Tag Archives: Reporting tips
When consumers become business journalists, especially when they’re reviewing electronic products or new software, it can cause havoc with the tried-and-true strategy of companies giving “exclusive” interviews to certain media outlets.
Dana Blankenhorn found this out the hard way. He talked with CEO Ofer Shoshan of Qlusters Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif. last week in an interview embargoed until today. Unfortunately, others covered the company’s new software and made the embargo useless. He got a call from the company’s PR on Saturday telling him he could go ahead and post his story.
He wrote this morning: “Business news is often treated as a proprietary good, something the holder can control, favoring one outlet with an “exclusive CEO interview,” waiting until they post before a disfavored competitor gets a sniff of the release. Many companies use this to control how their story plays. You give the Wall Street Journal first crack at it, then release when they do. Or you give someone else the break for a cover, or favorable treatment.
“In the case of Qlusters, however, the company actually released openQRM through Sourceforge weeks ago. The project was already riding high in the siteâ€™s Enterprise listings when I was asked to keep silent. Yet the company’s PR people didn’t see this validation as the story â€” they saw features and spin as the story. They also thought they could keep the press quiet with interviews while testing the actual software before thousands of programmers.”
Coverage of the Enron trial began to build up this weekend. Expect to be inundated with coverage until the trial ends, and the verdict will likely be front-page news in papers across the world.
Here are some of the things that I noticed from coverage this weekend:
1. The Associated Press had a basic story today about jury selection, noting how hard it will be to find a 12-person jury in Houston that isn’t already convinced that the energy company’s former executives are guilty. Read the story here.
2. The New York Times ran a preview of the trial, pointing out that the star witnesses in the case for the prosecution may not be Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling, but low-level Enron employees who “raised red flags about Enron’s businesses and on witnesses who were privy to what Mr. Lay and Mr. Skilling said when they spoke to investors. The defense will counter with a legion of lawyers and accountants who will testify that they themselves had approved Enron’s byzantine accounting maneuvers and that any fraud that did occur did not reach the top of the company.”
The Times also has a video on its home page of a conversation between business editor Larry Ingrassia, reporter Kurt Eichenwald and columnist Joe Nocera about the trial.
3. The Houston Chronicle’s Mary Flood also focused on the strategies of the two legal teams in her Sunday story, similar to the NYT story. In addition, I like the Chronicle’s Legal Commentary blog on the trial, where local attorneys are posting comments aand perspective about the case.
The Post also has a pretty comprehensive section on its Web site devoted to the Enron trial. It includes briefs on the major players, and the major issues surrounding the trial.
4. Forbes magazine also has a nice selection of video interviews regarding the trial on its Web site. Forbes.com editor Paul Maidment digs into the trial with Gregory Markel, chairman, litigation deptartment, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft; Doug Carmichael, professor, CUNY Zicklin School of Business; and Jill Fisch, professor, Fordham University School of Law.
What I’ve seen is that many traditional print outlets are using video on their Web sites to help explain what will be a complicated trial to explain to the average reader. I think that’s a smart move.
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the Securities and Exchange Commission will begin regulating hedge funds, those formerly secretive investment vehicles in which the rich and college endowments have used to manage their money. It’s on that date that hedge funds have to register with the SEC. Many already have.
Here is part of a Sunday Associated Press article about the move: “Under the SEC rule, most hedge fund managers now must register with the agency. That opens the funds’ books to SEC examiners and makes them subject to an array of regulations including accounting and disclosure requirements. The examiners will be able to conduct inspection ‘sweeps’ of hedge funds.
“Thousands of hedge fund managers have already voluntarily registered. But some big hedge funds are using an exemption to avoid having to register — though SEC officials say it’s not a loophole; they call it ‘an element in the definition of ‘private fund’ that is designed to distinguish between hedge funds and other types of funds.’”
The Financial Times also covered the pending new regulations, noting, “SEC officials say the UK and Hong Kong are the most significant overseas jurisdictions for hedge fund managers. By the end of last Thursday, 113 hedge fund managers based outside the US were registered with the SEC. Of these, 68 are in the UK and seven are in Hong Kong.”
The disclosure requirements for hedge funds is what most business journalists are looking forward to. That means that hedge funds will be disclosing their financial performance and holdings on a regular basis to the SEC, just like mutual funds.
