Tag Archives: Reporting tips
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
Chicago Tribune business reporter Ameet Sachdev talked to TribNation about his job.
Here is an excerpt:
What’s unique about Chicago’s business climate?
Its diversity. In nearly 13 years as a business reporter at the Tribune, I’ve covered beats that have included food and agriculture, accounting, aviation and Chicago’s legal community. There’s a never-ending list of fascinating companies and business personalities to write about.
When did you get into journalism, and what hooked you?
My dad used to bring the Chicago Tribune home every day and I would devour the sports section. My love for journalism grew in high school, where I worked for the newspaper. My first assignment freshman year: Write a story on the varsity soccer team. The newspaper adviser liked the story and encouraged me to continue writing. I haven’t stopped since.
You grew up and went to J-school around here, then went to papers in St. Pete, Lexington and Poughkeepsie before coming back to the Trib. What did you learn about Chicago when you got back that you didn’t know before?
I hate to sound so negative, but the amount of public corruption surprised me. I grew up in the western suburbs, but as a kid you don’t pay attention to that stuff.
Read more here.
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
Rick Seltzer, the new business reporter at The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., writes about what he has discovered during his first month on the beat.
Seltzer writes, “From what I’ve seen, this area has a vibrant small-business community and a fascinating lineup of manufacturers. Education’s obviously a major economic driver fueling plenty of development. Then there’s Naval Support Activity Crane, its network of contractors and subcontractors, and the technology sector.
“No doubt, I’m missing more parts of the region’s economy than I’ve named. My intention is to tell the stories of all business sectors, from the mom-and-pop barbershop changing hands to the pain on a furloughed worker’s face.
“Business stories can be numbers — skyrocketing sales or slipping stocks. The most compelling ones are human, though. They tell of the people pouring endless hours of sweat and tears into keeping their companies afloat, the entrepreneurs sinking all their money into chasing their dreams or the laid-off employees who don’t know where to turn in the twilights of their careers.
“Sometimes I’ll write about the numbers. My goal, however, is to show the faces, hopes and pressures driving business in and around Bloomington.
“For those of you who are interested, here’s a quick look at my resume:
“I previously worked for the Central New York Business Journal in Syracuse. My beats there included small business, green business, manufacturing, human resources and health care. I also chipped in on education and technology from time to time.”
Read more here. A subscription is required.
by Chris Roush
The Wall Street Journal has pulled an article from its website that ran in the paper earlier this week due to an error.
The correction online currently states:
The article “Grant Flows to Troubled Nonprofit,” originally published on March 25, has been removed because it was incorrect.
The Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizens Council isn’t slated to receive a “member item” grant –an earmark with an anonymous sponsor slated for a nonprofit group – of nearly $2 million under New York’s latest budget deal, as was erroneously reported in the article. That grant was, in fact, made in 1994 and was used by the council to build a youth center in 2004. The article incorrectly said that the grant is new and was expected to be made this year. The entire article, including the reaction and analysis, was based on this incorrect factual premise.
The author of the article was Laura Nahmias. Her LinkedIn page lists her as a “contributing reporter” to The Journal since October 2012.
by Chris Roush
Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist David Cay Johnston writes for American Journalism Review about how business reporters are missing the story about how new regulations are enriching companies at the cost of consumers.
Johnston writes, “The costs of these new rules are enormous. Take that railroad industry rule on monopoly pricing. It costs the people of Lafayette, Louisiana, $6.5 million more than if they paid competitive shipping prices for coal brought from Wyoming to their municipal electricity plant. Eliminating the monopoly overcharge would be the equivalent of a 10 percent cut in property taxes.
“In my book ‘Free Lunch,’ I explained how rules for new electricity markets actually tend to raise prices to levels almost as high as what an unregulated monopoly could charge. Those rules, not coincidentally, were written by Enron.
“The six untold or little-told stories cited at the beginning of this article are just examples of a multitude of pocketbook stories missed by reporters in our state capitals and Washington, on Main Street and on Wall Street, especially in the business section. We should be pursuing such stories with vigor.
“These changes get missed or misreported in part because, in the framing of the great newspaper editor Gene Roberts, instead of emerging in an official announcement, they ‘ooze.’
“Part of the problem is that far fewer reporters are covering important departments and agencies in Washington, D.C., as well as the 50 state capitals, according to detailed surveys by AJR.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Business Insider executive editor Joe Weisenthal and deputy editor Nicholas Carlson recently gave college students advice on how to be a great business journalist, reports Dan Reimold of PBS MediaShift.
