Tag Archives: Writing tips
by Chris Roush
John Wihbey of The Journalist’s Resource recently spoke with Greg Ip, the U.S. economics editor of The Economist, about his job.
Here is an excerpt:
JR: What are some pitfalls that young economics reporters should watch out for?
Greg Ip: Let cover a few things that are especially important for journalists.
Number one is the failure to consult the original source. It is amazing how many times you can read something, for example, in a news report or blog post and think you know what they’re saying, and then you just quote it – maybe changing a word or two. And then you realize you’ve completely misinterpreted it. As often as possible, you need to go to the original material. For example, if someone is talking about the unemployment numbers, don’t just quote from somebody’s news article. Go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics itself. You’d be surprised at how often, looking at the raw data itself, the numbers are saying something different than you thought. And you often find something that you didn’t realize before in the numbers.
Also, be careful when you’re quoting a policymaker – for example, when the President addresses the country or gives an interview or makes off-the-cuff remarks at an event. Sometimes only one sentence or two will make it into the news. But when you consult the entire context of what was said it’s often a lot more interesting, and the context makes what was said very valuable. By the way, that’s true in all journalism, not just economic journalism
JR: What about specific errors to be mindful of?
Greg Ip: People often confuse levels and rates of change. For example, people will often say, “Inflation rose last month by 1.7 percent.” What they meant was prices rose 1.7 percent. Inflation is itself a measure of a rise or fall. So inflation is 1.7 percent. That issue to a lot of people isn’t intuitive. You see similar misunderstandings when people talk about the debt and the deficit, or the difference between a stock and a flow. So you can have a debt one year and a surplus at the same time. How is that possible? It’s because you started with a debt of $100, then had an annual surplus of $2, so you end the year with a debt of $98. If you started with a debt of $100 and you ran a deficit of $2, you’d end up with a debt of $102. You need to understand these differences.
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Andi Esposito, who is now the managing editor of the Worcester Telegram, writes about her favorite story while working for the paper.
Esposito writes, “Looking back over 27 years with the Telegram & Gazette, most of it spent as business editor, I covered thousands of stories. But these three remain most memorable.
“Fax machines were the new technology the day Editor Ken Botty called me to his office and announced that he was sending me to Japan for as long as it took to figure out why this powerhouse economy seemed poised to surpass the United States in so many economic measures.
“I set the course for the story series and interviews I would have by deciding to track down Japanese companies with factories here and Worcester-area businesses with operations there. Both sides of the equation had plenty of examples and lots to say. I was gone a month.
“The series, ‘Trading Places,’ which won the John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business and Financial Journalism in 1988, revealed an Asian business sensibility key elements of which would eventually be adopted by American companies, but also uncovered Japanese shortcomings, including a cultural rigidity that couldn’t understand American innovation and entrepreneurism.
“I got to ride the bullet train, drink sake, bathe in outdoor hot springs and get lost repeatedly in Tokyo subways.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Mina Kimes, a writer at Fortune, was interviewed by Aaron Lammer in a podcast about her career in business journalism.
Among Kimes’ comments in the podcast:
“I don’t know if I thought anything about business journalism. In high school, I was reading arts and music journalism.”
“It would be great if somewhere we could convince young people to pay more attention” to business journalism.
“I started reading The Journal on a regular basis…Gradually I acquired a working knowledge of how finance works.”
“A lot of editors encouraged me to be honest about my knowledge going into an interview.”
Listen to the interview here.
In 2009, she received the Nellie Bly Cub Reporter award from the New York Press Club for her story, “The End of Oil.”
Before joining Fortune in August 2008, Kimes was a reporter at Fortune Small Business. She graduated summa cum laude from Yale University, where she studied English.
by Chris Roush
Tim Shufelt of Canadian Business takes dead aim at one of the most overused cliches in business journalism — calling someone “The Warren Buffett” of their country or their field.
Shufelt writes, “But look pretty much anywhere and you’ll find someone described as the Warren Buffett of…well, something. While some of these Oraclones are a good match for the sage’s value investing model, some are merely very rich. Others appear to have no proven investing savvy at all, suggesting that you too could be a Warren Buffett. all you have to do is change your business card.”
His graphic of some of the most egregious examples can be found here.
by Chris Roush
I read a lot of business journalism every day. It’s my job, and I love my job.
So I can say with some degree of expertise that the error in the headline on Jack Shafer‘s column about the brouhaha over the Bureau of Labor Statistics is one that I see a LOT.
Maybe not every day. But every other day? Yes.
A drop in the unemployment rate from 8.1 percent to 7.8 percent is not a drop of 0.3 percent. It is a drop of 0.3 percentage points, which is how Shafer refers to the change in his column. Percent-wise, it is a 3.7 percent drop.
Too many business journalists don’t know the difference between a percentage point change and a percent change.
For shame, Reuters headline writer.
Business journalists need to write strong beginnings to their stories to attract readers, said Forbes Media LLC vice president and investing editor Matthew Schifrin in conference call to review the essentials of business reporting for its contributors.
