Tag Archives: Writing tips
by Chris Roush
A Marketwatch.com story last week about investing in the Twitter initial public offering originated from a poll that had run earlier in the week that allowed folks to leave an email address if they wanted to be contacted by a reporter.
It’s a reporting tactic that can be useful during a time when all journalists, and not just business journalists, are strapped for time when it comes to gathering information.
Jonnelle Marte is a reporter for MarketWatch covering health care and employment issues, and she was the writer for the story. She is also a main contributor to Tax Watch, MarketWatch’s blog on taxes. Previously, Marte covered fixed income and investing for the site and other personal finance topics for The Wall Street Journal.
Laura Mandaro is markets editor for MarketWatch, responsible for the site’s real-time markets copy and an editor of its blogs, and she oversaw the story. Mandardo previously was a feature editor and corporate reporter for the site. In her former life as a newsprint reporter, she worked at Investor’s Business Daily and American Banker.
Talking Biz News spoke by email with Mandaro about the story and about the reporting technique. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
How did the idea come about to post the poll?
We’ve been using these polls on our Tell blog and Capitol Report blogs for a while to get readers’ views on a hot topic, particularly one where we’re spending extra effort on explaining what the event or subject means for a retail investor or consumer, or where we think there may be divergent views.
- What they thought about the televised food fight between Carl Icahn and Bill Ackman;
- Whether investors bought or sold stock because of the debt ceiling turmoil (drew over 4,800 responses);
- Who they thought MarketWatch’s CEO of the year should be;
- Their view on Edward Snowden;
- How long they expected the government shutdown to last.
Often our polls are multiple choice, using an in-house poll creator. Or, if we wanted to allow longer answers, we used Google Docs to create the poll. Then we published the interesting, though not scientific results, as part of our coverage.
We had never included a field that allowed readers to give us their contact information if they wanted. The Twitter poll was the first time.
What was the discussion like about asking readers for contact information?
For a while, we’ve been discussing how to bring an old newspaper feature – often called something like “Your Say” – into the digital era. Many of us worked at or grew up reading newspapers that would regularly include a column of readers’ quotes and their photos about a subject, which might be as local as a new proposed highway entrance or as global as the war in Iraq. These readers typically had agreed to share their views with the newspaper from time to time on any subject – in other words, they were a self-selected group of super-users.
We wanted to tap into MarketWatch’s own super-users. That is, the more engaged readers who would to take time to respond to polls. In particular, we were looking to give the personal, anecdotal side of investing stories that too often just quote professionals. MarketWatch mutual funds columnist Chuck Jaffe had a lot of good ideas on this.
Were you surprised at the volume of responses?
Yes, happily so!
How did you decide which readers to contact?
Jonnelle knew we wanted to frame the discussion around how people’s experience with Facebook stock may have impacted their expectations for Twitter, so she went through and categorized the responses into groups that she thought would have interesting responses.
People who had owned Facebook stock and said they didn’t want to own Twitter stock, people who didn’t own Facebook stock but wanted to own Twitter stock, and so on. Then Jonnelle emailed a bunch of those people to learn more about their individual experiences.
Was anything done to verify the people were who they said they were?
Jonnelle made sure the names given matched their email addresses and information on websites for companies they said they worked for.
What was the reaction from inside the newsroom?
We’re a very collaborative newsroom. When reporters and editors see something new, they reach out to the creator and ask how they can do it. Eventually the skill set spreads. For instance, telling a story with embedded tweets and other social media used to be a specialized skill. Now most reporters do this regularly. We share a lot of wikis and use join.me’s (and the plain-old telephone!) to share anything we think is cool.
Is this something that Marketwatch plans to do again?
What type of stories do you think this works best for?
Stories where we think our readers are not only interested in the subject, but likely to be engaged in the activity as well. Planning for retirement and buying a home are some obvious possibilities. But I’d also try this on a feature about bitcoin trading, for instance.
What type of stories will it not work well with?
Not sure we have a good answer for that. The biggest constraint, as ever, is time.
by Chris Roush
Steve Baker, a former business journalist at BusinessWeek, writes for The Huffington Post about how he used Twitter to write a story for the magazine and how he doesn’t use Twitter any more.
