Tag Archives: Writing tips
I was on the Power Reporting web site earlier today looking for something when I ran across Bill Dedmon‘s series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 1988 about how banks would not lend money in this supposed city Too Busy to Hate to consumers who lived in predominantly minority neighborhoods. The series was called the Color of Money, and at one time I had a reprint of it.
The series, which ran the first week in May in 1988, won a Pulitzer Prize the next year. For someone like me, who was just getting started in business journalism at that time, Dedmon’s series was a real eye-opener, and it showed the possibilities of computerized reporting for business topics. It was also, at least in my opinion, the beginning of the paper’s more aggressive tone in business coverage.
Sixteen years later, I found myself reading these stories and reveling once again in the simplicity of the writing and the forcefulness of the facts that caused a huge firestorm of backlash against the banking industry not only in Atlanta but all across the country.
Read the series and see for yourself.
One of the interesting discussions at the American Press Institute business editors’ seminar that I attended earlier this week was how the same story could be written in different ways but still have an angle that was of interest to readers.
The discussion leader was John Edwards III, no relation to the vice presidential candidate and current UNC professor. This one is actually an editor at the Wall Street Journal, and he used as his example how his paper had covered the story of gas prices in the past three months from various angles.
For example, a Sept. 24 front-page story in the Journal focused on how Hurricane Rita was affecting oil and gas supplies and why hurricanes were having a bigger impact on prices than before. “The cheap gas prices of the 1990s promopted oil producers to cut costs, limit investment on explorationa nd production and consolidate through mergers,” noted part of the story.
On Nov. 9, the Journal was looking at the story from a different angle — allegations of price gouging. “Over the years, federal investigators have regularly looked into complaints about gas prices and never brought a charge,” it stated.
On Oct. 25, a story in the Journal noted that the oil companies were reporting record profits, but also downplaying their results to avoid public and regulatory backlash.
On Oct. 4, the gas price story took another turn when the Journal wrote a story on D1 about the decline in sales of SUVs related to the higher gas prices.
And finally, on Sept. 24, the Journal ran a story titled “Take a Hike” about how higher gas prices have resulted in a lifestyle change for some people. “Fast-paced lifestyles — and rising gas prices — have prompted more people to take quick half-days off instead of long, leisurely vacations. Outdoor-equipment makers say some of this is reflected in growing sales of day-trip-related gear.”
What’s the point here? That business stories, particularly major stories, should be looked at from all angles, particularly those that have appeal a broad audience.
One of the business editors I visited with at the American Press Institute on Tuesday runs the biz section at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. I was very impressed with the Monday business section, which is entirely written in alternative story formats from typical inverted pyramind stories that we read every day.
For example, there is a regular feature in the Monday section called “My Biggest Mistake” that is a first-person account of a business man or woman’s biggest mistake that they’ve made in business. The mistake is told to a reporter, but is presented in the business person’s voice. The editor says it’s a time intensive story, but always well-read. You can read some of them here.
Another feature that I liked in the Monday P-D biz section is something called “The PD vs. the Pro.” You can read some of them here. This is where a Plain-Dealer reporter picks stocks against an investment pro from the Cleveland area. I like this feature because it presents investment advice in a unique way. And judging from the performance of the reporter I saw, it also reinforced with readers the fact that they shouldn’t be taking investment advice from business journalists.
There’s another regular feature called “Price Check” in which the paper checks the price of an every-day item at various retailers around the area. See some recent ones here.
Part of the presentation that I gave to a group of 12 business editors on Tuesday argued that for them to attract younger readers and new readers, they needed to think outside of the normal ways in which newspapers have presented business news for the past 25 years and present the information in new and interesting ways. The Plain-Dealer, in my estimation, is doing that with its Monday section.
Business editor Paul O’Donnell is definitely someone who understands what it takes to make business coverage lively and interesting.
My friend Adam Levy, who is the Atlanta bureau chief of Bloomberg News, is not prone to be giving out compliments to his competitors. So when he was on the UNC campus today to interview internship candidates, I was surprised to hear him laud the coverage of the Georgia-Pacific/Koch deal by the Atlanta Constitution.
