Reporter-driven coverage: The reporter’s job

by November 19, 2013

Last time, I wrote about the benefits of news originating from well-directed reporters rather than from the morning meeting. It was from an editor’s perspective. Now I want to offer some thoughts about how reporters should work to discover exclusive, high-impact, sophisticated stories. Where do you find news as it is becoming.

If you’re a reporter and want to avoid the low-value assigned story from on high, you have to come up with great ideas yourself.

You may find yourself in a culture where people say, “we’ve already done that.” Avoid falling into that trap. In my experience, when editors and reporters say that, 1) The story hasn’t actually been done, or 2) It was so long ago that new news is to be reported, and many new people have moved in who didn’t recall the first story.

“We’ve already done that story” (but not really). This is old-style laziness that will kill a news organization.

You may also pitch an idea and have an editor say, “That’s not a story.” Here you must become skillful at managing up. Have a conversation about how the idea could be enriched to make it a story. Find the way into the editor’s mind and set of priorities. You may not always win.


“If you’re a reporter
and want to avoid the low-value
assigned story from on high,
you have to come up with
great ideas yourself.”

Some cultures are inherently slow-moving. This was permissible back in the days when the big morning newspaper owned the town and made 40 percent profit margins. Coming from a scrappy PM newspaper background, I never liked it. Now, it’s suicide. Unless you are working on an I-team and producing Pulitzer contenders, you must be fast, effective and productive. You must be able to work across “platforms” with ease, while still writing best-of-class business journalism, not taking dictation or doing single-source stories.

Ready to kick the tires and light the fires? A few thoughts:

1. Own your beat. Whether through a well-coordinated handoff from the previous reporter or jumping in feet-first, get up to speed (here are some basics from a previous post). Become the expert who still has questions and an open mind. Read through the morgue so you know what stories actually have been done. Owning the beat means being aware of the competition. Learn from them. Hurt them. Make them chase you. I used to tell reporters, “I don’t care if I never see you at your desk. Just make sure I can reach you and don’t get beaten.” That’s owning the beat.

2. Know the news makers and the people in the know. Make sure they know you and that you build credibility with intelligent questions and strong stories. Your source list should include CEOs, small-business owners, union leaders, economists, well-placed employees, analysts, academics and — every city has them — old coots who have been around forever and know where the bodies are buried. If you can find a great, well-informed “quote machine,” as I did with now retired Expeditors International CEO Peter Rose, you have hit the jackpot.

São Paulo Repórter do Futuro

Photo: Repórter do Futuro

3. Work the phones. I know this sounds so 20th century but it is still critical. Telephone conversations allow for spontaneity and nuance that email and texts can’t match. For example, you can sense when a source knows something he really wants to tell but is holding back. You can work that — tell me off the record, who could I call who would be willing to talk? Your mission, explicit or implicit: “Tell me something I can put in the paper” (or online).

4. Work the records. Court documents, SEC filings, transcripts of analysts calls, TED speeches by executives, regulatory papers, annual reports — they are often target-rich environments for stories. Some of the best stuff can be found in footnotes.

5. Leverage the “tubes” but don’t let them imprison you. The Internet is a wonderful tool. It is a dangerous “time suck.” So by all means, make use of emails, great sites and the ability to download reports. But don’t stare at the computer screen all day long.

6. Nail down the gold standards. Find out what success looks like for every industry and company you are following. You want gold-standard metrics, the things that really matter, that really carry weight. Is your company straying below or above? That’s news. Also, make use of the top reports for given industries — and don’t get distracted by the ubiquitous lists that are everywhere on the Internet. Thus, for real estate, there’s the Urban Land Institute’s Emerging Trends report. Every sector has such definitive, influential studies and they make news. All this also provides benchmarks so you can track how your areas of coverage perform over time.

7. Do sit-down interviews with major CEOs once a year. I suspect this has fallen out of fashion. But it’s a good habit. For one thing, it gets you face time with important news makers. They invariably have something newsworthy to say, if you handle the interview well. People will read this. You will stay in the loop.

8. Use good flacks. We’re more besieged than ever by pitches. Many companies have PR robots that want to prevent you from getting the news. But every once in a while you find a knowledgeable, forthcoming “communications” person with whom you can have a beneficial relationship. At their best, they want to make sure you get the story right. They know valuable context and information, and some are willing to talk off the record. Treat them with respect and never burn them.

9. Watch the stock. This sounds like a basic, but it’s astonishing how many reporters don’t follow this basic. Shares don’t move in synch with news all the time, but sometimes they anticipate it. Also, which are the biggest institutional and individual shareholders? Who sits on the board and what are their connections in the company and community? Is the board overpaid or underpaid? Does your company have good or crappy governance? Is executive pay out of control? All this can produce new news.

10. Put the pieces together. Has a merger happened far away but still in an industry you follow? Maybe this has put your company into play. Ask around. Did the hurricane in the Philippines destroy a factory or critical supplier for your hometown company? I’d read that story. Your sources say the CEO has been spending a lot of time in New York and a couple of weeks ago some strangers in suits were checking out the local headquarters. Definitely worth checking out. Food stamp funding has been cut. Follow that trail to the local headwaters: The low-wage workers affected, the consequences for demand at retailers, etc.

Others can offer more ideas in the comments section (please do). There’s no substitute for curiosity and skepticism. There’s no substitute for driving around and walking the streets, wondering.

All this, seasoned with experience, will allow you to dominate your coverage. And have great fun doing so.