This is not a comprehensive handbook that includes everything you need to know about business and economic reporting and writing. As a busy journalist, I know how many useful books have gathered dust on my desk, books that I intended to read but never did for lack of time. Rather, this booklet gives you 10 practical tips designed to immediately improve your business and economic stories. The booklet addresses problems — some seemingly trivial, some fundamental — that crop up in the business press throughout the world. I have focused on these problems because they are among the most frequently seen, as well as the most easily remedied.
If you follow even one or two of these tips, your readers will notice the difference in your stories. Although for convenience the booklet usually refers to newspaper business reporters, the tips are just as useful for broadcast journalists and are applicable to areas of reporting besides business.
Business and economic news is of crucial importance in countries with developing economies — as it is in all countries. It affects the lives of everyone, from the investment banker to the person waiting in line to buy bread or rice at the market. Not surprisingly, therefore, the media increasingly are paying more attention to business and economic matters. No longer is business and economic news treated as a specialty subject to be buried in the back of the newspaper or tacked onto the end of a broadcast.
There are two basic problems with business and economic news, however. It often is:
While greater media coverage means the man or woman on the street is increasingly aware of business and economic issues, he or she often is not much better informed on these issues. How many citizens understand what it means when their government reschedules its debt with the International Monetary Fund? How many even know the difference between a company’s sales and its earnings?
In fact, many people, unaware that their daily lives may be directly affected by debt rescheduling or corporate profitability, are often bored by such matters — at least compared to the latest political scandal. That’s partly because these issues are often complicated.
So what is the goal of a business journalist? Clearly, a primary aim is to accurately report the news — a mission crucially important in a subject where a misplaced decimal point can cost people a fortune. But if business news is, by nature, often complicated and boring, there are two equally important goals — to make business news:
How do you make business news understandable? I once had an editor who said there were three rules for a good business journalist to follow. "The first one,” she said, "is to explain. The second one is...to explain. The third one” — well, you can guess what it was.
But before journalists can explain to others, they themselves need to understand. And to understand, they often need to admit that they don’t know. That isn’t easy.
Journalists are a proud bunch. I know because I’m one of them. None of us likes to admit our ignorance, especially when a government official or some other bigshot takes that opportunity to humiliate us. But we are communicators, not all-knowing pundits, and we have an obligation to communicate to our readers. If we don’t understand, they won’t. Never let pride stop you from saying: "I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Can you explain that to me?”
During my seminars over the years, several business journalists have challenged me when I said that business news should be made understandable for the average educated citizen. They argued that their readers, sophisticated business leaders, would laugh at them if they took the time and space to explain business concepts.
My response? Yes, a journalist needs to take readers into account. You don’t want to insult their intelligence. But more explanation usually is better than less. Even sophisticated readers need to have their memories refreshed about economic concepts. The Wall Street Journal became one of America’s best-selling newspapers, without losing any of its prestige, by explaining economic and business news to readers who didn’t happen to be economists or business specialists. The Journal’s goal is to embrace people who want and need to know about the economy and business — not to exclude them, as if business were some private club.
Once you make business and economic news understandable, how do you make it interesting? The short answer is: Focus less on statistics and more on people. Business and economics basically are about people. Changes in the economy affect people’s daily lives. Business is full of human dramas involving success, failure and rivals struggling to outdo one another. Reporters too often forget to write about the human beings affected by or behind the statistics.
The tips in this booklet ultimately aim to further these two goals: to make business and economic news understandable and interesting. Some of the advice is a bit unconventional; I hope it will provoke discussion — or even debate — between you and your colleagues.
To illustrate the tips, I have included examples based on actual stories that have appeared in the business press in countries with developing economies.
I could just as well have used examples — both good and bad — from the business press in Western countries. (In fact, many of my own business stories certainly could be improved by following one or another of these tips!) But I wanted to use examples that would be relevant to the burgeoning business and economic press in countries with developing economies.
Cultural differences alter the role of journalists and the practice of journalism from country to country. An outsider like myself won’t always be aware of those differences, making his suggestions sometimes seem inappropriate or even irrelevant. But I often find that the excuse of "we’d-like-to-do-that-but-we-can’t-do-it-here” is just that — an excuse.
The basic principles of good journalism are, I believe, universal. I hope that most of these tips are applicable wherever our profession is practiced. And I hope they will help you make business news understandable and interesting to your readers. After all, that is a crucial mission in any country, but particularly one with a developing economy.
1. AVOID ECONOMIC JARGON
Read this sentence taken from a radio news report:
The finance minister called on indigenous producers of industrial, consumer and other products to engage in local sourcing of component materials.
The style is all too familiar. But what does it mean? In plain terms, the minister simply urged domestic manufacturers to use domestic raw materials. So why didn’t the journalist say that?
