Robert's Feed
Apr 8, 2011

You don’t have to write like a businessperson just because you cover business

I’m already trying to edit myself. That headline is off. It should say, “You should not write like a businessperson just because you cover business.”

You often might think to yourself, upon reading my blog posts, “yes, of course, Robert. Tell us something that we don’t know.” But remember this: when you read our stories, you often see a swamp of business jargon. Some reporters where we work have told me that they read our stories and then visit the New York Times website to find out what’s really going on because they can’t penetrate the business talk. Some endorsement.

Apr 8, 2011

Unchain my supply

What is a supply chain? I read about it every day when I edit stories. It appears to be a global network of companies that build things that go inside the things of other companies, and so on. I can imagine a hypothetical supply chain: someone makes rubber somewhere in Asia, and delivers it wholesale to a company that cuts it up into little pieces. Those little pieces become little pieces in the cog of some other product made by another company that goes inside an engine (or something) of yet another company. That company then sells the vehicle (as it were) to some other company that uses it for yet another reason.

My question: can we stop calling it the supply chain? Is there a better word or more descriptive phrase? I don’t know. I do know, however, that “supply chain” and “global supply chain” sound like literary crutches for people whose ability to produce well written articles is suffering from a chronic disability.

Apr 7, 2011

“Oil major” irritates me in a major way

I spy the term “oil major” in our stories more often than I should. In fact, spying it once is spying it too often. Oil majors, judging my searching on the Internet, appear to be the world’s biggest oil companies. Wikipedia says they are BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Total SA. Well, Wikipedia says they are “supermajors.” Does that mean that there is a lower tier of plain old majors?

Why bother to have the argument? Let’s refer to them as “the world’s biggest oil companies” when we write about them. Maybe we can say, “Chevron, one of the world’s biggest oil companies…” and not, “Oil major Chevron…”

Apr 1, 2011

Three phrases to avoid when writing about government

There surely are more than three phrases that you must avoid when you’re writing stories about things that the U.S. government is doing. Two of them stand out, however. I know them well because I used them many times before realizing that I was doing harm, not good.

    Regulatory regime

This is the term that we journalists use to talk about a legal state of affairs. We talk about how education companies or software companies are dealing with doing business under one or another kind of regulatory regime. I don’t know who came up with this phrase, but whoever it was, good on him or her for being the first. The rest of us have worked it to death, however. Do regular people know what a regulatory regime is? Let’s instead say that the companies are doing their business under rules that do this or that, or make it easy or hard for them to operate. We don’t have to say they’re operating in a regulatory regime of any kind. To me, that sounds like companies are operating under repressive Sandinistas. They might feel that way, but we don’t have to agree with them.

Mar 29, 2011

Beyond the press release (Beyond the edge of the world)

Howard Luxenberg, a Reuters journalist from 1972 to 2003, wrote me a note regarding my earlier blog post about how reporters ought to spend more time calling people at home and more time digging for news instead of lining up for spoon feedings. You will recall that this angered a public relations worker, who said that such behavior amounts to stalking.

Your quest is a good one.  If you can instill one thought in journalists looking at a press release it is:  tell me something that isn’t in the press release.  This gets them thinking and searching, and helps unlock the mystery to good reporting and a successful career.

Mar 28, 2011

The scrapple of writing tips

Every hack must sling some hash once in a while. Here are my leftovers. Plenty more to come after this.

Sector.” Avoid it. Same with “bolt-on acquisitions.” Don’t write these things. There is never a good time for them.

Mar 24, 2011

Calling people at home for a story? You heathen!

A public relations person at a well known company told one of my reporter colleagues here that he was stalking board members of a company that he covers. Why? Because he called them at home, and had not told her before what story he was working on. He was supposed to obey company policy and go through her, not call people at home. She suggested that this was not only wrong, it was unethical.

Her email:

It has come to my attention that you are now calling our Board of Directors at home.  As I have said before, our process is that you need to submit your request for an interview through this office.  I have never had an issue before with a Reuters reporter – they have all shown a great level of professional courtesy while at the same time doing their jobs.

Mar 22, 2011

HP, Dell assess Japan earthquake impact

SAN FRANCISCO/BANGALORE (Reuters) – Hewlett-Packard Co (HPQ.N: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) is assessing the impact to its business from the disaster that struck Japan earlier this month while rival Dell (DELL.O: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) said it sees no immediate disruption to its supply chain.

None of HP’s offices around Tokyo sustained major structural damage, the computer maker said in a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. It also said that all its employees are safe.

Mar 21, 2011

What we mean when we talk about ‘hustle’

It’s easy to work a wire service job by coming in at your appointed hour, working hard all day long on interpreting poorly written press releases and security filings, and then leaving, not to think again about the grind until you return to it.

But the best reporters bring what Americans often call “hustle,” the idea that you can take the predatory nature of the pool hall shark and combine it with the Protestant work ethic and once you mix it with journalism, gradually get to the point where you break news.

Mar 20, 2011

What I do when I start out and I don’t know anything

1. I read everything that everyone has written about the beat I’m covering. I go back five years. Everything.

2. I write down every name. If the people have enough experience in the business, I’ll check the archives 20 years back to find out what they were saying when I was in college.