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Alicia Wallace

Alicia Wallace is a Colorado-based business journalist who has covered a variety of industries - including tech; aerospace; retail; grocery; natural products; craft brewing; real estate; telecom - for the Boulder Daily Camera, the regional newspaper for Boulder and Broomfield counties.

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Reporter Todd Neff on going ‘Gonzo’ with a piece on marijuana

Todd Neff is a Colorado-based freelance journalist who frequently writes for the University of Colorado Health Insider, a 2,000-circulation newsletter that provides information about the Denver-based University of Colorado Hospital’s operations for employees and faculty.

Todd Neff health and science writer

Todd Neff is a Colorado-based health and science writer.

While writing for the UCH Insider, Neff happened across a story that fascinated him. CU Toxicology, a spinoff lab within the University of Colorado, had developed a drug test that could test for 112 compounds in 500 drugs in fewer than 10 minutes. The test, which also was less expensive than anything already on the market, had 20 times the sensitivity of the typical urine-based drug tests used to detect metabolites in THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.

With states such as Colorado legalizing recreational marijuana and others flirting with similar laws, Neff saw a story with a potential reach far further than the 2,000-circulation UCH Insider. And he saw a story with significant implications for businesses across the country.

Neff approached Mashable, a site for which he had previously written, and pitched an idea for an in-depth article on this new drug test.

At the beginning, Neff had no intention of being his own guinea pig, going “Gonzo” and putting himself to the test, but that’s what he did.

The CU Toxicology test is ultimately a new sort of medical tool, and one that allows those ordering urine tests to affordably plunge into the private habits and inner bodily workings of their targets like never before. Neff detailed his personal journey into ingesting and testing recreational marijuana in the Mashable Spotlight piece,  ‘From the state that legalized weed, comes the world’s strongest drug test.’

Neff spoke with BusinessJournalism.com about approaching a big, multi-faceted issue; means of keeping an audience engaged through a 7,000-word, highly technical piece; and what he thinks could come of the drug testing industry. | You can follow Neff on Twitter @ToddNeff.

1.) What was the impetus for this piece?

It was actually an assignment for the UCH Insider. So I find myself in this converted optics factory, and I’m talking to this former venture capitalist and looking at these mass spectrometers, talking about urine tests, and I think, “This is crazy.”

Larger version of 5 questions with logoThe story was covered on Colorado Public Radio. The Denver Business Journal picked it up. We all published these articles that were all the equivalent of 650 to 800 words — 18-inch stories essentially that cover the basics. I say, “Hey, this is a really interesting test.”

What intrigued me was I looked at what I had done and 2,000 people read it. It was miniscule and I thought, “God, there is just so much more here.” (CU Toxicology lab director Uwe Christians) is a real interesting guy. I didn’t know how interesting the scientist was at the time. Here’s one of the great mass spectrometer minds in the world sitting in this office with a (Dr. Who)  Dalek and Star Wars figurines everywhere.

I walk out the front door and here’s this Rolls Royce Corniche covered in dirt. You’ve never seen anything like this. And I thought that has got to be his car.

In an e-mail, I asked him about the Rolls Royce and he was so interested in talking about the car. It opened doors to follow-up questions about technical information. The fact I was interested in some of these other aspects of his life kind of endeared him to me.

I had written a story for Mashable (before). They had kind of cold-called me. I found a space-related piece – it was about Elon Musk and evacuated tube transport up in Longmont, Colo., and they were looking for a warm body. I liked working with (Mashable). And this (CU Toxicology story), everybody’s written a 1,000-word piece on it. I don’t want to write the same story again. Who will let me take this farther?

2.) Usually journalists take the role of outside observer, being careful not to taint the process or become the story. Why did you feel it was important to serve as the test subject in this article?

I didn’t initially plan on doing that. I put a blog post up that was a little bit of background on the story: Inhaling for the Narrative. I actually pasted the pitch letter into that.

There is no Gonzo at all in my mind at that point (when I made the pitch). I had already done some of the reporting and talked to five or six people, including the big interview. I thought to myself, “How am I going to tie together this Colorado legalization of recreational marijuana? What’s an elegant way to do that?”

When you work on these projects, they seep into your subconscious and you’re working on it all the time, and when I was in the shower, it was the “a-ha moment.”


“The fact I was interested
in some of these other
aspects of his life kind of
endeared him to me.”

I thought that I would start in the dispensary, buy some stuff — which is a unique thing — and then if I do that, what we can do is I’ll do the cheap test, the pee cup, the standard test and then maybe take the fancy CU toxicology test. So it clearly shows that long after I’m a negative that I passed the cheap test that I failed the fancy test — showing that this is the test we all need.

I smoke very rarely. I am not a pot smoker and so my body has zero THC in it and zero whatever other chemicals are in marijuana. There’s nothing in my body all the time.

I had a very fixed idea with how this thing was going to shape out.

3.) However, this didn’t shape out as you thought it might: Despite the initial Insta-Screen pee cup test registering a positive, CU’s mass spectrometer test results were negative for THC. What surprised you the most about this?

As a journalist, you’re pretty used to being surprised by things. You know most of the time – almost all the time – that changes as you report it. This was very unexpected, but it fit into the pattern of most features stories I’ve ever done. You never know what the story is until it’s done.

