Corporate culture, BusinessWeek and odd dreams

Corporate culture may be like pornography. Defining it is tough, but you know it when you see it.

It has rules, ways for people to behave toward one another and the outside world. It has a purpose, perhaps helping a group of people to rally around the company mission. It has history and, indeed, is the legacy of people who’ve created it and pass it on to newcomers. In the end, it’s a means for preserving the tribe and indoctrinating the young.

Corporate culture is also perishable. It can be damaged or destroyed by new managers. Or it can be used by them to help organizations adapt to changing times.

Take BusinessWeek, my employer of 22 years. It was a place whose culture so infused many of us that at times we felt like our first names were “BusinessWeek reporter.” Many of us came to identify so closely with BW that it changed our worldviews. We looked at business, even at life, in different ways, thanks to the values we absorbed, the way we worked and the things we learned at the feet of our elders.

Even now, as I teach journalism students, I share the values I learned at BW. “No story is ever 100% positive or 100% negative,” I tell them, echoing a mantra I learned from a Corporation department editor. Magazine stories are all about point of view, which is what makes them different from most newspaper accounts, I say, echoing longtime editor Steve Shepard. As you take a stance, he’d add, you must give room to dissenting views, even if minimizing them. There’s no such thing as objectivity; there’s only fairness. And — something I learned from my first BW boss, Todd Mason — when at press conferences, keep your mouth shut and ask your questions of sources privately (why share your ideas with rivals?). Finally, you must be analytical, since you’re not being paid to be a stenographer.

There’s much more, of course. I use a guide to writing that longtime correspondent Stewart Toy put together to teach students how to write. It’s wonderful for teaching about anecdotal ledes, nut grafs, developing a theme and balancing it with skepticism, and employing the art of the kicker. It’s the kind of thing I wish I had when in college and grad school so many eons ago. And it reflects some of the corporate culture BW developed over the decades since its founding in 1929.

Bloomberg Businessweek, as it is now called, is a very different place now than when I left 18 months ago. Since then, Bloomberg bought the book, installed new management, changed much of the staff and set up a system in which its 2,300-reporter global network feeds content into the magazine. That’s one heckuva of larger and more potent reporting base that we could have ever hoped to tap, even with a bureau system that boasted some top talent around the world.

Bloomberg has also infused the outfit with its culture. It has brought to bear a sense of egalitarianism, for instance, in which private offices don’t exist and people work cheek by jowl in rows of modest desks in the New York headquarters. Editor Josh Tyrangiel’s desk seems to boast just one perk, proximity to a window, but many others in the organization have the same perk. This culture is well-described in a recent issue of American Journalism Review by Jodi Enda, who coincidentally is a former colleague from a prior employer.

I’m reminded of all this because of an odd dream that awoke me before dawn today. A longtime staffer at BW had died in the dream and another staffer wanted to pay tribute to her. I wound up contacting Keith Felcyn, the longtime chief of correspondents for BW who had hired me, and we talked about how to make this happen. A podcast maybe, I thought. We didn’t use that term, of course, since podcasts didn’t exist when Keith reigned.

Odd as it was, the dream left me feeling warm and fuzzy. I suppose everyone who has left a cherished outfit may feel the same at times. “Back in my day …” and all that.

Nostalgia is only part of the reason former BW staffers stay in touch. There’s an annual reunion (which, sadly, I’ve been unable to attend because of school obligations). There’s a Web site through Linked In. And ex-BW folks — at outfits such as Reuters, Yahoo!, McKinsey, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or teaching at various universities — often are in contact. Colleagues such as Chris Roush at UNC and SMU’s Mark Vamos have been invaluable to me as I learn the ropes in teaching. And just next week, Lauren Young of Reuters will graciously speak to a class at Nebraska. Peter Coy and Ron Grover, both still on staff at the book, have similarly done so.

Some of us bump into one another, unexpectedly at times. A few months ago, Rick Dunham of Hearst, Jane Sasseen of Yahoo! and Frank Comes of McKinsey were among several BW vets who wound up joining another veteran, Joyce Barnathan, at a dinner in D.C. for her organization, the International Center for Journalists. The ICFJ sent one of our former BW colleagues, Bob Dowling, to teach in China for a couple years. I’ll be going there under its auspices in the fall.

As I shared a drink with my buds at the D.C. gathering, it was hard to avoid getting choked up and mourning the passing of the culture that had brought us all together – and changed many of us. I suppose such sentimentality underlays my dream about the passing of former colleagues. The place mattered a lot to us all.

Today, networking and helping one another along is part of the reason for maintaining ties, of course. Some of my students will be joining my former colleagues as interns and I hope many more will over time.

