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Sarah Pringle

After graduating from the University of Arizona in Spring 2011 with a degree in business economics and minor in spanish, Sarah decided to combine her love for business and writing. And so she made the move two hours north to the Valley. As a current masters student and graduate assistant at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Sarah is specializing in business journalism. @sarpring

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Economics reporter Tim Logan on juggling a complex beat and telling ‘people’ stories

For Tim Logan, being a successful economics reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch means taking important national economic issues and making them relevant at the local level. 

Tim Logan, an award-winning business reporter at the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Logan spent most of 2010 working on a series called “Can St. Louis Compete?” with his colleague, business columnist David Nicklaus.  As St. Louis began emerging from the recession, Logan knew it was the perfect time to analyze the inefficiencies of the region’s economy and to look at how the city could increase its global economic presence going forward. 

The yearlong investigation uncovered information about economic incentives in St. Louis and found that the system disproportionally rewarded real estate development. The series won Logan and Nicklaus a 2011 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism. 

 Below Logan discusses his investigative strategies and details methods for crunching numbers to craft a compelling story.

1) How do you manage covering and staying on top of a variety of economic topics?

I cover economic development and the regional economy here which is a broad topic.  I actually recently started covering Anheuser Busch, which has a major corporate presence here. That’s been kind of interesting getting into a new, more corporate-focused beat.

I’ve always tried to take a broad view of business journalism and what that means, and I’m sort of fortunate to be able to graze broadly across the topic of the economy and how you grow a regional economy.  I keep track of breaking news but I also do a lot of enterprise, so balancing that is just sort of a daily thing.  You look for good stories and there are dailys that pop up.  You do them, but I try to spend most of my time thinking about interesting stories that nobody else is going to tell and the best ways to get into them.

2) Where do you find unique business story ideas?

Most importantly I’ve found that when you do good work, people respect you and sources respect you.  Even if the work doesn’t necessarily make them look good, if it’s smart and intelligent and fair, you get a reputation for being that way, and that helps stories come to you.

Frankly, a lot of the best stories I come across are things that find when reporting other stories.  You’re working on something and you pick up something that’s mentioned on the side of a conversation, or you come across a report that is peripheral to the story you’re working on, but contains a nugget that leads to another story that’s interesting.

3) How do include complicated data in a story and also ensure that it resonates with readers?

With business journalism in particular, it’s very easy to fall into the data and get so buried into year over year percentage change, or whatever. That, to somebody who hasn’t done it much or for long can be intimidating. But at the end of the day, businesses are made up of people and business issues are about people.  We need to remember that all this stuff is by, for, and about people.  People are often the best way into a business story, just like they are into a neighborhood story, police story, or a city hall story.

Business is no different.  It’s people who are trying to make a living or who are making interesting decisions that affect the way that we live.  If you remember that, use the data to complement that and find that, but don’t let the data overwhelm everything else.

Larger version of 5 questions with logo4) How has social media impacted your reporting?

Like a lot of people, I was a real Twitter skeptic until probably about two years ago.  Then I saw something that struck me. You can tweet a New Yorker story just as easy as you can tweet what you had for breakfast.

I started skimming around on Twitter and learning things that I didn’t know.  Now I’m on it constantly. It’s the first thing I look at in the morning and it’s something I check all day. I put out my stories, ideas and queries for sources.  It’s a really good way to tap into the conversation  going on in the topics that interest you. In my case that’s urban development in St. Louis, the regional economy and the national economy. I follow people who talk about that.

The trick is, I think, not getting sucked into that world because it’s a certain, small slice of the population that is active in social media.  You don’t just want to write for those people. You don’t just want to quote those people.  So it’s finding that balance between using it to tap into the conversation, but also remembering that there are many other conversations out there also worth listening to.

5) How can reporters localize national economic trends for their readers?

I covered the regional economy here all through the recession and that was always a bit of a challenge.  Not so much the doing, but deciding when to do.  What pieces of national economic data do you localize and what’s worth it?  You can chase everything if you want to, but it doesn’t always make sense to. Sometimes the wires do it better.

