OLD Media Moves

The differences — and similarities — between reporting and column writing

August 14, 2008

Beth Kassab is the business section columnist at the Orlando Sentinel. She took over the column just more than a year ago after the untimely death of her colleague Susan Strother Clarke.

Beth KassabBefore that, Kassab had been a business reporter at the Sentinel for seven years. She is an Orlando native and University of Florida graduate who has watched Central Florida grow since the days Gatorland was considered a main attraction and fewer than 15 million people a year flew in to Orlando International Airport.

Kassab — who is going on maternity leave at the end of the month – talked to Talking Biz News about her career and her column writing in an e-mail interview. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

1. First, how did you get interested in business journalism?

Business journalism first caught my attention when I was covering government and occasionally wrote stories that touched on private business and economic development. The intersection of business and government interested me. When a job came open to cover the tourism and aviation industries in Orlando I jumped at the opportunity.

2. What did like about being a business reporter?

The personalities intrigued me. As a business reporter, you talk with sophisticated, smart people on a daily basis who are shaping major companies like Disney, AirTran Airways or Darden Restaurants. I liked the challenge of getting access to executives, who often try to stay out of the newspaper. Covering a business is completely different from covering a government, where you typically have a mayor or other elected officials more than willing to be available for interviews. As a business reporter you have to work harder for the access, but the results are worth it. I am also interested in the consumer experience and conveying how everyday people are affected by business and the economy.

3. What was the attraction for you in becoming a business columnist?

It was much the same attraction that drew me to business reporting, but I saw an opportunity to inject a lot of variety into my job and expand our newspaper’s business coverage in new ways. As a columnist, I am not confined to a beat and my subjects vary on an almost daily basis. It’s fun to be able to jump from one hot issue to another and also to be able to explore subjects that are interesting to me. I figure that if there’s something that’s sparking a lot of conversation around the dinner table with my family and friends then it’s probably also getting attention at other dinner tables across Central Florida.

4. How is your work different as a columnist compared to a reporter?

The biggest difference is the absence of the beat structure. My sources are far more varied and I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know people and working on my sourcing, especially on beats that I have not covered. I write a reported column, meaning it’s typically more than just commentary on a topic that has already been explored in a news article. I like to break news and offer the reader something that they didn’t get in the news story. Many of the mechanics are the same as reporting — lots of interviews and combing SEC filings and lawsuits, but the way I think is different. I always have to ask whether there’s another point of view to be shared and whether I can advance the debate in some way by offering my own point of view.

5. How do you think it’s similar?

The similarities are in the mechanics. Sourcing, interviewing, document diving, it’s all extremely relevant to both reporting and column writing.

6. How do you come up with your column ideas?

There are a few different questions I ask on a daily basis. Can I offer readers something more on “the story of the day� or the hottest item on our business page? Is there a good story out there that’s not being told? Can I help translate a complicated issue into something more understandable? And, is there a personality out there that would be fun to peel back the layers on.

7. How hard is it to include opinion in your writing after years of keeping it out of your stories?

This was difficult at first. I wasn’t used to being able to write what I think after so many years as a reporter. I’m still working to further develop my voice. And I’m learning to have some fun with it.

8. How hard is it not to write about something that a reporter might be covering?

I generally don’t worry about what the reporters are covering. It’s not unusual for me to write on a topic that’s been covered in a news story as long as I bring something unique to the table. In a one newspaper town I think a healthy amount of competition inside our newsroom is a good thing. I can’t cover every business beat, but I do try to work sources and break news as much as possible on a variety of topics.

9. You’re from the Orlando area. Does that help or hurt in terms of the column? How so?

Being from Orlando is a big help. I’ve built relationships with people here over time and that’s really important. I also have a certain amount of context and history that others may not have. I know my way around. And when it comes to writing commentary, no one can argue that I’m not invested in this community. It’s my home and I truly care about the place that I live, especially as I begin to raise my own family here.

10. What’s been the hardest thing to adjust to in the first year of column writing?

The biggest adjustment is certainly the different style of writing and, from a workflow standpoint, the pace. I write three columns a week that run on specific days: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I plan my weeks in far more detail than I did as a reporter because I don’t react in the same way a reporter would to breaking news — though some sometimes I choose to because that’s where the best column is and the plan gets tossed out the window.

11. Do you miss reporting?

As much as I enjoy the variety and sources the column brings, I do miss some aspects of beat reporting. On a beat, you can really peel back the layers and keep coming back to stories over and over again. With the column, I still dig in, but there’s a lot more juggling involved to make sure the topics stay varied.

12. What did you learn from Susan that you’re now applying in writing the column she used to write?

I feel really lucky to have sat next to Susan and been able to observe her so closely when she was our columnist. She was a friend and I learned a lot from her. I admired her ability to deal with difficult interview subjects and to keep asking questions in new ways until she found an answer. She was tough, but always polite and, though I write the column a lot differently than Susan did, that tends to be my style also.  I also loved her sense of humor and, taking a cue from that, I don’t take myself too seriously.

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