During the call, Schifrin, a Forbes veteran of 29 years, outlined the way Forbes online contributors should craft a great business story, and cover business in a way that is attractive for the online audience.
“It’s important that within the first four graphs, the reporter makes it clear why the reader should care about your post,” Schifrin said during the conference call from New York.
“Oftentimes, inexperienced journalists wait until the end of the story to give the conclusion. No one has time for that.”
In a world increasingly dominated by Twitter and social media, a reporter needs to focus on the headline and question whether it would make a reader click on the story. A post will often be grouped with five or ten other stories with a similar topic in Google or Yahoo News, and the headline is the one chance that a reporter has to lure potential readers to click on the link, Schifrin said.
Inside the Story
Inside of this link, Forbes works to provide fresh angles and ideas in its stories, and seeks to stand out from the redundancy on the web. Schifrin urged the Forbes contributors, who are often experts on their beats, not only to add value to the topic but also to provide new insights rather than merely “piling on” to the abundance of articles online.
Schifrin discussed the “Peter Lynch” approach to story ideas. Lynch is a money manager who says his strategy is to buy what you know. And as a reporter, writing about the familiar will often make a good post, Schifrin said.
Another way to find story ideas is to read obscure trade publications and niche websites. Another way that Schifrin encouraged is simply networking by picking up the phone or emailing sources and colleagues to pick their brains for potential story ideas.
“Forbes love taking a contrarian approach to topics,” Schifrin said. “If everyone is saying Apple is overvalued, well, maybe there is a side that believes it is actually a cheap stock at this point. But only write this view if it makes sense, not just for the sake of doing so.”
Other ways to form a business story that is attractive to readers, Schifrin said, is to tell the untold story or to add color to the story by focusing on the “head knocker,” such as a lead money manager or the chief executive officer. For contributing bloggers, Schifrin said, it is also encouraged to take a point of view, while being as fair and accurate as possible.
Crucial to Business Stories
A business story needs to display an understanding of how money is flowing within a company. The article should follow the money.
“I used to tell young journalists not to hand me a story unless they understood how the protagonist or antagonist made money and what the implications of this were,” Schifrin said.
Understanding the math of a story provides journalists a leg up from the many reporters who are apprehensive about numbers.
“Nothing detracts from credibility more than misspelled words or fudgy numbers,” Schifrin said. “You shouldn’t estimate revenue around $100 million if it is $126 million. It is more credible to have the exact number and date of when it was from.”
Schifrin reminded the contributors about the importance remaining credible by quoting sources in stories, and linking to company documents and websites that provide information cited in the story.
Schifrin warned of sources who may have a vengeance against a particular person or company, and told reporters to be cognizant of conflicts of interest.
“Good Forbes stories contain quotes or comments from the company, especially if it is a negative story,” Schifrin said. “You should always call to seek comment, and this isn’t done enough.”
For all stories, great reporting trumps great writing, Schifrin said.
“It is much more important that you are a great reporter and get the facts over being a great writer,” Schifrin said. “Especially on the web, readers want accurate information in short form. Don’t get lost in trying to make a post really colorful. Some of the most amazing reporters could dig out all kinds of facts, but couldn’t really write.”
by Liz Hester
In one of my first posts for Talking Biz 2, I wrote about the process of quote approvals and its prevalence in business journalism. The esteemed New York Times columnist David Carr took up the story on Monday. He writes about his own experience:
I’ve had my own encounters. Within the past year, I’ve had a communications executive at a media company ask me to run quotations by him after an interview with the chief executive. I’ve had analysts, who are in the business of giving their opinion, ask me to e-mail the portion of the conversation that I intended to print. And not long ago, a spokesman, someone paid to talk, refused to put his name to a statement. Most of the time I push back, but if it’s something I feel I absolutely need, I start negotiating.
Which bring up the question, how do you make that call and when do you start to negotiate? Do you even have the ability and leverage to push back?
Obviously the answers to these questions depend on the situation, your relationship with the source, the story, your experience and tons of other variables.
But here are a few suggestions:
- If someone is paid to give information to the media, it’s always OK to negotiate. Many reporters, especially those new to beats, must rely on media relations officers for information. And just because a conversation starts out on background, doesn’t mean you can’t ask for that information to be on the record. Just be sure to take the time to clarify and be up-front, and honor your word.
- People in positions of giving their opinions or analysis such as analysts, economists and academics should not need to review quotes. They’re used to dealing with the media and should be sophisticated enough to speak for attribution.
- Weigh the importance of this person to the story. Is having a quote from former Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis on his resignation worth running it past his PR rep before printing it? How much authority and relevance does the source have related to the coverage? Sometimes those with the most power and influence have the most to lose, making their position on approvals less flexible.
- Is the information, detail, or anecdote critical? If so, you’re at the mercy of the source and that leaves you little room to push back.
- Is this person someone you’ll need to work with for years to come? Sometimes you will have to put the long-term relationship in front of the immediate quote.
