The tough challenges of covering local businesses

by | Aug 1, 2013 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/August 2013

Nearly 50 employees are out of jobs due to the decision of an out-of-state insurance company to close its local office. We caught word of the news through an employee and promptly carried a report. The company never made a public announcement.

In contrast, another company with headquarters in Red Wing opened a retail store at the Mall of America 50 miles away. Our staff worked with company representatives to prepare a story before the doors opened.

Surprising? Not really. Editors and reporters face the same challenges pursuing stories with “private” officials as they do with “public’ officials. Everyone is eager to share what’s considered good news, but reluctant to talk about bad news.

A major difference is that laws generally guarantee the press access to government news, whether it paints a positive or negative picture. For equally sound reasons, the press does not have the same level of access to information on private business.

The two examples underscore the challenge of providing consistent and credible business reports. The challenge to improve coverage is a two-way street – a message that editors should deliver to their readers, and specifically to business owners and managers, whenever possible.

Most community newspapers devote immense resources to covering local government. But it’s arguable that news about employers – large and small – has even greater meaning. After all, it’s news about friends and neighbors.

Business start-ups, acquisitions and expansions, promotions and labor strikes are obvious stories. Other reports can have an impact on a community, too. For example, a contract settlement at a major employer might set the parameters for other employers.

It’s understandable why a business is at times hesitant to see its name in the paper. Even good news can backfire. Consider the announcement that a company became a corporate sponsor of a national event. It prompted a local resident to question the expense when an employee event was canceled due to an apparent shortage of funds.

Just as businesses can feel the sting of what appears to be straightforward reports, newspapers can feel the backlash, too.

I recall the time we provided a local angle to the potential impact of legislation on financial institutions. We were able to contact all but one of the local banks. The phone rang the next morning with the question: Why did we snub one of the newspaper’s customers?

Editors have a convincing message for underscoring the importance of businesses to talk to the press. Stories straight from the source ensure accurate information that may serve to quash rumors.
Trust between writers and news sources is imperative in any reporting, but especially so when issues involve profits and livelihoods.

The changing business landscape is another challenge to substantive business reporting. Many newspapers enjoy good relationships with locally owned businesses, but it’s just reality – for a variety of reasons – that it’s more difficult to develop those same ties with companies run by out-of-town ownership. Local managers often want to share information, but their hands are tied by corporate policy. Work with them – and their corporate leaders – to persuade them your newspaper is seeking accuracy, not sensation.

The challenge to improve business reporting is reaching a common understanding that reporting on business means covering both the good and bad news. There are a variety of opportunities to underscore the message. Address the issue in a column. Insert a note to advertisers with your invoices. Invite business representatives to a conversation over lunch. Pitch the topic as a program for a local civic club’s meeting.

A one-time appearance before the local manufacturers association will not suddenly transform a
newspaper’s business coverage of business. But it’s a beginning.