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A BETTER KIND OF BUSINESS JOURNALISM

What’s the one skill all business journalists should have?

A poster for Quartz's business journalism webinar series.
  • Michelle Cheng
By Michelle Cheng

Reporter

Published

The second webinar in Quartz’s series on “A Better Kind of Business Journalism” focused on the skills needed in the field, including what can be learned on the job.

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 first session in April saw panelists from Quartz, Reuters, and the Wall Street Journal tackle whether business journalism is a good career choice—dispelling misconceptions such as the field being boring, and offering their thoughts on whether a journalism degree is necessary.

The second panel, held on June 2, featured Nour Malas, deputy business editor at the LA Times, Tracy Jan, a reporter at the Washington Post, and Blanca Torres, a producer at KQED. The event was moderated by Heather Landy, executive editor at Quartz. They shared their career journeys and the skills they think are worth honing in on.

1. Accountability and accessibility

In 2016, Tracy Jan created her own beat as a reporter at the Washington Post, covering the intersection between race and the economy. Throughout her reporting, money and race were two lenses she used to understand what was happening in the world. Who has it? How do people maintain it? “Like race, money is a useful lens to see things with more clarity,” she says.

Jan had reported on pledges by companies to invest in the town of Ferguson, Missouri, after protests over the death of Michael Brown by police. Four years after the 2014 incident, she sought building permits data from the city of all the new developments that occurred since the protests occurred and mapped them out. She discovered that of the $36 million in brick-and-mortar development invested in Ferguson after 2014, only $2.4 million actually went to the isolated pocket of Ferguson where Brown lived. Development did occur, but mostly in whiter, wealthier parts of town and not in the Black, southeast corner where Brown was killed.

When you’re explaining big issues like economic inequality and gentrification, reporters should focus on keeping politicians and business leaders accountable for the promises and decisions they make, says Jan. That requires data to make the story believable, but also accessibility. Who you are telling the stories through—is it those who are most impacted by it?

2. “Show me the numbers”

“There’s a money angle to everything,” says Blanca Torres, a producer at KQED public radio with over 17 years of business journalism, who has covered everything from school budgets to real estate at various news publications. For a recent radio segment, she called various Chinese restaurants to see how they have been impacted by the pandemic, including one that had a Michelin star. Convincing her editor that it was still struggling and warranted coverage resulted in a rich conversation, with the business owner describing the lessons he learnt about the business from his immigrant parents, and the racism the restaurant had faced.

As a former real estate reporter, she says it’s important to show change via numbers, for example. That means to not just report on neighbors complaining about development projects but explain the costs and scope of a project.

But, there’s the other extreme, too—where reporters may focus too much on the numbers and do not provide enough context. “I think understanding numbers and understanding how money fits into your story is so important,” she says.

She cited the surprise news last year that reality TV star Kylie Jenner had become a billionaire—a fact that was later disputed. “Be on the lookout for what is truth and what is marketing,” she says.

3. Empathy

Nour Malas, the deputy business editor at the LA Times, leads a team of reporters covering economic inequality. Before that, she spent a decade at the Wall Street Journal as a foreign correspondent, reporter, and editor covering everything from the Dubai stock market to the Arab Springs to the housing policy in Silicon Valley. “Being thrown in the deep end is the best way to learn,” she says. “Journalism as a job is a real privilege and responsibility for us as reporters and editors.”

Reporting outside of the US has meant that getting reliable data was a challenge, pushing her to build up sources, and listen without judgement. “[Just because] transactions or services or numbers are involved, that doesn’t mean that basic human motivation and relational issues fly out the window,” she says. Empathy is a muscle to build up as much as your quant skills, she advises.

The panel also responded to audience questions such as how to conduct research on companies outside of PR firms. They advised consulting:

  • SEC documents
  • Public records
  • Internal databases
  • Experts at different universities or think tanks, even for background information

In response to a question on how to prepare for a career in business journalism, they suggested:

  • Reading books on major companies and events like the financial crisis which have been major economic disruptions, and primers such as The WSJ guide to Understanding Money and Investing;
  • Listening to a lot of broadcast business journalism and taking notes on new terms
  • Consulting public journalism resources like the Reynolds Center.

Finally, they advised that reporters not be dissuaded by feeling like a story might be out of reach. Those are the stories often worth pursuing.

“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 hi@qz.com.

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