Tag Archives: Reporting tips
by Chris Roush
Wanchee Wang of the University of Pennsylvania alumni magazine profiles Bloomberg Television anchor Betty Liu about her career in business journalism.
Wang writes, “‘I always think about viewers when I’m doing an interview,’ Betty Liu C’95 is saying. ‘If they’re going to spend five minutes with me and listen in on an interview, what do they want to get out of it? There’s always a way you can ask a tough question without putting them off. There’s an art to it and I definitely had to learn the art.’
“She’s a fast learner. As the host of Bloomberg TV’s In the Loop with Betty Liu, she brings the day’s economic news to a global audience that has more than its share of affluent, highly educated, influential businesspeople. They rely on Liu and her team of reporters to give them the financial news and analyses in a straightforward, objective way. Since the show’s debut in 2007, Liu has interviewed the likes of Warren Buffett, Jack Welch, Ted Turner, and Rupert Murdoch. And she’s not afraid to ask tough questions—or take on new responsibilities. Last year, in addition to In the Loop, she premiered a new TV show, Titans at the Table, and a Bloomberg Radio showcalled In the Loop at the Half.
“‘I love what I do and I think that shows,’ says Liu. ‘Even though I accidentally fell into business news, I have grown to love every part of it — so I want to do more of it. Luckily I have an opportunity at Bloomberg where if I have an idea, if they like it, they’ll go for it.’
“The idea behind Titans at the Table, which airs four times a year, was to replicate the casual networking-over-a-meal that happens on Wall Street and throughout the business world. Liu (or occasionally another host) interviews leaders and captains of industry over dinner at restaurants ranging from The Modern in Manhattan to Gino’s East in Chicago. Her guests have included hedge-fund managers, banking CEOs, even Chicago mayor and former White House chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel.”
Read more here.
No company enjoys admitting that it is having financial troubles or is in danger of shutting its doors, and typically does everything in its power to spin a positive outlook to the media and consumers.
This desire to maintain a successful image makes it even trickier for a reporter to cover foundering companies.
In my weekend reading, I came across an article from The Wall Street Journal, “For Four Retailers, Do or Die.” The article highlighted Best Buy Co., J.C. Penney Co., RadioShack Corp. and Sears Holdings Corp. as four retailers who, going into 2013, have 12 critical months ahead of them to either turn around or fail.
In addition to these four companies that have gotten the brunt of tough coverage from analysts and retail reporters in the past year as they’ve faced financial woes, smaller chains such as Abercrombie & Fitch Co., Pacific Sunwear of California Inc. and Barnes & Noble Inc. have also experienced trouble.
As roundups of the year are published and commentators are predicting which companies will may disappear in 2013, such as this one by 24/7 Wall St., I’m left wondering how business journalists should best approach stories about struggling retailers and also how they should handle the relationship with those companies.
What is the best way to approach the public relations team and company executives for commentary and honest answers when both parties know that the article most likely won’t make the company involved look good?
I’ve looked at some stories that have been published during the past year to see how news outlets have covered these retailers and how journalists have worked with the company to quote it in the story.
From most of the stories that I read, the best stories that covered difficult subjects removed any opinion about a company and inserted indisputable facts and figures first, before quoting analysts or investors, who obviously influence the tone of a story. Many of the stories cited sales figures, comparing them to previous years and to competitors, or took a look at market share.
The reporters would also look at retail trends in recent years and illustrate whether retailers had kept pace or stayed ahead of trends or had fallen behind and started too late.
The most reliable of the stories also made mentions of attempting to talk to a company, or, at best, quoted executives at the company or public relations officials with whom the reporters had had personal conversations.
Bloomberg published a story in October about Abercrombie’s declining sales and bizarre requests by its Chief Executive Officer Michael Jeffries during corporate jet flights. The only comment from the company present in the article is an e-mailed statement provided by the company that said the board supported Jeffries’s strategy for the company.
“In an e-mailed statement provided by the company, lead independent director Craig Stapleton said the board supports Jeffries’s strategy. The company doesn’t comment on rumors and speculation, General Counsel Rocky Robins said in the same e- mail.”
This type of general e-mailed statement provides no information, and refusals by a company to comment at all seems far too common in company coverage stories. Those kind of statements aren’t beneficial to the company and its public relations team, to the reporter or to the consumers of news.
A lack of comment doesn’t allow the company to share its side of the story and only makes it look guilty or having no good answer or rebuttal to the questions a reporter is asking. A simple statement, such as the e-mailed one in the Abercrombie story, is better than no commentary, but not by much.
