News training: Reporting business

Turnover, profits, margins, share price fluctuations – it seems you need to be a mathematical genius to be a business journalist. And that’s just at company level.

Deep South Media has launched online training for journalists

Business journalism is about people and events. Photo by lenets_tan - Fotolia

Macro-economic figures, typically counted in millions, billions or even trillions, can be scarier still. Add to the mix the hitherto unknown concepts that have come into mainstream parlance since the 2007-08 downturn. Consider quantitative easing, fiscal cliffs and bank-to-bank lending rates.

Is it all too complicated to get to grips with for young reporters starting out? Well, one key tip is to remember to look behind the bald lines of figures on the balance sheet or Treasury report.

People – their lives, successes, failures, comebacks and thoughts – are almost always more interesting than statistics. That means in an unfolding ‘financial’ story, the basic journalism skills involved in focusing on people will tend to win out. In other words, be prepared and build up that all-important contacts book.

A reporter with a ready list of contacts will shine in an editor’s eyes as they will know who to approach in a fast moving situation for context, insight, personal reflections and close-to-the-action details. Becoming well connected is far more important for a business reporter than studying economics textbooks.

As with any other kind of journalism, once you have your contacts you have to ask the right questions, recognise the newsworthiness of the material and explain the issue in ways your audience can understand. If you end up confused by numbers in your story, so will they.

A good test is to ask yourself continually whether there is a simpler way to explain why a figure is important. Go for simplicity if at all possible and focus on the impact of the figure as well as the figure itself. Try and answer the ‘so what’ question that may be in people’s minds.

There is a great example of a seemingly dry business story being brought to life by good reporting in the introduction to our online training course with the Commonwealth Press Union. While the initial facts and figures involved a factory putting printed labels onto plastic containers, the real story was the family that risked everything to set up the business and make it a success.

This post is part of a series reflecting themes from our online practical training course for working journalists. The course was launched recently with a video announcement by Lord Black, CPU Media Trust Chairman.

Next time, we’ll be looking at how to prepare for interviews.

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SCOTT SINCLAIR,  Deep South Media.