Business news in the Pacific Northwest focuses on consumer and enterprise
by Chris Roush
Scott Nelson is the business editor at The (Portland) Oregonian, being named to that slot in July 2011. He oversees a staff of 11.
He had served as deputy business editor, breaking news editor, online enterprise editor and Portland editor since joining The Oregonian in 2003. He has taken a newsier approach to coverage, building on what he sees as the newspaper’s strong consumer and enterprise reporting.
Nelson graduated cum laude from Linfield College with a B.A. in mass communications and political science. He has a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Maryland and a certificate in financial planning from the University of South Florida.
He was personal finance editor at The Tampa Tribune and also worked for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and The Boston Globe.
In October 2011, The Oregonian unveiled a revamped business section, focusing on the fast pace of economic activity across the Portland area and provides a deeper focus on local businesses.
The paper also added two new reporters to the staff – Elliot Njus, covering real estate news, and Molly Young, writing about small business.
Nelson spoke with Talking Biz News on Saturday during the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism Boot Camp workshop at The Oregonian on covering companies. What follows is an edited transcript.
What is the Oregonian’s philosophy in covering business and economics news?
W’e're in a period and a place where you have competing ideologies and really competing demands on your time. And I think the reporters feel that acutely. So in one regard, when I came in as business editor 15 months ago, I said we need to be more aggressive than we had in the past on transactional stuff. Things are happening in the business community that are not being reflecting in our coverage.
What I really wanted to do was differentiate the business section from any other section that we had. I wanted it to be unique and have its own look and feel. I wanted it to have a higher story count. We would have three or four story counts and big pictures, but I wanted seven or eight stories on the front.
We have done that, and we’re much better. The reaction from business readers as been almost uniformally positive. They think they are getting lot more. They had felt like the paper was taking things away from them, and this was giving them more.
How can you do all of that?
That’s also happening at a time that everybody is having to do a lot more on the digital front. That is much more important. Almost every business reporter has a beat blog, and those take a fair amount of time.
So how do you do that and do the higher number of dailies to have the higher story count and some A1 stories and Sunday stories? I think the bar is higher than it has in the past. The number of things you have to juggle and be good at is at so much more of a premium than it has been in the past.
What have been the bigget changes have you made since you took over as business editor?
What you try to do as a manager is not burn people out. If you looked at the business section in the year before they appointed me, it’s a very different looking and feeling section. The whole team does that. We shifted our focus. It’s a much higher story county, much more news, and a faster pace.
Is there a price to be paid for that in terms of enterprise? Probably so. It would be denying the obvious. We try to find a balance and walk that line all the time.
The business section recently underwent a redesign. What has been the reaction?
We went from a four- or five-story count standard front with large centerpieces, which was like our other sections, to one that is unique to business. It went to more of an old-school newspaper like, more like The Wall Street Journal or a 19th-century newspaper.
We now have at least a seven-story front, sometimes eight or nine. Photos are smaller. We went with much more vertical format.
We put doglegs in, which the Oregonian hadn’t done in a long time, so the design staff had to be retrained that that is OK. So visually we we thought was a cleaner, sleeker, more vertical, more information intensive look.
We only have standalone sections most weeks Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. On Wednesday and Saturday, we’re inside Metro. On Monday, we don’t have a section at all.
What is the competition like for business news in Oregon?
There is a real competition with time. Unlike the business journal, we have an obligation and a need to do bigger take out stories. We have to do trend stories. We have to do investigative pieces of important companies and watchdog companies that frankly business journals don’t have to do.
In terms of traditional media, the business journal is the biggest traditional competition. They are competitors in terms of daily, transactional breaking news. And they are very good at that. A lot of things, they put things up first and we chase it down. It’s funny because we’re owned by the same company. (Editor’s note: The Oregoninan’s parent is Advance Publication, while the Portland Business Journal is part of American City Business Journals. Both are part of the Newhouse media empire.)
What are the biggest companies that the paper focuses on and why?
Portland is not a big headquarters city. We do have a handful of big companies. Nike is the biggest one. Precision Castparts is big. Intel is not based here, but it has 16,000 ewmployees in here. Adidas North America operations is there.
In general, it’s not like a Boston or San Francisco or a Charlotte. So one of the changes I made when I came on was to better reflect the smaller businesses. We now have two small business reporters. One spends half of his day managing our website, and the other day doing entrepreneurs and startups and small companies.
Since this is not a huge headqurters town, we cover more small businesses. Our blind spot has always been covering the 1,000 small companies in the market.
You don’t see too many daily business sections focusing on consumer issues. Why does The Oregonian?
Laura Gunderson is fabulous. It probably is based on the fact that we’re not a major headquarters town. We have the fleibility to look around and decide the best use of our reporters, and consumer and retail coverage is one of those areas that is really popular. Readers can’t get enough of it, so we go with where the readers are.
Another reason that plays so well in this mariket is because we have a beat reporter who is really good. I would put Laura up against anyone else in the country on that beat, and she really gets digital and engages readers.
Is there anything you’d like to do to improve the paper’s coverage?
I think that any time you make a big adjustment, you have to play it out and see how it goes and then you correct the course. There is always adjusting. We have added a lot more stories and information and lists and a lot more transactional in the daily. And that is good.
But we need to find a way to tip the balance an get more enerprise and investigative. I want to get more of that, the big stories. If the Oregonian doesn’t do that in this market, nobody will. We have to find ways to find the most important stories for business readers. Finding a way to make sure that balance is kept or tipped slightly will be a focus for us.
It’s tough for reporters these days because we’re giving them so many mandates these days. That will continue to be true. But I want to make sure that the enterprise doesn’t get lost in the mix.