CCJN 4306

BUSINESS JOURNALISM

FALL 2011, UMPHREY LEE CENTER 283

TUESDAYS AND THURSDAYS 2:00PM 3:20PM

INSTRUCTOR: Mark Vamos  mvamos@smu.edu

Office: Journalism Complex in Umphrey Lee Center, No. 208

Office hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 12:30PM-2:00PM

Office phone: (214) 768-3695

Home phone: (214) 821-3173

Cell phone: (917) 399-5761

 

                                                 An Overview of CCJN 4306

 

 

            If there were any doubts that business is one of the biggest news stories out there, the events of the past couple of years have surely eliminated them. For journalists, and their audiences, it is impossible to understand the world around us without an understanding of business and economics. Want to cover politics? As the planet continues to struggle with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the upcoming presidential campaign will be all economics, all the time. Interested in city hall or the statehouse? State and local governments are making tough choices dictated by money—choices that affect students, workers, homeowners, commuters. Sports? Sure, you can cover the game. But the biggest recent story in that world also involved dollars and cents: the NFL lockout. Interested in doing stories that hit your readers and viewers where they live? Millions have lost their jobs, their retirement or college savings, the roofs over their heads or their dreams for a better future.

          That’s why business matters—now more than ever—to news audiences. And it’s why journalists who know how to make business understandable and accessible to those audiences will be in demand in the future. This course is intended to help train those journalists. And because an understanding of business can shed new light on many seemingly unrelated issues, including sports, the environment—even the arts—this course will also show how the skills and insights of business journalism can be applied to non-business topics.

                       

Class objectives

 

In CCJN 4306, you will:

 

Š      Learn to be an intelligent and critical consumer of business and economic news—one who is able to spot lapses of logic, gaps in information, and biases.

Š      Obtain an overview of the world of business, including the structure and function of companies, the role of financial markets, and the impact of world trade and globalization, and learn how to write about these topics clearly and intelligently.

Š      Learn how to use simple arithmetic (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division) as a powerful journalistic tool—one that helps you analyze the world around you and tell meaningful stories about it.

Š      Learn to be skeptical of numbers, especially when they are used to advance an agenda, and practice using common sense (and a little math) to test the truth of numerical assertions.

Š      Become familiar with the basic principles of accounting and financial reporting, learn how to read corporate, non-profit, and government financial statements, and discover what they can reveal to the well-prepared, inquisitive journalist.

Š      Learn the basics of economics (including supply and demand, the business cycle, unemployment, productivity and inflation) and how to write stories about the economy.

Š      Explore the role of government in business and learn how to write about economic statistics and cover institutions like the Federal Reserve.

Š      Learn about reporting business stories from documents, and explore online resources for business journalists.

Š      Learn how to find and talk to people in companies, government agencies, and non-profits, and, especially, how to understand their biases and hidden agendas.

 

 

Readings

 

The required texts for this course are Understanding Financial Statements, by Jay Taparia; Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, revised and expanded edition; and Math Tools for Journalists, by Kathleen Woodruff Wickham, second edition.  Because written assignments must adhere to AP style, students will need a copy of The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. There will also be handouts and supplemental readings.

 

Requirements

 

You will be expected to master a specific body of knowledge: how companies work, how to read financial statements, how stock and bond markets work, and how the economy functions; and to apply that knowledge to written exercises and stories about business, economics, and other related topics. The story assignments will have three primary areas of focus. First, you will learn how to cover business by writing about a publicly traded Dallas-area company. You will be assigned a local company to follow over the course of the semester; you will be expected to familiarize yourself with that company, and to plan for, watch for, and write about news related to it just as if you were a business reporter whose beat included that company. Second, you will learn how to cover the economy by writing about how broad national trends—the economic recovery, the real estate crash, unemployment, etc.—are playing out in North Texas. And third, you will explore how dollars-and-cents issues affect real people through stories aimed at an on-campus audience. You will be required to publish at least three of your stories in the Daily Campus or the business portal of Dailycampus.com. At least one of your stories must include some multi-media element (video, audio, graphics).

There is no final exam, but there will be occasional tests of your absorption of the formal information, and regular quizzes on current business news.

