Tag Archives: Writing tips

Firefighter of financial hysteria

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Sarah Simpson of the Toronto Globe and Mail profiles CNN chief financial correspondent Ali Velshi, who grew up in Canada, about how he got into business journalism.

Simpson writes, “He chose business journalism ‘because I thought it would be a nice life – no nights and weekends,’ he jokes. ‘The reality is they needed someone to do it. I had something of an interest in business, and they had people who could teach me what I needed to know.’

“When he moved to CNN, the need to explain the ins and outs of the business world — the strength of his journalism, he believes — was an obvious niche. ‘When I got here and looked at the American health-care system, I thought, ‘I’m a relatively smart guy and I really don’t understand how this works.’ And I looked at the 401K system for retirement … and I found that a little bit complicated.’

“The economic collapse revealed the ignorance many people had about both personal finance and larger economic issues. ‘I think the system has not been built for people to have great economic literacy,’ he says, adding that the media has to fill in the knowledge gap as well as schools. The leading audience response to his broadcasts, he says, is ‘Thanks for the explanations, for the context.’”

Read more here.

Making biz news accessible

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Robert Teitelman, the editor of TheDeal.com, and Reuters blogger Felix Salmon have been having a discussion about the need for business journalists to make their stories more accessible.

Here is an excerpt from the latest from Teitelman:

“Were there many stories we missed, either out of ignorance or because they weren’t part of our mission? Absolutely. We lean toward advisers and investors, not traders (with the exception of risk arb); institutions, not consumers. We are not called ‘The Deal’ for nothing. But I would also argue that many business and finance magazines have lost their way because they no longer know whom they’re writing for or why.

“The larger point here is not that we’re so smart, it’s that we tried to deal with subjects of broad interest — true, not subprime — in some depth. And while we know our core audience read us carefully, our discussion of M&A, say, or GM, rarely seeped into the outside world. Perhaps it was, as he broadly suggests, that we were simply offering up dry, lengthy ‘trade’ material, leaning on PR people or writing too quickly. Well, everyone has an opinion. Our features do run up to 3,000 words, which in a bloggy world — or among traders — may seem long.

“But I don’t agree that we wrote or edited too quickly; many of these features were worked over as heavily as anything in consumer magazines. And his shot about PR dependence is absurd and insulting. True, we do fill our pages with words (as does the notably successful Economist), often on subjects that general readers, particularly circa 2005, had no particular reason to care about.

“Arguing against accessibility is like questioning Mom, the flag and apple pie. Accessibility is ‘good.’ Who can question that? But accessibility also exists in a tension with the demands of sophistication. Although I haven’t seen his traffic reports, I suspect that much of Salmon’s audience overlaps with ours. If he paused to define ‘collateralized debt obligations’ or ‘alpha’ every time he used the term, those readers would lose patience and drift away.”

Read more here. 

Loeb Award winner Rothacker talks about covering banking

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TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

Charlotte Observer banking reporter Rick Rothacker won a Gerald Loeb Award last week in the beat reporting category for his coverage of Wachovia, the Charlotte-based bank that was sold last year to Wells Fargo.

Rotahcker, a Northwestern University graduate, joined the Observer in 1998 and became the banking reporter in 2001. He previously worked at Legi-Slate News and at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Rothacker talked by e-mail to Talking Biz News about how he covers banking in a town dominated by banking stories. What follows is an edited transcript.

1. How did you get into business journalism?

It was pretty much by accident. I was a government reporter in one of the Observer’s bureaus and began covering a dispute over the county hospital system. The stories got good play in business, and when a job opened up on the business desk I applied. It turned out to be a great move. I’ve learned a lot about business, while still being able to cover a variety of topics and writing all types of stories, from breaking news to naratives to watchdog pieces.

2. You’ve been covering banking at the Observer since 2001. How long did it take you to get comfortable covering the beat?

I had to dive in right away because First Union and Wachovia were in the middle of a major merger, but it probably took a couple of years to feel like I was starting to get a grasp on things. Eight years later, though, there’s still a lot more to learn.

3. What did you do to learn the beat once you started?

I read clips in the archives, books about the banks, other publications, a textbook on banking. I also tried to meet as many people as I could on the beat. Probably the biggest thing, though, was just writing a lot of stories. The best way to get a grasp on a complicated topic is to try to write a story on it that makes sense to you and to readers. It also shows the companies you’re writing about and readers that you’re willing to put in the time and effort to cover the beat. This helps generate tips and sources.