None of this is black and white. I know from my own time as a business journalist that sometimes your editor is demanding a quote 10 minutes ago from one particular type of person, leaving you at the mercy of the approval process if you want to make the boss happy. It’s a tough balance.
But just having the debate and getting people to think about pushing back is a start. I know a lot of seasoned reporters who rarely allow quote approvals. And they still have colorful quotes from important people in their pieces.
And here’s another point to consider: most reporters who interview people on the street or eye witnesses to an event get the spelling of their name, age, and information, but don’t check the quotes or clean up grammar. Sometimes local news has the most colorful personalities, quotes and interesting details, much of which would likely be edited out by a press officer.
By allowing executives, analysts and others closely related to business screen their words, we’re adding to the myth that these people are better than the average citizen. And it’s one more way they get to play by another set of rules.
by Chris Roush
Maria Korolov, editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business, has a nice primer for those who want to become freelance tech reporters.
Korolov writes, “If you’re just starting out, you either want to pick an area that you know a lot about, or an area that nobody knows anything about.
“So, for example, if you want to write about parenting, you better have some great credentials or a very wide variety of experience because there are a lot of folks writing about parenting out there. In fact, many of your potential competitors are writing for free, just to see their names in print. You have to compete against bored housewives and househusbands — some with excellent writing skills — against academics who just need to get published, and against experts and consultants who use their writing as part of a marketing strategy.
“Enterprise technology is a great field to start out with because it’s always changing. If you pick a totally new technology, you can quickly become as much of an expert in it as anybody else, and you’ll have little competition. Virtual worlds is one such area — it’s pretty new, there are only a handful of experts out there, and if you read Hypergrid Business then you probably already know a lot about it.
“Other emerging areas are cloud computing, mobile, and gamification. Check out the Gartner Hype Cycle to see what other topics are getting attention.
“If you have background in specialized areas of business — logistics, accounting, or law — and stay on top of new trends in those areas, those are also good niches to pick. Very few people want to write for free about new accounting regulations.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Felix Salmon of Reuters writes that a big problem for the financial media is that it tries to turn every story into a problem for the average person.
Salmon writes, “One of the problems with financial journalism is its rather kludgy attempts to appeal to a general audience. If something bad happens, for instance, it has to be presented as being bad for the little guy. This was a huge problem with the Libor scandal, since anybody with a mortgage or other loan tied to Libor ended up saving money as a result of it being marked too low.
“But don’t underestimate the imagination of the financial press. For instance, what if there was a New York county which put on Libor-linked interest rate swaps to hedge its bond issuance? In that case, if Libor was understated, then the hedges would have paid out less money than they should have done — and presto, the Libor scandal is directly responsible for municipal layoffs and cuts in “programs for some of the needy”.
“This is all a bit silly. The Libor understatements actually brought it closer to prevailing interest rates; the fudging basically just served to minimize the degree to which the unsecured credit risk of international banks was embedded in the rate. And in any case, the whole point of a hedge is that it offsets risks elsewhere: it’s intellectually dishonest to talk about losses on the hedge without talking about the lower rates that the municipality was paying on its debt program as a whole.
“We’re seeing the same thing with the fiasco at Knight Capital, where a highly-sophisticated high-frequency stock-trading shop lost an enormous amount of money in a very small amount of time, and small investors lost absolutely nothing. On the grounds that we can’t present this as news without somehow determining that it’s bad for the little guy, it took no time at all for grandees to weigh in explaining why this really was bad for the little guy after all, and/or demonstrates the need for strong new regulation, in order to protect, um, someone, or something. It’s never really spelled out.”
Read more here.
by Chris Roush
Susan Goldberg, an executive editor at Bloomberg News, sent the following message to the staff she oversees about allowing sources to change quotes:
You no doubt saw the recent New York Times story that said that we and several other news organizations, including the Times and the Post, allow sources to have “quote approval” or to alter quotes.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
So let’s clarify, to make sure there is no misunderstanding about what we do and don’t do:
1. It is totally appropriate to negotiate with a news source to get something initially said on background moved on-the-record, so it can be used in a story. In this type of discussion, the source might be willing to say what was stated on background, but with slightly altered language — to clean up a a profanity, for example. This is fine.
2. What isn’t fine is sending quotes to the source or a press office for their revision or rewriting. In such a case, you would no longer know who is actually uttering/writing the words, and it is no longer a negotiation but a surrender of editorial control.
3. The Bloomberg Way forbids direct anonymous quotes. So, information given on background or not-for-attribution can only be paraphrased unless you reach an agreement with the source (see #1 above). If quotes given on background can’t be negotiated onto the record in an acceptable manner, we always have the fallback of the paraphrase.
So, that’s where we stand — and it’s where we always have stood. Please ask one of us if you have questions.
Talking Biz News checked with Boomberg News reporters across the country, and not all of them received Goldberg’s note. Only those who apparently work for a team that reports to Goldberg received the message.