Unfortunately, many journalists all too frequently slip into the mind-numbing jargon of economists, bankers and government bureaucrats instead of using the plain language that people use in normal conversation. This jargon is fine for economists; they understand one another — or at least seem to. For the average reader, though, economic jargon is both confusing and boring.
Such language usually finds its way into print because it is easier to repeat what a bureaucrat, economist, banker or press release says than to translate it into normal language. Also, journalists sometimes like to show off to their readers, and they believe jargon will be seen as a sign of their advanced education and intelligence. Often, though, journalists themselves simply don’t understand what the jargon means and so feel it is safest to print it without any changes.
Although it is difficult to translate economic jargon into normal language, journalists should strive to do so. The goal: Simple language for complicated material. Ideally, use small words rather than big ones, few words rather than many.
There is a danger of oversimplification and distortion when you translate economic jargon into normal language. But usually it can be done by stopping and thinking what the jargon really means. If possible, ask a speaker to summarize what he or she is saying in everyday language, thus making the speaker do the translation.
Bureaucrats often use jargon because to say something simply would be too blunt. Consider this newspaper report:
Unthinking use of economic jargon is a sign the journalist has fallen victim to jargon’s real danger: hearing it so often that it begins to sounds normal!
A reporter must get into the habit of constantly asking: Could this be said more simply and clearly?
The country must make painstaking efforts to readjust its industrial structure to ensure a rational utilization and deployment of economic resources, an economics expert said at a conference in the capital last weekend. He told participants at an international symposium that structural contradictions remain in the nation’s industry.
This paragraph is full of euphemisms. When economists speak of "rational utilization” of "economic resources” they usually are talking about reducing the size of the work force — or, to be more blunt, putting people out of work. If that’s what the speaker means, say so.
And just what does the speaker mean when saying that "structural contradictions” remain in the nation’s industry? If possible, ask.
Also avoid creating an alphabet soup of confusing acronyms when referring to organizations or programs. Even on second reference, it is often clearer to give the organization’s full or partial name — for example, "the fund” when mentioning for the second time the International Monetary Fund — than to make the reader go back and find out what an acronym such as "IMF” stands for.
Journalists often defend their use of jargon by saying that a certain phrase has become so commonplace in a country that "everyone knows what it means.” When a journalist is asked to clearly explain such a phrase, however, it often seems that everyone knows what it means — except the journalist.
This is a sign that the journalist has fallen victim to the real danger of economic jargon, hearing it so often that it begins to sound normal. A reporter must get into the habit of constantly asking: Could this be said more simply and clearly?
2. DEFINE ECONOMIC TERMS
When you can’t get rid of economic jargon, define and explain it. Some economic terms have such a specialized meaning that to avoid them would confuse rather than clarify. But remember that these terms still are mysterious code words for most people; the journalist needs to decode them.
Here’s an excerpt from a front page newspaper article headlined "Jitters as interest rates shoot up:”
Volatile inter-bank interest rates, which have been relatively stable in the past three months, shot up by about three percentage points last week...
Midway through the same story, the reporter writes:
Inter-bank interest rates [are] the rates at which banks lend money to and among themselves; they are usually a fundamental factor taken into consideration by banks in arriving at final interest rates on loans to their customers.
Bravo! Without that helpful definition, the story is virtually meaningless to the many educated readers who don’t know what inter-bank interest rates are. Definitions of this sort are all too rare in business stories.
Some journalists say that definitions are fine for the front page of a general newspaper, but that readers of the business page or business publications already are familiar with economic terms.
Maybe. But The Wall Street Journal, whose readers are a fairly sophisticated group, regularly defines even common economic terms. For example, when the term Gross Domestic Product first appears in a story, it is often followed with the explanation that GDP is the "total value of a nation’s output of goods and services.”
Previously, I said that a journalist should try to use few words rather than many. Defining terms takes extra words. But sometimes clarity is more important than brevity. And a cumbersome definition isn’t always necessary when a brief example will make a term’s meaning clear. For example, a story might refer to a company’s "fringe benefits, such as annual holiday leave and health insurance.”
Reporters or their publications should create a list of definitions written in advance.
These definitions – which Americans call "boilerplate” - then can be easily turned into a story when a term is used. Such a list isn’t created overnight; it grows over time.
But often a full definition is needed. A newspaper in a country with a large foreign debt published a thoughtful article on the pros and cons of "debt conversion” — without ever saying what it is. A simple explanation might have read something like: "Debt-conversion is a plan under which foreign lenders would forgive national debts in exchange for a stake in local companies.”
Such concise, objective definitions look easy, but they are difficult to write. That is why reporters or their publications should create a list of definitions written in advance. These definitions then can be easily inserted into a story when a term is used. Such a list isn’t created overnight; it grows over time.
Some terms to begin with: balance of payments, prime rate, International Monetary Fund, currency devaluation, privatization, initial public offering, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT — and so on.
