Tag Archives: Reporting tips
by Chris Roush
Gwen Moritz of Arkansas Business writes about how she become a banking reporter.
Moritz writes, “Several things contributed to my journalistic evolution, starting with my desperation to get away from a boss who modeled himself after Captain Queeg. The day my editor at the Nashville (Tenn.) Business Journal told me that I was now a banking reporter literally changed my life.
“The first bank story I covered, in the summer of 1992, was a press conference announcing that a bank from Birmingham called First Alabama was entering the Nashville market by acquiring a small mutual savings and loan. The reporters for the daily papers — back then, Nashville still had The Tennessean in the morning and the Banner in the afternoon — were asking questions about ROA and ROE, and I was taking notes as fast as I could and putting question marks by everything since I had no earthly idea what those letters stood for, much less what they actually meant.
“If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked a whole lot more questions about what the depositors in that little mutual S&L were getting out of the deal. Instead, I followed up on a tossed off comment by one of the First Alabama executives about hoping to reach $500 million in assets in Tennessee within a year.
“I didn’t even know what a bank asset was. But I used the Tennessee Bankers Association directory to call about two dozen bank presidents around Nashville and asked them if they were being courted by First Alabama. I was too naïve to realize that no banker would answer a question like that. Fortunately, four of those bank presidents were equally naïve and confirmed that they were in talks with First Alabama, which, you know, is now called Regions Bank.”
Read more here.
The quarterly earnings call is much more than a casual conversation among a company’s executives, analysts, investors and the media — it’s a carefully scripted dialogue that is practiced well in advance of a call.
The planning and preparation that goes into an earnings call allow little room for journalists to fire questions that may throw an executive off message or make them appear ignorant about a topic in front of a large audience that has the power to push a company’s stock price upward or send it plummeting.
In fact, many publicly traded companies ban business journalists from asking questions during the call at all, and direct them to a specific public relations contact following the call for any follow-up questions. However, oftentimes analysts are permitted to ask questions on the live call.
So, then, why are business journalists prevented from asking executives questions during the call? And why are analysts allowed? Is this a smart tactic?
An Exclusive Club
Prior to 2000, quarterly conference calls were primarily reserved for large investors and analysts, and journalists, along with small investors, were often not even permitted to join in the earnings call. Many companies participated in selective disclosure during these calls, giving some investors an advantage over others.
However, in 2000, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) mandated through Regulation Fair Disclosure (FD) that publicly traded companies must disclose material information to everyone at the same time. Therefore, publicly traded companies were forced to open their earnings calls to everyone, including journalists.
Even though others are now allowed to dial in and listen to these calls, there is still a sense of exclusivity, and the companies frequently cater to a select group of listeners.
The company earnings calls are held for the benefit of institutional investors and analysts covering the company for investment banks, Sapna Maheshwari, a business reporter at BuzzFeed said in an email on Thursday. The analysts, she said, who ask questions on the calls typically represent this cohort of people, which is why they are provided with greater access.
“Analysts often ask a lot of softball questions and offer many congratulations before saying anything on the calls,” Maheshwari said. “They are often scared of losing access.”
Investor relations practitioners anticipate the type of Q&A from analysts, and rehearse the questions with executives in advance. Further, some companies screen analysts in advance for the questions that they may ask through one-on-one emails and phone calls, according to an article from Inside Investor Relations. The investor relations team then often prepares a documented and suggested answers for possible questions that may come up during the Q&A portion of the call.
It’s possible that companies are better able to anticipate the questions analysts may ask, and that they allow them greater access for this reason. This isn’t to say that analysts won’t fire pointed questions; many have on occasion.
Lois Boynton, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and former public relations professional, offers additional reasons for why companies provide analysts access to top executives during earnings calls while barring business journalists.
“One argument is that they just don’t want to answer the business journalists’ questions,” Boynton said in an email on Thursday.
“The reputation journalists have for being adversarial probably doesn’t endear them with companies. My guess is that the argument would be couched as their desire to use the limited time they have to talk with those who make decisions [analysts] and who they may feel are better informed.”
Adversarial topics are ones that public relations professionals take painstaking measures to avoid during conference calls that are being closely monitored by those who have the ability to influence the market, and why so much preparation goes into calls. One slip-up could have a significantly negative effect for a company.