My initial thought was, “Why the heck? How could this be possible with this fantastic test?” My friend Louie was visiting from Australia. I had him take both the pee cup and the fancy CU toxicology also.

He also tested negative for THC, but Louie has rheumatoid arthritis and takes medications. The CU toxicology test found eight drugs (which he takes for pain management). When (the Mashable editors) cut that part, it was a cut I wish they hadn’t made. I felt that helped underscore the quality of this aspect of the CU toxicology project.

The reason I didn’t push back is: It was posted already and we had cut 700 words. Plus it’s their money; it’s their story.

Because I have three to four people — I don’t know how many people survived several cuts – who were extolling the virtues for this product. It’s clear that it works or otherwise they wouldn’t have talked about it that way. We learn as journalists that you go with it, or you drive yourself crazy.Mashable drug test story image of man smoking

4.) You judiciously sneaked in little nuggets of information and colorful details that provided some unique context and humor. What are some strategies you think other writers can use when approaching an article of this size and technical nature?

I don’t change much based on possible audience. When I write, I have a certain style – or lack thereof – and I think it was honed in the newspaper business. I like to sprinkle in impressions. There are little things that can liven things up and put the reader on the scene.

The essence of our job is to convey the information in a compelling way in as few words as possible.

That said, I didn’t change how I was going to write. When you get to these longer pieces, if it’s between 1,200 and 1,500 words, it’s a ton of work. You have to start outlining, you have to think about overall structure. You can’t just say, “Here’s my lede and here’s what will come from it.”

With this piece up front, I knew we have a very entrepreneurial story, which was trimmed back quite a bit in the final product. You had an interesting technological story and technology evolution story with the fact that they were pushing these mass spectrometer machines ahead – 112 tests in one fell swoop.

You had an interesting personal story with the lead scientists, which I kind of touched upon.

There are civil libertarian aspects, the privacy aspect, which I felt was one of the most interesting aspects.

Then you have Colorado having legal marijuana in the same place — and that was the irony I pitched right away.

I try to keep my eyes and ears open when I’m not talking to the person and then put things together. The Rolls Royce … that was just one of those things. If it was in a sports context, it was a heads-up play. It’s a Rolls Royce covered with dirt with sheepskin seat covers.

I thought, “This is so rich.” I had an example or two stacked up. It’s really about keeping your eyes open and also bringing your other senses if you can.

When you’re sitting on scene, if there is something that strikes you – it’s called a telling detail – if there’s something that’s there, write it there then. If there is some impression you have related to it, some metaphor or comparison, write it down in your notebook right then. Don’t rely on your memory later.

When I mentioned the bags of dope hanging like corn nuts, that was something when I walked right into the store, I was writing everything I could about the scene and pretty much that term came to me. (The scene) becomes much more alive.

Noticing these details also makes you more human to them. People like people who are interested in them, and that car is a part of him. I was genuinely interested in that.  I think you end up demonstrating that you’re not just there to get the bare facts, hammer it out and start the next one.

I really enjoyed the piece. It really was a 70-cents-a-word deal, and I put in a ton of effort. I couldn’t afford to do many of these things.

As a journalist, you can get into a story and say, “I really think this is interesting.” You’re not thinking about how it’s paying per hour. It’s just that you want to get this thing right. You want to do it justice.

5.) How might the multiplexing mass spectrometer test developed by CU Toxicology affect businesses and industries moving forward?

I think that GINA (Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act), HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and the Americans with Disability Act, those will offer pretty good protections for Americans; but I think companies will be motivated – particularly with high-end jobs … your headhunter class jobs – they’ll be motivated to sign a waiver if it’s competitive and say we’re going to test for a wide spectrum of drugs for more information, and tell you to “click here,” where they assume you won’t click, and then they’ll put chemical names of the compounds … these massive lists. There I don’t know if I would know a chemical name of a certain compound.

I think there’s a huge risk of that, which is why I think that it’s important I wrote the story.

The technology wasn’t there before. Economically, it would’ve cost $3,000. Now you can do the whole thing for 100 bucks.

I didn’t think about the international implications at all. What about China, places like that where there are really, really very limited civil liberties and they are very good at these sorts of tests?

I think there are huge, huge, huge implications.

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Boston Business Journal’s Jon Chesto on ‘digital first’ regional weekly-style

Jon Chesto, who serves as the Boston Business Journal’s managing editor for print, jokes that when he first stepped into the role of business reporting, he knew not the difference between a stock and a bond nor had he reported on an earnings release.

“But I was fascinated by it almost immediately,” Chesto said. “It seemed a lot more complex than a lot of the routine town meetings I covered. I felt like every day I was learning something new.”

Jon Chesto mugshot

Jon Chesto, Managing editor at Boston Business Journal

Chesto’s career in journalism has included reporting and editing roles at a variety of New England publications including the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn.; the Boston Herald; and the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass.

Covering business now for more than 20 years, Chesto said that, every day, he is reminded of the significance of the beat.

“A lot of people don’t really think about it that much, but what’s going on in the economy, what’s going on in the labor market, what’s happening with retailers, what’s happening with local banks … it has universal appeal,” he said. “People feel strongly about those issues, but they might not know what’s driving those decisions.”

As a reporter who transitioned into the editing role and as someone who knows the region well, Chesto said he’s in a position to help his readers understand those issues. As information becomes more widely available in a more rapid fashion, Chesto said it’s important for his publication to deliver that context, background and scope.