If you plan on covering hedge funds and this change, here are some places to look for information:
1. The SEC has a portion of its Web site devoted to hedge funds called Hedging your Bets.
2. The SEC rules for hedge funds can be found here.
3. A 134-page report issued by SEC staff in September 2003 called “Implcations of the Growth of Hedge Funds.”
4. The home page of the Hedge Fund Association. The press release section has information on the performance of the industry.
5. The Hedge Fund Center has some nice features such as a headlines section.
The blogging world has been abuzz the past few days about a recent Forbes article on, what else, the blogging world.
The Forbes article in question is “Tapping into the blogosphere” by Tom Taulli, and it was posted on the magazine’s Web site on Wednesday.
PR blog expert B.L. Ochman wrote, “Sometimes, comments to posts get overlooked. I don’t want this one, about Forbes Magazine’s sloppy reporting and editing, to be missed. The other day, I noted that Tom Taulli’s story on blogging in the current issue – particularly a quote of Bob Wyman of PubSub, seems to have been strangely edited, perhaps by an editor who is clueless about blogging. Some of the comments seem clearly to have been taken out of context. Or maybe Taulli really doesn’t get blogs.”
Added WebProNews.com staff writer John Stith: “The problem for Forbes here is blogger buzz. They received a lot bad blogger buzz when they published their story back in November ripping bloggers to pieces. It was open season on Forbes. Now, in the article that looks like a “kiss-and-make-up” story about how good the blogosphere is and what it can do for business, they get their facts wrong by attributing a quote to the wrong person. If bloggers are to be held to a higher standard, the communicators who were their first must set the standard by the quality of their own work.”
A number of business reporters are in Davos, Switzerland this week covering the World Economic Forum. One of the best places to look for coverage is a blog called “Delving into Davos” being written by reporters from the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times, including Mark Landler, Floyd Norris and Andrew Ross Sorkin.
They’re not exactly breaking news on this blog, but it does give you a feel for what it’s like to be a reporter covering this event and being able to talk to CEOs from around the world as well as other important people. In comparison, my local paper, The News & Observer, talked by e-mail to the one CEO from the area who is attending Davos, which doesn’t quite give you the same feel.
Norris blogged this funny anecdote this morning: “The chairman of one retailer told of checking in at his hotel. As the bellboy carried his suitcase into the elevator, the handle broke.
“Another man on the elevator asked if the bag was of a certain brand, adding that he was the president of the company that made it.
“Told that it was, he advised the executive to send the suitcase back to be fixed.
“To the retailer, the response was something less than satisfactory. ‘If he told me one of my shirts was defective, I’d be writing out a $100 gift certificate,’ he said later. ‘But all he wanted to do was get out of the elevator.’
Writes financial journalist Corey Goldman about the Davos blog: “The IHT/NYT blog is the closest I’ve ever come to getting a taste for what it must be like to be there on the ground — observations on Google founder Sergie Brin’s choice of dress to the irony of gift baskets from Nestle chock full of sweets alongside pamphlets on eradicating world hunger.
“For anyone who’s ever had difficulty figuring out exactly what the World Economic Forum is and why it attracts everyone from Angelina Jolie to Bill Clinton to Bill Gates, take a look.”
Charles Fishman, a contributing editor to Fast Company magazine, spoke to one of my classes this afternoon. Charles is very animated when it comes to talking about journalism, and he shared some of his tips in finding sources when it came to writing his book The Wal-Mart Effect.
Here are some things he found helpful:
1. To find people who had worked for consumer products companies on the Wal-Mart account, he had a friend — a Northwestern professor — put out a request on a marketing listserv. On the first time the request went out, Fishman received 20 responses. The second time, he received 10 responses.
2. To find former employees who had worked at Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., Fishman took out an ad in the Bentonville newspaper that began “Did you help build Wal-Mart” and included his e-mail address. “I reached a whole community of people,” said Fishman.
3. It pays to understand data and statistics and how to properly use them. He pointed out an example of a company that makes a certain snack cake and has 20 percent of a stagnant market, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. But the market share data that the reporter used came from a data set that didn’t have Wal-Mart’s share of that market because Wal-Mart stopped providing its sales data in 2001. Fishman argues in his book that the snack cake market is actually growing when it includes Wal-Mart’s sales, and the Philadelphia company’s sales are less than 20 percent of the market. “The reporter didn’t ask the right question,” he said. “The result is a charming story when the actual bits of information are wrong.”
