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Business reporting not a mystical beat
I have reservations about business reporting. I know that sounds nuts coming from a journalist. After all, a journalist is expected to be versatile and capable of having his or her hand in every pie. It just seems as if there's a mystical aura surrounding business reporting.
But, if indeed, there was such, I must say that I now have a different perspective about business reporting, after attending the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism workshop on Investigative Private Companies and Nonprofits, held recently in Orlando, Fla.
It was a great chance for me to have my eyes of understanding enlightened. What better opportunity to hear and learn from great minds like Gary Cohn, winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, and Chris Roush, founding director of the Carolina Business News Initiative.
Business reporting may involve what some of us refer to as "jargons", yet I learnt that it pretty much involves techniques required for everyday reporting, just like sports, environmental, health, tourism or political reporting.
That much was my take after listening to the presentations. Roush emphasised the importance of research and digging into records to find "stories that no other person is working on, or thinking about." He stressed the need to check on agencies that regulate public or private companies, because "any complaints against a company is a good starting point for a story and the sad thing is that many of these agencies never hear from journalists, yet there's a lot of stories there." He added that very important phrase: "don't be afraid to ask" and "when someone tells you no, keep digging. It's your duty to find it, even when it's being covered."
Some sources of information, he said, included: state records (e.g. http://www.sunbiz.org), secretary of state records, occupational licensing boards, county records, the WARN Act (document filed with the department of Commerce division of employment and training), the occupational safety and health administration (e.g. www.osha.gov/cgi-bin/est/est1), the UCC Records (records that provide information on who owes money to whom and how much), credit unions, and small business administrations.
The more you know, the bigger the payoff. Keep yourself up to date; check out some resources, like Online Education, in areas of business or technology. Never stop learning. Today's high-paced world has made people busier and less willing to commit their time to a traditional classroom degree program. Online schooling is a great answer to keep current.
Cohn, further provided insight on the use of the IRS Form 990 as a good starting point for investigating nonprofits. The form provides very important information on companies in the United States, including their sources of revenue, their net assets, how the organization spends its money, various business transactions, and a review of the salaries and benefits of top officials and employees. He used his investigative report, "AARP's stealth fees often sting seniors with costlier insurance", to shed light on how the IRS Form 990 can be a guide in investigating the activities of a nonprofit company.
Really, for me, the workshop could be summed up in the words of Roush: "A knowledge of how to write business stories about private companies can be applied to any beat." That expression, to me, showed that business reporting is not after all a mystical beat.
- Your Pal
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