But we also keep the lines intact because we have a lot in common. Like Marines or others who live and work in insular or idiosyncratic outfits, we know the rules — at least as they used to be. We were part of something special, a place where talent and mutual respect were held high, and we know what to expect of one another. What’s more, thanks in part to how BW shaped us, a lot of us just like one another. A healthy corporate culture can make that happen.

Pistol-packing teachers: now that’s an idea

When a Nebraska state legislator introduced a bill the other day that would open the way for teachers and administrators in schools in the state, including universities, to carry concealed guns, I’m not sure he fully appreciated how visionary the measure really was. It is, without doubt, one of the most far-sighted, politically astute and economically savvy pieces of legislation ever to be floated in Lincoln, Neb.

This bill, sure to be resisted by those blinkered pantywaists in Omaha and the university community in Lincoln, could transform the state’s economy and put Nebraska on the global map. It ought to be cheered from the Iowa border to Colorado. Let’s examine the implications.

First, school districts and the university are straining under budget pressures these days. If teachers and administrators could tuck Glocks under their vests, legions of security guards could be let go. Indeed, the campus police force at UNL and every other university campus in the state could be disbanded. When every academic is packing, criminals are sure to stay out of the classrooms, dormitories and poorly lit passageways traversed by coeds late at night. Think of the massive and instantaneous budget impact. Billion-dollar state budget shortfall? Gone in a flash of gunpowder!

Consider, too, the intellectual and financial benefits. If freshly armed professors chose to settle their disputes like men, instead of in those insufferably genteel discussions at faculty meetings, we’d have a lot fewer faculty members after a while. Odds are, too, that the survivors would be the brainier right-thinking types. Many of the rest are probably tenured, so this move would deal with that problem nicely, too. We’d save a bundle on inflated salaries and wind up with quick-thinking profs who have their heads on screwed on properly.

Sure, there could be some minor problems. Teachers drawing down on one another outside crowded classrooms or in faculty dining areas might be a bit disruptive, at times messy. But students adapt to just about anything and we do have janitors for a reason. Let’s not let such small issues hobble us.

Politically, moreover, this is a brilliant move. A bill like this forces legislators to put their convictions out on display for everyone to see. Not sure if your legislator is a Second Amendment champion? This’ll out him. And this way, we could rid ourselves of the overeducated urbanites who hide behind those wrong-headed complaints about gun violence and crime. You know, many of them are following secret agendas inspired by Moscow and Beijing to disarm Americans anyway. This bill will eventually force them out as voters see their true colors.

The measure is also an economic stroke of genius. When Nebraska becomes a place where real Americans can stride around with holsters heavy and hearts full, more Americans will want to visit. Eventually, many will move here. Our kind of people will desert those decadent and dangerous cities on the coasts and flock to the rolling prairie, where they can fire at will at anything that disturbs them. Our population will swell, first with tourists and then with permanent newcomers.

Don’t underestimate those tourists, either. This is Nebraska, after all – a place where six-shooters on both hips were once commonplace. With no trouble at all, we could recreate the glory days of the Nebraska Territory. People would wander the streets even in places like Lincoln looking for low-down varmints to eradicate. Our bars could reinstall those nifty swinging panels on their front doors. Men could play poker, curse, drink and spit a lot while busty women saunter around in fluffy skirts. Think of the possibilities of evoking a time when real freedom existed in the state and our country, when we didn’t rely on slick lawyers and worry about Miranda Rights and such.

What, you say, this is supposed to be the 21st Century? Gunfights have gone the way of player pianos.  Now, we have laws and police and courts and such. Poppycock. It’s weaponry we all need. The bad guys are packing, after all, and the only way for decent folk to counter that is to carry even bigger guns. Let’s hope our legislators don’t stop at concealed handguns, but let us have assault weapons in our elementary, high schools and colleges. With any luck, someone clever on campus could develop a concealable bazooka – why are we paying those academics anyway, if not to come up with nifty new things? Indeed, Nebraska could become a Silicon Valley for weapons-makers.

But, really, what we should hope for is the ability to drive tanks to campus. Legalize armored personnel carriers and you’ll really scare off the bad element. They would also guarantee all of us right-thinking folks good parking spaces.

This bill, put forward in the wake of a tragic high school shooting by a mentally troubled student, is certainly evidence that some legislative leaders in the state have been bred and reared right – isn’t it? Then again, it could be a sign of maybe a little too much inbreeding in somebody’s family.

Making business journalism sexy (almost)

Looking for ways to make business journalism come alive for students? How about creating scavenger hunts for juicy tidbits in corporate government filings? What about mock press conferences that play PR and journalism students against one another? Then there are some sure bets – awarding $50 gift cards to local bars for mock stock-portfolio performances and showing students how to find the homes and salaries of university officials and other professors – including yourself — on the Net.

