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Yvonne Gonzalez

Yvonne Gonzalez is an undergraduate student at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication with an emphasis in print and business reporting. She has interned at AZ Fact Check, a project of The Arizona Republic, and was a reporter for Cronkite News Service and The State Press at ASU.

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Marketplace’s Scott Tong shares tips from the sustainability beat

Scott Tong is a sustainability correspondent at American Public Media. He shared insights on covering stories in the emerging green economy and detailed his experience reporting overseas in China.

 

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Entrepreneur funding goes to project to visualize economic data

Business journalism got a nod this week as money was allocated for entreprenuerial journalism.

Visualizing Economics

Federal Taxes paid/received for each State is one of the graphics on VisualizingEconomics.com

The creator of a website that presents economic data visually received a $12,000 grant as part of the 2011 New Media Women Entrepreneurs Awards, now in its fourth year.

Catherine Mulbrandon develops the info-graphics and posts them to her site, VisualizingEconomics.com. This $12,000 award comes in addition to $14,000 she raised on her Kickstarter.com page.

Jan Schaffer, executive director for J-Lab which administers the program, said the grants are meant to validate the awardees’ ideas and help them further their projects.

“Catherine’s efforts to visualize economic data has already demonstrated significant early interest,” Schaffer said, pointing to the media outlets that have already published her work. “She brings both a strong economic background and visualization background to her efforts. And she has an idea to grow it and make it sustainable.”

Mulbrandon has degrees in both economics and interaction design and runs her own consulting service. She said she hopes her graphics will help illustrate economic data for a diverse group of people.

“Working in the financial industry, I saw time after time how clients needed basic historical information about the economy in order to understand the current financial environment,” Mulbrandon said. “However, this was often lacking in the media’s coverage of economics.”

Mulbrandon is using the $12,000 McCormick grant, along with her Kickstarter funding, to create a new info-graphic detailing income in the United States.

“I hope my website along with ‘An Illustrated Guide of Income in the United States’ will provide the context needed to make complex economic data more understandable to someone who is new to the subject,” Mulbrandon said.

Other 2011 New Media Women Entrepreneurs awards went to:

  • Laura Lorek, TechChi blogger and journalist, for her site Silicon News.com, a nonprofit site for technology news in the Austin and San Antonio
  • Kelly Kline, an Atlanta documentarian and photographer, for her idea for a social networking site for women’s basketball fans and
  • UC Berkeley graduate student Bo Hee Kim for her idea to create a user- and eco-friendly mobile news site for the journalism school’s three hyper local sites.

Michelle Ferrier, a 2009 winner for her site LocallyGrownNews.com, said grants like the one funded by McCormick help women develop a stable platform for their ideas so they can continue on in the future.

“The McCormick grant is very special because it focuses on women, and because I was very focused on this as a women’s startup I thought the McCormick would be a perfect grant that would help benefit a lot of women,” Ferrier said.

Ferrier’s site has developed into a niche online community where she posts about 3 articles per week on the local food movement. She said the grant helps push people to better their ideas.

“While an entrepreneur may have an idea, they don’t really share it with anyone,” Ferrier said. “The competition gives you an opportunity to set down your idea, think it out, and put things to paper. Even if you don’t win, you’re steps ahead of where you were.”

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Wondering about all the retired generals led Boston Globe’s Bender to great story

In his daily beat coverage at the Pentagon, the Boston Globe’s Bryan Bender noticed that retired generals didn’t disappear to the golf course after hanging up their uniforms. Instead, they were sticking around, this time in the suits of businessmen.

General Gregory "Speedy" Martin, Ret. US Air Force

General Gregory “Speedy’’ Martin, a retired four-star general, was in demand from private industry after a 35-year career in the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Staff Sgt. Jerry Fleshman)

Bender is a Loeb Award finalist this year for his story, “From the Pentagon to the Private Sector,” and said just being observant of possible trends in your beat can lead to bigger ideas.

