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Cale Ottens

Cale is a 2012 Reynolds Center intern. He is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and is specializing in multimedia business journalism. He is also a summer intern with the Phoenix Business Journal and has previously reported for the Cronkite News Service, The Arizona Republic and The State Press.

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Business beat coverage advice from an investment expert

sheldon jacobs book

Sheldon Jacobs is the founder of one of the nation’s top investment newsletters, The No-Load Investor, as well as the author of 25 books. When we sat down with him recently for a 5 Questions feature, he had a lot of great basic tips for anyone covering investment and finance. Here are the outtakes from that bigger interview.

Listen and strive for accuracy

At the outset, let me admit that I would make a lousy reporter. That’s because I am not a good listener. (That’s why I became a guru instead.)  So my first advice is be a good listener.

Secondly get the facts straight. Check, check, check. See that the data you quote are the latest available. Make sure they are reasonable.

Let me give you an example.  About 20 years ago, the Westchester section of The New York Times had a page-one headline that read, “Twenty-five percent of people living in Westchester are so poor they can’t afford both food and shelter.” The body copy quoted a study to this effect. (This is from memory; these were not the headline’s exact words, but they accurately convey its substance.) The headline was in at least 26-point type.

Now Westchester is one of the 10 richest counties in America. Yes, there are pockets of poverty, but 25 percent! If you took the headline literally it would mean that one-fourth of the people were either starving to death or sleeping in Westchester’s parks. The New York Times had never reported any such happenings, so why did they accept such a preposterous study at face value? I don’t know, but I assume there was a bias somewhere.

Conquer innumeracy

It is my observation that many writers, who are very good with words, aren’t so hot at numbers. This is a condition called innumeracy. A few of these afflicted people remind me of the old joke about a man who orders a pizza pie. When asked whether he wants it cut into six or eight slices, he replies “eight, I’m hungry.” This may not be a problem if you are writing about the arts, but it certainly is a problem if you cover business or investing. Top-flight business reporters are not innumerate.

When you are writing about any subject that depends on statistics, such as climate change, rising income inequality, the effects of secondhand smoke, or the effectiveness of preschool interventions, make sure you understand the data.

Learn to construct charts and tables that can stand on their own, back up the written content, and are properly labeled. Make sure the point they are endeavoring to make is clear. If you are working in print, follow the lead of television news shows where the graphics are far cleaner and easily read on the small screen.

Take a survey course in statistics

Learn the significance of the margin of error for polling data. Take that into account when describing polling data. Very few reporters do. Learn to identify sample bias.

Be very careful when color-coding graphs

I once saw a chart in a major newspaper coded in five colors. Three of the five colors were various shades of red (which don’t reproduce as well in newsprint as in glossies). Since I am one of the 7  to 10 percent of men who are red-green color blind, this chart completely lost me.

Here are two examples to illustrate innumeracy. The first is a wistful paragraph in Barron’s introducing an article about the market:

Sheldon Jacobs

“Back in high school math class one of the problems I hated was this: A bathtub is filling at x gallons per minute, but water is draining at an (x-1) rate. How long before the 60-gallon tub is filled? The math geniuses—most of whom probably run their own quant shops now—figured it relatively quickly, but I struggled. I’d always think, why not plug the drain?”  – Vito J. Racaneli

Another example of innumerate judgment appeared in The New York Times business section on April 14, 2001. The article reported that profits increased by 58 percent at Conoco and by 51 percent at ExxonMobil. The headline that topped the article read: “Profits More Than Double At Conoco and ExxonMobil.” Perhaps the headline writer (probably a different person than the reporter) added the two gains together to get the “double.” Or, maybe he thought +50 percent is a double. Of course, his mind may have just been elsewhere when he wrote it.

Stop the pitfalls behind major studies

When reporting on a major study, read the whole study. These studies, which can be 20 or more pages in length, generally come in two parts. The first part is usually called the “Executive Summary” which can be one to three pages in length. The Executive Summery is then followed by the body of the report, which is where the tables and questionnaire with responses are placed. The organizations that produce these studies have found from long experience that the only thing that gets read thoroughly is the Executive Summary. The bodies of the reports are briefly scanned at best. These readers, of course, include the press, many of whom are either lazy or pressed for time.