As a guide, a glossary is included at the end of this booklet. Keep in mind, though, that definitions must be relevant to a particular country’s economy.
In many countries with developing economies people often talk about the government’s "structural adjustment program” — without really knowing what it means. I’ve argued that even a frequently-used term such as this, bandied about by ordinary citizens, should always be defined to remind readers what it is: "A package of government programs designed to revitalize the country’s economy, in part by reducing imports and encouraging domestic production.” The definition may differ somewhat from country to country. But readers will welcome the explanation.
3. USE STATISTICS SPARINGLY
Business stories usually include too many figures. Although important figures give authority and precision to an article, journalists should eliminate those that aren’t crucial to the story.
This may seem strange advice for a business reporter, whose raw materials for a story often are numbers and statistics. But most readers find figures dry and difficult to absorb. Ask anyone who has tried to plow through several pages of statistical tables. Consequently, a story with lots of figures can be — you guessed it — boring and difficult to understand.
Look at this opening to a newspaper story:
Though more than 13 million domestically-made bicycles are now stockpiled in warehouses, the manufacturers are pinning their hopes on the world market for an upturn in business.
From January to September of this year, the nation exported 1.6 million bikes worth $67 million: 72 per cent more with a value 87.8 per cent higher than the same period last year.
In September alone, the country exported 294,000 bikes worth $11 million, according to a statistics report from the General Administration of Customs.
Last year the country produced more than 40 million bicycles, of which 2.53 million were exported. The exported bikes each year account for about 5 per cent of the country’s total production.
Sometimes journalists almost obsessed by figures. In countries where the government frequently challenges the accuracy of the press, perhaps this is necessary.
But usually such information adds little to a story besides showing – a little bit too heavy-handedly – that the journalist did his job,
By loading so many figures into the top of a story, the journalist may discourage readers from continuing.
Because they numb a reader’s mind, statistics should be used selectively. The general reader doesn’t need all the data, and the expert reader usually has them already.
These four paragraphs are packed with information — too much information. A reader flipping through the paper might start this article, then grind to a halt as the brain tries to absorb the data. Bombarded with all those figures, one might simply turn the page.
Here, the journalist needed to pick a few statistics that would best support his assertion that the nation’s bicycle manufacturers are hoping exports will boost sales. If necessary, additional statistical information could be included near the bottom of the story for readers interested in the details.
By loading so many figures into the top of the story, the journalist has discouraged most readers from continuing.
Why do journalists so often burden stories with so many statistics? For one thing, they show the reader (or the journalist’s editor) that the reporter went to all the trouble to get them. Having found the statistics, the reporter wants to empty his notebook and put them all into the story.
But because they numb a reader’s mind, statistics should be used selectively. The general reader doesn’t need all the data, and the expert reader usually has them already.
The following example reports how one country’s agricultural production fell in the previous year, just as the government is trying to reduce food imports. Midway through the article, this paragraph occurs:
Production figures for maize were 694,000 tonnes for 2000, 1.05 million for 2001, 1.01 million for 2002 and 1.3 million for 2003. In 2004, the figure slumped to 1.2 million tonnes, a 10 percent decrease in production over the previous year’s production. The trend was the same for millet. Production figures were 2.7 million tonnes for 2000, 3.3 million for 2001, 3.6 million for 2002, 4.1 million for 2003 and 3.9 million for 2004, a five percent drop in production...”
And so on, through three other crops — sorghum, yams and rice. Although this complete listing of statistics supported the journalist’s point, it bogged down the story. Because a news article isn’t an academic treatise, most readers would be satisfied with a single example to illustrate the point: "For example, production of maize slumped 10% to 1.2 million tonnes in 2004.”
If the reporter and editor think the reader should have all the data, charts and tables can be used to present statistics such as these in an easy-to-understand manner.
Sometimes journalists seem almost obsessed by figures, as when they report the registration plate numbers of vehicles or the serial numbers of bank checks. In countries where the government frequently challenges the accuracy of the press, perhaps this is necessary. But usually such information adds little to a story besides showing — a bit too heavy-handedly — that the journalist did his job.
When figures are used, they sometimes can be made less intimidating by being rounded off or approximated. Clearly, precision is needed in many areas of business reporting; with stock and commodity prices, for example, fluctuations of a fraction of a point can be crucial. But in many situations a reporter might say "about half” rather than "49 percent,” or "nearly tripled” rather than "rose 295 percent.”
In the article above about bicycles, for example, the reporter might have said that value of the exports rose "nearly 90 percent” rather than "87.8” percent.” Economists need to know the exact figures. Readers of newspapers often don’t.