Baker writes, “But then I came up with a plan to leverage my mainstream journalism asset. I would write a BusinessWeek article explaining ‘Why Twitter Matters.’ But instead of calling up the usual sources, like @jayrosen_nyu, @jeffjarvis and @biz (Twitter co-founder Biz Stone), I would research the piece on Twitter. I would tweet topic sentences for each paragraph, and the Twittersphere would respond with examples, links and insights. Hopefully, they’d discuss and argue. Through this process, Twitter would write the story. Word would quickly spread about this story, and people who wanted to participate would follow me. I would catch up to Steve Rubel, or even pass him! I’d be hoisted up in the nugget economy.
“It turned out that organizing a boatload of tweets into a coherent article took a lot of work. But it came together. The article went mildly viral and my Twitter following quintupled, finally topping 1,000. My evil strategy worked. And I even won a minor magazine award for the story. (I’ll note, in passing, that traditional journalism awards carry zero weight in the nugget economy, not unless they’re branding giants, like Pulitzers. If I were still focused on nuggets, I’d trade my dusty old Overseas Press Award for 10,000 Twitter followers in a minute.)
“Months after that triumph, the economy cratered and BusinessWeek spiraled toward death. I left in late 2009, after Bloomberg snapped up the magazine for barely the price of a Superbowl commercial, and I got a book contract to write about IBM’s Jeopardy computer, Watson. Since then, I’ve been doing books. That has removed me from the nugget economy. Much of what I’m doing is vaguely secret, and timed by months, not minutes. For instance, I’m co-writing a healthcare book that Penguin will publish next spring. But they’re not publicizing it, and I guess they have their reasons. So I don’t either. I have a couple of book proposals brewing, also secret. As a result, I don’t generate good targeted nuggets. And my Twitter presence has degenerated into the occasional note about my life, a wine I drank in France, a slideshow from Africa. I’m a scattered Tweeter, virtually lapsed and widely ignored.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Andy Riga of the Montreal Gazette writes for Curbingcars.com on how to cover the transportation beat.
Riga writes, “Want to be a transport reporter? Here’s my road map to a fulfilling (and fun) beat.
“1) Make it practical. Help people get around, whatever their preferred mode. Major roadwork, transit interruptions, bike-path obstructions. I write ‘em up for the paper, online and/or Twitter and Facebook. I also write a weekly piece about traffic disruptions that affect drivers, transit users and cyclists.
“2) Make it interactive. You can’t be everywhere or know everything. Your readers are your eyes and ears, pointing out problems, asking questions and acting as a sounding board. I write a weekly Q&A column about getting around town – by car, transit, bike or on foot. Along with questions and answers, I feature reader comments (gathered via email and social media).
“3) Make it explanatory. Explaining is a big part of the job. People take highways and transit every day but don’t really know how things work. How do new buses and subway cars differ from old ones; how do traffic engineers design an intersection; how is a typical intersection dangerous for pedestrians.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Paul Brown, a former Forbes writer, writes about what he learned while working for the magazine’s famoous managing editor.
Brown writes, “This is going to be a blog post that tells you: You need to make your communications even shorter; your images more vivid and you darn well better have a point of view.
“These are lessons I learned (the hard way) from James Walker Michaels who died six years ago this month.
“Like a quarter (it seems, anyway) of the successful business writers in the universe, I owe a huge debt to Jim Michaels , the long-time editor of Forbes. It really isn’t hyperbolic to say that Michaels invented business journalism. The idea of always being skeptical of what you heard; the need for constantly providing context and giving the reader a well-reasoned conclusion at the end of every article, were all things Michaels demanded.
“I was shocked and a bit annoyed, I will admit.
“I went to Michaels and said, ‘Jim, how can you expect me to write about the world’s largest company in 130 lines?’
“‘If you can’t,’ he replied, ‘you don’t know what the story is.’”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Quartz, the business news site from The Atlantic, writes stories less than 500 words or very long stories, says editor in chief Kevin Delaney.
Sarah Marshall of Journalism.co.uk writes, “At the Digital Editors’ Network event taking place at News UK this afternoon, Kevin Delaney suggested that news publishers ditch medium-length articles. ‘Too much reporting is 700-word articles that everyone else has got,’ he said.
“Delaney explained how Quartz, which launched a year ago, focuses on stories that are less than 500 words, as well as longer, analytical features.
“Appearing via videolink from New York, Delaney showed a graph of the Quartz U-shaped curve.
“‘People read short, fast content on the web’, he said, and also long-form, analytical pieces. Articles of between 500 and 800 words are too long to be sharable, and too short to be in-depth, he said.
“Delaney, who used to be managing editor of WSJ.com, said if he went back into mainstream media he would take the Quartz approach.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Steve Kandell of BuzzFeed profiles CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell, who is a lightning rod for criticism because of what he covers.
