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Jon Talton

Jon Talton, a 30-year veteran financial journalist, is economics columnist for the Seattle Times. He spent seven years as a columnist at the Arizona Republic, and prior to that was business editor at the Charlotte Observer, Cincinnati Enquirer, Rocky Mountain News and Dayton Daily News. As a blogger, he writes the Seattle Times' Sound Economy, as well as his personal commentary site, Rogue Columnist. Jon is also the author of ten novels, including the journalism thriller, "Deadline Man." His new David Mapstone Mystery, set in Phoenix, is "The Night Detectives," coming in May.

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The art of column writing

At one time, it took many years before a select few journalists could be invested in the purple as columnists. This carried distinct benefits: They were seasoned veterans with the experience, street smarts and capabilities that only time conveys. Sure, a few burnouts were sidelined as columnists, but for the most part this was a position that was earned the old-fashioned way.

Today, the ranks of columnists are much more open. News organizations want young voices. With blogs, nearly anyone can be a “columnist.” In our Cold Civil War, the lines between news and opinion have become unfortunately blurred. With this has come some good and much bad.


“As the veteran metro columnist
for the Arizona Republic,
E.J. Montini, says,
‘Anybody can be a columnist
for two weeks.’ “

Being a successful columnist is very hard work, contrary to what some of your colleagues might think (“she just gets to write whatever comes into her head now!”). Coming up with fresh material and presenting it in a compelling, original way is a challenge. To do it even once a week, over and over, is among the toughest jobs in journalism. Also, you’ll be a target. Be prepared for hate mail along with the satisfying moments when people who stop you on the street and say, “Aren’t you the columnist?” I’ve had campaigns to get me fired at more than one paper.

I’ve been writing columns for major metropolitan newspapers for more than a quarter century (!). My work has also been carried on the New York Times News Service and the wires of Scripps Howard, Gannett and Knight Ridder. They have appeared in newspapers throughout North America. I’ve also been blogging since the late 1990s and write for three, including this one.

A few thoughts:
  1. As the veteran metro columnist for the Arizona Republic, E.J. Montini, says, “Anybody can be a columnist for two weeks.” After that time, they run out of things to say. So if they stay in the job, they merely repeat themselves. The dirty secret is most people who are writing columns today shouldn’t be. Real columnists are few. It’s an art. There’s no shame in not having this particular talent. In the same way, I will never be a real copy editor — it’s just not in my DNA.
  2. Cultivate a distinct viewpoint and voice. Have opinions. A real columnist, aside from humor writing, needs a constant reservoir of outrage, a chip on his or her shoulder. Many newspapers are afraid of this now and as a result they have boring columnists. More than any other destination in print or online, a fine columnist can speak truth to power, hold the bastards accountable and tell the back story.
  3. You must be a very good writer. Column writing is not news writing. It is story-telling, persuasion, explanation, all conveyed through distinctive writing that is not found elsewhere in the newspaper or news organization. Even data-maven Ezra Klein is a talented practitioner of language. LATimes columnists
  4. Read and learn from the greats, including H.L Mencken, A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Thompson, Walter Lippman, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Mike Royko, Peggy Noonan and Russell Baker. In business journalism, some of the best writing today are James B. Stewart, Gretchen Morgenson, Joe Nocera, Steven Pearlstein and Michael Hiltzik. If you don’t aspire to join their ranks, quit now.
  5. Maybe your strength is in a specialty column. It might be personal finance, where the likes of Liz Pulliam Weston and Jane Bryant Quinn set the bar. Or perhaps the leading industry in your city or metro, such as automobiles. The specialty column still needs a voice and great writing. It also demands deep expertise (otherwise, who would accept investing advice from a journalist?).
  6. Don’t feel as if you need all the answers. When I came to Seattle, I was open with readers that I was new in town and didn’t claim to be omniscient. It was an advantage. Just as with a reporter, curiosity and a hunger to learn are your advantages.
  7. Do be unpredictable while being consistent in your core values — the spine that will draw you a loyal core of readers. They will get to know you, count on you. But don’t be afraid to break the mold when the facts and your passion lead you.
  8. In most cases, a well-reported column is a stronger column. This is doubly true in business journalism. At the Seattle Times, I’ve worked to take my columns to a level of deep reporting I never reached before, as in this one about the often-neglected maritime sector. When Nate Silver dismissed the pundits of D.C. in the 2012 election, it was because of their often ignorant echo-chamber prattling. Good reporting and, as always, getting out of the newsroom, are wonderful antidotes.
  9. Write with authority. This is especially important in business news, where, even if you do a takedown of a powerful executive, you want insiders to know you’ve done your homework. Authority doesn’t mean arrogance. It does mean you know the material and argue and write with confidence.
  10. Don’t be afraid to have fun. I write on some of the most serious — and potentially dullest — stuff in the newspaper. But one of my most popular recent pieces was this one for April Fool’s Day. Beyond that, the killer quote, rhetorical excellence and word play can all make a business column something more than “a business column.” One of the highest bits of praise I hear is when a reader tells me, “I never read the business section before I found your column…”

