Business reporting : JOUR 3542.03

Winter term Wednesdays 6:35 p.m. to 8:25 p.m.
Location: Shatford Room
Instructor: Kevin Cox

COURSE OUTLINE
BUSINESS REPORTING

Winter term Wednesdays 6:35 p.m. to 8:25 p.m.
Location: Shatford Room
Instructor: Kevin Cox
Phone 876-7716 or 431-9973
Email kevin.cox@ns.sympatico.ca
Office hours: Immediately after class or every other Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at second floor journalism office.

AIM OF THE COURSE

Every journalist who picks up a notebook, camera, tape recorder or clicks on a keyboard should have a working knowledge of how a business functions. Whether it’s a story on a provincial budget, gas price panic or a layoff at the local paper plant journalists are daily called on to analyze and present complex economic situations in simple language to their viewers and readers. In most cases we are woefully ill-prepared and learn by doing — which usually means we learn from our mistakes. That detracts from our credibility and makes business sources and readers distrustful. The challenge then is to make a course meaningful, entertaining and filled with useful information without getting bogged down in number-crunching and a mind-numbing array of terms. We need to teach students to talk about money — how and why people strive to get it and what they do with it. What drives the Irvings to create and maintain industrial empires? Why do bank presidents make seven figure salaries while the tellers barely make $30,000 in a good year? What is insider trading and what did Martha Stewart do wrong? What do corporate ethics mean? Who enforces them? Why do some magnates think they can make their own rules? How big is a barrel of oil and why does it double in price so often?

ASSIGNMENTS

Students will be expected to complete one assignment per week. This is a hands-on course with an emphasis on critical analysis rather than economic theory. The major assignment is a feature-length (1,500 words) profile of an Atlantic business leader or a business. It is worth 30% of the term. The topic will be chosen by the student in consultation with the instructor. The best original work that is produced may be published in Allnovascotia.com — the daily electronic business journal in Halifax.

There is no textbook for this course. You should be reading either the Financial Post or Report on Business several times a week. I will be referring frequently to books such as the Codfathers by Gordon Pitts, Citizen Irving by John Demont and The World is flat by Thomas Friedman. Background reading suggestions will be circulated a week in advance.

MARK BREAKDOWN

Weekly assignments            60%
Class participation               15%
Feature assignment             25%

DEADLINE PENALTIES

Deadlines are as rigid in this class as they are in any newsroom. You will lose a grade per day that an assignment is late- if you can’t deliver it for reasons of illness or family emergencies, please let me know. If we have an in class assignment you must tell me ahead of time or you will receive a zero.

INTELLECTUAL HONESTY

Plagiarism is a form of academic and professional fraud. Plagiarism is the presentation of the work of another author in such a way as to give your reader reason to think it is your own. Some prominent journalists have destroyed their careers by plagiarizing — don’t add your name to the list of those who will never work in this trade again.

Self-plagiarism is the submission of work by a person that is the same or substantially the same work for which he or she has already received academic or professional credit.

Plagiarism is considered a serious academic offence, which may lead to loss of credit, suspension or expulsion from the university or even revocation of a degree. See the King’s or Dalhousie University calendar.

THE CLASSES

Much of the course will be taught by the instructor who would spell out the basic concepts and create and mark the practical assignments. But we will try to call on the expertise of many people from the world of commerce to provide their insights and specialized knowledge

THE COURSE

January 3: Introduction to basic economic theory — supply and demand, multipliers, gross domestic product, economic indicators such as job creation, housing starts, retail sales and how stories are created from these. Use of basic economic indicators — gross domestic product, inflation, consumer spending, interest rates and housing starts to determine where the economy is headed.
Assignment: Craft a story from economic indicators and show its relevance to a specific industry.

January 10: Statistics damned lies and statistics. Even though Mark Twain never actually said this (Disraeli did) statistics can lie. A look at basic mathematics such as how to figure out percentages, the difference between a 10% increase and a 10 percentage point increase and the mass of statistical data that is available at Stats Can and corporate registries. The perils of corporate polling. Use of think tanks and their work and who pays the piper and who calls the tune.
Assignment: Story that makes statistics walk and breathe.

January 17: Deciphering the balance sheet — beyond profit and loss. This session would assisted by a representative of a local brokerage house and would deal with accounting principles, what is on a financial statement and what it can tell you about a company. Corporate webcasts and conference calls and the role of financial analysts.
Assignment: Story on a corporate webcast.

January 24: The magic of the deal. Mergers and takeovers. Public offerings and income trusts — what they are and how they are created. The case study of the attempted and aborted takeover of FPI Inc in Newfoundland — how tradition and history and politics intertwine with business with some strange results.
Assignment: Story on a merger or takeover that is in the news.

January 31: Playing by the rules — securities regulations — case studies in unscrupulous dealings and how people get caught. What information a public company must put forward — how to decipher SEDAR filings, information circulars, and use corporate registries. Corporate ethics and guidelines — media disclosure of conflicts of interest —or lack thereof. The role of private companies — information that is available on them.
Assignment: Story based on SEDAR filings.

February 7: The markets- why do stocks go up or down — who are buying and who is selling and what it means. Going beyond the scorecard approach — how to use price histories, 52 week highs and lows and the perils of predicting the future. Personal finance- mutual funds, bonds, GICs, what are they and what do they do? What happens when the wheeling and dealing gets out of hand? How much wheeling and dealing do journalists do?

February 14: The players – the business profile — how to approach corporate executives, how to get information to tell the world who is doing the deal or closing the plant or selling the company. How to go beyond the press release. How to find out how much they make. Case study examining various media profiles of personalities such as Conrad Black and his fall from grace. A look at maritime families like the McCains and the Irvings and the Braggs and what has been written about them.

February 21: Energy and Big Oil in a small province. The energy industry — onshore and offshore. How big is a cubic foot of gas or a barrel of oil and what will it heat? How do they get oil and gas from the ocean floor and what is the future of the Atlantic offshore? How does crude oil become gasoline and how are prices set? The wonderful world of electricity rates — how they are set and who pays them.

March 1: The workplace. The most ignored part of business reporting. The need to talk to workers for corporate profiles and to cover workplace issues such as safety, stress, training and working conditions before the crisis happens. The Westray mine tragedy as a case study.

March 8: Business of government — the impact of taxation (that temporary measure) how budgets are created, what a deficit is, what a debt is, how to keep finance ministers honest — the impact of government on the economy. Why politicians can’t keep their hands out of the private sector and why sometimes it even works. Assignment- Analysis of a recent budget.

March 15: Specific business cases . Part one — the business of sport — millionaires don’t shoot pucks for fun — a look at the NHL strike and how it was settled — Part two — The business of the media — how publications make money and how it influences what we do.

March 22: Spin doctors. The art of corporate public relations. What they want from the media (you’ll be surprised by this response) and how they do what they do. A look at corporate press conferences — the pitch versus real news. Deadline for feature assignment.

March 29: Wrap up and evaluation.