Tag Archives: Writing tips
by Chris Roush
Aziz Ali of PSFK.com interviews Caleb Melby, the Forbes employee who took on the responsibility of writing “The Zen of Steve Jobs,” a graphic novel that the business magazine just published.
Here is an excerpt:
People understand that Forbes has a history of being very minutia and facts oriented. Having that as a foundation to build on and tell stories, they become all the more richer.
But Journalism as an industry is in a state of crisis. It has been for a good 3-4 years, and we have new leadership here in Forbes under Lewis D’vorkin who’s been spearheading our New NewsRoom Initiative and he actually does a blog post on that at the beginning of every week about what we’re doing to stay true to being innovative and progressive in how we convey business news. We’re basically making sure that we’re using all the tools at our disposal to deliver quality news. We’ve taken on a contributor model, so we’re able to bring in other experts into our content.
It’s also a nerve-wrecking time for Journalism, but it’s exciting that you can pitch a project like this because you’re looking for all possible answers because ears are eager to listen. And so, despite being a graphic novel, it’s very much grounded in and in-tune with the Forbes brand. It’s telling the story of a great business leader, telling it in a way that is engaging.
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
David Evans is an investigative business journalist who writes for Bloomberg Markets.
A graduate of the University of Southern California Law Center, he spent five years prosecuting fraud for the U.S. government as a trial attorney for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission before joining Bloomberg in 1992. He joined the magazine’s staff in 2002.
In 2002, his investigation of stock manipulation by arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, won enterprise reporting awards from the Society of American Business Writers and Editors and the Los Angeles Press Club, and preceded a federal criminal investigation.
In 2004, he won a UCLA Gerald Loeb award for his reporting about how energy trader Dan Gordon embezzled $43 million from Merrill Lynch & Co.
In 2006, he won the George Polk Award, his third SABEW award, and the Investigative Reporters and Editors Magazine Medal and a Sidney Hillman Award for a series of stories about how poor people are exploited in experiments to test new drugs, as the FDA relies on private ethics boards financed by Big Pharma to provide oversight. The stories led to the shutdown of the largest clinical trial site in North America, a converted Holiday Inn in Miami.
In 2010, he won his fifth SABEW award for documenting patterns of criminal behavior by the world’s largest drug companies.
In 2011, Columbia University honored with the John Chancellor Award for lifetime achievement. (The second photo below is David posing with the 2011 Chancellor Award. Photo credit is Diane Bondareff.)
In 2011, he also won the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his exposé of how life insurance companies have turned death into a $28 billion profit center, retaining money belonging to survivors of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as civilians. The investigation brought him his sixth SABEW award, second Investigative Reporters and Editors award, second UCLA Gerald Loeb award.
Evans talked last week by e-mail to Talking Biz News about his career. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you settle on journalism as a career?
I became frustrated after working as a trial attorney at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission for five years. That’s the agency that’s supposed to catch frauds before they’ve made off with millions of dollars of customer money. The agency was run by a laissez faire economist, and I had a difficult time persuading my superiors to allow me to file cases to protect the investors from dishonest salesmen in finance.
I took some vacation days in 1992 to attend the Investigative Reporters and Editors annual conference in Portland, Ore. I saw a demo of a portable Bloomberg terminal — something few outside Wall Street had ever seen back then. I was blown away by its ability to bring news from around the world to its tiny screen.
Within weeks, I was trying out for a job at Bloomberg headquarters in New York. I abandoned a stable career as a government lawyer to join a start-up news organization.
I lost my subpoena power, but gained a public platform to warn investors about financial scams before those slow- moving regulators could even send out their subpoenas and crank up their investigations.
What got you interested in writing about business and economics?
When I started out in journalism, I don’t think most people spent much time reading business news. As a kid, I enjoyed browsing the Wall Street Journal and New York Times business sections. I found stories and advertisements that intrigued me. Eventually, I realized that the influence of money was everywhere.
Before SEC filings were available online, I’d go down to the SEC’s regional office in Los Angeles and browse through their filings by public companies. They were reproduced on microfiche cards, and there was a special reader to view them.
When did you start writing more investigative pieces, and why?
When I joined Bloomberg, the news organization had just been set up, and we were a skeleton crew. Based in Los Angeles, I was covering general news up and down the West Coast, from Boeing labor disputes in Seattle to biotech breakthroughs in San Diego.
In what little spare time I had, I developed a specialty in exposing small cap stock frauds. Without the bureaucracy of a federal agency, I could discover a fraud, conduct and investigate, and quickly publish a report that warned investors.