Guess what, I don’t have anywhere near all the answers on column writing. But if you start with these pointers, you’ll be on your way.

 

 

 

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Mainstreaming climate change: The most important issue of our age

Years ago, Gannett pioneered “mainstreaming” of minorities and others on the margins of conventional news coverage. For example, instead of having a minority business beat, newspapers should integrate minority owners, workers, customers, analysts and other experts into as many stories as possible.

The earth

Photo: NASA

The term has probably fallen aside but the idea is still a good one. We need to start using it on the most important issue of the age, climate change.

There’s no disagreement among the vast majority of scientists who are actually experts on the subject that climate change is real, human caused and happening now. The arguments, as always happen in science, are about how fast it is happening and how severe the consequences will be.

A few thoughts:

  1. Every major company (and the Pentagon) outside the fossil fuel sector is taking climate change very seriously. Most are studying it and formulating plans to address it. Find out what’s happening at the companies you cover.
  2. Climate change will bring a variety of economic costs and dislocations. Many of these are discussed in the latest report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Read about it here. This is the gold standard, the work of hundreds of climate scientists.
  3. Every industry will be affected, from those involved in the carbon-spewing 10,000-mile supply chain to agriculture as drought brings the risk of food shortages. This will not be something that only affects people in the Third World. Look no further than California’s historic drought or the fisheries destroyed by ocean acidification.
  4. There will be some winners, such as navigation of an ice-free Arctic Ocean. There are definitely adapters as companies and industries innovate and seek work-arounds. Many universities are studying technologies intended to ease the consequences. Don’t report this with false equivalency — container ships across the Arctic won’t make up for millions displaced by rising sea levels — or gullably (gee, “cool concrete” will save us!).
  5. Avoid alarmism. Base your coverage in sound science. Some major natural disasters may be partly or wholly caused by climate change, but don’t make unnecessary leaps.
  6. On the other hand, we’re way past the point when the voices of “deniers” need to be included. Indeed, doing so is irresponsible. Beware of Astroturf “think tanks” bankrolled by the fossil fuels industry or such groups as Americans for Prosperity, supported by the Koch brothers.
  7. Bookmark and read the best sites for solid, science-based news and analysis. Climate Central is one of the best.
  8. Intelligent coverage of energy is an entirely separate blog post, but this sector must not be allowed to sit in a silo protected from reality. Every story on fracking, tar sands, coal, a supposed 100-year American supply of natural gas, etc., should include at least a paragraph about the degree to which these are contributing to the greenhouse gases that cause climate change.

Yes, the “deniers” will attack you. So what? We don’t doubt the science behind fracking, which the media cheerleads almost daily without including its devastating environmental costs.

This isn’t merely the biggest story of our time. It is the biggest business story. We do our readers a service by remembering that every day.

 

 

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Doing headlines right

 

A reader of the most recent post, on writing effective ledes, asked if I would do the same for headlines. Your wish is my desperately needed gift of an idea.

