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For good business journalism, think like a librarian

July 31, 2018

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There is much for journalists, and especially business journalists whose work so often involves numbers and other hard data, to learn from librarians. (Photo Credit: Pixabay user izoca)

Business journalism is the process of gathering, arranging, and presenting information that helps people better understand companies, industries, and economies.

At the center is “information.” Journalists pride themselves on learning and knowing things. But having access to masses of information, even using it, isn’t the same as the ability to methodically obtain, classify, modify, and integrate it.

Librarians are trained to swim in oceans of information. Their training leaves them keenly able to mark a destination, navigate the waters, and be aware of their location always. As such, there is much for journalists, and especially business journalists whose work so often involves numbers and other hard data, to learn from them.

Think from the audience’s viewpoint

In a piece on Brandy Zadrozny, former English teacher and librarian turned reporter who helped the Daily Beast become a “scoop factory,” Poynter spoke with Nancy Groves, former CNN news librarian who now heads social media activities for the United Nations. She made an interesting point about finding information:

“Trained librarians, researchers and information professionals know how to be efficient when it comes to searching online. … Being able to anticipate what a reader wants to know, in a way that librarians and trained researchers are able to tease out what their clients want to know, will help media companies retain audiences in the era of information overload.”

I take that to mean that you can look for more information from now to doomsday. However, how much of it will be a help? Instead, try creating a search strategy keeping in mind what you eventually want to know. Then you can work backwards, building a structure, like a descending tree. Each new level is what you’d need to support the level above. When you have a pretty full structure, you can start at the bottom and work up.

Some of the information will come from people — interviews and observations. And, of course, talk to a librarian, whether at your publication or a public or university library, for help in knowing what databases and online resources will play a useful role.

Integrate your approach

First Look Media, parent of The Intercept, is serious about research. One important approach to stories they use is to use a cross-functional approach, as research director Lynn Dombek told Poynter.

I think what we’ve accomplished is something truly unique: a department that includes a cross-functional team who are skilled at working on stories or with data and documents; with filmmakers, videographers and designers. We’re not a particularly large department, but our strengths and reach are broad, given our multi-skilled team, so we have a significant impact.

The organization even has an investigative researcher. No journalist is going to serve all these positions. But when working a story, you can collaborate with as many people as will ultimately be involved. Each can give insight that can direct what you ultimately need to learn.

Read what you get

Another pointer from Dombek is that researchers read everything they find and then pull out the important parts to move the story process forward. An example in business reporting would be to read the footnotes in financial filings, as they often have critical information that must appear in a document but that a company wants to deemphasize.

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