Tag Archives: Reporting tips

Marketplace explains in a way that people can understand

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Lucas Shaw of The Wrap interviewed Deborah Clark, the new executive producer of “Marketplace,” the business show on public radio.

Here is an excerpt:

What is the first order of business as the new head of editorial?
We have a great opportunity right now. What’s been happening in recent weeks in particular with lots of market turmoil is it means people are focused again on the economy and the direction this country is headed in terms of its growth, economic health and its place in the world. Our job is to take that and go with it.

What “Marketplace” has always been good at is explaining it all in a way that people who aren’t business types can understand. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down but taking complicated issues and making them understandable.

Has anything surprised you in the media’s coverage of all this economic turmoil?
I was at a dinner party on the day the debt ceiling deal finally happened, and it’s so interesting because it was just a group of regular people — we all have kids the same age and we were swimming, hanging out on a nice L.A. afternoon — and they wanted to know from me what was happening with the debt. Talking it through, I was surprised at their level of knowledge.

Read more here.

Writing about Wall Street, the person

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Tom Reilly, the editor of the Attleboro Sun-Chronicle in Massachusetts, writes about how business journalists often personify what’s going on in the stock market.

Reilly writes, “Adding to the public’s confusion about our national fiscal crisis is, I fear, the manner in which the news media is reporting the issue.

“And I say this speaking as a former business editor, who was hand-picked for that demanding post after my then-publisher came back from a long lunch one day and said, ‘Hey, we need a business editor. Who doesn’t look busy around here?’

“One of the confusing things I noticed about business journalism — along with the fact that, when going on interviews I was sometimes required to wear a jacket and pants that matched, what’s called a ‘suit,’ I believe — was the tendency of my peers to refer to the stock market, or ‘Wall Street,’ as if it were an actual, living person.

“They would write things like, ‘Wall Street was optimistic today about the future of Consolidated Widget as the troubled company announced massive layoffs, sending its stock price soaring.’”

Read more here.

The reporting and writing style of Michael Lewis

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In the wake of a story in Vanity Fair by financial journalist Michal Lewis that he argues misses the mark, Felix Salmon of Reuters examines Lewis’s writing and reporting techniques.

Salmon writes, “Lewis is the best writer in financial journalism by some large margin, and much of what he does when reporting and writing his stories is simply unique. His technique is a labor-intensive one: Lewis talks to an enormous number of people, works out what story he wants to tell, and then puts together various tales and individuals he’s discovered over the course of his reporting in the service of telling that story in the most entertaining and compellingly readable way. It doesn’t matter how important you are, or whether you’ve given Lewis an important nugget of unreported news: if it doesn’t help the structure of his story, he’ll happily leave it out.

“There are other financial journalists who are excellent writers, albeit not very many of them. Matt Taibbi and the NYT’s David Segal spring to mind. But none of them are willing to subsume news in service of the story to the degree that Lewis is.

“This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. In fact, in many ways it’s admirable. Lewis is an expository journalist by nature, and a master storyteller; he’s not a muckraker or news-breaker. We have far too few storytellers in financial journalism, while there are literally thousands of journalists looking to break incremental pieces of news. It’s clear where Lewis’s value lies — he can explain what’s going on to a broad audience of Vanity Fair readers, and doing so in a way that they love to read. No one else could make them care about Greece’s role in the European financial crisis; Lewis’s article on the country is a veritable master class on how to take a dry and recondite subject and make it thoroughly entertaining.

“But Lewis’s incredible facility at storytelling is a powerful tool, and we have to be able to trust the craftsman who wields it. Lewis’s stories tend to be far more deeply reported than they seem at first glance, and in order for us to trust that he stands on the side of the angels we have to be able to trust in his judgment about what exactly the real story is. Because his raw material is extensive enough to support just about any thesis he wants.”

Read more here.

Speed vs. accuracy in business reporting

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Paren Peterson, the managing editor of the Tacoma News-Tribune, writes Sunday about the desire to be first with a story compared to getting the story right.