As Bloomberg built up its reporting staff on the West Coast, I was able to focus full-time on stock scams, including a bogus goldmine, a phony AIDS cure and a Caribbean-based Ponzi scheme.
My investigations got the attention of law enforcement, including the SEC and the Department of Justice. Both civil and criminal cases were filed based on the facts I unearthed.
How do you find your story ideas?
I still read lots of SEC filings, browse through court decisions and talk to readers and Bloomberg subscribers. I also spend lots of time reading news stories and press releases. S Sometimes, I just start looking at an industry with a history of problems, to see what the latest abuses are. That’s what I did with the life insurance industry in 2010 when I discovered their little-known use of retained asset accounts, which turned death into a profits center.
Does the fact that you have a reputation of writing investigative pieces hurt you or help you when contacting companies for responses?
I think it helps my stories. When a company sees that I have the support of Bloomberg Markets to write hard-hitting stories, year after year, I think they’re less likely to think they can simply ignore us. We’re not going to go away. And we’re not going to be pressured into softening a tough story.
And the more a company is willing to answer our questions, even if they disagree with our findings, the more balanced and accurate our story becomes. Bending over backwards to be fair and include the company’s best answers to the questions we raise helps all the way around– the reader gets a more complete picture, the company gets its side across and as a result, the story more powerful. It’s much harder for a company to credibly complain that your story was one-sided when everyone has already read the company’s responses in your story.
My stories often take six months to a year of reporting. I’ll spend weeks reading about a new topic, including what other journalists have written, what opinions judges have written and what professors have published.
I think it’s critical to figure out who the most knowledgeable people are in a field and see what they’ve written, but I don’t talk to them for long until I feel I know enough about the subject, and can speak their language. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
In 2005, I spent more than a month studying the clinical trial industry before I began doing interviews. The story wasn’t finished until we had gathered many examples of how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s system to protect human subjects was outdated and broken.
And as I said, no story is complete until you’ve given everyone a chance to comment on your findings.
How has your work an attorney for the CFTC helped you as a journalist?
If you’ve never been a bureaucrat, you really can’t imagine the frustrations those folks endure. After five years at that agency, I developed tremendous empathy for folks who work for government agencies. It’s very important to develop good relationships with public servants as you dig for information, and I think my time at the CFTC makes that easier for me.
And when you’ve been a bureaucrat, you realize that there are spectacular tidbits of information that never see the light of day because they get buried in the system. I try to keep that in mind as I compose my open records act and FOIA requests.
What story have you done recently that you’ve been the most proud of?
In 2010, we published an investigation about a virtually unknown sector of the life insurance industry, explaining how insurers had turned death into a profit center. They were holding on to and profiting from money that belonged to the survivors of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as federal employees and ordinary Americans. State insurance regulators didn’t understand the money wasn’t in bank accounts protected by the FDIC. Survivors weren’t sent the checks they were expecting. Their money, in so-called “retained asset accounts” was actually sitting in the insurer’s general corporate accounts, earning as much as eight times the interest paid to the survivors.
After we published, the Veteran’s Administration halted its practice of making retained asset accounts their default payment method. States, including California, moved to provide better disclosure about these accounts to survivors. And the New York Attorney General began a major fraud investigation.
Is the objective of any investigative business story to get some sort of reaction — either to get a company to changes its ways or to get a government agency to enact new regulations?
Our goal is to inform the public about important facts that are being concealed or going unnoticed. It’s then up to society or the government to take action.
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Eric Roston is a journalist who oversees Bloomberg News new initiative in covering sustainability-related issues.
Roston peviously wrote The Climate Post, a popular weekly climate-and-energy news analysis at ClimatePost.net, and was affiliated with the the Washington, DC office of the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
Previously, Roston wrote for Time in its Washington bureau, where he covered economics, politics and technology. Roston joined the magazine in 2000 as a business reporter in the New York bureau, covering stories such as the collapse of Enron, China’s emergence as a force in global trade, and how advanced computing technologies are reshaping the economy.
An eyewitness to the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Roston was a part of the reporting team that won a National Magazine Award for best single-issue coverage.
In September 2002, Roston became a part of Time’s Washington bureau, covering politics, energy, science, and health issues. He has penned a monthly column on technology and society for Time Inside Business. He was Time’s first blogger, writing a daily commentary on “the technology that will carry us through tomorrow — and the stuff that keeps us stuck in yesterday.”
