Being a daily newspaper biz editor in the 21st century

by

TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

Becky Bisbee is the business editor of the Seattle Times, a position she has held since August 2000.

Before that, Bisbee was business editor of the Austin American-Statesman in Texas for five years. She began her business journalism career at the Modesto Bee in 1984 and rose to become its business editor as well.

A graduate of the University of Maryland, Bisbee has been heavily involved in business journalism in other ways as well. She served on the Society of American Business Editors and Writers board of governors for 10 years and chaired its technology committee. She spent seven years editing the SABEW publication “The Business Journalist” and also organized the 2005 national conference in Seattle.

Bisbee, who is one of the nicest people in business journalism, spoke recently by e-mail to Talking Biz News about the issues facing business editors of daily newspapers. What follows is an edited transcript.

How has the daily newspaper business section changed since you became a business editor in Modesto?

It’s been a long time since I thought about “the good old” days at The Modesto Bee, where I was the Business editor from 1993-95. A staff of four reporters produced a standalone four-page section every day. Half of that space was consumed by stock agate. That was before the newspaper had a web site; when AOL was a dialup service provider, AltaVista and CompuServe the dominate search engines…Practically the stone age.

The mission remains the same: provide readers a compelling report of the day’s top financial and economic events and trends. Keep a watchful eye on those in power. Provide clarity and context. Find interesting people to bring the stories to life. Get the facts straight.

The tools we use to gather those stories have become much more sophisticated. Accessing SEC documents is a snap. Finding sources through Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. has become easier. Broadband has allowed our website to reach a global audience; conversely, readers and sources have more ways to reach us, respond to coverage and help propel our stories forward. It’s a very exciting time to be a journalist.

How did dropping the printed stock listings affect coverage?

I am not sure that it has affected our coverage at all. It did however disenfranchise an incredible number of readers who found the printed A-B-C listings to be the quickest, cheapest and most convenient way to track their investments as well as discover potential new investments.

How has coverage improved during the time you have been in the business?

I would like to think that more business journalists today are smarter than we were back in the dot-com days when we all too frequently just repeated how the new economy was different, how EBITA was the best way to judge a company’s performance, how the smartest guys in the room were really smart … things that make me cringe now. We still make plenty of mistakes and miss major stories, but on the whole I think business journalists are better trained, more sophisticated, more skeptical, more exacting.

What’s the biggest issue you face today with a smaller news hole?

Thinking of our mission purely in terms of a news hole misses the whole point of the Internet. Our reporters are publishing many more stories each day when you include their blogs, the breaking news stories and live chats in addition to the printed section. If it is a great story, we always have room to print it — and most likely after we have published it on the web, on Facebook and Tweeted it.

With a smaller staff these days, how do you handle coverage more efficiently?

Focus, focus, focus. It takes discipline to pick your shots and execute to the best of your ability with the time and resources you have at your disposal. A lot of the routine, boring stuff has disappeared.

Do you see business news stories on the front page or on the front of other sections more now at your paper?

Our business news staff is a regular contributor to A1. And, as long as the economy remains the biggest story of the day, I anticipate that to continue.

Some weekly business newspapers think they’ve got the upper hand on dailies now in terms of coverage. What’s your take?

First, I am very happy for any news organization that thinks they have the upper hand. We all have hot and cold streaks. So, enjoy it while you can, use it as motivation.

But, I find the comparison false. Daily newspapers and weekly publications have different audiences. It’s like comparing a lion and a tiger. Both are large cats that live in Africa, but they are different animals.

Here at The Times, we have defined our target audience as people who are avid readers of business news. If I understand the Business Journal model correctly, it has targeted business decision makers — the C suite. That is just one slice of our target audience. We would also include investors, retirees, people who work at the companies we cover, government  and opinion leaders as our audience. We have different franchise beats and make different strategic decisions.

There are many more stories out there than any one entity can cover, so the more journalists out there working hard the better — the readers win. And, the competition makes us all better.

What’s the biggest issue facing business journalists today?

Not letting the need for speed weaken our ability to get the facts straight and to stand up to those who say this time is different.

Were companies easier, or harder, to report on during the recent economic turmoil?

Easier in the sense of gaining access to SEC documents, stalking them online.  Harder in the sense that many companies employ vast numbers of PR people whose sole mission in life is to divert your attention away from their shortcomings.

Your business news staff still seems to do a lot of investigative stories. How do you balance that with the daily work?

The Seattle Times has a long tradition of investigative journalism. It is a priority. When that kind of support comes from the top, it is easier to say we are going to let other, lesser stories pass us by, to use wires a bit more than you used to. You have to focus, pick your shots.