Tag Archives: Commentary
by Chris Roush
Two conversations I’ve had this week about board members of publicly traded companies have got me thinking about directors and business journalists.
The first conversation was with a student in my “Business Reporting” class.
Each student in the class has to write a final project paper on a publicly traded company here in North Carolina. I encourage them to talk to as many people as possible, from company executives to analysts to investors to customers to, yes, members of the board of directors.
The student told me that she had found a board member of her final project company was a business school professor. She had approached him for an interview, but he declined. She couldn’t understand why he didn’t want to talk.
The second conversation was with someone who has been on a number of boards, including at least one Fortune 500 company, over dinner and drinks last night.
He wondered why, in the coverage of the departure of the J.C. Penney CEO, there wasn’t any mention in the stories about its board of directors — whether any of them had retail experience and who among them was the leading force in making a change in the executive suite. He noted that he had yet to see a board member quoted.
All of this leads me to wonder why companies, especially publicly traded companies, put such a lid on having their board members talk to the media.
Board members, above anyone else, should be great people to put in front of business journalists. They are the ones who know the company’s strategy and what the CEO is trying to accomplish. Whether the strategy is good or the CEO is being fired, these board members — particularly outside directors — are the most objective sources that a company can have, or that a business reporter can interview.
Yet I know of few companies who allow their board members to talk freely to the media. Virtually all of the time that a business reporter called a board member, the director refers the journalist back to the public relations staff. As a result, they come off as being afraid to talk, or ignorant of what is really going on at the company.
Why would seeing board members quoted in stories be good? Let me give you an example.
In 1997, I covered the Coca-Cola Co. for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. CEO Roberto Goizueta was diagnosed in September with cancer, which was a big story. He had been the CEO for 15 years and had led the company to great success. The question was what was going to happen to the company if he should die — and he did die two months later.
I called a Coke board member, SunTrust’s Jimmy Williams. He had visited with Goizueta in the hospital, and his comments to me, which I included in the story, were reassuring to investors in the company who were likely nervous about its future prospects.
That’s unlikely to happen today. In the 21st century, in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and other corporate scandals, directors don’t want to talk to the media. They’re afraid their comments might be misconstrued or that they will come off ignorant about what’s going on at the company.
I say that’s bunk. If you’re a board member of a company, you should be willing to stand up for it, talk about it with the business press. By doing so, the public will have a better understanding about what is going on at the company.
And the company’s relationship with the business media will be less adversarial.
The return of “Mad Men” last night spurred my thinking about the history of public relations.
As I watched the show, and the continuing growth of the fictional agency Sterling Cooper Draper Price, it occurred to me how the public relations industry back then was so young and that the power of PR was still years and years away from being truly understood. While the number of workers in the advertising industry was large and growing, those practicing public relations constituted a small fraction of what it is today.
Forty-five years later and the number of public relations professionals has grown at a staggering pace, with numerous global agencies, countless boutiques and rapidly expanding internal teams. It seems that PR practitioners are growing on trees at this point.
These numbers are often pointed to with some angst among reporters who argue that there is a direct and negative correlation between the rising tide of PR professionals and the dwindling numbers of media. It has been argued in a number of different ways but possibly most famously by Robert McChesney and John Nichols in their book “The Death and Life of American Journalism.”
While I do acknowledge that there are many good points in this debate, I am not entirely convinced that a simple rise in PR practitioners coupled with a decline in media staff creates a terrible vacuum for society. Before jumping into my reasoning I want to be clear that 1.) I am a major supporter of our national media and feel strongly that more should be invested in its future, and 2.) I can in no way speak to how PR is practiced in the political field. I am strictly talking about the relationship businesses have with the media through PR.
There is no question there are now more PR practitioners than journalists out there. One simply has to attend a corporate press conference or other business event where media are invited to quickly see the number of PR people buzzing around a handful of journalists.
But numbers alone do not create a stronger defense for corporations against bad press. (In fact, some could argue more people involved in working with the press only creates more opportunity for mistakes.) At the end of the day, a strong reporter cannot be stopped from a story by a PR professional. As a PR person all I can do is to try and persuade a reporter to abandon a story, write it differently, focus on a different angle, etc. Nothing I do can directly impact what ends up on paper, no matter how many of me there are.
Does the proliferation of PR people make a reporter’s job more difficult as they now have to work harder at source development and face more opposition to stories as they are developed? Yes, almost certainly.