Adam said he was particularly impressed with the story in Thursday’s paper that detailed the behind-the-scenes negotiations between the two companies that disclosed there was an earlier bidder for G-P. He also liked this morning’s story about the sweetheart deal the G-P CEO is getting as a result of the deal.
Adam attributed the stronger coverage at the AJC, where I worked from 1994 to 1997 covering Coke and Home Depot, to some new editors on the business desk.
These are the kind of nuts and bolts stories that have to be done by any hometown newspaper for a deal involving one of its local companies. But in so many cases, I don’t see these stories done. For example, the Greensboro News & Record, which I complimented earlier in the blog for its coverage of the Jefferson-Pilot/Lincoln National deal, has really failed to follow up the breaking news with these type of follow-up stories.
As a result, the Greensboro readers don’t know how the deal was negotiated or whether the Jefferson-Pilot CEO and other executives are receiving a financial windfall for selling the company. The Greensboro editors may not think this is an important story, but it’s a story that would be widely read.
Here are some more business news blogs that I have found while trolling the Internet:
1. Todd Bishop, who covers Microsoft for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has a blog about, you guessed it, Microsoft and more Microsoft. It can be read here.
2. The Christian Science Monitor has a blog on science and technology. Not everything here is business related. Read it here.
3. Arnold Kling’s blog on tech news was apparently an early entry into the field. Note that it hasn’t been updated since March, when Arnold said he was taking a break for a few months. It can be read here.
5. Young Professionals is a blog compiled by Denise Polverine for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
6. Silicon Valley Watcher is a blog by a former Financial Times writer on the business of, you guessed it, the Silicon Valley. Again, lots of tech stuff here.
7. St. Louis Post-Dispatch technology columnist David Sheets also has a blog at the newspaper called Talking Tech. It’s about, no surprise, tech stuff. Read it here.
If anyone else knows about a business journalism-related blog out there, please pass it along.
Why are there no blogs from business journalists about, say, the financial services industry?
The National Press Foundation is holding a business reporting seminar in Los Angeles on Nov. 21. The deadline to apply is Nov. 18. Admission is free, but you need to reserve a spot. Find out more details here.
The speakers include:
Understanding Economic Indicators â€“ Gary Zimmerman, Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
Understanding Financial Statements â€“ John R. Percival, Ph.D., adjunct professor of finance and specialist in executive education, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
And there will be a tour of the Federal Reserve Bank in Los Angeles.
Jeremy Caplan is a New York-based reporter for Time magazine. He has worked as Associate Editor at Time Magazine for Kids and at The Paris Review, Newsweek, and Yahoo! Internet Life reporting and writing about technology, the arts, food, education and other subjects.
On Jeremy’s Web site, he has a list of the best of online business journalism. The articles are:
1. Salon: Who Will Profit from Rebuilding Iraq?
2. Slate: Making Sense of the Enron Mess – Makes a Dull Topic More Interesting
3. Business 2.0: The 3rd Annual 101 Dumbest Moments in Business History
4. CNBC: Tracking and Explaining Enron’s Troubles, Early On
5. CNet News: Covering the Microsoft Case from Multiple Angles
6. MSNBC: Airport Screening Game – Brings Us In and Deepens Our Understanding
7. The Idaho Statesman: Business News Outside of Urban Centers
In addition, Jeremy’s Web site offers the following links for developing great online business journalism:
Simply put, there is some great stuff on Jeremy’s page. Two thumbs up!!
I moved one office over today from Allan Sloan’s and talked to Jane Bryant Quinn, arguably the most visible and most important personal finance journalist in the field today. Like most women who wanted to be journalists in the 1960s, she struggled to overcome gender discrimination in the newsroom. Like Sylvia Porter before her, she used her initials as her byline because personal finance advice was something that editors felt readers wouldn’t respect if it came from a woman.
