Tag Archives: Reporting tips

frankieflack

Frankie Flack: Don’t ignore PR people; tell them to get lost

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When I talk to business journalists about flacks, they all have the same complaint: too much contact. Too much email. Too many phone calls. Especially from junior folks who haven’t learned the rules of the road.

I’m going to tell you all how to mitigate that problem. Listen up, hacks. If you heed my advice, you’ll see your inbound PR email cut in half over the course of six months. The solution here flows from a fundamental irony.

When I talk to flacks about journalists, it’s exactly the opposite of what reporters bitch about: PR pros feel like there is too little contact. Crickets when they send email. Phones that don’t ever ring. Especially from younger journalists who learned from an early age how to just ignore anything that doesn’t catch their fancy.

These two extremes create a vicious cycle. The less responsive a journalist is, the harder PR guys work to get attention. That means more emails. Phone calls. Tweets. LinkedIn invitations. Asking your garden-variety flack to send one email just one email and walk away, even in the absence of a response, is like asking a garage band to turn down the volume.

Sure, it might be a good idea. But it goes against our very nature. So my side isn’t going to back down. We’re going to keep pouring emails at you. And the less you say in response, the more emails we’ll send. It’s an arms race we’re going to win. There are more of us than there are of you. (More on that in a couple of weeks.)

If you want to break the cycle, here’s what you have to do: write back. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’ll work. You don’t have to write much. Just create a single line that can you cut-and-paste to every numbskull that sends you wildly inappropriate pitches. You don’t even have to be polite (though public shaming usually crosses a line). Use profanity if you’d like.

We’ll take the hint. We’ll remove you from our media list. We’ll tell our clients and our peers to handle you with care. We’ll back off on the email. It’ll take a few months for word to get around, but it’ll do the trick.

When I was young, before I started losing my hair and worrying about property tax rates, I was at a conference where I saw a high-profile wire reporter screaming on his cell phone at some hapless flack, berating the poor person on the other end for daring to disrupt what was already a busy and stressful show. It was a thing of terrible beauty, and I think I probably learned a few new words that day.

I’ve dealt with that reporter dozens of times since then, each time with the utmost care. No extra emails. No superfluous phone calls. He’s very pleasant, and I’ve gone out of my way to have beers with the guy. But he established a rep early, and damned if it didn’t stick.

So that’s the solution. Rather than ignoring us and thinking we’ll go away, take the extra six seconds and tell us to bug off instead of hoping that we’ll successfully mind-read and infer your lack of interest. Because you know what we’ll do if you’re clear? We’ll leave you be. Which is all you really wanted in the first place, right?

Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Journalism on Asia

Humanizing the cyber security beat

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New York-based Bloomberg News reporter Dune Lawrence has been helping Bloomberg break news since 2004, when she joined the company, reporting on stocks and investors. She now covers hacking and cyber security.

Lawrence spoke with Lauren Meller of Bloomberg’s public relations staff about how she covers her beat. Here is an excerpt:

What challenges do you face when developing stories and sources?
A couple of times I’ve had whistleblowers come out of the woodwork and present me with a ton of documents, which brings its own challenges. What’s that person’s agenda? How do you make sure what’s being shown to you is authentic? How do you take the story in the direction it needs to go, while managing the expectations of the whistleblower, who might be even more invested in it than you are?

What does the future hold for this beat?
What interests me is taking a very technical subject and humanizing it. The Snowden saga was amazing in part because there’s a central figure to it, a human being. Cybersecurity, surveillance, privacy and the trade-offs between each are something that consumers, businesses and governments are all trying to negotiate, so that’s going to be a rich area for reporting for a long time.

Read more here.

economic data

How to take the economy’s measure

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An economist told business and financial journalists Saturday to beware of aggregated data because sometimes it hides important trends.

“Companies are increasingly managing and mining data to augment government sources,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist of Bank of the West. “What I see happening is a blurring of the lines between traditional government economic data and market, strategic planning and risk management.”

Anderson and Steve Landefeld, director of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, discussed how to dig deeper into government and company data to get a better picture for how the U.S. economy is operating at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers annual conference, being held at Arizona State University.