Chesto recently spoke with BusinessJournalism.org about his experiences in the region and ways that he and his publication are adapting to the changing digital environment.

1) Was it your intent to stay in the New England market, and how has spending time at different publications in the region benefited your advancement as a journalist?

I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to stay in New England — it’s where I grew up, and where the bulk of my friends and family live, and there’s a great quality of life here (although this winter has me questioning that last point). Aside from the personal roots that keep me here, I’ve found that having spent my career in New England benefits my reporting and editing immensely. I’ve covered a variety of communities and industries in Connecticut and Massachusetts that eventually come together and overlap in various ways. Now, I’m able to put that time in the trenches to good use by being able to lend context and history when I edit stories, and when I write them. Boston, in particular, is a great news town. The city’s large enough that there’s no shortage of big business stories — it’s a global hub for the higher ed., health care, technology and finance sectors, for example. But it’s also small enough that you’re never more than one or two steps removed from the big players that are pulling the strings behind the scenes.

 

2) What changes have you enacted recently to help the Boston Business Journal remain competitive and to help advance quality journalism amid increasing pressures?

One of the biggest shifts that has taken place at the BBJ has been set by our parent company American City Business Journals, although it’s one I’ve had to help oversee here in Boston. Like most newspapers, we are now aiming to find ways to be “digital first” with our news and then figure out how to package those stories in a way that they can sit in paper form without going stale a week after the fact. We used to have reporters writing quick daily items for our website and then writing separate, often unrelated longer stories for the weekly print edition. Now, the reporters are almost exclusively writing for the web. They’re then asked to pull together a digest of some of their best items and package them for a page for a particular beat in the print edition, like real estate or health care. Sometimes this means recasting a lede, or updating a story. It often means trimming it down. And it can mean translating the story into some sort of graph or chart for print consumption. We now have one magazine-length piece — our centerpiece — leading the paper that is written with print in mind, a feature based on our weekly business lists, and personality profiles that are primarily geared toward the weekly newspaper. But other than that, reporters are truly thinking about being “digital first” and the print production deadlines have only a small impact on how they approach their week. This new workflow has freed our reporters and editors up to write more frequently — and hopefully with more insight — for our website and emails.


“We used to have reporters
writing quick daily items
for our website and then
writing separate, often unrelated
longer stories for the weekly
print edition. Now, the reporters
are almost exclusively writing
for the web.”

3) As digital media continues to advance, how has your role changed?
Planning and proofing the print publication are still important tasks — we, like most newspapers, still get the bulk of our revenue from print. But we need to think about how the stories look on our website, how they would look on a smart phone, how they appear in our many email products. We need to think about how we engage our readers on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn in a way that’s more than just throwing links into the social media soup. This digital media mosaic is exciting, though, as it gives us more ways to reach our readers at a much faster pace. But in the end, this is still about crafting good stories — well-written articles that are chock full of information and insight that our readers can’t get elsewhere.

4) In column writing, what are some good strategies to help writers find their voices? One of the most important things as a columnist is being able to write with a level of authority. There are some topics that I tackle that I’ve been covering for years. But then there are others that I’ll need to learn about almost overnight. My goal is to minimize the attribution necessary to convey the facts to the readers, so I can keep the column in my voice. Others’ voices can be used instead to add texture or color to the column, and attribution is consistently still a necessity. But I often paraphrase those sources instead of quoting them directly.

Many writers think about how they’re going to start their stories, but columnists have to pay just as much attention to how they’ll end the stories. This means thinking about endings as you’re reporting the column, just as you would think about a lede while you report out a story. When I’m stuck, I’ll usually try to figure out a way to echo the intro to bring the reader full circle and reinforce my point.

I’ve found that writing blogs on a daily basis — essentially mini-columns — gives me the freedom to experiment with different approaches and styles. This has paid off when it comes time to write that weekly column.

Sometimes, the key to finding your voice as a writer is to think about how you would actually use your own voice to tell the story to your friend or coworker.

5) What are some of the greatest challenges you face in your current position, and what opportunities are ahead for the publication?

We need to engage with younger readers and, in general, take full advantage of the broad reach that digital delivery can offer. Readers don’t know what they don’t know. It sounds redundant, but there’s an important truth — readers gravitate toward the familiar, to subject areas that easily make sense to them. One big challenge for us is to figure out the stories that they wish they knew about but don’t quite know it yet. Another challenge is ensuring that the bulk of our coverage goes beyond the immediate breaking news of the day, that our reporters are figuring out how to be enterprising with their approach so that the news we produce is exclusively ours, even if it means an unusual take on a big story being covered by multiple outlets. The flip side of that challenge is guiding those analytical stories so that they also can be picked up and easily understood by someone with no prior knowledge of the particular topic.

 

 

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Small business columnist Karen E. Klein on obstacles, benefits of freelancing

Over the past 25 years, Karen E. Klein successfully reinvented herself from full-time reporter to full-time freelancer. In the process, she established herself as an authority on small business trends and landed contracts with the likes of Businessweek and the Los Angeles Times.

Karen E. Klein 5 questionsThe past quarter-century also brought some uncertain times to the freelance and journalism landscapes and Klein adjusted to maintain and grow her portfolio and reach. Klein now writes two columns per week for BloombergBusinessweek.com’s SmallBiz channel.