But as far as how you do it, it comes back to two things.  It comes back to data and people.  And being skilled in using and knowing where to find and how to interpret local economic data, tracking it over time and being able to put it in meaningful context.

For most pieces of national data there is a comparable local pice of data. It may be in a different bucket, it may be in a different place, it may be in a different time frame, but it’s still relevant and useful.  It can help illustrate your story and explain how the regional economy may differ from the national economy.

The national unemployment rate:  To most of us, that’s not really a relevant figure because we live in a particular place within the nation.  So being able to localize economic data is really important.  Then, again, go out and find the people who are living through whatever it is you’re writing about. Tell their stories.  That’s what I try to do.

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Investigative reporter David Heath on the coolness factor of business journalism

David Heath, The Center for Public Integrity

David Heath moved to The Center for Public Integrity from The Seattle Times, where he was three times a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

After being assigned to write about the bankruptcy of a life insurance company early on in his career, David Heath found himself far from excited. Thinking it would be the dullest story he’d ever have to do, Heath wasn’t expecting such a relatively straightforward, uninteresting topic to become his first of many investigative stories.

Turned out there was a lot of corruption, and the life insurance company was secretly paying the governor $125,000 yearly to serve as a business consultant.  Thus, Heath learned quickly, that digging deep and attention to detail can lead to the unexpected, transforming a quick turnaround B- story into an A+ investigative project with lasting effects.

So as a senior reporter for The Center for Public Integrity, David Heath is no newcomer to business and investigative journalism. Before landing his most recent position, Heath spent a year at the Huffington Post, 10 years at the Seattle Times, two years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and eight years the Courier-Journal, in addition to his hometown newspaper where he began his career at the Enid News in Oklahoma.

Heath received his Bachelor of Arts in English at Grinnell College and with a Neiman fellowship, spent 2005-2006 at Harvard University.  His topics for investigative projects have ranged from coverage of Congressional earmarks, corporation deception, to medical research and terrorism.

Heath’s years of work paid off, as a three time Pulitzer Prize finalist and recipient of multiples awards.

One of his many noteworthy series, “Uninformed Consent”, involved a cancer research center at a local Seattle hospital, in which doctors were acting wrongfully while benefiting from financial gains.  Not only was he noted as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but this work also won him the Gerald Loeb award, the Scripps Howard Foundation’s public service award, the Associated Press Managing Editors’ public service award and the Newspaper Guild’s Heywood Broun award.Larger version of 5 questions with logo

Here Heath offers some insight into how how write successful business-related investigative stories:

1) Where do you develop story ideas for investigative projects?

The most obvious way to get stories is when you’re working on a story you go very, very deep into it and as you’re doing that, you hit upon things that are very interesting but not particularly related to the story that you have to be working on at that moment.  Then you keep that in the back of your mind and think, I want to come back to that issue later and look at it a little deeper.  I think some of my stories have come from that, where it’s sort of like remnants of an investigation that I was already doing, leading to another investigation.

When I became a full-time investigative reporter at places like the Seattle Times, I had the benefit of just talking to beat reporters in the newsroom and asking them sort of like, what they were working on, what they thought was really interesting.  And there’s been several stories where somebody who’s been covering a beat says, ‘yeah, there’s this really weird situation that I really want to take a look at, I just don’t have the time’, and so I would sort of get the editor to pair us up to work on it together and to devote the time to do the investigation.2) With an abundance of information, databases, and research throughout an investigation, how do you organize and synthesize what you’ve gathered during the long process?

What I’m actually doing today is I’m taking all these artifacts and I’m trying to organize them into a coherent story. So I’m basically at this point writing an outline of what I think the most relevant facts are and going back to all the research that I’ve done, and especially re-reading everything and going back over all my interviews, and going back to all these documents that I’ve gathered.

I tend to try and keep everything electronically and I try and put them into file folders, as opposed to having paper copies of things.

I’m pretty good at keeping a timeline of events.  As you learn something new you put it in the timeline and essentially that timeline turns about its own narrative that you might not necessarily have seen when you were thinking about this fact or that fact.