Here is some of their advice:
8. Test Story Ideas on Twitter
During his portion of the talk, Weisenthal confirmed what his 40,000 Twitter followers already know: While working hard at all hours, he tweets a lot.
Along with sharing news and showing some personality, he said, “a big part of Twitter for me is just trying out ideas. Something will come to me, maybe just the germ of a story that I haven’t written yet, and I’ll tweet some thought and see what kind of reaction I get. So I use it very much as a sounding board … You know, ‘That seemed to strike a nerve, so maybe I’ll expand on that.’”
9. Business Journalism is the Best
One sentiment that struck a nerve for Weisenthal and Carlson centered on the power and benefits of business journalism. Weisenthal in particular didn’t mince words about what he perceives as its predominance. “My opinion is that business journalism is the best,” he said. “Think about it this way. Everyone can write about politics. It’s not that hard … But those people who specialize in writing about politics would never have something smart to say about the jobs report. If you’re thinking about an area, I highly recommend business because it is superior to every other one.”
As Carlson quickly added, “And you get paid well.”
Read more here.
by Liz Hester
Finance ministers agreed early Monday on a bailout for the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. While the agreement averted the near-term disaster, much of the coverage focused on the fact that the aftermath is going to do long-term damage to the island’s finances and population.
Here’s the top of the Wall Street Journal story:
Cyprus secured a bailout from its international creditors early Monday, ending a week of financial panic that threatened to see the small island nation become the first government to leave the euro zone.
But lasting damage has likely been inflicted on the Cypriot economy. Officials said they believe the country will now need strict controls on money transfers in and out of the economy in the coming weeks or possibly months, cutting off its citizens and companies from much of the rest of the euro zone’s financial system. And the bailout program aims to slash the size of Cypriot banks, perhaps forever ending the country’s status as an offshore tax haven and financial-services center.
Cyprus could see its economy contract by 10% or more in the years ahead, economists said.
“The near future will be very difficult for the country and its people,” Europe’s economics commissioner, Olli Rehn, said after the negotiations ended.
The deal lines up €10 billion ($13 billion) in financing for the government and shuts Cyprus’s second-largest bank, Cyprus Popular Bank PCL, imposing steep losses on deposits with more than €100,000, European officials said. The country’s largest bank, Bank of Cyprus PCL, will also be downsized aggressively, with large depositors there taking a hit.
The deal, which closes the second-largest bank to help prop up the largest, should help return Cyprus to a more normal state of being, the New York Times reported:
These provisions should help reverse what, in recent days, has been Cyprus’s steady retreat into a surreal pre-modern economy dominated by cash.
Retailers, gas stations and supermarkets, gripped by uncertainty over whether Cyprus would really secure a 10 billion-euro financial lifeline, have increasingly refused to take credit cards and checks.
“It’s been cash-only here for three days,” said Ali Wissom, the manager at Il Forno di Jenny’s restaurant off Cyprus’s main square in Nicosia. “The banks have closed, we don’t really know if they will reopen, and all of our suppliers are demanding cash — even the beer company.”
With major banks in Cyprus shut for more than week, a trip to the cash machine became a daily ritual for anyone in need of money. The initial limit on withdrawals was 400 euros. It then fell to 260. As of Sunday night, it slipped to a meager 100 euros.
At the Centrum Hotel, Georgia Xenophontes, 23, an employee in the front office, said she drained her bank account at a cash machine last week — just in time to avoid being hit with the latest withdrawal limit.
“This is affecting everything in our lives,” she said. “Even though you don’t want to count on money, you need it. But we don’t have stability.”
Bloomberg Businessweek went after the human-interest angle using anecdotes from those struggling to make a living in the already economically unstable country:
The deal struck in Brussels in the early hours of Monday morning may have saved Cyprus from tumbling out of the euro, but for the residents of the tiny island nation in the eastern Mediterranean, there was little to celebrate. “We feel like we’re just one step away from total death,” says Demetra Kattou, 47, who teaches French at a school in the city of Limassol. “We feel like we’ve been treated unfairly and without mercy. Things are happening too fast.”