Landefeld said the BEA uses electronic data complied from a variety of sources as opposed to getting information from individuals through surveys.

“We hope to pick up data more from economic transactions than from asking the individual,” Landefeld said. “There are biases present in household surveys.”

Landefeld broke down specific aspects of the components of GDP, such as foreign owned assets in the U.S. and encouraged the use of comparisons to give context to data.

Landefield said these foreign investment assets equate to about $25 trillion, which is a huge amount in nominal dollars but not when compared to the percentage of U.S. net worth.

“It’s nothing to panic about,” Landefield said.

Anderson discussed how government data, especially GDP, is central to economic forecasting.

“During the government shutdown, we were twiddling our thumbs for a few weeks,” Anderson said.

Anderson said a real GDP gap still remains.

“It tells me were still below our economic potential,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of excess slack in the labor market and deflationary pressures are very real.”

Anderson said there is increasing demand for granularity of data as policy makers, banking executives, and corporate boards want access to detailed parts of macroeconomic data.

“Our dependence on data is going to be more important compared to the past,” Anderson said.

Alex Dixon is a senior at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication attending the SABEW conference on a Talking Biz News scholarship.

Quartz tablet

Making business journalism that doesn’t taste like medicine

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Delivering informative news and not making it taste like medicine is one of the key challenges of business journalism.

On Saturday afternoon, Kevin Delaney, Quartz editor in chief and co-founder, and NPR’s Planet Money’s Caitlin Kenney discussed different ways to innovate business journalism and make it compelling for readers.

Reynolds Visiting Professor of Business Journalism at Arizona State University Susan Lisovicz moderated the panel discussion, which is part of the annual Society of American Business Editors and Writers, being held this weekend at ASU.

Kenney showed clips from Planet Money’s T-Shirt Project, where the NPR team followed the making of a cotton t-shirt through four continents and a global economy.

Planet Money hoped to raise $50,000 for the project. Instead, the team raised $600,000 — which Kenney said motivated her to fulfill the high expectations from readers.

“People were so excited about the project because they had helped support it, and they really felt like they were part of it too,” she said.

The story of the t-shirt was told through audio, video and graphics — an “inherently visual” medium that drew readers in.

Delaney also said that making stories visual, through charts or graphics, is key to sticking out in the streams of news content.

News consumption is increasing, but fewer than 40 percent of Americans have a regular news habit, Delaney said. Instead, readers wade in and out of the streams.

Headlines are another way to make stories stick out to readers. Delaney said he has reporters write their headlines before they write their story.

“It brings a focus to the reporting and writing of the article,” he said.

Quartz caters to the business elite, and Delaney said he doesn’t allow throat clearing or sports analogies — respect the readers’ time, he said.

And instead of beats, Quartz reporters have what are called “obsessions.”

“We want people to write about stuff that’s important but also interesting,” Delaney said. “A lot of that stuff falls between beats.”

Nowadays, there are more forms of innovative journalism and more competition, but Delaney said he welcomes it.

“It is the readers who will ultimately decide if we’re successful or not,” he said.

Maddy Will is a UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication student attending the SABEW conference on a Talking Biz News scholarship

financial bubble

Business journalism and corporate fraud

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For business journalists, catching crooked companies requires skepticism and close attention to the details that should cause hesitation, said journalists in a workshop Saturday.

Roddy Boyd, founder of the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, said the foundations of detecting corporate fraud are in the “things that make you go hmmm.”

Boyd, who worked for Fortune magazine, the New York Post and The New York Sun, joined other business journalists at the Society for American Business Editors and Writers conference at Arizona State University being held Friday and Saturday.

Boyd highlighted a number of factors that should give a business journalists pause, including dramatic spikes and falls in revenue, and outliers and incongruities in a company’s mandatory filings.

Other red flags that could indicate corporate fraud are reverse mergers, an unknown auditor of a decent sized company and companies that are domiciled in states such as Florida and Utah.

“I expect I will die astounded that the regulatory apparatus finds itself unable to sanction some of these companies,” he said.

Boyd said his business journalism career has not always endeared him to the subjects of his writing.

“I’ve made some enemies,” he said. “You are never going to be popular doing this stuff.”

