Tag Archives: Reporting tips
by Chris Roush
By Tarini Parti
Indiana reporters John Russell and Greg Andrews were both able to expose major scandals in the public and private sectors largely because of the information they learned from digging through public records.
Russell, a reporter at the Indianapolis Star, said he made 23 records requests and read hundreds of emails to write a series of stories that ended up in high-profile resignations and reassignments of state officials.
Andrews, managing editor of Indianapolis Business Journal, exposed how a top Indiana businessman was using an Ohio-based company as his “personal bank,” leading to an FBI investigation and federal charges.
They were joined on the panel by Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Bensinger, a last-minute addition to the panel Saturday at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers‘ conference in Indianapolis, to give business journalists at the conference the following tips on how to use public records:
- Know what you’re looking for and don’t be afraid to ask for it.
- It can be useful to request an agency for names of people who are also requesting the same information, so you know who is also chasing the story.
- Using resources such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s website, National Credit Union Administration website and franchise registrations for covering private companies.
- Digging into already available documents. “Sometimes the smoking gun is there, and you just can’t see it,” Bensinger said.
- Using a database to keep data organize and to look for trends.
- Do enough research to make sure there is no other data that challenges yours.
- Don’t pitch the story to editors until it is “baked.”
- Request documents smartly because you’ll probably get the best ones first — before the agency catches on to what you’re up to.
Parti is a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism student attending the SABEW conference.
by Chris Roush
By Cassie McLean
Learning the implications of a just a few corporate decisions may be all it takes to foresee distress within a struggling company, said Mark Tatge, former senior editor at Forbes magazine and a distinguished visiting professor at DePauw University.
Tatge spoke at Saturday’s Society of American Business Business Editors and Writers‘ conference in Indianapolis, detailing a concise list of 10 red flags that should cause all privy business reporters suspicion.
1. Deferring expenses: Companies are supposed to match income with corresponding expenses. Reporters should expect that in the period where the revenue is recorded, the expense to create that revenue should also be recorded. The effect of amortization over time means the current company’s profits will be inflated.
2. Pro-forma earnings: Companies that plan to merge or divest often come up with “pro-forma” earnings, an estimate of what the firm will be after the merger. However, the number is often based on inaccurate assumptions. For example, management may include or remove net income that it feels is not “material” to the remaining company.
3. Firing auditors: Often this occurs due to a disagreement over accounting standards and the discrepancy can clue reporters into bigger issues.
4. Burying exhibits: Companies often bury important documents through several levels of reports dating back numerous quarters, or worse, years. To find such items, reporters may have dig through many levels of 8Ks.
5. Fudging inventory: Keep an eye on how companies report the value of inventory, found on the balance sheet, either through FIFO (First In-First Out) or LIFO (Last In-First Out). Companies are required to pick a method and should not switch. Doing so, particularly switching to FIFO in times of rising costs, can produce higher profits.
6. Stock buybacks: Beware. While the immediate impression is that the company is confident in its future prospects, a good reporter must ultimately ask, “Should they be doing something different with their cash?” Additionally, buyback artificially improves earnings per share.
7. Shell games: Companies are forced to set aside funds to cover defaults, decreases in asset values or inventory obsolescence. This pot of money, called asset reserve, is expensed and reduces net income. Thus, if a company has set aside too much, it can recapture reserves, boosting profits and lessening expenses for a given quarter.
8. Pay attention to cash: Look at how much they’re generating versus spending and whether the company has enough to cover current liabilities. Subtract current liabilities from current assets to find out the company’s working capital, how much in liquid assets the company has to pay its debts in the future.
9. Understanding liabilities: Companies will understate liabilities to inflate current earnings. Look for costly contracts or contingencies, like merger breakup fees, pending lawsuits or contractual arrangements with vendors.
10. Blowing deadlines: If a company misses a 10Q or 10K filing, it’s an immediate red flag. Suspect bankruptcy or liquidation, a large charge against earnings, re-valuation of assets or the business itself, or restatement of past financial results.
The challenge, however, is that no one item will get you further than another.
Often, Tatge said, it’s about being a careful reader of financial statements, drawing comparisons and remembering the hackneyed idiom: If it looks too good to be true—it probably is.
McLean is a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism student attending the SABEW conference.
by Chris Roush
By Jeanna Smialek
Jake Bernstein and ProPublica colleague Jesse Eisinger‘s series on Wall Street’s role in the financial crisis won a Pulitzer Prize for making Wall Street’s role in the financial crisis understandable to a broad audience — and now Bernstein is spreading his ideas about simplifying financial stories.
