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, 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.

Love Me Tender — Elvis’ Time in the Sun

Elvis Presley’s road toward iconhood began at age 18 and ended at 42. Hard to believe that in just 24 years – the blink of an eye, or curl of a lip – this poor southern boy with a guitar changed cultural history and then vanished. It’s also a troubling reminder of how little time we all have to make our marks, however big or small.

This pop-culture reminder of mortality struck home for me as several of us visited Graceland last week after running in the Memphis marathon and half-marathon. For devotees, of course, the place is a shrine and the spot where the King is buried along with his parents and grandmother. Visitors drop little stuffed animals on the graves and scrawl messages on the low stone wall lining the front of the property.

Even though I’m less a Presley fan and more a Dylan, Lennon, Springsteen sort of guy, the visit offered some unsettling truths.

First, some background: Graceland, a doctor’s house not far from downtown Memphis that Presley bought at age 22, is surprisingly modest. Aside from the white-fenced grounds out back where he had horses and a big carport for his car collection, the main house is not much larger than an upper-middle-class home in just about any comfortable suburb. When we were house-hunting, Donna and I checked out houses in Lincoln, Neb., that were more impressive.

But for Presley and his wife and lone daughter, as well as his parents, it was home. Even as he roamed around North America making his name – in Hollywood, Vegas, etc. – he would return to the stone Colonial to hang out with his family and boyhood chums. He even recorded in the Jungle Room, a place done up like a lodge you’d see on safari. Graceland was, one would guess, a palace to a kid who began life in a shotgun shack. He even carpeted ceilings in some rooms, a foretaste of the kitsch that sadly dominates Elvis’s legacy.

For all the crassness around his memory, he was a Colossus in pop culture. Today, a couple outbuildings near the house are packed with gold, silver and platinum record plaques commemorating an astonishing list of hits. A room in one two-story building is lined floor-to-ceiling with them. Elvis was remarkably prolific and hardworking, something belied by his easygoing stage persona or the goofy movie characters he played. He starred in 31 movies – hard to believe, especially since all are forgettable – and he was, we heard, quite insecure about returning to live performances after nearly a decade of Tinseltown.

One of the taped interviews that visitors listen to as they roam around Graceland is revealing, even profound. When he decided to make a record, Presley says, he would pick songs that he believed people would want to hear – not what he wanted to sing, necessarily, but rather what he figured the public would like.

That may seem obvious for someone who wants to sell records or anything really. Anyone with customers knows you need to please them to sell more stuff, right? On the other hand, for artists or other creative people, serving an audience is usually the furthest thing from their minds. They want to give voice to their inner thoughts, to express themselves, perhaps to purge their demons. They want to share their brilliance or their pain. But they aren’t about meeting customer tastes.

Presley was different. His genius was in entertaining. Especially in his grotesque Vegas phase, he was trying to please and pack the house. He didn’t write his material. But he did sing it, of course, with power and panache. He was fun to listen to, and in business terms he knew his market and served it well.

But he also, in his early days, broke the mold. He created the market. He brought a unique style, a personality and an approach that departed from what had gone before. He made Sinatra and such look impossibly passé. He was one of a kind who hit at just the right time for a postwar generation looking to define itself as different and new. With some overstatement, Abbie Hoffman argued that Elvis marked the beginning of a revolution in America. Certainly, his loose hips, sultry voice and swagger – tempered by a nice-guy demeanor – worked for the 1950s set and for many beyond that. He paved the way for my later musical heroes.

That sort of originality is what it takes for anyone to make a deep mark – whether in novels, music, nonfiction, journalism or teaching. Few get to stride the world stage like Elvis, though every kid who plays at being a rock star is knowingly or unknowingly imitating the King. Few have millions paying attention to their writings or their artwork. But even those who reach even modest levels of fame – superstars or just people known for being good researchers, lawyers, doctors, etc. – must bring something fresh to the party. That was lesson number one for me from Graceland.

More troubling for me at age 56 is lesson number two: the preciousness of time. They’re not making more of it, and none of us has enough. For my money, Elvis made his rep for a few years in the ‘50s and fed off that for the rest of his surprisingly short career. A blazing comet when he was young, he was long gone culturally by the time he actually died, at Graceland, in 1977. Similarly, the Beatles did their pathbreaking work for really just a few years in the 1960s. Going to a Dylan concert this past summer was a bit like visiting a museum, and an odd one at that.

