What even is a business story?
The third webinar in Quartz’s series on “A Better Kind of Business Journalism” focused on approaching business stories in non-traditional ways, from uncovering stories about underrepresented communities to exploring social inequities.
Quartz’s business journalism seminars are geared towards early-career reporters and editors, and focus on the fundamentals of business journalism, how the industry is changing, and how we can make the field more accessible to both journalists and audience.
The panelists included Samanth Subramanian, Quartz’s future of capitalism reporter, Esmé E. Deprez, a senior investigative reporter at Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek, and Eshe Nelson, a business and economics reporter at the New York Times. The event was moderated by Quartz executive editor Kira Bindrim.
“The way journalism has been done has historically been limiting, and tends to focus on smaller groups of people and smaller groups of problems,” said Bindrim. But that’s changing.
How has your approach to business journalism changed?
Nelson’s approach to finding business stories changed with her job, she says. The longer she was at at a publication, the more comfortable she felt pushing the boundaries. Nelson used the example of getting comfortable covering markets, which led her to question who she was approaching in her stories. “It wasn’t so much about changing the nature of the stories. It was about changing who I was speaking to these stories, which will hopefully lead to slightly different ideas and slightly different perspectives,” she said. “The further I got in my career, the more I’ve been able to do that,” she said.
Subramanian said his approach to business journalism changed when he came to Quartz, where for the first time, he worked to bring the qualities of magazine journalism to digital stories that had a quick turnaround. He detailed how he wanted to bring a magazine journalist lens to business journalism, by trying to trace a narrative through the people and places—not just through analysts and spokespeople. “There should be a way to find those same qualities, by…talking to people who are outside of the regular corporate circles, trying to bring a sense of history or a sense of narrative that is happening on a daily basis,” he said.
Deprez has been at Bloomberg since 2009. Originally, she didn’t think she would be a business journalist—or stay one. “It can sometimes feel like a straitjacket and limiting if you let it,” she said. “But at the end if you push yourself, it often yields better stories to look at through a business lens, because you can narrow it enough to just find a better, a more interesting angle.”
There’s a business story in every story, the panelists said—whether it’s someone making money, or someone getting screwed—it’s about thinking hard and analytically about who those people are.
What’s a story that speaks to the idea that business stories are all around us?
In 2009, Deprez gave birth to her first child, and found herself surrounded by baby gear. Much of it was made by Medela, and their products would become her entire world. She started digging, and noticed there were product reviews of breast pumps but not much else about the company. The result was a 2019 story about how the company lost its monopoly. “That was a good find and came from my lived experience that I learned about this company,” she said.
Meanwhile, Subramanian, who has a penchant for art history, recalled reading that Sotheby’s had purchased an authentication business in the US. He wondered why Sotheby’s, which has been around for 100 years, had made that particular move. That led to a Guardian profile about the person who ran the authentication business.
Nelson said that her approaching of listening to people talk until she discovered “something really interesting in the background” approach often spiraled out to other stories. She cited as an example a now-prescient series on diversity in economics which she wrote at the end of 2018, exploring how groups were looking to solve these issues.
How do you surface stories relevant from those communities?
As a Black woman, Nelson says she does not see stories as being a “minority interest.” She said that the central focus should be about speaking to people, thinking about different types of businesses, and considering geographic diversity, which shouldn’t be difficult. “Women and people of color…make up much of the world as white people do,” she added. Deprez suggested focusing on the stories that haven’t been covered yet, that haven’t been on the front page of the New York Times.
The very nature of economics reporting is about the disparity of inequality, Subramanian said. “[T]he minute you start seeing how the economy operates for everybody, you start seeing the layers in which it doesn’t function the way it should, or [where] people aren’t deriving the kind of benefits the people at the very top do,” he said. Covering economics is by default about covering people for whom the economy doesn’t work.
How do you think about diversifying sources?
The panelists all admit that diverse sourcing can be a challenge when you’re on deadline, unless you have a strong pipeline of people. Even then, it can be tough. Subramanian mentioned that he had written a story on rising lumber prices, which involved speaking to different industry bodies. Looking back, he wished had actually talked to the people running the saw mill businesses. That said, you can always do a follow-up story, or think about covering the the story in both a long and short way, he said.
Nelson pointed out you shouldn’t just talk to diverse sources when the story is about diversity. Also, don’t be afraid to tell a communications team or press representatives that you want diverse sources.
When is it right to include people impacted by the story?
Time constraints can also make it challenging to include the perspectives of people affected by business and economic trends. That said, Subramanian pointed out that speaking to people can help you find a new approach. He thinks of it as reimagining that story from completely different sources, so you’re not only just diversifying sources, but also getting a fresh angle.
A tip that Deprez had learned from a former editor of hers is to find the person struggling the most with the problem.
Importantly, it’s okay to not know about something. “Proclaim your ignorance of getting your information, as long as you understand the bias of the person,” said Kira Bindrim. “Let them tell you—people are often excited to do that on something they understand really well.” For many years as a markets reporter, Nelson said that she would go to strategists and traders saying: “I don’t know what this, please explain.” She added: “Don’t pretend to know more than you do in business journalism,” she said.
Watch the video above to hear more advice from the panelists on how to stay informed and organize your reporting, and whether having a background in finance or economics is important. You can also watch previous videos in our series, on whether business journalism is a good career choice, and the one skill all business journalists should have.
“A Better Kind of Business Journalism” is inspired by Quartz editor-in-chief Katherine Bell’s call for the field to break from its conservative past. It is designed as a series of conversations around the industry, the change it is undergoing, and its prospects for young reporters and editors. Have ideas for a future discussion? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.