By Kazim Alam
“Journalism is writing,” columnist Aakar Patel once told me, saying I should write more to be justifiably called a journalist. I was then a subeditor on the op-ed pages of The News. After spending four years on that job, I knew I had become lazy, self-satisfied and highly opinionated, characteristics of a typical subeditor.
So I decided to be a business reporter after coming back from a one-year break that I took to do a master’s degree in journalism.
If you think a business reporter’s job is a piece of cake, try to have a direct conversation with a businessman. Ask him about his business strategy, revenue, profit and the taxes he pays on his income. Whether he’s the CEO of a blue-chip company or the owner of a small roadside dhaaba, I guarantee that a five-minute conversation with him will give you a fair idea what situations business reporters go through on a daily basis.
The kind of reporting we do can be divided in three broad categories: economic reporting, financial reporting and business reporting. The reason readers find the business pages of Pakistani newspapers full of economic reporting, which is about the government’s policy decisions, is that the other two forms of business journalism are more difficult to practise in Pakistan.
Financial reporting basically means that the newspaper is reporting on its potential advertisers. That’s dangerous territory for most newspapers, to say the least. Moreover, there aren’t many companies out there that are listed and make their financial statements available to the public.
For example, if you want to report on how well TV channels in Pakistan are doing revenue-wise, you can’t have any definitive story on it. None of our leading TV channels, except one, is publicly listed. Even the one channel whose parent company is listed doesn’t make its unconsolidated financial statements available on its website.
In case you’re reporting on a company that’s listed, and is willing to speak to the media about its strategy and performance, you should still expect painful bureaucratic glitches that may delay your story anywhere from one week to maybe three months.
For a recent story I did on the supply chain of one of the largest fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies of Pakistan, it took me no less than 15 days just trying to get past its PR agency and then the company’s external communications department. When I couldn’t succeed in getting the interview with the person concerned in two weeks, I contacted the CEO of its parent corporation on his personal Yahoo address. His intervention hastened the process, and I got the interview in two days.
If that’s how a big corporation deals with business reporters, you can imagine the kind of resistance they face while dealing with medium-size companies and private businesses. Once I had to wait in the scorching heat for an hour because the businessman I had an appointment with was in a meeting with Zain Bashir, director of Gul Ahmed Textile Mills.
Understandably, he’d rather sell his product to a big customer like Gul Ahmed than talk to a reporter, but at least he could offer me to wait inside his office. So I came back without meeting him, and sent an angry email to my editor, complaining that journalism was the least respectable profession.
Now you’d assume I never saw that businessman again. You’re wrong. I was back at his office two days later, telling myself that a reporter had to be thick-skinned. I wanted to do the story. He was busy once again, so his assistant sat me down and our conversation went on like this.
Office assistant: So what’ll your newspaper gain out of interviewing my boss?
Me: Hmm… we’ll have an informative story on our pages, and your boss will get recognition.
Office assistant: No he won’t. He’s already made it big. Only your revenues will increase.
Me: I disagree. But that’s your opinion.
Office assistant: You see, we didn’t call you. You called us. If we were to benefit from it, we would’ve called you. Not the other way around.
Me: Maybe, you’re right.
Office assistant: Not maybe. I am right.
I think the toughest part of a business reporter’s job is to approach potential sources and ask them questions without offending them. While working on a series of features on the rise of the middle class, the head of business reporting once sent me to II Chundrigar Road so that I could stop passers-by on the way to their offices around 9 in the morning, and ask them what their fathers did for a living.
The idea was that most white-collar bankers working on Pakistan’s Wall Street are the offspring of blue-collar workers. Now imagine yourself standing on a traffic light on II Chundrigar Road at 9:00am, asking random people hurriedly making their way to their offices if their fathers worked as a motor mechanics in the 1980s. It’s a tough job, no?
Similarly, once I had to find and interview a source for a story on the primitive rental arrangement called pagri that still exists in some old commercial areas of Karachi. I challenge you to go to Joria Bazaar in Karachi and try to ask a Memon shopkeeper how much rent he paid on the little cubicle he’d been sitting on for the past 50 years. Chances are that 98 out of 100 businessmen you try to speak with will simply tell you off.
As challenging as this job is, there’re numerous good things about being a business reporter. First of all, you get to know a little bit about everything. A business reporter is perfectly able to strike an informed conversation with experts belonging to a vast number of fields. From central bankers to corporate executives, stock brokers, economists, mutual fund managers, restaurant owners and real-estate tycoons, I’ve met and had meaningful conversations with people from diverse backgrounds.
I enjoy talking to such people because I’ve lots of questions for them. And I like to think that they enjoy talking to me as well, given the fact not many people outside of their profession know what on earth the job of an investment banker is.