Many, many years ago I read about a study produced by Channel 13, the PBS television station in New York City. It told of remarkable audience gains and greater interest in public TV programs. Since I was working for NBC at the time, I obtained a copy of the study and read it thoroughly. I found (to my surprise) that there was absolutely no data in the body of the report backing up the Executive Summary’s glowing conclusions.

Know what is unknowable

Luckily your job is to report, which is easier than to know. But it still helps to be able to differentiate what is knowable from what is unknowable. The best current example for reporters is “global warming.” It is my belief that the earth’s temperature in the year 2100 (a date that has appeared in print) is essentially unknowable. There are simply too many variables to consider. This means nobody knows whether or not there will be global warming in the future.

I speak as an expert in this matter. In both my television and financial careers, forecasting was a major part of my job description. If you think it’s possible to forecast the weather over decades, I challenge you to forecast the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s level 88 years from now. This is a fairly simple task compared to weather forecasts as the Dow has only two variables. The weather has many more. Any takers? I thought not. Understanding what is not knowable will make you a far better reporter.


 

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Investment guru Sheldon Jacobs shares advice on covering the stock market

Sheldon Jacobs

Sheldon Jacobs knew he wouldn’t make it as a traditional business reporter, so he built a career providing expert investment advice to the general public. In 1974, he launched a monthly mutual-fund newsletter, The No-Load Fund Investor, and wrote his way to the top. 

Jacobs said there were several other publications specializing in no-loads when he started the newsletter, but outside competition didn’t stop him. He grew the venture into the top  financial newsletter for risk-adjusted performance in the United States for a 15 year span, which ended in June 2006.

Recently, Jacobs shifted his focus. He now strives to offer the most rewarding advice that will make a lifelong difference in his readers’ wealth. With this goal in mind, he published his 25th book, “Investing without Wall Street” in April.

We asked the investment guru to share advice for business journalists on how to more effectively cover the investment industry.

1) What stock market and investing stories are unreported by the media?

Clearly the most important omission is the lack of sell advice.  There is good reason for this. Any reader can buy but selling is mostly limited to the much smaller number of people who already own the security. Sell advice rare in print, and virtually non-existent in broadcast. Newsletters are the exception.

The media seldom covers itself. That’s a serious omission. I tried to remedy this in my book “Investing without Wall Street” since you can do this in a book where there is essentially no reader recourse such as letters to the editors’ columns. You would have a harder time doing it in a periodical where the publications you might want to write about are competitors.

Much of the media attempts to cater to a diverse group of readers. This makes it hard for them to offer specific advice for a single segment of the audience, but there are occasions when they should try. At the very least, explain who is the intended target for the information or advice.

Many reporters fail to make clear the special expertise of the person being interviewed. Many professionals promote themselves as generalists, but usually their expertise is much narrower. For example, some are expert at security selection; others at market timing, economics, or fundamental strategies. One thing you will find out is that the persons being interviewed will almost never respond to a question by saying, “I don’t know.” That’s because if these “experts” do, they often find themselves out of the story. Even worse, their opinions may never be solicited again. You, as a reporter, need to become skilled at knowing who doesn’t know and what they don’t know.

2) What experiences with investing and the stock market led you to write, “Investing without Wall Street”?

“Investing without Wall Street” is the culmination of my 40-year financial career. I wrote the first book ever on investing in no-load mutual funds in 1974. That led to a 25-year career as a newsletter editor and publisher. During the halcyon bull markets of the 1980s and 1990s investors focused mainly on reward; very little attention was paid to risk. While my newsletter was always on the conservative side compared to my competitors, I, like the rest of the media, necessarily catered to that growth seeking audience.

But we now have been in a secular bear market since 2000—and it may continue for many years.  Investors now need good advice on managing both risk and reward. “Investing without Wall Street” focuses on this new need.

With retirement, I recognized the need to simplify investing to the greatest extent possibly while still achieving above average returns. So I wrote “Investing without Wall Street” to show non-expert investors that they could succeed in the market without having to spend hours and hours of study. It is quite different from my previous writings

Larger version of 5 questions with logo3) What do you think an investment reporter should focus on while work the beat? 

News that is actionable. News that personally affects the reader.

4) How do you write about investing and the stock market in a way that is easily understood by the general public?

I write and rewrite each and every sentence several times. I then read aloud what I have written to make sure it sounds all right.

5) What resources should business reporters utilize to their enhance stock market coverage?