He analyzed 750 three- and four-star retired military generals in his story, which took eight months to finish, and ultimately revealed the Pentagon’s own revolving door wherein retired generals were being hired by defense companies as consultants. And Bender said it all started with his own observations and curiosity.

“The idea generated from covering the Pentagon over recent years where I noticed what seemed to be more retired generals just kind of around, and almost all of them seemed to be working for one private company or another,” Bender said. “It was anecdotal.”

From Bender’s From the Pentagon to the private sector

“An hour after the official ceremony marking the end of his 35-year career in the Air Force, General Gregory “Speedy’’ Martin returned to his quarters to swap his dress uniform for golf attire. He was ready for his first tee time as a retired four-star general.”

Bender pegged his idea on the 50th anniversary of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address. The five-star general warned of the powerful permanent arms industry unlike the country had ever seen, and he and his aides worried how generals retiring and working for private defense companies would impact democracy.

“His warning was, we need to be aware of this because there may be some power there that may be unchecked,” Bender said. “This powerful industry has this political clout as well as spending power.”

To determine if Bender’s anecdotal observations of this trend were accurate, he, a researcher and a couple of editors who were involved with the story almost daily, needed numbers.

They requested from all four military branches lists of their three- and four-star generals who had retired since 1990, a time when military spending was at historical highs. They then created a database that showed where each went after retiring.

“We got this striking growth of them going from the military to the private industry,” Bender said. “The defense industry has swallowed some of the most senior officers in the military.”

The generals advise the companies on how to pitch their latest weapons or technology to the military for purchase, much the same as Congressional aides go to work for lobbying firms. In some cases they were still being called in by the Pentagon to advise on specialized areas, creating what Bender called, “the potential for insider trading.”

They began to contact some of the retirees directly to put a face on the story rather than simply writing about the numbers, Bender said.

Some didn’t want to talk at all, some would only verify information in their documents, and some who did want to talk left Bender with the impression that this was so common nobody thought twice about it.

The consulting companies doing the hiring were even more unwilling to talk, with no response to dozens of Bender’s requests. Being private companies, they are not under the same obligation as public companies to file information about themselves, meaning he had to rely even more heavily on the generals to provide information.

“It became this accepted process and nobody asked if it was a good thing or a bad thing,” Bender said. “One of the common responses (from generals) was, ‘I’ve been doing this for 40 years, this is what I know.’ ”

Bender also looked at ethics guidelines, or any rules that were in place to dictate behavior of retired generals, and he found that many of these hadn’t been updated in years to account for this new trend. Many generals said they were unprepared for the onslaught.

“The extent to which the military and defense industry had become intertwined and arguably even more of a complex is far greater and far tighter a connection that it was several decades ago,” Bender said. “Some generals would describe retiring and feeling almost like it was an NFL draft from defense companies offering what their new career could be.”

Most reporters will find it difficult to spend eight months on a story, and many newspapers no longer have the resources to provide a researcher who can help create this type of extensive database.

“I credit my editors for seeing this as something different and new and worth investing in me, a researcher, and a couple of editors,” Bender said. “There was an understanding from the get-go that this would take some time and was worth a few months.”

The techniques Bender used to gain information and create a peg for a historical idea can be applied to other types of stories, and finding that peg can be the life or death of a story.

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Governing’s Ryan Holeywell on finding national issues with local consequences

Ryan Holeywell is a staff writer for Governing magazine, a publication that covers state and local governments nationwide.

The George Washington University graduate has covered the Troubled Asset Relief Program extensively, and in a BailoutSleuth.com article he revealed that nearly 10 percent of all banks receiving funding were later cited by federal regulators for various violations. His stories examined the financial workings of these banks from a business perspective, like stock transactions, SEC filings, and income and revenue numbers, and how this affects the taxpayer.

Holeywell was attended the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Covering Public Pensions Seminar in June. He shares his advice for covering local issues for a national audience in the video below.

Ryan Holeywell shares advice for focusing national news locally from Reynolds Center on Vimeo.