First, my limitations. There are broadly two kinds of people in journalism: reporters and copy editors. The two might be friends or lovers, but never the twain shall meet. Each has different skills, and, critically, different sensibilities. Both are needed for any good news organization. So: I am a reporter/writer personality, not a copy editor.

Headline writing seems simple until one tries it. In fact, doing it well is one of the most difficult skills in journalism. It is made more so by space limitations: Try writing that 30-point hed in a single column.

Sadly, it has been shamefully devalued in recent years as newspapers have been committing suicide and chasing after the latest fad or shiny bauble. Most of the great headline writers have retired or been pushed out — even though the ability to write a great hed is more important than imbedding video in an already too-busy site.

headlines

IMAGE: PRNewser. Click the image for 5 Not-So-Secrets to Writing Great Headlines

The finest copy desk and group of headline writers I ever knew was at the old Dayton Daily News. The copy desk was fierce, formidable, deeply traditional and, to many reporters, maddening in its ability to pick nits. Except these graybeards and sharp younger editors saved our asses again and again — even as I had to argue with some of them that, yes, “sea change” is an acceptable expression.

But even there, headline writing was an art form reserved for a few. This was especially true of stories appearing on section fronts or sensitive stories. Not every good copy editor was a good hed writer. The slot often changed headlines written by a copy editors. This priesthood would hold sober conclaves before settling on the right hed.

On the other hand, I started out at small papers where you did a little bit of everything. So I learned to write headlines. I learned to count — two spaces for a “W” or “M,” half a space for an “i” or “l.” Yes, I’ve been around that long.

Now I write headlines all the time, for my daily Seattle Times blog posts and for my own commentary on Rogue Columnist. I’ve gotten pretty good, although I could not match skills with the best headline writers with whom my work has been graced. The desk writes the headlines for my Sunday print column. For example, the Times’ Barbara Schechter, a real pro, did a fine job with the headline on this one.

The point is that although the different sensibilities mentioned above are eternal, writers now must become decent headline writers.

The importance of a headline can’t be overstated. Most readers never go beyond it. It can draw them in, scream DON’T READ THIS with its banality, completely misstate the actual story that follows. All of us can tell stories about angry phone calls or emails about “your story.” But a little probing finds that it was about the hed. Readers always assume the story’s author wrote the headline.

If you’re still with me, here my essentials for a good headline:

  • Accuracy. It correctly reflects the facts of the story.
  • Appeal. It draws the reader in with the use of lively language and, where appropriate, word play, apposition, puns, allusions, etc. This is especially important for business news, which too many believe is “boring.”Judge Named Sue headline  Jon Talton blog
  • Priority. Especially in a hard news story, it gets at the heart of the heart of the story. What is most important for the reader to see.
  • Allure. Don’t give away the whole story. The idea is to make the reader actually stay and read, not skim and move on.
  • Economy. Especially with Web sites, headlines can be longer compared with the “old days.” This isn’t always a blessing. Don’t make the reader tunnel through excess word debris, much less think, “Oh, guess I don’t have to read the story now.”
  • Tone. This is an important element that comes with experience. When in doubt, ask your colleagues. An investigative takedown must not only avoid a libelous headline, it must have the proper tone. That should be factual rather than sensational. On the other hand, no false equivalency (“UN Issues Dire Climate Warning; Deniers Dismiss It”).
  • The promise. Each headline makes a deal with the reader: That it actually connects to the story. So avoid something like “Former Cheerleader’s Beer Fortune Expands” for a story on Cindy McCain and Hensley Beverage Co. “Cheerleader” will get plenty of clicks but…c’mon.

You can find better guides to headline writing than from Homey, here. I am giving you the things that matter most to me. A few last thoughts:sign on you crazy diamond  headline

  • Don’t use sentences from the story or column as the headline. The headline should add its own value.
  • Don’t use the writer’s walkoff (last sentence) as the hed. Nothing is better guaranteed to make a writer homicidal. More to the point, it is lazy and cheats the reader.
  • If you are a copy editor or slot, do be willing to discuss a hed with the writer or editor if you are in doubt. This is not giving away your responsibility or power. You are still “the decider,” but be willing to entertain discussion if there’s time.
  • Contrary to the purists, not every headline needs a verb. Such dogma results in many boring “is”s. Label heds are especially useful for columns.
  • Read newspapers and Web sites with great headlines. Take them apart and figure out what makes them work.