Boyd said reporters should look for trends and put things into perspective for the readers instead of getting bogged down in financial data.

“Don’t focus on the weeds,” he said. “Tell me what the forest looks like.”

Claire Williams is a UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication student attending the SABEW conference on a Talking Biz News scholarship

Michael Lewis

Lewis, SABEW winner, finds stories in markets

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Everything is a market to best-selling author Michael Lewis.

From the story of football player Michael Oher in “The Blind Side” to the drafting process of the Oakland A’s in “Moneyball,” Lewis said he writes about markets, not business.

Lewis answered questions from “Wizard of Lies” author Diana Henriques on Friday afternoon at the annual Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference, which is being held this weekend at Arizona State University. Lewis received SABEW’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Award.

His next book, “Flash Boys,” is coming out Monday — but the plot has been embargoed until a “60 Minutes” special Sunday night. The story will be centered around high-frequency trading, a subject Lewis came across when he was writing an article about a computer programmer who was jailed for stealing code from Goldman Sachs.

The popular novel-turned-film “Moneyball” also evolved from an article, but Lewis realized he had to make it a book the first time he saw the Oakland A’s players naked.

He told the team’s general manager Billy Beane and other officials that he saw the players naked and that it was unappealing — the players didn’t look like professional athletes.

But that was the point, the team’s officials said. When they draft players, they look for people who don’t look like the typical baseball player, because the handsome players with the good bodies are typically overvalued.

The book gathered traction in the business world.

“A lot of business is boring,” Lewis said. “Even people who do it don’t really know how to make it interesting to their families, and if they can find a sports analogy, then it solves the boringness.”

Lewis said he won’t write a sequel to “Moneyball,” but he had the idea for another baseball book while writing “Moneyball” that never materialized. It would have been called “Underdogs,” and it would have followed the players who go through the minor leagues.

“It was cursed by ‘Moneyball,’” he said. “’Moneyball’ was so loud, I couldn’t hear myself think.”

Through his books, Lewis has made financial journalism cool, said outgoing SABEW President Kevin Hall.

The trick, Lewis said, is to tell a story well and be passionate.

“If I was a boss, if I sensed genuine enthusiasm and passion for an unrelated piece of work, I’d say go do it,” Lewis said. “The reader picks up on what the writer is enthusiastic about. You can’t fake it.”

Maddy Will is a senior business journalism student at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication attending the SABEW conference on a Talking Biz News scholarship

SABEW

Personal finance should be biggest biz desk beat

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With roots and connections to every niche of business journalism, covering personal finance should be the biggest beat in the business, a panel of top journalists in the field said Friday morning.

But a misunderstood lack of variation in subject matter — on the surface — makes it seem repetitive and less relevant than other beats, they said.

“If you cover personal finance, you know there’s only about 14 stories out there,” said Liz Weston, a syndicated columnist on the topic. “We just keep changing the anecdotes.”

The panelists, moderated by MSN Money’s managing editor Marty Wolk, spoke Friday morning about the intricacies of the beat, why it interests them and why it’s important to the reader. The panel was at the annual Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference, being held Friday and Saturday at Arizona State University.

Interest in personal finance stories has been increasing, Wolk said, particularly as baby boomers near retirement age and realize that they’ll need to figure out how to pay health care costs and living expenses without a working income.

He said the task beat writers face is covering every scheme out there that separates people from their money.

“You need to define it more broadly,” he said. “You need to think about all the different ways that people spend their money, invest their money, and have their money at risk, even without really knowing it.”

CBS News writer and syndicated personal finance columnist Kathy Kristof said stories come from understanding and showing how broader policy changes and larger events affect individual readers.

“Each of us has a different story to tell,” she said, using the Affordable Care Act as an example of something that’s simultaneously helping some people and hurting others.

“The same event can affect your readers in a number of different ways, so if you know that, and you can dig into it, and you can know your beat so well that you can take that spectrum and explain how and why and what they can do about it… That, to me, is what personal finance is really all about.”

Cassella is a UNC-Chapel Hill business journalism student attending the SABEW conference on a Talking Biz News scholarship.