I must emphasize that this advice isn’t an excuse for journalists to become sloppy with figures. Because it is so easy to reverse a figure or jot it down incorrectly, the ones you do use always must be double-checked. This is particularly important in business reporting, where an incorrectly published statistic can have a drastic effect on the financial markets. Although accuracy should be the primary goal of all reporters, it is especially important to a business journalist.
4. COMPARE STATISTICS
When you do use a figure in a story, put it in context by comparing it to something else. A number has little significance on its own; its true meaning comes from its relative value.
When I’m writing a story, every time my fingers reach up to the row of keys with the numbers 0 through 9, I stop and ask myself:
"Compared to what?”
This is a good habit for all reporters to get into. Most statistics can be compared to equivalent statistics from another time, such as last year or the previous financial quarter. They can be compared to equivalent statistics from another place, such as a neighboring state or a competing company.
If the number represents only part of a whole — for example, profits of just one division of a company — its relative value can be shown by giving its percentage of the whole.
Here’s the first paragraph of a front page newspaper story:
The national government spent $905.8 million, just $94.2 million short of the $1 billion mark, to implement the elongated salary scale last April.
All readers get the idea that $905.8 million is a lot of money. But how much is it, relatively speaking?
The elongated salary scale — a jargon term never defined in the article, by the way — represented an across-the-board increase in civil servants’ pay. So the reporter should ask: How does the $905.8 million compare with the amount spent by the national government on civil servants’ salaries in the previous year? How does it compare with the total amount paid by local governments to their civil servants? Perhaps most important, what percentage is $905.8 million of the total national budget?
The article never tells us. By answering those questions — or others — the amount could have been given some significance.
Most statistics can be compared to equivalent statistics from another time, such as last year or the next financial quarter.
They can be compared to equivalent statistics from another place, such as a neighboring state or a competing company.
Every time you use a statistic or figure in a story, get in the habit of asking yourself this question: Compared to what?
A wire service story reported on a pilot wheat-growing project in one region of a developing nation, part of the government’s effort to increase domestic wheat production. But the article raised as many questions as it answered.
An area of 225 hectares was reported as being cultivated. Is that, relatively speaking, a lot of land? How does it compare with the total number of hectares under wheat cultivation in the region? In the country? How does it compare with the total number of hectares under cultivation of all crops?
An official told the reporter that the government would pay farmers a certain sum per bag of wheat. How does that amount compare with last year’s payment? How does it compare with what the government will pay for a bag of maize? For a bag of millet?
Obviously, space limits the numbers of comparisons that can be made in a story. And the comparative statistics aren’t always available. But when they can be obtained — often simply by asking the source — the extra information gives extra meaning.
One newspaper reported that a business lobbying group had urged the government to raise the salary level at which a worker must begin paying income tax, increasing the threshold level to $5,000 per year. This compared with the existing level of $2,000 per year, the article noted, and was more than double the amount proposed by the main trade union organization. These are simple comparisons, but think how much more meaningful they make the article.
Sometimes — not always — a journalist can make big numbers come alive by expressing them in everyday, human terms. The story on the wheat project cited above reported that the agricultural project would yield 20,000 tonnes of wheat. That’s a lot. But how many loaves of bread would that make? How many families would it feed?
5. TURN STATISTICS INTO STORIES
Even comparing statistics usually isn’t enough, however. Journalists need to do more than report the figures. They need to explain their significance and say what they mean. And this isn’t always obvious. Consider the beginning of this article on automobile imports:
The monthly average inflow of second-hand and brand-new vehicles through the country’s ports has reached an all-time high, a special investigation has revealed.
From an average of 148 vehicles a month in 2000, the number has risen to 1,430 vehicles a month this year, putting the total for the first half of this year at 8,581 vehicles. There were 1,442 vehicles imported in January, 1,556 in February, 1,602 in March, 1,579 in April, 1,389 in May, and 1,013 in June.
Last year , 13,253 vehicles were imported, a monthly average of 1,104 vehicles. In 2002, the total imports through domestic ports stood at 7,820 or a monthly average of 652 vehicles.
Note that the story doesn’t merely report the current import figures. The writer goes to the trouble of putting them in context and shows their significance by comparing them with previous years. (The article does, however, risk putting off the reader by cramming too many figures into the first three paragraphs.)
But this useful presentation of statistics still doesn’t make a meaningful article. That’s because the comparison between years isn’t enough to tell the full story behind those statistics. The reporter must stand back, take a look at all the figures and ask himself: What’s really going on here?
A look at the monthly data shows that 2004 vehicle imports, although on a monthly average the highest ever, began to decline in April, and continued to do so through May and June. What these statistics actually show is that the number of imported vehicles has tailed off after a record surge earlier in the year.
But even this conclusion isn’t enough to make these statistics a meaningful story. The reporter needs to ask why there was this surge in vehicle imports followed by a decline. Farther down in this story, the reporter answers that question. Noting the recent decline in imports, the article says that "the market apparently is now beginning to react to the higher duties being imposed on imported automobiles by the federal government.”
