Tips for finding "disruptive" business stories

by Jessica Weiss
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics

Updated April 2 at 9:44 a.m. EDT.

In his two decades as a journalist in Kenya, Wallace Kantai has reported top business news for all of Kenya’s leading newspapers, and interviewed some of the world's most high-profile business leaders and policymakers.

Aspiring business reporters might imagine he shows up for interviews armed with statistics and questions, but his advice is the opposite: show up without notes.

“It’s important to ask general questions,” Kantai, business editor at leading Kenyan television station NTV, told IJNet in an interview. “Because if you get caught up in numbers, you’ll lose your chance to find out the big stuff.“

In a news environment saturated with politics and talking heads, Kantai says business news gets limited space. The limited business coverage that does appear is “bland,” he said, and overflows with stats and press-release rewrites.

The latest round in the African Story Challenge hopes to change the way African journalists report on business and technology. The contest, run by the African Media Initiative (AMI) and led by former ICFJ Knight International Journalism Fellow Joseph Warungu, will award grants of up to US$20,000 for investigative, digital and data-driven stories on key African business and tech issues. Winners will also get training and mentorship to help them refine their ideas and create stories with lasting impact.

Kantai, a panelist at a recent African Story Challenge event, talked with IJNet about how reporters can improve their business and tech coverage.

IJNet: The Story Challenge is looking for disruptive story ideas. How can journalists sniff out an interesting, unique and disruptive business story?

WK: To me, the disruptive story is an eye opener about life in Africa.... This could mean a business [topic] that’s unexpected, like someone who became [an entrepreneur] later in life. It could be a story about origins, about where the stuff we consume comes from. There are stories of corruption, of security, of the life of a trucker. If you’re writing about technology, there are many stories of things beyond just new apps. I call this low-hanging fruit -- it’s right there in front of us.

Most importantly, live your life. There may be something that happens around you everyday that you don’t notice because it’s normal and ordinary. But everything you see around you is worth a story.

You may come to work everyday and get your shoes shined by someone. Why not write a story of the shoe shiner from a business perspective? Or perhaps your parents are small farmers -- what is that like? Or maybe you work in a conglomerate newsroom. So what does it mean to be a diversified conglomerate?

And take the time to research. For editors, the temptation is to look at dockets and assign stories. But reporters must have the chance to step back and think, get out of the daily grind and think of bigger ideas.

Also make sure you watch and read quality business reporting. I’ve learned from my own consumption: If I read the best stuff and watch quality, I’m going to deliver it. Much better than knowing my journalism ABCs is studying and watching.

IJNet: How can journalists make business news interesting for a range of readers, not just the business-savvy?

WK: When I do my interviews, I typically turn up with no notes, so that I don’t get caught up in numbers. When you interview the CEO of a company who has just declared the company’s results, the temptation is to ask about things like “2.5 percent growth.” But that is dull and boring.

People want to know what affects them. When writing about the chief executive of a bank, we want to know what their personality is like and how they’re building a better society.

If I worked for CNN, I’d probably never get the chance to speak to experts and global leaders because those same experts would speak to people in New York or London instead of me. But as Africans, those leaders will often speak to us. This is a huge opportunity we wouldn’t otherwise have. If given the chance, ask those experts if they are investing in the region, and what their product portfolio means for consumers here.

But remember: You may only have 20 minutes, so ask things that really matter.

IJNet: How can journalists make readers care about business news?

WK: People care about people, and people like a good story. I remember the day I got interested in business news. It was in 1996, when I read a Newsweek story on the merger between Disney and ABC. At that time I only had mild curiosity about the business pages, but the story grabbed me and didn’t let go, simply for the way it was told. In a traditional business sense, it was a story of a merger. But the Newsweek story was about investment bankers and their personalities, the cult of personalities, the history of companies.

[Business news is] not a soap opera, but it’s not just numbers either, so we have to break down the jargon. “X stock grows 3 percent” is pretty meaningless to many people. Move away from that and say clearly and cleanly what it is, and people will get interested.

To learn more about the Story Challenge and to apply, click here.

Jessica Weiss is a Bogotá-based writer.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Warren Rohner under a Creative Commons license.

Read more IJNet coverage of the African Story Challenge:

To find great stories, look beyond the obvious sources

Telling the story of development in Africa

Story contest aims to boost health coverage