If companies are offered a voice in a story about them — and they should be if a story is fair an accurate — then they should take it.
The best type of comment, of course, is one that provides both accurate information and insight into a company’s situation from either a PR person for the company or from an executive. This is more rare, and sometimes when this does happen, the person will ask for anonymity in a story.
In the past, I’ve covered a company whose public relations team called me with some negative information about the company and provided me with supporting quotes, but would not let me give the names of my sources in the story. No matter how much I asked, they refused to budge.
In this case, unfortunately, the PR team seems to have the upper hand, as the reporter wants to scoop the information and can typically get permissions from editors to publish the story. In August, The Journal wrote a story about Best Buy’s turnaround plan, quoting “people familiar with the matter,” which is one of the most common ways to quote an anonymous source.
Other popular ways that I’ve seen reporters quote a company in a story that has negative undertones is typically to pull quotes from a conference call, such as this story about J.C. Penney’s marketing strategy by The Journal in June.
A significant number of business stories quote conference calls, which I don’t believe is the best way to get the voice of a company into a story. This shortcut can be beneficial when a reporter is pressed for time and needs to get a story out quickly or has repeatedly tried to get a company to comment to no avail.
Using a conference call or investor conference quote as a replacement to interacting personally with public relations seems lazy and takes away the possibility of developing a relationship with the company and receiving newsbreaking information in the future.
While calling to ask probing or negative questions about a company isn’t always the easiest, it provides the opportunity to receive the most accurate and original answers, which can lead to the best story.
by Chris Roush
Steve Sink, the retiring business editor at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in New York, wrote his farewell column and offered advice to those remaining in the industry.
Sink wrties, “I’m grateful to Editor Karen Magnuson for taking a chance on a 57-year-old who insisted he still had plenty of gas left in the tank.
“I started writing this column in May 2007, at Karen’s urging, so there have been roughly 300 of them.
“Your emails and calls and letters (yes, some people still write letters, God bless ’em) have made doing the column a pleasure. A reader in Hemlock, Livingston County, wrote to me recently that she appreciated my ‘intelligence, broad mindedness and openness to varied views.’ I think she wanted to change my mind about hydrofracking, but hey, I’ll accept the kind words with gratitude.
“Others have said I do a good job of making complex subjects understandable, even interesting, and I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel because that’s exactly what I’ve tried to do. My approach has been simple — find people smarter than I am (not difficult), get them talking about their field of expertise, and relay what I learn to you.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Jimmy Settle, the business editor of the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle in Tennessee, writes about how business news coverage is really about people more than money.
Settle writes, “The fact that Hemlock Semiconductor is building a $1.2 billion polysilicon plant means that, not only is the company going to be a major employer paying good wages, but it is going to bolster the local tax base enormously, supporting schools and a whole host of community needs while bringing the benefits of education into more homes – which will, in turn, enhance and improve our regional quality of life.
“These are the often-understated, underlying reasons why we have business and financial news in the first place – to tell us how we’re doing as a community and at the household level, and to provide some forecast for where we are going.
“Business news is, most importantly, about people, and both defining and tracking their basic needs.
“With the news that things are continually improving in the Clarksville-area economy – generally speaking at least, it is my hope and prayer that this will bring everyone some peace and comfort heading into 2013.
“I appreciate you, the reader, and the resident of northern middle Tennessee. You are the economy. You are what makes this community what it is.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Nine of 15 cabinet offices have yet to release details of their out-of-town travel records six months after Bloomberg News filed requests for those documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
Jim Snyder and Danielle Ivory of Bloomberg News write, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Kathleen Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services are among those who haven’t complied.
“The law requires agencies to respond to requests within 20 working days. Watchdogs say the delays show that the president hasn’t fulfilled his promise of greater transparency, and one group found that more than half of 99 federal offices ignored a directive to overhaul the way they respond to filings.
“‘I’m concerned about the overall transparency arc for Obama’s second term,’ said John Wonderlich, policy director at Washington-based open-government group the Sunlight Foundation. ‘Has he given up on that mantle of being the transparency reformer?’
“Bloomberg reporters in June filed requests under the Freedom of Information Act for records on taxpayer-supported travel in fiscal year 2011 for 57 Cabinet departments and major government agencies.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Ben Steelman of the Wilmington Star-News in North Carolina writes Saturday about investigative business reporter Roddy Boyd‘s Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation.