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John Christie on non-profit news and developing a document state of mind

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

John Christie, founder and publisher of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, has helped fill public policy story gaps uncovered  by mainstream media. A recent series in his publication examined a green energy program that had received millions of dollars in public funding, but had done little work.

While participating in the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Covering Public Pension Seminar in June, Christie shared some of his tips for developing investigative stories.

Stay current: “Every day, there are stories in the newspaper that are potential investigative stories. Most daily stories are fairly shallow and are opportunities to find out more about them. There’s always more to those stories. You don’t just sit there and dream up an idea for an investigative story; they’re in the paper every day.”

Go back: “Look at legislators, governors, agency heads. They’re all making changes to policy and when they make those changes they make claims: this will lower taxes, take care of the environment, help retirees. Go back and find out what those claims are and find out what really happened as a result. That’s the accountability aspect of investigative reporting.”

Sources know sources: “Whenever you’re interviewing someone for an investigative story, always ask them at the end of the interview, who else should I talk to? That’s a great way to find more sources that you didn’t have to begin with.”

FOIA and FOIA again: “Have a document state of mind. The best information for investigative stories is frequently from documents. They should be your primary source of information for investigative stories, not just interviews. There’s a wealth of information out there from research organizations. Look for those documents, learn how to do FOIA requests. Sometimes documents lead to other documents. Governments are always providing information and documents, you just have to find them.”

In the video below, Christie talks about his experience covering business in a non-profit news outlet.

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Patch’s Shauntel Lowe shares tips on thriving in a remote newsroom

Shauntel Lowe, a local editor for AOL’s Patch.com who covers the Rancho Bernardo community in San Diego, works with her beat without the benefits of a bustling newsroom.

As an editor, Lowe handles many facets of the site, including prioritizing and editing Patch.com’s coverage with her team of freelancers.

Lowe said working remotely is not as challenging as it was a several years ago because tools like Twitter, Facebook and text messaging help her stay connected to her writers.  She has even used Skype to keep the face-to-face interaction with her reporters and to pass photos between herself and another editor.

“The most important tip for working with reporters who you don’t see every day is emphasizing the need for prompt communication,” Lowe said. “In a newsroom, an editor can see when a reporter is furiously typing to meet deadline; I can’t. What I tell reporters is to keep me updated on story progress. Text messages are great for that, especially when they are out on assignment. Also, even with all of the cool technology we have, it’s still useful to grab coffee in person every once in a while to maintain that relationship.”

Lowe attended the Society of American Business Editors and Writers Covering Public Pensions Seminar in June. In the video below, she shares her tips for prioritizing coverage with a small, remote staff.

Patch’s Shauntel Lowe on organizing coverage from Reynolds Center on Vimeo.

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Michael Lawson on business trends and finding human narratives

Michael Lawson, a reporter at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, has covered a variety of topics. Since business is not exclusively his beat, he shared a few techniques he uses to keep informed on top trends.

Keep clicking: “When I’m in the course of my research I just let myself go into it so that if I’m reading one thing I follow the link to another source, and then I follow another link from there, and then another, until I feel like I can tell someone else about this.”

Utilize alerts and online data: “I try to read up on topics using general databases like Lexis Nexis or even by just doing a Google News search.”

Use Twitter for story ideas: “I get a lot of ideas from my Twitter feed these days. I follow a lot of people, especially organizations like nonprofits and governmental departments. All day there are links to different sources. Twitter is good to keep you informed in real time when it’s used professionally.”

Lawson was a fellow during the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ Covering Public Pensions Seminar in June. In the video below, he offers advice on finding human stories behind the numbers.

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Testy copy editor newest blogger for BusinessJournalism.org

Phillip Blanchard Testy Copy Editors

Phillip Blanchard

Who hasn’t taken a look at an earnings press release and thought, “Can I get a translation, please?”

Well, our new blogger is here to remind you that that’s your job.

Phillip Blanchard, longtime copy editor on the Washington Post Financial desk and founder of an online forum called Testy Copy Editors, will be writing every other week for BusinessJournalism.org.

Blanchard has worked in journalism since 1967 with tenures at radio stations and newspapers.