Roston has been a guest on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” CleanSkies.tv, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBC, National Public Radio and various radio stations nationwide and abroad. Roston, who is fluent in Russian, holds an M.A. in Russian history, and a B.A. in modern European history, both from Columbia University.
Roston talked with Talking Biz News by e-mail last week about Bloomberg’s sustainability coverage. What follows is an edited transcript.
Why does Bloomberg want to get into the business of covering sustainability issues?
Bloomberg covers global business. The diverse trends and practices that travel under the rubric “sustainability” are now built into governance and operations of global businesses. As Roberta Bowman of Duke Energy says, “If you don’t have a sustainability plan, you don’t have a business plan.” Daniel Yergin says at the end of his new book, The Quest, “Sustainability has become a fundamental value of society.” Some would quibble with him, saying it’s fundamental strategy, not a value.
How does this differ from Bloomberg’s traditional coverage?
Bloomberg is fairly unique as you know — with more than 2,300 news professionals globally, producing over 5,000 stories per day. This past May, we launched a new design and a more editorially driven Bloomberg.com (rather than just pulling stories from the Professional service, aka the Terminal).
We focused on embracing the flexibility of the web. That means more photography, videos, blogs, and stories geared to the busy business executives who rely on Bloomberg every day to stay ahead. The first section to launch under this mantra was Bloomberg View, then Personal Finance, and now Sustainability.
Does the sustainability section have its own staff, or will all Bloomberg reporters add to its content?
It is a combination of both. We work closely with the energy and commodities, government, and companies reporters at Bloomberg. We also have a dedicated staff specifically for this section on the web.
Why should business news desks pay attention to sustainability issues?
At the end of 2011, sustainability is a new idea to many people, so it deserves special attention as it goes through a period of definition and experimentation. Large institutional investors recognize that sustainability is a way for businesses to gain a competitive advantage. They are demanding to see evidence of long-term strategy — which includes disclosure of non-financial data.
As competition intensifies for strategic resources, it’s becoming even more important for companies to understand the impact on their bottom line as well as their customers and communities — because they may lead to improvements, efficiencies, and new products.
What do you plan to do differently than others who cover similar topics?
We really have an opportunity here to illustrate, deal-by-deal, step-by-step, day-by-day, how the global economy is reconfiguring itself and what it might mean in the long term.
The overall theme of the site is that of intensifying global competition, among companies and nations, for strategic resources. In this arena, there’s a lot of talk about the future. We want to show how the world changed between yesterday and today, and what it might signify for the long-term.
When leading companies are looking out farther into the future for various reasons, we’ll be there to ask them questions about why, and what they’ve learned. We’ll turn over the stones of the global economy to show readers every day who’s competing, collaborating, and what are they after. Easier said than done, but it’s a story that needs to be told, and daily.
Who else in journalism does a smart job in covering sustainability issues?
This is a very rich area, and there is a lot of work to envy and emulate […long thoughtful pause]. It’s a little overwhelming, actually. Some of the best coverage doesn’t necessarily announce itself as belonging to this-or-that category. They are just stories that are gushing with excitement and potential about new ways to drive business.
Every day I read the major media natch. For example, Harvard Business Review is a thought leader, and we’re partnering with their blog network. I also see a lot of great stuff being passed around Twitter. Bryan Walsh of Time, Kate Galbraith of the Texas Tribune, Andy Revkin of the New York Times, David Biello at Scientific American, Michael Levi at the Council on Foreign Relations, Heidi Cullen at Climate Central, Dennis Dimick at National Geographic, David Roberts at Grist, are just a few that come to mind.
In America we tend to interpret sustainability as heavier on energy and climate change than elsewhere, where human capital and corporate governance share the spotlight. It would be great if a year from now everyone working in the space started using words to mean the same things, including “sustainability” itself.
Why should the typical Bloomberg reader care about sustainability stories?
There’s something epic built into the sustainability enterprise. What we’re talking about here is observed and predicted change of great scale and consequence, across virtually every element of the modern enterprise. The rise of China. The Internet revolution. Climate change. These are grand narratives that define how we live now.
What are some of the issues that people covering sustainability face in presenting an accurate story?
Great question. The answer is that sustainability is not yet old enough for there to be enough data for companies to understand in the aggregate what works and what doesn’t. Sustainability metrics are still being developed. Companies and others are trying to account for things they’ve never counted before. The most sustainable companies have independent audits of their work done. Of course, the last couple of years have demonstrated there are still kinks to iron out of financial reporting.
Greenwashing is real and something to be conscious of at every turn. But some of the change we’re seeing is also real. That’s what’s truly interesting, and what matters most.