These were among the ideas savvy veteran instructors offered at the Business Journalism Professors Seminar last week at Arizona State University. The program, offered by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, brought together as fellows 15 profs from such universities as Columbia, Kansas State, Duquesne and Troy, as well as a couple schools in Beijing, the Central University of Finance & Economics and the University of International Business and Economics. I was privileged to be among those talented folks for the week.

We bandied about ideas for getting 20-year-olds (as well as fellow faculty and deans) excited about business journalism in the first place. The main answer was, of course, jobs. If they’d like good careers in journalism that pay well, offer lots of room to grow and that can be as challenging at age 45 as at 20, there really are few spots in the field to match. These days, with so much contraction in the field, business and economic coverage is one of the few bright spots, with opportunity rich at places such as Reuters, Bloomberg News, Dow Jones and the many Net places popping up.

The key, of course, is to persuade kids crazy for sports and entertainment that biz-econ coverage can be fun. The challenge is that many of them likely have never picked up the Wall Street Journal or done more than pass over the local rag’s biz page. The best counsel, offered by folks such as UNC Prof. Chris Roush, Ohio University’s Mark W. Tatge, Washington & Lee’s Pamela K. Luecke and Reynolds Center president Andrew Leckey, was to make the classes engaging, involve students through smart classroom techniques and thus build a following. Some folks, such as the University of Kansas’ James K. Gentry, even suggest sneaking economics and (shudder) math in by building in novel exercises with balance sheets and income statements.

Once you have the kids, these folks offered some cool ideas for keeping their interest:

— discuss stories on people the students can relate to, such as the recent Time cover on Mark Zuckerberg or the May 2003 piece in Fortune on Sheryl Crow and Steve Jobs, and make sure to flash them on the screen (at the risk of offending the more conservative kids, I might add the seminude photo BW ran of Richard Branson in 1998)

— scavenger hunts. Find nuggets of intriguing stuff in 10Ks or quarterly filings by local companies or familiar outfits such as Apple, Google, Coca-Cola, Buffalo Wild Wings, Hot Topic, The Buckle, Kellogg, etc., and craft a quiz of 20 or so questions to which the students must find the answers

— run contests in class to see who can guess a forthcoming unemployment rate, corporate quarterly EPS figure or inflation rate

— compare a local CEO’s pay with that of university professors, presidents or coaches, using proxy statements and Guidestar filings to find figures

— conduct field trips to local brokerage firm offices, businesses or, if possible, Fed facilities

— have student invest in mock stock portfolios and present a valuable prize at the end, such as a gift certificate or a subscription to The Economist (a bar gift card might be a bit more exciting to undergrads, I’d wager)

— follow economists’ blogs, such as Marginal Revolution and Economists Do It With Models, and get discussions going about opposing viewpoints

— turn students onto sites such as businessjournalism.org, Talking Biz News, and the College Business Journalism Consortium

— have students interview regular working people about their lives on the job

— discuss ethical problems that concern business reporters, using transgressors such as R. Foster Winans as examples. Other topics for ethical discussions might include questions about taking a thank-you bouquet of flowers from a CEO or traveling on company-paid trips, as well dating sources or questions about who pays for lunch

— discuss business journalism celebs, such as Lou Dobbs and Dan Dorfman

— discuss scandals such as the Chiquita International scandal (Cincinnati Enquirer paid $10 m and fired a reporter after he used stolen voicemails)

— use films such as “The Insider,” “Wall Street,” and “Social Network” to discuss business issues

— use short clips from various films to foster discussions of how businesses operate. Good example: “The Corporation”

— team up with PR instructors to stage a mock news conference competition pitting company execs in a crisis against journalism students. Great opportunity for both sides to strut their stuff.

We also heard helpful suggestions from employers, particularly Jodi Schneider of Bloomberg News and Ilana Lowery of the Phoenix Business Journal, along with handy ideas from Leckey and Reynolds executive director Linda Austin, a former business editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. My biggest takeaway: run some mock job interviews with students and teach them to send handwritten thank-you notes.

And we were treated to some smart presentations by journalists Diana B. Henriques of the New York Times about the art of investigative work (look for her new Madoff book), the University of Nevada’s Alan Deutschman about the peculiar psychologies of CEOs (narcissists and psychopaths are not uncommon), the University of Missouri’s Randall Smith’s view of the future for business journalists (it’s raining everywhere but less on business areas). We got some fresh takes on computer-aided reporting, too, by Steve Doig of the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as well as on social media by the Reynolds Center’s Robin J. Phillips.

For anyone interested in journalism, especially biz journalism, it was a great week. As I take the lessons from ASU to heart, my students will be better off. My thanks to the folks there.

There, there, dear: do tears belong in the classroom?

In “A League of Their Own,” that wonderful 1992 film, a young woman player makes a dunderheaded toss and breaks into tears as coach Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) yells at her. “Are you crying?,” he asks, stunned. “There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!”

