How writing books helps a business journalist develop his craft
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Paul Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior feature writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, a position he assumed in September 2005.
He is responsible for writing cover articles on subjects that range from the energy industry to the gun business.
Prior to joining Bloomberg Businessweek, Barrett was an editor and legal affairs reporter for The Wall Street Journal. At various times, he held the positions of Supreme Court correspondent, Page One special projects editor, and Page One news editor at the Journal. Prior to that, he was a staff writer and editor for the Washington Monthly.
Barrett is the author of “American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion,” which was named to Best Books of 2007 lists by the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Publishers Weekly. He is also the author of “The Good Black: A True Story of Race in America,” and the forthcoming “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun,” which will be out next month.
Barrett is a graduate of Harvard Law School and holds an AB from Harvard College.
During the past 12 hours, Barrett talked by e-mail with Talking Biz News about his new book and about how writing books augments his normal business journalism work. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did the idea of writing a book about Glock come about?
I’ve written about the gun industry since the late 1990s, when I worked for The Wall Street Journal. No other industry presents such a fascinating case study of the intersection of commerce, culture, politics, and law. And of course there’s cops and robbers, too. In 2009, by which time I had moved to Businessweek, an old source who had worked for many years for Glock got in touch to say that he was finally willing to talk. That got the ball rolling. As I dug into Glock, I realized that the company’s history offered a perfect narrative for explaining the most recent chapter in the long, intriguing story of the handgun in America.
When did you start collecting research for the book?
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the research began with that first Businessweek piece, which was published in September of 2009. My friend and former colleague Brian Grow (now doing great things at Thomson Reuters) played a big role in that first cover story. Or maybe the research began all the way back at the Journal, when I was writing feature stories about the gun business with my old friend Vanessa O’Connell, who continues to do great work at the paper.
What does a book allow you to do that you can’t do in daily or weekly business journalism?
A book gives you the twin luxuries of time and space. It allows you to go back and interview key figures for a second, third, and fourth time. Then, having 100,000 words to work with, you can afford to develop characters and story lines that inevitably get truncated in the newspaper or magazine format. Finally, writing a book lets you develop an argument about your subject, gradually and without premature conclusory statements. The facts take the reader to the conclusions.
How have your balanced your work as a business journalist while writing books?
The two are complementary. “Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun” is my third book. I have a fourth in the works, also for Crown, about the oil industry in the Amazon. I always over-report. With books as an outlet, I just continue over-reporting until I have enough for about 300 pages. It helps that my wife, Julie Cohen, is very understanding about my workaholism.
Which one of your books are you happiest with?
I’m gradually getting better at writing books. I’m happiest with Glock.
How much did the Glock company cooperate with you in your reporting?
The company answered written questions for the first Businessweek article back in 2009. Since then, Glock Inc., the American unit of Glock GmbH, has not responded substantively to my questions. Fortunately, Glock GmbH and Glock Inc. have many former executives and employees who were willing to talk, and the company has been involved in extensive litigation over the years which yielded a tremendous amount of information. The gun industry is a relatively small club, so once you’re in the door, you can learn a great deal.
I have had extensive email exchanges and telephone calls with the company. These were civil and professional, although occasionally tense. Glock is a privately held, Austrian-based corporation. It is known to be secretive in dealing with the media. That made former employees all the more important as sources.
I don’t see much written about the gun industry. Why doesn’t business journalism pay much attention to gun companies?
A couple of reasons. Some of the major companies, such as Glock, are privately held and based abroad, which makes getting information about them difficult. Also, I think that too often journalists focus primarily on the gun control issue in political terms, losing sight of what a fascinating business the making and marketing of guns has always been.
What is your writing process when you are working on a book?
I like to sneak up on the writing. I start banging out outlines and paragraphs very early. This isn’t really “writing”; it’s just organizing, so there’s no pressure. Before I know it, I have a fair amount written, at least in very rough form, and sitting down to write through the material I have seems less intimidating. It’s a mistake to accumulate boxes and boxes of notes and then confront the blank screen with a relatively short amount of time left before deadline. That’s scary.
Do you think your writing style is different for a book than what you write for Bloomberg Businessweek?
It’s not that different. For my first book, I tried to write in what I imagined was a more cinematic style. I got 40 pages in, read what I had, and hated it. I threw those 40 pages away and started over. I enjoy plain, clear writing, and I think it’s what I’m best at. Go with your natural style.
How does book writing help you at the magazine?
One way it helps is that I’m always thinking about telling stories, not conveying information. I ask myself, what will engage the reader and carry her along so she keeps reading? That’s what you must do with a book. Why should a reader devote hours to your work — not to mention more than $20 to buy it? I try to hold myself to the same standard in all of my journalism. Sometimes the work appears on glossy magazine pages, sometimes between hard covers. It’s all journalism, in my view: an attempt to use stories to explain how the world works in ways quite different from what we often assume.