By Pam Luecke
So you’ve been assigned to the business beat.
Congratulations! Many a fine financial journalist has started on this path accidentally. They are living proof that (a) you too can learn your way around a balance sheet and (b) there’s much to love about business reporting.
However, if you are one of the many journalists who chose your career because you love words far more than numbers, you may be feeling some angst. Here are a few suggestions for confronting that angst and becoming a stand-out business reporter.
READ, READ, READ
- If you do not already read The Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, get a print and online subscription to one or both – and sign up for their alerts. Skim the paper thoroughly each day to appreciate the breadth of topics covered; many beginning financial journalists are surprised to discover the variety of subjects that have business hooks. Then read a few stories in depth each day – both ones that interest you and ones that intimidate you. Articles in both publications are typically thoroughly reported and well-written. Over time, you will be surprised how much you pick up from following the best.
- Add a weekly or bi-weekly publication to your reading habits. If there’s a business journal in your town, that’s a must. Any of the standard business magazines are good choices, as well. And if a particular industry dominates your region, follow its trade publications. It’s good practice to read what your sources read.
- Read at least one of the many excellent books by journalists about the latest financial meltdown. In addition to helping you understand the recession from which we are just emerging, these books serve as excellent examples of good explanatory journalism. Study how capable journalists break down a complex topic and write with clarity about dense topics. Some to consider: “In Fed We Trust,” by David Wessel; “The Big Short,” by Michael Lewis; and “The End of Wall Street,” by Roger Lowenstein.
- I also recommend investing in at least one reference book. There are several textbooks on business journalism worth reading, including Chris Roush’s “Show Me The Money;” The Columbia Knight-Bagehot “Guide to Economics and Business Journalism;” and Conrad Fink’s “Bottom Line Writing.” I’m also a fan of the “Standard & Poor’s Guide to Money and Investing,” from Lightbulb Press. It’s a tidy little volume that you can keep on your desk and consult when a term or concept stumps you.
- Learn your way around the myriad financial websites, too. I find Yahoo’s financial site easy to navigate; you can graduate to more sophisticated sites in time. If you encounter a pay wall, check if the site will give a working journalist free access. And be sure to bookmark some helpful online glossaries, such as the one here at businesjournalism.org or investopedia.com.
TALK, TALK, TALK
To cover well a local or regional economy, you need to know what makes it tick. Find or compile on your own a few lists:
- Fortune 500 companies based in your area
- Other local publicly held companies
- The largest privately owned companies
- The 10 largest employers, remembering that these could include government operations or educational institutions
- The largest unions
- Other significant industries that might not be represented above, such as agriculture
Now get out your appointment calendar and start setting up meetings with people who are connected to each of these organizations or fields. It doesn’t have to be the CEO or the corporate communications official. Sometimes, the people in between are a better first stop.
Add to your list the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, Better Business Bureau and nearest business school, and any government officials connected to economic development. Ask each person you meet for the names of other people you need to know to understand the local economy.
Even if you have just one informational meeting a week, you’ll be well-connected to your business community within a few months.
Look for productive ways to tap your community via social media, too. Start exploring which blogs, facebook and twitter sites might link you to people in the know about what’s happening in your region’s economy.
LEARN, LEARN, LEARN
To move to the next level of financial reporting, it’s helpful to develop greater comfort with financial concepts and topics.
Accounting 101 is a good start. Chances are a local university or community college has an evening course that will introduce you to the basics. Accounting isn’t a walk in the park, but it’s not rocket science, either. Learning the terms, rules and principles will make financial statements less daunting and help you ask better questions.
I also found taking a course on tax law to be surprisingly helpful. And if you’re a pint short on knowledge about economics, look for courses that might fill that need. Microeconomics or macroeconomics are excellent grounding, of course, but perhaps a topical course – on global trade or environmental economics – would be more relevant to your community’s issues.
There’s no shortage of other educational opportunities you can tap to sharpen your business journalism skills. Try to participate in at least one a year – either in person, online or via teleconference. The Reynolds Center is an obvious first stop. Watch too for offerings from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW), Poynter Institute, Investigative Reporters and Editors and the National Press Foundation.
Many of these are free or low-cost. In some cases, employers will still defray the cost of professional development or reimburse for a work-related course. But if necessary, pay for a course or a seminar yourself. Consider it an investment in your future. It is!
ASK, ASK, ASK
Business and economics reporting is just like any other beat. There’s some jargon you need to master to converse well with your sources and to report accurately. But being a curious generalist will serve you well. Never ever be afraid to ask someone what a term means or to explain something again in layman’s terms. It’s all to evident from recent financial scandals that many people in high places should have been asking more basic questions too.
Pam Luecke was the initial Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism; her success at Washington and Lee University paving the way for the naming of subsequent business journalism chairs.