By Mark Tatge
Welcome to the business beat. If you are new to business reporting – relax. We have all been there.
An introduction to the business beat from Reynolds Center on Vimeo.
My past experience is fairly typical of most reporters: I landed my first big-time job at the Denver Post. There was only one problem – my beat was banking, one of the toughest assignments on the business desk.
My background? I was a sociology major in college who studied the social-psychology of deviant behavior. Some of my colleagues joked that it was great preparation for covering business. Over the course of my liberal arts education, I had avoided math at every turn. Now, I had to tackle banking, a subject that scared the hell out of me.
But my nervousness subsided after I came to realize that business wasn’t about numbers. It was about people. People read business stories and they want to read about other people. Numbers are only a way to keep score. They tell who won, who lost, who is on the way up and who is on the way out.
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Resources and reading
Good business journalists look for anecdotes, or personal stories that drive home a point. The numbers we use help punctuate the anecdote. When I worked at Forbes Magazine, we would spend days trying to find the number or simple, easy-to-explain metric that best described the point we were trying to make. Was the company a rising star or a dog with fleas?
Finding that key metric could make or break the story. A metric might be something as simple as how much American Airlines saved removing an olive from every salad served to passengers. Metrics are simply a measure or yardstick. They come from good, solid reporting.
To help ease your transition, here are a few other tips based on my more than two decades as a business editor and reporter:
- Meet the movers and shakers. Spend some time learning who the industry leaders and laggards are. Is it a mature, slow-growing industry dominated by giants or a fast-growing sector with new faces?
- Spend some time to learn the language. Every beat has a lingo. You need to be able to speak it. Airlines measure revenue per available seat mile. Banks have net interest income. Retailers report comparable-store sales.
- Find a mentor. Countless industry insiders, chief executives and journalists helped me establish myself as a business reporter. They taught me the ropes and gave me tips on how to navigate the terrain.
- Develop a list of go-to experts. These are technical sources such as accountants and tax attorneys who can help you make sense of complex topics.
- Find the followers. Read what other reporters write. But it is more important you connect with people who provide goods and services to the industry you cover – the suppliers, consultants, analysts, lawyers and investment bankers.
- Always triple-check your numbers. I once wrote about FedEx’s new package-handling system but overlooked a glaring error. The article stated that packages whiz by at “540 feet per second.” A clever reader caught the mistake and wrote: “By my math that equates to 368 mph. Please explain to me how FedEx keeps the packages from catching fire.”
- Remind yourself to be patient. Learning a beat takes time. Don’t expect to become an expert overnight.
Mark W. Tatge is an author, professor and investigative reporter who spent three decades as a journalist before joining Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. Tatge was previously Forbes magazine’s Midwest bureau chief and senior editor in charge of the Forbes’ Chicago operations. He’s a former staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Dallas Morning News and The Denver Post.