Boynton also provided an alternative explanation, and said that companies may also not want journalists asking questions because they don’t want analysts to hear their questions and be influenced by them.
“What is the journalist asks something that could call the company’s reputation into question,” Boynton said. “Would that affect what the analysts do?”
Many companies justify the practice of not allowing journalists to ask questions during the earnings call because they defer them to the public relations department following the conference call, Boynton said.
Working at Bloomberg News last summer, I found this often to be the case. Some companies, Yum! Brands Inc. in particular, were excellent at fielding questions from reporters immediately following an earnings call, while it was nearly impossible to get in touch with others.
“There’s a misconception that is reinforced when the company shuttles the reporter to the PR person – the message is that the public relations person’s role is to keep journalists away from those sources who can answer their questions,” Boynton said. “Although there are PR practitioners who have that role, most see their role as opening doors to the exec level.”
One of the only companies that allow reporters to ask questions during the actual call is News Corp., hosting separate sessions for analysts and journalists to ask question.
“I haven’t run across companies that allow journalists to ask questions on what I cover [retail],” Maheshwari said. “In fact, there is only a handful of companies that are good about putting me in touch with executives.”
Should more companies open up earnings calls to journalists and be more transparent, like News Corp. or is it smart to limit questions to analysts during these sessions?
by Chris Roush
Brian Stelter of the New York Times talks with Chris Ariens of TVNewser.com about how he got started covering the television industry and parlayed that into a job at The Times.
by Chris Roush
Andrea Williams of MediaBistro.com interviewed All Things D’s Kara Swisher about how she covers the technology beat.
Here is an excerpt:
You’re known for breaking stories and getting scoops before anyone else. Which one are you most proud of or excited you the most when you were writing it?
I’m pleased, obviously, with some of the stories around Yahoo! and the different CEO problems that they had. I think one of the things that was difficult then is that people kept saying I was wrong — and then I was correct. So that’s nice. I think it’s the consistently being accurate that’s heartening for us on our site. There’s so much speculation and rumor mongering, that it’s really nice to stick to getting it right every time. We really spend a lot of time on building relationships. And so when everyone is like, “How do you break so many stories?” it’s because I build relationships. I do it the old-fashioned way, and I build sourcing relationships, and then I take advantage of those relationships over time. So, whenever someone says, “Oh, how do you do it?” I tell them that I make more calls then they do. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. People make a bigger deal of it, but I think I just work harder than other people. That’s all. There’s no secret sauce or anything.
How can other journalists become influential in their own reporting?
Well, it’s really easy. Be accurate; know your stuff. I think what’s really amazing is that people just jump into it without any kind of expertise. People just start mouthing off on things or printing rumors without doing any checking, and they think that’s the way to glory. It’s the way to laziness. And I think the way to be an influential journalist is to be accurate and to be fair and to get things right and to really characterize things in an honest way, versus being really snarky or cheerleading. There’s sort of a happy medium between them, where you’re excited about some of the things, but at the same time, you want to give the reader the truth because this stuff can get hyped pretty quickly.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
An anthology Malcolm Gladwell has called “riveting and indispensable,” The Best Business Writing 2013 is a far-ranging survey of business’s dynamic relationship with politics, culture, and life.
This year’s selections include John Markoff (New York Times) on innovations in robot technology and the decline of the factory worker; Evgeny Morozov (New Republic) on the questionable value of the popular TED conference series and the idea industry behind it; Paul Kiel (ProPublica) on the ripple effects of the ongoing foreclosure crisis; and the infamous op-ed by Greg Smith, published in the New York Times, announcing his break with Goldman Sachs over its trading practices and corrupt corporate ethos.
Jessica Pressler (New York) delves into the personal and professional rivalry between Tory and Christopher Burch, former spouses now competing to dominate the fashion world. Peter Whoriskey (Washington Post) exposes the human cost of promoting pharmaceuticals off-label. Charles Duhigg and David Barboza (New York Times) investigate Apple’s unethical labor practices in China.
Max Abelson (Bloomberg) reports on Wall Street’s amusing reaction to the diminishing annual bonus. Mina Kimes (Fortune) recounts the grisly story of a company’s illegal testing—and misuse—of a medical device for profit, and Jeff Tietz (Rolling Stone) composes one of the most poignant and comprehensive portraits of the financial crisis’s dissolution of the American middle class.
To order, go here.
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.