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Getting new reporters up to speed on economic indicators

By Rob Wells
Reynolds Visiting Professor
University of South Carolina

One of the first things you need to tell new reporters or students about covering economic reports from Washington is this: No, you are not being punished for some past wrongdoing.

Rob Wells, Reynolds Visiting ProfessorThese daily economic reports on jobs and home sales, in fact, can be your ticket to the front page or home page, stories that often drive the markets and frame the political debate. When these stories are done well, they are the heart and soul of the day’s business coverage. | VIDEO: Quick chat with Rob Wells

YES, THERE’S STILL HOMEWORK

First off, tell the newbies about the big picture. The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel boiled it down like this: “What does this report tell us that is new about the economy, and that we didn’t know before?” To do this, reporters and students have to work the phones and dig into the reports beforehand. Calling a variety of academics, economists, and think-tank officials will allow the reporter or student to identify expectations and issues with the upcoming reports. Another resource involves checking the surveys conducted by financial wires and others of economists about the upcoming reports.

One note about language: I do not call these “data releases,” which suggests a story is only about numbers. Emphasize these reports will push billions of dollars in and out of bonds, stocks and currencies. This is a starting point for a broader story about the United States economy or political policy.

There are some two dozen major reports released from Washington each month by the Federal Reserve, the Labor, Commerce and Treasury Departments. And there are dozens of other reports released from private industry associations and regional Federal Reserve banks. I recommend a gradual approach to teaching this material.

First, start with something very tangible: the employment reports. The weekly jobless claims and monthly employment reports are a good portal into the economy story. The jobless claims report has fewer “moving parts” – at Dow Jones, we filed three major headlines from the release. A revision of the past months’ numbers, by the way, is a piece of news that can be found in most of these reports. In the monthly employment report, make sure reporters and students understand the difference between the household employment survey and the payroll survey. The household survey of 60,000 homes provides the unemployment rate and workforce participation, and comes from a broader picture of employment including agriculture and the self-employed. The payroll or establishment survey, by contrast, is of some 141,000 businesses and government agencies.

PAST IS PROLOGUE

By examining trends in past reports, reporters or students can find ways to localize their stories. If construction hiring remains flat, call a local contractor to see if their experience matches the local trend, and why not.

In the classroom, I started with a short lecture about the indicators’ role in the daily market and political debate. I then show the wire service headlines and ledes, and explain where the information is found in the release. Then they write up a report, in class, for an ungraded exercise. I move around the class, answering questions and suggesting revisions. For the next class, I culled several of the problematic ledes, put them in a PowerPoint, and held a class discussion about the writing issues (the authors were not revealed). Next, another writing exercise in class, this time for a grade.

In the newsroom, we developed “cheat sheets” where the key data points were circled and numbered with a corresponding story: page 3 of the employment release, column two has this number that usually goes high up in the story. I pair the new reporter with a veteran, and have the new person observe the first time and assist with copy editing. The second time, they write with the veteran editing. The third time, again the veteran is there and then they are ready to go.

This process works when the instructor and editor sets aside the time to follow up with the student or reporter to ensure they understand the concepts and are fluent with the material.

Rob Wells, former deputy bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires Washington bureau, spend the spring semester 2012 as the Reynolds Visiting Professor at the University of South Carolina. He was also a Business Journalism Professors Fellow from Jan. 2-5 in Phoenix. Here’s more information about his stay at the University of South Carolina. VIDEO: Visiting professor to promote and expand USC’s business journalism initiative with students and community

About the Author

The Reynolds Center, created through generous grants from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas and operated by ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, is dedicated to improving the quality of business and economics coverage through training programs for business reporters and editors.

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