Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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WSJ’s Russell Gold shares roadmap for covering energy

June 28, 2012

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WSJ energy reporter Russell Gold visits Chesapeake drill site. Photo by: Angel Gonzalez

Whether he’s covering energy, oil prices, commodities or hurricanes, Russell Gold finds a way to connect with his readers.

It was love that brought Gold to his current job as an energy beat reporter for the Wall Street Journal in Austin. He was a reporter first for the San Antonio Express-News before joining the Journal’s energy desk in 2000. He wanted to continue living in Texas to be with his current wife and covering the energy industry provided the perfect fit.

Since taking over the beat, Gold has won a Gerald Loeb Award and was a finalist for the national reporting Pulitzer Prize in 2011. His reporting also earned him an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, a Deadline Club Award and a second place National Headliner Award.

Below Gold shares tips to help other energy reporters find success on the beat.

1) What advice can you give business reporters to help them cover local energy stories in their communities?

Energy often seems like an intimidatingly complex subject. But it’s not. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – and then ask more questions. It has been my experience that people in the industry are receptive and willing to share their time when you are genuinely interested in how their business works.

Also, while energy is a global story, it all comes down to people consuming energy. And Americans are energy gluttons – we consume an enormous amount of energy per capita. So any local reporter has a great way to get into this story: the U.S. consumer, local commuters, etc.

Spend time to visit a facility. I also try to tour refineries, drill sites, etc. You can’t see much or understand what all the pipes do. But the trip out there, the time on site and the trip back and great opportunities to just talk to people in the industry in a relaxed environment and get a sense of what’s going on. Take every opportunity you can to get company officials out of their office and on the road. They relax and talk more freely away from the office.

2) What resources would you suggest beginning business reporters use to stay connected and learn about the oil and energy industries?

Read some books. For oil reporters, I would suggest Daniel Yergin’s “The Prize” and Mark Singer’s “Funny Money.” Michael Lewis’ book, “The Big Short,” is a very accessible introduction to Wall Street, its power and foibles.

Also, spend some time reading SEC filings for companies you plan to cover. At the least, read the most recent 10-k and a couple recent 10-Qs. Print them out and highlight them. Mark them up. What makes sense? What don’t you understand? Read the section where the company describes its business and its risks, as well as its financial and cash-flow statements.

Figure out what people in the industry read – what trade magazines do they use to talk to each other and make time to read them also. In the oil business, the mid-level petroleum engineers have lots of magazines and are always presenting papers about this and that. It’s a great way to see what these guys – who are the heart of the industry – are talking about.

Find a Wall Street analyst who you can understand and read his/her reports.

3) What national energy stories can business reporters track down in their own backyards?

Fracking is a national story occurring in many backyards. Where are oil companies leasing? Where are they drilling? What are they telling the landowners? Which landowners are happy and which are upset? What’s the difference? Are local officials embracing? Is there tension between locals and state officials?

4) How do you make a complex topic like commodities resonate with the average reader?

There are a lot of commodities traded around the world that have an indirect impact on consumers. Good luck, though, connecting soy prices to the cost of food in your pantry. Energy is different. Gasoline prices are posted at every gas station. We all understand the impact of rising (or falling) gasoline prices. We also have a pretty good understanding of rising natural gas prices – since most of us use the fuel to heat our homes and boil water.  The other nice thing about gas stations is that people have to sit there for a couple minutes as they fill their tanks – a good opportunity to talk about the impact of commodity prices on their wallet.

What’s more, rising and falling crude oil prices have a pretty straightforward impact on the economy and job availability. Almost any economists at a local university can make that connection.

So, it’s pretty easy to make a couple calls or a quick trip to a gas station to find a person to talk about the impact of rising gasoline prices.

5) What are some hot topics in the industry that reporters need to have on their radar in the next year?

The world is pumping a lot of oil right now at a time when the global economy looks pretty weak. We could see falling oil prices – which will have a major impact on drilling and hiring in the oilfield.

Also, there’s nothing like a presidential election to focus attention on energy prices. Until November, it is sure to come up again and again. Remember “Drill, baby, drill.” That gained national attention at the 2008 Republican national convention.

Natural gas prices are also really low – and could got a lot lower this fall if winter storage fills up and there’s no place to put all the excess. Low gas prices will have a continuing impact on fuels that compete for power generation market share. In the U.S., low natural gas prices will continue to hurt coal, renewable energy and even nuclear power.

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