Confronted with raw statistics, a reporter has to ask: What do these mean?
The answer to that question is more important to the reader than a flurry of figures.
The answer will make the figures understandable and interesting.
Why is the government clamping down? In part, because the imports are threatening the health of the domestic automobile assembly industry. That means that a further comparison of statistics might be made: How does the rise and then fall in vehicle imports compare with domestic production figures? Has one been affected by the other?
By asking — and answering — these questions the reporter goes beyond merely reporting the figures and instead turns them into a meaningful story. And that meaning, not the figures themselves, should be given to the reader in the first several paragraphs.
Confronted with raw statistics, a reporter has to ask: What do these mean? The answer to that question is more important to the reader than a flurry of figures. The answer will make the figures understandable and interesting.
6. GET THE OTHER SIDES TO A BUSINESS STORY
What could be more basic than the fundamental journalism principle of "getting both sides to the story”? And yet frequently it is forgotten — or ignored — in business reporting.
A reporter will receive a routine company announcement, write up the story — and that’s it. Or the reporter will get a confidential tip about a company’s plans and rush the story straight into print.
But there’s usually more than one side to a story, and often several others. Although it may seem to a reporter that all the necessary information is in hand, a single source of information rarely gives a complete picture of a situation. Skepticism is required always.
Consider this newspaper lead:
The Major Group, which handles advertising for eight international film makers in the domestic market, is now considering dropping this type of business altogether, having experienced serious business conflicts with its clients, a source in the company said.
Citing its "exclusive interview” with the company source, the story went on to say that the film companies stopped paying Major a 6% commission on domestic film revenue because of poor attendance. The company responded by canceling promotion for the films. The Major source said the 6% commission wasn’t sufficient to cover promotional costs and "8% will enable the advertising to be more effective.”
What’s missing here? Comment from the international film companies, of course. The journalist undeniably had a good exclusive story. But the story relied on only one source. The reporter needed to get the other side to the story, or at least point out to the reader that the international film distributors couldn’t be reached for comment, or wouldn’t comment.
The objective: fairness, and a more complete picture of events for readers.
No reporter is completely objective. By choosing what is newsworthy in a story — or even which stories to write — a reporter takes a position. That’s why we must take great care to be fair to all parties.
Two newspapers in a country — let’s call it the Federation of Asian States —reported on economic talks between the Federation and the United States. The talks focused on the U.S’s so-called Super-301 legislation. (Unfortunately, neither paper explained or defined "Super 301," a provision of the U.S. trade law that allowed the United States to retaliate for what it considered to be unfair trade restrictions by a foreign country.)
One article, highlighting the American point of view, reported that the two countries were in a near deadlock and that the Federation was likely to remain "blacklisted” by the U.S. because of the Federation’s allegedly restrictive trade barriers.
The other article, highlighting the Federation government’s point of view, reported that the U.S. now understood the Federation’s position better despite continuing differences between the two sides.
Both treatments of the news were valid. But neither article gave a fair presentation of the other side’s view. The article highlighting the U.S. position reported the comments of the Federation’s finance secretary, but buried them deep in the story. The other article made no attempt to give the U.S. position.
Sometimes one-sidedness isn’t the result of a reporter’s carelessness or laziness but of outside pressure from a company, often an advertiser. (There also sometimes is "inside” pressure from a newspaper’s publisher, who doesn’t want to see his own business interests — or his friends’ — investigated.) Unfortunately, the precarious financial position of many newspapers gives advertisers leverage over news coverage, undermining editorial independence. Professional journalists can only hope that publications are able to resist this temptation to trade positive coverage for advertising.
Even when this isn’t the case, one-sided news coverage raises readers’ suspicions that articles have been "bought” by advertisers.
For example, a business magazine in one oil-producing nation did a comprehensive article on the efforts of oil companies in the country to protect the environment. The problem: The reporter didn’t talk to an environmentalist or other outsider who might have questioned the oil companies’ presentation of themselves as ideal environmental citizens.
Readers could be forgiven for thinking that there was another, unreported side to the story and that the publication’s coverage had been influenced by the wealthy oil companies.
Rarely, if ever, should a business story rely on a single source, no matter how authoritative that source might be. Every story needs balance, context, the other side. The best way to provide that is by contacting multiple sources, to verify the information and make certain that readers are getting the whole story. A couple of extra phone calls are all that some stories require, while others call for more digging.
An Internet search can also help identify other parties involved in a situation that is the subject of a story, as well as what their interests are. Journalists must be skeptical about what they read on the Internet and careful not to use information without attribution, but an online search can provide leads to follow up.
7. HUMANIZE BUSINESS NEWS
Business news is about numbers. But more than that, it is about people. Not just government officials and business executives and bankers and economists, but "real” people — the men and women on the street who are consumers and taxpayers.