You are expected to read The Wall Street Journal and the business sections of The New York Times and The Dallas Morning News on a daily basis, and to come to class prepared to discuss business and economic news. You should also visit business websites such as Yahoo!Finance, CBSMarketwatch.com, and SmartMoney.com, and watch occasional business-news programming on CNBC or CNN.

 

Note: You must check your SMU email and Blackboard at least once a day. Both are used for vital class communications.

 

Grades

 

Your grade will depend on the quality and progress of your written work; your classroom participation; and the tests and quizzes.

 

Writing assignments inside and outside class: 65%

Classroom participation, including quizzes, tests, and attendance: 30%

Publication requirement: 5%

 

All written assignments will be rigorously graded. Your written assignments will be graded both for content (do they demonstrate that you have obtained and absorbed the relevant business and economic information, do they use numbers and other data accurately and appropriately, etc.) and writing (how’s the lede, the nut graf, the overall structure, the grammar, punctuation and spelling). Note that I weight stories written later in the semester more heavily than stories written at the beginning—improvement counts.

 

Here are the written assignments and due dates for this course:

“Business and Me” 500 words  September 6

“SMU Numbers”    750 words  September 20 (budget line due September 15)

“Company Profile” 600 words October 4 (rewrites due October 18)

“Personal Finance” 500 words November 3

“Economic Statistic” 600 words November 17

“Black Friday”        750 words December 1

 

Note: Besides the scheduled assignments listed above, you are required to write a news story about your company and submit it WITHIN 24 HOURS AFTER THE NEWS IS ANNOUNCED.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, the following policies have been adopted by the Division of Journalism. By enrolling in this class you are agreeing to the following terms and conditions:

 

Reporting standards for all media projects

 

Your story will be graded on content: is it fair, is it newsworthy, is it well sourced? Is the story organized, are all questions answered, and is all relevant information properly attributed? Are direct quotes preceded by strong transitions in print stories? At least 5 points may be taken off for problems like these. For errors of fact, expect 10 or more points off.

You must always tell all of your sources that the story you are reporting could be published or aired on multiple platforms. Your work could appear on news sites both on and off campus. Your stories, in other words, are for public consumption and your sources must know that. 

Friends, colleagues, and family members are not acceptable sources. Unless you have cleared the source with your editor, expect at least 5 points to be taken off for each unacceptable source.

 

 

Mechanical standards for writing

 

*Associated Press style and grammar errors: 2 or more points

*Punctuation errors: 2 or more points

*Spelling: 10 or more points for misspelled names or other proper nouns; 2 or more points for all other spelling errors

*Awkward or unclear phrasing: 2 or more points

 

                               
How to earn an "F" on any media project

 

Miss a deadline. Misquote or misrepresent someone. Rewrite or submit a story or package that was produced for any reason other than this class.

 

Plagiarism and Fabrication

 

Plagiarism is stealing someone's words or ideas and passing them off as your own. Fabrication is making stuff up. Both strike at the heart of the journalistic process, where proper attribution and fact checking are paramount. We will deal with plagiarism and fabrication in the harshest manner possible, including referral to the honors council.

Use of technology in class

You may use a computer in class only to take notes, to work on in-class assignments, or to conduct story-related research during workshops. That means no emailing, web surfing, text messaging, tweeting, friending, unfriending, refriending, etc. You must mute and put away cell phones, BlackBerries, iPhones, and other PDAs. Failure to adhere to this policy will automatically lower your in-class grade by at least 10 points. If you are caught more than three times failing to adhere to this policy, you will receive an “F” for your class participation and attendance grade.

 

 

Attendance

 

Roll will be taken every day. Any student who misses the first day of class may be dropped. More than three unexcused absences and you could be dropped from the course or receive an “F.”  Attendance at the field trip to the Dallas Federal Reserve is mandatory, as is attendance at the Fall O’Neil Lecture as described below. Missing any of these activities will lower your class participation and attendance grade by one full letter.

