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Covering business: An introduction

April 26, 2011

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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.

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.


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