People, Not Numbers, Make Business Pages Turn
I was associate editor at Business First of Buffalo for six years and we had a funny way of defining business. I mean "funny" in a non-traditional sense, not that we would regularly guffaw while reading balance sheets -- though accountants can be self-propelled laugh riots at parties. You'll have to trust me on that.
To us, business stories were people stories. Why? Because people ran businesses, people worked for businesses, people bought things from businesses, people sold supplies to businesses, etc. Sure, numbers mattered, but how did those numbers affect people? How were people's lives changed for good or ill by the numbers on the balance sheet?
I was a reporter or editor at various publications for 18 years. At every municipal government or school board meeting, people argued and fought to hold the line on taxes. Tax stories are people stories.
Are taxes going up? Why? What services are being added and why? Are they mandated by the state or being taken on independently? For example, if property taxes go up 10 percent in a town, can residents still afford to live there? Ten percent means nothing to most folks. But tell readers that, on average, their taxes will go up several hundred or thousand dead presidents per year and they'll know how to adjust their personal budgets. How many Beverly Hills cops actually live in Beverly Hills? Probably not many, and probably even fewer if taxes go up. That's the story that should accompany the numbers.
Will taxes stay the same? Why? Are programs being cut? Which ones? Is there an alternate source of funding? For example, say a school district's sports program is being cut. Ask the players, coaches, and parents what they are doing about the cut. Talk to district reps and league officials, too. Will the athletes try to run a program through donations and promotions? Is that legal? What about the insurance? Talking to a host of people offers many more stories that could be reported.
So, how does a reporter get those stories? That's easy. All it takes is time and hard work. Reporters have to cultivate sources and get those sources to trust them by being diligent and fair.
Relationships can be hard to develop, but a good reporter must always respectfully listen to everyone, take criticism openly when warranted, be willing to correct mistakes, and not play favorites. Sources are not only company CEOs and government administrators, but secretaries, union leaders, community activists, and unsung worker bees.
Fiscal news doesn't always come out of meetings. Get out and talk to people every day. That's the easy part of writing numbers stories. The problem is in writing a story that will interest someone whose eyes glaze over when they see facts and figures.
Sure, numbers matter, but how did those numbers affect people?First of all, don't panic. Remember, you're not alone. Everyone in the newsroom who touches such a story should make sure it is clear and complete. Only then can people understand the choices they may have to make: Should I buy a product made by a company that is being sued by its workers? Why or why not?
We're communicators, but we're not always a reader's best friend if we write in the acronyms and/or verbal shorthand our sources use. Here are some ways to translate numbers into stories.
o Make numbers meaningful. Reporters and editors who think of the reader first know that they can do it with graphics or by finding a chronological line.
o Consider pace. Not all information must be crammed into the lede. Doling out facts and figures when appropriate slows the story down and invites readers into it bit by bit.
o Set priorities. Which are the most important numbers? Are the others necessary? When should they be included? How can they be explained in context? Can they be used in a graphic? Will a picture make them mean something?
Answer those questions and then write simple sentences that break up the details into chunks of knowledge that can easily be swallowed whole.
The lede will depend on the story. Here's a hypothetical example:
Ever get confused in high school chem? For example, who thought up those abbreviations for gold (Au) and iron (Fe) on the Periodic Table of Elements?
Where was the sense?
If you ever pondered such weighty issues, you're not alone. In seven years of teaching, Joe Poindexter saw too many students, bright ones and mediocre ones and ones who needed help, also struggle through his chemistry classes at Alkali Central High School.
"Usually my classes were right before lunch, so I thought hunger played a part in low test scores," he said. "But then I switched around to morning and afternoon class periods and still didn't notice any difference."
If it wasn't for the six teaching awards he has won from independent peer groups, he might have lost confidence in his teaching ability. But instead of wallowing in a beaker of pity, Poindexter sought a solution. That's why he formed the Atom Ants group two years ago. The extracurricular organization offers peer mentoring and other support for all of the 725 district students in elementary, middle and high school. Last year, it placed fifth in the National Chemical Bee in Washington, D.C. No other Alkali team ever made it past the regionals.
So Monday night all nine members of the Alkali School Board voted to send the Atom Ants to Disneyland.
The price? Well, the line on the budget this April will say $10,000 -– money not used when the Latin Club cancelled its trip to Gaul. But Poindexter and his 120 Ants and their parents might steal a line from a credit card commercial and tell you it's priceless.
Delayed lede? You bet. But I'd also argue that the story gives meaning to the school, the parents, and everyone else involved. It explained where the money is coming from, what it will be used for, who will be using it, and why. It also gives some good press to all involved.
The following websites may help you prepare business stories.
DATA & STATS:
o Economic data that includes a list of websites on economic indicators, as well as state comparisons and rankings
o Louisiana State University has a site with links to the regional Fed offices, journals, stats, organizations, etc.
o Info from government websites that also offers online help with taxes, laws, rules and regs, and trade
o The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has data on FDIC-insured institutions
o The Federal Reserve Board's site has info on the structure and role of the Fed and its activities, as well as links to the 12 regional Fed banks, and info on inter-state banking and minority banks
o Currency converter
SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION:
o There are several links with filings on initial public offerings, mergers, etc. at http://www.sec.gov. By using the Edgar Online database, a pay site, reporters can see SEC documents on publicly traded companies or trace individuals in the corporate world back to 1993. Documents on the SEC site are available for a day after filing. On Free Edgar, reporters can create a list of companies to track. Or access Edgar directly.
o Inflation calculator
o Salary calculator: To find out what 50,000 dead presidents in Buffalo converts to in Big Apple cash
o Trouble figuring out percentages? Use this to put things in context
o Mega-calculators: This site has more than 8,000
o National Center for Education Statistics
Joe Marren is an assistant professor in the communication department at Buffalo State College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.