 

 

You are responsible for contacting your teacher within 24 hours of an absence. An absence will be considered unexcused unless you are able to provide a doctor's note or some other good reason why you were not in class. Absences will be factored into the in-class portion of your grade and will result in a lower final grade. Please note that the SMU Health Center has changed its policy on giving forms for excused absences.  The Health Center’s new policy is found at http://smu.edu/healthcenter/policy/absenceclass.asp.  There is a PDF file in this information that you can download and submit to me for consideration of an excused absence. This form must be filled out fully for me to consider your absence as excused.  As in the past, if you consult a physician for an illness and receive specific certification for a recovery time, absences will be excused if I am given a form from the physician’s office.
 

Tardiness will not be tolerated. Stroll in late? You will receive an unexcused absence unless you can provide a compelling reason (AFTER CLASS) why you were tardy. All course work is, of course, governed by the SMU honor code.

 

 

 

Excused absences for extracurricular activities

 

Students participating in an officially sanctioned, scheduled University extracurricular activity will be given the opportunity to make up class assignments or other graded assignments missed as a result of their participation. It is the responsibility of the student to make arrangements with the instructor prior to any missed scheduled examination or other missed assignment for making up the work. (University Undergraduate Catalogue)

 

 

Religious accommodations

 

Religiously observant students wishing to be absent on holidays that require missing class should notify their professors in writing at the beginning of the semester, and should discuss with them, in advance, acceptable ways of making up any work missed because of the absence. (See University Policy No. 1.9.

 

Disability accommodations

Disability Accommodations: Students needing academic accommodations for a disability must first be registered with Disability Accommodations & Success Strategies (DASS) to verify the disability and to establish eligibility for accommodations. Students may call 214-768-1470 or visit http://www.smu.edu/alec/dass to begin the process. Once registered, students should then schedule an appointment with the professor to make appropriate arrangements.

 

Additional grading information

 

1.     “A”s are rare. They are awarded only for truly excellent work. Very good work receives a “B”; average work a “C”; below average a “D.” This is in accordance with university regulations.

2.     All work will be judged rigorously. Letter grades are based on a 10-point scale. For example, the “B” range is as follows: 80-82 B-; 83-86 B; 87-89 B+. The same spread applies to all letter grades (except there is no A+).

3.     Your teachers will be happy to discuss the content of your papers. If you wish to protest a grade, a formal process is available.

 

 

 

 

 

Deadlines

Just as no professional reporter would miss a deadline, all your assignments must be submitted on time. No late assignments will be accepted, and no makeup assignments given.

 

 

Format for writing assignments

 

Use AP style for all assignments.

Type your name and a story slug on the top left corner of EVERY page.

Use a clear font, such as Times New Roman, and indent paragraphs. At the end of each story, you will list or attach your sources. Telephone numbers or email addresses must accompany human sources. When you have used documents, such as corporate financial statements, government budgets, studies or reports, you must either attach the document or provide a URL I can follow.

You may also be asked to provide your notes to a story. There will be NO EXCEPTIONS to any of these rules.

 

VERY IMPORTANT: You will submit all assignments as Word documents attached to an email to me at mvamos@smu.edu. The email containing the assignment must reach me by the BEGINNING of the class in which it is due (including if you are out sick). I do not need hard copies of your assignments.

 

You will receive back a Word version, via email, containing my editing comments, overall discussion and appraisal, and grade.

 

 

Sourcing

 

It can be difficult to find live sources for student business stories. Writing assignments will be tailored to take that into consideration, and to make it possible for you to obtain and interview human sources. The degree of difficulty is not an excuse to lift unattributed quotes from publications, or to rely on websites for anything other than background, facts, company and market data and statistics. You may not quote from websites, and you may not use family, friends, or roommates as sources. You may use other students as sources ONLY for the stories aimed at an on-campus audience (see “Requirements,” above). Primary interviews should be conducted in person or by phone; email is for follow-up, fact-checking, hole-filling, etc. You should not conduct interviews by email except in special cases, and after approval by me.

 

 

 

Class Schedule

 

The class schedule below is subject to change depending on the needs, interest, and progress of the class, the availability of guest speakers, and news events.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Week 1

Tuesday, August 23

Introduction to the class, explanation of class policies and grading; why business journalism—and the skills of business journalism—matter.

 

Thursday, August 25

The truth about Trump: a look at the goodies you can find in documents, and what the numbers can tell you.