Now go forth and write great headlines.

 

 

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The importance of a good lede

Before I pick at the splinters in your writing, let me roll out a few of my logs. Here are a week’s worth of ledes from my column and daily blog:

  • It is not true that the recent session of the Washington Legislature failed to accomplish anything. In fact, legislators delivered a sledgehammer to state competitiveness by killing the nearly 20-year-old research and development incentives that have helped Washington keep up with rivals worldwide. the lede matters
  • On average in the U.S., state personal income growth dropped to 2.6 percent last year compared with 4.2 percent the previous year.
  • The G-8, which just suspended Russia, was intended to be a forum for the world’s leading industrialized nations.
  • This is what it has come to: Growth in gross domestic product putt-putted along at a 2.6 percent annualized rate in the fourth quarter and the Wall Street Journal, the Bible of capitalism, pronounces it “solid.”
  • The Census Bureau today released its population numbers from July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2013. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue ranked No. 10 in numeric growth, adding 57,514.
  • Let’s stipulate that using even a few of the 8,500 nuclear weapons believed to be in Russia’s stockpile would ruin much more than the Amerikans’ bull market.

I’d give myself a C-plus for the week. Some of the ledes were pretty good and at least one was a process snoozers, only lacking “police said Wednesday” to put them into the DON’T READ ME category.

The point: Even with all our fancy new tools, the lede matters — and it often gets too little attention, particularly when the writer is moving fast. And for newbies, the spelling, l-e-d-e, is part of our heritage. In hot type days, a lead was inserted into a Linotype machine. Hence, the first paragraph is spelled lede. I like preserving little bits of our unique heritage.

Business stories are particularly vulnerable to weak ledes. The material can be dry. Even some business writers are bored with the subject matter. An argument can be made that business readers want the new news quickly, so get to it.

But working in a written medium means mastering fine writing. Consider these ledes:

Although John S. Chen is relatively new to the roles of executive chairman and chief executive of BlackBerry, the Canadian smartphone maker, on Friday he presided over what has become almost a ritual for the company when he announced a fourth-quarter net loss of $423 million, bringing the total loss for the company’s fiscal year to $5.9 billion.

That’s from the New York Times reporting on a breaking hard-news story. But note how the reporter weaves in the element of the new CEO, uses the interesting word “ritual,” throws in what Blackberry does in case the reader doesn’t know — all before dropping the astounding loss number. She or he could have written, “Blackberry on Friday reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $423 million, making the company’s total loss for the fiscal year $5.9 billion.” Snooze. The NYT lede is better.

Or how about this Wall Street Journal follow-up on Citi failing the Fed’s “stress test”:

The phone rang when Michael Corbat was half a world away in South Korea.

One simple sentence and I’m hooked. The story goes on to put the reader on the inside of the bank’s damage-control effort.

Let’s check out the Washington Post’s Wonkblog:

This year’s Ivy League admissions totals are in. The 8.9 percent acceptance rate is impressively exclusive, but compared to landing a job at Wal-Mart, getting into the Ivy Leagues is a cakewalk.

Wow — I’ll read that. The reporter can be dinged for using a cliche (cake walk), but it is in the service of a clear, direct sentence that conveys interesting information.

Over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s data-driven new blog, decent writing still matters, as this story shows:

We tend to assume the market for health care works differently from, say, the market for refrigerators. When people buy a refrigerator, they compare product features and prices and make their decision. But when people are choosing a health care provider, it’s harder to compare “product” features. How good is one hospital compared to another when it comes to care? What are you really buying? And how can you find these things out?

