What I’ve Been up to This Summer

2013 08 22 bloombergdotcom

I’ve had quite a twelve months.

After completing an intensive nine-month master’s in business and economics journalism at Columbia in late May, I embarked on an equally memorable, though shorter, experience: a ten week internship at Bloomberg News‘s headquarters here in New York.

I finished at Bloomberg last Friday. It was a fantastic experience.

This recent BBC video provides a look the Bloomberg HQ as a workplace.

And embedded below — and online here — is an overview of Bloomberg’s operations.

I worked on the Emerging Markets team, assisting with coverage of everything from debt markets in Argentina to global currencies to equities in Mexico.

Here are links and snippets from just a few of the stories I worked on:

China Out of 10 Biggest Stocks as PetroChina Ousted:

Chinese companies have dropped out of the ranks of the world’s 10 biggest stocks by market value for the first time since 2006 amid a cash crunch, slower growth and the biggest U.S. stock rally in a decade.

Give Us Your Real Dollars for Our Fake Dollars: Argentina Credit:

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s wish of being able to print dollars is coming true as the central bank begins issuing dollar-denominated certificates today that trade in pesos.

Slim’s Frisco Surges as Gold Mine Strike Ends: Mexico City Mover:

Minera Frisco SAB, billionaire Carlos Slim’s gold and silver mining company, gained the most in two years after saying the government intervened to help end a strike at its biggest mine.

‘Fragile Five’ currencies unravel as developing economies suffer:

Emerging-market currencies are trailing their peers in advanced economies by the most since 2009 as a global recovery eludes countries from China to Brazil.

While helping out on stories like these was excellent training, perhaps my most instructive experiences came during the interactions I had in the newsroom with some truly top-notch reporters.

The timing of the internship worked well, too: This year at Columbia, I studied corporate finance; financial accounting; the history and future of journalism; computational journalism; and more.

And this summer at Bloomberg, I was able to put what I’d just learned to practical use in a fast-paced, competitive, collaborate environment where news moves the market in real time. In short, it was the perfect way to spend the summer.

So, looking ahead: What’s next for me over the coming twelve months?

Stay tuned.

Jim Stewart on the NYT’s Future Following the WaPo Sale

2013 08 11 wapo front page

I was lucky enough to study with Jim Stewart at Columbia this year, and I always look forward to reading his New York Times column, called “Common Sense.”

In his stories, Stewart often examines complex business and economics issues by focusing on facts and evidence and questioning conventional wisdom.

His latest column, which ran Friday, is especially intriguing, as it concerns the current profitability and long-term prospects of The New York Times, his very employer.

Following Jeff Bezos’s purchase of The Washington Post, Stewart asks: Would the Sulzbergers, the family that owns the Times, ever sell the paper?

The family says the NYT isn’t on the block, and Stewart highlights an important point — one which is often overlooked when people make assumptions about the newspaper industry: The Times, unlike the Post, is making money:

That The Times and its controlling family would be among the last survivors should come as no surprise, since it is the strongest of the great newspapers journalistically, and it is profitable. The Times has won 112 Pulitzer Prizes since 1918, including four this year, more than any other newspaper. A week ago, The Times reported quarterly operating earnings of $77.8 million, up 13 percent from a year earlier.

By contrast, The Washington Post’s newspaper division had losses of $53.7 million last year, with no end in sight.

With the Post owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, “In stark financial terms, The Times is now a minnow in a sea of sharks” compared to companies like News Corporation, Facebook, Google, and others with huge market capitalizations, Stewart writes.

He continues:

Nearly everyone I spoke to this week praised The Times for what it has done with its resources. In contrast with Mr. Graham’s comment that he had no answers, The Times has articulated a strategy that addresses many of the pressing questions facing newspapers, and it seems to have been yielding results.

And:

Like The Post, The Times has tried to improve profitability by reducing costs, including the size of the newsroom. But that can go only so far before it begins to affect the quality of the news operation. It may be even more difficult if, as expected, Mr. Bezos invests in The Post’s national news operation. “The likelihood is that The Post and The New York Times will be competing head-to-head in a way they haven’t since the days of Abe Rosenthal and Ben Bradlee,” both legendary editors of The Post and The Times, Mr. Jones said.

The column is worth a read.

Meanwhile, for more on the WaPo sale and what it all means for the economics of journalism, see:

Bezos Paid 17 Times Adjusted Profit for the Washington Post

Bloomberg reports today:

Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post may look like a steal, yet it came at a rich valuation that newspapers such as the New York Times Co. (NYT) may only dream of obtaining.

