Journalist Spotlight: Bob O’Brien, The Deal
Welcome to Journalist Spotlight, where we go behind the scenes with a journalist and ProfNet user. This installment features business journalist Bob O’Brien of The Deal, who also spent many years at The Wall Street Journal.
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Bob O’Brien is a senior writer at The Deal, covering private equity. He writes both breaking news stories and feature articles for the website.
Previously, O’Brien spent 18 years at The Wall Street Journal, including covering the daily performance in the equities market. He was featured as an on-air reporter on CNBC television, as part of the WSJ’s licensing agreement with NBC Universal. He wrote feature stories for Barron’s magazine as well as an investment blog for Barron’s online.
Recently O’Brien spoke with us about his career as a journalist. To learn more about his path, his thoughts on the future of journalism, and advice he has for new journalists, see the Q&A below.
Where was your first professional job as a journalist? What was your role?
I was a newspaper delivery boy for the Philadelphia Inquirer when I was 11. Though perhaps that doesn’t count. In college I had a semester’s full-time internship at The Wilmington (Del.) News and Journal, followed by a summer’s paid position with its Rehoboth Beach office, covering local news. That wasn’t as glamorous as a paid job at a beach bureau might have seemed, since I was drawing something on the order of $100 a paycheck, and two thirds of my pay went to rent: a cottage I shared with six housemates.
My earliest paying jobs were with newsletters in Washington, D.C., covering telecommunications, just after the Justice Department broke up AT&T. I mostly worked for newsletters and trade magazines during this time – you know, the ancestors of blogs.
Did you always know you wanted to be a journalist?
Yes. My stint as a newspaper delivery boy came during the Watergate scandal, and I devoured the coverage of the event every day. The prospect that a journalist could upend the presidency was very powerful stuff. My understanding is that the number of colleges offering journalism programs and journalism degrees – my own degree is a Bachelor of the Science of Journalism, which qualifies as a malaprop – tripled in the mid-70s, so obviously I wasn’t the only one reading about Watergate.
What type of stories do you look for?
The easy answer is “stories I’d want to read.” However, since I pursue what would be considered a form of specialty journalism, as a business writer, I can’t just go by the standards of, “Hey, man bites dog – that’s a neat story.” Our stories have to, first and foremost, convey information, and for a sophisticated audience that’s busy, pressed for time, and subject to information overload. So the imperative is to tell them something they didn’t know or debunk some assumptions they might be holding. That said, these accounts can still be interestingly written. But they must be, primarily, informative.
That’s not to say there’s not a role in our coverage for quirky stories that just address interesting topics, without having any real money-making, investment return angle. I recently had occasion to ask myself, “What was the first private equity firm, and what was its earliest deals?” Nobody’s going to make money off this. But I found a couple experts (some with the help of my friends at ProfNet, I’d add) and learned that the first PE firm funded what eventually became Minute Maid orange juice. If the story engages me, and is on point with my coverage, chances are it will find traction with our audience.
Are your stories assigned or do you also pitch them?
It’s a mix. The rule of thumb would be that the day-to-day stories – reporting on transactions, or fund closings or personnel moves, etc. – typically are assigned by my editors. However, features stories about trends or more compelling events … those I’m typically sourcing and pitching to my editors.
What is the best part about what you do?
Not having to work weekends or holidays when the capital markets are closed. That’s seriously close to it. Think of the average reporter working for a general interest publication or broadcast, or a blogger. Those poor folks don’t know what it means to have a family dinner on Thanksgiving.
However, on a slightly loftier level, the best thing is the access to really smart, important people who influence our society. Absent my journalism role, I wouldn’t have conversations with someone who is running a $100 billion buyout shop (unless I was asking if I could get him or her a drink, while waiting tables at one of Danny Meyer’s restaurants). Witnessing historic events – I was covering the equities market for The Wall Street Journal when the Dow crossed 10,000 points for the first time – is also pretty neat.
Do you have any advice for those who may want to pitch you a story idea?
Think about my needs, not just your clients’ needs, or your needs. (My, how self-absorbed does that sound?) But if I’m writing a story on startup firms that are engaging in their first fund raising initiative, don’t pitch me experts on crowdfunding – that’s an entirely different topic. If your client or (if you’re in-house) employer isn’t appropriate for the story topic, hold off pitching them. Chances are I’ll get around to a topic they will be appropriate for down the road.
Now, that said, if you see an angle I haven’t explored – if I say I’m writing a story about regulation of alternative asset managers, and you’ve got a client who’s an expert in compliance and transparency, and can talk constructively about how compliance can stand in for regulation – then offer that suggestion.
What should they always do? Never do?
Be mindful of my deadline. (Again, this guy is so full of himself. Geez – it’s all about him.) If I say I need an interview sometime in the next two days, don’t pitch a source who is traveling through the emerging markets for the next week.
Don’t ask to read the story before it’s published so you can see how your client comes across. The answer will be “no.”