Speaking at Saturday’s Society of American Business Business Editors and Writers‘ conference in Indianapolis, Bernstein explained how and why to break down complex topics to make tough business stories engaging.
“We just need to be very creative about how we get these stories out,” he said.
Bernstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series looked into how Wall Street giants and major firms made the financial crisis worse by manipulating the sub-prime mortgage bond market for their own profit.
The pieces used simple language and graphics to break down complicated ideas and data, and led to spin-off showtune and an “autotune the news” song that drew 2.4 million viewers. Bernstein said those creative methods of story telling helped the story to reach news consumers who might have otherwise missed it.
Bernstein said reporting really complex stories from the point of view of a novice, using simple narrative language in writing and composing multiple drafts can help journalists to simplify a topic. He also said journalists should give readers the opportunity to go deeper.
“Readers need to be able to go as deep or as shallow as they want,” Bernstein said.
Smialek is a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism student attending the SABEW conference.
by Chris Roush
By Alex Barinka
Sports business reporting may be the next dark horse in business reporting, according to a Friday afternoon panel at the 2012 Society of American Business Editors and Writers‘ conference in Indianapolis.
The “New Playbook for Covering Sports Business” discussion focused on the development of the sports business beat and the backgrounds of the panelists that lead them to cover it.
The panelists were Kristi Dosh, writer for ESPN’s Sports Business Blog; Sam Mamudi, business of sports reporter at MarketWatch.com; Bill King, senior writer for the SportsBusiness Journal; and Anthony Schoettle, sports business reporter at the Indianapolis Business Journal
The business of sports — its collective bargaining agreements, sponsorships, television deals — wasn’t always visible in the news, Schoettle said in his introduction of the panel.
The SportsBusiness Journal, owned by American City Business Journals, was one of the first trade publications to focus on the business of the sports industry.
“There was nobody, nobody, putting out a publication on the business of sports,” said King, who worked at the publication since its founding, said.
Now the visibility and impact of sports business reporting is growing.
“The complexity of the beat and the complexity of the subject matter has grown a great deal,” Schoettle said.
“The growth of the beat and editors really seeing it as a viable option,” Mamudi said.
With the sports business beat gaining momentum, the panelists were asked what skills would be most beneficial for beat reporters.
While Mamudi said that a business reporting background may be the most helpful for covering the business of sports, Dosh thought her background as an attorney has enabled her to decipher contracts and agreements that most reporters may not be able to understand.
King said that all sports beat reporters should be able to understand the business side of sports because those covering a team’s beat may be faced with a business-related story opportunity and should have the knowledge to report it thoroughly.
“I do think this has to be a club in everybody’s bag,” King said. “Find great stories and tell them well—it’s no different in sports business.”
Barinka is a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism student attending the SABEW conference.
by Chris Roush
By Chelsey Dulaney
Duke University professor Sarah Cohen urged reporters to question the numbers Friday at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers‘ conference in Indianapolis.
Cohen — who won a Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting at the Washington Post before accepting the Knight professorship for Journalism and Public Policy at Duke — spoke about the credibility of economic impact studies, which she said can often overstate the economic value of large-scale construction projects or events on their surrounding areas.
Cohen recognized the difficulty of digging below the surface of the reports, providing resources such as Bureau of Labor Statistics and Census Bureau data that can provide reporters with useful information for data comparison.
“You either have to repeat what they say and move on quickly, or challenge it and change the entire point of your story,’ she said. “There isn’t a great option in there.”
Cohen also urged journalists to analyze the methodology behind economic impact studies, as well question who conducts and pays for them.
She asked reporters to search for the real numbers in studies — not estimations and hypothetical data— and stressed the importance of contextualizing these numbers by comparing them to local numbers and totals.
“You kind of have to have in the back of your head, compared to what?” Cohen said.
Dulaney is a UNC-Chapel Hill journalism student attending the SABEW conference.
by Chris Roush
Eisinger teamed with Jake Bernstein on a series of stories about how Wall Street practices worsened the financial crisis. More recently, Eisinger has revealed how the Federal Reserve allowed banks to pay out $33 billion to shareholders despite warnings from the FDIC, and how Freddie Mac placed bets that would pay off if American homeowners failed to refinance while at the same time making it harder for them to do so. He also writes a bi-weekly financial column co-published with New York Times’ DealBook.
