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Philadelphia Inquirer's Diane Mastrull talks the business of business journalism

Philadelphia Inquirer's Diane Mastrull talks the business of business journalism

Sahar Majid | September 13, 2016

As a business reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Diane Mastrull has been reporting on businesses across Philadelphia since 2008.

While some might see business reporting as dry, Mastrull believes that business stories can actually be stories of willpower and courage. While in many newsrooms, the business section may not receive as many resources as other beats, Mastrull has found the best approach for business reporting is working hard, drawing on her court reporting experience, and adding a human angle to her business stories in order to grab her audience’s attention.

During a conversation with IJNet, Mastrull shared what she loves about her job, what frustrates her, the best ways to connect with her subjects and audiences and more:

“Sobering topics”

Mastrull spent a significant chunk of her career covering politics and criminal court cases. The one thing she hated while covering these beats were the tragic, traumatizing stories, she said.

“What I love about business reporting is that you don’t have to deal with all that stuff,” she said.

However, business reporting has also allowed her to cover tough times, including the U.S. 2008 recession. “The stories involved a lot of people losing their jobs, a lot of downsizing; it also involved a number of banks being taken over. Those were really sobering topics,” she said.

Business reporting blends everything

Business is not the kind of beat that can be handled in isolation, because so many other story topics — education, health, travel, marriage, divorce — are connected with money in one way or the other, Mastrull said. “It blends everything,” she added.

This is partly why Mastrull draws heavily on her past experience as a court reporter. The ability to find and analyze relevant documents — such as bankruptcy records — has served her well in fleshing out her reporting, she said.

The human element

Audiences tend to be more interested in hearing stories of the people behind the businesses than the business itself, which contradicts the general perception that business reporting is boring, dry and all about statistics.

Mastrull said she believes that people want to know what motivated successful businessmen and women and what hurdles they had to face in order to get to where they are. While the business beat does deal with economics, it still requires general reporting and storytelling skills.

“Businesses are very much about the people behind them,” Mastrull said. “Everybody has a story of what led them to what they are doing and sometimes it’s really amazing, the journey they’ve been on.”

A business reporter is not a business promoter

Last year, Mastrull wrote about two local women who launched a natural deodorant product. Her first story focused on how the two friends joined forces and went into business together. However, her follow-up piece tracked how they later ran into trouble when they switched manufacturers and customers’ orders didn’t get delivered on time.

In her second story, Mastrull couldn’t give her subjects the same positive coverage granted in her first article. As a business reporter, she had to give the readers accurate information, and giving undue publicity to a business is not a business reporter’s job, she explained.

Connecting with audiences

Mastrull admitted she finds it difficult to live and breathe social media as other reporters do,  but she has been adapting in order to connect with her readers. There’s a constant push at the Inquirer for staff to be on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

“[Journalists] are the people who generally hide behind the bylines,” she said. “People were unaware who we were and we liked it that way. We now are being urged to market ourselves so people can feel a connection with us and continue to follow us.”

Business education

Mastrull doesn’t have a degree in business, commerce or economics, but she said she feels that pursuing such degrees is very important for those who want to become business reporters. As a result, the best thing aspiring business reporters can do is get a business degree, she explained, in order to understand the unique language of business.

“If you’re a journalist covering business, it helps you become smarter about what you have been working for,” she said. “It’s a tremendous disadvantage that I don’t have that kind of education. The more of this kind of knowledge you have, the more astute you can be.”

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Bernd Zube. Secondary image courtesy of Diane Mastrull.

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