During his stint on the Post’s financial desk, from 2000 to 2008, Blanchard was often backup slot and he was the interim desk chief in late 2003. For the last few years, he said, he slotted the Monday Washington Business section and Sunday A1 stories.

Blanchard will write about copy editing for business journalists, with a particular emphasis on reporters getting it right before their work gets to the copy desk.

1) When a reporter is on deadline, what’s one tip you’d give them to avoid errors?

Start earlier. (Many, if not most, reporters are notorious for pushing deadlines. Some do it intentionally to avoid rigorous editing.)

2) What’s the biggest error you’ve made and what did you learn from it?

In 1983, I misspelled “Grenada” in three headlines on one page. I learned to look at a map.

3) What are the most common mistakes reporters make and how can they avoid them?

Most mistakes stem from credulity. Reporters often take what they are told at face value, even when they talk with flacks. This is especially true of business reporters. Many accept the explanations provided by outside “experts” rather than dealing with insiders and relying on their own research. Numbers aren’t checked and rechecked, or they are misunderstood.

4) What’s one piece of error-avoiding advice you’d give a new reporter starting out on the business beat?

Learn how to read financial statements and write stories about such things as quarterly earnings reports from them, not from the press releases that accompany them. It’s not hard. If you can balance a checkbook, you can understand a corporate financial statement. (Wait. A lot of people can’t balance their checkbooks.) If a company emphasizes a particular number, you probably should look deeper to find the real story.

Read Testy Business Copy Editors every other week.

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Digging into public pensions: First, roll up your sleeves

Sabew pensions session

Marc Lifsher, an L.A. Times business writer, and David Milstead, a Denver-based freelancer, listen to Jason Grotto an investigative reporter from the Chicago Tribune.

Public pensions are often just a line-item on a state legislature’s budget that doesn’t get looked at very closely. But reporters must keep a keen eye on these programs in their respective states because they can impact all the residents of a state, not just state employees.

A group of 20 reporters from around the country gathered this week to talk in more detail about just how to keep an eye on those public pensions.

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ “Covering Public Pensions” seminar kicked off Thursday morning at Arizona State University’s Cronkite School with a discussion of what public pensions are, the complications that go along with covering them, and how to even get started.

Public pensions, which can be covered from either the business or metro desks, have been reported to be broken in several instances in the past few years.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting published a series of articles, Pensions: The next budget crisis, on the state’s funding crisis for its pension program, and reporters have dug into those plans in Colorado and Chicago to show systems that may be unsustainable if changes are not made soon.

Craig Harris, who wrote “Public Pensions: A Soaring Burden,” an eight-part November series for The Arizona Republic, spoke to the SABEW fellows before the sessions began: ‘I just dug deep.’

David Milstead, former Rocky Mountain News Finance Editor, covered Colorado’s complicated pension system in the early 2000s and spoke to the fellows about his experience.

“It took me three years and a couple dozen articles for me to figure out all this stuff because there really wasn’t any introduction to public pensions for journalists back then,” Milstead said before talking about the tips and shortcuts he learned.

First, what is a public pension?

Simply defining it as a savings plan for public employees is not enough. These plans not only vary state by state and, therefore, financial need, but they also vary by type and frequency.

Lynn Turner, a speaker at the seminar and former SEC chief accountant, said all pensions vary greatly. They are funded by contributions from the employer, employee and the earnings from the investment of funds from the pension. These three categories must cover the benefits being paid out and the funds’ expenses.

There are two types of contribution employers and employees can use to fund their pension.

  1. Defined benefit plan. This is when the benefit for the employee is set and defined, and the employee and employer contribution is calculated to be enough to pay a benefit.
  2. Defined contribution plan. This is when the employee contribution is defined or set and the benefit varies based on what contributions and earnings come up to.

In order to report on these plans, journalists must:

  • Determine what plan his or her state uses.
  • Whether that same plan is used for all employees, or if they have different plans.
  • What are the benefits, and costs, to the state to fund those programs.