Petersonw rites, “Their story began, ‘Today the City of Tacoma became among the first municipalities in the U.S. to have its credit rating on debt downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, following the downgrade of the U.S. credit rating Friday.’

“The story also contained this sentence, ‘In this case, it’s likely that S&P believes the City of Tacoma has a significant reliance on federal money and as a result, the federal credit downgrade impacts the Pacific Northwest city.’

“We hadn’t confirmed the story ourselves, but we knew readers would come to us looking for it.

“At 2:44 p.m., we posted this: ‘The Puget Sound Business Journal reports that the City of Tacoma’s credit rating has been downgraded from AAA to AA+ by Standard & Poor’s. This is a developing story. We will post more information as soon as it’s available.’

“It’s not common for us – but also not unprecedented – that we would share another news organization’s headline. It’s a way for us to let readers know we’re aware of a story and working on it ourselves.

“The problem, in this case, was that the story was wrong.

“After doing his own reporting, our business reporter C.R. Roberts posted a story that began, ‘The sky is not falling in Tacoma.

“‘A report by a Seattle business website did not provide the entire story Monday when it proclaimed that the city had its credit rating on debt downgraded by Standard & Poor’s.

“‘The investment ratings service did downgrade at least two City of Tacoma bonds – the repayment of which is tied to lease payments on Union Station due from the federal government.’

“It was the rating on those two bonds, not the entire city, that was downgraded.”

Read more here.

Leonhardt’s success is due to intellectual curiosity

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Andrew Damstedt of American Journalism Review profiles David Leonhardt of the New York Times, the Pulitzer Prize-winning business columnist who is becoming the paper’s Washington bureau chief.

Damstedt writes, “Ingrassia says one of the reasons he picked Leonhardt as a columnist was that he wasn’t sure precisely what he was going to get each week. ‘That’s a great value in a columnist,’ Ingrassia says. ‘I want to be surprised by a columnist, by the choice of their topic, their reasoning, their writing. And not pick it up and say, ‘I know what this person is going to say before I read it,’ because then why should I read it?’

“Ingrassia cites Leonhardt’s intellectual curiosity as one of the reasons he’s so successful. ‘He knows what he doesn’t know,’ Ingrassia says. ‘He doesn’t try to wing it. He doesn’t try to bullshit.’

“A self-proclaimed Leonhardt fan is Times Assistant Business Editor Phyllis Messenger, who helped edit his columns weekly before the last one, ‘Lessons From the Malaise,’ ran on July 26.

“‘Each week was a different kind of thing. I felt like I would be going to school and learning something new every week because David had thoroughly researched it,’ Messenger says. ‘And plus he also had, which is unusual even now, umpteen links in his column that would show all the different places where he was getting his information from. I always felt like, even if he was sending the links after I had finished working on the story, it was always helpful to me in understanding more of the depth of what he was writing about. That’s sort of the nitty-gritty, and yet if you are a reader of his online, it’s a very rich experience.’

“Messenger mentioned Leonhardt’s columns about renting versus buying and his idea to include an online calculator to help people figure out which was the smarter option for them. Rudoren says people frequently ask him for advice on whether they should rent or buy when they are moving to a new venue.”

Read more here.

WSJ reporter Schoofs says goodbye

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TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

Mark Schoofs, a Wall Street Journal reporter who is leaving the paper for ProPublica, sent a goodbye e-mail to his colleagues Friday that included some excellent writing tips.

On Monday, after more than 11 years at The Wall Street Journal, I’ll start a new job. I’ll be a senior editor at ProPublica, leading a team of investigative reporters.

I’ll miss helping to put out one of the world’s great newspapers, and I’ll especially miss working with WSJ’s stellar journalists, particularly my colleagues on Page One, led by the incomparable Alix Freedman. Indeed, I’ve been fortunate to work with brilliant Journal-istes across the globe on stories ranging from the effects of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to financial abuse in Medicare, to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, to scuba diving below the ice in the arctic White Sea, to a Jewish wife searching for her Muslim husband lost in the 9/11 attacks.

My colleagues and mentors – too many to name here – taught me not only about journalism, but also about life. Most of those lessons can’t be shared in an email, but one actually can. It’s the clearest roadmap I’ve ever seen on how to write a Page One story.