At the final stages mostly what you’re doing is you’re deciding what not to use because you have so much information that you want to figure out how to tell the story without overwhelming the reader.  It’s that abundance of research that really gives the story its credibility, and it’s a way you can have an authoritative voice in writing the story.

3) When do you know when to wrap up an investigation?

One is when your editor says “OK, write a story”, and that kind of forces you.

“The other thing that probably gets
overlooked by most reporters
doing this kind of thing is the
scour for any kind of lawsuit.”

Every time you do an investigative piece, especially if it’s one where you’re accusing someone of a serious wrongdoing, you’re putting your career on the line.  The story has to be provable.  You have to get to the point where you’re sure that you’re right, and so even if your editor said write me up something, you have to cross that line first.

You have to get a point also where you just say, OK, let me start writing this and see what I’ve got. The good thing about that as an exercise is that when you start writing it, you’ll see suddenly sometimes a very obvious thing.  There will be holes in your story, things that you kind of took for granted the whole time but you never thought “oh I really need to actually go make sure that this assumption that I’m making here is correct”, or “I need to get an expert authority to explain to the reader that I do know that this is true”.

I think that if you get to a point where you feel like, ‘OK, I think that I can actually put something down on paper and see what I’ve got.’ That is really the beginning of the end of bringing a project to some kind of conclusion.

4) What are some of your suggestions when it comes to covering corporate deception and other business issues? 

I think that one thing that is kind of cool about business reporting is that so few reporters really read those SEC documents.  I know in just a few days I’ll probably be able to pick up some really cool stuff from just reading SEC files.

If you go through the documents you’ll find things that are worth pursuing.  If you look at the litigation that’s listed in the SEC documents, or if you look at related party transactions and documents, there will be a lot of very interesting things.  Taking the time to actually read SEC filings is a big thing that anyone can do when they’re first starting out doing a business investigation.

“Never give a source editing control. ”

The other thing that probably gets overlooked by most reporters doing this kind of thing is the scour for any kind of lawsuit.  So if you’re looking at a particular company go out and see what lawsuits have been brought against them, go out and see what lawsuits have been brought against the owners of the companies or the executives of the company, go out and see what the background of the executives are.  Find out where they live, what kind of house they live in, how much property they have, what their background is, how they got into that business, who their connections are.  Take a look at their campaign contributions, their lobbying efforts.

In the initial stages of digging there are so many records to go through that the discovery is kind of endless.

5) How can you be sure your information is accurate?  What is your fact-checking process?

A lot of times I’ll be doing an interview and if I just ended up quoting this person saying these things, it would be great.  But then as I actually try to verify what they’re saying I find out that it’s often not correct what they’re saying or it’s not exactly the way they thought it was, or some key thing that they misunderstood.  You have to get to a point where you’re sure that what you’re saying is true.

Even when I’m going to do a story and I’m going to interview a target, I try to give them every opportunity to say whatever they need to say and to fact check with them.  Fact checking is really an important thing.  I just don’t cross the line of becoming an advocate for them or losing objectivity, or forgetting what the facts are, or trying to fit the facts to the story.  You just can’t do that.

Never give a source editing control.  Send them sections of story before hand, give them things they can fact check for you.  It’s crucial.  Having your target know what you’re going to say often tends to soften any criticism.  If they know it’s coming, they already had the opportunity to respond.

 

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Quick chat with Universidad de Las Américas’ Maria Albertina Navas Leoro

Maria Albertina Navas Leoro, who teaches business and online journalism at the Universidad de Las Américas in Quito, Ecuador, detailed the challenges faced by business journalists in less politically stable countries. Leoro was a Business Journalism Professors Fellow during this year’s Reynolds Business Journalism Week.

Before joining academia, Leoro was the editor of LIDERES, a business magazine in Ecuado. She is also the author of “International Protection for Refugees: Historic Perspective from 1976-2004 in  Ecuador” and continues to work as a freelance reporter.

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Quick chat with DePaul University’s Matthew Ragas

As the founding editor of RagingBull.com, one of the first online investor communities, and a co-founder of Indie Research, an investment-newsletter company, Matthew Ragas has always pursued what he loves.  Today he teaches courses in the College of Communication at DePaul University where he encourages his students to follow their individual passions.

