Q&A: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Rick Barrett

by April 6, 2011

Rick Barrett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Rick Barrett is a business writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, whose home state of Wisconsin has struggled with a manufacturing slump and, more recently, a labor battle that has made national headlines. He has been a reporter at the Journal Sentinel for 10 years and previously worked for the Wisconsin State Journal, Gannett newspapers in Florida and Michigan, the Arkansas Democrat, and newspapers in Texas.

Barrett’s beat leads him to cover a variety of issues including manufacturing, politics, education and communications. Working near a major Harley-Davidson plant, he writes about the local motorcycle scene on his blog Let’s Ride.

1) You seem to love biking. How does this affect your reporting on motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson, one of the area’s largest employers?

I cover Harley-Davidson the same way that I report about other large companies on my beat, cultivating many sources and digging into the issues. I don’t own a motorcycle now, although I have owned them in the past and have many years of riding experience. That’s helped me understand some of the issues, from a rider’s perspective, and it helps when I have to write about the mechanical side of motorcycling.

Having been a motorcyclist also makes it easier for me to find sources in the sport and industry because I have a better sense of who the players are and some of their history.

I don’t think any of this has a negative effect on my editorial judgment because I cover Harley-Davidson and the motorcycle industry in the same critical way that I write about other companies and industries, including mining equipment manufacturers, defense contractors, agriculture and telecommunications.

2) With an issue that engulfs both business and political interests, such as the collective-bargaining episode or government loans, how does the Journal Sentinel’s business desk coordinate with its political reporters?

Rick Barrett headlinesWe have an excellent relationship with our reporters covering state and national government. They tip us off to stories, and we often work together on breaking news. We also share sources and use whatever influence we have to get interviews that otherwise would be difficult to land, especially on deadline.

Overall, I can’t thank our political reporters enough for helping me with stories. They have always responded to my pleas for assistance quickly and have never complained about the additional work. That’s pretty amazing, given the tremendous workload they have in their jobs.

3) What’s the most important thing a reporter needs to know about covering labor issues?

I think it’s important to spend time developing sources and understanding issues on a regular basis, rather than just parachuting in on a crisis. It gives a reporter more credibility, and it helps when you have to call union officials on deadline because they know you a little better. Union representatives, overall, are distrustful of reporters. Spending meaningful time with them  lowers some of the barriers.

4) When you see national stories about Wisconsin business and labor issues, are there any misconceptions?

Sometimes there’s a stereotype that nearly every blue-collar job has been lost, or that these jobs have no future. But, for the most part,the national press does a good job of handling the bigger stories quickly and accurately. There’s plenty of  interest in stories on my beats, and I am impressed with the national press coverage.

5) How has business journalism changed, to you, in the past decade and how might it evolve in coming years?

The sense of immediacy in getting stories online is the biggest change. There are many challenges, including verifying facts immediately and dealing with clunky blogging software, but I think  the changes have  been good. Readers’ online comments also have been a big change. Some of  the comments are way off topic, and there’s abuse, but comments drive readership and are helpful as story tips.

I think business reporting will continue to improve as we work through some of the new-media issues. It’s all about digital now. But established, proven reporting methods can mesh well with new ways of getting stories and delivering them to our audience.