This is forgotten all too often by business journalists. For example, a news magazine published an in-depth feature on the battle for customers in one country’s growing potato chip industry. The piece quoted numerous executives at snack food companies — but not one crisp-eating consumer, the fellow whose business the companies were fighting for.
A weekly business magazine did a lengthy news feature about the exciting entrepreneurial environment in one regional city. The article included an analysis of the various government policies being used to encourage entrepreneurs in the city — but was conspicuously devoid of the voices and experiences of the individual entrepreneurs themselves.
Compare that lifeless report to the first paragraph of an article in the same magazine about a coin shortage:
The bus pulled to a stop in front of an apartment building, and, as usual, the conductor jumped down from the vehicle. But he was immediately surrounded by angry passengers, each with an outstretched hand, each shouting for change. Ignoring them, he concentrated on his mental calculations. Then he counted the passengers and divided them into two groups. From his left hand, stuffed with bank notes, he brought out one $1 note and one 50-cent note, and told each group: "Share this among yourselves.”
The article goes on to explain how the coin shortage made conducting business difficult, and sometimes led to violence. It analyzed possible reasons for the shortage.
The article was a relatively long news feature with plenty of space to portray the human drama of the news. It’s a good example of how to grab readers’ interest by using an "anecdotal lead,” a brief, specific tale about real people that illustrates the broader issues of the story. Why is it effective? Because people like to read about people.
Even in basic business news stories, the journalist should be looking for the human angle.
This usually boils down to showing how the news relates to the reader.
The reader should be able to answer the questions: How does what has happened affect me?
Any story involving a customer product usually has some effect on readers.
Even if the impact isn’t direct, the reader wants to know what the effect will be on other people.
They like to read about the drama of success and failure and competition. They like to hear the voices of average people in concise, colorful quotes spoken in everyday language. (Contrast the boring, unnatural quotes given by company executives in business press releases or government spokespeople in official press releases.) They like detailed descriptions of people and events so that they can picture what’s happening, almost like watching a film.
This usually is possible only in longer feature stories. But even in basic business news stories, the journalist should be looking for the human angle. This usually boils down to showing how the news relates to the reader. The reader should be able to answer the question: How does what has happened affect me?
For example, a reader is directly affected by business developments when they have an impact on prices or on taxes or on the availability of goods or on peoples’ buying power. Any story involving a consumer product usually has some effect on readers. Even if the impact isn’t direct, the reader wants to know what the effect will be on other people.
Remember the story mentioned above that described how government policies encouraged entrepreneurs in a regional city? If you came across such an article, would you prefer to read an interview with the government official in charge of business development, or a tale about the struggles and successes of a small businessman trying to set up a bakery?
Clearly, this is an unfair question: An article on the subject should include both. Yes, we need to hear from the official in order to understand the aims and results of the government’s policies. But it’s the story about the baker that makes for interesting reading. And that baker’s story is too often lacking in business news.
8. SHOW THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BUSINESS NEWS
Read this opening sentence to a prominent page one newspaper article:
National Airways currently is running at a loss of $22 million a year, its managing director announced yesterday.
Stop the presses. Big story. Front page news.
That’s a question I often ask when I read a business story. And it’s a question I always ask myself when I write a business story. For as business journalists, we have an obligation not only to report what happened or what someone said, but to explain its significance. News stories should pass the "so-what test.”
An article should explain to readers what the consequences of a news event are likely to be, why the news is important — for the company, for the work force, for the industry, for the nation. Why it is important for the reader.
This is the most valuable way in which journalists can make complex business news understandable. Obviously, all these questions can’t be answered in a single story. But some should be. And the answer should be in the lead, not buried deep in the article. A good news story reports the important facts, followed by a simple explanation of their significance. In a short article this explanation may be only a sentence or two.
In the National Airways story, what is the importance of the giant loss to the company? Well, it threatens the state-owned airline’s future and could lead to a reshuffle of top management. It could lead to job losses or the seizure of planes in foreign countries where the airline owes landing fees. (This actually happened not long after this article appeared.) It could hurt the government’s effort to privatize the airline. (We’d have to define "privatize,” of course.)
News stories should pass "the so-what test”. That is, an article should explain to readers what the consequences of a news event are likely to be, why the news is important – for the company, for the work force, for the industry, for the nation, and particularly why is it important for the reader
Any story involving a customer product usually has some effect on readers.
Even if the impact isn’t direct, the reader wants to know what the effect will be on other people.
More important, what is the story’s significance to the readers? Why should they care about the airline’s loss? Well, a company can make up losses either by cutting costs or by raising revenue. How does an airline raise revenue? It raises ticket prices. Now we’re talking about something that is important to the reader.