Before joining ProPublica, Eisinger covered the financial industry for Condé Nast Portfolio and the Wall Street Journal.
Eisinger won’t be able to answer all questions, but any topics are fair game: Wall Street practices, investigative journalism, or even his beloved Green Bay Packers. To follow the chat, just head to Reddit at 3 p.m., Wednesday. If you want to submit a question, click “register” in the upper-right hand corner of Reddit’s site. You won’t need to give your email address.
by Chris Roush
Jonathan Soroff of The Improper Bostonian interviewed Fox Business Network anchor Liz Claman.
Here is an excerpt:
What do you consider your biggest strength in your job?
I really try to listen. I’m not one of those reporters who comes in with a list of questions and just sticks to it. You can miss the story of your life by doing that.
Ever worry that you’ll get too close to a subject and be unable to cover them objectively?
No. I’ve told a lot of people, “I really hope you never do anything stupid or illegal, because I will come after you…” I have no qualms about throwing a curveball at the head of someone I might have an acquaintance with. It’s my job.
What happens when you don’t feel well and you still have to do the show?
Well, for the first time in my 23-year career, I recently couldn’t finish a show because I couldn’t stop coughing, and thankfully my co-anchor covered for me. But I was devastated. I was crying and cursing myself. I will say this, too. I covered the Consumer Electronics Show in 2009 with three broken ribs and three days later did the Detroit Auto show, which entails traipsing around convention centers the size of three football fields.
Ever benefited financially from tips, news or insight you got on the job?
I wish! We can’t take big positions in anything. The one thing I’ve learned is that the stock market is the best thing going. Since 1929, the stock market has returned, on average, something between nine and 11 percent.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Dylan Stableford of Yahoo News writes that Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman has asked for an off-the-record meeting with Fox Business Network reporter Charles Gasparino after the business journalist called him out on the air for not talking.
Stableford writes, “‘Gorman, you know, is a good guy, but he won’t go before the cameras,’ Gasparino said. ‘Jamie did. He went before the cameras. We didn’t have to submit questions beforehand. There was no time limit. We spent 25 minutes with him and he answered all sorts of questions.’
“The banking industry, of course, is a staple for the finance news networks in these times of economic distress. And Morgan Stanley, which was recently forced to cut pay for senior executives, has been one of Gasparino’s favorite subjects. (Last fall, after Fox Business published an unflattering story about the firm, Gasparino said a Morgan Stanley publicist accidentally left him a voicemail saying she was “going to kill him one of these days.”)
“Jeanmarie McFadden, Morgan Stanley’s global head of communications, would not confirm or deny the story to Yahoo News, saying she would never comment on conversations the CEO ‘may or may not have had.’ But McFadden pointed out that Gorman ‘very often has meals with reporters who cover him,’ including–at least once–Gasparino. (It may be worth noting that both Dimon and Gorman were spotted Thursday at a CNBC and Financial Times-hosted party in Davos.)”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Kayla Tausche joined CNBC in January 2011 as a general assignment reporter covering corporate finance and deals for CNBC’s Business Day programming. In 2011, Tausche covered a wide range of stories for the network including the Occupy Wall Street movement, the News Corp phone hacking scandal and the bankruptcy of MF Global.
Previously, Tausche was based in London as the assistant editor of DealReporter, a Financial Times-owned publication geared toward merger arbitrage investors. Before moving to London, she was a New York-based journalist at DealReporter, where her M&A coverage consistently broke stories on high-profile deals like the takeover of Cadbury, the unraveling of Hunstman-Hexion and the leveraged buyout of Interactive Data Corp.
Prior to DealReporter, Tausche worked on the companies desk at Bloomberg News, covering earnings in the consumer and retail industry under a fellowship from the Steamboat Foundation. She began her career in journalism at the Brussels bureau of the Associated Press, where her bilingual interview experience included Jacques Chirac and Peter Mandelson.
An Atlanta native, Tausche graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in business journalism (NOTE: She was one of my students.) and international politics. She was an Ameel J. Fisher scholar in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where she earned honors for research analyzing newspaper coverage of the British handover of Hong Kong.
What was the biggest difficulty for you in making the transition from print to TV?
Learning such a different style of storytelling – they say it’s as easy as having a conversation, but that conversation inevitably involves credit default swaps, a complex bankruptcy reorganization, or legal jargon. Even though I had been a frequent guest on CNBC before joining, I was a print journalist by trade, so overcoming the tendency to read through an article on-air was hilariously difficult.