Steelman writes, “Boyd followed that up by launching SIRF as a non-profit corporation with a board of directors including Christopher Roush, the director of business journalism at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill; Bloomberg News columnist William D. Cohan; former Fortune editor Bethany McLean; and financial writer Christopher Byron. Local lawyers and accountants are providing help, and an application for nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service is pending.
“At the moment, the staff consists of Boyd and one freelance editor. So far, the group has produced one report on the multi-level marketing giant ViSalus.
“All of the foundation’s work is based on what Boyd calls ‘algebraic journalism’: no anonymous sources, heavy use of government documents, corporate filings and number-crunching.
“‘The thing is, in the age of wireless Internet, you can do this sort of thing from a tree house,’ Boyd said recently. ‘You don’t have to be in New York.’”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Andrew Beaujon of The Poynter Institute writes Friday about how photographers for Bloomberg News cover business news.
Beaujon writes, “Scott Eells shot his photograph of a person under an umbrella passing by the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York on May 9, when stocks had fallen sharply and Greece’s political troubles were threatening to drag on many country’s economies.
“‘The thing is in terms of shooting a concept like that, I don’t set out making it look a certain way,’ Eells said by phone. ‘It just so happened it was a rainy day.’ Eells works on the New York Stock Exchange’s floor a couple days a week, and he relies on serendipitous circumstances like the man under the umbrella passing by to spare readers yet another view of traders holding their heads in their hands.
“Bloomberg encourages its photographers to think about how photos can be used again. ‘Every story we shoot we try to add value by thinking about its secondary value,’ said Natasha Cholerton-Brown, Bloomberg’s global team leader for news photography. Bloomberg’s photos get used through its internal verticals but also make their way out on wires. Eells’ Wall Street photo, for instance, has been used to illustrate stories about stocks rising, why living in New Jersey is better than living in New York and President Obama seeking support from business leaders.
“‘We really try to look at the point where business or an issue or an economic issue meets human being,’ Cholerton-Brown says. Bloomberg doesn’t expect its photographers to ‘understand what a collateral default swap is,’ she said, ‘but we need them to understand the story.’ An Eells shot of Ben Bernanke, whom Cholerton-Brown describes as ‘not a particularly charismatic character,’ shows the Federal Reserve chairman bathed in light, peering out over a murky foreground that dwarfs him.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Richard Dukas, who runs a public relations firm in New York, wrote earlier this week here on Talking Biz News about how business journalists can get the most out of their relationships with PR people. His piece has got some great advice.
Dukas advised that business journalists should avoid having an adversarial relationship with PR people if they want to get the most out of them. Treating them with respect, he wrote, is often reciprocated. In theory, that’s a nice, warm feeling to have.
In reality, I say bunk.
An adversarial relationship means that you, the business journalist, are often pushing the company into telling you things that they don’t want to divulge. That’s a good business journalist.
In addition, an adversarial relationship is often required because of mistreatment by PR.
Let me give you a few examples from my career as a business journalist where I believe an adversarial relationship was warranted.
In the 1990s, I covered a large beverage company based in Atlanta for both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and then Bloomberg News.
One time I proposed a story to the PR people at the company examining its sports marketing strategy. The PR people thought it was a great idea and said they would get back to me to set up some interviews. A week went by, and I heard nothing. So I called again, and I was assured they were working on setting up some interviews.
After another week, the silence got to me. In a phone conversation with a source at the company, I discovered that the PR people had taken my sports marketing strategy story pitch and given it to a reporter who also covered the company at a national newspaper. I was told by my source that a story was likely to appear the next day in that national newspaper.
I was livid, but I did not call the company that day. Instead, I worked as hard as I could to report and write my own story for tomorrow’s paper so it would not seem to my bosses that I had been scooped on my beat.
The next day, however, was extremely adversarial. I rarely, if ever, yell at someone. But two PR people at the company felt my wrath that day. How could I trust or work with them in the future? The situation demanded that I be adversarial, especially after they admitted what they had done.
This was not the only time where a confrontational attitude was warranted toward the PR people at this company. Later, while at Bloomberg, I had requested interviews with the company’s new leadership team. I was promised I would get my interviews. Yet, I saw the company drag its feet in dealing with me so that the executives could speak to The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine.
I complained multiple times to a vice president who oversaw corporate communications, which resulted in a verbal confrontation in front of other employees at the company because I felt as if Bloomberg was not being given the respect it deserved.
