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Two award-winning college business reporters detail their investigations

Two recent journalism school graduates, Theo Keith and Jennifer Johnson, are proof that you don’t have to be a veteran reporter to write a business story with enough impact to win a national award.

Only a handful of students are final contestants for the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ annual “Best in Business Awards.” This year, Keith and Johnson took home the student-category honors.

Keith, who graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism, grabbed a student award for his story about job banks’ impact on blue-collar workers in Michigan’s struggling auto industry. Johnson, who earned a master’s degree this spring from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, was honored for her story that detailed a federal land swap legislation that would make way for a copper mine, and the mining company’s unorthodox attempts to win local support.

Both Keith and Johnson received their awards at SABEW’s annual convention in April. They talked to BusinessJournalim.org about reporting their award-winning stories and also offered tips for reporters looking to make a mark in journalism early.

Digging inside job banks with Theo Keith

job banksGrowing up in Saginaw, Mich., a town close to Detroit’s auto-making industry, Keith understood the struggles of blue-collar workers in the area.

While working as a business journalism intern at Bloomberg News’ Detroit bureau last summer, Keith pitched the idea of a story about job banks to his editor. With the banks closing, Keith said, he knew workers would get fewer benefits.

Keith’s story detailed the difficulties laid off autoworkers would face as job banks closed. He also outlined the struggles and compromises some had to make to stay employed.

Keith found that as CEOs flew out to Washington in private jets to beg for money, workers were laid off with fewer benefits.

“I’d met someone who was driving four to five hours a week from Michigan to Ohio just to have a job and still spend time with his family,” Keith said.

Keith interviewed scores of auto experts, a labor professional from University of California Berkeley and company CEOs. But still lacking a human voice in the story, he devised a plan.

“It would be fairly difficult to talk to union workers, but I knew who to reach out to,” Keith said.

He turned to friends and family who had grown up in the area. They led him to key characters in the story that helped readers connect to the issue.

“I needed a human face to explain what’s going on in the auto industry to anyone, whether it’s the Wall Street type or somebody on Main Street,” Keith said. “I had to put a human face to just to allow someone to connect with the problem.”

He said the judges at the SABEW contest praised him for balancing three aspects of his piece – explaining the complex issue of the jobs bank, talking to experts, and adding a human face to the story.


Theo Keith

Theo Keith

“I can’t tell you how excited I was to win,” he said. “It taught me just how important it is to talk to many people to get all aspects of the story.”

Keith who refers to himself as a “one-man-band” has worked for CBS Radio-owned KMOX and NBC affiliate KOMU-TV in Missouri. He also completed an internship with Fox News Channel in New York. After graduating this year with a bachelor’s in journalism, he’s now interviewing for a full-time reporting job.

Keith said it’s important to learn the technical lingo for stories you’re working on and to occasionally use those terms with sources to help establish credibility.

He suggests seeking out the stories that are off the radar.

“I took out something that hadn’t been done before. I knew it was going to be an exclusive,” he advised.

Also, don’t forget to tap into the expertise of veteran journalists in your newsroom. Keith sought help from seasoned reporters who had been covering the Detroit auto industry for years.

Then, once you’ve found your story, be prepared to put in the time it takes to report it fully.

“It’s gotta be an issue that you think is important,” he said.

Jennifer Johnson copper story pursuit

Johnson was scanning local media reports to catch up on the news when she stumbled on a story that caught her attention: pacts made between a big copper mining company and several stake holder groups to win support for a federal land swap. The land in question is near Superior, a town about 30 miles east of Phoenix.

Johnson learned that some of people in the town were fiercely opposed to the land swap that would allow Resolution Copper Mining LLC to start mining in the Tonto National Forest, a place  considered sacred and holy by the San Carlos Apache tribe.

She found that Resolution Copper Mining had struck deals with stakeholders in the town to win support for the mine. Despite opposition, the company had agreed to give millions of dollars to them over the lifespan of the mines on condition that the folks support federal legislation to allow the mining. Any opposition from the town would render the deal void.

“Copper has a lot of economic benefits for the state and the communities, but inherently it’s very tough on the land and it has a lot of environmental consequences,” Johnson explained.

Johnson pitched the idea to her editors at Cronkite News Service who coached her to focus in on what initially was a very broad story idea.

What Johnson learned from her editors in the process of reporting was that the confluence of minding, environmentalism and small-town politics demanded a strong focus on a narrow, feasible story angle.

“You will need to do the legwork, do extra preparation,” she said. “I think before when I was just talking intangibly, they didn’t know that all the leg work was going to lead to something.”


Jennifer Johnson

The story (Company seeking copper mine forges agreements, alliances) was a go. The next four months Johnson spent time digging and enticing sources to trust her with information.

“People were so emotional about the topic, so the hardest part was sorting through what was actually fact or just a piece of the truth,” she said.

Obtaining the company contracts was also a hurdle. Many of the documents were not public records. Some were even personal emails.

Then there was the daunting task of establishing trust with residents and company officials. She met for drinks and spoke off the record at first. After explaining the journalistic process of information gathering and building relationships, she got the elements she needed.

“This was an article that could not have been done without really good sourcing,” Johnson said.

“It’s gonna be a ‘he-said-she-said’ until you have the goods to back it up. I learned how important these documents are and that you can get people to explain them and give them context.”

Johnson, who now covers banking and finance for the Phoenix Business Journal, said reporters should question everything.

“If you have a question about something that seems really innocuous, it could turn out to be a really big deal,” she said

In Basics, Investigation.

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