Happy Tuesday, y’all:
This morning I published a story in the New York Times about what it takes for small businesses to create culture and belonging when everyone is working from home.
I thought y’all might be interested in that article AND a little behind the scenes of how I choose whose stories to tell.
I am a freelancer, not a full-time staffer, for the New York Times, so I cannot speak for any of the paper’s journalists -- let alone all journalists -- but I can tell you my process.
I’m constantly looking for story ideas. What makes a good story? It's very specific to the publication and its audience. (A story for National Geographic isn't necessarily a story for Vogue, for example.) But in broad strokes, you need an interesting character who desires something but faces a challenge getting it. That’s a “story” in its most simplistic terms. (Note: By story, I am not referring to what we call “breaking news,” which are events happening in real time. Rather, I’m discussing features that explore issues, topics and questions.)
When I’m pitching a small business story to the New York Times, I'm usually looking for a trend or addressing a challenge that business owners face. To get ideas, I’m always looking at data, listening in on small business forums, reading research reports, and talking to business owners themselves.
If I find a piece of data that interests me, I start calling experts who can give me insight. Then I go looking for small businesses who exemplify what is happening. For example, when I found out that e-commerce grew by nearly 40% in 2020, I immediately wondered if it helped small businesses. So I called up experts who told me the impact was wildly uneven. Then I sought out owners who could tell me about their experiences.
On the other hand, if I talk to someone with a really interesting challenge or story, I’ll then go do research that will help me understand if that's happening to all firms. Is this just one person with a really compelling set of circumstances, or are they part of a larger trend? For example, I read a story about a 100-year-old business closing its doors during the pandemic. So I went to find out if there were more. Sadly, there were. And I wanted to hear about their legacies.
In the piece published today, the challenge was this: How do small businesses maintain their company cultures while everyone is working from home? It was a question I kept hearing small business owners ask in forums, so I thought I should go find answers.
I first looked at data and found a research report that showed work from home is here to stay for many U.S. companies. So this is a challenge that firms will continue to face, not something that is temporary.
I also realized I wanted to focus on firms that were growing. It’s one thing to maintain culture with employees who were already part of the organization; it’s another thing to build company culture with people who have never even been into your office.
Then I started looking for companies to profile. And here’s where it is incredibly important to have diverse networks. That’s the only way I can ensure my coverage includes a diverse mix of firms, including race and ethnicity, gender expression, geography, size, industry, etc.
I talk to companies from all different experiences so that I get an idea of common themes and also what’s unique to certain groups. The challenges facing a business owner in Utah might be different than one in New York City. The challenges facing a Black business owner in Atlanta might be different than what an Asian owner in Denver experiences.
Too often BIPOC businesses are only featured in stories about being a BIPOC business. That means Black women business owners, for example, are only seen in that narrow context. They don't get asked to speak on the everyday small business struggles – growing, hiring, taxes, how to handle varying mask mandates, when to reopen, etc. -- that their peers (most often white men) are asked to comment on.
If we don’t show a diversity of business owners, we risk allowing one group and their experiences to become the definition of who can be a small business owner.
In today’s article, for example, are there hundreds of firms I could have chosen to profile? Yep. I focused on these three because they gave me three very different industries -- drone making, health care and food manufacturing – in three very different places – Utah, California and Texas. One was a family owned firm; another is more like a startup; and the other now has a $1 billion valuation.
They are all solving the same problem, but doing it in very different ways.
Another journalist could have done the same story and found three entirely different companies to feature. But this is who I found and whose stories of creating belonging in their companies resonated with me.
I hope you enjoy!
Got questions you’d like to ask about how I choose sources and subjects? Leave me a comment and I’ll answer it to the best of my ability.
P.S. The Tuesday newsletter will be on hiatus until after the Labor Day holiday, when I’ve got a three-part feature about unicorns, hippies, ranchers and the rural Colorado valley they all call home. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss a single installment.