4. Banking is so important in Charlotte in terms of jobs and the economy. Do you sometimes feel you’re missing stories?

It’s pretty much impossible to cover everything that’s going on in this beat. It can drive you a little crazy. Basically, you have to do your best to cover the basic stuff, jump on the scoops you can get and pick your spots on the bigger exclusive stories as time allows.

5. How do you develop sources within the banks?

It’s good to do every interview you can, even when it’s on a topic you’re less excited about, because you never know when you may want to talk to that person again. People who used to work at the banks can be helpful sources. When you’re the beat reporter, employees and others also know to contact you. You always can be doing more, though, to develop good sources.

6. When did you begin to realize that Wachovia was going to be a big story?

We had been covering the Golden West merger pretty closely all along, but early in 2008 we began to hear from employees who thought the bank was pressuring them to sell option ARMs. I knew some people had concerns about these types of loans, but didn’t know a lot about them yet. It also struck me that a bank that prided itself on customer service was having this kind of pushback from its own employees. Other reporters at the paper had done a lot of work in the past couple of years about the mortgage industry, so we knew it was an important topic. After the first story about option ARMs, I heard from a lot more employees and we knew we were onto something.

7. How cooperative was the company during the past 18 months?

On some stories, the company didn’t have a lot to say, but on others it provided helpful information. It was helpful to get documents and multiple sources for stories, so it was clear we had accurate information that we were willing to publish. It was also important to do our best to incorporate the company’s point of view in stories to show we were striving for fairness.

8. The paper has two reporters covering banking. How do you split up the duties?

We pretty much let news dictate our duties. When a breaking news story develops, the reporter who knows more about the subject, or hears about it first or is simply free to jump on it handles it. On some of the big stories, Christina and I both dive in. Our original theory had been that Christina would focus more on consumer-oriented news, while I would handle more corporate-type news, but with so much news going on, those lines blurred. DISCLOSURE: The other Charlotte Observer banking reporter is Christina Rexrode, a former student of mine.

9. What was the hardest thing about the Wachovia coverage?

Overall, it was just a heavy load of work that didn’t really let up much for a year. Early on, I heard a little bit from readers and even friends at the bank who felt we were picking on the bank more than others at a time when the whole industry was struggling. There are likely people who still feel that way, but I think events over the year showed that Wachovia had some particularly thorny issues.

10. With Wachovia being sold and no longer based in Charlotte, how does that change how you report the story?

It’s still a big story for Charlotte, so I don’t think we have changed our approach that much. There are maybe some smaller stories that we’re now more willing to run wires on, whereas in the past we would feel like we had to cover these stories ourselves since we were the hometown paper.

11. This is the second year in a row that the Observer has won a Loeb. Is there something in the newsroom that makes that happen?

Top editors encourage watchdog reporting and are willing to throw resources at big stories, when possible. There has also has been a focus over the years on the “master narratives” for the city — banking, growth, NASCAR, textiles, etc. These are the topics that it feels like the paper should own, and it’s probably easier to make the case when you have a good story on one of these big themes. It also takes editors and reporters and others willing to put in the late hours and extra time when a big story boils up.

Verbs and the stock market

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New York Times business editor Larry Ingrassia responded to a reader’s question about how the paper decided how to characterize moves in the stock market.

Ingrassia writes, “But there is no easy definition when it comes to crash, either. When the Dow Jones Industrial Average, uh, went down 22.6 percent on Oct. 19, 1987 — Black Monday — The Times eschewed the word, instead reporting: ‘Stock market prices plunged in a tumultuous wave of selling yesterday, giving Wall Street its worst day in history and raising fears of a recession.’ The Wall Street Journal, less restrained, wrote simply: ‘The stock market crashed yesterday.’

“On the other hand, I do think it is appropriate to refer to a long-term, high-double-digit decline — like the 50 percent or so drop in stocks from their peak in the fall of 2007 to the low point in March of this year — as a crash, though we might qualify it as a creeping or slow-motion crash.