4. Fishman argues that writing magazine stories means gathering four times as much information as you’d gather for a newspaper and still only using 20 percent of the information. This runs counter, he said, to a colleague who says writing magazine stories means using 40 percent of the information you gather.
I had one student who commented after Fishman left: “He’s the first person I’ve ever met more excited about business journalism than you.”
SEC Chairman Christopher Cox gave a speech last week in which he said that interactive SEC filings in which the data could be manipulated and searches could be easier are just months away, according to a column in the Baltimore Sun by Jay Hancock.
Hancock wrote: “Cox wants the financial reports that corporations file with the Securities and Exchange Commission to become interactive so shareholders or bondholders can quickly find and compare the information they need, instead of scrolling through pages and pages of documents on the Web.”
Hancock later adds: “A fully interactive SEC would be much more accurate and affordable. It could also allow cool research beyond the stuff most investors focus on.
“Want to find the highest-paid CEOs in your state? The U.S.-based company with the most annual sales in Europe? Performance of unionized companies vs. non-unionized ones? Depending on deep the data-tagging goes, it could be available with a few clicks.”
If this happens, the possibilities for business journalists are unbelievable. It would obviously make filings much more friendly to reporters seeking information.
Read Hancock’s column here.
In the Arizona Daily Star this morning, reader advocate Debbie Kornmiller talks about a session that the newspaper had with non-profit organizations in the area on how they can get news in the paper.
She wrote: “Business Editor Tim Steller said that from the Industry News & Notes column that runs Mondays through Saturdays to the Networking and Moving Up calendars on Mondays to the rotating workplace stories on Fridays, Business is a good fit for nonprofit news.”
I’d add that non-profits should be covered like businesses. Many of them, from the local YMCA to the hospital, are competing for customers against the for-profit entities in a community, and they also have financial statements that can be reviewed. A Form 990 for a non-profit organization is available from the IRS, and a non-profit must provide a copy of the 990 to anyone who asks for it within 24 hours. The 990 has tons of great information, from salaries of executives for the non-profit to how it spent its money in the previous year. Think of a 990 as a combination of a public company’s proxy statement and a 10-K.
I had a student, Emily Steel, who interned last summer at the St. Petersburg Times. Her best story examined the salaries of the heads of the local non-profits. The story just won the Hearst Writing Contest for in-depth reporting. Frankly, it was a story that every newspaper should be writing on an annual basis. Steel will graduate in May and go intern at the Wall Street Journal.
Jack Naudi, a business columnist with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, doesn’t think so. In his column this morning, he writes: “I had an interesting discussion recently with a reader who is convinced that when the Dow hits any number with three zeroes at the end, investors should pay attention.
“But reaching round numbers isn’t all. You have to look at trading volume as well.
“I admit, I don’t understand this type of analysis. It makes my head spin. So does the Wall Street Journal, a publication I think is one of the best in the world. Every day, the Journal writes about markets, attempting to explain why they move up or down based on one or two variables.
“It’s a laughable proposition to simplify the combined movement of thousands of stocks. And for the vast majority of investors, it’s meaningless. It doesn’t do you much good today to know why stocks moved yesterday.”
To read the entire column, go here.
Fink, the magazine’s deputy editor, writes: “The usually dependable New York Times business reporter Floyd Norris commits the same error in his column today that I did a few months ago while researching a piece about finite insurance. (Hey, nobody’s perfect.)
“Neighbor Floyd says that FASB’s rules on special-purpose gizmos (SPGs; now known as variable interest doo-hickeys) used to require outside investors to put up at least 3 percent of total capital for the assets to be taken off the SPG sponsor’s balance sheet. But that’s not quite right, as a FASB staffer vociferously reminded me. Just as with the 1 percent rule of thumb used by the insurance industry for risk transfer, the 3 percent rule in SPG land wasn’t FASB’s. Instead, it was a common practice that took effect because the actual standard was vague (excuse me, I mean principles-based). At least my error didn’t get into print.
“But Floyd’s main point is still valid: that the near-term future of accounting may depend on whoever succeeds Katherine Schipper on the seven-member FASB board. And the board’s appointers, the Financial Accounting Foundation, is playing that card close to its vest. So stay tuned.”
This is when you know you’ve hit the top of the business journalism profession when you get criticized for how you describe arcane accounting rules.