This isn’t A.J. Liebling, but the writer has produced an informative lede that also contains tension and a promise. That is, read on — we’ve all wondered about this question — and the story will answer the questions laid out by the lede. (Some purists say a lede should never have a question).

Finally, this from the Charlotte Observer:

The trucks carrying toxic coal ash began rumbling past Woodrow Mack’s Asheville-area home about three years ago.

The story is about a plan to bury coal ash at the Charlotte airport, something already being done in the ironically named Asheville. It is a classic anecdotal lede and works well to set a scene and draw us in. My only quibble would be to substitute “home near Asheville” for the clunky “Asheville-area.” Otherwise, well done.

These are a few examples of turning hard business news into something compelling from the start. Dumping a bucket of numbers on the reader followed by an attribution is worse than lazy. It breaks a cardinal rule: Make business news worth reading not only for hard-core business readers, but for everybody.

 

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Parachuting in for a story: 17 tips to getting it right

Nothing beats boots on the ground. With staff and budget cuts, newspapers do less “parachuting in” on stories away from their hometown. That’s too bad because in an interconnected world “local news” is everywhere, and reaching out to another place in your state or region can provide some of the most compelling journalism.

Parachuting

Photo: John Mewett

So here’s for more parachuting and making the case to do so with your bosses. And here are some tips.

 

Before You Go:
  1.  Find a great story that needs exploration. This can be as simple as visiting the county with the worst unemployment rate in the state, or as complex as examining a town that was once a textile powerhouse and now has to settle for data center with 30 jobs. The out-of-the-way crossroads that’s been turned into an environmental disaster by your hometown utility. The quintessential Main Street that reinvented itself and yet now faces the specter of Amazon.com. The possibilities are limitless but all speak to a larger issue.
  2.  Work the phones and use the “tubes” to find everything you can about where you’re going. This includes reading journalism that’s been done, assembling data on unemployment, etc., talking to state economists and university professors, and people where you’re going. Gain a working knowledge of the history, the drivers affecting the story and people likely to be important to speak with or meet.
  3.  Decide on a plan of attack. Don’t make the mistake of deciding what the story will be. You won’t really know until you get there. It’s far better to think in terms of a line or lines of inquiry. How is this coal town doing five years after a fatal mine disaster? Why does this county have the highest unemployment rate?
  4.  Get your bosses behind the idea. Can some travel money be kicked in? How about a photographer?
  5.  Do get others involved: Photo, graphics, multimedia.
  6.  Decide on the “must have” interviews and set them up in advance.

 

When You’re There:
  1.  Get the lay of the land. Be attentive to details, especially telling ones that can illuminate the story.
  2.  Meet with a local reporter, if you can. Most will be happy to talk and there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Diplomatically find out what he or she would have liked to write but was prevented from doing so. Who do they think you should talk to? Has the story progressed beyond what has been reported? Don’t act like a big-city journalist amid a bunch of hicks.
  3.  Conduct the interviews that you decided are best handled face-to-face. If possible, walk the terrain or visit the shuttered factory with them. Make sure these interviews run a spectrum from elected officials to working stiffs. Especially look for the people who are losers or victims from the deal or event. Take your time. Let them tell their stories. And back stories: For example, the unemployed mill worker who was quarterback on the team that won the state championship in 1974. Such details can enliven a story.
  4.  Find out what other stories have gotten wrong. What has been misunderstood? What are the hidden issues, grudges and histories?
  5.  If you have a photographer, let this visual journalist do his or her thing. Confer but don’t try to be the boss. Make sure the photographer knows the places and people you are likely to emphasize.

 

Back in the Newsroom:
  1.  Transcribe your notes and realize you will probably have over-gathered.
  2.  Answer the question: What’s it all about? You started with a line of inquiry. Now it’s time to focus on what the story will tell. If it’s very different from what you imagined going in, so much the better.
  3.  Discuss your findings with your editor. She or he might have good questions that can flesh out the direction of the story. They will also likely decide if this is a Page One story, a series, or whatever.
  4.  Collaborate with your colleagues on the visuals and multimedia. A map showing where your story is located is a must along with all the other bells and whistles.
  5.  What needs some follow up? You may want to make some follow-up calls. Be sure to check with the high school to make sure old Joe really was the quarterback in 1974.
  6.  Get writing.