Boy, can I feel for Dugan. So far, I’ve had to deal with four incidents of tears in school. One time, I believe, the bad toss was mine. In the other cases, well, I’d point to hormones, undergrads facing job-like pressure for the first time or sheltered young women beginning to discover the world isn’t such a kindly place.

Still, I felt as flummoxed as Dugan did. Making girls cry is something only a true jerk would ever feel good about. This is so, even though a wiser colleague at Nebraska, veteran teacher and hard-boiled journalist Kathy Christensen, tells me tears come automatically with breasts. She shrugs them off.

Just under three semesters into my academic career, I don’t find the waterworks easy to dismiss. But, dear reader, you be the judge. Let me know if I blew it or could have handled these situations better:

Case No. 1 – I encourage an outstanding magazine-writing student to pursue an internship with Bloomberg Businessweek, my old employer. Before Bloomberg bought it, the mag had a tradition of taking on bright young interns, most of whom had no business training but who had lots of smarts. A colleague at the mag looks over her materials and says she’d be a wonderful recruit and he could use her skills in projects on business schools; he recommends her, as do I.

But, in myriad ways big and small, BW has changed. Bloomberg has her take a three-hour online test, parts of which are heavy on business knowledge (of which she has none, as everyone involved knows). She fails badly and folks there tell her she’s not a candidate. She comes into my office, crushed and weeping.

So I feel like a heel. I put her into a bad spot, after all, and she suffers for it. It also doesn’t help my credibility with the new BW regime.

Was I wrong? If students are willing to take a test and do badly, is it my fault? I warned her there would be business material on the test, even reviewed some general things with her. But I didn’t realize how much the game had changed. Seems to me I blew it. Did I?

Case No. 2 – As is my normal practice, I flash a student’s paper on the screen from a classroom projector. As a class, we criticize the work. I point out the positives and negatives of the piece, and suggest ways it could be improved. It’s pretty benign and no different from other critiques. We’ve had many such critiques that day. The class doesn’t say much one way or the other about it.

The student waits a bit after the lights come up, but then mutters to me, “you gave me a terrible grade on the paper, then humiliated me in front of everyone. I’m done. That’s it.” And she storms out, furious and in tears.

Her grade, a C+, was not on the screen, though her name was (regular practice in these editing and review sessions). Also, while rushing out, she informs me she will drop another class with me that she had signed up for the following semester and, later, she tops it all of by giving me a scathing evaluation at the end of the course.

Is it wrong to criticize students’ work publicly? The class involved peer-editing, so students criticized one another’s work in every assignment. And, in journalism don’t we face critics every time a reader opens a paper and curses about something he or she reads? In the end, I don’t fault myself for this one, but the drama did throw me.

Case No. 3 – A student has promised a colleague that she would deliver a finished video about a trip the colleague and I took with eight students to Kazakhstan in May. The students are no longer in our classes; some have even graduated, so we have no real sway over them.

The due-date comes and she hasn’t got the goods, but has several legit-sounding reasons. The colleague and I bemoan the fact that several students are behind – a hassle he has had in prior classes – and he gets a bit hot about the general problem. It’s a big thorn in the side for him.

The student, a smart and delightful videographer, breaks into tears. She then begins to apologize, explaining that it’s the time of the month for her (she really said that), she’s got problems with moving to a new city and she’s been working and traveling nonstop for weeks. My heart, frankly, goes out to her. I say, it’s not you that’s the problem here; it’s the general issue of how we can get students to comply with deadlines. I’m sure you will get your work done (which eventually she does, at least most of her work).

When I complain to my colleague later that we shouldn’t be making girls cry, he says, “They make themselves cry.” It’s not his problem, but theirs, he suggests.

So, was she being manipulative? Were we right to rant? Is a deadline a deadline?

Case No. 4 – A top student interviews with an internship recruiter. She says a couple silly things – including asking whether she needs to tell her soccer league that she can’t referee for a week during the internship – and strikes a tone the recruiter says is arrogant. In fact, he tells me afterward that he’s written “humility?” several times on his notes about her.

She comes by and I tell her I’m going to give her some no-holds-barred criticism about her interview. It won’t help her, I say, if I mince words, so I don’t. I tell her precisely what the interviewer had told me, and advise that appearing arrogant cannot help in such settings. You’ve got to seem humble, even it’s just for appearances. She breaks into tears, denies arrogance and says she was not asking for a week off for soccer. He misunderstood, she says, pleadingly.

This is one where tough-love was warranted, I believe. Still, the waterworks were troublesome. My own self-criticism: do mock interviews with students first from now on, giving them pointers that can spare them from making such mistakes. (By the way, she got the internship).

So dear reader, what say you? Are tears something teachers should slough off? Is it better that our kids shed them before they get into the workplace, where the consequences of mistakes can be far uglier? And how would you advise someone, still mystified by the half-adult psyches of undergrads, to deal with them? I’m thinking maybe I’ll just tell the kids that there is still no crying in baseball.