The founder of Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) plunked down $250 million for the Post newspaper division, about 17 times adjusted profit, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That multiple implies a valuation for the New York Times of about $4 billion — more than double its current market value. Major metropolitan newspapers should fetch 3 or 4 times profit, said research firm Outsell Inc.

“Bezos paid a friendship premium of $200 million here,” Ken Doctor, a media analyst at Burlingame, California-based Outsell, said in a phone interview. “There are a handful of news brands in the world that will merit some kind of premium over the usual multiple, but the multiple over the multiple here seems really high.”

3 Digital Tools I Used to Write my Master’s Thesis

In April, after more than six months of work, I submitted the thesis I wrote for my master’s in business and economics journalism.

At more than 11,000 words and 41 pages long, it was the longest story I’d ever written.

I interviewed dozens of people, analyzed hundreds of pages of court documents, submitted and tracked multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, read several books on my topic, and composed perhaps twenty drafts of what became the final piece.

I’ll tell you more about the story itself in the weeks and months ahead, I’m sure. For now, though, I wanted to share the top three digital tools I used to organize my writing and research.

1. For writing: Scrivener

2013 04 24 scrivener

I’ve been using the Writing app Scrivener since 2007. It’s less a word processor than a tool for organizing all sorts of digital materials and creating an environment where you can more easily produce text.

I made ample use, for example, of the folders shown on the top left corner of the image above. These folders allowed me to organize various snippets of text; keep running lists of items to investigate; maintain outlines and timelines; and more. I could always keep my main draft open and navigate, with just a click, to another item — as opposed to having to open several Word files and toggle between them.

When conducting interviews, I also relied on Scrivener’s split screen function. I kept my questions in the top pane and typed my sources’ answers in the bottom pane as we chatted. Scrivener also has an excellent full screen mode, which is helpful when you simply want to focus on the text.

The Mac version of Scrivener is $45. For more information on the app, here’s a detailed review of the app’s many features. And here’s a post about using Scrivener for dissertation writing.

2. For organizing data: Excel

2013 07 27 excel mac

Excel? You better believe it. I used spreadsheets to keep track of:

  • Court materials — I listed dates of various documents, their titles, a description of contents, URLs if they were online, and even the files’ location on my hard drive.
  • Sources — I kept track of names, job titles, contact information, and more.
  • Timeline — My story spans several years, so I used a simple timeline to keep track of the chronology of events. This was helpful when it came time to construct my narrative.

Excel is part of Office for Mac. Microsoft’s home and student version is $139.99.

For more, see this overview of Excel for journalists.

3. For bookmarking: Pinboard

2013 07 28 pinboard

I bookmarked hundreds of items online while researching my story, and Pinboard was a huge help. The Web-based bookmarking site is a kind of “antisocial social bookmarking” service.

That is, Pinboard offers all the benefits of social bookmarking, like the ability to access your saved sites from any browser or computer. But unlike many such services, Pinboard allows you to keep your bookmarks private.

You can also assign your bookmarks tags, so they’re easily sorted by keyword, and use a browser bookmarklet to quickly save a site and apply a label like “read later.” So as I came across various news accounts, books, interviews, and other materials online, I simply added a bookmark in Pinboard and could later go back and filter the sites by keyword.

Pinboard is bare-bones, fast, and easy to use. It was approximately $9 when I signed up last year, I seem to recall, and now costs $10.16. This is a one-time fee that rises as more people join the site.

So those were my top three digital tools: Scrivener, Excel, and Pinboard.

What about you? Have some favorite apps for writing or data organization? Let me know on Twitter or leave a comment below.

New Yorker cartoon featuring ‘underwater’ Thai food

This week’s Mother’s Day themed New Yorker magazine cover, which you may have already seen, is remarkable.

But I also found another element of the issue to be notable — for a reason that should come as no surprise given my previous posts about stateside reminders of Thailand.

So: What happens when you combine the often inscrutable New Yorker cartoon aesthetic with a parody of exclusive New York City ethnic dining?

You get this:

2013 05 08 new yorker thai food cartoon

Get it?

One thing, if you’ll forgive my pedantry: Even allowing for the cartoon’s cryptic nature, we all know that except for eating some soups, chopsticks aren’t typically used in Thailand. Forks and spoons are the norm.

But let’s not let that stand in the way of the joke…

Anasuya’s New Documentary Series on Myanmar

Here’s the trailer for a new Channel NewsAsia documentary series called “The New Myanmar.”

The series is hosted by Anasuya Sanyal, otherwise known as my amazing wife.

The first show airs Monday, May 6 from 8:30 p.m. until 9 p.m. Singapore time, and the series runs through June 10.

