Business news is an essential part of any self-respecting news service. Economic factors change history, bring down governments, begin and end wars. Business affects politics, diplomacy, the environment, even culture and sports.
Business news is exciting. There are plenty of worldwide front-page stories which began life as apparently dry business stories. Remember Enron or Viagra. Few journalists could fail to enjoy the thrill of a contested takeover bid, the drama of a stockmarket collapse, the suspense of a fraud trial.
THE WHOLE SPECTRUM
Business news covers a huge range, including:
COMPANIES: from supermarkets to arms manufacturers
FINANCE: from bond markets to the International Monetary Fund
CURRENCY: from dollarisation to the Euro
ECONOMIES: from annual budgets to trade balances
COMMODITIES: from coffee beans to oil
Business journalism is still journalism and all the normal guidelines still apply: concise and accurate writing, clear sourcing, balance, strong leads/intros that are properly "backed up", well-selected quotes, flowing narrative, and so on.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Who are you trying to reach? Don’t patronise a knowledgeable audience, don’t confuse an ignorant one.
ALL NEWS IS ABOUT PEOPLE. When you can get individual people and the impact on their lives into the story, then do so.
LOOK FOR THE "CHARACTERS" BEHIND THE NEWS. These are the larger-than-life heroes or villains who bring charisma to your reporting. It is not just star businessmen and women, but central bankers, industry gurus, pundits, even regulators.
USE CONTEXT. It is as important in business news as anywhere in journalism. A story about a stockmarket crash needs comparisons with previous stockmarket crashes. For a merger or takeover, show where the two companies rank in the list of the main players in that market sector, or what proportion of the total sector they represent. How does your country’s budget deficit compare with those in other, similar economies?
THINK LATERALLY. Business news can come from the weather, social trends, war, disasters and now sports, as well as from the obvious political and commercial sources. See the business story in Harry Potter, in late snowfalls, in disasters, even in football matches.
You don’t need to be an economics expert to become a business reporter; you need a clear head, an ability to learn quickly, and basic ease with numbers and simple calculations. As in so much journalism, it is often not what you know, but whether you know where to ask.
In the final analysis, the key to writing good business news is largely common sense.
Numbers are the business reporter’s best friend and worst enemy:
Best friend: nothing illustrates a general point more than a figure, something concrete, accurate and unarguable. “Profits grew a bit” means nothing, “profits grew eight per cent” gets it across.
Worst enemy: you are telling a story, not compiling a statistical record. If a number adds value to the piece, and conveys interesting information effectively, then use it; otherwise use words.
USE FIGURES SPARINGLY. Radio and television audiences find it hard to absorb more than two or three figures in an average news report. Newspaper readers can take slightly more. The challenge is to weave them into the text so as to help the narrative, not disrupt it. Put any figures of marginal interest at the end.
COMPARE. Numbers are usually meaningless without comparisons. “Profits rose 10 per cent last year” is an excellent result compared with two per cent a year for the previous decade, but a terrible result compared with an average of 20 per cent a year.
USE PERCENTAGES. Percentages are a magic wand. A mass of indigestible figures becomes at once straightforward and clear. Compare “Turnover rose to $418m from $378m” with “Turnover rose 11 per cent” or “Sales were down to $583m from $714m” with “Sales dropped 18 per cent”.
ROUND OUT NUMBERS SENSIBLY. The figure 234,879 is usually best given as 235,000 – a difference of 121 is rarely significant at that level. On the other hand 23,789 can either be rounded up to 24,000 or down to 23,750, depending on how close a comparison you want. Similarly, 4,357,000 is usually easier for the audience to absorb presented as 4.4 million or 4.35 million.
CHOOSE CAREFULLY. Take care in deciding which figures to use, especially in reporting company results. In their press releases, managers tend to stress those figures, which portray their performance in the best light. Go to the bare numbers in the table at the bottom to decide the main news angle yourself.
THE ART OF LANGUAGE
Business news, like almost all news, is best told in everyday language. Don't use street slang or poor grammar, but straightforward and simple prose. You want to put your message across as quickly and "economically" as possible, not show off flowery, ornate constructions. And keep your sentences short. Aim, in English at least, for a maximum of one principal clause and one subordinate clause per sentence.
FIND THE RIGHT BALANCE. The terminology you use should be neither over-simplified nor over-complex for your audience.