What tricks can companies play in trying to present themselves in a better light sustainability-wise than what’s reality that reporters should look out for?
BP certainly schooled everyone on how safety concerns can slow-boil behind a public façade of progressiveness. Jack LaLanne apparently used to say, when asked how he lived so long, “If it’s manmade don’t eat it, and if it tastes good spit it out.” The same might be said about sustainability reports. If something sounds too simple and easy, it probably is.
How can you cover sustainability issues so that customers of these companies will also care about the topic?
Customers care about having reliable, productive business relationships. Sustainability introduces new questions about risk into understanding these relationships. What’s the political situation like in the country where your next gold mine is in? How does a company that doesn’t acknowledge the evidence of manmade global warming expect to attract and retain smart young talent? Do you understand the watershed and politics you’re building that bottling plant in?
There is a world of questions we haven’t been asking. Sustainability is the methodical framework for identifying and answering them
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Maria Halkias has covered retail since 1993 in the business section at The Dallas Morning News.
She joined The News in 1983 and prior beats were the Texas economy and the oil and gas business. She’s a native of Gary, Ind., and a graduate of Valparaiso University.
Her first newspaper job was with her hometown paper, The Gary Post-Tribune. After that she lived in Jackson, Miss., for three years where she was a reporter for The Clarion-Ledger. She and her husband have a son in college.
Halkias talked by e-mail this week with Talking Biz News about covering retail and her tips and strategies for the holiday shopping season for those reporting and writing stories during the next week. What follows is an edited transcript.
You’ve covered retail for a while. How do you make your holiday coverage different each year?
Actually, that isn’t the problem you would think it might be because a year makes a big difference. Many topics are worth visiting annually, and the story is often markedly different. Seasonal hiring, for example, changes depending on what’s happening in the economy. In the deepest part of the recession, those seasonal jobs that would have helped households hit with layoffs weren’t even there. The growth in 2008 hiring was the lowest since 1989. That was a story.
There’s a different consumer to cover every Christmas. The state of the consumer changes along with the unemployment rate, the savings rate, consumer debt levels, etc. Shoppers also adopt new habits from year to year.
At the same time retailers are facing different issues every year whether it’s mobile apps making the business totally transparent in 2011 or Wal-Mart deciding to start slashing prices in October in 2009 and 2010.
There are always retailers who are doing especially poorly and need a good Christmas. They’re worth watching more closely. On the local level, it’s more obvious during the holiday season which malls and shopping centers are losing market share and which ones are getting stronger.
Since last Christmas, new stores come into the market and others leave and that can change the local shopping dynamics. Where did all the Borders customers go this year? Where did the Circuit City shoppers go a couple years ago?
I usually don’t get to all the stories I want to do every Christmas. I need to stick with the ones that have a local relevance. We can run wire on some broader topics. I like to say that anything can be turned into a Christmas story. I did one this year with the two new division presidents at Dallas-based Neiman Marcus. The only reference to Christmas was that luxury retail has a tailwind heading into the season this year, but even as it’s expected to be a bright spot of the holiday, Neiman Marcus still has challenges. The two new presidents addressed them in a Q&A format.
What was your plan for Black Friday this year?
Black Friday, a term retail reporters have reluctantly adopted along with early bird specials and door busters, had a whole new story line this year with the biggest chains moving in on Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t just the outlet malls opening early.
Macy’s, Kohl’s, Target, Best Buy all opened at midnight instead of their 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. openings the prior year. And Wal-Mart moved its door busters to 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Toys R Us opened an hour earlier at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving. National teen chains, Aeropostale, American Eagle, Old Navy and Gap, were open in the major malls at midnight since Macy’s was.
Those midnight openings brought out more young adults, men and young children than in prior years. I was amazed how many babies asleep in strollers and eight year olds were running around Toys R Us. Children didn’t used to be part of Black Friday. Another difference from prior years, employees publicly complained and one Target clerk started a petition. Best Buy’s CEO apologized for following the competition to a midnight opening. These were all new dimensions to Black Friday.
Basically, to cover Black Friday in the past few years I think reporters have to pull an all-nighter. It’s been that way since about 2006. I hit all the big stores well before they open and try to talk to the first people in the line until I get an anecdote I want to use to illustrate that angle and so on. I’m back for as many store openings as the schedule permits to see how the crowds act and whether they’re cherry-picking the doorbusters or buying broadly. I ask people where they’ve been already and where they are going. Why they are out and how much do they expect to save? Big changes in household incomes in the past year will generate definitive answers: “I know for sure I’m spending less and I know I’m spending more.” Then you find out what they plan to buy and what they’ve dropped from their list.
