By Carl Gutierrez October 27, 2012
Today, the majority of entry-level business journalism jobs require reporters to write daily stories on tight deadlines. These pieces typically fall into one of three categories: breaking economic data, breaking corporate news or market news about a security or the broader market. Each of these stories hinges on the release of a number in a government report, a corporate earnings statement or a ticker after the closing bell. Once that number is out, the reporter is on the clock with a deadline that could range from now to twenty minutes ago.
No reporter is born knowing how to write on deadline. Like any job, the more you do it, the better at it you become. However, reporters new to business journalism can take several steps to speed up the learning curve and make covering a breaking number more manageable.
It all starts with being prepared. A reporter who has planned far enough in advance can file some pieces quickly. (Conversely, reporters who fail to plan ahead often end up so frazzled that they miss their deadlines, drawing more scrutiny from their editors.)
Here are a few suggestions for how to prepare for the breaking number.
Write in Advance
It is hardly a secret that a reporter covering an economic or corporate release can write at least half of their story ahead of time. The background material, or “B matter,” that helps put the latest data in context should be roughly the same, regardless of the number itself.
A reporter covering the release of the National Association of Realtors’ latest report on existing-home sales, for example, might include a few paragraphs of other recent data about housing market. Whether they corroborate the existing-home sales report or stand in contrast to it might guide how the reporter sets up those paragraphs, but either way, they’ll be in the story to help give the new number some meaning.
A reporter covering the stock market might ask whether one of the broader indices is on a winning or losing streak or whether one is closing in on the largest single-day gain or loss over a given period of time.
Leave Yourself a Choice
Most stories about a breaking data point begin by telling the reader whether the number rose, fell or held steady, so you already know the lede will read in one of only three basic ways. Save yourself some time later by writing out all three possible outcomes. That way, when the time comes, you’re picking the right sentence rather than crafting it.
Write out all of your choices in caps, so you’ll be less likely to forget and leave all three in. When preparing a story about how the stock market did on a given day, for example, a new reporter might include a sentence with choices embedded that reads like so:
The Dow Jones Industrial Average EXTENDED/ENDED its four-day streak of gains, CLIMBING/SLIPPING TK POINTS/HOLDING STEADY to finish the day at TKTKTK.
An early version of a story about Apple’s earnings might include a sentence like this:
Apple EARNED/LOST $T.TK during the fourth quarter, UP/DOWN from $T.TK in the year-ago period.
Just keep it simple and wait for the data. Then, if you have time, flesh out the sentences quickly when the data land.
Line Up Your Calls
In some cases, you may have time to include a quote or two from economists or industry analysts. (At some publications, editors require at least one.)
Try to schedule your interviews and plan your questions at least a half-day in advance, so when the number breaks, you’ll know exactly who you’re calling and what to ask.
Not all sources are deadline-friendly. Some analysts and economists are harder to get a hold of than others, and some ramble. If you’re new to your beat, ask your colleagues for sources who are dependable and succinct.
If you have the opportunity to update your story by filing new versions with additional reporting, then do your best to stagger your interviews at different times throughout the day. Talk to one or two people for a minute or two each and file the early draft, then conduct more in-depth interviews and file a more nuanced version later.
Once you’re on the phone, make sure you get the source’s reaction to the crux of the report and then ask whether there was anything particularly surprising in it. Write down what they say, read it back to make sure you’ve quoted them accurately, thank them for their time, and then get off the phone.
Study the Geography of the Report
Corporate and government reports vary in their formatting and can be difficult to read. So once you’re assigned a breaking number story, you should familiarize yourself with the document it comes in so you’ll know exactly where to find the data points you need. Ask a colleague for help or spend some time sifting through old releases.
At Zero Hour, Stay Focused
It goes without saying that you want to be at your desk the minute the number lands, but even there, distractions can pull you off task. Put your phone on vibrate and close any web browser that isn’t directly related to your story. Don’t leave yourself with anything to do but file on time.
Once the number drops, don’t get caught up in the writing. Just get the facts down clearly and logically. Obsessing over the perfect word or turn of phrase isn’t going to help you distinguish yourself as much as filing clear copy on time.
Carl Gutierrez is a data producer at Bloomberg. Prior to that, he covered the stock market and breaking news for Forbes.
This entry was posted on Saturday, October 27th, 2012 at 10:33 pm. It is filed under Skills and Tradecraft and tagged with breaking, corporate, deadline, earnings, economy, report. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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