There’s a potential problem here: This simple interpretation goes beyond the mere recitation of facts and edges towards the area of opinion or speculation. But journalists can — and should — draw informed, logical conclusions from events without getting into debatable opinion or irresponsible speculation. Here, the reporter might rely on his familiarity with recent developments in the airline industry, or turn to an outside analyst for an estimate of how much fares would need to rise to make up the $22 million loss. (In this particular case, fares later went up about 50%.)
This informed analysis aids the readers’ understanding of the news. Look at this example.
Fact: The chairman of Allied Industrial Corp. was arrested for personal income tax fraud.
Interpretation: This could hurt the company’s image and, ultimately, its sales.
Opinion: Therefore, in the best interests of the company the chairman should resign.
Only the last statement is improper in a news story.
Still, it’s a hazy line, and the difference between proper logical analysis and improper opinion or speculation isn’t always clear. One way to tell if the reporter has strayed into the area of improper opinion: Can the reader tell where the reporter’s sympathies lie, which side he or she is on? A reader shouldn’t be able to tell.
The analysis can be simple. Remember the story about inter-bank interest rates mentioned in Tip 2?
Volatile inter-bank interest rates, which have been relatively stable in the past three months, shot up by about three percentage points last week...
But the reporter didn’t stop there:
...sending worrisome signals that the cost of bank loans are once more on the rise.
By adding those several words, there was an answer for readers who might be asking: So what?
The reporter needs to acknowledge that some people may disagree with his analysis. In many stories, I include what is called a "to-be-sure” sentence or paragraph. For example: "To be sure, National Airways may survive its financial crisis without having to lay off workers or raise fares.” This admission that there may be another side to the issue strengthens an article’s credibility by showing that the reporter has considered other views before reaching a conclusion.
Some publications and wire services shy away from even basic analysis. Or journalists may be hindered by political constraints. If that’s the case, they may be able to seek someone, the outside analyst or the inside official, who can provide the analysis.
If I have only one question at a press conference or in an interview, I almost always ask: "Why is this news important?” Let the speaker do the analysis. Often, this becomes the lead to the story.
Without that analysis, stories don’t give readers the understanding that they need.
A newspaper story reported that the national patent office was expecting 120,000 patent applications by the end of November.
The newspaper story, mentioned above, on Super-301 trade sanctions reported that the Federation of Asian States could be "blacklisted” by the U.S.
A business weekly reported that a branch of the national stock exchange was about to open in a regional city.
A journalist I met in a developing nation perhaps expressed it best when he asked: Are we merely porters who carry press releases from the government or companies and put them in the paper? Or are we reporters who explain the significance of the news to our readers?
9. GO BEYOND THE PRESS RELEASE
A company or government press release is only the starting point for a business story. Further reporting usually is required to flesh it out.
You may need to speak to competing companies, outside analysts, consultants, academic specialists or other sources to get other sides to the story. (See Tip 6.)
In fact, a press release almost always raises questions that require going back to the company itself. Perhaps the most important question is — you guessed it — "So what?” (See Tip 8.)
A company or government press release is the only starting point for a business story. Further reporting is usually required to flesh it out.
A press release also almost always raises questions that require going back to the company itself.
Perhaps the most important question is: "So what?”
You may want to express this in a slightly more polite form, such as: What is the significance of this announcement? What impact will the development have on the company? On the workforce? On the industry? On the nation? On my readers? (See Tip 7.)
Other likely questions: Compared to what? (See Tip 4.) What does this jargon mean in everyday language? (See Tips 1 and 2.)
Look at these edited excerpts (the identities of the parties and some facts have been changed) from an actual press release issued by a major oil company about an investment in a developing country:
Major Oil Corp. announced today that it has finalized agreements with the National Petroleum Company and the Government to develop oil fields off the country’s east coast.
The oil fields are 35 miles from the Intercoastal Terminal. Initial production from the field is anticipated in early 2005, and will quickly rise during the first year of production and plateau at 100,000 barrels of condensate per day. The fields are estimated to contain nearly 500 million barrels of reserves....
To develop the field, Major Oil Corp. has created a local subsidiary and formed an ownership partnership with National Petroleum. The partnership awarded the prime construction contract, valued at over $400 million, to a consortium, including a U.S. company, a French firm and a Japanese firm.
John H. Smith, chairman and managing director of Major Oil, said, "This agreement, though long in coming, is a testimony to the commitment and dedication of the international financial institutions providing loans for approximately 70% of total investment requirements of approximately $1 billion.... We are very pleased to be a part of this important contribution to the national economy and look forward to continuing our strong and successful business relationship with National Petroleum and the government and people.”
The oil fields are owned by National Petroleum (60% interest) and Major Oil (40% interest).
So how do you handle this press release?
