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Oct 13, 2009

Using chat or a call center to help your audience

Personal finance writer Harriet Johnson Brackey of the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., helped set up a call center and online chat to give readers access to eight financial-planning experts. The result was a full-page Sunday Q&A, online questions, blog entries and an opportunity to hear from about 400 readers, she says.

“People need help. They don’t have a lot of places to go to get objective advice,” Harriet says.

As part of Financial Planning Week Oct. 5-11, the local association of financial planners wanted to do a community service project. Harriet suggested its members come into the newsroom to take reader calls for three hours. She says reporters and editors willingly gave up their desks around lunchtime to make it happen.

Today’s Tip: Set up a call center and/or take advantage of online chat with experts to answer your audience’s questions about personal finance or the economy.

In the Web 2.0 world, audience members are seeking a relationship with news outlets. Technology makes it easier than ever to engage them in a dialogue with you and with outside experts.

“When you think about the decisions you have to make in your life, your readers have to make them, too. Instead of preaching about economics, get right in there next to the reader [and ask], ‘What resources can I bring to that?’” she says.

Harriet says some may see the project as advocacy, but she sees it as addressing an issue that hundreds of readers have.

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Oct 12, 2009

Using humor to humanize

Diane Cardwell of The New York Times wrote a commercial real estate story that offers another look at people benefiting during the recession: artists getting free or cheap space as landlords seek to avoid empty spaces. The story says:

These “pop-up galleries,” as they are known in Britain, where the phenomenon is already well established, are increasingly taking hold in New York as development advocates and landlords struggle to keep up appearances where commerce and construction have stalled.

The demand among landlords is so high that Chashama, a group that has been working for almost 15 years to find vacant real estate for visual and performing artists, no longer has to go looking. Its founder, Anita Durst, said she gets calls every day from landlords asking her to find art projects for them. Some even offer to cover basic expenses like electricity.

The story offers a variety of voices, which makes it more interesting. For example, Diane provides an exchange between two barbers who work near one of the art exhibits:

His co-worker, James Tucker, said it was, “different, cultural-wise,” saying that he liked some of the artwork on display but that he found Mr. Chang’s road-kill project “really creepy.”

Junior added, laughing, “He should do a Halloween thing with that.”

Today’s Tip: Don’t be afraid to add humor and voices from non-stakeholders to your stories.

As the Barlett and Steele Award winners noted recently, stories need people. Quotes like the ones noted above bring life – and humor – to stories.

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Oct 9, 2009

Finding Real People -- How Barlett & Steele Award Winners Did It

Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston wrote a piece for Bloomberg Markets magazine investigating the fees that AARP collects on members’ insurance policies. The article won the silver award and $2,000 in the Reynolds Center’s third annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism this week.

The story leads with Arthur Laupus’ story:

Laupus stumbled onto something that many members of the world’s largest seniors’ organization don’t know: The group, formerly called American Association of Retired Persons, collects hundreds of millions of dollars annually from insurers who pay for AARP’s endorsement of their policies.

The insurance companies build the cost of these so-called royalties and fees, which amounted to $497.6 million in 2007, into the premiums they charge AARP members, according to AARP’s consolidated financial statement for that year.

Darrell says he got the tip about the AARP fees while reporting on another insurance industry story. He and Gary teamed up, did some comparison-shopping and then realized the hard part: finding people, Darrell says.

While at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Gary learned from Don Barlett and Jim Steele -- for whom the award is named -- that you need to bring the impact of investigative stories home with human examples.

“It’s important to have all of the good details,” Gary says. “Also, it’s really important to have real people in stories. That’s what takes a lot of extra time.”

Today’s Tip: Use LexisNexis, a searchable database that many media outlets pay to access, to find sources in the “Letters to the Editor” section of publications.

Darrell and Gary searched LexisNexis for letters from people complaining about AARP. Many of the authors were listed in online phone directories.

Darrell says they also talked with brokers who knew of clients who’d comparison-shopped for insurance. They found Laupus through a source and learned that he had kept voluminous records, Gary says.