Uniquely, my book has two chapters on the media. I think the most important thing for all investors to do, whether they are reporters, laymen or investment professionals, is to be thoroughly conversant with the financial media.

I think newspapers are the most important medium to read because they are published daily making them the most timely. In many instances they actually cover investing more completely than targeted media published weekly or monthly. I recommend reporters read The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and the Sunday and special reports of The New York Times. Among magazines I believe Money, Smart Money, Kiplinger’s and Forbes are must-reads. Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fortune are also helpful. Also familiarize yourself with business radio and TV and the Internet.

Don’t ignore newsletters. They are the only medium that consistently offers portfolio advice continually updated. If you happen to get on a comp list for a newsletter, skim it to see if there is any helpful information you can use. Newsletters are very good at offering unbiased securities recommendations. Make an effort to personally know several newsletter editors. They are very good sources of information and opinion, and are usually willing to share it with you. All they ask is that they be quoted by name.

Sheldon Jacobs is the founder of one of the nation’s top investment newsletters, The No-Load Investor, as well as the author of 25 books. When we sat down with him recently for this 5 Questions feature, he had a lot of great basic tips for anyone covering investment and finance. Here are the outtakes from that bigger interview: Business beat coverage advice from an expert.

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Help a biz journalist out: Share experts for Reynolds’ sourcing database

The Reynolds Center needs your help to create a new tool to help business reporters track down experts in particular fields.

We don’t want you to give up the contact information for your sources, but if you’ve found a good expert that you’ve used for a story on banking, the economy or real estate and would be willing to share his or her contact information, we could use your help.

Just fill in the fields below or send responses to Reynolds Center intern Cale Ottens at cottens@asu.edu:

All of the contacts will be compiled to create an east-to-use tool for business journalists new to each of these key coverage areas. If you have additional questions, feel free to email Cale or call him at 602-377-8799.

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WSJ’s Russell Gold shares his roadmap for covering the energy beat

Whether he’s covering energy, oil prices, commodities or hurricanes, Russell Gold finds a way to connect with his readers.

Russell Gold, Wall Street Journal

WSJ energy reporter Russell Gold visits Chesapeake drill site. Photo by: Angel Gonzalez

It was love that brought Gold to his current job as an energy beat reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Austin. He was a reporter first for the San Antonio Express-News before joining the Journal’s energy desk in 2000. He wanted to continue living in Texas to be with his current wife and covering the energy industry provided the perfect fit.

Since taking over the beat, Gold has won a Gerald Loeb Award and was a finalist for the national reporting Pulitzer Prize in 2011. His reporting also earned him an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, a Deadline Club Award and a second place National Headliner Award.

Below Gold shares tips to help other energy reporters find success on the beat.

1) What advice can you give business reporters to help them cover local energy stories in their communities?

Energy often seems like an intimidatingly complex subject. But it’s not. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – and then ask more questions. It has been my experience that people in the industry are receptive and willing to share their time when you are genuinely interested in how their business works.

Also, while energy is a global story, it all comes down to people consuming energy. And Americans are energy gluttons – we consume an enormous amount of energy per capita. So any local reporter has a great way to get into this story: the U.S. consumer, local commuters, etc.

Spend time to visit a facility. I also try to tour refineries, drill sites, etc. You can’t see much or understand what all the pipes do. But the trip out there, the time on site and the trip back and great opportunities to just talk to people in the industry in a relaxed environment and get a sense of what’s going on. Take every opportunity you can to get company officials out of their office and on the road. They relax and talk more freely away from the office.

2) What resources would you suggest beginning business reporters use to stay connected and learn about the oil and energy industries?

Read some books. For oil reporters, I would suggest Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize” and Mark Singer’s “Funny Money.” Michael Lewis’ book, “The Big Short,” is a very accessible introduction to Wall Street, its power and foibles.

Also, spend some time reading SEC filings for companies you plan to cover. At the least, read the most recent 10-k and a couple recent 10-Qs. Print them out and highlight them. Mark them up. What makes sense? What don’t you understand? Read the section where the company describes its business and its risks, as well as its financial and cash-flow statements.

Figure out what people in the industry read – what trade magazines do they use to talk to each other and make time to read them also. In the oil business, the mid-level petroleum engineers have lots of magazines and are always presenting papers about this and that. It’s a great way to see what these guys – who are the heart of the industry – are talking about.

