I’m honored to be joining the distinguished gang at the Reynolds Center as a regular blogger. My charge is to offer business journalists “a little kick in the pants,” as Robin Phillips put it. I hope to do this by providing practical tips, story ideas and examples of what works and doesn’t as we continue to elevate our craft. Long ago, I realized business journalism was where the action is, even if many metro-centric newsrooms don’t realize it. Especially after the end of the Cold War and with the rise of political influence by heavily consolidated industries, business coverage is about much more than the fascinating-thrilling-nasty world of making it and spending it. Business is where power lies. As the Great Recession has shown, it is central to the risks and challenges we face. Done right, business news should be the most compelling local news in the paper — whether it’s delivered online or on dead trees.
First, a little about me. I’ve been covering business news since 1984. At the Seattle Times, I am the economics columnist, as well as writing a daily blog on business and the economy. Before that, I spent seven years back in my hometown of Phoenix as business and op-ed columnist for the Arizona Republic. I worked for 17 years as a business editor, including at the Dayton Daily News, Rocky Mountain News, Cincinnati Enquirer and Charlotte Observer. Much of the time I was a turnaround specialist who was hired to fix or improve business sections, as well as coaching and mentoring reporters and editors. I’ve been blogging since 1998, when I started the daily Shareholder Nation market report in Charlotte for Knight Ridder (and, yes, I am still mad at Tony for selling). In my down time, I write mystery and thriller novels, plus the commentary blog Rogue Columnist for my Phoenix readers.
I don’t have all the answers. As with my columns and blogs elsewhere, part of my mission is to start a conversation and we can learn together.
A few elements are indispensable to great business stories. They include:
Urgent. More than any part of a news organization, we sell time-sensitive intelligence. Obviously major projects and investigative pieces may (may) be exceptions. But a bias for care, accuracy and fairness must be combined with a bias for action. It’s always been true, but more so in the Internet age. The old, slow morning newspaper mentality will kill us. (Disclosure: I started at PM newspapers, so with the Internet I felt as if I were coming home rather than facing some dangerous new medium.)
Exclusive.This is another timeless key to excellence than has gained emphasis in a media universe with hundreds of business, market and economic blogs. Exclusivity makes your story stand out; it makes the blogosphere chase you. Reacting to a press release or “localizing” a national topic, while sometimes necessary, is ultimately a sign of failure. You will build readership, sources and credibility by operating in the “night vision zone” that either anticipates events or breaks the news as it is becoming — in other words, between the decision/event and the time it becomes widely known.
Sophisticated. Readers are smarter than many news managers believe, and this is never more true than of business readers. Sophisticated doesn’t mean inaccessible; quite the opposite. I think of a conversation I had with a beat reporter who was onto a great story, but was also on the verge of burning out about the particular company. Once we agreed on the “new news,” which was urgent and exclusive, I suggested: Write this so everyone involved with this company will have to read it, but explain its wider ramifications and write it well so people who don’t know anything about the company will want to read it. Surprise us. Sophistication requires a toolbox that includes a deep knowledge of the topic, context, insider information, telling details and the wider ramifications. Such stories are well and deeply reported, using top sources and gold-standard metrics. Even if you can’t use everything you find, that knowledge will inform a superior story and lay the groundwork for great follow-ups.
Local, not stupid. Unless you write for a national or international paper or site, your bosses and readers like local news. That doesn’t mean it has to be dumb or boring, which is often the unfortunate case. Never just go on a press release. Never use a single source. The companies that most want to be in the newspaper usually least deserve your attention (or they require it in areas they don’t want). Those that don’t want to be covered are a target-rich environment. Every town and metro area is competing in the global economy and affected by it. Each has touchstone companies with compelling stories, as well as important economic issues. Each has characters straight out of novels. All are affected by the ways corporations game regulation, buy politicians and favorable policy and try to evade taxes. And many of these communities are fighting for their lives. Put it all together, and the local business story can consistently be the best read of the day.
Holistic. Business has ramifications far beyond the bottom line: Environmental, societal and historical among them. The housing crash illuminated far more than overbuilding, for example. It reached into risky banking and derivatives, unsustainable land use, average Americans ever deeper in debt and an economy overly reliant on one or two Ponzi-fied sectors, with catastrophic consequences.
Skeptical without being cynical. Many, although by no means all, financial journalists were taken in by the housing boom. Reporters even adopted sales language rather than more neutral and accurate wording. E.g. “gated community” for a gated property, or “master planned community” for a large residential development. But the old adage remains the same: If your mother tells you she loves, you check it out. Corporations today are more sophisticated at telling their stories than ever while news organizations have cut their most seasoned reporters. Corporate money flows into front groups and supports academics that spin for them. Dig deeper. Always.
Loaded with stakes. Who stands to win? Who will lose? How many jobs are on the line? A venerable company faces a threat from a newcomer. A high-flier executive takes a risk that could destroy her firm or leapfrog ahead of the competition. A technological breakthrough stands to remake an industry — but also cost thousands of jobs. Every story must have something at stake. It keeps people reading, but it’s not an artifice. Stakes help focus both reporter and story on what really matters.
I look forward to our conversation.