The time in the sun is distressingly short for us all, and if you don’t figure out early on how you’ll shine, you may never do so. Remember Tom Lehrer’s wonderful and sad line: “It is a sobering thought, for example, that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for two years.”

There will never be another Elvis. All the kitschy crap – bobblehead dolls and Mr. Potato Head Elvises – that is peddled pathetically across the street from his former home will become a memory. Maybe it’ll take a decade, maybe longer, but a time will come when no one goes to Graceland anymore. The marketers still raking in a bundle on him will find other things to sell.

For now, though, Mr. Presley remains a handy case study in freshness, good timing and the chance we all have to make our mark while we may. This year would have marked Elvis’ 75th birthday. It’s grand that we have the 20-something version to remember.

Darndest Things

Kids say the darndest things.

If I mentioned that Linkletterism to the college juniors and seniors in my classes, I’d get a blank look or worse. First, they would have no clue who made the phrase famous. Worse, they wouldn’t want to be called kids, even by someone with three kids all a smidge older than they are. More to the point, they wouldn’t want me to treat their thoughts so offhandedly.

Indeed, there’s no way I could treat what they say lightly. Early each semester, I ask students in my magazine-writing class to do a short autobiography. I’d like to get to know them a bit and see how well they write. Usually, I get far more than I bargained for. These kids, it turns out, come with baggage.

“I was born in Bethlehem,” one young fellow writes. “Not the one you’re thinking of. Not the one with mangers, wise-men or Saviors. Rather, it’s a ratty industrial town in Pennsylvania whose sole claim to fame is the Philadelphia Eagles training camp at nearby Lehigh University.”

From there, my student says his chief desire is “to avoid the fate” of his parents. He doesn’t want “to be doomed to live decades with a person I don’t really like to simply avoid being alone.”

Then there’s the promising young lady who attended the same all-girls Catholic school as her mom, an Indian immigrant. “I was only 14 years old when my mother received a phone call from my principal telling her I was being expelled from school for being gay,” she writes. “It wasn’t my ideal ‘coming-out’ story, considering I had never brought up my sexuality with my family before, and equally, the repercussions were not ideal.”

And there’s the bright guy whose dad developed such severe obsessive-compulsive disorder that he lost his job, couldn’t drive for fear of killing someone and flipped light switches hundreds of times. “I couldn’t handle people thinking I was living in a comedy when in reality, I was listening to my mother cry herself to sleep in the spare bedroom,” the fellow writes. “I had to stop playing baseball because we couldn’t afford it and I didn’t have anybody who could drive me to practices.”

Whoa, brother. The pieces tear my heart out. I’m not sure whether to reach out to a school shrink to get in touch with the kids (or perhaps to counsel me on how best to take in such life issues). Certainly, Art Linkletter’s kids raised no such problems.

But, after talking with other faculty here – and listening to my own inner counsel – I do what I believe journalism instructors should do. I look at the revelatory work as pieces of writing. Does the writer make his or her points well? Does the piece hang together? Does it invite readers in, set a nice table for them and give them a solid meal? Are there good ledes, nut grafs and kickers? Painful as the accounts may be, do they paint a true and accurate picture? Does the writer do the job with grace and wit?

Today, I put parts of such pieces on the screen for the class to discuss. I read aloud or paraphrased some sections, praising them for their color or nice turn of phrase. I got excited about the anecdotes they sketched out. Unless I had their permission, I didn’t say who had written the more personal material. I kept that anonymous, or at least as anonymous as it can be since the students peer-edit each other’s work.

Like any reader, I prize an honest and thorough account of challenges someone has faced. I encourage the students to tell their stories well, of course, and I’m enormously pleased when they do. But I must admit that I’m pained by their tales, and grow to like them for their candor. It’s real life, folks, and that can be tough. I also wrestle with the temptation to grade them more for honesty than style or organization, something that takes a challenging dose of hard-headedness.

The fact is, as I tell my students, that everyone carries baggage. As we get older, we learn how to hide it better, I suppose, or it becomes less of a burden. It’s because they are kids, I suspect, that they are willing to share so much of what weighs them down now with a stranger, some guy at the front of the classroom who they barely know but who aims to make them better writers.

So is teaching an easy job? Not always. Is it worthwhile? Absolutely.