Double-dipping?

Gentle reader,

Here is an excerpted take on the question of a double-dip recession, from the people at CalculatedRisk, a blog I dip into now and again. Echoes a post here a couple days ago, but with some more detail. Call us a pair of Pollyannas, but maybe we’re onto something.

Personally, I get nervous when conventional wisdom all moves in one direction — as the sliding markets lately seem to suggest. I’ll stick with the contrarians.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010
2nd Half: Slowdown or Double-Dip?

by CalculatedRisk on 6/29/2010 04:00:00 PM

No one has a crystal ball, but it appears the U.S. economy will slow in the 2nd half of 2010.

For the unemployed and marginally employed, and for many other Americans suffering with too much debt or stagnant real incomes, there is little difference between slower growth and a double-dip recession. What matters to them is jobs and income growth.

In both cases (slowdown or double-dip), the unemployment rate will probably increase and wages will be under pressure. It is just a matter of degrees.

The arguments for a slowdown and double-dip recession are basically the same: less stimulus spending, state and local government cutbacks, more household saving impacting consumption, another downturn in housing, and a slowdown and financial issues in Europe and a slowdown in China. It is only a question of magnitude of the impact.

My general view has been that the recovery would be sluggish and choppy and I think this slowdown is part of the expected “choppiness”. I still think the U.S. will avoid a technical “double-dip” recession.

Usually the deeper the recession, the more robust the recovery. That didn’t happen this time (no “V-shaped” recovery), and it is probably worth reviewing why this period is different than an ordinary recession-recovery cycle.

# First, this recession was preceded by the bursting of the credit bubble (especially housing) leading to a financial crisis. And there is research showing recoveries following financial crisis are typically more sluggish than following other recessions. See Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff: “The Aftermath of Financial Crises”

An examination of the aftermath of severe financial crises shows deep and lasting effects on asset prices, output and employment. … Even recessions sparked by financial crises do eventually end, albeit almost invariably accompanied by massive increases in government debt.

# Second, most recessions have followed interest rate increases from the Fed to fight inflation, and after the recession starts, the Fed lowers interest rates. There is research suggesting the Fed would have to push the Fed funds rate negative to achieve the same monetary stimulus as following previous recessions. See San Francisco Fed Letter by Glenn Rudebusch The Fed’s Exit Strategy for Monetary Policy.

The graph from Rudebusch’s shows a modified Taylor rule. According to Rudebusch’s estimate, the Fed Funds rate should be around minus 5% right now if we ignore unconventional policy (obviously there is a lower bound) and probably close to minus 3% if we include unconventional policy. Obviously the Fed can’t lower rates using conventional policy, although it is possible for more unconventional policy.

# Third, usually the engines of recovery are investment in housing (not existing home sales) and consumer spending. Both are still under severe pressure with the large overhang of housing inventory, and the need for households to repair their balance sheet (the saving rate will probably rise – slowing consumption growth).

On this third point, I put together a table of housing supply metrics last weekend to help track the housing market. It is hard to have a robust economic recovery without a recovery in residential investment – and there will be no strong recovery in residential investment until the excess housing supply is reduced substantially.

During previous recoveries, housing played a critical role in job creation and consumer spending. But not this time. Residential investment is mostly moving sideways.

It isn’t the size of the sector (currently only about 2.5% of GDP), but the contribution during the recovery that matters – and housing is usually the largest contributor to economic growth and employment early in a recovery.

Two somewhat positive points: 1) builders will deliver a record low number of housing units in 2010, and that will help reduce the excess supply (see: Housing Stock and Flow), and 2) usually a recession (or double-dip) is preceded by a sharp decline in Residential Investment (housing is the best leading indicator for the business cycle), and it hard for RI to fall much further!

So I’m sticking with a slowdown in growth.

A mentor’s passing

Chris Welles, a longtime editor at BUSINESS WEEK and former teacher of mine, died the other day. Chris Roush, who edits the blog Talking Biz News, ran the piece below.

I suspect it is one of many tributes to come about Welles, a major figure in business journalism.  I had occasion to write about Welles myself a few weeks ago. He and another former BW editor, Ron Krieger, introduced me to the foreign world of business journalism in 1980 at the Columbia J School. It’s not too great a stretch to say the pair changed my life.

Welles asked tough questions of business people, making for penetrating journalism. He had a hand in much of the best work BW published. Only time will tell, but I believe that BW peaked during Welles’ time there.

Some profound thoughts here by a former editor for us all at BW:

Ex-BusinessWeek editor Shepard fondly remembers Welles  — 2010.06.21

Talking Biz News asked Steve Shepard, the editor of BusinessWeek from 1985 to 2005, for some thoughts about business journalist Chris Welles, who worked at BusinessWeek for 13 years and died this weekend.