Klein supplements those columns by writing a cover story or profiles for a L.A.-based publication and with projects at Pearson Publishing, where she serves as a freelance development editor for business and tech books.

Klein, a former staffer for the Los Angeles Daily News, landed on the small business track after being persuaded by an editor for the Los Angeles Times. “I didn’t think I could write business, but she encouraged me to freelance for her on small business stories, starting with entrepreneur profiles,” Klein says. “I gave it a try – that was almost 20 years ago.”

Klein recently spoke with the Reynolds Center about her freelance workload and how she navigated sometimes choppy waves in the industry.

1) What did your transition to freelance look like?

I was a staff writer at the Los Angeles Daily News, covering federal court, when my older son was born in 1989. I decided not to go back to work full-time after my maternity leave and transitioned into freelancing in early 1990, starting with judge profiles for the Los Angeles Daily Journal, a legal publication, and stringing for the Los Angeles Times.

2) How have the broader economic waves affected your work?

Smaller version of 5 questions with logoAs publications cut back, some of them reduce or eliminate their freelance budgets. That has affected me, most notably when I lost a regular column I had done for the Los Angeles Times for almost 15 years.

On the other hand, with staffs being cut, other publications rely more on freelancers and I get to know new editors who begin to rely on my writing. I definitely notice that I get more work as the economy starts on an upswing.

3) How has freelancing changed in recent years as both companies are working with tighter budgets and more writers are flooding the market?


“Be creative with ideas.
Often, an outside-the-box
take on an ongoing story
or trend will be very
appealing to an editor”

Editors today often ask if I will write for very little — or no — compensation. This happens particularly with online publications. Others want to pay less than what I was making when I started in journalism 30 years ago. Fortunately, I’m in a situation where I can turn down work that does not compensate me adequately.

4) What steps can journalists take to succeed in freelancing?

Read the publications you’re interested in writing for – not just one issue, but several. Get familiar with the sections, find out who the editors of those sections are and what kind of writing they’re publishing. If you’re interested in a specialty field, like business, read other business publications and follow news and trends.

Be creative with ideas — often, an outside-the-box take on an ongoing story or trend will be very appealing to an editor. Get to know other freelancers, writers and editors in person at networking events and on social media. Ask them to recommend and refer you. People hire people they know and who’ve been recommended to them, especially in freelance writing. If an editor takes a chance on an unknown writer, the assignment may never get done, it may come in late or it may be filed in terrible shape and take a lot more work than expected to be publishable.

5) What are the obstacles and benefits to freelance, as opposed to a full-time reporting position?

Lack of a regular paycheck and fluctuating cash flow are tough to deal with unless you have another source of regular income in your household. It’s difficult to juggle writing stories and pitching new ideas simultaneously. Being rejected is hard, no matter how gracious editors are about it. Paying for private insurance is expensive as is paying self-employment tax and quarterly income taxes. Unless you’re an introvert like me, it can be tough to work in isolation and you’ll miss the camaraderie and stimulation of a newsroom. In my case, once my children were in school full-time, I sought out friendships with other writers through an independent writers’ group here in Southern California. That turned into a lifeline and many people I met there are my good friends to this day.
Major benefits: setting your own schedule, working from home, home-office tax deduction, freedom to work on side projects, attend conferences/networking events on your own time. If an editor is difficult to work for, you don’t have to keep writing for him/her. It’s nice to do a variety of things — writing, editing, ghostwriting — for a variety of publications, rather than working at one place on the same beat for years. Typically you won’t have extreme short, daily deadlines if you’re freelancing, so you can take a little bit longer to really delve into a story.

 

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A roadmap for discovering the identities of unknown retailers

Walmart

Alicia Wallace used unique details from documents to determine a Walmart Neighborhood Market was coming to her coverage area.

Not all retailers are keen on tossing together a flashy press release to announce a store’s arrival. Many prefer to fly under the radar due to a variety of reasons – from ongoing lease negotiations to competitive concerns.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a dead end for reporters. Although all the information might not be out in the open yet, there are some unique avenues that can help journalists identify mystery retailers.

In an article I wrote late last year, “Walmart buzz grows around mystery grocer opening at Boulder’s Diagonal Plaza,” items such as paints, shelving and renderings of a cart corral were significant clues that Walmart – which had tried and failed many times to enter a Boulder market that was not receptive to the retailer’s presence — was behind a mystery grocery store under development.

Walmart’s potential arrival had significant impact on the city’s sales tax base and competitive landscape. It also raised concerns from citizens and municipal leaders, who claimed the retailer was trying to sneak into Boulder.

Below are some tips and hints that could be applicable in efforts to track down an unknown new business and to overcome obstacles that may land in your path:

Start at the store itself. Pay attention to any ongoing activity, types of materials being used in construction and any signs or posting that may lend some clues. Chat up a worker or a neighboring business owner.

Track down the property owner. This information can be accessed via the county’s assessor’s office. If the owner of the building is an LLC, that information can be plugged into respective secretary of state business search portals.

The secretary of state’s search actually came quite in handy for me on a previous article that Trader Joe’s planned to open its first store in Colorado.

Query your city’s licensing office. This helps confirm if certain companies have filed for applications for sales tax, business or liquor licenses.

Search the state regulatory listings. In Colorado, each pharmacist and pharmacy operation had to be registered separately.

Contact the city’s planning and development office. If activity is ongoing, then a building permit most likely was filed. Seek out planning and development documents for the respective property.