I talk to as many shoppers as I can, at least 30. I observe at least that many more for short blocks of time. Since about 2006, it’s become an all-nighter assignment. I take a couple of one-hour naps and drink coffee. I make up a route in advance with some of the same stores and shopping centers and new ones.
I set up photo assignments and interviews several days in advance. I schedule the interviews beginning at 8 a.m. on Friday. By 2 p.m. I’m at a computer and talk to a couple more people by phone. Those interviews are with analysts, retailers (corporate executives and store managers) and mall managers. I use some of the same analysts each year on Black Friday because they’ve been doing this a long time and understand Black Friday dynamics well. I do a short story for the web early on Friday. The full report is in the paper on Saturday.
I’ve talked with other retail reporters about approaching Black Friday differently. But that broad story that describes the period and quotes lots of shoppers, is the story that editors want to run on the front page and readers want to read. Since Black Friday has become such a sideshow, I’ve been getting more reader reaction from those stores in the last couple of years. People are interested.
Some reporters have tried to follow one couple, sit in one spot of a mall and chronicle it, get behind the scene of a store, but those stories aren’t going to capture what happened. They can be excellent sidebars or section front companion stores. In general, I’m opposed to first person, filling-the-shoes-of-a-clerk-for-a-day stories. They are forced and too staged.
What is your strategy between Black Friday and Christmas Eve?
Real results start to trickle out. Some are surveys, some measure customer traffic. The first Thursday in December, stores report November sales. Fewer of them are doing it, but there are about 30 companies that still report monthly including Target, Macy’s, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s.
There’s a lull for brick-and-mortar after Thanksgiving weekend until mid-December. The last 10 days before Christmas are some of the biggest shopping days.
Online has a slightly different rhythm, its big day is Cyber Monday and then it keeps building momentum during the brick-and-mortar lull. I covered website performance after Cyber Monday. Even though the industry knew this was going to be a huge online Christmas some sites didn’t spend the money they needed to and had some failures.
This is the time to do the holiday stories that are relevant to your market. I think it’s a useful story if you are a one- or two-mall market to do an update on those properties. Lots of people only go shopping in a big way this time of year and telling them what’s new at the mall is helpful.
What are the trends that you’ve seen so far this holiday season that you’re covering?
So much is still recovering from the recession and finally making bigger strides this year and I’ve been covering some of those.
Gift cards sales are stronger. The category of holiday decorations is showing strength this year. Home Depot and Lowe’s both planned for their holiday decor sales to be up significantly, and Home Depot especially is making a bigger push in the business. I looked at that because those chains are inserting themselves into the season and trying to capture share from Michaels Stores, which is based here.
Even online had slowed during the recession, but this year it’s expected to make its biggest post recession leap in market share, taking business away from brick-and-mortar. Amazon.com’s Price Check offer on Dec. 10 was fascinating. It kind of solidified the idea that stores are Amazon’s showrooms. I do a ShopTalk column in November and December where I try to tell people what retailers are doing and find some off beat stories about products I think would help others with their gift lists.
What’s your philosophy about getting shoppers in your stories?
Not all stories need shoppers, but regular people and their circumstances can really drive home a trend. It’s really important on Black Friday. There are some goofy people out that night, but most are smart, careful shoppers who know what they’re out to buy, know that the price is right and how much they are saving. Especially out in the suburbs where there are lots of middle-income families, they’re really trying to stretch their budgets. And they are very talkative that night. They understand Christmas is a business story and they are part of it.
Do you try to get to the malls or shopping areas every day?
In November and December, I’m out there every weekend. During the week it’s a little harder but I try to arrange lunch meetings at a mall and if I’m interviewing an executive I suggest we meet in their store.
I don’t have my own blog and have sporadically contributed to others on dallasnews.com, but I absolutely love Twitter. I write tweets about my beat. I’m trying to build a following that’s interested in retail.
My description says: “I’m a reporter covering retail for The Dallas Morning News. Some of my Tweets are totally Texas, but hopefully still relevant to you retail junkies.”
I’m following retail analysts and consultants, other retail beat reporters, several stores to see how they are communicating with shoppers.
I have broken news on twitter and sometimes I use it to tell people that a new store is opening. A tweet about H&M picking a Plano mall as its second store in the market I think has been my biggest re-tweet. I’ve tweeted quotes from executives during their live earnings calls. It’s hard to build an audience. I hope I’m directing some traffic back to dallasnews.com.