Stephen Adler

Reuters editor in chief Adler: We need smarter, deeper, more forward-looking stories

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Here is the list from Reuters editor in chief Stephen Adler that was sent out to the troops earlier this week (It was mentioned by Reuters CEO Andrew Rashbass in this email) after his bureau chief meetings:

 

Last week, we completed the last of our three regional bureau chief meetings. I’m sure you and your bureau chief will be talking about the topics we discussed in our sessions, but I wanted to share my own observations as well.

  1. We have excellent new leaders in each region – Jean Yoon in Asia, Richard Mably in EMEA, and Dayan Candappa in the Americas – each of whom has deep experience at Reuters, a strong commitment to our goal of being the world’s greatest news organization, and highly compatible, collaborative approaches to getting us there. They’re all off to a really good start!
  2. The meetings were great – the best I’ve attended in my three years here. The mood was more optimistic, the teams more united, the conversations rigorously practical – focusing on precisely how we can do things better – rather than theoretical.
  3. The teams in each region embraced the strategy of simultaneously reinforcing our traditional core (fast, accurate, neutral) and expanding that core to include more forward-looking, insightful, exclusive, and enterprising journalism. The focus this year, happily, was not on whether we should enhance our capabilities but rather – bureau by bureau – how we do a better job managing our time and resources to be fast and smart. You should see real results – and greater clarity – as a result of these discussions.
  4. We still have a lot of work to do to serve the financial buy side more effectively. We agreed that some of this involves the smarter, deeper, more forward-looking stories we’ve all been working on. We want these stories to provide un-obvious insights — based on strong sourcing and thorough reporting — about companies, countries, regions, industries, asset classes, and regulatory issues so they’ll be highly relevant to the people making investment decisions.
  5. We also have to become more comprehensive in our coverage of smaller and mid-cap companies, an effort that will involve better use of automation, strong reliance on centers of excellence such as Bangalore and – soon – Gdynia, and better focus by all of us on finding corporate angles within stories that, at first blush, might seem not to be corporate at all. When you think about it, most news affects companies in some way – whether a natural disaster, revolution, civil war, or sports or entertainment event. We agreed that we increasingly need to mine those opportunities.
  6. As Andrew Rashbass pointed out, we are a profitable news organization because we serve multiple customers and multiple customer groups. Our two biggest customer groups are financial and News Agency, and we wouldn’t be profitable without either one of them. So let’s remember, again, it’s our job not to focus just on one or the other but on both. It’s necessary for our business and central to our tradition and our mission of covering all the important stories in the world, financial or otherwise. Meanwhile, we’ll also try to build our presence in consumer and legal news.
  7. We talked a great deal about the role of bureau managers as leaders of teams, and as mentors and career guides. We aim to do a better job helping you develop your skills and identify and pursue exciting career paths within Reuters. We have programs in place to reinforce this ambition, but the key will be the leadership team’s personal commitment – reinforced at our meetings — not just to drive coverage but to support each of the 2,600-plus people who produce it. Part of this commitment, which I enthusiastically share, is to make sure we build and support a more diverse news organization.
  8. Finally, we talked about safety in a perilous world, and the importance of reminding each other that no story is worth a life. Our general managers and security consultants focus enormous attention on this issue, as do bureau managers around the world. As do I.

At the end of the meetings in London, Hong Kong, and New York, what struck me more than anything is how much great work you all are doing in bureaus all over the world – getting the news, making sense of it, getting it out quickly and accurately, and supporting each other on the ground every day. I am deeply grateful for that.

frankieflack

Frankie Flack: Lies, damn lies, statistics and business journalism

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If you’re a business reporter and don’t love numbers, I don’t want anything to do with you.

I love selling stories with facts and figures a lot more than I like selling sizzle. Show me market share or same-store sales or margins data, and I’ll go to town. In contrast, today’s great profile of a brash young CEO might be tomorrow’s cautionary tale. But the numbers, they don’t lie.

(This isn’t, technically, true. Number lie all the time. They also mislead. But — and this is what I love about numbers — they can be fact checked, vetted, fisked, taken apart, put back together. You want to question my assumptions? Bring it on.)