Others have argued that the growth of PR, particularly with its improved financial backing, has allowed the industry to better manipulate the space between truth and fiction. This is I agree with to a point.
A maturing industry is bound to get smarter, and in PR getting smarter means being able to articulate a position for a company more convincingly. Most often, this comes in the form of surveys that are conducted with an eye toward supporting a point or driving news coverage. This though is not an argument about legions of PR people but rather a broader conversation about the improved intellect of a few.
Again though, all PR is really doing here is creating more “noise” in the market. When it comes to the stories that truly matter, the large investigative pieces, this “noise” matters little.
When it all comes down to it, reporters and editors retain the ultimate decision making power. The growth of PR may create more frustration for reporters, but I really do not believe it inhibits good reporting. What stops good reporting, in my opinion, is the lack of financial backing and editorial direction to go get the critical stories.
For example, anyone who reads business news voraciously is often perplexed to find that what reporters are left out there somehow all seem to converge on the same short-list of stories. This indicates a more important internal struggle in the media industry to serve the public interest through businesses that are financially viable.
The debate over PR’s impact on society as media declines is an important conversation that should continue to be studied. But let’s not forget that, though a contentious relationship, PR is really dependent on a strong, independent press. Without a strong media environment we all just become part of the advertisers like Mr. Draper.
by Chris Roush
Curt Woodward of Xconomy writers a piece for 90.9 WBUR, a National Public Radio station in Boston, that takes issue with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick stating “The media here is awful to the business community” in a speech to the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council.
Woodward writes, “But here’s the real reason Patrick’s dig at the press was so galling: It’s demonstrably false.
“Look at the business media in this state and try to tell me, with a straight face, that the narrative being presented is solely one of doom, gloom and failure. You can’t.
“Let’s just take a tour through the recent business headlines in the local press to illustrate this. This past Sunday, there was a big Globe feature by Kirsner himself on Entrega, a local biotech company that is developing a way for patients to take powerful drugs in a pill, rather than the injections currently used.
“The Globe also featured no fewer than four separate stories through the last week of March on U.S. and European regulators approving a new multiple sclerosis drug from Biogen Idec, a step that the paper saw as ‘cementing the Weston company’s dominance in MS treatments.’
“The Herald covered the rise of 3D printing, putting some Massachusetts startup companies on the map alongside other players nationwide in this burgeoning tech trend.
“Both papers, along with online-only news outlets like my employer, Xconomy, also carried lengthy pieces about a new offering from Nuance Communications that could see the Burlington, Mass.-based company leading the way in voice recognition-equipped advertising — the kind of stuff you might see in a sci-fi movie.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Evgeny Morozov argues on Slate.com that technology journalism needs to be more than just gadget reviews and business plans.
Morozov writes, “As I’ve already noted, I hate trend-spotting stenographers and babbling pundits. In their place, I want to install critics and intellectuals. My ‘disruption’ of the current discourse—to use Silicon Valley’s favorite buzzword (‘disruption,’ not ‘discourse’!)—is quite deliberate and strategic. The difference between these two groups is that, in addition to reporting and analysis, critics and intellectuals have additional moral obligations. They don’t just regurgitate whatever Silicon Valley press release strikes their fancy, but they actually try to ask a different question: Is this startup good? Is it bad? The only question that our stenographers and pundits ask right now—as confirmed by your responses—is whether this startup is likely to take off.
“My problem with your approach, Farhad, is that, if I were to ask you a simple question—’How should a smart trash bin be designed?’—I’m afraid that your answer would be: ‘Just as the market wants it.’ But I see technology criticism as a far more ambitious exercise, one that is so much more than just market ventriloquism. So the reason why I go after so many reporters, writers, and thinkers in the book is precisely because I want to force that extra moral dimension on them.
“Judging by your refusal to engage with this project—in both of your postings—I suspect you don’t find this prospect terribly appealing. And I can see why. But read carefully, my book has arguments that are only peripherally related to technology companies in Silicon Valley. I also discuss how those of us influencing public debate should think about and report on those companies.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Allen Wastler, the managing editor of CNBC.com, writes about why news organizations that write April Fool’s news stories are playing with fire.