Also, it’s not helpful to call a week after I’ve written a story on, say, investing in some exotic instruments – investing in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance – and tell me, “Hey, I’ve got someone who invests in those instruments. Do you want to talk with him?” No, I probably don’t, because I already wrote that story, and I’ve moved on. I once did a story for the WSJ about investing in golf courses – and I don’t play golf, or know anything about it – and for the next four months I got approached about talking to experts who invest in golf courses – or people who wanted to sell their golf courses – countless times.
The last thing you want to do is make me part of a blast email solicitation. If I think you’re pitching three competing publications with the same proposal, I’m not interested. We never want to be second with a story.
What type of experts do you prefer to use?
Well, that’s a tough question to answer informatively. If I’m doing a story about a trend in private equity – the IPO market has effectively closed down, so how will PE firms monetize their assets? – I’d like to talk to PE professionals, but also securities lawyers and professors of business. If it’s regulation, I’d want more lawyers, and preferably those with some regulatory experience in their background, but also consultants and accountants. If it’s fund raising, I want institutional investors, as well as fund formation advisors. Understand the story – even if I have done has sloppy job of describing the thesis, which happens an unfortunate number of times – and figure out how your client fits in the narrative.
Not all journalists like social media – how do you use it and is it something you enjoy using?
I’m not personally a significant generator or consumer of social media. We have professionals on staff who tweet our content.
Can you tell us about one of your most unforgettable experiences as a journalist?
Obviously, the aftermath of 9/11 was unforgettable, as – from a business journalists’ perspective, and not a humanistic one – I was reporting on how the capital markets were trying to put themselves back together. But everybody has a 9/11 experience. I’d mention the day, during my time covering the equities market, when the market went into such a dramatic decline that it triggered the so-called trading curbs on the NYSE and halted trading for the day two hours before the market would otherwise have closed.
There was just chaos; as this happened so infrequently, very few people knew the rules, and the ones who did weren’t available. (They were busy trying to fix the problem.) It was a fairly remarkable day. We sent out headlines on the newswire within a second after trading was halted.
What advice can you give for someone just starting their journalism career?
Two words: Business. School. Seriously, journalism is a tough business these days. Journalism is going through a structural change: the evolution from the print/broadcast model to the digital/video model has revolutionized journalism, much the way the advent of television affected news reporting on radio. I talk with the people who started in the business when I began my career – when print or broadcast ruled, and there was no such thing as the Internet – and almost to a one, they say if they had anticipated the evolution of the industry, they might have chosen a different career. If there used to be two or three newspapers in a metropolitan area, or three local newscasts, there are now thousands or tens of thousands of digital news outlets for the same audience. Reporting, and reporters, have become commoditized. Even though the dislocation began more than a decade ago, the business hasn’t fully figured out how to deal with it. How does a publisher monetize a news site? (Analog dollars equal digital dimes.) What impact does that have on the paychecks of a journalism enterprise’s staff? (Hint: it’s not constructive.)
That said, if you’re starting out, the current conditions are apparent. So you’re going in with your eyes open. Be realistic about your ambitions. You might have to accept a job that doesn’t align with your interests. Sure, you know a lot about music. Or films. Or pop culture. Saying, “I could be a music critic” is tantamount to saying, “I like living in my parents’ basement as a 30-year-old.” (The corollary to the old joke that saying, “I’m an actor” garnered the reply, “Really? What restaurant do you wait tables at?” is saying “I make YouTube videos for a living.”) Coverage is increasingly stratified: where The Wall Street Journal once covered all of Wall Street, in its many permutations, now that landscape is covered by literally thousands of digital publications. The need for specialized information has grown exponentially. Which is good: thousands of sites means lots of job opportunities. But it also means cutting a compensation pool into smaller and smaller slices.
Not to be completely curmudgeonly or pessimistic: content is king. Find a role where you can excel. Find a voice that distinguishes you from the pack. (And – if you haven’t already – learn to type, spell and write a grammatical sentence.) Even if your ambition is to be in front of a camera: everybody multi-tasks these days. So learn to write. (And if you plan to write, learn to talk to a camera.)
How do you see journalism in 10 years?
Vastly different. I’d say almost entirely mobile, presuming technology advances beyond the pad/phone platform, which certainly seems likely. Content carried on something akin to a very sophisticated Google Glasses platform? I wouldn’t rule it out. Physical newspapers and television screens largely disappear? Could well be. Journalists may also be less of a filter that stands between newsmakers and news consumers. The latter may simply be able to access those news events on their own. Watching an ECB meeting live, virtually attending a White House press briefing, joining a rally for whoever succeeds President Trump. That doesn’t mean that journalism, as we know it, disappears. It just may make the journalist purely an analyst, rather than someone reporting breaking news. There will always be a role for fact-checking and for someone to shine a light on news makers.
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Evelyn Tipacti is a audience relations specialist at ProfNet. She is a former broadcast journalist with years of experience behind the television camera and radio mic.