FP Talks to Charles Crumpley of the Los Angeles Business Journal

At Financial Profiles, we value our working relationships with members of the business press. FP recently sat down with Charles Crumpley, editor of the Los Angeles Business Journal, to discuss his publication and talk about best practices as we engage with this critical sector of the media.

A vibrant business market like Los Angeles is a crowded space; how can a company engage with the LABJ and develop a long-term relationship with the publication and its staff?

My best suggestion for a businessperson or an exec: Become a source – offer tips, insight, story ideas. Reporters want information and guidance from insiders who will help them understand the industries they are assigned to cover, and reporters tend to be kind to regular sources. So how do you become a trusted source?

First, look for the by-line of the reporter who covers your industry. Then send them an email. Offer a tip or a story idea (and start with something that’s not self-aggrandizing). Example: “Say, I’m a lawyer and we’ve noticed a lot of other local firms are suddenly looking for IP lawyers. I could name a few of those law firms that you could call, if you’re interested.” You may not hear from the reporter, but don’t be discouraged; they get a lot of messages. Try again in a week or two with a different idea or tip.

Once the reporter contacts you, try to be helpful and offer whatever insight you can. They may ask you to comment for the newspaper about whatever story they’re working on. Do so if you want, but if you prefer not, don’t be afraid to say that you want to remain anonymous (or stay off-the-record, as we say). A good reporter won’t betray sources. If you repeat this a few times, you will become a certified source. At some point, the problem is reversed; good sources are pestered by reporters.

Yes, it’s a commitment of time and requires some of your mental bandwidth. And yes, it’s exasperating when the reporter you’ve cultivated moves on, and you’ve got to start over again. But that’s the way it works. And it’s the best way to engage long-term. By the way, the process of becoming a source is pretty much the same for all news outlets, not just ours.

The world of publishing has changed dramatically over the last few years; how has the LABJ changed in response and do these changes present challenges or opportunities?

We’re holding up surprisingly well. To be candid, we haven’t changed much. Our readers are well-educated and tend to be active in business, so they keep subscribing because they need to keep informed of local issues and developments. A paper-based news outlet is still a comfortable product for many business people, apparently. In some ways, we’ve benefited from the downturn in other media. More subscribers and sources have turned to us, knowing that we’re still here and we haven’t changed. One of the ways we’ve changed is that we have burrowed even deeper into our niche: We cover L.A. businesses and local business people. That’s all we do.

Your own commentary column (“Comment”) gives you the chance to cherry pick from the week’s news and find an interesting story on which to comment; how do you decide what to choose?

Years ago, I put this very question to a columnist. His answer stuck with me. He said he writes about whatever interests him at the moment. It could be something that enrages him or inspires him – it doesn’t matter which – he just wants to write about something that he’s passionate about, something he can “work out” through the process of writing. He said if he writes about something he’s not very interested in, it shows; the resulting column is likely to be flat and boring. I thought that was good advice. So I try to select something that interests me.

Beyond that, I look for a topic that’s in the news, something that’s local, and something that’s business – or at least economy-oriented. That’s in keeping with our mission to cover local businesses and business people.

Top down or bottom up; do your reporters bring you feature story ideas or do you assign them?

Bottom up. We expect our reporters to be experts in the fields they cover. They know what’s going on. They know what’s interesting, unusual and important. And they’ve developed those local sources we talked about at the beginning. Good reporters can come up with two or three really good story ideas each week; editors select from those ideas.

You are dedicated to examining the many ways that the L.A. economy operates; is this limited to LA-based companies or are you open to news from national and international companies whose business may have an impact on the Los Angeles market?

As noted earlier, we focus exclusively on local businesses and business people. However, if a national business has a big local operation, we will cover that. Or if a national or international company is doing something different or unusual here, that’s fair game for us. For example, we broke the story about Amazon starting a grocery delivery service in Los Angeles, which was a first for Amazon outside of its home in the Seattle area.

Maybe this will help: We will not do a story on a national business that is, for example, selling something here as it is everywhere. But we will do a story if that business has an L.A. building and local employees, so long as the company is doing something newsworthy here.

Inclusion in your lists, which drive the editorial calendar, is highly sought after; to what extent are your reporters focused on covering these listed companies and is there room for smaller, outlying companies?

Our mission is to cover businesses and business people in Los Angeles County. We strive to cover all businesses. And yes, we absolutely cover smaller ones. Entrepreneurship is an important part of our mission, and it’s not at all unusual for us to write about one-person start-ups, for example. If it’s newsy and unexpected or amusing, we’ll write a story about it.

You like to hear about personalities that drive businesses; to what extent do executive’s personal stories drive a story line, or is it more based on performance and outcomes?

It can be either one, really. Sometimes, the personal story is compelling. (Think Elon Musk.) Sometimes the company’s overall performance is important. (Think Disney.) But it’s often true that the CEO’s personality directly affects the business. At times, the business is an alter ego of the CEO. We try to focus on whichever is the most interesting.

The LABJ has several important events throughout the year for which invitations are eagerly sought; in return, what type of events do you and your staff like to be invited to?

Reporters like to go to events in which heavy hitters and insiders of their beat companies are in attendance. That can be any kind of event, really. It’s mostly a matter of who’s in attendance.

We like to think that IR and PR professionals are an added resource for the press; are communications professionals considered facilitators or obstacles in your newsroom? What is the best way to engage?

The stereotype is that reporters try to avoid IR and PR professionals. Truth be told, we depend on them. I’m grateful for every good pitch I get. Of course, there are some PR people who persist in touting marginal ideas or ceaselessly trumpet ordinary clients and they quickly wear out their welcome. But there are plenty of really good IR and PR people who flag us to legitimate stories and serve the important function of translating industry or insidery jargon into English.

You didn’t ask, but over the years, I’ve developed good working relationships with a number of PR folks. One once quietly told me the real story behind the story. I was grateful for their honesty.

The best way to engage? (And I think this is true for most news outlets.) Try to give us story ideas that are the kinds of stories we do. If I may suggest something: Read the paper. You should quickly get a sense of what we do and what we look for. (Again, I think this is true for most news outlets.) If you do pitch us something, don’t be discouraged if the answer is no. Sometimes the story idea is fine but we just can’t get to it, or we’ve just done something similar and we don’t want to repeat. But we really are grateful for good pitches. Even if we fail to say so.