The article at issue was about HIV in Russian prisons, and I had turned in a draft – too long, of course – that was divided into sections denoted by three asterisks, like this: * * *. Patient, long-suffering Bill Spindle wrote back the following email, which I’ve used as a cheat sheet ever since, and which I now hope others can put to similar use.

—–Original Message—–
From: Spindle, Bill
Sent: Thursday, June 06, 2002 3:08 PM
To: Schoofs, Mark
Subject: RE: Voila

Mark,

This is a great story…….though one you’re going to have to spend a bit more time getting into Journal shape. It isn’t that it’s poorly done — to the contrary, it’s well written, clearly thought-through and remarkably well reported. It just isn’t presented in that venerable Journal style — and I doubt I have to tell you how we automatons on the desk feel about the sanctity of Journal Style. You’ve organized and written this piece as something far more at home in a magazine — as a story that looks at the many aspects of AIDS and the Russian penal system. And you’ve used some writing devices that don’t translate well to the Journal — even though we like to run around saying our stories are like magazine pieces, even though they really aren’t. They’re their own species……

….Basically, you need to hone this piece down so that it is far more focused not on the many aspects of AIDS and the Russian penal system but on a single, driving theme: how the Russian penal system spreads AIDS, making the AIDS problem here fundamentally different than anywhere else. That’s going to mean jettisoning some material that’s inarguably socially important, but can’t be put to work in service of the theme of this story so doesn’t belong there (or so the style gods, would say). The long section on discrimination and human rights abuses inflicted on AIDS prisoners, for example, doesn’t fit easily into the core of your story. Actually, each time you find yourself inserting those little asterisks in your stories, you should think about whether you’re focus is drifting too far for the style police to tolerate. Those are precisely the places where, in a magazine piece, the reader takes a little breather, backs up, or heads off in a slightly new direction, and then sets out again. But that isn’t the way Journal pieces work; in them, the logic and development of the piece proceeds pretty seamlessly, without real breaks in logic or flow. The one big exception is in stories with strong narrative components, when you hit the part that says, basically, “It all began back when…..blah blah blah”. But even then, you’ll notice, these transitions sometimes get truncated so severely you hardly notice. For example, you almost never read the classic (cliched) mid-story magazine transition: William K. Spindle was born into a gypsy family in a…..blah blah.”
The other style dogma the piece needs to work at more is just sentence by sentence getting from logical point a to logical point b in a more direct route. Your instincts to use the Multanovskiy anecdote as the lede are right on….He illustrates exactly how and why the prison system is the core of Russia’s coming AIDS crisis…..But the way it’s constructed, you sort of back into the anecdote, taking the reader through several logical steps before arriving at the point. Again, works just fine in a true magazine format, but for a traditional leder you need to walk the reader straight from exhibit A, Alexander Multanovskiy, to the point: he’s one big reason why AIDS is going to explode in Russia. As currently constructed, that takes six pretty long grafs. It probably should be done in two or three — it probably won’t turn out to be as artful, but the reader also won’t have to contend with so much — notes and cigarettes, overcrowded penitentiaries, pre-trial detention centers, tuberculosis etc.
Anyway, I realize I’m sounding pedantic……I just think it’s worth writing through this once more, trying to bring it down into the length range of a regular leder, about 50 inches, give or take five inches, and honing the focus a bit. More concrete suggestions in the text of the story, which I’ve attached.

I’ll treasure this and all the other lessons I’ve learned at The Wall Street Journal.

Tips on covering the financial crisis

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Andrew Gauthier of TV Spy has tips from a handful of local TV newsers on how to cover the current financial crisis.

Here are a couple:

Keep It Simple

“I think keeping it simple and understandable is job one,” says WOIO anchor-reporter Paul Joncich. “Most folks who have stock portfolios have access to much more information than we can provide in a minute and a half of TV time. So I always try to get my financial expert to talk about what this means to Joe Citizen who may not have stocks.”

