Uncovering Stories in Small Businesses - Chris Roush (Kentucky)


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Chris Roush, business journalism professor at University of North Carolina, presents “Uncovering Stories in Small Businesses” during the free Reynolds Center workshop, “Uncovering the Best Local Business Stories,” in Lexington, Ky. The daylong workshop covered tips on how to find good stories in the business of government, how to cover economic-development agencies at the state and local levels, and how to find public information on private companies. Presenters also discussed how to find stories in small business and publicly available databases, and how to localize national and international stories for your audience. This free training was specifically geared toward community journalists and generalists on tight budgets and small staffs. Another workshop by the same name was later held in Fort Worth. For more information about free training for business journalists, please visit businessjournalism.org.

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Uncovering Stories in Small Businesses - Chris Roush (Kentucky)

  1. 1. Uncovering stories in small businesses: 15 smart questions to ask for small- business profiles April 13, 2012 Chris Roush croush@email.unc.edu
  2. 2. Private companiesn  Writing about small and private businesses can be fascinating because it forces the reporter to dig deeper into analyzing a company’s situation.n  You can’t rely on Securities and Exchange Commission filings to provide the facts.n  You have to interview competitors, interview customers and clients, assess the market and look for clues as to why a small business is successful – or struggling to make ends meet.
  3. 3. Private companiesn  Writing about private companies is a lot like writing about publics.n  However, the information may be harder to find.n  But small and private companies will open up and talk if they are approached in the right way.
  4. 4. The issues
  5. 5. Private companiesn  Find ways to include private companies in broader stories.n  Private business owners and executives can be willing interviews to talk about the local and regional economy.n  They also might talk for stories assessing issues such as a shortage of experienced workers or how they’ll be affected by new laws.
  6. 6. Private companiesn  Many small business reporters focus on issues and trends instead of profiling companies.n  They’re looking at how these small companies are struggling to make it in the business world.n  They’re writing about the decision to provide health insurance and other benefits to workers, and how the cost of doing so can cripple a small operation.
  7. 7. Private companiesn  They’re writing about the struggle of a small business owner to hand his operation over to the next generation after 40 years of running the company.n  They’re assessing the impact of the new Home Depot in town on the local hardware stores that have been part of the community for a half-century.
  8. 8. Private companiesn  With each story, the reporter isn’t writing about the business, but is gaining the trust of the small and private business owner or executive.n  Then, when news specifically about the company merits coverage, they’ll be more likely to open up.
  9. 9. Private companiesn  Like most businesses, the small and private companies need to understand the role of the media.n  Many of them will expect to receive glowing or positive coverage, and when they don’t get it, they’ll be mad.n  Some of them may even believe that positive coverage is a quid pro quo in exchange for their advertising.
  10. 10. Private companiesn  Some stories are written about small and private businesses if they’re unique to the market.n  The Door County Advocate in Sturgeon Bay, Wisc., covered the opening of the first car wash in the county north of Sturgeon Bay.n  But that’s because of its uniqueness – it’s the only car wash for miles. Make it clear that the media outlet decides what’s news.
  11. 11. Private companiesn  Writing about small and private businesses can be done to show how they’re changing and evolving with the community.n  The Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau, Mo., wrote about the influx of immigrant small business owners and international workers in its area in a front- page story.n  The story helped explain go its readers why these businesses are opening around town.
  12. 12. Profiling the private company
  13. 13. Profiling the private companyn  Private company stories are sometimes too positive because they don’t include numbers.n  These stories may seen innocuous, and they’re often written as flattering, positive stories that tell the story of how a business is thriving or succeeding because of its products or its services.n  Many times, these stories can read like advertorials, copy that the business should have probably paid the newspaper to run.
  14. 14. Profiling the private companyn  Profiles of small and private businesses, however, don’t always have to be this way.n  Business reporters fell all over themselves in the 1990s writing about the latest Internet company to go public and make millionaires of its workers.n  Many reporters who write stories about small and private businesses aren’t being as critical as they can be – and should be.