 

 

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Beware superlatives and hype

One of the chief missions of this blog is to give “a kick in the butt” to business journalism. But it’s a tough balance. I want to kick without getting personal or discouraging otherwise good reporters and editors.

So without naming names, let me point to a headline I saw recently, “Gila Bend developing into solar capital of the world.”

Solar capital of the world headlines

Just because everyone is doing it...

For those who don’t know, Gila Bend is a woebegone little desert town southwest of Phoenix. Historically, it is so isolated and decrepit that nearby Casa Grande, which is hardly Paris (or even Paris, Texas), looks down its nose on Gila Bend. Nothing gets a native of Casa Grande more incensed than accidentally saying he is “from Gila Bend.”

Lately, Gila Bend has attracted solar farms, including the 280-megawatt Solana Generating Station. Soon, we are told, the town will have the capacity to generate 347 megawatts.

This doesn’t make it “the solar capital of the world.”

Even a casual understanding of the industry shows that the crown belongs to Germany, which in 2012 generated a record 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour, the equivalent of 20 nuclear power stations running at full capacity.

To be the capital, moreover, would require more then empty land and solar panels. It would mean Gila Bend would be a center of research and development, as well as manufacturing. It would be a world magnet for top talent and high-quality investments. It would have a national laboratory and the headquarters of global companies involved in every aspect of solar. None of this is going to happen in a state that invests little in science, has a largely disengaged congressional delegation, a sunshine-based economic-development “strategy” and where universities must fight for funding. Europe, and especially Germany, excel here and China is a major producer of photovoltaics.

Solar energy in Vermont

A group of renewable-energy law students explore an off-the-grid home in Vermont, not the solar capital of the world. Photo: The Berkley Blog

Interestingly, the International Solar Energy Society was founded in Phoenix in 1954, but Arizona let this organization and energy technology get away. Its headquarters is in Freiburg, Germany.

The story did not discuss problems with certain kinds of solar arrays, such as the need for water to keep them cool or to clean off dust that can degrade their capacity. As with most such coverage, notably about America’s “fracking boom,” it didn’t get into the nettlesome issue of “energy in/energy out” (EIEO). In other words, how much energy through fossil fuels is required to produce this renewable energy and how much of it is a net gain? Finally, I failed to find a voice discussing the environmental damage to the desert and controversy that many solar projects have attracted.

We all have bad days.

But avoid superlatives. Use restrained language. Provide context and history. Look for the other side. For example, there’s nothing wrong with letting boosters say they want to be the solar capital of the world, while mentioning the headwinds such an achievement would face.

Go ahead, rain on their parade. It will provide more authoritative, compelling coverage.

 

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The basics to finding scoops

In a previous post, I discussed how to respond to the scalding of being scooped. Let’s turn it around. Where do you find your own scoops?

If you’re among the anointed that went to an Ivy League school and ended up at a globally prestigious news organization (you know who you are), many of the scoops will seek you out. This isn’t to diminish the accomplishments of these journalists, but the reality is that the Wall Street playerz would rather break their merger in, say, the Wall Street Journal than the local newspaper where their handiwork will cost hundreds of jobs. Also, these reporters are in the world’s financial centers.

That doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook.

Scoops grow organically out of experience, time on a beat, investment by management in sending a reporter to top industry gatherings and the street smarts of working sources and working the phones. Nothing can replace getting out of the newsroom and talking to people.


“Anything that drifts outside
the expected is a thread
that might lead to an exclusive. ”

But here are a few ways to get into the zone where scoops can be scooped up.

1. Pay attention to deviations. Share prices, revenue and earnings are obvious — everyone will get those. But look at other metrics and track them over time. If it’s a retailer, have same-store sales changed radically? For any company, how about return on equity and return on investment?

