OLD Media Moves

The changes facing a business editor at a daily newspaper

October 27, 2009


Matt Kempner is one of several dozen business editors at daily newspapers across the country struggling to maintain proper coverage of the local business world with a smaller staff and a smaller news hole than in previous years.

Kempner became the business editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution six months ago after a short stint as its ombudsman. The Atlanta paper moved its business news coverage inside the A section earlier this year, and it’s lost more than half of its business staff to buyouts, retirements and resignations.

Kempner is a former business reporter at the paper, having covered the media beat and other topics such as growth and water. He also worked out of the paper’s Gwinnett County bureau at one point, and he previously worked at the Gwinnett Daily News, the former New York Times Co. paper that the Journal-Constitution purchased in the 1990s and closed.

Kempner is a University of Georgia graduate. He is a 2005 Society of American Business Editors and Writers Best in Business Award winner in the Enterprise category for a story he did with ex-colleague Maria Saporta on Home Depot’s corporate giving. In 2007, he was part of a team that won a Best in Business Award in the breaking news category for the coverage of the departure of Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli.

My favorite Kempner story, however, is when he donned the brown of a UPS driver and drove around one day on a truck, delivering packages during Christmas. The paper posted a short video about it. Here is his story. (DISCLOSURE: Kempner and I worked together on the AJC business desk from 1994 to 1997, and we remain close friends.)

Kempner — who is actually looking to hire a new business reporter to cover Coca-Cola and the restaurant industry — talked to Talking Biz News via e-mail about his job. What follows is an edited transcript.

How is your job as business editor different than a business editor’s job a decade ago?

During most of my career at the AJC, business editors worked with a bigger staff and spent more time than I have on broad administrative functions. They had more time, I think, to contemplate story selection and the broad direction of the business section. They had a sounding board of full-time business line editors to shape ideas and consider story play.

A lot has changed, in part because our staff is smaller and because the AJC has switched to a different system. I get input from other editors on staff. But I don’t have the base of business line editors we once had. I work with reporters on story ideas. I assign stories. I work on the overall direction of coverage. I don’t line edit copy and often don’t see stories before they run. Line editing is done by a pool of editors on what we call the word desk.

They work with me, but they don’t report to me. Usually, the work of business reporters is funneled to a word editor experienced in business news. While I lead the bulk of the business reporting team, a few business reporters and a columnist report directly to other editors.

How does being a business journalist prepare you to be a newsroom manager?

Most of my career has been as a reporter. I heard from lots of business leaders about management and leadership. I’d like to think that I was a good listener and picked up ideas along the way. But, let’s face it, listening isn’t the same as doing.

Are there any things that you’d like to change about the paper’s business coverage?

We have had the benefit of getting more feedback from readers, but we’re working with a smaller staff and less space for business news. In the daily paper we are concentrating on hard news, often in smaller, faster slices than what we had in the past. Still, even on short stories, we want readers see they are getting something more than an encyclopedic recitation of the news. We continue to push for stories that lean forward, giving readers a sense of where the news is headed.

I would like to put less emphasis on quarterly earnings as we go forward. I worry about how easily quarterly data can be massaged by companies. And I’m uneasy about putting much weight on comparing quarterly results to analysts’ expectations, which are influenced by guidance from the companies themselves. It sort of seems like gaming the system.

As the AJC’s public editor, you were looking into new avenues such as Twitter and Facebook and how they could help journalism. Any thoughts about how they could specifically be used for business news to improve quality?

As for Twitter and Facebook, the AJC is evolving from having a few dedicated, smart social media regulars. We’re moving to employ social media more broadly through much of the staff to get news to readers, to build our brands, to get input and tips, to help readers feel connected. For business readers we are still early in experimenting with what options work the best for them.

Is Twitter the way they want to get quick business news bursts, while maybe Facebook offers a slower, more social pace? What’s the best way to let readers segment what they get –- commercial real estate news or updates on moves by Coca-Cola or Home Depot — without flooding them with too much or redundant information?

When I was public editor, we looked at a variety of ways to make better connections with readers and to get meaningful feedback. Which outlet you choose or build is only part of the equation. Asking readers for feedback is the easy part.

What happens next is harder. We wanted to make sure that we were set up to acknowledge what readers said, study it, quickly act on the best of it, report what we did and keep the cycle going. And if you want more than one-off comments — if you want continuing help from a broad array of readers — they need to be able to see what’s in it for them.

How do you feel about the perception that dailies are ceding business news to the business weeklies?

I’m surprised if people have that perception.

What’s your plan for meeting with the local business community?

To do it more. I’ve done very little of it so far.

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