Before writing a story, the journalist clearly needs to follow Tip 6 and talk to the National Petroleum, the other party to the deal, and possibly some independent industry analysts. Why was the agreement "so long in coming,” as the executive said. Were there disagreements? Does National Petroleum believe it got a fair deal? (Perhaps the reporter would find out that the government actually had to pass a new law that allowed the kind of bank financing used for this project, as actually happened in the original case.)
Some follow-up questions to the company are also needed to take the story beyond the press release:
• Following Tip 8, what is the significance of this announcement? (The reporter might find that the project is expected to create hundreds of jobs and provide a major boost for the economy.)
• Following Tip 2, what is "condensate?” (The reporter might find out that condensate, a product similar to crude oil, isn’t included in a country’s OPEC quota, thereby allowing unlimited production.)
• Why are local construction companies not involved? (The reporter may learn that, although the the prime constructions contracts had gone to foreign companies, much of the work would be done by local subcontractors.)
• Following Tip 4, how does this $1 billion project compare with other investments in the country? (Perhaps this is one of the largest domestic petroleum developments .) Again following Tip 4, how do the field’s reserves of about 500 million barrels compare with the nation’s total estimated reserves? How does the anticipated 100,000-barrels-per-day production level compare with current total daily production in the country?
Also, if there were the opportunity to ask Chairman Smith questions at a follow-up press conference or interview, the journalist would hope to get a better quote than the formal, boring one included in the press release.
10. GENERATE UNUSUAL BUSINESS STORY IDEAS
Perhaps the best way to make a business story interesting to readers is by writing about unusual, interesting subjects that other publications aren’t writing about. By finding new angles on business developments. By finding the business angle in important general news stories. By looking at the human angle of business news. By examining trends that grow out of — and have more long-term importance than — particular events. By localizing a major international or regional story.
Often this means writing longer feature stories that go beyond the daily news of press releases or company earnings. The journalist’s goal: To get people reading my story rather than the next one on the page — or even worse, turning the page altogether.
Ideas for these "enterprise” stories — so-called because they exhibit the enterprise of the journalist — often come out of brainstorming sessions with an editor or other reporters. Every publication should encourage these sessions.
Here are a few ways to generate unusual story ideas:
• Look for the business angle in general news stories. Most things involve business in some way, and finding the business angle in a big story makes for interesting reading. For example, the government proposes to issue national identification cards to all citizens. Who will get the business to print the cards?
• Look for "counter-intuitive” stories. There is an old saying that when a dog bites a man, this isn’t news. But when "Man Bites Dog” — well, that’s a story. Keep an eye out for unexpected business stories that run against popular thinking. For example, are any businesses actually benefiting from the government’s painful economic austerity program — perhaps auto mechanics, as people repair their old cars rather than buy new ones?
• Look for trends. News events are important, but they are more important if they are a sign of some larger trend. Look for the forest and not just the tree. For example, a company may announce the launch of a new bath soap. A check with several competing companies could reveal that this is part of an industry-wide move, prompted by fears that a similar soap being discontinued wasn’t safe to use.
• Look for the human angle. It’s interesting to read about the people who make business happen. For example, the government may be trying to privatize (that is, sell to private investors) some state-owned companies. Who are the people heading firms interested in investing in these companies? Who are the workers at the company now and what do they think of their chances for future employment under the new ownership? Are there small business owners that could benefit or suffer from the sale of the companies?
• Look for case studies that illustrate a trend. Readers love tales that recount the drama of a particular company’s attempt to, for example, develop a new product. Real life often is as dramatic as fiction. In-depth reporting can construct a business narrative full of struggle, hope, disappointment and, finally, success (or failure).
Journalists also should consider an expansion of the traditional definition of business news. Newspapers are beginning to add sections covering the business side of health, science, technology, law, sports, entertainment and other subjects.
Journalists should consider an expansion of the traditional definition of business news.
Keep in mind that business isn’t just about big companies.
Small business is just as or more important to the nation’s economy and usually involves more people.
Keep in mind, too, that business isn’t just about big companies. Small business is just as or more important to a nation’s economy, and usually involves more people. Stories about the issues affecting small businesses generally are well-read.
Personal finance is also a topic highly relevant to readers. For example, as credit is expanded in developing countries, readers are interested in stories about the pro’s and con’s of credit cards, the availability of mortgages, fluctuations in interest rates and clear explanations of the costs of consumer loans.
The tips in this booklet are meant to be practical suggestions that can be used immediately in your business and economic reporting and writing. Perhaps the best way is to get in the habit of asking yourself questions:
• Is this story accurate?
• Can this be said more simply?
• What does this term mean?
• Do I need all these statistics?
• Compared to what?
• Is there another side to this story?
• What is the human angle here?
• How will this news affect my readers?
• Is there a "to be sure” paragraph?
• So what?
Behind all these questions lie two bigger ones:
• Is this story UNDERSTANDABLE?
• Is this story INTERESTING?