These documents typically have some identifying information about the tenant or the planned use. In the case of mystery grocery in Boulder’s Diagonal Plaza, these plans were absent of the retailer’s name.

The building permits and related documents could have a wealth of information even if it’s not the most obvious.

Make note of details that could be significant. Be careful to transcribe specific details exactly as they were worded in the plans. For the article on Walmart, these details included a store number, listing of the departments, the number of checkouts and a general feel for the layout. The mystery grocer’s fixture plan contained vast amounts of “wall mounted wire shelving 18×48 inches” and departments had items such as a check writing desk, RedBox, Rug Doctor and a Money Center Express.

If a paint scheme is listed, write down several of the paints, including those with unique names.

The Diagonal Plaza tenant’s documents did have a store number of “#3096,” which gave me the indication that it was part of a larger chain.

Something to keep in mind: You should have little problem in viewing electronic or hard copies of these planning documents. If you run against issues from the city and officials are denying your requests, ask them to provide the regulatory statute or code that they claim would prohibit this viewing. File an open records request or consult with your publication’s legal team.

The internet can be your friend. In the wire shelving example, I started out with a simple search of “18×48” and then expanded it to include “ ‘wall mounted wire shelving’ ‘18×48’ ” and then searched the names of various retailers.

alicia wallace

Wallace is a reporter at the Daily Camera in Colorado.

I used the same process for the paints and store number.

Try to leave no stone unturned. After not receiving responses from the property owner and Walmart, I contacted other grocers to inquire whether they planned to open a store at Diagonal Plaza. The majority of them did not lay claim to the store.

Don’t let context slip away. Secondary sources such as a city finance official or a retail analyst can provide perspective on the effects of a retailer’s arrival and also provide some clues to further identify a mystery tenant.

Search the company’s “careers” page to see if hiring is taking place in your city.

Sign up for job notification alerts for specific companies. After we were given a heads up that Walmart had made a job posting on Monster for a Boulder hire, I tracked down additional postings and wrote an article. That same day, Walmart announced it was opening a Neighborhood Market at Diagonal Plaza.

As with any document or internet search, be very cautious about the validity of the information and how you convey that in the article.

We felt that the wide variety of elements I obtained through online and in-person reporting were substantial enough to lay out in an article as several different pieces aligned with Walmart as opposed to other retailers.

Don’t give up. Continue to pursue the story and go through the checks again to see if new documents have been filed or new information is available. (And don’t miss the video below where I walk through the key details that helped me uncover the Walmart story.)

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Google Fusion Tables: A guide for business reporters

google fusion

An interactive map created using Google Fusion that maps planned developments in Boulder.

As business journalists, we handle scores of data and do our best to use those figures and statistics to both build and bolster articles.

Some of the benefits from the ever-expanding digital world include not only the increasing amount of information, but also the emergence of unique ways to visualize data.

I’ve found that Google Fusion Tables is one, relatively user-friendly, avenue to take shallow and deep sets of data and craft them in ways that are easy to read and digest. One benefit of Google Fusion Tables is the “fusion” element. There are reams of existing tables of public data – including geographic vector data – that could be used to enhance your table.

In my work at the Daily Camera in Boulder, I’ve used Google Fusion to create interactive maps to detail impending developments, patents granted across all U.S. counties and local craft breweries and breweries in development.

Need a visual? Check out my tutorial below. It’s a step-by-step guide detailing the building of a simple Google Fusion Table interactive map on U.S. patent data. (Depending on the device you’re using, it might be easier to read by entering into full screen.)

I’m a newbie. For the past few months I’ve simply scratched the surface of incorporating Google Fusion into my stories. But a handful of journalists have been utilizing the tool much longer and they shared advice for business journalists looking to dive in.

Maximize the base data

Sandra Fish, a Colorado-based journalist and journalism instructor, specializes in data analysis and interactive reporting. She has utilized Google Fusion for a several years.

“If you’re already using Google spreadsheets, you are almost using Google Fusion Tables,” said Fish, who writes for The Washington Post and other publications in addition to teaching at the University of Colorado.  “It’s just one more step into that.”

Primarily a political reporter, Fish has used Google Fusion to create interactive maps and charts that detail information such as the number of female Congress members over time.

“There are so many opportunities for a business reporter … especially in real estate,” she said.

Sandra Fish

Some quick ways to integrate Google Fusion Tables into everyday reporting include crafting tables, line graphs or interactive maps for topics such as unemployment rates, gasoline prices, stock prices and properties sold.

“You need that base data, though, to create this table that has richer information than you would get from a Google map that has just the addresses,” she said.

For example, Google Fusion allowed a group of Fish’s students who were working as part of the newly launched CU Journalism News Service to create an interactive map of the properties burned in the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs.

Fish shared the following nuggets of advice for business journos just starting to work with Google Fusion Tables:

Using the tool to spot patterns

At National Public Radio, a web team developed a plug-in that allows its StateImpact reporters to build Google Fusion Tables inside WordPress.

The addition of the visual elements assist in the broader StateImpact goals of providing data-driven, enterprise reporting on topics related to the economy and government on state levels, said Amanda Loder, NPR’s StateImpact reporter for New Hampshire.

Amanda Loder

“When you have a very small government that isn’t able to keep track of a lot of things, whatever data you can bring to the table is a huge thing,” she said.