“But in the end, the choice of word is a matter of judgment. I think it’s O.K. to say that the market plunged if the drop is, say, 8 percent or more in a single day, and I certainly would excise it from an article if the market dropped less than that, especially if it was 5 percent or less. Ditto for plummet (which in my mind is akin to a plunge, although maybe not as steep, though I’m sure others would differ).

“One of my colleagues points out, though, that it is appropriate in some cases to say the stock market plunged in rare instances even if it ended positively for the day. How can that be? Well, what if the market was up 6 percent at 3:45 p.m., and ended up only 0.1 percent when trading closed 15 minutes later? A drop-decline-fall (words that I think can pretty much be used interchangeably) of 5.9 percentage points in 15 minutes is so steep that it warrants a strong verb to describe the velocity of the drop.”

Read more here.

Business news changes in 2009 AP Stylebook

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The 2009 edition of the Associated Press Stylebook has a number of changes and new entries related to business journalism.

The range of new business terms includes collateralized debt obligations, Libor, recession-proof, reverse auction, securitization and solvency. 

Changes include allowing CEO on first reference for chief executive.

The company names entry was updated and expanded to include 125 major U.S. companies and 65 non-U.S. companies. The Stylebook Online contains additional information, including each company’s market capitalization, revenue, net income, size and business description, as provided by Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor’s.

That information will be updated online regularly, with certain statistics revised quarterly. Online subscribers will get access to this information at no additional charge. It does not appear in the print edition.

 

Using Twitter in business journalism

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Andrew Dunn, an intern on the business news desk of the Charlotte Observer, writes about using Twitter helps him be a better business reporter.

Dunn writes, “The first thing I did when I was assigned the story about companies using Twitter was to post a question on the site asking for good examples of local businesses with an active presence.

“Within a few minutes, I had 13 names.

“For work, I use Twitter to find sources, set up interviews and encourage more people to read my stories. I keep up with journalists at competing publications and search for story ideas and leads.

“To get news from around the country, I simply follow publications I like. If I miss something important, I can count on the other people I follow to get it in front of me -– like rumors about the provost of UNC Chapel Hill leaving to become chancellor at Kansas (which came true).”

Read more here. Disclosure: Dunn is a student in the business journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The difference between CNBC and ABC

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Steve Krakauer of TVNewser has excerpts of an interview this morning with ABC financial correspondent Bianna Golodryga, who used to work at CNBC.

Krakauer writes, “But covering the bad economic news came much earlier. ‘This crisis really hit home last September, October,’ she said. ‘It really did feel like a financial 9/11. We didn’t know what to expect, what was going to come next.’

“Golodryga described the difference between working at ABC and her previous job, at CNBC. ‘It was really a learning experience for me…Coming here, saying ‘I only have a minute to explain something that’s very complicated,” she said. ‘I was really fortunate to get a chance to break it down to the average person, because at the end of the day a lot of people even on Wall Street clearly didn’t know what was going on. So I think explaining something that’s very difficult to the average American makes things much easier for everybody.’

“Also discussed: what she thinks of all the ‘Money Honey’-like nicknames, the experience of working closely with Maria Bartiromo at CNBC and the dangers of reporting abroad.”

Listen here.

Writing biz news books a special art

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TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

The task of writing a book about a business news event by a journalist takes an ability to collect and gather facts that are often useless in daily business journalism, said three book authors Sunday.

“You learn things that I don’t think I can sell to Larry [Ingrassia, New York Times business editor] as a daily story,” said Diana Henriques, a New York Times business reporter currently working on a book about Bernie Madoff. “I’m learning things about personality conflicts, stages of chronology that were poorly understand in the beginning.”

The discussion about business news book writing occurred at the annual Society of Business Editors and Writers conference, being held in Denver.

Dave Kansas, a former editor of the Money & Investing section of The Wall Street Journal and the author of the recent “The Wall Street Journal Guide to the End of Wall Street as We Know It,” said that daily business journalism and book business journalism accomplish different things for readers.

“The coverage in the heat of the battle is where daily newspaper as the best,” said Kansas, whereas book writing is ”more in the chronicling the lead-up period. What really struck me was how the failure of Long Term Capital in 1998 was such a microcosm of what would happen in 2007 and 2008. But it was so quickly tossed aside.”

William Cohan, author of a recent book about the Bear Steans downfall, noted that books about business news events help put them in perspective.

“I’m barely a reporter at all,” said Cohan. “I don’t work on a daily paper, and I don’t cover a beat.”