Here is what Shepard, now the dean at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, had to say:

“Chris Welles was a genuinely good guy with a journalistic soul. He very much believed that it was the job of the press to hold people in power accountable for their actions and to ferret out wrongdoing. He spent his career doing that, first as a writer, then as a senior editor at Business Week. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Chris was probably the premier business writer around, the guy who did the tough stories.

“In his early years, Chris was one of the regulator writers for Institutional Investor, an innovative magazine about Wall Street in the 1970s. He specialized in narrative accounts of shennaigans, abuses, and downfalls. He was also a very successful freelancer, contributing to New York magazine, among others. From 1977 to 1985, he headed the Walter Bagehot Fellowship Program in Business and Economics Journalism at Columbia University. I had served as the first director (1975-76) and Soma Golden the second (1976-77). The program ran into financial difficulties during Chris’s tenure, but he fought to continue it and eventually weathered the storm. Now called the Knight-Bagehot Fellowship Program in Business and Economics Journalism, it has just finished its 35th year as a mid-career opportunity for business journalists.

“When I was editor-in-chief of Business Week, I jumped at the chance to hire Chris in the mid 1980s as a senior writer specializing in investigative and narrative pieces. Though he was soft-spoken and always polite, he was a tenacious reporter with a passion to get the bad guys. I eventually promoted him to senior editor in the finance department because I figured his impact would be felt more by having him work with writers every week rather than write a piece himself every couple of months. And I wanted him to teach the next generation of upcoming reporters. Chris took to editing like a fish to water, passing along a lot of knowledge about finance, a lot of wisdom about reporting complex stories. He was respected and liked by his colleagues.

“Like Lou Gehrig in 1939, Chris started losing some of his skills, and nobody knew why. He was eventually diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease and retired from Business Week. It was a tragedy for him and his wife Nancy, and a terrible loss for all of us. He took business journalism to a new level, setting the bar ever higher for the rest of us. He has left a legacy for all of us to honor.”

Kazakhstan — Underexposed by Design

Fearlessness is helpful in a journalist. For photojournalists – especially those working abroad – it is mandatory. This is becoming clearer every day here in Kazakhstan, a place where cameras seem as welcome as American robber-barons would have been in Moscow in 1917.

Our photojournalism students are having their mettle tested here. Repeatedly, as they try to shoot in seemingly public places, they are waved off. Scary-looking security guards pop out of buildings, flailing their arms and jabbering away in Russian or Kazakh to tell them “no pictures.” The other day, as all eight students and I approached an indoor market area, a guard radioed to a colleague perched on a rooftop high above us. Roofman formed X signs with his arms to make it clear that no snapping was allowed. And all we wanted was lunch!

Fortunately, the students are rising to the challenge. They are using friendly smiles, charm and a certain fearlessness to disarm reluctant subjects and persuade them they mean no harm. Yesterday, as Patrick Breen was shooting fortune-tellers near the Green Market he managed to stave off some character who was accusing him and Elizabeth Gamez of being from the FBI and somehow helping foment a Kyrgyzstan-style revolt. They also persuaded a fortune-teller to let Patrick photograph her (in a scarf above) even though many of her colleagues protested the attention. (Patrick’s fortune looks bright, by the way, she told him).

People do usually welcome our students once they understand what they’re up to. With the help of one of our guides, Travis Beck got one of the photos attached here at a “family home,” a kind of orphanage located in Talgar, 20 kilometers east of Almaty. Director Eskozhina Tuyak, smiling over the bread, was happy to tell him about the place – called “Nur,” Kazakh for sunlight – which houses some 66 college students, some married couples and others. Some 110 people aged 4-25 live at the place, which Tuyak started in 1998 by selling her personal apartment. She worked in the state’s ministry of education for 43 years.

This is a country of many contradictions. On the one hand, people could not be more hospitable. Our waitress in an Internet coffeeshop, for instance, went out of her way yesterday to help us get a ride to our next appointments, visits to the Internews press-advocacy group and the Kazakh Stock Exchange. And folks there, similarly gracious, helped us get back on an exchange bus. We wander about at will, with no one holding us back or shadowing us. Travis was also able to photograph a group of children at play, below.

On the other hand, it’s a place where security concerns loom large, often pointlessly so. The hostility to cameras, for example, is widespread. Signs in restaurants bar photography. People in cafes gesture “no” with their hands and shake their heads when our students point cameras at them. No photographs are permitted, we were told, during trading hours at the stock exchange – only shots of the empty trading floor after hours.

Theft is not uncommon, we’re told. Don’t hand your cameras over to anyone to shoot your picture because they’ll take a flier with your gear. And yet, the common way of getting around is taking what our kids call “random cabs,” standing in the street and holding your hand low until some random person picks you up and you negotiate a ride around the city – always under 500 tengey (about $3.25). It’s common for women to accept such rides well into the evenings, and we took a couple random cabs yesterday.

