Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

Two Minute Tips

Work with a spreadsheet and calculator at hand

January 29, 2020

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Would you sit to write with only a typewriter and plan to send paper drafts to an editor? Or when using a computer, would you sit to write without a dictionary or reference works within easy reach, whether paper or digital? How about not availing yourself of email or phone to check details and make inquiries?

You wouldn’t dream of doing that. When reporting on business, there is something else you should keep at hand—a spreadsheet and a calculator along with financial references.

Business balances on the twin pillars of numbers and human psychology. It’s the first pillar we’re looking at today. If you don’t have a calculator and spreadsheet at hand, you can’t rightly do the work because there are things you would be unable to check.

An example would be reading an SEC financial filing. It would seem safe to assume that the numbers are tallied correctly (although checking never hurts because someone could have made a mistake in transcription or in a calculation). But that’s only the beginning. One of the most powerful techniques available to a business reporter is to start comparing things that a company doesn’t publicly. I’ve found major companies spending less on R&D over time as a percentage of revenue, seeing shorter active periods of customers, seeing customers suddenly slowing down in payments, and more.

To make life easy, pick up a calculator that does financial functions. If you stray into technology and science, getting one that also has scientific capabilities is easy and worth the extra.

Then there are spreadsheets, as easy to get on your desktop, laptop, or tablet as it is to get into Google Docs if you don’t have something like Microsoft Office 365 loaded on your machine. They can be, I admit, harder to use, but mostly I think that is because of the intricacy of data and analysis that people typically try to do.

You can build your own models, which can be something as simple as your running total of product category sales for a company (I did that with Apple for years) so you can follow the rise and fall over time. Or you might download a company’s financials, pull them into a spread sheet, and calculate additional metrics, like expense categories as a percentage of revenue. Do that for a few leading companies in your beat and you can begin to develop your own industry benchmarks and see where a firm is outside the norm.

Think of calculators and spreadsheets as ways to directly interview the fiscal performance of a company to complement what you hear from corporate officials.

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