Some of Loder’s articles that have incorporated Google Fusion Tables include pieces on the state’s vacation homes and home health care pay.

The tables and maps are useful in helping to see patterns and also could be used to find stories and sources, she said. For example, she added, mapping the concentration of vacation homes in New Hampshire could show which townships and populations are reliant on the boom-and-bust tourism cycle.

Intensity and heat maps can draw the eye and draw attention to activities within a certain area and quickly show that “something either really good or really bad is happening in this area,” she said.

Some additional tips from Loder include:

  • For comprehensive datasets for business reporting, visit the U.S. Census site.
  • You don’t need to incorporate a map with every story. “Do it when it makes sense to do it,” she said. “If a table tells the story better, just use the table.”

Understand the limitations

Lucas Timmons, a data journalist based in Canada, has used Google Fusion Tables for about two years and appreciates some of the functionality. However, there are some limitations, he said.

Lucas Timmons

“The benefits of (Fusion Tables) are that it’s free and has a pretty low learning curve. It also can make use of the Google APIs and works well with JavaScript, so you can build almost any type of visualization you want,” Timmons wrote in an e-mail.

“The downsides are that there is a 250 MB limit on data, the are few makers available for use on the map, dealing with the data in Fusion Tables can be cumbersome, and you’re tethered to Google with no guarantee the service will always be free, or will always be supported.”

Some additional links to Google Fusion resources for journalists: Data Journalism Blog, Online News Association and also Google’s Fusion Tables example gallery.

0

Find and mine databases for fresh angles on tired topics

baltimore sun

Screenshots from The Baltimore Sun's "Taxing Baltimore" series

When Baltimore’s high property tax rates became a central topic in last summer’s mayoral election, reporters at The Baltimore Sun sought novel ways of examining the issue. The rates are “far and away, the highest in Maryland,” so it was not a new story, said reporter Scott Calvert.

In order to explore new territory and augment their reporting, Calvert and other journalists from The Sun turned to numbers.

Today’s tip: Know what data is out there and dive into the numbers for fresh angles. 

By getting their hands on and mining a database of property tax records, Calvert, Jamie Smith Hopkins and their colleagues were able to develop a series of articles called “Taxing Baltimore.” The stories exposed how mismanagement, clerical errors and lacking oversight related to the Homestead Tax Credit – a cap on assessment increases for owner-occupied properties – deprived the city of millions of dollars and created inequity among homeowners’ tax bills.

The introduction to the series says:

“To report these stories, The Sun used an automated process called “scraping” to copy 237,000 property tax records from the city’s website and compile them into a database. The first articles detailed how the Homestead Property Tax Credit has morphed into a massive subsidy fueling widespread inequality among homeowners – a problem made worse by errors in billing and inadequate government oversight.”

The Sun turned to data scraping after city officials denied reporters’ requests for a complete database of property tax records and related credits. The records were aggregated in a mainframe and in an archaic format that would have been time-consuming for the city and, hence, extremely expensive for The Sun, according to Calvert.

“Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Calvert said. “But, if all else fails, the data scrape is an option.”

scott calvert

Scott Calvert

Noticing the individual tax bills were posted online, The Sun – through a fellow Tribune group reporter – scraped the 237,000 individual records, compiled them into a database and used programs such as Excel and Access to sort the information to discover trends in the data.

With a sharp eyes on the effects of the Homestead Tax Credit, sorts revealed information such as: which homeowners had the biggest discount on their taxes; data entry errors that resulted in billing mistakes; how rates compared for next-door neighbors; and who was double-dipping on the credit. Their efforts have resulted in increased enforcement action and legislation that targets scofflaws.

To identify the “double-dippers” involved taking additional steps that included locating similar names then comparing identifying information such as similar addresses and spouses. It also involved using public information databases such as Nexis to verify the information.

Data can lead to a wealth of story ideas and online interactive features, including maps, photo galleries and searchable databasesbut Calvert urges reporters to take further steps to  find people who illustrate the issue.

“Numbers are interesting, but they only tell part of the story,” he said. “You’ve got to find the people.”

0

Use your gut, sources and skills to find unique stories in everyday topics

Colin Wiel

A screenshot from Bloomberg's interview with Colin Wiel, co-founder of Waypoint Real Estate Group LLC.

Source development and a good bit of preliminary reporting helped result in Edward Robinson unearthing a real estate trend article about the private equity market yielding “awesome” gains from converting foreclosed single-family homes into rentals.

Robinson, a senior writer for Bloomberg Markets for the last 10 years, heard from his private equity sources last summer that investment firms were buying foreclosed homes at auctions and converting them into rentals instead of flipping. Robinson knew he possibly had a story, but he was skeptical until he started delving in and connecting with his sources.

Once he got his hands on a confidential report from investor Bill Ackman that mentioned single-family homes as a growing asset class, Robinson knew he had something.

Robinson’s tip: “You go with your gut.”

“It never hurts to do some preliminary reporting,” he said. “When you’ve done that, you’ve got to go with your intuition.”

His gut, sources and skills led him to tell the story of Waypoint Real Estate Group LLC, a California investment firm that is buying about five foreclosed houses a day, turning them into rental properties and posting yields of greater than 8 percent.