I’m reading more and more articles from links in tweets. It’s so convenient, my guess is more people will be accessing articles that way.
How much credence do you give the holiday sales projections that come out before shopping starts?
We all quote forecasts from National Retail Federation and the International Council of Shopping Centers. The forecasts are relevant because it’s what the industry thinks it’s going to do. So in that regard, it’s worth reporting. It’s a way to quantify the season. I’ve seen the NRF raise its forecast mid-stream, which it just did this week, and lower it, which happened during the recession.
NRF bases its forecast on the government’s retail sales data, minus autos, gasoline stations and restaurants. So their economists forecast the same data that private economists use and it’s been consistent with private forecasts.
The other big numbers the NRF puts out are based on surveys done by BIGresearch. The methodology is sound. Their sample sizes are among the largest and the polling continues throughout the season.
There’s one survey number that’s a pet peeve of mine. From its ongoing surveys, NRF extrapolates how many people visit stores over Black Friday weekend. It’s always a huge number. This year it was 226 million. That is commonly quoted as “226 million people went shopping over the Thanksgiving weekend.” But it’s shopper visits. One person who shopped all four days is counted four times.
Do you typically downplay what the retailers are saying during the season because they have a vested interested?
I have built up relationships over the years, and I have a sense of the BS and the real trends. If they tell you they’re selling coats like crazy and no one else is and their racks are overflowing with coats, then you’ve got to wonder. If you ask what’s doing well and not so well they will answer. Plus the publicly-traded companies can’t hype once they’re in the season. They can’t say wonderful things about how they’re doing and then report sales declines.
What’s the most unique holiday shopping story you’ve ever seen?
Every year I read a couple trend stories that I wished I’d done. I am pretty competitive and have a short little fit inside my head when I see the WSJ had five holiday stories in one day. Or they did a story I planned to do next week. But I try to do the best with the resources I have.
I can’t think of the “most unique holiday shopping story” but I’ll give a favorite that I wrote. And it may inspire other reporters to consider historical pieces that are relevant to the cities they write about.
I did a story that ran on Dec. 25, 2001, from an interview with the incredibly lucid 96-year-old Stanley Marcus. (This great job that I have allows me access to some of the smartest and accomplished people.) The story compared and contrasted the fashion and retail business after two surprise attacks on America: 9-11 and Pearl Harbor. Basically, we were told to go shopping to stimulate the economy in 2001. Sixty years earlier after Pearl Harbor, Marcus was called to Washington D.C. to work at the War Production Board where his mandate was to convince an industry to freeze fashion at 1942 so no one would need anything and all goods and raw materials could be devoted to the war effort. It was a sober Christmas in 2001 and the story was just the right tone for Christmas morning. Syndicated columnist Richard Reeves wrote a column about it, that was fun.
Another story I liked a lot was also about Neiman Marcus. I was able to chronicle the career path of the company’s head of store design in a story about how he was preparing these magical holiday windows for children at the downtown Dallas store.
While I don’t like stepping in the roles of other people, being a fly on the wall is great for gathering string. I was inside a Target store on Black Friday 2010 for a short time and positioned myself in front of two piles of 40 boxed big screen TVs that disappeared into shopping carts within 5 minutes of the store opening. That’s nice color for your Black Friday story.
Here’s one that WSJ retail writer Ann Zimmerman did in 2010. She spent Black Friday inside a Target during the four hours before a 4 a.m. opening.
How is your holiday shopping going so far?
I guess I’ve become one of the frugalistas. My approach to being a careful shopper this year was more about how I spent, not how much.
I purchased my first Christmas gift way back in July. It was the right price and the right gift for one of my nieces. So my frugal nature this year was to start early and buy a few things every month with my American Express card which has to be paid-in-full monthly, right? So, now it’s December, and I’m happy to say it worked. A few gifts will be on the January bill too, but that’s OK.
The problem is those efficiently purchased gifts aren’t in the mail yet.
Happy holidays to all you retail reporters. This is a great beat. Embrace it.
by Chris Roush
Allison Miles, a business reporter for the Victoria Advocate in Texas, writes Friday about what it’s like to cover Black Friday.
“One should always keep one’s press pass visible. Otherwise, people think you’re cutting in line, and they don’t like that.
“Black Friday’s pesky habit of coming the day after Thanksgiving means there’s usually leftover pie, rolls and other snackage around the newsroom for when your groggy self needs fuel to keep on going.