Wastler writes, “You see, to some of us news is sacred. Yes, there are efforts to sex it up. Some outfits also like to push certain angles and points of view. But by and large most of us in this business understand the need to get the facts right and report what we believe to be true. Misinformation is the enemy. Credibility is our fortress. And April Fools’ Day is the yearly siege.
“In the latest round of battle, there were two breaches.
“One was a news story from TechCrunch proclaiming that Facebook was going to buy the app outfit “Bang With Friends” for $30 million. While there’s running debate about BWF’s validity in the first place, the dead giveaway appeared in the article’s third paragraph, which declared ‘robust staff penetration and rumors that Google is building a competitive hook-up platform called Google F*ck Now also hastened the deal.’
“The second incursion was a story from Edmunds.com about Tesla entering the Nascar race circuit. It, too, had some giveaways in the copy, not the least of which was the sponsorship of Duracell and the need for the Tesla car to play recorded Chevy Charger revving sounds to satisfy Nascar crowds.
“Both pieces were lighthearted, fun, and well-executed. The problem is where they were coming from…two websites that have strived, and succeeded to a certain degree, to be recognized sources of legitimate news.
“It’s dangerous to mix credibility and pranking for a couple of reasons.”
Read more here.
The Newspaper Guild/Communication Workers of America released Tuesday a summary report of their new “Labor & Unions in National TV Network News.”
The CWA and Newspaper Guild funded the study directed by Federico Subervi of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Texas State University.
The report is important. There is a big story here: over the past 30 years, public policies have dimmed the prospects for the working class (I use that term expansively – it includes most Americans) and increased the gap between the wealthiest and the rest. This study looks at three recent years – 2008, 2009, and 2011 – years in which the U.S. has struggled with the worst recession since the Great Depression, the years that gave rise to the global Occupy Wall Street movement, and years in which the right has gone after public sector unions with a vengeance.
Yet, the study finds, only 0.3 percent of network TV news in those three years covered labor issues. It’s a direct line from the decline of labor unions and collective bargaining to the decades-long economic slide of American workers, yet few journalists seem to be able to find the narrative thread.
There is a persistent notion in American discourse that labor unions are what are wrong with our economy, despite decades after the peak of labor union power. It was right there last year in contradictory glory in candidate Mitt Romney’s 160-page “Believe in America: Mitt Romney’s Plan for Jobs and Economic Growth.”
On one hand, Romney’s platform had a pie chart documenting labor’s decline to just 7 percent of the private sector workforce; on the other, Romney insisted on calling unions “Big Labor” and had an entire chapter on “Labor Policy” that would weaken National Labor Relations Board enforcement, boost anti-union right-to-work states, and undermine union political power so “job creators” could “get the economy growing again.”
Christopher R. Martin is professor and interim head of communication studies at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of “Framed! Labor and the Corporate Media” (Cornell University Press) and is working on a book about news media coverage of labor in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, that’s the same contradictory conclusion the news media seem to make: they can in one story report that organized labor is small and weak, and in another suggest that Big Labor is holding back our economy. As the News Guild/CWA summary concludes, “the [TV news] discourse and framing continues to fault the workers and their representatives for any conflict or impasse, not the business, company or government.”
Tuesday’s release was just a three-page summary of the study. Coming soon is more analysis and policy recommendations, including “the need for more accurate teaching about labor reporting in schools of journalism.” Agreed, although we will not likely see a resurgence of a labor beat to cover unions and working class issues on a regular basis. There are no labor beat reporters at national broadcast news organizations (including NPR), and only two newspaper labor writers left in the country – at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
With continued cutbacks – by 2012 newspaper newsroom staffs have declined 30 percent since their peak in 2000, says the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism – it’s a good guess that journalism organizations won’t be creating new labor beat positions. But, general assignment reporters and those covering business, sports, government, and the arts all interface with labor issues, and should be able to knowledgably tell stories that go beyond the “Big Labor” stereotype.
There may also be opportunities for enterprising journalists to develop their own independent news organizations to cover labor and the working class. With network TV news devoting 0.3% of their programs to labor issues, there are certainly plenty of good stories left untold, and audiences who would be interested in seeing their lives accurately reflected in the news.
by Liz Hester
The New York Times’ Ian Urbina wrote an incredible story covering worker safety, unenforced regulations and the role of the government agency tasked with overseeing the nearly 8 million work sites in the U.S.
The story, which details problems in a North Carolina cushion-making factory, shows how chronic under enforcement of safety rules can harm many of those who can least afford a health crisis.