Find a Wall Street analyst who you can understand and read his/her reports.

3) What national energy stories can business reporters track down in their own backyards?

Fracking is a national story occurring in many backyards. Where are oil companies leasing? Where are they drilling? What are they telling the landowners? Which landowners are happy and which are upset? What’s the difference? Are local officials embracing? Is there tension between locals and state officials?

Larger version of 5 questions with logo4) How do you make a complex topic like commodities resonate with the average reader?

There are a lot of commodities traded around the world that have an indirect impact on consumers. Good luck, though, connecting soy prices to the cost of food in your pantry. Energy is different. Gasoline prices are posted at every gas station. We all understand the impact of rising (or falling) gasoline prices. We also have a pretty good understanding of rising natural gas prices – since most of us use the fuel to heat our homes and boil water.  The other nice thing about gas stations is that people have to sit there for a couple minutes as they fill their tanks – a good opportunity to talk about the impact of commodity prices on their wallet.

What’s more, rising and falling crude oil prices have a pretty straightforward impact on the economy and job availability. Almost any economists at a local university can make that connection.

So, it’s pretty easy to make a couple calls or a quick trip to a gas station to find a person to talk about the impact of rising gasoline prices.

5) What are some hot topics in the industry that reporters need to have on their radar in the next year?

The world is pumping a lot of oil right now at a time when the global economy looks pretty weak. We could see falling oil prices – which will have a major impact on drilling and hiring in the oilfield.

Also, there’s nothing like a presidential election to focus attention on energy prices. Until November, it is sure to come up again and again. Remember “Drill, baby, drill.” That gained national attention at the 2008 Republican national convention.

Natural gas prices are also really low – and could got a lot lower this fall if winter storage fills up and there’s no place to put all the excess. Low gas prices will have a continuing impact on fuels that compete for power generation market share. In the U.S., low natural gas prices will continue to hurt coal, renewable energy and even nuclear power.

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Loeb finalist Ken Bensinger on crafting an investigative routine

Photo by Gary Friedman, Los Angeles Times

Ken Bensinger was working his beat at a national auto dealer show in San Francisco when he found a salesman selling a device that shut down a car’s ignition system remotely. Intrigued, he asked the salesman a few questions and ended up jotting the information down in his story idea notebook.

Shortly after the show, Bensinger began working on a series of stories about the malfunctions and forced recalls of many Toyota vehicles, which kept him busy for about 18 months.

With the series behind him, Bensinger took a deeper look into his notebook. There he found the story idea from the auto show and began initial reporting on the topic. As he did more research, he realized the story had legs.

Bensinger filled 22 steno notebooks with interviews and read hundreds of legal documents to write “Wheels of Fortune,” a three-part series for the Los Angeles Times. The stories took readers inside  tactics used by many “Buy Here Sell Here” used car dealerships across the country. The series revealed how some of these companies take advantage of consumers with poor credit scores.

Bensinger’s work earned him a finalist spot in the 2012 Gerald Loeb Awards for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism and a Society of Business Editors and Writers Award. The investigative reporter’s Toyota coverage won him a Loeb Award, and placed him as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the Michael Kelly Award and the Scripps Howard Award in 2010.

After multiple complex investigations, Bensinger has learned the ins and outs of handling large projects. He said there are still countless ways for business journalists to find in-depth story opportunities when covering their respective beats.

For starters, look for story ideas that interest you.

“You have to trust your gut as a reporter,” he said. “If you hear about something that sparks your interest, look more into it. If it’s interesting to you, it’ll probably be interesting to the readers too. ”

Ken Bensinger

Focus on what you’re good at, Bensinger added. If you enjoy storytelling, try to find a story that revolves around a central character, which allows you to write a narrative piece. The same remains true whether your strength is covering breaking news or analyzing legal documents. The best work will come from playing off your strengths, he said.

Next, stay organized. While working on the series, Bensinger looked through hundreds of documents from bankruptcy courts, state and county civil courts, lawyers, and public record requests. He said he tried to read each document entirely and organize them in piles based on their topic and relevance.

In addition, Bensinger said he wrote the names of each of the sources included in the notebook on the cover to maximize efficiency.

Not every story is going to require as much organization, but it’s essential you strive to know every possible detail.

