Ask A Pro
Deputy business editor
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deputy business editor
San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News
Why has business news become such an important part of overall coverage?
Business news is relevant to everyone. We all buy clothing, food and cars. We all pay taxes. Most of us have bank accounts and retirement accounts, and most of us have jobs. So business news is really mainstream news, not a niche. I would argue that it has even broader appeal than sports, since we all have to deal with money.
Newspapers have recognized the universal nature of business topics, so they have devoted more resources to covering them, and they are putting business stories on the front page more often than they used to.
Why did you become a journalist?
Honestly, it was a way to get paid to dabble in a lot of different things. I have wide interests, and I love to learn new things. Since news is by definition focused on what's new, it was the perfect profession for me. I also have a short attention span, and the news changes every day, so it keeps me engaged in the way that my second-choice career, nuclear physics, probably wouldn't have.
I'm not sure that I will remain a journalist forever, but so far, I haven't been able to think of anything I'd rather do, so I'm still doing it. I think in my heart that I always knew I would be in news. I published my first newspaper in the fourth grade with a friend of mine, and I've been drawn to newspapers ever since.
What are your main duties?
I help direct the overall business coverage, working with the other editors to pick the day's top stories and figure out how we should cover them. I also directly supervise some of the technology reporters.
But really, my main job is to solve problems. I help reporters find sources and think through how to structure stories. I help editors set priorities. I actually edit some stories line-by-line. I spend a lot of time planning to make sure we always have some stories in the pipeline because you can't depend on breaking news to fill the newspaper every day. And I deal with top editors to get our stories on the front page.
One thing that surprised me when I became an editor: it's amazing how important the visual elements of a story are. I spend a lot of my time working with artists and photographers on the maps, illustrations and photos that help tell the story.
How did you get interested in business coverage?
Actually, I kind of became a business reporter by accident. As I was finishing my senior year of college, Frank Allen, the Philadelphia bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal at that time, offered me a reporting job. I had never really thought about business journalism until then; like most budding journalists, I thought of myself as an investigative crusader or wise columnist. Frank was famous for teaching young financial journalists, and I guess he saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. He believed that a reporter who didn't know business could actually ask better questions of sources because the sources were forced to explain things in English instead of business jargon.
I liked business coverage but I didn't want to be pigeonholed, so when I moved to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, where I covered state government, business and even some foreign stories to round out my skills. Learning those things made me a better business journalist when I returned to the field.
Is it your sense that there's a demand for journalists with expertise in business reporting?
Definitely, especially in Silicon Valley, where business is such a huge story. Business journalism takes specialized skills, and news organizations tend to pay higher salaries to people who can read a balance sheet, understand earnings and explain how an interest-rate cut affects the economy. Can you describe the range of beats in your newspaper's business department? We have everything from a semiconductor reporter, which is very specialized, to general-assignment business reporters that cover complex topics like the culture of Silicon Valley. We even have a reporter whose job is to cover philanthropy and non-profits. How can I prepare myself for such a career path? Are there certain kinds of classes I should take when I get to college? Magazines or business journals I should be reading? Economics classes are a good start. Understand supply and demand and the basic rules of money. Take lots of humanities classes, too, though, because so much of business is about work, and it's good to know how, say, immigration affects the labor pool. The Wall Street Journal is a must-read. Look especially at its front-page stories, which explain in clear, reader-friendly terms, how business affects real people. Fortune magazine is another good publication. If you're interested in technology, you should read my newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, which is available online at www.mercurycenter.com. Also, get the best internships you can and tell your employer you're interested in business journalism. You'll get great play and lots of attention. (And business interns rarely have to work weekends, so you'll be able to have fun while your friends in Metro are filling in on the cops beat.) If you weren't a journalist, what would you do? Be a day trader. In fact, in 1998, during the dot-com mania, I almost left journalism to day-trade stocks. What held me back was that most day traders I talked to were losing money, and I figured that unless I really wanted to devote a lot of time to learning the ropes, I was going to lose my shirt.