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Covering business: Finding local stories

April 26, 2011

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By Mark Tatge

The best business stories are local.

Finding these types of stories isn’t difficult. They pop up all the time. You just need to start paying attention. One day gas and food prices are on the rise. The next, a local foundry closes its doors and moves its operations to China. On the way to work, you pass by city hall. Taxpayers are loudly picketing over a proposed property tax increase.

With so much free content competing for eyeballs, the challenge is learning how to put these events in context. Reporters need to explain the implications of a particular development. There is no better place to do that than in your own backyard.

In every story you produce, you should be able to answer the following question: How does what just happened relate to what is happening in the larger landscape?

For example, if you suddenly hear that the Federal Reserve is pumping money into the economy, driving down interest rates, you need to be able to say whether this is a good or bad thing for consumers.

In today’s fast-past world, good business reporting is more about figuring out the impact of recent events. You also need to give news consumers an idea of what is ahead around the bend.

Employing this strategy, here is a sample of the local stories that can be done by print, Web and broadcast reporters:

Jobs: Few issues generate greater interest than jobs. Jobs are an emotional issue. And in today’s environment, workers who are lucky enough to have jobs are always looking over their shoulder to see if they are going to be replaced. Meanwhile, workers who have lost their job are struggling to bounce back.

Inflation: Prices are a classic pocketbook issue. People are always interested in what is happening with prices. The federal government reports what is happening to consumer and producer prices each month. Both indexes produce fodder for reporters who want to write local stories.

Housing: Everyone needs some place to live. Housing is also the single biggest purchase an individual will make in his or her lifetime. New- and existing-housing sales, new-house starts and housing foreclosures are tracked by the government and monitored closely. Why? Housing has a major impact on other parts of the economy, most notably construction, home remodeling and retailing.

Economic development: Every city, town and state is looking for the next big idea on how to grow and attract and retain new jobs. Should local governments slash taxes? Or should officials relax regulations governing safety and pollution? There is a constant push-pull here between government and the private sector that makes for good local stories.

Transportation: Better known as planes, trains and automobiles. Commerce depends on people being able to get around and get to work. Automobiles have become a fixture in American society. Cities are ringed with expressways. Once a nation of railroads, most freight now travels by road and air. Without efficient transportation, the economy grinds to a halt.

Consumer spending: Two-thirds of our economy depends on people buying stuff. This is why economists refer to the U.S. as a consumer economy. A great deal of attention is paid to whether consumers are shopping and what they are buying at any given time of year. This is one of those low-hanging stories waiting to be plucked.

Taxes: How much businesses and individuals pay in sales, property, and income taxes on every dollar earned affects both investment and consumption patterns. Yet, taxes often receive little attention from business reporters. Remember: Taxes do matter.

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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