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June 17, 2006

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Alan Hirsch

Coincidentally, something I wrote for the South African experience a few months ago.


Ten things I always wanted to say about economic journalism


1. Economic journalism is not just about companies and investment. It’s about growth and employment and poverty and wealth. Its not only for investors. There is a mystique about economics in SA mainly because people make it boring and obscure. Using an excess of jargon is usually a sign that you do not understand what you are writing about, not that you are really clever.

2. Equally, you can’t be an economic journalist if you don’t understand how companies work— balance sheet, income statement, net present value, key ratios, annual report. Learn to interpret them, especially the footnotes.

e.g. Jabulani Sikikane’s expose of NAIL in 1999

3. Don’t take anything for granted, especially numbers. And don’t make stupid mistakes with numbers, for example confusing a percentage change with a percentage point change, or getting the wrong number of zeros. If you can’t count you are in the wrong place.

4. Don’t be afraid of going to the source—the CEO, the chair, the Governor, the Minister. They can only turn you down. But if you are good and persistent, they will talk to you in the end. (My first story as an economic journalist was an interview with the Governor of the Reserve Bank.)

5. Don’t just talk to the obvious people—CEOs, CFOs, union leaders. What about experts in universities, community leaders

Talk to Alison Gilwald about telecoms, or to Simon Roberts about mergers etc, even talk to government officials—they can provide valuable insights and you don’t have to quote them.

6. For goodness sake don’t be a lazy conduit of PR notices; PR is very powerful in the business sector, but don’t take it at face value

7. Don’t rely on the usual suspects. Find new angles in business stories, new exciting entrepreneurs, new industries, new ways of doing business

8. All kinds of economic journalism can be done well or badly, even personal finance. Take Bruce Cameron, for example, who totally raised the bar in personal finance reporting.

9. Don’t accept the wisdom of the day; just because every other journalist says its so doesn’t mean its right—e.g. some economics journalists still talk about jobless growth, even though growth in SA has not been jobless

Especially be sceptical when it’s that tired cynicism of ageing journalists. They’re probably complacent, intellectually lazy and wrong.

10. Don’t get caught up in the moment—try to stand outside of history and put things in perspective e.g. “property bubble or correction?”—there is a scientific approach, even if you can’t be certain of the answer.

11. Always remember, economics is about scarcity. The central story is the distribution of wealth and income—are the poor doing better? Are more people employed? Is the society getting more or less equal? The answers to these questions are not usually simple and straightforward, so don’t pretend they are. But don’t neglect the real issues.

(Yes, eleven. I can’t count either.)

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