Kandell writes, “Darren Rovell, just shy of 400,000 followers strong, does not exist on Twitter alone — his return to ESPN after six years at CNBC includes filing reported stories regularly and shooting non-sports segments for ABC News — but it’s what he thinks about, and what people think about when they think about Darren Rovell. (Even his detractors would grant that he’s been instrumental in changing the nature of sports reporting.) He will regularly spend hours researching and crafting a single tweet; there are whole Tumblrs devoted to criticizing his online output. He compares what he does to VH1’s Pop-up Video, dropping salient, bite-sized business-related footnotes to events we’re watching as fans. The often angry reaction thereto speaks to the uneasy relationship between sports’ string-pullers and the fans they ostensibly serve, as well as to his own murky relationship to both. (His Twitter background, in case any of this is too subtle: stacks of cash.) He does not profess to be sticking up for the little guy, and yet he firmly considers what he does to be, above all, a public service.
“‘If people are going to dislike me for commodifying the sports experience, or the idea that I’ve taken the fun out of it, that’s ridiculous,’ he says. ‘If you’re a fan today and you don’t understand the business, then you’re a bad fan. You will lose at the watercooler every single time. What’s your owner’s capacity to spend? You don’t know the salary cap? Come on.’
“Rovell looks back down at his phone. ‘Hold on, it’s 7:14, this Vikings one is going to go out now, I want you to see this.’ He hits send and…winces. ‘It’s loading. Shit. I don’t know if I have a signal.’
“There is undeniable drama in the sight of almost-grown men, having prepared their whole lives for this very night, witnessing their natural abilities pinned to fluctuating price points, and Rovell is ready for these stories, in his own way.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Suzanne McGee, who has begun writing a column for The Guardian’s U.S. business section, writes about what business journalists should be doing in their work.
McGee writes, “Only a minority of those who write about personal finance will be investigative reporters, digging into topics such as the allegations that Merrill Lynch and other institutions manipulated that auction-rate securities market. But too often, those investigations take place only after the fact. That may give you a sense of ‘closure’, I suppose, but it’s not going to help your portfolio recover from the hit it just took.
“What a financial journalist can do is draw attention to corners of the market that are particularly complex: the targets of a lot of marketing on the part of financial institutions that develop investment products, or those that appear to be the focus of irrational exuberance or undue apathy. Ideally, what we choose to write about will help you cut through the jargon, and help you think critically, just the best financial professionals do. The hope is that you can soon pose tough questions of your own to anyone who suggests that Financial Product A or Stock B is a one-stop solution to your investment needs.
“What none of us can or should do is to suggest that a given stock, investment strategy, product or idea is the right thing to do at any given time. So if you’re looking for a list of ‘Five Stocks to Own This Winter!’, you might want to move along in your quest for a pundit’s quick advice.”
Read more here.
In this five-part series, we’ll look at some of the challenges that young business journalists face in today’s media landscape. A common theme running through all five installments is the recognition that avoiding errors is a journalist’s first responsibility. News moves faster, farther and wider than ever before, and given the ever-increasing volatility of markets, the effect of incorrect news reporting can have shattering consequences: not just on the share price or business prospects of the company being written about, but on the media organization that faces legal liability and the exorbitant cost of legal defense. The fourth installment is about how different policies and practices regarding reporters’ notes can have serious consequences.
After running libel training seminars for 12 years around the world, I am always mindful when the same questions come up, whether the reporter is in San Francisco, Sydney or Singapore. The question “how long should I keep my notes?” is probably at the top of the list. The answer isn’t simple, and will vary from newsroom to newsroom, but it’s useful to understand some of the legal doctrines that map out the landscape in order to come to some sort of policy decision.
The Value of String
Most good reporters have a little bit of “pack rat” in them, and I know many who value old interviews as string they can use later, especially when the notes come from an extensive interview with a hard-to-reach newsmaker. This is also good practice if you are covering the same beat for a long period of time, because if the newsmaker changes his or her public stance on an issue, you can query them about contrary statements they made earlier. In addition, many an editor made an obit sparkle by adding quotes from a reporter’s old interviews.
Getting It Right and Proving It
From a libel perspective, if you start out from the premise that you can’t publish what you can’t prove, then as a broad proposition, keeping notes (particularly of contentious quotes) can save the day. Not having notes to support that someone said something can be ruinous. In Murphy v. Boston Herald, Inc., two reporters worked on a story about Ernest Murphy, a state court judge who they implied was unfit for service and “soft” on crime. The lede of the story set the table pretty well:
“A wrist-slapping New Bedford Superior Court judge under fire for letting four accused rapists return to the streets in the past week has a pro-defendant stance and has heartlessly demeaned victims, according to records and sources.”