“I try to cut through the numbers,” says WLS reporter Jason Knowles, adding that he asks the experts, “What is the bottom line for someone like me who has a 401 K and other investments and isn’t savvy on trading?”

Focus on People

“I just did something very simple the other day,” recounts KOB reporter Joe Vigil. “With talk of another recession, and lost jobs, I talked to two people who are out of work. I’m sure others out of work could relate to what those two said… I didn’t get into a lot of details about why the market went down, just let the people speak about the struggles they’re facing now, as the chance that a lot more people could be out of work looms.”

Read more here.

In praise of librarians helping business journalists

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Tim Ferguson, who edits Forbes Asia from New York, writes in praise of his colleague Susan Radlauer, who was recently promoted to director of research services at Forbes.

Ferguson writes, “For nearly five years here Sue has been sent chasing many an obscure fact (how many Malaysians have air-conditioning?). Lately she’s helped me find data on Korean labor strife, Australian wheat exports and the California golf course interests of a unit of Japan’s Sanyo Foods.

“Traditional media, FORBES included, used to have more Sue Radlauers than we do now, but as DIY Web searches took hold and finances got tighter, this support was harder to justify. As a result, the libraries throughout the U.S. press have been gutted.

“Yet, finding the informational paper clip in the dustbin is still so much of what we in the trusted media do for our audience. Getting and using the right data help to make a brand like ours more reliable than whatever pops up first as you type a few keywords.”

Read more here.

Biz section celebrates one-year anniversary

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Ted Natt Jr. writes Wednesday about the one-year anniversary of a standalone business section in the Southern Pines Pilot, a North Carolina newspaper.

Natt writes, “But don’t think for a minute that we’re resting on our laurels.

“‘In the future, I’d like to see a little more authoritative analysis of what drives our economy week in and week out,’ Woronoff said. ‘The health care industry is changing. The tourism industry seems to be rebounding, and the retail industry appears to be booming. We need to put that all into context and show our readers how it affects them.’

“While Bouser is also ‘thrilled’ with the new section, he would like to see more balance.

“‘To me, the ideal business page would have a mix of macro- and micro-economic issues,’ he said. ‘We always want readers to be responsive and tell us how we’re doing. But we also want to be proactive and help shape the future debate about the best way for Moore County to grow economically.’

“The last year has been a whirlwind. I attained full-time status with the newspaper last January, adding the health care and Southern Pines beats to my duties. But the Business section will always be closest to my heart.”

Read more here.

How the biz media cover the Sun Valley media conference

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Fox Business Network reporter Dennis Kneale writes Sunday about what it’s like to be a reporter covering the Sun Valley media conference this past week.

Kneale writes, “A platoon of security guards, alternately buff or buoyantly beer-bellied, stood watch to berate us whenever someone got out of line. On Day Two (Thursday), a morbidly obese crewcut yelled at us and threatened expulsion (though the resort is open to the public).  Drunk with power, he did this twice within 30 minutes, setting off a jump-back response from a reporter staying on the grounds. 

“When a scribe for The New York Times buttonholed Warren Buffett, an uninvited sentry stationed himself nearby and monitored every word, braced for intervention.  At one point I asked the guards whether they were packing Tasers.  ‘I just wanna be there to get the shot when Dennis gets arrested,’ one lensman wisecracked.

“As the elites emerge from sessions, most of them grim-faced and avoiding eye contact, reporters and photogs are permitted to stand behind a velvet rope cordoning off a narrow gauntlet on the opposite of the sidewalk. We implore A-listers to stop and chat, though Allen & Co. discourages them from complying.

“‘It’s the most undignified reporting assignment I’ve ever had,’ says one veteran journo, laughing at his lot as we obediently stayed in our place, inside the penalty box.  At one point I snag a kindly lawyer who pleads,  ‘Can we talk later tonight? I’m uncomfortable standing here talking to you.’

“‘Later tonight’ meant after 9 p.m. in the main lodge, where the swells hung out beyond our reach in a dark, blocked-off bar. We media types lingered just outside, longing to snag a few minutes with anyone of note who had to make a trip to the restroom in the lobby.” 

Read more here.