Long before India became the flavour of the season in the West, Subrata N. Chakravarty was the highest ranked Indian journalist outside India. Managing editor of Forbes magazine under the venerable and venerated James W. Michaels, Subrata’s long career has seen him wear various hats, as editor, manager, mentor, banker, analyst, and more.
NOTES ON BUSINESS JOURNALISM
First, a couple of caveats.
Hard news must be a “just the facts” kind of story, with both sides represented, even if one side is lying or makes no sense. The reader must make that decision.
What follows is applicable only to analytical journalism.
There are lots of definitions of “good” analytical journalism and many magazines and newspapers practice it. I am giving one definition, which I have followed for more than 25 years, but others might call it “bad” journalism. It is something to bear in mind as people move from job to job. The definition of good journalism varies.
Always, always, always get your facts straight. Critics may, and sometimes will, argue with your interpretations of those facts, but if the facts are wrong the credibility of your analysis is shot. If your facts are correct, critics will have to account for that.
All business stories come down to management. A good management can make a mediocre company much better and a bad management can, in time, destroy even the best company. The quality of management comes from the Chief Executive. So look at the CEO and look at the management. This applies equally to the Board for Control of Cricket in India as to Wipro or Infosys – or Anand Jon.
Business journalism should entertain as well as offer insight. We should write as the “drama critics of business”. What that means is that we should make it clear who the star is and who the dope. That may not make you popular with management but it’s a lot of fun to read—and it offers your insight to the reader.
The essence of a good story about a company is: What’s the strategy? Does it make sense? Even if it makes sense, is this the management that can carry it out? They are not necessarily the same. Some managements know what needs to be done, but can’t execute the strategy themselves.
A company’s top management is not the enemy, but a journalist should always be skeptical of the official version. You should tell chief executives before you begin an interview that they should not draw any conclusions about the tenor of your story from the questions you ask. Then ask the hardest questions you can. The reason is simple: if a CEO can answer the tough questions, you don’t need to ask the easy ones. If they cannot answer the tough questions, the answers to the easy ones don’t matter. Warning a CEO before the interview starts leaves fewer hard feelings later.
Recognize that not every reader is interested in a given company. Those who are investors in the company will read every word, no matter how badly written. An analytical journalist’s audience is everyone else.
In practice that means you “grab ‘em by the throat in the lead, ram ‘em through the story and get ‘em out before they stop to think: ‘Why am I reading this?’ You do that by holding readers’ interest with anecdotes, quotes, color and insight. Readers should move on to the next story feeling they have learned something, or got an investment idea, AND have enjoyed the reading.
Objectivity is overrated. What most journalists call objective results in “two-handed” stories—on the one hand, this; on the other hand, that—until the reader has no idea what the story is. Both sides in an analysis are not necessarily equal. You owe it to your readers to be objective in your reporting—meaning gathering both sides of the story. You must then decide, based on your analysis, where the balance of the truth lies, and argue that side as a prosecutor would present a case. There is an implicit compact between the writer and the reader that the writer has weighed the facts fairly before deciding what to write. Betray that trust and you lose the reader—probably forever.
Objectivity is overstated. Complete objectivity means regurgitating everything you have learned, without any selectivity. It is useless as analysis and would be boring to read if any publication actually did that. Every publication has biases, which creep into a story. You owe it to your readers to make your bias clear. Good reporters will have perhaps three times as much material as they can use. Choices have to be made: to use this fact and this quote, and leave out other information because in our judgment, it is less important. The minute you start making those judgments, you lose any claim to objectivity. Read about the same company in the Financial Express, Business India and the Economic Times and you will wonder whether the reporters were looking at the same company. Forbes doesn’t offer shades of grey; it has only black or white. It has no obligation to cover news. A story is written only when there is a story to be told. Forbes writers tell the story as they see it and they make their biases clear from the start.
You don’t necessarily go wrong by being contrarian. When everyone is arrayed on one side of an issue, look at the other side. Joining the mob doesn’t make for stories worth writing. Sometimes the better stories are on the other side.
In developing story ideas, be aware, put pieces of disparate information together to see if there is a different picture of what is going on. Sometimes the puzzle has more than one solution.
If you’ve never been wrong on a story, you never took a risk. To lead the pack in analytical journalism you must sometimes stretch out on a limb.
Never be embarrassed to ask seemingly obvious or stupid questions. Sometimes the answers may offer a surprising insight.
Don’t try to impress your source with how knowledgable you are. You work for your readers and quotes are better than your observations. Try to structure questions that don’t have easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, but encourage people to be thoughtful and discursive in their answers.
Your sources, competitors and others you respect will not always agree with your conclusions. That doesn’t make you wrong. Trust your analysis, your judgments and your instincts.
As for writers, I respect Allan Sloan of Newsweek enormously. He’s a former colleague from Forbes, who has the facility to see and explain clearly the convoluted machinations of executives and tricky deals. He’s cynical, skeptical and funny and is gleeful in explaining what people do NOT want explained.
I like Carol Loomis of Fortune a great deal as well. She writes elegantly and with passion, especially when she’s angry about something – or someone. She wrote a three-page story on AT&T CEO Robert Allen in 1992 which I will never forget. She stripped him bare of any excuses for his performance. It was the most savage, factual attack on an executive I have ever read. Allen was dismissed not long after.
Those are two writers who have a consistent standard of quality in business journalism. I’ll read anything they write because I always learn from them. The rest of us have ups and downs, so you have stories that are excellent and stories that are barely passable. There are stories I’m very proud of having written and stories that make me cringe . Fortunately there are quite a few more of the former!
And the one person whose work readers never see is the editor—in my case, James Michaels. His touch was, for 37 years, on EVERY story in Forbes—almost always for the better. He had the ability, at his best, of changing just a few words in a story and making it dramatically better written and more persuasive. It’s a very rare quality, and it has to be experienced to be understood. I can only say I hope you have such an editor one day and, better yet, become one yourself.
Notes on Business Journalism was first drafted for students of the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media, Bangalore, by Subrata N. Chakravarty