What was the easiest thing to pick up with TV?
The subject matter. There were definitely times during the last year where I wished I had spent a decade in local news to learn the lingo – the cues, the shorthand, etc. But to be able to report for duty on day one and start ringing sources was a huge head start.
Is covering business for television any different than for print?
There’s a saying: “The problem with being a TV journalist is that you have to be on TV.” It’s clearly facetious, but truthful in that physically being in front of the camera means being off the grid for a period of time. It’s not as easily mobile as print reporting has become: A deadline means being somewhere, not filing something.
How have you developed your sources on Wall Street?
There’s a built-in aversion to media on Wall Street, yet so many bankers attribute news reports – especially CNBC – for their knowledge of its goings-on. Communicating to potential sources the importance of needing their input to get that story right is incredibly effective. That being said, it became very apparent that there are two very polarized types of sources: those who are itching to get on TV, and those who want to be as far away from it as possible!
M&A seems like a competitive beat. How do you feel when you get beat on a story?
So many of the M&A stories break on weekends or in the middle of the night, which is not conducive to live programming that is largely limited to weekdays and daylight. It’s inevitable that there is news we simply cannot break, so we do our best to move the needle on a deal a little further by the time we reach air. On one of my first days at CNBC, my colleague David Faber, who has been on the beat for nearly two decades, said, “Make the news wait for you.” That’s always the aim.
What did your internships and jobs teach you that you’re now using on your CNBC job?
That just being industrious – and a bit bold – will get you places. My very first experience in journalism was working in the Brussels bureau of the Associated Press. I was 19, sticking a recorder in then-French president Jacques Chirac’s face – it was nuts, I was working in sometimes more than two languages, conceiving and producing all of my own articles, and also writing essays for the AP’s wire prototype for young people. At Bloomberg, I had to pitch nearly everything I wrote, which was a great way to develop a keen news sense — about 90 percent of those pitches never made it. Immediately before CNBC, I was at DealReporter, a trade publication under the FT umbrella that covers deals for a hedge fund audience. It wasn’t really a job so much as a boot camp in M&A-and-developing-sources-during-a-crisis.
What is the process for getting time on a show during the day when you have a story?
Every morning and afternoon, the producers and editors get together to decide what to cover that day and the following – oftentimes I’ll go to that meeting to let them know what I’m working on, or raise my hand for an idea they’re mulling. On my beat specifically, I prefer to wait until I have breaking news to pipe up, and then will cater to whatever hour of the day it is – each show has a different audience, demographic, anchor style. I was extremely lucky to be covering some of last year’s most newsworthy events – from phone hacking, to Hurricane Irene, to Occupy Wall Street, and MF Global. When you’re covering stories like those, the requests for segments come to you.
What is your typical day like? When do you start reporting?
A typical day starts very early! Barring a call in the middle of the night about breaking news, I’ll wake up just before 6 a.m., hop on a shuttle bus to our studios and read the papers on the commute. Hair and makeup are the first matters of business, but I try to be on the phone before 8 a.m. Sometimes I get lucky and can make it back to the city in the evening for source meetings or a long run. The “typical” days are few and far between – breaking news sets the day’s schedule, which can vary wildly. While covering the Murdochs in Parliament, we were live-ready for 20 hours each day.
After one year at CNBC, what do you feel like you’ve learned?
What makes good TV. Sometimes the best stories are best suited for print, and I’ve learned how to make some of those stories more visually appetizing in order to get them on the air. Last spring, I wanted to do a series on the risks of getting trapped in high-yielding assets in a low-interest rate environment. The producers were hugely helpful in using our giant wall to create graphics that illustrated the concept well.
What is the biggest false assumption about CNBC?
I constantly field the question, “So who writes what you read on air?” The truth is, we all do our own reporting, our own writing, and, in many cases, our own production. And that’s when it’s scripted – most of the time it’s ad-libbed reaction to what’s happening in the market. The idea generation and long-term planning is a true team sport, but the person talking on-air has full steering control.
Who at CNBC have been your biggest mentors?
That’s nearly an impossible question to answer, but I would say the crew from “Squawk on the Street.” Mark Haines was the original inspiration, and the new line-up definitely has carried that on in his memory. The faces are mostly new to the NYSE floor, but they’re all CNBC vets and have been incredibly welcoming.
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Becky Bisbee is the business editor of the Seattle Times, a position she has held since August 2000.