I encountered another situation at Bloomberg when I wrote a story about a Charlotte-based company being a likely takeover candidate. The company’s stock price was moving abnormally higher, and after making some calls, an analyst who covered the company told me that he thought the business was an M&A target and that was what was causing the higher stock price.
The analyst was quoted in my story. Before I published, I also called the company and was told that its PR person was out of the office and no one else was available to comment. I emphasized to several people at the company the importance of the story and the need for it to respond to what the analyst said. Still, no one returned my calls.
The next day, after the story ran, the PR person left a nasty voice mail for me, questioning my journalistic integrity and why I felt the need to write such a story. I replied back with my own voice mail explaining to him that my story was based on what sources had told me. The conversation degenerated from there into name calling on both sides.
Such an adversarial relationship continues from time to time here at Talking Biz News. For the past 18 months, a business news organization has not talked to me after a blog item ran that was based on original reporting of its market share. They wanted me to run the blog post by them before I posted it. They also accused me of getting the data from their competitor. After they gave me the cold shoulder, I proceeded to spend the next six months posting identical blog items about its market share, updated with the latest data — which I emphasized in the blog posts came from neither the company nor its competitor to prove my point.
That adversarial relationship continues today with this business news organization, which I find ironic. I think my reporting of that business news organization is better because of it. I don’t have to worry about the PR people calling me and trying to spin the message.
I’m not here to say that an adversarial relationship between business journalists and public relations professionals is the preferred mode of operation. I would much rather prefer to work with PR people in a professional manner, and 99 percent of my relationships with PR people have been just that.
But when an adversarial relationship is needed, I find it to be a necessary tool in the business journalist’s arsenal. I would expect the same from PR people if they too felt abused.
Most reporters think PR agency executives are pests, either bothering them on a daily basis to write about their clients or blocking access to sources. But that doesn’t mean building strong relationships with the right PR people isn’t valuable. In fact, it can be extremely helpful over the long term for reporting and career development.
Most PR executives are career-minded individuals trying to make an honest living and grow professionally. They respect good and fair journalism, even if it occasionally goes against their own interests, and can provide journalists with timely access to a variety of interesting and topical sources.
But source access isn’t everything. PR people with good clients can also be good background sources themselves, passing along things they’re hearing in the marketplace and even suggesting experts and insiders to help move a story forward.
Remember, PR people are talking to a wide array of different clients on a daily basis and their job is to know the market as well as a reporter does. What’s more, editors often reach out to their most trusted PR sources when they’re looking to fill reporter positions. Reporters with solid working relationships with the right PR people often have an easier time advancing their careers.
Here are some simple tips to follow to get the most out of a relationship with a PR executive:
–Learn to separate the wheat from the chaff — the good PR executives from the bad.
This shouldn’t be hard. Trust your intuition to ascertain if a PR executive knows their clients well, understands your needs and genuinely tries to help, even when they can’t give you access to a client. Other things to look for: Do they understand what you cover and can they quickly determine the best way to help you out? PR people who don’t understand a reporter’s perspective and get overly upset when a headline isn’t what they wanted aren’t worth your time either.
–Don’t be fooled by the reputation of the PR agency. Some of the best-known firms can have poor personnel, while smaller agencies may have some of the very best. Try to learn which firms are the good ones, and which people at those firms are the best and most helpful.
–Be open to developing relationships with PR executives. Go for lunch or grab a drink or a cup of coffee with a PR executive. They aren’t trying to woo you or curry favors. They simply want to get to know you outside of the office when you’re off deadline. The personal relationship will help both parties understand each others’ needs. Ask just as many questions of the PR person as you would a normal source.
–Try to work with PR executives to establish ground rules without bending to their wills. Understand that many potential sources are media neophytes — even the smartest financial wizards usually only have a vague idea of how the media works. It’s the job of a PR firm to explain that to them and put them out there when it’s best for them. Even if a PR firm wants to give you access, their client may be reticent to speak on a particular subject.
Acknowledge those concerns and work with the PR person to try to get the access you want. Many times the PR person is doing the same persuading you are. If prior ground rules for an interview can help persuade the source to come to the table, work with the PR person to find a way.
–Try to be open without giving away too much information. You don’t always need to give them a totally clear picture of how you plan to approach a story, yet you shouldn’t be totally opaque either. If you are too vague, it leads to suspicion, and they’ll advise their clients not to speak to you.