In particular, Murphy took great exception to an alleged exchange in chambers, where Murphy was reported to have said of a teenage rape victim, “She can’t go through life as a victim. She’s [fourteen]. She got raped. Tell her to get over it.”
Although this case is instructive on a lot of levels, for our purposes here it’s important to keep in mind that the reporter was not in the room when the “get over it” statement was allegedly made, and making things worse, everyone who was a possible source contradicted what the reporter had published. The reporter needed to prove that someone told him that the judge made the “get over it” remarks.
Here’s where the hammer drops: whether the source got cold feet or was instead misquoted, it turned out that within a few days of the judge demanding a retraction and threatening to sue, the reporter allegedly threw out his notes. The court slaughtered the publisher with this fact, holding that:
Perhaps most damaging…are the circumstances in which [the reporter] discarded the notebook in which he claims to have written the information as it was told to him…Although he testified that he usually discarded notes for articles “within a matter of days or [a] week” after publication, it is highly improbable that he would do so, as a routine matter, in this instance. When questioned, [the reporter] could not say when, or where, he discarded the notebook, just that it was sometime “after the story ran.” The jury were entitled to draw the negative inference that Wedge discarded his notebook in a deliberate effort to conceal what he knew were inaccuracies in his reporting.
Lincoln D. Bandlow is a media law specialist and partner in the Los Angeles office of Lathrop & Gage and advises and defends a wide variety of publishers, broadcasters and content creators. An experienced litigator, Bandlow is emphatic about the value of having quality notes with which to defend a case. The plaintiff’s lawyer has to do everything he can to create an issue of fact to avoid dismissal, Bandlow says, and “the lack of good, clear notes is a way that plaintiffs will try to raise suspicions about the reporter’s work ethic and honesty.”
While it’s true that having a stash of notes may become a juicy target for third-party subpoenas that treat reporters as research assistants, Bandlow reminds reporters that “getting the story right, and being able to prove that it is right is our first obligation” and that the risk of annoyance in being subpoenaed for old notes is far outweighed by the value of notes for confirming or disproving error.
So What’s the Rule?
There really isn’t one. The problem with a hard and fast rule newsroom rule, Bandlow points out, is that sooner or later, someone is going to make a mistake and break the rule. In that case, a plaintiff’s lawyer will have a field day, like in the Murphy case, and use that to discredit the reporter. David Schulz, a well-known media litigator and partner in Levine, Sullivan, Koch and Schulz’ New York office, has been defending reporters and news organizations for more than 30 years. Like Bandlow, Schulz is also leery about newsrooms establishing a “company-wide” policy.
“If the newsroom has a policy, reporters have to stick to it,” Schulz says, echoing that any evidence of a reporter breaking internal rules may damage a reporter’s credibility in a libel case. “The journalism has to rule the day,” says Schulz, who has had to litigate at least one libel case where a reporter quoted a police officer making a statement that the policeman later denied. The reporter had discarded or lost his notes, and the defense had to get affidavits from other people who (fortunately) heard the statement being made. Although the press won the day in that case, Schulz recalls, “there’s no doubt the litigation was made more complicated and risky because of the lack of notes in the first place.”
Given the value of notes as string, but considering the danger of having a company-wide policy, the best approach is for each reporter to establish his or her own routine and stick to it. Reviewing and discarding unneeded notes yearly is a common individual policy, Bandlow says, because most reporters are told that the average libel statute of limitations is a year. “That’s not a bad guideline,” Bandlow says, but “reporters often forget that other causes of action that may arise from a story, like breach of confidentiality, which have much longer statutes of limitations, in some cases 4 or 6 years.” Recognizing modern tools for reporting, Bandlow suggests reporters doing phone interviews type their notes directly into their computer and have the publisher’s IT archive the files, and that paper notes can be scanned into PDF and similarly stored for a length of time set by each reporter.
Both Schulz and Bandlow are adamant about one rule every reporter should establish for themselves: once a story has been challenged for accuracy or the subject of a demand for correction, do not dispose of the notes. Instead, archive a copy, or better yet, send a copy to your media lawyer and wait for the “all clear” from him or her to trash the notes.