The cost of renting in the U.S. reached an all-time high compared with that of buying a home at the end of last year, indicating it’s a good time for investors to purchase, Deutsche Bank AG (DBK) analysts said in a note today. Should property values rebound, Waypoint may earn at least 20 percent from appreciation in an eventual sale of the houses, says Colin Wiel, who co- founded the firm in 2008 after backing technology startups as an angel investor.

“I never thought I’d be rolling up single-family homes,” Wiel says. “But the yields are awesome.”

His article on money managers focused primarily on the investment angle – as it was more appropriate for Bloomberg Markets’ readership base. Other angles could include the welfare of the community, following the players at the foreclosure auctions or telling the stories of the characters and the culture on the courthouse steps.

“You have to make decisions along the way in terms of what story you’re going to tell,” he said.

If reporters are facing a sprawling subject area or a seemingly daunting topic, Robinson suggests looking for “the case study.”

“Find the key players, get your interviews and just let it rip from there,” he said.

1

It’s Baaaack!: Braving that Black Friday shopping story

The pre-dawn events of the day after Thanksgiving may cause some reporters’ adrenaline to jump as they attempt to cover the door-busting frenzy in their respective hometowns. For other business reporters, it seems that no two words stir more sickly feelings of dread than “Black Friday.”

Black Friday 2011Some veteran journos say they loathe covering the post-Thanksgiving shopping rush because the story is over-hyped, over-played and has little value for readers. Others say they despise covering the “hordes-of-shoppers-flooded-the-malls” story so much that they wouldn’t want to comment for this article.

One reporter’s tongue-in-cheek spite: “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.”

Despite any resentment or fears of stale coverage, some of us have no choice but to write an article on Black Friday. Here are a few tips and words of wisdom to help you cover the events of the day; add value to what you write; and also go outside the box with that coverage.

ADD VALUE

Melissa Allison, a Seattle Times business reporter has covered the day after Thanksgiving with her colleague, Amy Martinez, for the past five years.

Allison cautioned that the day presents challenges for business journalists. “It’s more of a feature,” she said. “It’s the same basic story every year.”

To inject more value into coverage, Allison suggests the following:

  • Give a critical eye to pundits’ pre-holiday season projections – as those often are wrong
  • Do your homework on your sources. Sometimes the “holiday shopping expert” touted on the press release that just rolled into your inbox is being bankrolled by a retailer.
  • Pay heed to earnings calls and reports. Companies such as Costco shed light on their approaches and tactics for the holiday shopping season.
  • Know your malls. Some shopping center officials can be difficult sometimes and may want to hold a reporters’ hand through the process. Others are fine with reporters who roam more freely.
  • Come prepared before you conduct the parking lot interview. Find a person whose shopping cart contents are representative of a certain trend (be it electronics or luxury item) and ask them about the reasoning behind their purchase and why they’re feeling confident about spending money.

“It is nice not to be completely random,” Allison said.

Her Times’ colleague Jon Talton, who writes an economics analysis column for the paper and also is a Reynolds Center contributing writer, said the frenzied environment overwhelms the sophistication and skepticism inherent to reporting.

Journalists should dig deeper into looking at the stakes for retailers (who are the winners and losers); be aware of how consumers have deleveraged; and unearth the “compelling personalities.”

“I remember the (Wall Street Journal) doing a story years ago about a manager for a single department store, preparing for the holiday season,” Talton wrote. “It was full of details, sophisticated knowledge of how the business actually worked, used her as the lens through which to tell the whole story.  “That’s value-added journalism I’ll pay for in a crowded information universe. ‘Shoppers Flock to Malls’ … no.”

OUTSIDE THE (BIG) BOX

Al Tompkins, Poynter’s sovereign of story ideas has written about Black Friday coverage in the past, but also provided some additional suggestions based on recent surveys and trends.

“Lots of websites give you the scoop on what is going to be hot … I like stories about other stuff,” he said via e-mail.

Black Friday Shopping

By Flickr user Beth Rankin

Tompkins said that “other stuff” could be:

HANDY RESOURCES

During the past eight seasons over covering Black Friday, I’ve come to realize how imperative it is to develop a battle plan.

  • Create a social media strategy for the day and be mindful of Twitter hashtags shoppers may be using. In past years, our paper anchored a real-time Twitter ticker on the front of our webpage featuring tweets that included our localized hashtag (#bocoblackfriday)
  • A website or Facebook solicit in early November can help you secure that family you want to camp out with/follow around in the early morning or to meet up with the folks who are not shopping that day.
  • Be aware how earlier openings could affect coverage. Macy’s and Target are starting sales at midnight.
  • Don’t let Black Friday (which sometimes is not the biggest shopping day of the holiday season) overshadow other potential business stories on that day.
  • There are a number of sites to store in the quiver for the day.
  • BFads.net and theblackfriday.com: These sites have a number of ad scans uploaded prior to their expected publishing dates. The ads could be used to help gauge trends and retailers’ expectations through comparing prices, placement and tactic. They also are helpful in drawing up a plan of attack for reporters in determining what stores to hit at what times. Theblackfriday.com also features content on “what’s hot.”
  • The NPD Group‘s holidaymarketresearch.com, which has some accessible market research; projections; and analysis.
  • The International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry trade association
  • The National Retail Federation, an industry advocacy organization
  • ShopperTrak analyzes foot-traffic for retailers and typically publishes information on the “busiest shopping days.”
  • Consulting firm Accenture typically conducts a holiday-related survey. This year’s survey also contains information on consumer behaviors and technology use.
  •  Other firms, including Deloitte, jump into the soothsaying fray as well. Here’s a recent Philadelphia Inquirer piece following that release.
  • I also like Reis Inc. for some perspective on the health of shopping center and mall real estate.
  • Be sure to keep the U.S. Department of Commerce’s latest data close at hand.

