SPJ president urges biz journalists to stop relying on inside-baseball stories

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Christine Tatum, an assistant business editor at the Denver Post, became president of the Society of Professional Journalists in August, becoming one of only a handful of leaders in the organization’s history who focused on business reporting.

Tatum, 35, was a reporter for the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina and for the Arlington Heights Daily Record in Illinois. She also worked for the Chicago Tribune as a reporter. She was a reporter at the Post before becoming an assistant business editor.

Her “Downloads” technology column appeared weekly in the Tribune’s business pages and was the basis of a regular television segment on CLTV, the Tribune Co.’s local cable news channel in Chicago. Tatum also produced chicagotribune.com’s technology section.

Tatum recently talked to UNC-Chapel Hill journalism professor Chris Roush about SPJ and what it can do for business journalists. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. How did you get interested in business journalism?

While covering technology for the Chicago Tribune, I obviously needed to follow particular technology companies, not just explain to the world how to use various gadgets and gizmos. I fell into the beat during the tech boom of the late ’90s — and what fun that was! Oh, the personalities and corporate extravagance. There were so many quirky aspects of the tech industry and workplace to write about and so many interesting debates raging about whether the “new economy” was indeed something different from the “old economy.” (We know the answer to that now.) I learned in a hurry that business writing is hardly limited to dry reports heavily laden with number-crunching and heady explanations of hedge funds.

I also saw the power of money in an entirely new way. It is an incredibly strong motivator for good and evil — which certainly makes for interesting reporting.

2. How hard was it to learn the subject matter?

Learning business fundamentals isn’t hard — but it takes a while to feel comfortable with them, particularly under intense deadline pressure. I’m still learning plenty — and try to learn more every day. I am far from being as business-savvy as I’d like. I recommend that people study guides for dummies and/or idiots that clearly and quickly define business terms such as “cap ratio” and “days receivable.” It’s amazing how much more of a story can be developed when journalists really know how to look at a company’s financials.

3. Why did you get involved in SPJ?

Christine TatumI believe strongly that journalists should do more to defend the First Amendment and the free flow of public information than what it takes for them to collect their paychecks. I don’t rely on — or wait around for — the lawyers hired by the news organizations I have worked for to champion the issues that matter most to me. And I have no grand delusions that just because I show up for work every day, break a few big stories and file the occasional FOI request that I’m some stalwart defender of a press. No, I think we all need to be doing more than that. SPJ is one of the nation’s largest and oldest journalism advocacy organizations, and its work in only one week is amazing. People who honestly examine all the good the Society does for journalism (and, in turn, our democracy) often find it hard to resist membership and from contributing to that much larger good.

4. What are the benefits for business journalists in being part of SPJ?

Regardless of our specialty in a newsroom, all journalits can support SPJ’s core missions, which include strengthening FOI and open meetings laws and promoting professional ethics and greater diversity of perspective in news coverage. Business journalists in particular will find meaningful training at local, regional and national events that helps them master effective reporting techniques. SPJ also helps journalists position themselves for new and exciting professional opportunities by teaching “the business of the business.” Many journalists would be more successful if they only had a greater understanding of news-industry economics.

5. How much has business journalism played a part in recent SPJ conventions?

We’ve focused on it more and more in recent years because, as I’ve stated, money is a powerful motivator that touches almost every decision we make. We encourage journalists not working on business desks to develop their business savvy so that their coverage of city councils, school boards and local nonprofits is richer and more meaningful. During its annual conference in August, SPJ offered half-day instruction on business concepts, industry dynamics and the review and analysis of various business documents.

6. What are your goals for SPJ as president?

You would know that I want to get everyone thinking more about the Society’s business interests. Before I leave office, I want more of our members to understand that the Society is not a newsroom, where it is absolutey crucial to divorce a news organization’s business interests from its news coverage. The Society is a nonprofit organization with a distinct and unwavering mission — but it also has light bills and a staff to pay. It has a building to maintain. To do its good work, SPJ must develop a greater degre of business savvy. It must develop new revenue streams. It must establish partnerships. It must seek sponsorships. It even must build its ad sales and new publications and distribution vehicles for those ads. These notions greatly offend some members of SPJ, and it’ll be my challenge in the coming year to help them understand that this sort of fundraising indeed can be accomplished without compromising the Society’s missions, ideals and integrity.

7. How could SPJ work with groups like SABEW to improve business journalism?

I would indeed like to see more journalism-interest groups working together on various projects. We’re too splintered and, as a result, have weakened our voice as an industry when and where it really matters. It would be wonderful if SPJ and SABEW members were linked more closely so that SABEW members were alerted early and often about matters tied to j-ethics, FOI, news diversity and legal defense. In turn, it would be great if SPJ could work with SABEW’s popular and effective instructors to promote the practices of good business reporting.

8. How do you view business journalism changing in the future?

Business journalists need to become more tech savvy not only to work within their own newsrooms but to do a better job of following various money trails. Given all the tech tools we have at our disposal, there’s no reason why we can’t deliver more sophisticated stories. Technology is also increasingly important to the companies we cover, which should prompt many of us to sstudy emerging industries and to understand how computerization affects the workforce. Globalization has a huge impact on commerce and trade, and business journalists increasingly will be asked both domestic and foreign markets.

9. What will those changes mean for traditional print business journalists?

Business journalists working in traditional newsrooms have lived a relatively 9-to-5 existence compared to colleagues who tackle other subjects, such as crime and education. Don’t get me wrong. Most of the business journalists I know are very smart, work incredibly hard and are by no means afraid of putting in long hours. However, I often have noticed that they allow the opening and close of the markets to drive their schedules. Globalization is changing business rapidly — and in ways that aren’t at all tethered to Wall Street. Traditional print journalists working on the 24-hour cycle of a newspaper will go the way of the dinosaur if they don’t begin to think more like wire reporters, who know how to deliver good information in very short order and around the clock.

10. How can newspaper business sections be proactive in attracting more readers?

They can start by stopping the insane amount of inside-baseball stories they write for investors, real estate brokers and savvy business owners. Sure, those folks are darned important, and we all want to figure out a way to be of valuable service to them. But the folks your average newspaper should want to attract these days are people who are clipping coupons, shopping for a house, saving for their kids’ education and planning for retirement. They want to know how to save on airfare and avoid being ripped off by mechanics and insurance agents. They want to know how to find new jobs or hold on to the ones they’ve got. They want to know about trends in the workplaces given how much time they spend at the office. It’s amazing how little newspapers actually focus on consumers. I read entirely too much coverage of transactional horse races — stories that are often downright boring and have little impact on my life.