A chemical she handled — known as n-propyl bromide, or nPB — is also used by tens of thousands of workers in auto body shops, dry cleaners and high-tech electronics manufacturing plants across the nation. Medical researchers, government officials and even chemical companies that once manufactured nPB have warned for over a decade that it causes neurological damage and infertility when inhaled at low levels over long periods, but its use has grown 15-fold in the past six years.
Such hazards demonstrate the difficulty, despite decades of effort, of ensuring that Americans can breathe clean air on the job. Even as worker after worker fell ill, records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that managers at Royale Comfort Seating, where Ms. Farley was employed, repeatedly exposed gluers to nPB levels that exceeded levels federal officials considered safe, failed to provide respirators and turned off fans meant to vent fumes.
But the story of the rise of nPB and the decline of Ms. Farley’s health is much more than the tale of one company, or another chapter in the national debate over the need for more, or fewer, government regulations. Instead, it is a parable about the law of unintended consequences.
It shows how an Environmental Protection Agency program meant to prevent the use of harmful chemicals fostered the proliferation of one, and how a hard-fought victory by OSHA in controlling one source of deadly fumes led workers to be exposed to something worse — a phenomenon familiar enough to be lamented in government parlance as “regrettable substitution.”
One of the more interesting parts of the story was about a local doctor who felt compelled to write a letter to OSHA begging them to enforce the rules, but also to keep in mind that many in the area were unemployed and that the state needed the jobs provided by the factory. It was a great way to illustrate some of the problems hourly workers face in the current economy.
Royale workers became regular visitors at local health clinics, including the Clinic for People Without Health Insurance, then run by Dr. Ben Wofford.
Looking like “upright cadavers,” Dr. Wofford said, cushion workers arrived unable to stand on their own, supported under their arms by family members. They had showered and changed out of their work clothes, he said, but their breath still carried an odor he remembered from his boyhood days putting together model airplanes.
He had watched for years as his patients’ suffering worsened with the bottoming out of the state’s tobacco, textile and furniture industries. When people are out of work, he explained in an interview in his office above the pharmacy in Newton, N.C., a diabetic ulcer that would normally cost a toe takes a leg. Their nonfatal hernia bleeds them to death.
“You kill jobs,” Dr. Wofford said, “you kill patients.”
Reluctantly, he wrote a letter in 2005 alerting OSHA about problems at Royale. One worker was in especially bad shape, he wrote: “Indeed he may die as a result of his exposure.”
But Dr. Wofford also urged OSHA not to overreact. “I would hate to see this plant’s multiple shortcomings result in its being shut down,” he wrote, warning of jobs that could be lost. “Many are my patients and are already in dire straits economically.”
The other side of the story is that the plant claims it can’t afford to make changes to the glue or to the factory configuration, saying it’s too costly.
In a recent interview, Mr. Isenhour, Royale’s safety director, said the company never meant to harm anyone and initially did not realize the hazards of nPB. Royale has continued using nPB glues, he added, because alternatives are ineffective or risky.
Glues that use acetone, for example, are popular but highly flammable, he said. Converting the Royale plant to meet federal rules on fire safety would entail replacing the glue-spraying booths with metal walls, installing sprinklers and explosion-proof lighting and retraining workers, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, he added.
In 2005, when seven workers became seriously ill at one plant, Mr. Isenhour said, Royale had to lay off 40 people, close the facility and spend $50,000 to move operations to another site and upgrade the ventilation there. OSHA found high levels of fumes in subsequent years because no one informed the company that fans and filters needed cleaning for ventilation to work properly, he said.
If the company switched to a more expensive glue, he said, he would have to raise the price of each cushion, and the furniture makers Royale supplies would contract with Chinese competitors instead.
“We are trying to keep jobs in America,” he said. “But that’s expensive.”
Both government officials and employers weigh the costs and benefits of protective measures. Many studies show that investing in workplace safety saves money in the long run, but economists say that does not prove true in every case. This, of course, raises the most difficult calculus of all: comparing the worth of a dangerous job versus no job at all. How should companies and regulators put a dollar value on workers’ quality of life — indeed, on their very lives?
To date, Royale has paid nearly a half-million dollars — in court settlements, required upgrades and less than $20,000 in OSHA fines related to glue fumes. Those costs — and the harm to workers — accumulated in slow motion. Cushion making is a boom-bust business, subject to the swings of big orders from furniture companies. Royale and others in the industry frequently use transient, nonunion and illegal immigrant laborers, according to workers and court documents, who are less likely to report hazards and document symptoms.