 

 

3

Deep digging in SEC filings: Tips for mining the Form D

SEC filings I’m the geeky type who loves Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The documents can be goldmines in the coverage of publicly-traded companies.

I’ve set up e-mail alerts to track local, national and international firms of interest, and I feel a small burst of excitement when notices for SEC filings – especially the likes of an 8-K, a Def 14A or a 10-K – hit the inbox.

The SEC filing that has piqued my interest recently is the Form D. These filings help shine a light on the investment activities of privately held firms and partnerships. In a startup-heavy city like Boulder, it’s vital to keep watch on the financial plays being made in the community.

The SEC defines the Form D – filed by private firms and partnerships that meet one of three Securities Act exemptions, which essentially permit the sale of unregistered securities – as “a brief notice that includes the names and addresses of the company’s executive officers and stock promoters, but contains little other information about the company.”

Even though the Form Ds, which usually runs about seven to nine pages, may appear sparse at first glance, don’t be fooled.  Information packed inside this form can become a catalyst for stories ranging from a short daily to an in-depth enterprise.

I’ve been able to utilize the filings in a variety of articles. Two recent examples include a brief on Broomfield-based Biodesix raising $10 million in  funds and a larger story on Boulder-based OPX Biotechnologies raising $36.5 million.

THE HISTORY OF FORM D

The Form Ds can be found for free at the SEC’s website or are available on fee-based sites such as Morningstar Document Research, Edgar Pro and SEC Watch. These pay sites allow greater flexibility for research and users can set up alerts specific to the company, filing or geographic area. Other sites like FormDs.com and Stealth Mode Watch also tout Form D-related information, which includes viewing and receiving specific information and also unmasking companies operating in “stealth mode.”

Form Ds, however, are relatively lesser known in reporting circles as they’ve only been available online for less than three years. In 2008, an amendment to Regulation D included a stipulation that Form Ds be electronically filed.

For a nice read on a business journalist’s perspective on Form Ds’ paper to electronic shift, check out this Marketwatch column by Scott Austin from 2008. Austin details the difficultly faced by reporters trying get their hands on the Form Ds. Before moving online, the forms were mailed to the SEC, which then kept one copy on public file at its Washington, D.C., headquarters for a 30-day period.

In the column, Austin praised the positives of moving online: Reporters no longer had to ask colleagues in the Washington bureau’s help to peruse the filings and send via fax.

But he also pointed out that investors were no longer identified on the electronic forms. Also, he added, companies, investors and public relations agencies could be frustrated the information became more publicly available. More recently, some companies have asked whether it was necessary to file a Form D at all, Ivan Gaviria,  a Silicon Valley-based startup lawyer, detailed in this piece.

THE STRUCTURE

The Form D is numbered in sections. You’ll want to read the full document from top to bottom, but make sure you zero in and carefully read on a few key areas.

The first is No.13. This section, which lists “Offering and Sales Amounts,” will allow you to quickly determine the newsworthiness of the filing. Under item 13 in this 2010 filing from Twitter, you’ll see that the offering was nearly $5.17 million and that the social media site was successful at selling the entirety of the round.

form DIf there’s an amount remaining to be sold, make sure you watch for an amendment, a Form D/A, to be filed in the future.

THE FUNDS

Here are some of the key items to read to learn more details about the offering.

No. 6 – Federal Exemption(s) and Exclusion(s) Claimed: You can cross-check this with the SEC regs.

No. 7 – Type of Filing: This will give you an idea of the offering’s timing and whether the filing is an amendment or the first sale.

No. 9 – Type(s) of Securities Offered: You’ll see whether the investment was funded from debt, equity or other types of securities. Like any SEC document, keep an eye out for the footnotes or the explanation of “other.”

No. 10 – Business Combination Transaction: This item could provide details on merger and acquisition transactions that had undisclosed terms. In Twitter’s case, this box was checked in the affirmative. Sites such as PaidContent later connected the dots and traced the Form D filing to a December acquisition of Mixer Labs.

No. 16 – Use of Proceeds: This is not as juicy as it sounds as it only details any payment made to one of the “related parties” (the executives, directors and other folks listed in item No. 3).  However, it is helpful to see if the founding member of the company got a slice of the pie.

THE PEOPLE

While investors’ identities remain cloaked, you can gain some details, including the number and type, under item No. 14.  Also look at item No. 3 on related persons, as the new investor(s) may have become board members.

Daniel Levine, former TechCrunch research analyst and CrunchBase contributor, noticed a couple prominent names – Condoleezza Rice and Thomas Seibel – on a Form D filing for startup C3 and pieced together a telling story about a company kept mostly under wraps.

Levine’s post highlights the role Form Ds can play in business reporting and generating new stories.

You no longer have to be at the mercy of quarterly venture capital reports and press releases to develop a daily news story or a larger trend article on private financings of companies in your community.

Before digging in, take a look at sites like CrunchBaseVentureWire and TechCrunch, which do a great job of tracking Form Ds to quickly publish nuggets of information, generate larger stores and bolster databases.

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