It’s as if there’s a blend of Central Asian tribal hospitality and Soviet-style state paranoia. Since the country was a part of the USSR until the early 1990s and remains heavily Russified, worries about security and a need for control seem to be woven into the cultural DNA. Why does our nearby indoor supermarket have three guards, one stationed near the entrance and two just outside the cash register area, even as one or two more stand sentry at the mall entrance? Why do buildings under construction need guards in their lobbies? Why do police cruise the streets at night, pulling people over for U turns on deserted stretches of road or checking IDs? And why is Google’s eblogger seemingly jammed?

Certainly, security worries are a big part of the American experience, especially since 9/11. Think about how guards now roam with abandon across all areas of American life and security has become a huge industry, going far beyond the airports. New Yorkers are considering putting virtually every street under surveillance. And plenty of American institutions, such as corporations and government bodies, bar press photography on their premises unless it’s under tight control. Here, though, it’s security on steroids, whether justified or not, and without the newest technology.

Another thing that has struck us is the lack of homeless people. This plague, rife in American and European cities alike, seems not to be an issue here in Almaty. We have seen none. Partly, we’re told, this is because people are family oriented here and take care of their own. Partly it may be because mentally incompetent people are confined by the state, as they once were in the U.S. There are a few scattered beggars – see Patrick’s photo of one unfortunate footless man – but no bedrolls in the parks or people pushing grocery carts. Poverty is an issue, to be sure, but its human face in the city seems less obvious.

So I must admire our student photographers. They are managing through these challenges, finding fresh ways to show life in this fascinating society. Our work, of course, should be helpful to the place, as we tell readers about how ordinary Kazakhs go about their days – whether they run apple orchards and brokerage operations or pray in the mosque or, as in Patrick’s photo below, play with pigeons.

As they rove around, cameras in hand, the students are surmounting all sorts of obstacles. Language difficulties, transportation challenges and persuasion of reluctant sources. It all demands a bit of nerve, and they are summoning it in spades.

Kazakhstan: The Tale Begins

So today, the adventure begins. We head off to Kazakhstan. E-tickets in hand, bags packed, passports in our secret waistband pouches (designed to never leave our bodies to stave off pickpockets and such). This will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip for eight high-energy journalism students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, a colleague here and me.

But what a headache getting to this point. First there was that nasty business in Kyrgyzstan. Even though we had read up on the country, listed stories we planned to tell and developed contacts for them, mapped out a detailed travel plan, etc., the folks there decided to go and have a revolution. It’s that “hopey, changey thing,” I guess, since the economy there was in the Dumpster and corruption reigned. Bottom line for us: fascinating stories there, sure, but it’s a no-go on safety grounds.

So, we’re going next door. We’ll pop in on a country akin in size to Western Europe, a place of forbidding desolation on the steppe and remarkable beauty, in places such as the Red Canyon of the Charyn River. Ah, doesn’t that sound like something out of a fantasy! Just check out the image of Lake Kaindy on the top of this post. Much of the country, in fact, sounds like something out of “Lord of the Rings.” One imagines traveling the countryside like Hobbits on a crucial mission. Certainly, Kazakhstan sounds nothing like the place Sacha Baron Cohen satirized in “Borat,” an image Kazakhs are understandably keen to erase.

We’ve moved fast to get up to the speed on the country. Replicating our Kyrgyzstan research, we’ve reached out to contacts in the last couple weeks, developed tentative story lines and done our best to nail down an itinerary. There will be much to tell: unlike Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan is relatively well-off, enriched by natural resources including oil and uranium. It has modern cities in Almaty, the financial capital hard by China, and in Astana, the political capital, more centrally located. Urban wealth and rural poverty should make for intriguing contrasts.

There’s also a ton of history there that influences the place today. As a longtime Soviet Union member, until independence in the early 1990s, the place was a favorite dumping ground for Stalin. The remnants of Gulags endure not far from Astana and Russian survivors of the exile camps and their descendants still live in the area. A bit further from Astana is Semey, a place where the Russians tested nuclear weapons, leaving a population that to this day exhibits the genetic problems and deformities spawned by radioactive contamination. It’s the reason Kazakhstan has renounced nuclear weapons, selling its uranium for peaceful uses, it says.

Politically, the country is run by a former Soviet Kazakh leader who remains remarkably popular. Nursultan Nazarbayev, we’re told, has brought economic stability and a general level of comfort that has some folks calling Almaty the Singapore of Central Asia. While not as free a place as many countries in the West – with restrictions on the press and little political debate– it is nonetheless a thriving state-directed capitalist economy that seems to do right by most of its citizens. It has a stock exchange that I’m hoping to visit in Almaty and its capital, Astana, rose Brasilia-like by design at the instigation of the national leader.

