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Covering manufacturing: Things that can go wrong

Products break. Inventory arrives late. And a reporter runs into trouble on a manufacturing story.

Tour of Wire Trade Fair

Preparation before taking a tour will help you ask the right questions. Credit: Wire Trade Fair

Those things happen all the time. Be aware of the pitfalls.

1)    I didn’t do my homework. As you’ve read in our primer on beat basics, manufacturing is a complicated subject with its own language. Sometimes, you simply don’t comprehend it. You failed to read up on a company and its products before you went to the interview and took the plant tour. Now, your notes and recordings seem like gibberish. To avoid this, you must do your homework before every interview and plant visit. If you don’t understand something, stop and get it clarified in simple words. Should worse come to worse, call the PR person and ask for a re-interview on specific topics. But remember that re-touring a plant is a fairly major undertaking. Make the most of your first visit.

2)    My source was out of the loop. It can be exciting to hear what you think is the inside story. Maybe you got some advance information from a local parts supplier who does some business with the company, but not from the company itself. Or, your local union leader heard something from a guy who knows a guy on the bargaining committee. Try for first-hand sources whenever possible.

Manufacturing is a beat where the inner circle may not speak to you, and you have to rely on outlying sources. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

3)    I followed the pack. Veteran manufacturing reporters have seen this happen time and time again. A news service quotes a source saying a local plant will close. A newspaper reports that a big company is planning to pull up stakes and move its headquarters. You jump on the story because your editor insists you match it, even though you don’t have a first-hand source. If you don’t have it nailed down, resist. The story you don’t do often says more about your news organization than the one you do.

4)    There’s no union, and no one will talk to me. At plants where the hourly workforce is represented by a union, the task of finding people to interview is much easier than a plant without a union. That doesn’t mean you give up. Search Facebook for people in your area that have the company in their profiles. Look on Twitter and LinkedIn. And then try the old-fashioned way: ask your friends and professional contacts whom they know. Go to the bar near the plant, or the Starbucks across the street. Have plenty of business cards always handy.

5)    I took sides. When a company is the major employer in your town, there can be pressure from editors, publishers and other bosses to write favorable stories about it. Or, your parents were involved in a union, and you can see things from only the union point of view. Especially when writing manufacturing stories, resist siding with one point of view over another. Stories that appear to be too pro-company can alienate workers and suppliers. Those that come out as pro-union can prompt management to refuse your interview requests. Stay neutral.

About the Author

Micheline Maynard is director of the Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, and the editor of Curbing Cars: Rethinking How We Get Around, a journalist project looking at why Americans are driving less. Its eBook was published in 2014 by Forbes. She's the former Detroit Bureau Chief for the New York Times. Find her on Twitter @mickimaynard.

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