Alumni Report: covering business In Santiago

By Covering Business     October 28, 2013

Graciela Ibáñez came to the Columbia Journalism School in 2007 from her native Chile planning to major in political journalism, but switched to business and has never looked back. Today she’s Dow Jones’s sole reporter in Santiago, covering everything from mining to politics, writing for the newswire and for The Wall Street Journal. She talked with adjunct professor Rob Norton about her experiences in the business journalism during a visit to New York in September.

 

What kind of journalism experience did you have when you came to Columbia?

I had done a little of everything, newspapers, magazines, television and websites on a variety of subjects, everything from sports and fashion to arts and culture. Just before coming to New York

Graciela Ibáñez

Graciela Ibáñez

I had been working in the business section of a newspaper. I had been thinking about majoring in politics or business and I was offered a place in the business program. It worked out well, because when I graduated in 2008 the economic crisis was going on, and there was demand for business reporters.

What was the job search process like?

One thing that was weird for me was that I was seeing all my classmates, most of whom were from the U.S., applying for – and getting – jobs as soon as the first semester began. In Chile, you wait until you graduate before you look for a job. It would have been nice to be able to focus exclusively on the program and on studying, but I could see that wasn’t an option. It took a lot of time and effort – it was like taking another course! I was applying for jobs from October through May. I sent resumes to all the major companies here. I got an offer to work for a website based at the New York Stock Exchange right after I graduated.

And what was that job like?

It was very interesting being there. I was reporting on the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the blue chip companies for a Spanish-language website. I would interview traders on the floor, and I also did some reporting on companies. It was video, and I was on camera, and I would do the final-cut editing and upload them to the site. I helped produce a weekly program. It was good to be on camera, and to improve my editing skills, and it was great to be there at a historic moment as the financial crisis was happening. But there wasn’t that much reporting. My goal was to report for a U.S. company or a British company, working in English. I also prefer working in print to video.

How hard was it to make that kind of move?

It was challenging. It took me like a year and a half. I got a job as a reporter at a website called Debtwire, which is part of the Financial Times Group, covering Latin American high-yield bonds.

So that was pretty technical. Was that kind of coverage new to you?

It was all new to me – first, because I was working in English, and second because it was all about bonds. My background in bonds was very limited. But I did like it. It was a great experience. My editor at the time took the time to teach me quite a bit about the types of stories they did, it was nice being at big journalism company that did a lot of coverage of emerging markets. It was a fun place to work. I still have friends there. And I felt I was using the skills I had learned.

Specifically, the skills you acquired doing your M.A.?

Absolutely. The courses in accounting and corporate finance were hard, but they gave me a lot of knowledge and confidence. Before I came to Columbia, I didn’t know the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet. At Debtwire I wrote a lot about new bond issues, and had to be able to read prospectuses and other financial statements. Based on the work I’d done at school, I could understand them. I felt comfortable reading them, and I had to read a lot of them. That background is also very helpful at my current job at Dow Jones.

So when did you make the decision to return to Chile?

I worked nearly two years at Debtwire, but there was a point at which I had to make a decision about staying in the U.S. or returning to Chile. I’m Chilean. My family is there and I never thought I would stay here forever. Each year, you need to think about the apartment, the visa and all the other things. So I felt I either had to commit to stay for several years or more, or go back. So I resigned and went back to Chile.

I was lucky. I got to Chile in September, 2011, and was doing some freelancing for newspapers and magazines, in Spanish and English, and then in December there was an opening for the Dow Jones reporting job in Santiago.

What’s the job like?

I’m the Chile reporter for Dow Jones, so I write for the news service and also contribute to The Wall Street Journal. There was a bureau chief when I started, but she left earlier this year, so for now I’m on my own. I cover the major Chilean companies, the copper mining industry, macroeconomics, foreign exchange, and politics. You do a little bit of everything, and it’s great.

And you’re using the skills you acquired at school.

Yes. I do earnings stories on all the blue chip Chilean companies, and again, the ability to read financial statements is important. And when I interview business people, I feel comfortable asking them about numbers and that kind of thing.

It’s more than just the subject-matter knowledge. The whole way you teach journalism here is so much different than in Chile. Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal pay a lot of attention to background. Whenever you write a story, you explain everything, assuming the reader doesn’t know anything about what you’re writing. While I was here at school, I was reading The Wall Street Journal every day, and I learned tons of things I didn’t know about because of the background in the stories. I do the same in my stories now, and I like that. There’s also a global view on stories, explaining why something is important, why your readership should care about it. I learned to look at the big picture.

What else did I learn? Oh, to fact check a lot – to fact check everything. To look at the numbers; look at the data. Sylvia [Nasar] and Jim [Stewart] told us about their experience as reporters, how did they do research and conduct interviews. Bruce Greenwald at the business school was one of the best. He taught us how business people think, and how to understand their point of view.

It’s terrific that you have such positive feelings about the program.

Yes, I do. Having my degree was helpful in getting all the jobs I got after I graduated. It doesn’t assure you a job, but it does open doors. The network around Columbia is also great. One of my classmates, for example, worked for Dow Jones. When I applied for the job in Santiago, she had left for Reuters, but she knew the HR person at Dow Jones and wrote a recommendation letter. My boss in Chile got the letter, and she said it was one of the things she considered when hiring me. I made great friends at Columbia, and still keep in touch with them, all over the world.

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