Here are some of her other comments about personal finance reporting:
1. Most business and personal finance magazines went overboard with their investing advice in the 1990s: “I used to call it â€œfinancial pornography.â€? I think I was the first person to use that term. I do think that I was helpful in getting the magazines to run updates on their recommendations. It was Smart Money and Money that went back and looked at how they did. It wasnâ€™t done before I started writing about it. I think itâ€™s very important. Accountability is a problem when youâ€™re running a magazine because people want to see 10 stocks to buy now because all you really need is an index fund. Investing is a game of odds, and those are the best odds. 10 stocks to buy now is a waste of my time. But when I was kid doing the Business Week newsletter, I called up mutual fund managers and they would explain to me about this stock or that stock. But you spend a couple of years looking at the results, and you say thereâ€™s something a little off. You canâ€™t play individual stocks.”
2. Personal finance reporting is about to become more important in the media: “It will be more important than ever with the boomers retiring. The boomers who have run my life and everybody elseâ€™s life, weâ€™ve been going through the accumulation phase, and the bulk still are in the accumulation phase. But the first boomers are starting to look at the maintenance phase and the drawing down phase. When youâ€™re 65 or 70 and you have a fixed pot, and you have to figure out how to make the money last, thatâ€™s hard. If you make a mistake like putting your stock in WorldCom, youâ€™re facing a whole different kind of world. Itâ€™s going to be bigger than ever.”
3. She is a slow writer who agonizes over each sentence so that what she writes is clear to her readers: “Thatâ€™s what I work the hardest at. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I donâ€™t just sit down and write it. Iâ€™m a very slow writer, and I squeeze out the words. I will pull back a sentence and ask myself if itâ€™s clear. Thereâ€™s a lot of blood behind the keyboard before you see the finished work. Youâ€™re not doing all of the details that would confuse the readers, but youâ€™re including the salient details. And youâ€™re using enough explanation to make the experts happy. Itâ€™s a very fine line. Youâ€™re talking 900 words for my Newsweek column, so you also have to get the structure right.”
I found this great list of tips of common mistakes in business stories and other advice on editing business stories on a copy editing Web site, so I am forwarding it on here.
There are some great suggestions and advice. I like the one about inflation in particular. It’s one I see all the time.
I had an interesting conversation with the students in my Economics Reporting class today. I had them read “Ignoring the Alarm,” an article in the March 2003 issue of American Journalism Review, before class. And we discussed the issue of whether the media is partly or wholly to blame for the economic downturn in this country in 2001-02 due to its overly boosterish coverage of the economy in the years preceding.
Few thought that the media was to blame, which was heartening, although they did agree with the premise of this article that the media did fall down on its job of being the watchdog.
The longer conversation in class, however, was the discussion about the increasing number of “prediction” stories on economics and business coverage. These are the stories, for example, that poll economists the week before the Federal Open Market Committee meets to write a story attempting to predict whether interest rates will go up, go down, or remain the same. These stories typically appear on the wire services or in major metropolitan papers the weekend before an FOMC meeting.
Another example of this type of story is predicting what will happen to the Gross Domestic Product, or to the unemployment rate. Economists love to give their predictions to journalists, but my experience is that rarely do these stories predict with 100 percent accuracy what has happened in the economy.
And then there’s the stock-picking stories, like Money magazine’s top 10 stock picks for 2005 that imply that these stocks are the ones you have to buy to make money in the market.
My students thought a lot of these stories were sleazy because they put business journalists out on a limb, and I didn’t have a good rejoinder to that argument other than it was the economists making the predictions and the reporters were simply recording them for posterity. I told them that when I was at Bloomberg News, some of the most-read stories were the ones predicting what was going to happen to interest rates or the GDP. The traders loved those stories, and used them to speculate on which way the market would go. In addition, magazines that promote stock picks on their covers are typically strong sellers and make money for the publication.
But I do think that the field of business journalism has entered a dangerous area by taking the “prediction” story to great lengths. And one of these days, a “prediction” story is going to cause great embarrassment.
I am reminded of the poll that Fortune magazine did for the 1940 election that called FDR’s defeat. It took them a while to live that one down.