This is long-form journalism at it’s best. It covers the people, the company, the industry and the government agency and regulations that shape it. The business media often overlooks those profiled in the story when they’re covering companies. The piece is an excellent example of work that many organizations can no longer undertake.
by Chris Roush
Ted Reed, a former business reporter for The Miami Herald who now works for TheStreet.com, writes about The Herald’s newsroom now that the paper is moving to another location.
Reed writes, “When I first arrived at The Herald, I was assigned to every business section’s worst beat: real estate development. About four months later, in March 1989, three unions struck Eastern Airlines. At the time, Eastern had been covered for ten years by a very talented veteran reporter. He used to walk around the newsroom muttering to himself about airlines. I thought he was very possibly insane. By the time the long-awaited strike took place, his nerves were shot. He requested a different beat, and was assigned to federal courts. Soon afterwards, the trial of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega began, because at The Herald there was no place to hide from big stories. I landed the Eastern beat because nobody else wanted it. Within months, I was walking around the newsroom muttering to myself.
“I will share just one of my thousands of stories about covering airlines at The Herald. One day I wrote about how American Airlines was seeking concessions from its pilots union. As it happened, on that same day American CEO Bob Crandall came to town. He didn’t care for the story. When I went to a scheduled meeting with him, he called me into a small office, shut the door, and yelled at me, uninterrupted, for about 20 minutes. His general theme was that he was not seeking concessions and that, as he put it, “I hate f….. unions.” I remember thinking, as I stood in that cramped room with the most important executive in the airline industry, perhaps the most important executive in the history of the airline industry, that I was a Miami Herald reporter and I did not remotely care if somebody yelled at me.
“Afterwards, I walked out into a hallway and the station manager, a nice guy named Art Torno, was standing there. He smirked at me. ‘I told him not to do that,’ he said. Commercial aviation is such a small world that last week, maybe 20 years later, I interviewed Art for a story. Also, Bob Crandall was always friendly to me after that.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Loren Steffy, the business columnist for The Houston Chronicle, is leaving the paper to work for a Washington-based think tank.
Richard Connelly of the Houston Press writes, “Steffy is teaming with some former colleagues from Bloomberg to put out white papers and op-ed columns for a Washington, D.C. think tank, and Langford is headed to the bucolic surroundings of New Jersey to become New York City-based public radio WNYC’s investigative reporter for the Garden State.
“Both of them tell Hair Balls they had no intentions of leaving the Chron until the specific opportunities came up.
”I had a really good opportunity to work with some close friends, and I felt I couldn’t pass it up,’ Steffy says. ‘That said, it wasn’t an easy decision. I have really loved writing a column for the Chronicle, and I still believe that there is no better city in which to write a business column than Houston.’”
Read more here. He is the author of “Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit” published by McGraw-Hill in 2010 and “The Man Who Thought Like a Ship,” published by Texas A&M University Press in April 2012.
Steffy is a three-time finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, the business news equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Since joining the Chronicle in 2004, Steffy’s columns have received awards from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, press clubs of Dallas and Houston, the Associated Press Managing Editors and the Hearst Corporation. He received the Chronicle’s Jesse Award for Commentator of the Year in 2006 and 2011.
Here is a Q&A that Talking Biz News did with Steffy about his BP book.
by Chris Roush
Henry Dubroff, the founder and editor of the Pacific Coast Business Times, writes about the dramatic changes in business journalism in the past five years in the wake of judging Loeb Awards earlier this week.
Dubroff writes, “In financial journalism, it seems the future belongs more and more to the specialists. I know I’ve written about this previously, but the happy faceds at UCLA belong to folks at Bloomberg, Reuters and the Southern California business journals. The panicked folks are at the regional dailies and even the New York Times.
“I can see a future where journalism organizations look more like talent agencies and they put their content in whatever form — digital, broadcast, print or Twitter draws and audience that can be monetized.
“Data and data analysis are driving more and more reporting — sadly at a cost to good old fashioned shoe leather and talking to people.
“Finally, while the barriers to entry for freelances and bloggers are low and getting lower, the path to building a small, privately held company like the Business Times is getting harder and harder.”
Read more here.