“And, above all, that everyone has a story. Today, for instance, I stumbled across a mother-daughter team who’s shopped since the daughter was a baby. While Mom began the tradition, the kiddo took over the planning a few years back. I also came across someone whose decision to skip ahead in line led them to a one-year suspension from the store they felt so compelled to enter.
“I suppose the point of this rambly blog post – Hey, give me a break. My shift started at 11 p.m. – is that those more stressful parts of a career, the tasks that seem most daunting, are often pretty rewarding.
“Black Friday is one of those assignments. It’s something I do year after year, learning a little each time around, honing in my craft and, hopefully, coming out with a story that people want to read.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Andrew Ross Sorkin, who oversees the Dealbook site for the New York Times and writes a column in the Tuesday business section, talked with Erik Hayden of The Atlantic about what he reads to keep up with business and financial news.
I first hit The New York Times front page, business section and op-eds (I circle back to the other sections later); The Wall Street Journal’s front page, Marketplace section, Money & Investing Section and op-eds, Financial Times columnists and Lex, New York Post, Drudge Report, Huffington Post (I skim the homepage), CNBC’s middle column on the homepage and I check to see what happened on The Daily Show and Colbert Report from the night before. I’m not a real sports guy, but I check ESPN.com just so I know what people are talking about. And, of course, I go to DealBook!
At 5:30am, I flip between World Wide Exchange on CNBC to get a sense of the markets and Way Too Early on MSNBC with my friend Willie Geist, which somehow manages to pack virtually every bit of news you’d ever need to know into less than 30 minutes.
After Squawk Box (from 6am to 9am EST), usually on my way to The New York Times, I do a check of The New York Times‘ Economix, The Wall Street Journal‘s Marketbeat and Deal Journal blogs, FT’s Alphaville, CNBC, Bloomberg, Romenesko, TVNewser, DealBreaker, BreakingViews, The Washington Post‘s WonkBook, The Drudge Report and, yes, The Atlantic. I’m also a big fan of Politico’s Morning Money by Ben White (he’s a friend and a former colleague) and Playbook by my pal Mike Allen. I read those emails religiously.
On Twitter, I have two accounts. One is very public @andrewrsorkin. The other, which I don’t really want to publicize, I use as a news reader to keep up with the news. I keep them separate because I follow a lot of people on the public one and I find if I need quick uncluttered view of what folks in the world of finance and the economy are saying, my private account makes it a lot easier to scan what’s going on. If I could only follow one person on Twitter it would be Heidi Moore. She’s a financial journalist at NPR’s Marketplace. (She did some writing for DealBook a while back.) She’s a tweeting machine and always finds the juiciest morsels.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Sue Stock, the former retail reporter for The (Raleigh) News & Observer, sent out several years ago a memo to the N&O’s business desk staff on how to cover Black Friday. I republished her suggestions, with her approval, in the second edition of “Show me the Money: Writing Economics and Business Stories for Mass Communication” because I think they’re tremendous.
TIPS ON COVERING BLACK FRIDAY:
-Wear comfortable shoes, bring a bottle of water.
-Bring two pens because one always dies. Always.
-Do not wear your jacket in the mall. You’ll just get hot and then have to juggle your coat and your notebook.
-Bring your business cards because people don’t believe you’re with the paper.
-Park by one of the department stores. That’s usually the best place.
-Take the photographer’s cell phone number.
-If you’re traveling with the photographer, you will need to check in at the mall office so they know you’re on site. Otherwise, security will freak out. Security may still freak out so make sure you have your N&O ID with you as a back up.
-Great place to find people who have time to talk is at the kiddie play area or in the food court. This also allows you to sit for a minute and makes you less conspicuous. And people like to talk while the eat. They’ll share more.
ON THE INTERVIEWS:
-I know this is elementary, but when you are doing like 20 man on the street interviews in one day, you can tend to get a little lazy with some of them. Trust me… eight years of experience talking here. Ask everyone everything you can think of. Get super full IDs on everyone… town, age, occupation, who they are shopping for, how their spending compares to last year, etc. Who are they shopping with? Get names, ages and IDs on them too. It really really pays to be super super nosy. More so than normal. Because you never know which detail is going to be the one you need, and almost every year, it’s not the one I expected when I was interviewing them.
-Also don’t forget the physical aspects of the shoppers you interview. Which stores are their bags from? How many do they have? Do they look run down or still excited about shopping? Do they have receipts sticking out of their pockets? What are they wearing? If you don’t write it down, you won’t remember which shopper it was by the time you get back to your desk.