 

 

Week 2

Tuesday, Tuesday, August 30

The language of business: numbers and how to use them in your writing. Read: Math Tools for Journalists, Chapters 1, 2, and 3. In-class exercises.

 

 

 

Thursday, September 1

How numbers tell stories. Read: Freakonomics, introduction and Chapters 1, 2, and 3.

 

Week 3

Tuesday, September 6

Companies: What they are, why they are, how they operate and who owns and runs them. How to get inside them, figure them out, and get sources to talk. Public vs. private vs. non-profit. Read: Understanding Financial Statements, introduction and Chapters 1 and 3. BUSINESS AND YOU STORY DUE.

 

 

Thursday, September 8

Fun with numbers: introducing the income statement. Understanding sales, costs, and profit. Read: Understanding Financial Statements, Chapter 2.

 

Week 4

Tuesday, September 13

The common-size trick, and how to use it to spot trends and stories.  In-class exercises. Read: Understanding Financial Statements, Chapter 4 and pages 81-83.

 

 

Thursday, September 15

Earnings: how to read a release, how to write an earnings story. In-class exercises. BUDGET LINE FOR SMU NUMBER STORY DUE.

 

Week 5

Tuesday, September 20

Guest speaker: Chad Watt, reporter, MergerMarket America.

SMU NUMBER STORY DUE.

 

Thursday, September 22

Writing company profiles

 

 

Week 6

Tuesday, September 27

The balance sheet and cash-flow statement. Review: Understanding Financial Statements, Chapter 2

 

 

Thursday, September 29

Other kinds of “earnings”—government budgets, non-profits, etc. The statehouse, the zoo, and the university. Read: Math Tools, Chapter 8.

 

Week 7

Tuesday, October 4

Financial statements review. COMPANY PROFILE STORY DUE.

 

Thursday, October 6

FINANCIAL STATEMENTS TEST.

 

Week 8

Tuesday, October 11: NO CLASS—FALL BREAK

 

Thursday, October 13

Financial markets—stocks, bonds mutual funds and other stuff. How they work, what they tell us. Read: Math Tools, Chapter 7. Company profile discussion.

 

 

Week 9

Tuesday, October 18

Guest speaker: Charles Fishman, author, The Big Thirst and The Wal-Mart Effect. (tentative)

NOTE: Fishman will deliver the O’Neil Lecture in Business Journalism this afternoon at 5:00. Attendance at the lecture is mandatory.

COMPANY PROFILE REVISES DUE.

 

Thursday, October 20

More on the markets—writing a stock story. In-class exercises.

 

 

Week 10

Tuesday, October 25

Making it personal: writing about investing, personal finance, consumer issues.

 

Thursday, October 27

An introduction to economics and how economists think. Read: Freakonomics, Chapter 4.

 

 

Week 11

Tuesday, November 1

Macroeconomics and policy. What the heck is the Fed, anyway, and why does it matter? Listen to three “Planet Money” podcasts: “A Giant Stone Coin at the Bottom of the Sea,” “How Four Drinking Buddies Saved Brazil,” and “How to Spend $1,249,999,999,999.39.”

 

 

Thursday, November 3

Guest speaker: Brendan Case, economics reporter, The Dallas Morning News.

PERSONAL-FINANCE STORY DUE

 

Week 11

Tuesday, November 8

Field trip! A visit to the Dallas Fed.

 

Thursday, November 10

Economic statistics—what they mean and how to write about them. Read: Math tools, chapter 4.

 

Week 12

Tuesday, November 15

Key concepts in economics: supply, demand, substitutes, externalities, and how they can help you think about all sorts of issues.

 

Thursday, November 17

Prep for Black Friday story, with guest speaker Ann Zimmerman, retailing reporter, The Wall Street Journal. ECONOMIC STATISTIC STORY DUE.

 

 

Week 13

Tuesday, November 22

Business and sports, sports and business, part 1.

 

Thursday, November 24: NO CLASS—HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

 

Week 14

Tuesday, November 29

Business and sports, sports and business, part 2. Plus the business of entertainment, the environment, and politics.

 

Thursday, December 1

The business of education: what can we learn about SMU?

Course review and wrap-up.

BLACK FRIDAY STORY DUE.