Ragas, a Business Journalism Professors Fellow at this year’s Reynolds Business Journalism Week, took a few minutes to share his secrets to success for aspiring business journalists.

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Quick Chat with Reynolds Visiting Professor Rob Reuteman

Rob Reuteman, former president of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, was an editor at the Rocky Mountain News for 26 years until the paper folded in 2009.  During his last 12 years at the Rocky, he worked both as a columnist and business editor.

Reuteman is currently the Reynolds Visiting Professor at Colorado State University, where he continues to work as a freelancer for CNBC.com and FoxBusiness.com.

While in Phoenix for Reynolds Business Journalism Week, Reuteman shared an inside look at a career in business journalism and detailed how the reality differs from what young journalists either fear or perceive it to be.

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Digging deep into covering private companies with Jodi Schneider

jodi schneider

Jodi Schneider, Congress team leader at Bloomberg News, leads a workshop on covering private companies.

Jodi Schneider, Congress team leader at Bloomberg News, shared advice on how to cover private companies during a workshop at The Arizona Republic. The training served as the finale for the Reynolds Center’s Business Journalism Professors and Strictly Financials Seminars held Jan. 2-5 in Phoenix. 

“They don’t have to tell you anything and most of the time they prefer not to,” said Schneider about privately-held companies.  “So you have to give them a reason and you have to think about where that company intersects with public information.”

Schneider offered various resources for cracking private companies. Here are some of her top tips: 

TWO RULES TO LIVE BY WHEN COVERING PRIVATE COMPANIES:

  1. Become a very good keeper of databases
  2. Make friends with other people in your news organization that will help you fill in the holes (e.g. the police reporter, planning and zoning reporter, courts reporter, and/or city hall reporter.)

USEFUL SOURCES OF INFORMATION

  • People
    • Former employees
    • Competitors
    • Vendors and suppliers
    • Local officials who have helped the company
  • The company’s own records
  • Universities
WHAT’S PUBLIC ABOUT PRIVATE COMPANIES?

SCHNEIDER’S FIVE TAKEAWAYS

  1. Think like a detective
  2. Don’t be afraid to ask
  3. Study the company and the material it generates
  4. Don’t overlook a company’s holdings
  5. Think about where private overlaps with public
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Barlett & Steele Award winners share their top investigative tips

Photo by Michel Duarte

The 2011 Barlett & Steele Award winners, along with veteran business journalist James Steele, shared behind-the-scenes stories and investigative reporting strategies during a panel discussion Tuesday.

This year’s winners included The Arizona Republic’s Craig Harris, who received the gold award for his series “Public Pensions, A Soaring Burden.”  The silver award went to Raquel Rutledge and Rick Barrett of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for their series “A Case of Shattered Trust.”  The Seattle Times’ Michael J. Berens grabbed the bronze award for his series “Seniors for Sale.”

For about 90 minutes, the panelists offered in-depth reporting suggestions and detailed their investigative series for a group of visiting journalism fellows attending the Strictly Financials and Business Journalism Professor seminars. Below are some highlights from the discussion.

CRAIG HARRIS ON DIGGING INTO PUBLIC RECORDS

“Sometimes you catch a big fish, and sometimes you don’t,” said Harris about going after records that have a financial impact.

He encouraged fellows to:

  • Use the phrase “any and all” when asking for information.  “You will be surprised with what you get,” he said.
  • Avoid funding the FOIA if at all possible.  “You’d be amazed at how many multiple reports are out there,” Harris said. “It’s not just the one agency you’re going after.”
craig harris

Craig Harris, winner of the gold Barlett & Steele Award, offers investigative tips. Photo by Michel Duarte.

RICK BARRETT ON FINDING QUALITY SOURCES

During the investigation into a firm that produced contaminated alcohol wipes, Barrett and Rutledge talked with about 12 to 15 employees.The pair made sure to cast a wide net, finding former employees who worked over different time periods.

Since all the employees had different experiences and did not work together at the same time, Rutledge and Barrett were able to better verify information.

“The same stories coming back and back to us,” said Barrett. “(It) helped a lot in terms of giving it credibility.”