That said, “data-driven journalism” has now officially jumped the shark. Election-predicting Nate Silver has re-launched fivethirtyeight.com for ESPN, but he’s not content to just crunch baseball stats or election polls. Nope. His site is going to bring a data-driven approach to everything, no matter how silly.

I mean, the site has been up for only a few days, and two things have already happened. First, reporters are now claiming that statistics can solve any problem. That missing airliner? If only the nerd-kings were in charge! They’d apply Bayesian statistics and — voila — have a much better idea of where the plane went down. Never mind that Bayesian statistics don’t work well in an information vacuum. Just wave that magic wand!

Second, reporters are now violating most of the primary rules of working with numbers, such as the general principle that the bigger the dataset, the better the results. Yet 24 hours after the site launched, the “lead writer for news” used this phrase: “My experiment had a sample size of one.” That is not a sentence that inspires confidence.

And it’s not just fivethirtyeight. The New York Times is launching “The Upshot” to do essentially the same thing. Ezra Klein has a similar belief in the edifying effect of charts and data. Some of this stuff will be really good. But a ton of it will be horseshit, dressed up as science.

This is going to boomerang back to haunt you business reporters. You heard it here first: It’s going to take about six weeks for the PR brain trust to decide that we need less pitches with infographics (thank God) and more datasets that we can dump on unsuspecting reporters.

You all will have to start double-checking my numbers because no one wants to let a juicy data story slip away. And we’ll all be worse off, spending our days hunched over Excel spreadsheets, looking for trickery.

So here’s my offer, and we need to agree on this quickly before things spin even more out of control: on behalf of all flacks, we will not pivot to sending you crappy “data” stories if you all agree not to hop on the bandwagon of dressing up garbage numbers as some sort of absolute truth.

That doesn’t mean I’m abandoning numbers. Far from it.

I’m still going to push for GAAP earnings reports and sensible information on marketing trends or whatever to send you.

But I won’t claim that Bayesian statistics are the key to understanding the frozen concentrated orange-juice futures if you don’t publish “experiments with a sample size of one.”

Deal?

mergers and acquisitions

Rumors, accuracy and the M&A beat

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Only one third of stories written about companies being takeover targets between 2000 and 2011 proved to be accurate, according to research by two business school professors.

“Accuracy” was defined by whether the rumored takeover target received an official offer within one year of the story. The researchers discovered that accurate rumor articles are more likely to mention a specific takeover price, to discuss possible bidders, and to indicate that negotiations are in an advanced stage.

The research, by Kenneth Ahern at the University of Southern California and Denis Sosyura at the University of Michigan, reviewed 2,142 articles written about 501 rumors between 2000 and 2011. Of those rumors, only 167 were followed by a public bid for the company. The Wall Street Journal was the most prolific publisher of such articles, with 158 during the time period. It was followed by Dow Jones Newswires with 67 and the New York Times with 38.

“The rumors published in the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones News Service are also more accurate than the average rumor, with accuracy rates of about 39%, compared to 33% for the average rumor,” wrote the researchers. “In contrast, the Los Angeles Times and NYT Blogs have accuracy rates less than 20%.”

Among the journalists covering mergers and acquisitions during this time period, the researchers found that Dennis Berman of The Wall Street Journal wrote the most accurate articles, with 62.5 percent of his rumored deal stories receiving a public offer within a year. Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times, who also covered mergers and acquisitions during this time period, had a 42.1 percent accuracy rate.

Nikhil Deogun of The Journal had a 53.8 percent accurate rating, while Robin Sidel of The Journal had a 55.6 percent accuracy rating.

Deogun now oversees editorial content at CNBC, while Berman is the business editor of The Journal and doesn’t actively report on M&A anymore. Sorkin also works for CNBC now.

Among media sources, Bloomberg News had the highest accuracy rate — 80 percent — of its rumored deal stories, according to the research. The Los Angeles Times and NYT Blogs both had accuracy rates of 16.7 percent.

“In the literal sense, as long as any person, anywhere, with a degree of knowledge suggests to someone else that a firm is ripe for a takeover, a merger rumor is published in the press as accurate,” noted the authors. “However, this is an extremely low bar for accuracy. It just implies that the journalist is not fabricating the rumor.”

To read the research, go here.