Religiously, it sounds like a fascinating place, too. As far as I can tell, the people follow a modernized version of Islam. We intend to visit Saudi-funded mosques to test this theory. I suspect the radicalism that infects other stans, notably Uzbekistan, is missing from Kazakhstan. It sounds something like Turkey.

We’re not as well-prepared as I’d like to be, though, given the short prep time we’ve had, we’re better off than we might be. We have apartments reserved in Almaty, have made contacts there and in other cities we intend to visit and have a general itinerary. But we will make a lot of decisions on the fly, based on the guidance of folks we meet. Essentially, we will ask where the most intriguing stories are and pursue them. This will be a journalism of discovery.

My colleague, Bruce Thorson, is nonplussed by the lack of a detailed roadmap. His experience in South Africa and Kosovo, on prior reporting trips, involved thorough preparation and then the need to toss it all out once on the ground. As in wars, battle plans prove useless once the fracas begins. We’ll meet folks in Almaty and Astana, he says, who will lead us where the news is. And, indeed, we both have reached out to a good number of folks who are amenable to helping.

So, unless the volcano in Iceland gets in the way – a lingering cloud, ahem, on our route through Germany — we’re off shortly to Omaha, Chicago, Frankfurt and Almaty. We leave in the early afternoon today and arrive a bit after midnight Almaty time on Wednesday. United and Lufthansa will carry us literally half-way round the world from Nebraska. Should be a great ride.

Making the Grade

It ain’t rocket science.

But a few friends — BUSINESS WEEK veterans Rob Hof, Rick Melcher, Bill Symonds and Lauren Young — graciously helped to keep me and my students flying this past semester. They provided reality-checks on one of the toughest chores a journalism teacher faces — grading.

Grading is a knotty affair. What’s the difference between an A- and a B+ piece of work? More to the point, does anybody give a C in these painfully grade-inflated days? One student came to me all wide-eyed and indignant saying she had never gotten a B+ before, wondering why I would do such a terrible thing to her (turned out she was not telling the truth, as another prof advised me).

The problem is that judging journalistic work, like any piece of writing or creative effort, is subjective. A friend used to say there are three things no man can to do to another’s satisfaction: poke a fire, make love to a woman, and edit a newspaper. With rockets, they go up or they don’t. With journalism, the measures are less tangible.

So, we at Nebraska ask outside colleagues to evaluate samples of student work. Sometimes, the real-world folks agree with our judgments. Often, they don’t. In either case, it’s good for us and the students. For me, the outside comments have been a bracing slap in the face, a helpful sense of how smart readers and editors will treat the student work. (The outsiders review the work samples after we have graded the papers, after the course is over and the student grades are in. The reviews serve chiefly to keep my perspective straight.)

A few pieces I graded highly came in for some helpful heat. One, about the rise of homelessness among families in Lincoln, Neb., buried the nut graf atop page four, Rick Melcher said. And he complained that the story “loses focus” despite the “great, moving examples.” He rated it only satisfactory in reflecting news judgment and use of interviewing skills and said the
writing needed improvement.

Interestingly, Bill Symonds agreed that the piece would “benefit from a good editor.” He said the writing “needs to be cleaned up.” But Bill rated the news judgment as outstanding and gave satisfactory ratings on interviewing and writing. His summary: “I liked this story a lot.” He said it was “well-researched and generally well-written.”

So, even the outsiders will often view things differently. Smartly, it turns out, but differently.

Like the others, Rob Hof warned that he was using BUSINESS WEEK standards to judge the undergrad work, fretting that he may have been overly critical. But high standards — real-world standards — are just what I wanted. One of the problems in academics is we lose touch with what the field demands. Euphoric at what seems like good work compared to some really poor stuff, we give A grades to pieces that in the outside world may be mediocre.

Rob was tough on a piece that compared recruitment of athletes with recruitment of grad students. He said it needed improvement in news judgment and focus, as well as writing. He rated it satisfactory on interviewing and research skills. “Overall, the issue of academics vs. sports in universities seems a little tired, and the arguments presented by the academics seemed especially old and not very sophisticated.” Ouch!

Lauren Young, too, took a strict line on a news story about a controversial downtown development effort. She gave satisfactory ratings on news judgment and interviewing skills, but said the writing needed improvement. “Everything is in the piece, but the articles needs stronger, more active language to sing,” she said.

A couple other colleagues are still mulling the student work. I’m eager to see what they have to say.

These outside judgments, which at first struck me as a strange and repetitive thing to pursue, are hugely helpful. If nothing else, they’ll stiffen my spine to give out more Cs when appropriate. It’s better that students know what the world would really think, even if that means awkward conversation with those who’ve never earned anything less than an A.

My thanks to those who helped out, and I hope I can call on you again.

JW