Keep an eye out if you receive Channel NewsAsia, or try to catch the show live online when it airs.

(Note: The trailer, as embedded above, may not display properly on a mobile device, but it should be viewable on a laptop or desktop computer.)

Why Michael Wolff is Wrong about Columbia Journalism School

2013 03 25 wrong2

I’ve been meaning, for several months, to provide an update on my experiences here at Columbia Journalism School.

I didn’t expect that my impetus to write would come today in the form of a Michael Wolff column in USA TODAY. But here goes.

Wolff argues that the J-School’s recent appointment of Steve Coll as the new dean, set to take over from Nicholas Lemann this summer, shows that the school is hopelessly misguided.

A hidebound Columbia is failing to modernize, and is neglecting to prepare its students for a bleak job market in the digital world — all while charging massive tuition and fees.

Coll is a “boring” writer, Wolff says, who comes from the decidedly old school worlds of The New Yorker and The Washington Post. And, perhaps even worse, Coll has never Tweeted.

(Wolff neglects to mention that Coll has won two Pulitzer Prizes and has written a total of seven books on topics ranging from the SEC to the Grand Trunk Road to the CIA’s history in Afghanistan.)

I would like to outline what I see as the errors and shortcomings in Wolff’s column.

1. Wolff is wrong about Columbia’s curriculum.

Wolff writes:

Journalism school, especially Columbia’s vaunted program, is often anti-market in outlook. Much of what the market wants, journalism training doesn’t give it. You surely won’t learn at Columbia how to be a tabloid reporter, or an opinionated Fox News host, or an online aggregator, or a brand-name columnist full of brio or bile, or a social or mobile visionary or quant.

This is incorrect. The Journalism School offers classes in online aggregation. It offers instruction in social media. It offers classes in on-air reporting and opinion writing.

And the J-School offers classes in coding — which I should know, because I’m taking a course called “Formats, Protocols & Algorithms: A sampling of journalistic computing.” My classmates and I are learning about Python, APIs, and more.

As for quantitative skills, I took financial accounting last semester and am now studying corporate finance. I have also taken a class in Excel techniques, as well as an investigative skills class in which I learned, among other topics, how best to make use of Freedom of Information Act requests.

2. Wolff is wrong about the school’s approach to career preparedness.

He continues:

Rather, journalism school tends to teach you, admirably or quixotically, many less economically valuable skills: methodological reporting, sourcing protocols, research procedures, and a grounding in ethical and civic responsibility. The ideal goal continues to be to get you a job on The New York Times or The Washington Post, two organizations trying to fire more people than they hire.

First, I’m quite certain that the vast majority of those hiring in the news world do, in fact, value sourcing protocols and ethics.

And second, even glancing at the J-School’s Career Services page reveals an emphasis on preparing students to graduate with the digital and technical skills that employers want.

3. Wolf is wrong in arguing that the school is ignoring the digital news revolution.

He writes:

After many years of avoiding the inevitable, [Columbia] expanded its digital program — curiously hiring a Web editor from London to run it. It now has courses about using data in reporting. But to say it resists the outside world would be kindly.

And:

In a logical if imaginary world, there is no reason why Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism should not be as vital to the building of the front end of new information forms and relationships as Stanford computing students have been to creating the back end.

Perhaps Wolff missed the January 2012 announcement, available on the Columbia Web site, containing the news that Columbia and Stanford’s engineering school are collaborating to form the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

To quote the Columbia news item: The Institute “will recognize the increasingly important connection between journalism and technology, bringing the best from the East and West Coasts.”

And perhaps Wolff hasn’t seen the report by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, released last fall, called “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

4. Wolff is wrong about Columbia’s professors.

He says:

Many of the school’s teachers continue to be journalists who have lost their jobs, or who have barely had them in the first place, or who are book writers or magazine writers — which hardly represents a job market. Indeed, as the news business shrinks, teaching becomes one of its few growth areas.

My professors have included working journalists from Reuters, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, among other news organizations. And my non-journalist professors have largely been at the top of their academic fields.

To be sure, Wolff has a larger point: The news industry is in a state of ongoing flux. That’s clear.

And as always, it’s fair to debate the merits of attending journalism school, especially an expensive one like Columbia.

But my feeling is that most of my classmates understand the difficult realities inherent in today’s market, yet have come to Columbia to gain in-depth knowledge, to work closely with seasoned pros, and to become better reporters. (And yes, perhaps I’m biased, as I’ve chosen to take a year off from work in order to attend the J-School.)

Despite technological changes, however, I would argue this: Basic reporting techniques, like research and fact checking, remain timeless.

(Image via xkcd.com.)