Personal Finance Coverage Using Real People p. 14

By: Tony Case Atlanta Journal and Constitution personal finance reporter offers methods of getting them into print sp.

ATLANTA JOURNAL AND Constitution personal finance reporter Hank Ezell disclosed some typical, as well as unorthodox, methods of getting real people with money concerns into newspaper stories at the recent Society of American Business Writers and Editors Conference on Personal Finance in Boston.
Every Monday, the Journal and Constitution business pages are devoted to personal finance. One of the more popular features is a question-and-answer column with a financial planner.
One reader asked: "Do U.S. savings bonds have a place in my portfolio?" The response: Bonds are a good investment for the beginning investor or for a person of modest means. But for those seeking to amass a nest egg, other investments will provide a better return.
The newspapers also utilize the Q-and-A technique in a twice-weekly column called "Consumer Action Center" ? produced jointly with a local TV station ? that prints selected questions of readers who called in, along with the answers they got from financial planners.
The business section also offers "News for Kids," which Ezell sees as an effective tool for getting children to read the newspaper. The feature garners an average of 200 responses a week from young readers.
In a recent kids' section, four successful Atlantans reminisced about their first jobs. Ryan Klesko, left fielder for the Atlanta Braves, recalled roofing houses and helping coach Little League when he was 14 years old and Liane Levetan, chief executive of suburban DeKalb County, talked about darning socks in World War II-era London.
The Journal and Constitution also regularly run a "Money Makeover," in which readers with specific financial concerns ? planning for retirement, bankruptcy recovery ? are matched with professional advisors. The story includes intimate financial data on the subject, from his gross income to the amount of his house payment to the balance of his checking account. Readers are invited to apply for a makeover by sending in an attached coupon.
Problems arise with the feature, though, when a person agrees to be profiled without consulting his or her spouse.
Ezell said it's usually the wife who doesn't tell the husband that the family balance sheet is about to become a matter of public record.
"I don't know how much trouble it is for the wife," said the reporter, "but it's a lot of trouble for us because we have to start over and find somebody else to do it that week."
The Atlanta dailies also use a telephone hot line to find story subjects.
"Have you filed for personal bankruptcy in recent years?" was one recent question. "If so, what problems did you have in rebuilding your credit? Let us know. A reporter may call you back." The hot line gets an average of 40 responses each time it's advertised.
The papers also set up a phone bank periodically. Certified public accountants are brought in to answer readers' personal finance questions free of charge. The service is advertised in a box on the business section front.
According to Ezell, the hotline receives no fewer than 500 calls in a 6-hour period. "They're real readers with real questions, matched with real financial experts," he said.
A more widely used method of getting real-life humans in news stories, the editor noted, is rounding up the usual suspects ? CPAs, financial planners, consumer counselors and other financial experts. Ezell said these individuals are usually more than willing to share their expertise, and sometimes will put reporters in contact with clients who may be willing to be interviewed.
Other good sources include trade associations such as the Society of Human Resource Management, interest groups such as the National Association of Investment Clubs and publications such as minority business listings.
The Atlanta dailies began referring to black and Hispanic yellow pages years ago to better reflect the community's diversity, Ezell related.
"We gave up on the bald, white guy syndrome," said the reporter, noting that hardly a section goes by today that doesn't feature a minority subject.
Mark Mills, financial reporter for Boston's WCVB-TV, told SABEW conferees he relies on one of broadcasting's favorite techniques for getting the average Joe in stories: the man-on-the-street interview.
The method can produce some memorable sound bites. In a recent story, the reporter asked a passer-by what came to mind when she heard the words "planning for retirement."
"Prayer," she responded.
But talking to people in shopping malls and on street corners can lead to more than just quickie comebacks.
In a report on how American workers are faring in the '90s, Mills found a 50-year-old man who'd just been fired after 18 years with the same company. "We were able to do a mini-profile on the guy instead of just a short comment," the reporter said.
Sometimes, the man-on-the-street scheme can take a reporter indoors.
To get feedback on the planned Social Security cost-of-living increase, Mills and his camera crew went to a retirement center, where they found plenty of seniors to sound off.
Mills also depends upon financial planners, corporate public relations people and government agencies to put him in touch with story subjects. And there are public forums, such as small-business expos and financial planning seminars.
One method the broadcast reporter avoids is the on-air appeal.
Once, Mills requested that viewers with a certain financial problem give him a call. The mass of responses practically shut down the station's telephone system.
But the worst part, Mills remembered, was having to return each and every call.
"Suddenly, you have a reporter playing social worker," he said. "It really wore me down."
?(The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Personal Business section) [Photo & Caption]


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