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Don't underestimate the value of business reporting

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An exchange in an editors’ hotline probed a familiar topic: When is a business announcement considered news, and when is it an ad? The item in question was a new employee at an auction and realty company.

Editors weighed in with a range of answers, all of them predictable.

“Don't do it. If you give advertising away, they won't pay for it.”

“Don't mix ad and editorial. News should not be traded for money.”

“We came up with a feature we will run up to twice a month called Biz Buzz. It carries short) news items on local business if they have something worthy of a mention.”

“I don't think it has to be either-or; reasonable compromise can become a win-win.”

Count me among those in the camp of the last comment. Expanded and aggressive pursuit of business reporting delivers long-term dividends in the generation of interesting editorial content and revenue.

I bring a special perspective to this conversation – 27 years in community newspapers, 21 as the chief gatekeeper in filtering what news got published. A steady flow of business items crossed my desk.

Today I am director of communications for a major business advocacy organization. During my tenure, I also served as chair of the local Chamber of Commerce Board. That in itself would raise questions among many in the newspaper industry and is a topic for another column.

Don’t misinterpret. Don’t expect to read a column promoting that newspapers should bow to every request for business coverage – especially those stories with a positive spin.

But one editor’s comments in the hotline exchange particularly caught my attention: “If the business info doesn’t fit into the guidelines, they have to run an ad. While our paper depends on advertisers, our readers are just not that interested in reading about business.”

Whoa. In all due respect, I encourage all newspapers to broaden their perspective on what is business news – to make it a regular part of your newsroom discussions as an everyday beat.

I also advise you to go slowly on developing business coverage, especially if your newspaper doesn’t do much business reporting now. It can be challenging, especially with the barrage of demands on limited resources. You cannot simply turn on the spigot.

A discussion of business news inevitably prompts many editors to focus on routine Main Street occurrences. A clothing store celebrates its grand opening. A restaurant opens, offering a distinctive cuisine. A flower shop celebrates its 25th anniversary. A new plant manager comes on board at a local manufacturer.

It’s best to have policies for these and other everyday business news. But these stories should be just a starting point when it comes to brainstorming coverage about employers and employees. Business news is much broader than those items which typically qualify for chamber of commerce newsletters. Coverage should be incorporated in the everyday menu of news.

Think for a moment the number of hours that individuals spend “on the job” – not only the hours behind the desk but the extended hours on the job. Think also about the role of businesses – large and small – in the everyday fabric of your communities.

Does your coverage reflect the broad impact of businesses – the people and their jobs - in your communities? Here are a few story ideas.

When is the last time you compared and contrasted local employment with statewide statistics – and then looked for a feature story representing specific trends?

The federal Affordable Care Act is coming under increasing scrutiny. How are local businesses grappling with federal and state health care reform, and what is the impact on employees?

Are companies having trouble finding qualified workers, and what steps are they taking? Many communities are exploring a variety of public-private partnerships to address the shortage.

It’s becoming commonplace for companies to expand into international markets to strengthen their bottom lines. What is happening in your back yard?

There’s no time like the present to brainstorm ideas, and broaden the discussion beyond your newsroom. Invite representatives from the advertising staff and other departments; your newspaper family is typically representative of the community. Select a cross-section of community individuals for a brown-bag lunch.

Expand your business coverage, and the business community will take notice. Merchants will see your newspaper as a vehicle to spread their word about products and services in news and advertising.

News and advertising staffs should have regular conversations on business coverage so everyone is in sync on the definition of news and advertising. There also must be a common understanding that substantive reporting of business includes writing about the good as well as the bad. Editors and publishers will win highest marks from readers and advertisers alike if reporting is fair and consistent. In the end, credible business coverage is a win-win situation. The stories provide solid news content while being a springboard for increasing advertising revenue.