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Denver Business Journal Neil Westergaard on the Need for Positive Economic Stories

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Today's blog titled "ColoradoBiz Editor Thinks New Channel 4/Denver Business Journal Series Looks 'Very Familiar'" digs into the suggestion that "Beating the Recession," a co-production of Channel 4 and the DBJ, lifted its concept from "Road to Recovery," an effort Channel 7 and ColoradoBiz magazine launched a month earlier. DBJ editor Neil Westergaard dismisses this charge, which was made by ColoradoBiz editor Mike Cote. (The same goes for Channel 4 news director Tim Wieland, who provided the information contained in another blog, "Internal Document Describes Channel 4's 'Beating the Recession' Series.") And in outlining the ideas behind "Beating the Recession," Westergaard makes a strong argument for the importance of balancing depressing economic reports with more optimistic ones.

"I really believe in the concept," Westergaard says about the reports. "Even with high unemployment, the vast majority of people are not losing their jobs, and the vast majority of businesses aren't failing. So, if you're going to give people the complete picture of the economy, you've got to tell those stories, too. We're not going to preempt stories about the stimulus package or unemployment. We're going to cover those stories, too. But we're also going to cover stories where people are successful -- and most importantly, we're going to tell them in ways where people can learn from them. We'll ask them about best practices, how you retain employees, pay scales, all those things."

Such material -- exemplified by a DBJ story at the center of the January 30 More Messages blog "Three Businesses Are Expanding in Denver. Really" -- might seem rare considering the steady drumbeat of dour economic news dominating business pages and websites these days. However, Westergaard insists that upbeat developments "aren't hard to find -- and the way we find them really shows the differences between the ways the dailies cover business and the way our paper covers business. They're mostly focused on large businesses, the big employers in town, and they do a good job of that. But the majority of people don't work for big companies. I've seen various statistics, and most of the employment in this country by far is with companies that have fewer than a hundred employees. That's especially the case in Colorado, which is much more entrepreneurial and has a lot of personal success stories.

"I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish," he continues, "but if there's 6 percent unemployment, that means there's well over 90 percent employment. Of course, there's a percentage of people who aren't counted in the statistics because they've stopped looking for work and so on. I won't quibble with that. But the gross numbers are undeniable. So what we're trying to do with these stories, like we do with all of our stories, is to present an accurate picture of business. And that doesn't only mean telling the stories about struggle. It also means telling the stories about success."

This approach seems like common sense to Westergaard, but few news agencies are practicing it these days -- and he has a theory about why they're not. "Look at daily newspapers," he says. "Because they're struggling all over the country, they tend to believe that everyone must be struggling... And think about all the broadcast-media coverage that's coming out of New York. That's where many of the layoffs in the financial sector have occurred -- and I'm sure every reporter and producer knows someone who's been laid off. And that becomes the mantra of the national broadcasts, even though it doesn't tell the whole story. Sure, times are tough. But they're not so tough that they're affecting everybody -- at least not yet."

Prior to signing up with the Denver Business Journal, Westergaard served as executive editor of the Denver Post -- and he says he frequently received calls from readers sick of negative news. He became much more sympathetic to this viewpoint, though, during a brief period when he left journalism in favor of a gig with Blue Cross and Blue Shield. "I found out that, gosh, there were lots of people, intelligent people, who get up in the morning and really don't care that much about what's in the newspaper, no matter how compellingly it was laid out and written," he recalls. "They had their own lives, and I'd hear them say, 'Well, I don't want to read about all those murders and stuff' -- stories that are really the same, except the names have changed. And that made me start to think differently when I came to the Business Journal.

"The way I try to approach news coverage now is that you're providing information to people," he continues. "It can be positive, it can be negative, but it's got to be accurate -- and I don't think you can be accurate when reporting about the economy if all you report about is the negative stuff."

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