For Tim Logan, being a successful economics reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch means taking important national economic issues and making them relevant at the local level.
Logan spent most of 2010 working on a series called “Can St. Louis Compete?” with his colleague, business columnist David Nicklaus. As St. Louis began emerging from the recession, Logan knew it was the perfect time to analyze the inefficiencies of the region’s economy and to look at how the city could increase its global economic presence going forward.
The yearlong investigation uncovered information about economic incentives in St. Louis and found that the system disproportionally rewarded real estate development. The series won Logan and Nicklaus a 2011 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism.
Below Logan discusses his investigative strategies and details methods for crunching numbers to craft a compelling story.
1) How do you manage covering and staying on top of a variety of economic topics?
I cover economic development and the regional economy here which is a broad topic. I actually recently started covering Anheuser Busch, which has a major corporate presence here. That’s been kind of interesting getting into a new, more corporate-focused beat.
I’ve always tried to take a broad view of business journalism and what that means, and I’m sort of fortunate to be able to graze broadly across the topic of the economy and how you grow a regional economy. I keep track of breaking news but I also do a lot of enterprise, so balancing that is just sort of a daily thing. You look for good stories and there are dailys that pop up. You do them, but I try to spend most of my time thinking about interesting stories that nobody else is going to tell and the best ways to get into them.
2) Where do you find unique business story ideas?
Most importantly I’ve found that when you do good work, people respect you and sources respect you. Even if the work doesn’t necessarily make them look good, if it’s smart and intelligent and fair, you get a reputation for being that way, and that helps stories come to you.
Frankly, a lot of the best stories I come across are things that find when reporting other stories. You’re working on something and you pick up something that’s mentioned on the side of a conversation, or you come across a report that is peripheral to the story you’re working on, but contains a nugget that leads to another story that’s interesting.
3) How do include complicated data in a story and also ensure that it resonates with readers?
With business journalism in particular, it’s very easy to fall into the data and get so buried into year over year percentage change, or whatever. That, to somebody who hasn’t done it much or for long can be intimidating. But at the end of the day, businesses are made up of people and business issues are about people. We need to remember that all this stuff is by, for, and about people. People are often the best way into a business story, just like they are into a neighborhood story, police story, or a city hall story.
Business is no different. It’s people who are trying to make a living or who are making interesting decisions that affect the way that we live. If you remember that, use the data to complement that and find that, but don’t let the data overwhelm everything else.
Like a lot of people, I was a real Twitter skeptic until probably about two years ago. Then I saw something that struck me. You can tweet a New Yorker story just as easy as you can tweet what you had for breakfast.
I started skimming around on Twitter and learning things that I didn’t know. Now I’m on it constantly. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning and it’s something I check all day. I put out my stories, ideas and queries for sources. It’s a really good way to tap into the conversation going on in the topics that interest you. In my case that’s urban development in St. Louis, the regional economy and the national economy. I follow people who talk about that.
The trick is, I think, not getting sucked into that world because it’s a certain, small slice of the population that is active in social media. You don’t just want to write for those people. You don’t just want to quote those people. So it’s finding that balance between using it to tap into the conversation, but also remembering that there are many other conversations out there also worth listening to.
5) How can reporters localize national economic trends for their readers?
I covered the regional economy here all through the recession and that was always a bit of a challenge. Not so much the doing, but deciding when to do. What pieces of national economic data do you localize and what’s worth it? You can chase everything if you want to, but it doesn’t always make sense to. Sometimes the wires do it better.
But as far as how you do it, it comes back to two things. It comes back to data and people. And being skilled in using and knowing where to find and how to interpret local economic data, tracking it over time and being able to put it in meaningful context.
For most pieces of national data there is a comparable local pice of data. It may be in a different bucket, it may be in a different place, it may be in a different time frame, but it’s still relevant and useful. It can help illustrate your story and explain how the regional economy may differ from the national economy.
The national unemployment rate: To most of us, that’s not really a relevant figure because we live in a particular place within the nation. So being able to localize economic data is really important. Then, again, go out and find the people who are living through whatever it is you’re writing about. Tell their stories. That’s what I try to do.