“He was the perfect case study because of the interviews and the detailed paper trail.”

For a tip from The Miami Herald reporters who won the top gold award in the Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism, please click here. For more information on Barlett and Steele, as well as advice from last year's winners, please click here.

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Oct 8, 2009

Tracking criminals in the mortgage biz -- how Barlett & Steele winners did it

Miami Herald reporters Jack Dolan, Matt Haggman and Rob Barry produced a series called, “Borrowers Betrayed,” in January that “found that the state had licensed over a thousand convicted felons as mortgage brokers and had allowed two thousand felons to work as unlicensed loan originators.” That series won the top gold award and $5,000 in the Reynolds Center’s third annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism this week.

Part One of the series says:

State regulators allowed thousands of ex-convicts to enter a profession that gave them access to the most sensitive and personal financial information: credit cards, bank accounts and Social Security numbers.

Those criminals went on to commit nearly $85 million in mortgage fraud, the newspaper found. They stole their customers' identities. They stole their money. They even stole their homes.

The team’s eight-month investigation started after visiting a mortgage broker. The broker bragged about being able to sell all types of loans, and his backroom call center raised red flags for Jack and Matt.

“We half-jokingly checked his criminal background,” Jack said. The check revealed drug and financial crimes, which led the two to ask: “If he can get a license, who else can?”

That revelation, plus a designation for Florida as the No. 1 state for mortgage fraud, made them want to pursue the story.

"A lot of reporting had been done at the top of the food chain on Wall Street, but we wanted to get to the bottom,” Matt says. “The mortgage-broker people were coming face-to-face with the victims.”

Jack says, “The database [of 222,844 Florida mortgage professionals] was the world’s greatest tip sheet, but it took a tremendous amount of shoe leather.” Some of that leather was worn while tracking convicted bank robbers late at night, they say.

Today’s Tips: Realize that once you have the data, there’s still a lot of reporting to do, Jack and Matt say. Also, make sure all of the reporters on a project can work together as a team.

The trio worked together on the reporting, and each wrote one installment of the three-day series. Each part carried all three bylines.

Tomorrow: How did Barlett & Steele silver award winners Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston of Bloomberg Markets magazine investigate the endorsement fees charged by AARP that resulted in higher insurance costs for seniors?

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Oct 6, 2009

Seek Source Diversity

Mitchell Hartman of American Public Media’s Marketplace Money offers listeners a piece that focuses on people who aren’t showing up on the standard unemployment numbers because they’ve given up on the job search.

Mitchell ‘s segment includes the voices of a 54 year old, a 28 year old and an ex-convict.

“Of course, in a recession this deep, unemployment doesn't discriminate,"Mitchell said."Some who've barely gotten into the job market have already dropped out.”

Today’s Tip: Diversify your sources, especially when covering economic issues that affect everyone.

While social media sites like Twitter have helped expand our source searches, you still need traditional pavement pounding to ensure your story captures a variety of people. As a Business Insider piece pointed out, different sites attract different audiences.

For more tips on diversifying sources, check out this handout from No Train No Gain, which offers resources for newsroom trainers.

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Oct 5, 2009

Use the data as a stepping stone

Matthew Preusch of The Oregonian found a story that combined two trends – green and bicycling – to produce a story about businesses using bicycles to save on gasoline costs.

Preusch tied the story to recent Census Bureau stats about bicycling commuters as his news peg then offered a twist:

'Last week new federal figures confirmed what many already knew: Portland has the highest percentage of bike commuters among large cities.

But what those Census statistics don't show is the way bikes are being used on the job, not just to get to and from them.'

Today’s Tip: Sometimes the story is what the data doesn’t show.

The Oregonian produced a short story about the data release itself. Matthew’s article incorporated a community trend to make the story more local and interesting.

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Oct 2, 2009

Getting a jump on the followup story

Colin Barr of Fortune magazine followed Ken Lewis’s retirement announcement on Wednesday with a story about Lewis’s potential retirement pay.