Henriques and Cohan both noted that they have felt no pressure from editors to recreate scenes of conversations in their books, as some business news book have done.

The voice of business journalism needs to change

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Adam Davidson, international business and economics correspondent for National Public Radio, talks with Zachary Seward of the Neiman Journalism Lab about how he and colleague Alex Blumberg cover business news differently than the rest of the media world.

Here’s an excerpt:

Davidson: I mean, I’ve been thinking, I wanna do like a story or something. I feel like the voice of business journalism, in particular, needs to change. I mean, probably the voice of all journalism, maybe. ‘Cause it’s very similar — I was in Iraq for a long time, and it was very similar there, where the more certain someone was, the more you knew they were wrong. My wife used to joke — she was in Iraq with me — and she used to joke that you can tell how long someone has been in Iraq, a reporter, by how certain they are about things. The more certain they are, the less time they’ve been in Iraq. And the same with this financial crisis. Nobody saw it coming. Even the people who saw bits and pieces of it, did not see the whole thing. And nobody, I don’t think a single person, had the background to understand all the financial instruments, all the interconnections. The world just doesn’t work that way. These were, you know, very specialized areas of finance that suddenly became linked by this global chain.

So, the voice — I feel like the voice of business journalism is sort of, it’s an authoritative voice of God. “Today, the stock market rose 3.8% on news of unemployment rising and anticipation of the Fed cutting its interest rates.” And, you know, I know before I was a business journalist, as a consumer, I didn’t know much about business, and there’s a guy in a suit, who seems like he knows what he’s talking about, and he’s saying things with a very strong, authoritative voice, and what this crisis taught us is all those people were missing the most fundamental things. Those people — Like, it’s almost absurd! Like you could do like a skit about how silly it was. And there is no voice anymore. There is no authority. I mean, there are better ideas and worse ideas; there are people who are closer to the truth and further away from the truth. But there is — I don’t wanna say it’s all up in the air, everyone believe whatever you want. I think people can believe some dangerous and stupid things. But there is no authority. It’s a process. It’s a constant process. I change my mind hourly on this crisis, and I fundamentally revise my thinking all of the time. And everybody does. I mean, the smart academics I talk to, the smart business people I talk to — everyone is trying to figure this out, to begin with. And I would like to find a way — I think we’re starting to find a way to represent that.

Read more here.

Investigative reporting workshop and MSNBC.com launch bank tracker

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TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

The Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, in conjunction with msnbc.com, has launched a system for business journalists called BankTracker that examines banks to determine which ones are financially secure and which ones are in danger.

The analysis is based on reports every bank is required to file each quarter with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the federal agency that protects deposits and is part of the bank regulatory system.

The American Bankers Association and others in the industry asked msnbc.com and the Investigative Reporting Workshop to refrain from publishing a list of banks and their “troubled asset ratios.”

Wendell Cochran, senior editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop and a journalism professor at American, notes the FDIC data provides the best public glimpse into the operations of a bank. Cochran is a former business journalist.

“In many ways, this is an extension of work I began doing 25 years ago when I was a business writer at the Des Moines Register,” Cochran told Talking Biz News. “Banking data was my initial foray into computer-assisted reporting. Each year we published agate tables — and how many in your audience will remember those? — of every bank in the state.

“When the state was going through a major agricultural recession, leading to bank failures, I created this ‘troubled asset ratio’ as a way of judging bank health. Later, while I was the national business correspondent at Gannett News Service, we did projects about the S&Ls and banks. Again, we listed every bank and S&L in the country and included this ratio.

“So, it was natural to me when the banking crisis broke out last fall to begin planning a similar project, this time taking advantage of the interactive nature of the Web.”

The service discovered, among other findings, that:

  • 163 banks had more troubled assets (nonperforming loans and foreclosed property) on their books at the end of 2008 than they had capital and loan loss reserves, meaning that potentially the bank could not cover the losses on loans and other assets it has been absorbing. A year ago, 23 banks had a troubled asset ratio of greater than 100 percent.
  • There are great variations among banks. Many smaller, community banks that avoided dealing in the riskiest types of mortgage lending continue to weather the storm relatively well. Meanwhile, for banks that got deeply involved in subprime lending or that are in states where the real estate collapse is most pronounced, the stress levels are high.

The system can be found here.