The agreement avoids a controversial tax on bank deposits, a measure the country’s parliament rejected last week. But it’s likely to devastate the country’s financial-services sector—the source, according to the Cyprus Employers & Industrialists Federation, of 80 percent of the country’s GDP and 72 percent of its employment. In exchange for a 10 billion-euro bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, President Nicos Anastasiades agreed to shutter the nation’s second-largest bank, Cyprus Popular Bank, largely wiping out deposits above the insured limit of 100,000 euros. Depositors in the country’s biggest bank, Bank of Cyprus (BOC), could lose as much as 40 percent of their uninsured savings. “We don’t have any numbers or real data on how this will affect our lives,” says Kattou’s husband, Pambos Kattos, 52, a civil engineer who will likely lose his job at the bank that’s being folded. “But there will be great destruction.”
A series of capital controls introduced by lawmakers on Saturday is expected to prevent a run on the country’s banks Tuesday. As of Sunday evening, the country’s ATMs were already limiting withdrawals to 120 euros a day. But while the funds from abroad will plug the country’s financial gap, the island’s banking industry is all but certain to see a dramatic deflation, starting with employees of the failed bank. Some estimates put the projected loss in GDP as high as 20 percent. “It feels like a war situation,” says Anna Papaioannou, 51, an employee in Cyprus Popular Bank’s IT department. “It’s like you have cancer and instead of treating the patient, you kill him. And then you say the problem is solved.”
The reach of this story and the affect on the citizens can’t really be overstated. It’s good to see the business media speaking with citizens and illuminating some of the problems with the decision. It puts a human fact to a financial problem, a connection we can all strive to make more often.
Last week I noticed an article in PR Week, a public relations trade magazine, that the ongoing debate over PR and Wikipedia has again reared its ugly head.
This site has become a fascinating, perplexing and aggravating focus of the PR industry as its open-source basis creates functional and ethical problems for our industry.
For those who do not follow the PR industry closely, I will do my best to offer a high-level overview of the controversy.
As anyone who has been on the internet in the past 10 years knows, Wikipedia is the ultimate source of “factual” information on pretty much anything. The site is unique in that anyone can contribute to, or edit, any entry though all contributors are encouraged to follow strict rules to keep the site honest.
Overall, it’s a remarkable tool and a powerful demonstration of the utility of open-source products.
However, because it is open to all, mistakes happen. For high trafficked pages these errant entries are often caught and corrected with astonishing speed. However, because of its open nature, each entry can become more of a perfect reflection of public opinion versus fact.
This is where the problem for PR, and by extension reporters, enters. Often there are legitimate disputes over the content that appears on Wikipedia, particularly as it refers to businesses and executives. I have even heard of instances in which less scrupulous organizations edit their competitors’ entries.
If you’re not a Fortune 100 company, chances are there aren’t many Wiki editors monitoring the accuracy of your page, so these misstatements or attacks have a way of sticking.
As a PR person, you are then forced to use the convoluted guidelines from Wikipedia that say you must participate in the “talk” section, clearly identify yourself and simply encourage other editors to change the entry themselves.
It can be a bit of a Catch-22 if your entry isn’t watched much in the first place. Even if it is, sticking your head out as a PR person can lead to editors discrediting your information without ever checking it. Even BP was cited in the PR Week article, and it was following protocol to the letter.
Caught in this position of ineffective Wikipedia rules, a number of agencies and even some companies have gone ahead and directly edited entries. Making things worse, many of these instances have not been an editing of fact, but instead rewriting controversy or even deleting unsavory truths.
This is not OK. In fact, because of these past bad actors and the general difficulty to get things changed using approved methods, I often recommend clients ignore these entries altogether.
This is not the most helpful advice, but a reflection of the stand-off currently in place.
Any solution Wikipedia and the PR society comes up with should recognize the challenges of the current system while maintaining, or even improving, safeguards for unethical behavior. Until then, companies will need to be sure the facts about their organization are readily available and verifiable. A corporate website can always be built out with more narrative in hopes this content floats to the broader internet.
I’m not smart enough to know the solution to this problem, but I will dare to offer a few guidelines for PR people and reporters.
First, PR people should adhere to the same ethics they use when talking to the media and putting out other content as they do in proposing or editing any Wikipedia entry. A no-brainer, but somehow the ability to edit this content brings out the worst of our industry. Remember, the core job of any PR person is to help an organization have a fair and honest discourse with the public. We cannot alter the truth.
Reporters should not rely on Wikipedia as fact. This has become a trite phrase, but it bears repeating here. Use Wikipedia, it remains a helpful resource, but click-through to source documents to pull facts.
Also, jump over the wall sometimes and check the “talk” pages where PR people are relegated to put forth their suggestions.