Tom Corfman is a senior consultant at Ragan Consulting Group, where he leads the Build Better Writers program. He loves the three essential elements of any story: a compelling title, an attractive teaser, and a captivating book.
There are three ways to learn to write and the Gerald Loeb Prize 2023 because business journalism offers one: reading.
(The other two require a lot of practice and a good editor.)
Business communicators should study all types of writers, including novelists, actors and even presidents. Our task is to communicate with the public. This follows the work of journalistsespecially economic journalistsparticularly influential.
Gerald Loeb was a founding partner in 1924 of the EF Hutton brokerage firm. He was no stranger to journalists; in 1955, Forbes called him “probably the most quoted man on Wall Street.” He knew how turn a phrase. He created the foundation which awards these prizes in 1957.
Here’s your chance to enjoy the opening sentences of the best business writing of the past year.
Commentary: Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
Alyssa Rosenberg joined the Washington Post’s Opinions section in 2014 as a pop culture blogger, eventually becoming a columnist focused on mass culture, parenting and gender. She won for her coverage of last year’s infant formula shortage. Here’s how she begins her takeaway article, “The infant formula crisis was not a complete disaster. Here’s why.”
Pair a dark comedy about government with a dark horror film about America’s social safety net and you might get something akin to America’s baby formula shortage. The saga features a whistleblower’s report lost in a federal mailroom; the decrepit conditions in a factory meant to produce life-sustaining foods; and worried, exhausted parents struggling to care for sick and hungry babies.
She speaks directly to the reader with a contrast (“dark comedy” and “dark horror film”), then continues the film metaphor with a tight but vivid description of the plot. She concludes with the emotion of the crisis.
Feature: Andy Greenberg, wired
Andy Greenberg is a senior editor at Wired, where in 2019 his coverage of a cyberattack won a Loeb Prize for international journalism. This year he won in a different category for a story with this title, this teaser and this opening:
Inside the Bitcoin Bust That Tore Down the Largest Child Abuse Website
They believed their payments were untraceable. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The untold story of the case that shattered the myth of Bitcoin anonymity.
Early one morning in the fall of 2017, in a middle-class suburb outside Atlanta, Chris Janczewski stood alone in the doorway of a house to which he had not been invited.
Moments earlier, armed Homeland Security Investigations agents, wearing ballistic vests, had taken up positions around the attractive two-story brick house, knocked on the front door and, when a living family member there had opened it, they had invaded the interior. Janczewski, a criminal investigator with the Internal Revenue Service, followed quietly behind. Now he found himself in the lobby, in a flurry of activity, watching officers search the premises and seize electronic devices.
The title draws you in with “Bitcoin” and “Child Abuse”. The teaser lures you in with the promise of entering for an “untold story.”
In the Lede, Janczewski finds himself in a house to which he “had not been invited,” which poses a question to the reader. Isn’t that what investigators do? Greenberg returns to this question by ending the anecdote:
Janczewski remembers the gravity of the moment that hit him. He was a high school administrator, husband and father of two. Whether he was guilty or innocent, the charges brought against him by this team of law enforcement agents – their mere presence in his home – would almost certainly ruin his life.
Greenberg tells the reader that this isn’t just a technology story, it’s also a privacy issue.
Beat Reports: CoinDesk
A team of eight journalists from CoinDesk won for a set of articles titled: “Cracks in the crypto empire.” The centerpiece was that of Ian Allison explosive scoop of November 2, 2022, exposing the crumbling foundations under Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency empire.
Nine days later, Bankman-Fried’s companies were in bankruptcy court – a collapse unprecedented in its combined size and speed. Here’s how Allison begins her story:
Billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried’s cryptocurrency empire is officially divided into two main parts: FTX (his exchange) and Alameda Research (his trading company), both giants in their respective industries.
But even though they are two separate businesses, the division falls apart in one key place: on Alameda’s balance sheet, according to a private financial document reviewed by CoinDesk. (It is conceivable that the document represents only part of Alameda.)
This balance sheet is full of FTX – particularly the FTT token issued by the exchange which grants holders a discount on trading fees on its market. While there is nothing untoward or inherently wrong with this, it does show that Bankman-Fried’s business giant, Alameda, is largely based on a coin invented by a sister company, not an asset independent as a fiat currency or another crypto. This situation confirms that the ties between FTX and Alameda are unusually close.
This is a competent work on a complex subject, included here because of the quality of the reporting and the breadth of the scoop. He methodically guides readers through the apparent conflict, using a “private financial document.”
The story covers itself when necessary: financial data may be partial and there is “nothing inherently untoward or bad.” He then draws a conclusion about the “unusually close” ties between two companies that seemed invincible at the time.
Explanatory report: Los Angeles Times
The Times’ team of seven journalists led by climate columnist Sammy Roth won for the series “Restoring power to the West.”
The teaser for this title is as follows: “Energy-intensive cities are once again reshaping the landscape”. Here is the introduction to the series:
Over the past century, cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas have transformed the American West by building coal-fired power plants, hydroelectric dams and nuclear reactors to fuel their meteoric growth. Now these cities are about to do it again, but this time with solar and wind farms, long-distance power lines and open-pit lithium mines.
Clean energy projects are absolutely necessary to combat climate change, but they can fuel intense opposition in the communities where they are built. We highlight examples of these tensions across the West, with the aim of finding solutions.
This is an overview providing the reader with an overview of the history of electricity generation. Cities are synonymous with booming urban growth. The last word of the teaser, “again,” alludes to this story.
Then the opening turns to the battles which are the key theme of the series.
Investigative reporting: BuzzFeed News
A team of four journalists from BuzzFeed News won for a year-long investigation with the alliterative headline: “Profit, pain and private equity.” The article focused on investment firm KKR’s purchase of one of the nation’s largest group home operators.
Here’s how the team, led by senior investigative reporter Kendall Taggart, begins the story:
Over five decades, private equity giant KKR has become famous – or infamous, depending on the observer – for a particular strategy playbook. It acquired iconic companies such as RJR Nabisco, Duracell and Toys R Us, took them into debt and sold them.
In 2019, KKR took on a responsibility very different from selling cookies or batteries: caring for thousands of people with severe intellectual or developmental disabilities, some of whom cannot speak, bathe or feed themselves.
The first sentence introduces KKR, a name likely unfamiliar to readers of a news site once known for its lists. Then the story boils down to a contrast: from selling biscuits or batteries to housing people unable to take care of themselves. This shows that this $1.3 billion deal will not end well for residents.
The awards are administered by the UCLA Anderson School of Management. Other winners and their categories: “The Collapse of FTX” by Reuters (Breaking News); “The Amazon, defeated», by the Washington Post (International); “Legal weed, broken promises», also by the Times (Local); And “Diagnosis: debt”, by KFF Health News, NPR and CBS News (Personal Finance and Consumer Reporting).
Prizes are also awarded for audio, video and visual storytelling.
In “The battle for investment survival“, wrote Loeb, who died in 1974, “A little horse sense is much more useful than a lot of theory.