Don’t just compare the company against itself but its peers. How about employment changes? Anything that drifts outside the expected is a thread that might lead to an exclusive.

Obviously this requires a deep dive into numbers, but don’t stop there. Look for what is out of place, unusual. I remember a banking reporter who would check the executive garage at headquarters on weekends (the private jet hangar was off limits). If it was full of pricey cars, a deal was probably in the works.Earnings Calls listen for scoops

2. Challenge the conventional wisdom. It is often wrong (e.g., the lead-up to the financial panic and Great Recession, when most experts said the subprime trouble was no big deal). This means probing every assumption and talking to a variety of sources. What is missing? What have the standard narratives missed? What could go wrong? Or, if it is a troubled company, is something being overlooked that could bring a turnaround. Scoop.

One common trope today is that housing has recovered, returned to normal, or at least a salubrious new normal. This could not be more wrong, as I explained in my Sunday column.

3. Listen carefully to the earnings call and re-read the transcript. Gems and landmines can be hidden in asides, arcane answers to analysts’ questions, or even a missing executive who is usually there.

4. Think like a tabloid. Back in the 20th century, I would coach reporters to act like the tabs on the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco scandal. The point was not to sell sex (although that might benefit business news in the Great American Freak Show), but to never let up. During the height of the frenzy, news organizations worked furiously to advance the story if by only a millimeter.


On earnings calls: “Gems and landmines
can be hidden in asides,
arcane answers to analysts’ questions,
or even a missing executive
who is usually there. ”

The lesson for our craft is not to be satisfied with reprinting the initial scoop and then playing catchup. Find a way to get ahead: The new angle, the person who is critical to the story but has avoided scrutiny, what everybody else is missing (reader emails and comments can be useful here), the 30,000-foot view of what this means for an industry or community, or boots-on-the-ground with employees. Never let up.

5. Follow up. Executives make promises and set goals. Factories that received taxpayer incentives close and lawmakers promise to get the money back. A big shake-up happens at an important but little-covered company. Regulators approve the construction of a new mine in an ecologically sensitive area. All this and more is reported and rarely followed up. Get in the morgue and pick something. How it turned out may well be your next Page One story.

6. Think about domino effects. The most common is that a merger puts other companies in that sector into play. But the world economy is so interconnected that it’s hard for one event not to become the flapping of butterfly wings that leads to a tornado on your beat. What does China and its economic fragility have to do with your city? Plenty. Pay attention.

7. Study the leaders. An annual Q&A with the chief executives of your touchstone companies should be mandatory. If that doesn’t provide a scoop and follow-ups, you are asking the wrong questions. But pay attention to the top executives and board members: Backgrounds, ages, interconnected board relationships, etc. If a bunch have a history with a potential acquirer, that’s interesting. If the CEO is 64 and she doesn’t have a succession in place, I’d read that story.

8. Dive into SEC filings. You will find remarkable things, especially in footnotes and the fine print. Among them: Lawsuits, unfunded pensions, preparations of offshore or automate segments and those wonderful auditor phrases about not being able to verify that these earnings are real.

What are your tools for finding scoops? Help your fellow toilers and leave them in the comments section.

 

 

 

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Getting people to talk to you

I recently interviewed my former Arizona Republic colleague Tom Zoellner at the wonderful civic treasure that is Town Hall Seattle. The occasion: His tour promoting his new book, Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief.

Train by Tom ZoellnerThere is life after journalism. Zoellner has a well-reviewed book from Viking. And here I am, still writing for a newspaper and laboring in the crowded vineyards of genre fiction. I’m not bitter or jealous. Not at all. Where was I?

Train is a beautifully written account of some of the best rail journeys in the world, but also a call to action for Americans, especially, to rediscover and support this indispensable mode of transportation. But at its heart, the book is excellent journalism.

Like all great reporters, Zoellner has a gift for getting people to talk to him. Train is enlivened with characters from India to Russia and America. He demurred, saying a train is a place where people naturally talk. As a train traveler, I can attest to this. But the good reporter doesn’t just show up.

