The idea of taking an accounting class for non-business majors had me both scared and excited. I had never been a math person but knew the experience would help me with my business stories. I decided to go for it, suffering through sections on cash flow statements and balance sheets during this past fall semester of my senior year studying journalism at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
The commitment was worth it. Now I can loan amortization schedules by hand and understand what net income means.
Taking business classes is one of the best things I did for myself as a budding financial reporter. Other veterans agree it’s worth taking time to seek out resources to help you master the beat’s fundamentals.
Jill Jorden Spitz, assistant managing editor for business at the Arizona Daily Star and president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, said she pursued business as a reporting specialty in college as a way to make herself more marketable.
“There seems to be a fear of covering business. It existed when I was in college and it still exists today,” said Spitz in an e-mail. “A mere mention of accounting principles, economics or SEC documents sends many journalism students, and even veteran journalists who don’t cover business, running from the room.”
Spitz suggests journalists take business classes, learn micro and macroeconomics and buy a stock to study a company and follow its ups and downs. Understanding how to read a balance sheet is also a vital skill. For practical experience, she said students should secure internships on the business desk or with a business publication and ask to shadow someone writing an earnings story.
“In news stories, follow the money,” Spitz said. “It will almost always lead you someplace worth going.”
Jim Nelson, deputy business editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a reporter for Politifact, started on the Sentinel’s business desk in 1987 on Black Monday, the day the Dow dropped 22 percent. Writing for PolitiFact, Nelson said he does a fair amount of reporting on economic issues including monitoring the state’s jobs and economy.
“Initially (being an editor) was pretty challenging because I had done reporting on business issues and economic issues but there were areas I was not comfortable with or up to speed on,” Nelson said. “Just (like) a beat reporter you have to know where your strengths and weaknesses are and as a business editor you have to know the same thing…You have to study what you’re not so well versed in.”
Nelson said there aren’t enough evangelists for business news. He suggests reporters spend time tracking solid coverage from places like The New York Times, Rolling Stone or BusinessInsider.com.
When Dee DePass, a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, first jumped into financial news she took a beginning business reporters’ class at the Wharton School in Philadelphia. After the class she “had a better foundation for how to scrounge around SEC documents, follow a stock, and nose around proxy statements.” She even took an accounting seminar to become more comfortable reading profit and loss statements and recognizing discrepancies.
DePass has since covered small business, banking, manufacturing, workplace issues and auto dealer Denny Hecker’s downfall. She said new business reporters should develop an expertise, especially since business coverage at most media outlets is divided into multiple beats, from the economy to real estate.
“The best business stories are about people struggling or succeeding in overcoming market woes, distribution problems, recessions and the like,” DePass said.
If you’re looking to build your business-beat skills through academic classes or financial training programs, here are a few places to start:
- Khan Academy: The academy offers free online training in a variety of business topics including economics, statistics and financing.
- Open Culture: The site offers more than 650 free university online courses.
- MIT Open Courseware: Educational materials from more than 2,000 MIT undergraduate and graduate classes.
- Coursera: The company partners with universities around the world to offer free online courses.
- Wharton Seminars for Business Journalists: Journalists can attend a variety of Wharton’s training sessions on business journalism led by the school’s faculty.