It starts:

"Ken Lewis doesn't have a golden parachute, but he's all set for a comfortable landing -- unlike his long-suffering shareholders.
The Bank of America chief executive officer said Wednesday he'll step aside at year-end after eight years at the helm. Based on the company's most recent proxy statement, he will have $53 million in pension benefits waiting for him when he leaves."

Today’s Tip: Start thinking about the follow up story when you’re working on the big news story.

Other news outlets wrote about possible successors as well as the legal battles that lay ahead for Lewis and Bank of America.

By focusing on retirement income, Colin provided a unique perspective on the CEO’s departure. He found the data using proxy statements.

Keep your eyes out for proxy statements, by Rosland Gammon

Proxy Digging, by Chris Roush

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Oct 1, 2009

Put yourself on the marijuana beat

Covering Marijuana as Business

Trish Regan of CNBC offers a business look at California’s marijuana industry as part of a segment called Marijuana Inc. Inside America’s Pot Industry. The segment notes that “What Kansas is to wheat, Mendocino County is to marijuana.”

Trish covers the industry from the growers’ and sellers’ perspectives while also focusing on the criminal aspect.

Today’s Tip: There’s a good story behind most every business, even the “nontraditional” ones.

Trish’s segment is more than 40 minutes and provides a thorough overview of the California industry. The challenge is usually finding the people, which social networking sites make easier to do.

Racquel Rutledge took a similar look at people scamming the state out of childcare funds with her series called "Cashing in On Kids" for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Her series illustrated the process parents and providers followed to bilk the state out of thousands of dollars.

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Sep 30, 2009

Engage readers with interactive charts, graphics

BBC News reporter Steve Schifferes’ story about bailout spending offers interactive graphics and words to explain how the United States and the United Kingdom have spent the most.

New calculations by the BBC, based on IMF data given to G20 finance ministers, shows these countries have spent a total of $10 trillion (£6tn).
The UK and US spent the most, with the UK spending far more, 94% of its GDP compared to 25% in the US.
That equates to £30,000 per person in the UK and $10,000 in the US.

Seven interactive slides help tell the story before readers even get to the article.

Today’s Tip: Use interactive tools to illustrate your story.

Graphics help reach readers and viewers who won’t get to the end of your story. Yet for those who do, you'll want to make sure your story isn’t just a rehash of the visual data.

For more information on ways to use graphics, read this 2001 article by Joanne Miller of the Charlotte Observer. She details how the paper created its graphics packages following 9/11.

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Sep 29, 2009

Ask the hard questions

Fortune contributor David A. Kaplan’s profile of Charlie Rose offers a lively look at the interviewer.

At Table No. 1 at Michael's, the best seats on the silly power-lunch circuit in Midtown Manhattan, Charlie Rose is holding forth in fabulousness. America's tallest, handsomest, best-connected, most inquisitive, most talkative late-night TV interviewer is greeting media princess Tina Brown and her husband, Sir Harold Evans.
There's Christie Hefner, resplendent in all white, who waves as she arrives, as does Jeff Greenfield of CBS. Charlie barely has time to enjoy his $34 roasted free-range chicken (with natural jus).

But the article isn’t afraid explore the issue of the show’s sponsors. The story even says Fortune contacted all of the show’s underwriters.

The fundraising produces a web of peculiar interconnections between Rose and the people he covers. The foundation of media mogul Barry Diller and fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg is a longtime supporter of the program, most recently in the amount of $200,000. Both Diller and von Fürstenberg have been on the show. So has Rupert Murdoch, overlord of News Corp., which is a Charlie Rose underwriter.

Today’s Tip: Don’t be afraid to tackle the delicate issues in business profiles.

Business profiles require the same balance as other stories. You have to cover the tough questions even if the person is well liked. Start off by being upfront about your intentions to produce a balanced piece. Do your research before your interview and schedule a follow-up conversation to be sure you’ve covered all of the angles.