Tag Archives: Writing tips

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.

The problem with business news books

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Bryan Burrough, the author of “Barbarians at the Gate” who is now a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, writes for The New York Times on Saturday about the problem with many business books.

Burrough writes, “A lot of business books I see are written by consultants and others who I suspect seek to use the books as giant business cards, a way of garnering attention, or worse, speaking engagements.

“But the root problem, I’ve long sensed, isn’t the amateurs, it’s the professionals — those of us who write about business for a living.

“It’s an open secret that many business journalists didn’t set out in that direction. I know I didn’t. Like me, many of my peers stumbled into the field by opportunity or accident and learned the ins and outs of the corporate world on the fly. (When I joined The Wall Street Journal, they had to explain to me the difference between revenue and profit.) For some writers, business journalism remains a ghetto they wouldn’t mind fleeing.

“Yes, there are many contented business writers. But the number of e-mails I have received from those seeking advice on how to escape to broader horizons indicate that many are far from satisfied with their lot.

“And therein lies the theory that dares not speak its name: Could it be that business journalism has not attracted the best and the brightest? There are many good writers out there, to be sure, but as a whole I’ve never felt that the business journalists compare favorably to those who follow politicians, serial killers, even football players.”

Read more here.

Business journalism, investors and Twitter

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TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

A story in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal reports that Pacific Investment Management Co. invested in Lehman Brothers bonds before the Wall Street firm filed for bankruptcy court protection and went out of business.

However, those who follow PIMCO’s Twitter feed knew that the story was coming back on May 27, when PIMCO posted a comment from Bill Gross, who is a PIMCO co-founder.

The habit of sources tweeting information before a business news organization can get the details into print — or even online — is raising new questions for reporters and editors. How fast should a business reporter rush to get potentially market-moving information into print so that he or she is not scooped by their sources? And should business journalists use information posted on Twitter by well-known investors?

There are no easy answers. However, at least one news organization, Bloomberg News, has issued a warning to its bond reporters about such tactics, noting that “Pimco and others may do the same to us some time,” according to an e-mail sent to reporters and editors on the bond team.

The practice of trying to beat a business news story to the punch is now new, unfortunately. Some CEOs have been known to post transcripts of interviews they have done with the media before a story is published. And a handful of CEOs also have their own blogs where they write about their interviews.

Still, tracking Twitter feeds for major business news sources could become popular for reporters and editors looking to find out what the competition is working on.

Getting away from formulaic housing stories

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Steve Myers, the managing editor of Poynter.org, writes Wednesday about how business reporters can avoid writing boring and formulaic stories about the housing market.

Myers writes, “The routine approach is to call an economist or real estate agent and ask what the latest figures mean. That’s how we end up with conventional wisdom like ‘It’s time to buy‘ and oversimplifications like ‘Buyers are getting off the fence.’

“Consider letting others handle the commodity news while you aim for a more complete, data-driven and less anecdotal picture. Perhaps median home prices appear to be rising because expensive homes are selling, contrary to the overall market.. Maybe prices are dropping because so many of the sales are foreclosures and short sales.

“Here’s one way to add meaning: A recent New York Times story reported that one price index may have exaggerated price declines because it includes short sales and foreclosures — homes that probably are in bad shape. On the other hand, a price index based on refinancings most likely was too rosy because the only homes being refinanced are the ones that aren’t underwater — homes that held their value better than the rest of the market.

“If identifying the bottom of the market is important – for homeowners or as a general market indicator – perhaps a news app is a better approach. Show all the indicators and let people sort through them. Annotate it with experts’ opinions about why they believe one indicator or another is more insightful. (The Times did a story along these lines a few years ago, but I wish it had an interactive component.)”

Read more here.

Choosing stories that viewers care about

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Markos Papadatos of Greek USA Reporter interviewed the anchor for the nationally syndicated program “MarketWatch Weekend,” which airs exclusively on CBS stations, Alexis Christoforous, about her career and covering business stories.

Papadatos writes, “‘I was always very curious as a child. I asked a lot of questions and I started talking at a young age. Both of those things lend themselves to this industry, since you need to be inquisitive to be a journalist, and certainly if you are a broadcaster, language and speech is a big part of it. I was always interested in theater and the performing arts, and working in front of the camera was something I always wanted to do. Broadcast journalism blended all of those things. It was the ideal career for me!’ reveals Ms. Christoforous on her inspiration to pursue a career in journalism.

“‘From a very young age, I was bitten by the journalism bug,’ she adds.

“The hardest aspect of Ms. Christoforous’ job as a business journalist is ‘choosing stories that viewers care about and relate to, because sometimes in the world of business, there are stories that are very complicated and some people may not be interested in them. Story selection, and the way I write and present the stories can be very challenging, especially because of my specialty, which is Business and Finance News,’ she reveals.”

Read more here.

No "vampire squid" phrases in Bloomberg Markets

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Kat Stoeffel of the New York Observer writes about Bloomberg Markets magazine, interviewing its editor Ron Henkoff and how the magazine differentiates itself from other business glossies.

Stoeffel writes, “As far as advertisers are concerned, this means Markets readers largely work in finance and as such are astronomically rich, influential and desirable, but potentially less engaged than the reader who sought out the subscription. It also means Mr. Henkoff must consider certain Bloomberg terminal customers—like banks and financial firms—as both his readers and the subjects of his investigations.

“‘They’re big, they’re hugely influential, they’ve led us through this global financial crisis, and they need to be held to accountable,’ he said. ‘It’s the deal Matt Winkler struck with [Mayor] Bloomberg: ‘I have to be able to write what’s true, accurate and fair about your biggest customers’.’

“Goldman Sachs certainly counts among them. The company’s flagging performance was given a critical treatment in March’s issue, and Markets didn’t pull any punches. That said, the magazine won’t use unnamed sources, and you won‘t find coinages like Matt Taibbi’s now ubiquitous ‘vampire squid’ line anywhere within it.

“‘It’s a good phrase, but it’s not our style,’ he said.”

Read more here.

No “vampire squid” phrases in Bloomberg Markets

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Kat Stoeffel of the New York Observer writes about Bloomberg Markets magazine, interviewing its editor Ron Henkoff and how the magazine differentiates itself from other business glossies.

Stoeffel writes, “As far as advertisers are concerned, this means Markets readers largely work in finance and as such are astronomically rich, influential and desirable, but potentially less engaged than the reader who sought out the subscription. It also means Mr. Henkoff must consider certain Bloomberg terminal customers—like banks and financial firms—as both his readers and the subjects of his investigations.

“‘They’re big, they’re hugely influential, they’ve led us through this global financial crisis, and they need to be held to accountable,’ he said. ‘It’s the deal Matt Winkler struck with [Mayor] Bloomberg: ‘I have to be able to write what’s true, accurate and fair about your biggest customers’.’

“Goldman Sachs certainly counts among them. The company’s flagging performance was given a critical treatment in March’s issue, and Markets didn’t pull any punches. That said, the magazine won’t use unnamed sources, and you won‘t find coinages like Matt Taibbi’s now ubiquitous ‘vampire squid’ line anywhere within it.

“‘It’s a good phrase, but it’s not our style,’ he said.”

Read more here.