A public pension is underfunded if its liabilities exceed its assets. But how is that determined?

Milstead said most of these programs are imbalanced. Liabilities, he said, are the total amount the plan will need to pay its members in the future. This number is a guess, as it guesses at things like retirement age and life expectancy.

This number is weighed against the assets of the plan, which consists of the total money in earnings from investments. This number is complicated by a practice called “smoothing,” which allows the pension plan to spread losses over time.

In other words, the pension plan does not absorb the hits from a bad market year right away, but can give itself, for example, five years to absorb the loss.

That aside, the takeaway for reporters is this:

  • If the pension plan’s liabilities, or what it owes to members, is greater than the funds assets, the plan is underfunded.
  • Underfunded plans are much more common than funded plans.

When underfunded plans occur, this creates an “unfunded liability.” In other words, the liabilities must still be paid.

The question becomes when and how. For reporters, this means determining whether the liability is too great to ever be paid off so that current members still paying into the plan can reap retirement benefits in the future.

It also begs the question: where is the state going to get funding to pay off any liability it might have? And when does paying off the pension plan’s liabilities start eating away at the budget for other state and city programs?

Jason Grotto, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, published a series on Chicago’s broken pension system. In his case, the city had over 600 pension plans for police and fireman, and had been underfunded by the state for years.

Resources for reporters:

  • Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports.

These contain key information about the public pension, including liabilities and assets. Reporters can then use this data to create graphics that show readers how liabilities have increased over time.

  • Talk to people who run the pension.

These funds are managed by middlemen who negotiate between the state legislature and the workers, or unions. Grotto said they were key sources who knew exactly what the pension was doing and were often caught in the middle of the needs of the state and the unions.

  • Find the problems with the pension fund. Is it underfunded?
    Read the pension codes.

The pension laws a state uses determine the behavior of the fund. Cities may alter their law in order to save money by creating incentives to encourage employees to retire early. In the case of Chicago, the mayor made the claim the city was financial secure because they were not firing people.

But more early retirement also means less people are paying into the fund and more people are drawing from it for longer than estimated,

The laws could also be changed to allow pension holidays, which allows the city to not pay into the fund for a year. While beneficial to a city that may be suffering from the economic downturn, this creates an even greater liability for the state to have to pay off later.

  • Find who is accountable.
  • Pensions do not go unfunded all by themselves. Legislators have a key role in that they are the ones who determine how much they and the employee will pay into the fund. The legislature also decides when and how to amend the codes these pensions are governed by.

    Legislators, however, often distance themselves from the issue because it is not politically advantageous to anger unions or cause layoffs.

  • Look to Impact Statements.
  • Any time the pension codes are changed, an Impact Statement must be filed. This contains information about how the change will affect the pension.

    In Chicago’s case, however, Grotto said only 25 percent of instances where changes took place, over the 10 year span the newspaper examined, was an Impact Statement filed. This indicated that the impact these changes would have on the pension fund were often not known.

  • Determine if the pension fund took on greater risk.
  • Many pensions began to take on more risk to reap bigger returns, especially during those times in the past 20 years when the stock market was taking its dramatic rise. But the shift from safer investments, like bonds, to stocks created issues where the fund was not making as much money as was projected.

    The main vehicles for pensions are real estate and private equity. The nose dive these markets took in 2007 also impacted pensions. As these pensions lost money, losses which were compounded by overly high expectations for returns on investments, some would sell of core assets to make monthly payments owed to members.

  • Look to CAFRs (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, found on most state websites), investment manager reports, and trustee minutes.
  • These show how the pension works and how trustees made decisions for the pension.

    Reporters should look for the consequences the pension might have on:

    • State budgets.
    • Services offered by the state.
    • Taxes.
    • What might happen if the fund goes under.

    Public pensions are funded by the state and, therefore, funded by taxpayers. As the state must cut funds to help pay for the pension program, this could mean a reduction in state funding for other services.

    Pensions are more than just a line-item on a budget, and can have far-reaching consequences for the state if they are mismanaged.

    Some resources to learn more: