Covering Your Local Business

Margie Freaney

  • Backgrounder

Every city or region in the world, no matter how small, teems with interesting business and economic stories that affect the daily lives and pocketbooks of readers and viewers. Yet this news area is often neglected by reporters and editors who tend to concentrate on stories revolving around government, politics and other official institutions.

Why? Many journalists secretly think that business and economics are boring, full of complicated terms and confusing numbers. Journalists can find a gold mine of good stories in business if they know where to look and how to use what they find.

In addition, because these stories are so often overlooked, they provide a good way for weekly or small daily newspapers and other media outlets to beat the competition by presenting stories first.

What makes it a business story?

In many ways, a business and economic story is no different from any other. It must be accurate, thorough, well-researched, balanced, fair and contain multiple sources of information.

In business stories, though, numbers and specific data are critically important.

The key questions in a business story are “how much?” and “how many.”

A story about the sale of the building, for example, must include the sale price, the size of the building, its age and the size of the property where it sits — otherwise, the story is incomplete.

The difference between an ordinary story about a new medical procedure and a business story on the same procedure is usually numbers: How much does the new procedure cost? How does that cost compare with the price of the old procedure? Who or what is making money from this new procedure—the doctor, the hospital, the manufacturer, the pharmaceutical company?

A business reporter must never hesitate to ask questions about money and spending and to dig for the answers if they’re not readily available.

Another difference is the angle (approach) that a business reporter takes on a subject. For example, when writing about a new housing development subsidized by the government, the general assignment reporter may be primarily interested in how tenants for the apartments will be selected, how much they will pay in rent and about political and neighborhood support and opposition for the project.

But the business reporter also wants to know which contractors have been awarded the construction bids for the project; how much each contract is worth; how many employees will be hired in the construction phase and then later to manage the project; where the capital (money) comes from to fund the project; and how that money will be repaid.

Every story, of course, could contain all of these elements. But it is the details about numbers and money that often are missing in media stories, and that’s where the opportunity comes for those who are interested in pursuing the business angles.

High-quality sources are essential

A variety of knowledgeable sources are needed for almost all business stories. In most cases, reporters should start at the top and try to interview the key decision-makers.

When writing about a company, for example, try to interview the general manager or chairman. Press representatives are often delegated to deal with the media, and many companies will try to discourage reporters from going any further than that.

But it’s the top business people who can best describe the firm’s business strategy and often they are the only ones who can release certain important information. Reporters who establish themselves as accurate, reliable and fair professionals can win the confidence of top business leaders and will get better stories because of it.

The “numbers” people in an organization – the chief accountant, chief financial officer or head bookkeeper – are other invaluable resources because they can often help explain confusing budgets and other financial statements. In the interests of accuracy and thoroughness, they may be quite willing to cooperate.

Business reporters must make every effort to meet and know business leaders in the community and to cultivate the contacts they make in the process of reporting stories. These sources can provide background, tips on developing news stories and perspective on business and economic trends.

Where and how to find stories

Business stories can come from anywhere, but an organized division of subject areas can help reporters and editors ensure that they’re keeping an eye on the entire picture.

Below are a few of the major news-producing sectors in business and some tips on what to look for:

Real estate: Property transactions are ripe areas for news. Many media outlets rely on official records to find out about such deals – deed recordings or transfers, city or state agencies, tax or court records or other required filings. It is absolutely necessary to find out how and where such transactions are recorded and to keep careful track of all new filings.

But real estate news travels even more quickly by word-of-mouth and plain, old-fashioned gossip. Neighbors, real estate agents, bankers and other business people are likely to be the first to know about transactions that are in the talking stages, under way or completed.

Developing a network of reliable sources who provide tips is essential to real estate reporting. The tip, of course, is just the starting point. After that, it’s up to the reporter to nail down all the details—the identities of the buyer and seller, the price, the specifics of the property and so forth.

Banking and finance: Banks often are the largest and sometimes the most influential institutions in a community. Readers and viewers should be kept informed about the status of these banks: How much money does each have in deposits? What is each bank’s loan portfolio (the total and type of all loans made)? What is the bank’s record on collecting the loans? What other assets does the bank have? What interest rates is it charging? Is it offering any new “products” (loans or services)?

This information is usually available from the Central Bank or from a state or government agency that oversees banks. Most banks are strictly regulated and are required to provide basic financial information on a quarterly basis (every three months).

The willingness and ability of banks to lend money, and the terms of such loans, are of great interest to local entrepreneurs and to consumers. In many areas, the bank is the only real source of credit available to local people. For those reasons, writing about trends and changes in banking, finance and lending are of utmost interest to readers and viewers.

Bankers, while required to maintain confidence about individual clients, can also be good sources of information about other events in the business community, since they usually have a wide circle of acquaintances and knowledge about the local situation.

Health care: Many journalists are accustomed to thinking of health care and medicine as social issues, not business and economic topics. But in fact, vast sums are spent on health care by governments, private enterprise and individuals, and the price of health care is of concern to virtually everyone. Moreover, health care is in many respects a business, in which people and institutions make and lose money every day.

Hospitals, clinics, doctors, nurses, pharmacies, drug and medical equipment manufacturers and health insurance companies are all worthy subjects for business reporting.

Sometimes a story that most media outlets are covering from a medical or political or sociological point of view has a strong business and economic angle as well.

AIDS treatment is a good example. Which hospitals, clinics, doctors or drugstores are getting a significant portion of their income from treating AIDS patients? Is this a profitable venture, or does the expense of treatment make it a loser financially? Has the cost of AIDS treatment or related issues – the difficulty of finding qualified or willing personnel, for example – prompted any facilities to drop such patients?

Retail: Every area has myriad retail businesses of all sizes and shapes. These basic businesses drive the local economy’s engine. Their success or failure is always a story, and may also tell a lot about how the local economy and local residents are doing.

Supermarkets, clothing and shoe stores, beauty salons, toy stores, dry cleaners, video and music outlets, appliance and furniture stores – the list is nearly endless for the types of retail businesses.

On its lowest end, retail reporting involves finding out about a single new business before it opens – ideally, even before ground has been broken on a shop and certainly before any press release is issued. But those are the simplest and often the least interesting stories (except when a major national retailer or franchiser enters the area for the first time). Even when writing a story on a single business, it is essential to include multiple sources and examine the competition and market in that area.

Trend stories – those that focus on changes in strategy, types of retail businesses, competitive or pricing issues – are the foundation of good retail reporting, especially when the reporter is the first to report on a new trend.

Lawsuits and bankruptcy filings are other good areas for producing retail stories. So are real estate transactions, since these are usually the precursor to a new retail venture. Contacts with lawyers, real estate agents and contractors are valuable for finding out these details in advance.

General circulation newspapers generally try to keep track of major events in the retail world: Christmas season sales, new car sales, new products and hot fashion items.

Technology: Journalists in small cities or rural areas sometimes think that they have no opportunity to write about technology stories because the large software companies, computer producers and service companies are located elsewhere. But technology affects every business everywhere, and local entrepreneurs often are affected directly by changes and trends in this sector.

Writing about technology innovations and trends in various industries – agriculture, manufacturing, retail, real estate and hospitality, for example – require more than surface knowledge about the industry and good sources because most of these changes are internal and directly related to the way business is done in each industry. That’s where good sources and connections in each industry prove invaluable.

Regardless of the industry, there are certain key questions reporters should ask when doing such a story:

  • Describe precisely the difference between the new way of doing business and the old way.
  • What are the costs of making such a change? What are the benefits? How long will it take to recoup the expenses?
  • Is special training needed for employees to make the change?
  • What are the competitive advantages/disadvantages of the technology change?
  • Perhaps most important of all, because it is the question readers and viewers will ask, what impact will the change have on the consumer or user of the company’s products or services?

Technology is also a good example of an area where reporters who keep abreast of national and international trends through reading can localize a national or international story.

Labor: Beyond employment statistics, business reporters keep track of changes in the labor market in terms of types of jobs, wages and changes in the local area. Good contacts with local union leaders or others knowledgeable about worker issues and problems lead to good stories. Good contacts with owners and top executives is also key, to get both sides of stories.

This topic is often a good place to look for the local impact of a national or international phenomenon or trend. For example, the topic of outsourcing: How does it affect local businesses? Even if they are not outsourcing, is it affecting the prices they pay for products or services or their competitive position?

Organized labor (unions) are not the only potential subjects for business stories. Local workers who do not have unions or representation may have interesting issues and stories to tell.

Any new business or expansion –or bankruptcy –involves labor issues that should be part of the story.

Hospitality and tourism: In developing countries or regions, tourism is often seen as a potential savior for the economy. Attracting paying visitors can indeed have a big payoff, in terms of attracting revenue, creating jobs and producing taxes. However, business reporters must look critically at such efforts. Merely announcing an effort to attract tourists or tout the advantages of local sites is not enough.

Among questions that should be asked:

  • How much is the country/state/region spending to promote itself? Where and how is the money being spent? Ad and marketing campaigns are key to tourism efforts.
  • Is the infrastructure – hotels, restaurants, roads, airports and other transportation modes – sufficient to support the goals for tourism? This is an area where first-hand observation by the reporter is essential. Official descriptions are often unrealistically optimistic and glowing.
  • How many tourists does the state aim to attract? How does this compare with previous years? How does it compare with regions or countries that offer similar attractions?
  • What do local business people think of the effort? Interview hoteliers, restaurateurs, local retail vendors.
  • Do travel agencies’ experiences verify the statistics and goals of the state? Travel agents are excellent sources of reliable, practical information on what sells and what doesn’t, and what tourists actually want. But it’s important to contact several such agents to get an overview, rather than simply individual anecdotes.

These are just a few of the potential areas for local business stories. Others include agriculture, manufacturing, sports and advertising/media, to name just a few.

Avoid the press release; dig up the news

The good business reporter never has to learn about a news story from a press release or press conference. Instead, the reporter strives to be the first with the news, gleaned through regular contracts with a wide variety of sources in the business community. By the time a press release is issued or a press conference is held, the reporter is just one of a pack covering a story.

In cases where the public announcement of a new venture or major change is the reporter’s first clue about a news story, it is still essential to use multiple sources, to look for competitors and rivals and to look for the labor angle to provide a comprehensive, balanced story that goes well beyond the single-source story.

Make numbers understandable to the reader/viewer

Numbers are the vitally important element to any business story, but presenting them in a clear and simple way is essential.

Whenever possible, use charts or graphs to present numbers. That also mitigates the need to clutter up the story with long paragraphs of impenetrable statistics.

See the three examples below:

 

BAR CHART:

FEVER CHART:


PIE CHART:

Writing the business story

A good business story, like any other story, needs a compelling first paragraph or opening (lead) to draw in the reader. Sometimes, the use of a few major numbers alone –if they are really news and really surprising – can provide the fodder for a good lead.

The following example is the beginning of a series of stories that probed the questionable practices of a nonprofit environmental organization.

The Arlington-based Nature Conservancy has blossomed into the world's richest environmental group, amassing $3 billion in assets by pledging to save precious places. Known for its advertisements decorated with forests, streams and the soothing voice of actor Paul Newman, the 52-year-old charity preserves millions of acres across the nation.

Yet the Conservancy has logged forests, engineered a $64 million deal paving the way for opulent houses on fragile grasslands and drilled for natural gas under the last breeding ground of an endangered bird species...

“Big Green,” David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens, The Washington Post, May 4, 2003 (winner, Gerald Loeb Awards for distinguished business and financial journalism, 2003).

Often, reporters like to use one person or one event related to the overall theme of a story to give the story a human face and draw in readers who might otherwise be discouraged by a numbers-based lead.

The following example was the beginning of an investigative series on the dangers of prescribing drugs for purposes other than those originally intended.

For the last three and a half months she was pregnant, Tammie Snyder had a small medical device strapped to her thigh. It pumped a drug called terbutaline through her body to prevent her from going into labor too soon.

On Sept. 17, 2002, Snyder gave birth to two healthy girls. Within days, however, her lungs filled with fluid, her heart began to fail and she was told she might need a heart transplant. She recovered, but she's been told she can never have a baby again. Her heart wouldn't stand the strain.

Terbutaline is an asthma drug, and the Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved its use to prevent premature labor. The FDA has warned doctors that the treatment is "potentially dangerous" and may not be effective. Snyder said her doctor never told her about the warning or that the FDA had approved terbutaline only to treat asthma.

“Risky Rx,” Alison Young and Chris Adams, Knight Ridder Bureau Washington Bureau, November 2, 2003 (winner, Gerald Loeb Awards for distinguished business and financial journalism, 2003).

Key questions

Some other key questions to ask when writing the local business story:

  • How many sources does the story have?
  • Does the story clearly explain what the business is and what it does?
  • Is there a human element in the story—interviews with real people and quotes from them, rather than just the facts and numbers?
  • Do the sources represent all sides of the issue?
  • Do any of the sources repeat each other? Could any be eliminated without hurting the story?
  • Does the story ask and answer “how much?” and “how many?”
  • Are all the necessary numbers in the story? Are they presented clearly?
  • Do the numbers make sense? Do they add up?
  • Does the story need accompanying graphics (pictures and charts)?
  • Does the story give context—if it is a story about a retail business, for example, does it explain who or what the competition is and what the total size of the market is?
  • Are there direct quotations in the story?
  • Are the quotations meaningful, or do they simply clutter up the story?

Publication Information

Type Backgrounders
Program Journalism Backgrounders
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