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Six Rules for the Business Writer's Craft

By John Helyar
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Somewhere back in the distant past, when cities had evening newspapers and families had three TV networks to choose from, someone must have decreed that business journalists were supposed to be drones.

Sportswriters could write colorful tales, and sports columnists could offer outrageous opinions. But to cover business was to be formal, formulaic, even dull. Well, bunk.

There's as much drama in the field of business as on any field of play. There are as many fascinating characters in boardrooms as locker rooms -- if not more. Yet we business journalists still too often limit ourselves in how we cover the beat. And in an age that's left our cities' evening newspapers and Cronkite's Evening News far behind, we are nothing if we are not telling strong tales and providing distinctive takes to our readers. They have all the financial data and breaking news they could want in the age of Yahoo! Finance, CNBC and bloggers galore.

Our value-added is to take them a step beyond the charts and the press releases -- into the characters and dynamics that truly drive business. So please fellow scribes no more self-imposed straitjackets.

Define your beat and imagine your journalistic possibilities as broadly as possible. Use compelling narratives to take readers to the heart of the most important matters, whether global economics, paradigm shifts or corporate scandals. We need to write as if business isn't the dullest beat on the paper, but the richest -- because it is.

And here, immodestly, are my six personal rules for the business-writing craft.

1) Don't quote analysts. Sure, they seem to imbue your story with authority; sure, they speak in handy sound bites. But they aren't oracles, they're pimps -- hustling stocks and cultivating business for their firms. There are so many other sources who have good dope about the companies you cover -- competitors, consultants, union leaders, you name it. Others may have agendas and axes to grind, too. But calling them, instead of speed-dialing an analyst, is the first step in taking a fresh approach to covering business. So please make this mutual-assistance pact with your colleagues on the business desk: Friends don't let friends quote analysts.

2) Don't do drive-by shootings. Odds are that the best stories you'll ever write are based on relationships established over a long period of time. In the course of daily newspaper stories, it's tempting to make glib conclusions or forego those extra calls that can change a story. But you've got to think about the long run and the forging of long-term relationships. Those are based on developing trust and getting not just the facts, but also the tone of your stories right. Writing our book, Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, was made possible by one key thing: trust. Bryan Burrough and I had covered the six-week bidding war for RJR Nabisco on a day-to-day basis and had developed reputations for keeping our word, for being accurate, for trying to sort out the truth from the spin. When we decided to do the book, the people to whom we needed full access fully opened up to us.

3) Be a storyteller, not a prosecutor. When you're covering a great conflict, a great scandal, a great anything that makes for a blockbuster tale, it's very tempting to take sides. These stories tend to lend themselves to stock characters: good guys and bad guys, geniuses and buffoons. But, most often, it's neither accurate reporting nor compelling storytelling to paint everything in black and white. It may seem counter-intuitive, but shades of gray are actually much more interesting. When I was covering the sports business for The Wall Street Journal, I did a story on NFL owner Art Modell after he'd abruptly moved his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. He was vilified locally, nationally, probably internationally. But my reporting pointed me to a more nuanced tale than another denunciation. I wrote about how Modell had gone from being the king of his town to a second-rate power, after Cleveland's baseball and basketball teams got new facilities, how he'd been both financially and emotionally wounded. I think that was a better story, and so I say: If you want to be a prosecutor, go to law school; if you want to be a storyteller, don't get too one-sided.

4) You've got to put the bowl down where the dog can eat it. My old boss, John Huey, provided this wise advice whenever my writing veered out of control. His point: We are not here to make fine points that may impress our sources but that lose our readers. We are here to explain stuff. Our job is to take the jargon of CPAs and MBAs and translate it into English. When Bryan and I set out to write Barbarians, we had a simple goal: to write a book that our mothers could understand. Passages on the intricacies of convertible debentures or the nuances of corporate law were strictly forbidden. I think we succeeded. It turned out the only language that seemed to throw our mothers was all the cussing.

5) Think out of the usual box. Don't go for the usual default explanations for a mogul's actions or a company's results. You need to push yourself to a higher level of understanding of your subject to really deliver the goods for your reader. When I started working on a profile of Richard Scrushy, the former CEO of HealthSouth, I want to avoid the "G" word -- greed. It had been so overused in describing what drove other white-collar scoundrels like Bernie Ebbers and Dennis Kozlowski that it had ceased to have meaning. So I called up a psychologist friend, listed Scrushy's traits and asked if there was some kind of psychological diagnosis that described him. Sure, she said: narcissistic personality disorder. Now THAT was interesting, and that was the framework for my story. There's a thin line between charismatic leadership and narcissistic personality disorder.

6) When dialing for sources, take chances. Particularly when a business is in crisis, there are lots more people who are eager to see the truth come out and willing to talk than you might think. Sure, you have to venture outside your usual tried-and-true Rolodex; sure, you have to make a lot of after-hours calls. But if you want good, nitty-gritty stuff, try the middle-managers who do the real work; the corporate pilots who know the big-shots' peccadilloes; the vendors who know why their payments are late. I once interviewed an Atlantan known as "Tommy the barber," as he snipped my hair, and I got an earful about the follies at Coke, whose executives he regularly shears. I guarantee you couldn't have gotten that kind of dope from any analyst!


John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

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Comments

Hi, John,

I loved your article, "Six Rules for the Business Writer's Craft" I've been teaching business writing for more than 25 years, and your excellent advice would be very useful for many of the corporate communications people who attend my classes.
Janis Fisher Chan

John,
the trend in journalism is to switch in 3-5 years from sector/branche. how to build trust. the trend is also speed. news is more and more a commodity. how to organize yourself in the daily shackles of a paper and get out of the mood of daily publishing into that different year. Grateful if you could comment on that one. pieter. loved your book by the way. it is still a boys dream to write that one.

Hi, John,

I found your tips very useful. How 'bout coming to Massachusetts to offer these in person?

This is a wonderful tip to my writing business news stories and features.
Thanks.

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