CHECKLIST FOR MAINTAINING NOTES
• Never share or show your notes to anyone outside of the newsroom unless told to do so by your newsroom lawyer. Distributing notes outside the newsroom may strip any confidential protection they have, and can be used by a libel plaintiff to show that what didn’t go into the story is evidence of knowing falsity or even negligence.
• Make your notes clear and consistent in style. Using headers like “Phone Interview, September 10, 2013 with Senator Smith” adds clarity and credibility.
• Do not add mental impressions or random thoughts to your notes, because plaintiffs’ lawyers might use those to show you had doubts about the story. Stick to who said what and who did what when.
• Set your own time frame for discarding old notes of no value and stick to it.
• Never, ever, discard notes after your story has been challenged, and wait for permission from your media counsel to destroy them.
Charles J. Glasser, Jr. spent the last 12 years as Global Media Counsel to Bloomberg News, responsible for litigation, ethical newsroom issues and pre-publication review, and was responsible for handling the work of more than 2,100 journalists on a 24-hour basis. Prior to joining Bloomberg, he represented a wide variety of news organizations including The New York Post, Readers’ Digest and NBC News. Prior to becoming an attorney, he was a journalist for 16 years. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook” and is currently a consultant on media law and corporate communications issues, and can be reached at email@example.com.
by Chris Roush
Mark B. Evans, the new editor at Inside Tucson Business, tells John Schuster of the Tucson Weekly that he’s having to take a crash course in business journalism.
Schuster writes, “‘I read and know business journalism, but I need a crash course on the bread and butter of business journalism and finding out what the readers of Inside Tucson Business want,’ Evans said. ‘Is their demand for business news currently being served by ITB? I think in part, but I think there are areas we can improve on, so I’ll talk to the business community and find out what they want from that publication.’
“Once he has the lay of the land, Evans hopes the next step is utilizing the publication to pursue business concerns in Tucson and Southern Arizona more in-depth.
“‘I don’t think it’s a very effective model for weekly newspapers in a metropolitan daily market to come out on Wednesday or Thursday with stories readers already read four days earlier in another publication or saw on TV already. You need to be giving readers information they didn’t know,’ said Evans, who prided himself on a more investigative reporting approach during his time as editor of the Northwest Explorer, before he joined the print version of the Tucson Citizen as an assistant city editor. ‘Trying to constantly dig up breaking news is difficult with a small staff, but taking stories that have already been covered and getting to the bottom of the story with some analysis and perspective can generate a lot of readership. And they’ll be impactful stories, stories of significance.’”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Business journalist Francine McKenna wishes that more of her industry colleagues would attempt to verify claims of revenue and net income by private companies before printing them.
McKenna writes, “Maybe some journalists are intoxicated by access to the non-public numbers some would pay a lot to know for sure. Maybe it’s just too hard. Worst case scenario journalists can be used as cogs in the equity market pump and dump machine.
“Summary level revenue and profitability numbers for public companies, those listed on U.S. stock exchanges, are easily verified. Go to the SEC filings —10-K annual reports, 10-Q quarterly filings, 14A annual proxies, 8-K filings of other legally required to be reported events — to see if what an executive says matches what he or she told regulators and markets in the filed financial statements. Even earnings calls and earnings releases should match what’s eventually filed or executives must later must explain why not.
“Readers may think that online or in print, whether in a magazine or a newspaper, writers have to check the truthfulness of what politicians and business executives say before they print it. More and more they don’t. Intensely partisan rhetoric during the last election cycle led to complaints on both sides that major media allowed politicians and their operatives to make claims about each other in debates, in print and online that weren’t true. Lies took on a life of their own. ‘Unspilling the milk’ was almost impossible. A cottage industry of political fact-checkers —FactCheck.org, Politifact, and media-watching bloggers and journalists — scoured public statements and news and magazine articles for blatant, and not-so-blatant, examples of lies and fibs that slipped into campaign season reports.
“There’s no such service dedicated to checking non-public and pre-IPO financial puffery and blustering. The hype before the Facebook IPO is an example of unverified financial information gone wild. When the New York Times broke the story of Goldman Sachs’ investment in Facebook on January 2, 2011 it was obvious a certain segment of the investing population willingly ignored the lack of audited, verifiable, complete financial information when offered a ‘hot and exclusive’ opportunity. The media was more than willing to repeat unaudited, unverified, and often incomplete information in its stories, true or not. Reuters eventually reported that disclosures provided to Goldman Sachs’ chickens, I mean clients, intended to entice them to make a $1 million minimum investment, weren’t even audited results.”
Read more here.