STAY AWAY FROM JARGON. Jargon is a disease of careless journalists, who forget that what is everyday terminology for them may be mumbo-jumbo to the general public. Business leaders, bureaucrats and politicians can also use it as a smokescreen, aiming to confuse and mislead.
On the other hand, some economic concepts can only be described by a word which is unique to that field and is widely understood. You will only annoy British readers/listeners by trying to use “interest rates on house purchase loans” instead of “mortgage rates”, with which every house owner is familiar.
USE ACRONYMS SPARINGLY. Acronyms are tremendously useful for saving space. But use them sparingly and not too many in the same piece. Otherwise “alphabet soup” threatens. It is usually best to give the title in full at first reference.
FOR THE RECORD… The adjective "record" undoubtedly adds news value, but don't debase it by excessive use. And make sure the term is valid. It would be ridiculous to refer to “record turnover” for a company which only last year merged with another and almost doubled in size.
HOW BIG IS BIG? HOW SMALL IS SMALL? As with all journalism, descriptions like the biggest, shortest and highest give added “bite” to a business story. But take care. Definitions are often subjective and open to challenge, rankings can change rapidly. A bank may be big in assets, but not so big in profits.
MAKE THE CONNECTION. If the name of a company is not well-known, find a description which makes a connection to the audience. Stock descriptions such as "French metals group Pechiney" or "aerospace and healthcare company Smiths Group Plc" are useful. Even better is something noteworthy from the company's history or portfolio, such as "formed by the 1999 merger of British Steel Plc and Royal Hoogovens NV" or "owner of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team".
FOR THE PEOPLE
Always bear in mind the implications of your story for ordinary people, ordinary readers, listeners or viewers. Your audience may be as interested in "what it means for me" as in the “big picture”. Think how your news relates to that journalistic staple the average family with its average income and average number of children sitting round its average kitchen table. Exactly how you present this in your story is up to you and depends on the style and market of your news organisation. Here are some examples:
The impending bankruptcy of a major firm on the other side of the world looks fine as a straightforward business news report. But if one of its subsidiaries operates in your country, readers and listeners will be more interested to know whether they, or people they can relate to, are going to lose their jobs.
The “big picture” of a government’s annual budget statement may be the overall health of the economy, a rise or fall in government borrowing, the weighting of the tax structure. Your audience may be more gripped by a leap in the price of their cigarettes, an increase in their next income tax bill, or the prospect of cheaper children’s clothes next year.
A rise in the value of a currency has implications for the country’s balance of payments, trading balance, debt status, and so on. For the consumer the impact that counts may be cheaper foreign holidays and imported cars and computers.
A glut in world coffee production can have interesting effects on the economies of Brazil and Colombia, and a knock-on effect on the world drinks market. Your audience may be more interested to know whether it means cheaper cappuccinos at the local coffee bar or lower prices in the supermarket.
There are some stories which do not lend themselves to this approach. It is hard, for example, to make a merger between two relatively little-known investment banks or brokerages “relevant” to the average family. But there are plenty which do.
This is not an appeal for a simplification or “dumbing down” of business news. It does mean that you should bear in mind the likely interests and priorities of your readers and listeners and decide how to present your story in a way they find absorbing and relevant.
SEEKING OUT SOURCES
For forecasts of coming figures and assessments of their significance once they are made public, avoid the temptation to rely on your own view. Go to the experts.
WHO ARE THE EXPERTS? Analysts who are also players in a particular market are worth using, so long as you can quote them openly. If they insist on anonymity, then be cautious and speak to as wide a range of analysts as possible to get a balance of views and interests.
Best of all are independent analysts who have no stake in pushing a market up or down or in promoting one view over another. Their only “interest” might be in getting their name in print, which coincides happily with your own. But if they have already taken a public "position" on a stock -- a recommendation to buy or sell -- it should be mentioned in your story.
WATCH MARKET MOVEMENTS. Don’t forget the first and most obvious of all the “experts”, the market itself. People who have money at stake are likely to be following events even more closely than you. So watch for market movements. If a company announces a five per cent rise in profits and its share price goes up, the experts probably consider it a good result, if the price goes down, a poor one.
The markets may also get things wrong. Watch out for herd instinct. Dealers may individually think a share or a currency is priced too low, but they cannot swim against the tide for long if the herd thinks differently. Profits are made through going with, or rather just ahead of, the herd. So it is often more profitable for traders to predict how the market will react than to judge the facts on their merits.
Author: Oliver Wates
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