Before that, Bisbee was business editor of the Austin American-Statesman in Texas for five years. She began her business journalism career at the Modesto Bee in 1984 and rose to become its business editor as well.
A graduate of the University of Maryland, Bisbee has been heavily involved in business journalism in other ways as well. She served on the Society of American Business Editors and Writers board of governors for 10 years and chaired its technology committee. She spent seven years editing the SABEW publication “The Business Journalist” and also organized the 2005 national conference in Seattle.
Bisbee, who is one of the nicest people in business journalism, spoke recently by e-mail to Talking Biz News about the issues facing business editors of daily newspapers. What follows is an edited transcript.
How has the daily newspaper business section changed since you became a business editor in Modesto?
It’s been a long time since I thought about “the good old” days at The Modesto Bee, where I was the Business editor from 1993-95. A staff of four reporters produced a standalone four-page section every day. Half of that space was consumed by stock agate. That was before the newspaper had a web site; when AOL was a dialup service provider, AltaVista and CompuServe the dominate search engines…Practically the stone age.
The mission remains the same: provide readers a compelling report of the day’s top financial and economic events and trends. Keep a watchful eye on those in power. Provide clarity and context. Find interesting people to bring the stories to life. Get the facts straight.
The tools we use to gather those stories have become much more sophisticated. Accessing SEC documents is a snap. Finding sources through Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. has become easier. Broadband has allowed our website to reach a global audience; conversely, readers and sources have more ways to reach us, respond to coverage and help propel our stories forward. It’s a very exciting time to be a journalist.
How did dropping the printed stock listings affect coverage?
I am not sure that it has affected our coverage at all. It did however disenfranchise an incredible number of readers who found the printed A-B-C listings to be the quickest, cheapest and most convenient way to track their investments as well as discover potential new investments.
How has coverage improved during the time you have been in the business?
I would like to think that more business journalists today are smarter than we were back in the dot-com days when we all too frequently just repeated how the new economy was different, how EBITA was the best way to judge a company’s performance, how the smartest guys in the room were really smart … things that make me cringe now. We still make plenty of mistakes and miss major stories, but on the whole I think business journalists are better trained, more sophisticated, more skeptical, more exacting.
What’s the biggest issue you face today with a smaller news hole?
Thinking of our mission purely in terms of a news hole misses the whole point of the Internet. Our reporters are publishing many more stories each day when you include their blogs, the breaking news stories and live chats in addition to the printed section. If it is a great story, we always have room to print it — and most likely after we have published it on the web, on Facebook and Tweeted it.
With a smaller staff these days, how do you handle coverage more efficiently?
Focus, focus, focus. It takes discipline to pick your shots and execute to the best of your ability with the time and resources you have at your disposal. A lot of the routine, boring stuff has disappeared.
Do you see business news stories on the front page or on the front of other sections more now at your paper?
Our business news staff is a regular contributor to A1. And, as long as the economy remains the biggest story of the day, I anticipate that to continue.
Some weekly business newspapers think they’ve got the upper hand on dailies now in terms of coverage. What’s your take?
First, I am very happy for any news organization that thinks they have the upper hand. We all have hot and cold streaks. So, enjoy it while you can, use it as motivation.
But, I find the comparison false. Daily newspapers and weekly publications have different audiences. It’s like comparing a lion and a tiger. Both are large cats that live in Africa, but they are different animals.
Here at The Times, we have defined our target audience as people who are avid readers of business news. If I understand the Business Journal model correctly, it has targeted business decision makers — the C suite. That is just one slice of our target audience. We would also include investors, retirees, people who work at the companies we cover, government and opinion leaders as our audience. We have different franchise beats and make different strategic decisions.
There are many more stories out there than any one entity can cover, so the more journalists out there working hard the better — the readers win. And, the competition makes us all better.
What’s the biggest issue facing business journalists today?
Not letting the need for speed weaken our ability to get the facts straight and to stand up to those who say this time is different.
Were companies easier, or harder, to report on during the recent economic turmoil?
Easier in the sense of gaining access to SEC documents, stalking them online. Harder in the sense that many companies employ vast numbers of PR people whose sole mission in life is to divert your attention away from their shortcomings.
Your business news staff still seems to do a lot of investigative stories. How do you balance that with the daily work?
The Seattle Times has a long tradition of investigative journalism. It is a priority. When that kind of support comes from the top, it is easier to say we are going to let other, lesser stories pass us by, to use wires a bit more than you used to. You have to focus, pick your shots.