MICHAEL BERENS ON HOW TO FOLLOW THE MONEY

“The key here was simple curiosity,” Berens said.

Curiosity is a start, but in order to dig up the information you need for a good story, Berens urges journalists to:

  • File a public records request for every blank document in every manual in the agency pertaining to the topic you are looking into.  This strategy, he said, has been very effective for him.  “This way I get to see every piece of information,” said Berens. “This way I get a list of every database in the agency.”
  • FOIA the employee roster.  Berens said one of his favorite techniques is to use the roster to find everyone who has retired in the last 30 days and give them a call.  “Then I find out what’s really going on inside the agency,” Berens said. “That’s one way to penetrate an agency that’s impenetrable to some point.”
  • Begin each story with a piece of baseline information, whether it’s a document or database.  “The word for me is quantification,” Berens said. “By following the paper, you follow the money.” Berens said that deconstructing events in this way is a must for him.
To learn more about the Barlett & Steele winners and their investigations check out these stories:

Check out Parts I and II of the roundtable discussion, moderated by Andrew Leckey, president of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism:



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Q & A with Diana Henriques, author of ‘The Wizard of Lies’

During lunch on Day 1, Reynolds Week fellows had an opportunity to talk with Diana B. Henriques, former senior financial writer at The New York Times and author of The Wizard of Lies, a book about the Bernie Madoff scandal.

Diana B. Henriques The Wizard of Lies

Diana B. Henriques signed copies of "The Wizard of Lies" for reporters and journalism professors. Photo by Michel Duarte

Before taking questions, Henriques offered advice on how to be a successful storyteller.  She said she experienced huge revelations during the process of writing “The Wizard of Lies.”

First of all, she said, she faced two major challenges as she began writing the book:

  1. With nine books already published about the Madoff scandal, what was she going to bring to the table?
  2. How could she do justice to the story?

To be a successful storyteller and overcome such challenges, she urged the Reynolds Fellows to:

  1. Explore the craft of writing fiction and screenwriting.  This, she said, helps identify the shape the story should take and the key characters.  “If you’re telling a Cinderella story, the prince better be in there,” said Henriques, explaining the benefits of plugging your stories into such mythologies.
  2. Read suspense thrillers while you are writing.  Henriques said this helps her write for rhythm.  Lee Child and Michael Connelly are a couple authors she recommended the fellows read.

The Q&A covered a range of topics, including Henriques’ experiences with carpal tunnel syndrome, the impact of her stories, the “Page One” documentary about The New York Times, and how find what she calls the true story.

CARPAL TUNNEL HELPED HER FIND HER VOICE

Thanks to programs like the Dragon Voice Recognition Software, carpel tunnel syndrome is something she no longer worries about, Henriques said.  These technologies help her complete her work twice as fast as typing, she said.

Voice recognition programs also can benefit writers without carpel tunnel, she said, because it offers a more adaptive and creative way to write, as well as enforcing a more conversational style. All writers should read their stories out loud, she urged.

IMPACT OF HER WORK

Henriques’ investigative stories exposing the exploitations of young military personnel by financial service companies created utter and total outrage, she said.

“These were not dumb people,” she said of young military personnel who followed poor financial advice. “These were people that had far more important things to learn, in order to serve their country and save their lives.”

The sympathy of the characters, said Henriques, helped fuel such significant response, including cash refunds for thousands of military personnel and changes in laws and regulations.

THOUGHTS ON “PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES”

“I was struck by how well it captured the daily disciplines that we have to incur,” said Henriques.

While the documentary was an accurate portrayal of some parts of the New York Times.. in particular, the team of reporters and editors covering the media beats…  Henriques said the rest of the Times is a little different.

WORKING TO FIND THE TRUE STORY

When covering products or investments like gold, things can get a little tricky.

“You’re not really getting both sides, you’re getting two opinions,” said Henriques about analyst’s predictions on these types of investments.

To avoid being a conduit of opinion, look at the track record of commodities like gold, she said.

BOOK SIGNING

To top off the discussion, Henriques signed copies of her book that the Reynolds Center gave to each Reynolds Week fellow.

 

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