-Keep really good notes. It’s really easy to get the people mixed up when you have so many in your notebook. I actually fold the pages down in my notebook to separate people.
-(most important) Get every phone number you can out of them. If they’re shopping with sister, daughter, mother, get those numbers too. A surprising number of shoppers get home from the mall and either leave their phone in the car with all their bags while they go collapse or turn their cell off because they are mentally exhausted. There is always a question you wish you’d asked.
by Chris Roush
Hedge fund manager, author and blogger James Altucher, who was a columnist for the Financial Times from 2004 to 2009, posts on his blog his eight keys for success in financial journalism.
Here are the first four:
1) Scoops are no longer important. It used to be if you had a scoop you had at least a 24 hour lead on all the other news sources so scoops actually meant your circulation went up and business improved. Now, because of the internet, any scoop has a 1 second lead at most on its competitors. So chasing scoops is a waste of time.
2) Help people understand complex issues. Break it down in easy to understand language. Why did Italy cause such a panic three days ago and then manage to borrow $150 billion no problem the next day. It’s because the headlines are just trying to scare people. Fear has replaced Scoops to drive circulation. Then it becomes a race to the bottom, who can scare people the most.
3) My personal rules in 9 years of writing for financial sites (and creating a site with millions of users, Stockpickr.com, which sold to thestreet in 2007):
– always create value. Can people use your article to have a better understanding of the markets
– provide analysis and proof. Don’t just give a random rant. Give real numbers to back things up.
– be honest. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong. But don’t just cave in to whatever the current panic trends are.
4) Like with anything, build your network. Everyone’s got a story. As your network of contacts grow, the value of it grows exponentially. The network will be your source of interesting stories.
Read the others here.
by Chris Roush
Patrick Pexton, the ombudsman for the Washington Post, writes about how the business section of the paper recently had an error.
Pexton writes, “The Natural Resources Defense Council is one of the country’s largest environmental groups with 1.3 million members, an annual budget of $95 million and a staff of some 300 lawyers, scientists and policy experts who bring pro-environment lawsuits around the country.
“Except that The Post, in a Business section story Sunday about the new kinds of energy-saving light bulbs, called it the National Resources Defense Council — twice, in the story and in the factoid pull-out graphic. Ouch.
“This mistake may seem minor in the grand scheme of things. But in the context of this town, it is almost unforgivable. The words are similar enough, sure — natural and national — but if you’ve spent any time in D.C., you know that the NRDC is about natural resources, not national resources. You practically can’t do any story on energy or the environment in this city without encountering NRDC. Its name should be on a basic copy editing test for anyone working at The Post.
“Greg Schneider, national economy and business editor, said the mistake was in the original story from freelancer Paul Glader, a former Wall Street Journal writer now based in Berlin. Glader is a pro, and he made the error. But the mistake also escaped a Post business desk editor, and then a copy editor.
“Copy editors say the Business desk had a lot of late copy Friday night for the Sunday print edition. There is only so much time that editors can take with each story when they are overwhelmed.
“This one was published online Friday with the errors, appeared in Sunday’s print edition, still containing the errors, and was finally corrected online Monday and in print Tuesday.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Felix Salmon of Reuters argues Tuesday that the research from Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review showing that the Wall Street Journal is producing fewer longer stories doesn’t mean much in today’s journalism world.
Salmon writes, “If you look at the chart of stories over 1,500 words, it peaked at 800 per year in 2006. That’s more than 2.5 such stories per day, every day including Saturdays. And that’s just on the front page! If you look at the paper as a whole, the 1,500-word stories were appearing at a pace of six per day before Murdoch came along and brought some sense to proceedings.
“I read long business and finance stories for a living — that’s my job — and I don’t read six per day, let alone six per day from a single publication. The job of the WSJ is not to overload its readers with many hours’ worth of reading every day. And the current pace, of roughly one long-form front-page story per day, seems much more reasonable to me. (Most readers, of course, won’t even read that — but at least they won’t be completely overwhelmed.)
“At the same time, it’s great that the WSJ is putting lots of important information on its front page in sub-1,500-word form — on top of the ‘What’s News’ briefs. As a news consumer, I don’t even want anything nearly that long — I’m looking to get what I need within a few hundred words at most. US newspaper stories have a lot of water weight, and nearly all of them could stand to lose a few pounds.
“And what of the dramatic fall-off in the really long-form stuff, over 2,500 words? Up until 2007, those managed to make the front page roughly every other day. Then they all but disappeared, and you’ll find maybe one a month at this point.”
Read more here.