Getting people to talk to you is an essential part of being a business journalist. This is not a lazy call for more “real people” and anodyne quotes. Weaving people effectively into your stories takes more.

1. Get out of your shell. You have the best job in the world: You get to ask people questions. But a surprising number of journalists are painfully shy and socially challenged. So get in the habit of talking to strangers.

3. Master the give and take of conversation. That means you talk about yourself, too. But it’s a device, to keep them talking, get them to open up, finding the tunnel into the most taciturn individual.2. Get people talking about themselves. Here is where you will find the human element behind the news.


“Master the give and take
of conversation. That means
you talk about yourself, too.
But it’s a device,
to keep them talking,
get them to open up. ”

4. Be empathetic. If you’re a sociopath, learn to fake empathy. Emotional intelligence is an essential part of your toolkit. You want to put the interviewee at ease, get him or her talking.

5. Ask good questions. This ranges from the simple, “What caused you to go into private equity (software engineering, building airplanes, being a union organizer, etc.) to the more complex ones where you must have a basic grounding in the field to ask intelligent questions. Behind all this, you want to know “Why is that?”

6. Encourage a promising strand to keep spooling out. For example, the person starts to talk about how his or her parent failed in business, “but you wouldn’t want to hear about that.” You bet you would! Asides, back stories, and personal tales can often provide the greatest insights.

7. Learn to take notes while looking at the person, not the notepad. Don’t be too quick to slap down a tape recorder and turn it on. Sometimes you need to memorize an interview or interaction without taking notes, then write it down immediately after you’re alone.

8. Transcribe the interview in its entirety the same day it happens. You’ll have things fresh in your mind. Not only the words, but facial expressions, body language, what was happening around you and what caused the subject to light up or shut down.

9. Find a shorthand way to highlight the best quotes. I use a check mark. Some journalists circle a quote. Use what works best for you and is least obtrusive. This is especially helpful if you need some good or pertinent quotes on deadline.

10. Get great quotes. Boring quotes are useless quotes. How do you do this? Be patient. Be a conversationalist. Learn how to toss a couple of softballs before dropping the important question — sometimes light as a feather, sometimes like a grenade in the room. If a CEO curses at you, bingo (and Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase curses all the time if he likes you), you’re in the sweet spot.

You may not end up with a New York publishing contract (and if you do, I won’t hate you. Really.). You will take your journalism deeper, into the human territory where great storytelling happens.

 

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The ‘Ws’: More than just the basics

Every reporter learns the “Ws”: Who, what, when, where and why. They are the foundation of any good story. But most of them get short shrift after the first two or three paragraphs.

who what when where why howBut in a fast-moving, “news now” environment, they can be a secret weapon for producing deeper, exclusive content. After all, it’s not enough merely to report the news now: Your readers probably already know the basic story. Business journalists are providing useful intelligence for smart readers. Coming back tomorrow with only today’s story is an embarrassment.

“Why”

is a great point of attack for advancing a story. For example, why is Comcast trying to buy Time Warner Cable? This need not be an element in the lead-all, 30-inch story. It should be a story in itself, deeply reported, and providing you the next day’s news rightly advanced.

“Who”

is another one. A profile of Microsoft’s new CEO is an obvious story. But another way to spin is forward is to report on who drove the selection, who were the winners and losers, the figures who made the decisions.

Even “where”

can be a profitable angle. For example, a merger can work in favor of one city and against others in employment, decision-making and capital deployment.

As for “what,”

don’t be satisfied with the early spin. Dig into the news to find the drivers behind an event that nobody else is covering. Don’t be afraid to go against the conventional wisdom if you can back up your angle. The conventional wisdom is often wrong.

But I come back to the alpha “W”: Why.

Why is borrowing on the rise again even though wages are stagnant? Why is the stock market continuing to rise despite a weak recovery? Why is your hometown touchstone company struggling when all its peers are doing well? Why is a certain county seeing much lower or much higher unemployment?

As you see, it can make a long list. And attacking these stories can make your coverage more relevant and stand out in a crowded field.

 

 

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