data plus a little expert comment. Do some courses in using Excel spreadsheets or statistical packages (or economics!), if you have to. Here are tutorials on spreadsheets and on Google spreadsheets.

Grant Hannis has taught business and economics reporting at universities in the United States and New Zealand. He is head of the journalism program at Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand. His doctorate is in economics, and he spent 14 years as a senior financial journalist at Consumer magazine (the New Zealand equivalent of Consumer Reports).

In Beats, Economy.

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