–If you plan to pan their client, try your best to let them know. Admittedly, this is a tough one. If you let the PR person know beforehand that a story is going to be negative, they may try to head it off by speaking to another outlet, or go into full spin mode. Good PR people will understand that not all stories are positive and try to make sure their perspective is reflected in your story. They will also appreciate the heads up so they can prepare their client—being blindsided by a negative story is one of the worst things a PR person has to deal with.
– As a general rule you should do everything you can to avoid having an adversarial relationship with a PR person. You’re not always going to cover their clients in the most favorable light, but treat people with respect and professionalism and that is usually reciprocated. They may not be happy with all your stories, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think you’re a good reporter.
Richard Dukas is the founder of Dukas Public Relations, a financial public relations firm.
As a way to develop better social media engagement strategies, journalists should treat Twitter and other outlets as an extension of their interaction with people in their personal life rather than as a separate entity, said Mark Luckie, manager of journalism and news at Twitter in a conference call with Forbes writers from New York this week.
Luckie outlined ways for a journalist to optimize Twitter, and stressed the importance of having a personal voice as well as a professional one. In this way, a journalist is able to create an identity that people want to interact with and follow.
“People connect with people, not robots,” Luckie said. “You will get more eyeballs on your content if you share with people things about yourself. As a general rule, tweet 50 percent about your beat and 50 percent about things that just interest you.”
Journalist also need to determine who their main audience is and devise the way to best reach them and add authority to their tweets so that the audience will follow back.
Extension of Everyday Interactions
The first tip that Luckie provided Forbes’ writers was not to be “an egg,” which is a pictureless account on Twitter that is often associated with robots and spammers. Before following anyone on Twitter, Luckie said that completing a Twitter biography and providing a photograph provides legitimacy to accounts, stating where you work and what differentiates you from other users.
“Having a voice is different from having an opinion,” Luckie said. “Do you have a quirky personality? Are you authoritative? Happy? Communicate that voice through Twitter.”
Luckie told a story about a reporter from BBC reach out to a potential source on Twitter but had not completed her profile yet, and because of not having a completed identity, the source didn’t believe in her legitimacy as someone from the news network.
After creating your identity, immerse yourself in the conversation of Twitter by not just listening, but participating in the conversations and creating new conversations. By creating this dialogue, a journalist is best able to source, attract followers to his or her content and generate buzz of his or her own.
Raising your journalistic profile
“Think about what you want to do in your reporting and how Twitter can be the vehicle for this,” Luckie said during the conference call. “If you’re asking questions on Twitter, respond back to people as well so they know that you’re listening to them.”
It’s important to engage people in your tweets by including the Twitter handle of sources you’ve talked to or crediting an organization that you received information from for your story. This helps both to increase follower growth and boost engagement. Furthermore, people like being mentioned on Twitter and interaction is the key to gathering a following.
Below is an example:
Using hashtags in a post can increase engagement by almost two times for journalists and one-and-a-half times for news organizations. For business journalists, in particular, a good strategy to reach the investors, analysts and their core audience is to use a cashtag, which for Apple would be $AAPL.
Social media is becoming increasingly visual, Luckie said, and tweets that have media attached receive three to four times more engagement than posts without visual aids.
Luckie said that news organizations and journalists are currently underutilizing the power of visualization and noted that infographics do exceptionally well on Twitter as opposed to something like a long-form story. Many Twitter users don’t have the time to sit down to read an entire story, so communication through media works well and attracts followers.
Additionally, acting as a crowdsource for your followers can work well, Luckie said.
“I may not follow every political journalist, but if I follow one who retweets other political journalists a lot, then she acts as a news curator for me.”
Researching Topics through Twitter
Journalists should also use Twitter as a way to research stories in addition to attracting followers to their content.
Creating lists and searching for lists that other people have made can make it easier for journalists both to find people on Twitter and organize the people they follow into groups. For example, if a journalist is working on a story and he or she wants to organize all potential sources into one play, then a private list can be made specifically for that project, meaning that no one aside from the journalist will be able to see it.
Additionally, using Twitter search and the advanced filters can help a journalist narrow down to specifically what he or she is searching for, and provide information on what others are saying about a topic.
Advanced search, for example, can allow a journalist to see images that are being tweeted from specifically one zip code, which, for example, could have been informative to follow the election visually in different cities across the U.S.
Finally, Luckie helped illustrate the key differences for the uses of Facebook and Twitter. He acknowledged that longer form pieces are better left to Facebook, while Twitter is best for breaking news or quick tidbits.
“Facebook is for people you know and Twitter is for the people who you want to know.”