Business journalism has been Chris Roush’s life for more than two decades. He teaches, writes, tweets and blogs about the topic and is known as a business journalism expert not just in the U.S., but throughout the world.
But Roush wasn’t always a financial guru. In 1989 when he got his start, he didn’t know how to write an earnings story. So he sought out mentors and spent time teaching himself the basics. That dedication brought big-time results.
Roush, currently a business journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of several business books, including “Show me the Money: Writing Business and Economics Stories for Mass Communication.” In 2010, he was named Journalism Teacher of the Year in the Scripps Howard Foundation’s National Journalism Awards.
Roush blogs about the latest industry news at Talking Biz News and is often quoted in various national publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
We asked him to share some of the inside scoop on his business journalism career and to offer tips about covering the beat.
1) What challenges did you have in your first job as a business journalist?
My first job in business journalism was vastly different than what it is today because I had no training in covering companies or in covering the economy. I was learning how to do the job on the fly whereas I think business journalists today have a better level of training and expertise when they start their first journalism job. Sarasota (the Sarasota Herald-Tribune) was a great help in teaching me. And when I got to the Tampa Tribune, my second job in business journalism, there was a guy on the business desk by the name of Frank Ruiz and he was also a great mentor. But it wasn’t just business journalists who I was learning from, it was people in the business world, accountants, executives. If I didn’t understand something I could ask them to help explain it. At that time, the only textbook for business journalism was “The Columbia Knight-Bagehot Guide to Economics and Business Journalism.” I had a copy of the book and referred to it quite often.
2) There are a lot of untapped business stories in the United States. What are some big ones?
To me, a big untapped business story is coverage of private companies. I don’t think most business journalism media organizations do a good enough job in covering private companies in their towns and cities. If you look at most business news organizations they spend an inordinate amount of time covering public companies even though public companies are less than one percent of all the companies in the U.S. and less than 50 percent of the employer workforce. I think the coverage today is skewed toward public companies and needs to be more balanced.
Another one is sports. We should cover sports the same way we would cover any business. There is money to be made, money to be lost, contract issues, and lawsuits. We seem to have these rose-colored glasses when we look at sports franchises as not being real businesses – and that’s a fault I think.
- Show the companies you’re going to treat them with respect, fairness, and that you care about telling their story accurately.
- You need to know something about the company, so do your research before approaching them.
- Realize a CEO is a person just like you and me. They may make a lot more money, but they still have concerns and issues, just like us.
- Be dogged in trying to get to the story and ignore what is not relevant, as you would in any interview.
4) You are focusing on teaching right now, what are some hurdles you’ve had to overcome as a business journalism professor?
The biggest hurdle is getting students interested in business journalism. There is a misconception about business journalism being boring and very heavy numbers focused. One of my biggest goals is to show students that business journalism can be fun and it’s not just writing about numbers. Also, some of the students don’t have a business background and what I tell them at the beginning of the semester is that it doesn’t matter what they know, because I’m going to teach them what they need to know about business from the perspective of how they write those stories.
5) So what else do you think we can do to better prepare business journalists?
I think journalism students should also be taking classes at the business school. If they’re going to be covering businesses they need to understand how businesses work. They also need to be learning the same things that business school students are learning so that when they get out into the real world there is a level playing field.
My feeling is that every major journalism school around the country should have at least one business journalism class, if not more. It is the growth area in journalism today and if a journalism school is not providing training in business journalism then they are not providing what their students need right now to get the best jobs.