Bensinger recalled when he was a child and adults would tell him to “look both ways before crossing the street.” He said reporters should avoid that mindset and instead look in every direction. You can easily leave out vital information if you don’t look at every angle.

He also encourages young reporters to not be shy when talking to sources.

“Don’t be afraid to ask something that’s off topic,” he said. “It may spark something for a future story.”

Business reporters covering the auto beat specifically ought to look into the financial aspects of the industry for story ideas, Bensinger said.

“An overlooked aspect is understanding the money,” he said. “Follow the flow of the money. It’s a finance game. It’s about lending money and gaining interest. There are more stories in the finance aspect. Think like a CEO.”

 

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Visual storytelling techniques you can use on the business beat

victoria lim

Victoria Lim. Photo by Cale Ottens

Victoria Lim visited Haiti after the earthquakes to report a sports story, but found the devastating damage to the country shouldn’t be shared in just words.

The experienced multiplatform journalist turned instead to photography and voice recordings to detail a man’s quest to establish a soccer academy and foundation for children in a shattered city.

Lim shared her experiences working as a multimedia journalist and offered coverage advice to a group of media professionals in her visual storytelling training session held on May 18 at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Visual storytelling was one of the topics discussed at JournCamp, a daylong workshop on digital journalism, sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists  and the Online News Association.

Though digital storytelling can be applied to virtually any aspect of journalism – Lim shared tips specifically for how to tell business stories with a visual eye. Here are her suggestions:

  • Show the impact: If you are faced with the challenge of telling the story about a woman who lost her entire fortune because of a scandal, it’s best to simply show the viewers how the woman was impacted, Lim explained. For example: Lim once worked on a story with a similar focus and decided to shoot video footage of the woman’s grandiose home, including her large backyard, picket fence and swimming pool. Then she grabbed footage of where the woman was currently living – a small room in her daughter’s one-story house. Instead of simply stating how much this woman lost due to the scam, Lim detailed the lost with specific examples.
  • Compare numbers to something people can relate to: If you are trying to emphasize a large amount of something, it may be more affective to compare the figure to another number, instead of bluntly stating the exact amount. For instance, you could say something like, “the damage caused the company to lose 350,000 gallons of oil, which could fill about 16 swimming pools,” instead of just saying, “the company lost 350,000 gallons of oil because of the damage.”
Often with the help of web designers or artists, reporters can present numerical data and figures using an animated visual. Lim detailed an example from The Guardian called “We are the 99 percent.” The animation describes the impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement on the majority of Americans.
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Reynolds Center ties to the 2012 Gerald Loeb Awards finalists

Loeb Award

Gerald Loeb Award

Four previous Barlett & Steele Award winners are nominated for a 2012 Gerald Loeb Award, in addition to a Reynolds Center staff member and presenter.

The Loeb Awards, presented by the UCLA Anderson School of Management, honor distinguished business and financial journalism. The winners will be announced at an awards dinner on June 26 in New York City. Here’s the complete list of the Loeb finalists in all 13 categories.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporters Raquel Rutledge and Rick Barrett are finalists in the medium and small newspaper category for their series, Shattered Trust.” Both reporters were recognized by the Reynolds Center in January for the same series, which revealed how a firm with a decade of serious regulatory violations of sanitary conditions was allowed to operate while the Food and Drug Administration failed to act. John Diedrich, Ben Poston and Mike de Sisti also contributed to the series, which won the 2011 Barlett & Steele Silver Award for Investigative Business Journalism.

Another reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, John Fauber, is a finalist in the Loeb’s beat reporting category for his coverage in “Side Effects.” He won a 2010 Barlett & Steele Silver Award for his storiesSide Effects: Money, Medicine and Patients,” which examined relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry.

Brian Grow, who grabbed the 2008 Barrett & Steele Gold Award for his contribution to Businessweek’s Prisoners of Debt,” is a finalist in the news service category. He is nominated with Reynolds Center Senior Online Producer Kelly Carr for their six-part series, “Shell Games.”  Reuters’ Laurence Fletcher, Nanette Byrnes, Matthew Bigg, Joshua Schneyer, Cynthia Johnston and Sara Ledwith also contributed to the series.

Reynolds Center presenter and New York Times contributing writer, Diana B. Henriques, is nominated in the business books category for  “The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.” Henriques will share her storytelling techniques in an Aug. 13 Reynolds Center Webinar, “Telling Great Stories Online.”