“Just follow the money.”
That’s what Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook) told Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to look at in their investigation of the Watergate scandal in the film “All the President’s Men.” (By the way, the real Deep Throat, Mark Felt, never said it, according to NPR in 2012.)
Woodward and Bernstein did just that, which led them to find that President Richard Nixon took part in the Watergate Scandal. The duo’s discovery launched a two-year investigation that eventually forced Nixon to resign.
Business concepts like the ones Woodward and Bernstein investigated affect everyone daily. They are in industries like technology and government. They are there when we purchase a home or attend school. They are in our bills, the gas pump, the restaurant we dine at, and the local grocery store. They are everywhere all at once.
That’s why business journalism is an essential beat in the news industry. From economics to even our health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs, money is what keeps things going – or stops them in their tracks.
When I started working as a general assignment reporter at the Houston Business Journal, I did not know much about the local industries in Houston other than the energy industry. However – and unfortunately – I started working there at the end of February 2020. Three weeks later, we had to shift to work-from-home due to the coronavirus pandemic. We assumed we’d be back in two weeks, but that turned into two years.
My first year at HBJ taught me how the various business industries were affected by the pandemic. Companies had to pivot their plans and models to stay in business. Sometimes, that pivot meant laying off or furloughing employees to save money and survive. These changes affected nonprofits as well. Suddenly, the largest and most significant annual fundraising events had to be canceled and moved to virtual platforms because of the virus.
Then came the murder of George Floyd, which made almost every company from entertainment to Fortune 500 post a black square on their social media and call out the racial injustice. However, it also forced Corporate America to take a look in the mirror, which made them realize they don’t have enough diversity in their board rooms or in their media. This reckoning made companies take a look at their business practices and rebrand mascots with racist origins, like Uncle Ben’s, now called Ben’s Original, according to The Grocer.
The way a business runs affects the bottom line: money. But where do you start as a business journalist? Do you have to work for the Wall Street Journal or the local news outlet’s business section? No, you don’t. Business is all around you, from the school board to the city council. It takes money to make money and, if you follow it, you’ll see where that money gets used.
Break It Down, Barney-Style
Since I couldn’t get hands-on training because of the pandemic, I had to ask “silly” questions when interviewing executives and business owners.
What do I mean by “silly”? Don’t be afraid to ask them how something works or what it all means. Yes, you can research and read Securities Exchange Commission filings and new products, but do you comprehend what you’re reading? Do you understand how it’s going to increase revenue?
Keep in mind that your sources and readings will use industry words, like compound annual growth rate (or CAGR). While sites like Investopedia will define those terms for you, don’t be afraid to tell your sources to “break it down, Barney-style” – as in Barney, the lovable purple dinosaur from the children’s program “Barney and Friends.” Tell your sources to explain it to you so your readers can understand and so that you can understand. Otherwise, they will be emailing or calling you and your editor about it being incorrect.
I sometimes joke to sources that I’m a Marine, so we need things broken down Barney-style to understand. (You know that joke about Marines eating crayons for breakfast, and those crayons are pretty delicious, too.)
If you don’t ask sources to simplify things, then you won’t learn. If you come up with more questions after the interview, don’t hesitate to call or email them. It will drive them crazy, but you can remind them that you need to understand to get it correct in your story. They will appreciate it.
I mentioned Investopedia as one site to turn to when looking up definitions. It’s an amazing resource that simplifies various financial terms, but it isn’t the only one.
Another resource I like to visit is the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Business Journalism, housed at The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. This is one of the most extensive professional business journalism training programs in the U.S., and its website gives tips on reporting subjects such as the economy and labor. For example, you can type in terms such as “labor unions,” and you’ll find articles on sources, which labor reporters to follow on Twitter, and story ideas for Labor Day. Whether you’re covering the stock market, real estate, or school districts, this website is one of the first places I recommend visiting for guidance.
SEC Filings and Other Documents
If you search, you’ll find a lot of public documents and reports, including Securities Exchange Commission filings, which I love reading. There is a lot to get through, but it’s where you’ll find how much the C-suite executives make yearly. It’s where you’ll discover why someone stepped down from their role and how much their replacement will make. It’s also where you find how much money public companies make or lose quarterly or yearly and the source of that growth or decrease.
If you watched AppleTV+’s series, “We Crashed,” about WeWork’s founder Adam Neumann’s rise and fall, you’ll find (spoiler alert) it fell through because he and Rebekah took over the S-1 (initial registration with the SEC) and listed how much the company lost ($1.6 billion). This loss led to Neumann’s resignation from his CEO role, but he left with a $1.7 billion exit package, according to Business Insider.
Another website to check out is PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records). You’ll find bankruptcy filings and where companies filed them.
For nonprofits, check out their 990 forms and yearly reports on their websites. If you can’t find these forms on their site, check out Charity Navigator. You’ll see how the nonprofit is rated, which issues it focuses on (e.g., Roe reversal or veterans), and its IRS Form 990.
As for city councils and school boards, check their websites for agendas. What’s going to be voted on and discussed? How much taxpayer money will go to an item on the agenda? How will it impact the community?
I also recommend reading or watching business news, like the Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Business Insider, or your local news outlet. Search for small businesses on Instagram or other social media. LinkedIn is great for finding company leaders, company information, or journalists who report on business.
Lastly, keep an eye out for business journalism panels hosted by journalism organizations. For example, last year, Quartz had webinars on being a better business reporter. This is a very informative series from some of the best business reporters, but there are others out there.
Investigating and reporting on business will make you a better reporter. Don’t be intimidated by trying to follow the money.