  15. 15. Profiling the private companyn  If things aren’t going good, don’t sugarcoat it.n  If a particular industry is suffering, don’t buy the story that one small business in that industry is telling you when he remarks, “We’ve never had a better season.”n  He’s probably lying.
  16. 16. Profiling the private companyn  The Petersburg Pilot in Alaska focused on the struggles of local salmon fisheries in its paper.n  The story did not mince words. It began:n  Wave after wave of bad forecasts are rocking Alaskan’s salmon fishery as fisherman and processors scramble for that miracle seasick curing patch. The amount of fish not returning is not enough to cause this nausea; the price heaved at the independent fisherman, however, leaves them weak-kneed with sea legs.
  17. 17. Profiling the private companyn  Think of reporting about small and private businesses the same way as stories about larger and public businesses are written.n  They’re just as important to the reader and viewer.n  Because it’s being written about a business that probably hasn’t had much exposure, the piece will probably have more readers wanting to learn about a company they haven’t heard about before.
  18. 18. Profiling the private companyn  Think of writing profiles of small and private businesses as being companies that might be sold, might go out of business or go public in the future, putting them in the public’s eye.n  With stories already written about the company, your media outlet will have the background to cover future stories more thoroughly about the company.
  19. 19. Profiling the private companyn  Small and private businesses like for the media to write stories about them when they’re new and trying to attract customers.n  But rarely do they want the attention when they’re going out of business.n  Still, these stories can also be important because they might reflect on the broader town or county economy.n  If a store couldn’t make it in the town, what does that say about the future of similar stores in the area?
  20. 20. Profiling the private companyn  Reporting about small and private businesses often requires the journalist to focus on the founder of the business or the owner.n  They’re often the ones that control the company.n  Without that interview, though, where do you turn?
  21. 21. Profiling the private companyn  Ifpossible, find out where the founder used to work.n  Maybe someone there can tell you about his work habits or his business ideas.n  Maybe he was fired or dismissed from his previous job, or left his previous employer to start a competing business.
  22. 22. Profiling the private companyn  Many of them are protective of their business, and want a reporter to recognize the long hours and the tough times that were put in to make the business successful, or at least survive.n  If a business owner is reluctant to give you an interview, understand that they’re leery.
  23. 23. Profiling the private companyn  One way to get past the hesitation is to let the business owner see that you recognize the pain that went into building the operation.n  That doesn’t mean your story has to be positive.n  But a good point to make in most profiles of small and private businesses is how they were started and that they have lasted as long as they have.
  24. 24. Questions to ask yourselfn  Whom else should you talk to besides the business owner to keep it from being a one- source story?n  How can you add quick context about the industry to a story on a small business? For example, new coffee shop opens in town – what are the overarching issues, concerns in that retail sector that you should ask the business owner about?
  25. 25. The 15 Questions15 questions for the small or privatebusiness ownern  Many small business owners are wary of questions from reporters, particularly when they’ve never been interviewed before. These questions will show the owner that you’re genuinely interested in telling readers about his company.1.  Where did you get the idea to start your business? How does your background fit into the company idea?
  26. 26. The 15 Questions 2.  How did you fund the business? Did the money come from savings or relatives? 3.  How soon after you first opened your doors did your business first make a profit? How did you celebrate? 4.  What was the hardest obstacle to overcome in getting the business off the ground? 5.  Who do you consider to be your biggest competitor and why?
  27. 27. The 15 Questions6.  How have you grown the business? Has it been through advertising or customer recommendations?7.  Who is your biggest customer? What would you do if you lost that customer?8.  What is your best-selling item?9.  How would you react if a similar business opened nearby? How could you handle the increased competition?
  28. 28. The 15 Questions10. How big do you foresee your company becoming in the next five years? In the next 10 years?11. What would make you sell your business to another company?12. How are your employees involved in the day-to- day decision making for the business?
  29. 29. The 15 Questions13. What is your end game? Do you planto sell the business, or hand it down to anew generation?14. Has your financial performanceimproved or worsened in the past year?Can you give details.15. What is the one thing that you wantpeople to know about your business?
  30. 30. Questions?