Interview: Alex Berenson

Alex Berenson landed a job at The Denver Post right out of college and later wrote for TheStreet.com before moving to The New York Times in 1999.

Alex Berenson landed a job at The Denver Post right out of college and later wrote for TheStreet.com before moving to The New York Times in 1999.

He has been a business reporter for his entire career, with the exception of two stints on the war beat in Iraq. Berenson took a break from covering the Vioxx trial in Texas to speak to PRWeek about corporate reality and why political reporting is overrated.

PRWeek: Why did you choose business reporting?

Alex Berenson: The thing about businesses is they're relatively straightforward in that what they exist to do is to make money for their owners. And I find that, with a lot of political reporting, there's a lot of hypocrisy in it because politicians have a lot of different motives, and they'll put themselves out as wanting to do the best for people. And you're sort of forced into listening to them and repeating a lot of what they say ... I also think the market is a very useful mechanism. I think, for example, what you saw with Enron, that's a company that collapsed very quickly after its fraud was exposed. If you think about politics, people are able to lie and deceive for many years, and there seems to be very little punishment mechanism for it. So, in a lot of ways, it's more fulfilling to be a business reporter because you can have more of an immediate impact. It's also more numbers-oriented, which I like. I'm a little bit of a math guy. So I've never regretted being a business reporter.

PRWeek: What do you think of corporate social responsibility?'

Berenson: I don't think that [companies] take it very seriously, and I don't think that they necessarily should. Their job is to abide by the law and to make money for the people who own them. They should treat their workers well, but I'm always suspicious of companies that talk too much about how wonderful they are. That's not really why they exist; they're not nonprofits. At the same time, I think when companies break the law or mislead people they should be treated quite severely.

PRWeek: Over the course of your career, have you seen any changes in the way companies deal with the media and the public?

Berenson: Not really. There's a little bit less hype in the market following the bursting of the bubble in the late 90's. I think there's a little more skepticism among reporters about technology. The fact that some internet company has a new software application-I think in the late 90's, we were all going crazy about stuff like that without realizing that it made very little difference in peoples' lives. We were all seduced by what was happening in the market.

PRWeek: What's the secret of being a good business reporter?

Berenson: It's the same for any kind of reporting: having sources you can trust, sources independent of the company, sources either in or out of that company who will be able to give you answers to the questions that you really want to know. I don't expect PR people to necessarily tell me everything I want to know. I expect them to represent their company. I expect them not to lie to me. I expect them to tell me when they can't tell me something. But, if I say 'tell me X and Y and Z,' I don't expect them to necessarily give it to me on a silver platter. I would like them to do that, but I know that they have their own interests. I've found that the number-one way you get respect from sources of all kinds is by being able to bring your own analysis to the table. Both your own information, and your own analysis. And that makes you something more than somebody they just go to when they want to get a little tidbit of information to the public. That makes you more of an equal. I remember saying that once to the editor of my first book, and he said to me 'It's funny, because no reporter has ever told me something I don't know about my business.' I thought that was very interesting, because if all you are is somebody who takes tidbits, takes handouts, and puts them in the paper, you're in a very bad position. Unfortunately, I think that's what a lot of political reporting is. And, partly, it's because there are so many reporters. When there are a lot of reporters and not so many sources, the sources have an extraordinary amount of power. Another good thing about business reporting is that it's not the scrum that political reporting is, so you can really find stories that develop really rich veins on your own. You have more of an equal relationship with your sources.

PRWeek: What do you think about the rise of new media and its threat to the newspaper business?

Berenson: The rise of new media is inevitable and it keeps us on our toes. Newspapers have a troubled future. I really hope that there will be a place for a couple really first-rank newspapers that give people information about the whole world and not just about their local community, and give them information presented in a sophisticated way. Obviously I hope the Times will be one of those. I think the Times needs to be a lot more careful about what we demand from our readers, and how much time we ask that they spend with us every day. And I think we write too much and too long often, and I've tried increasingly to be conscious of that in my own stories, that there's no reason to write 1,200 words when 800 will do. And there's no reason to write 2,000 words when 1,200 will do. You should save the length for the stories that really deserve it. I think that that is going to be a big cultural change at the Times in the next few years, and younger people hopefully will have an easier time with [it]. The Times has traditionally sort of defined the importance of stories by the number of stories it writes on a topic and the number of column inches it gives to a topic. Having 12 different stories on the presidential race every day for three months instead of having three really smart stories may not be the way to go any more, in the future. I think blogs are accelerating this change, but I think it would be happening anyway.

PRWeek: What were your impressions of Iraq?

Berenson: I was there in 2003 in the fall, and I was there in 2004 in the summer. When I was there in 2003 you could actually do reporting. You could actually drive around without armed guards. You could actually go back into neighborhoods over and over again. When I got there in September of '03, I actually briefly thought what I think a lot of people at that time thought, which is 'Hey, I think the news media is making this out to be a little bit worse than it really is.' Unfortunately, things rapidly got worse at about the time I got there, and by the time I left in late November of '03, things were bad. And they continued to get worse, and by the time I was there last summer, it was very bad. And I think it's continued to be very bad. I really, really admire the people who are over there now. I think it's an incredibly difficult job that they have. I think it's probably very frustrating. I know it's very frightening. And I think that anyone who criticizes them in any way should get on a plane and go see for themself what it's really like.

PRWeek: How do you see the New York Times' business section in relation to the Wall Street Journal? Do you try to take a different tack in your coverage?

Berenson: I think we have more flexibility. They cover business the way we cover politics. They have to cover everything, and that includes a lot of stuff that is only of interest to a very narrow group of people. There aren't going to be that many people interested in a 400-word story about Procter & Gamble's new senior vice president of marketing. We are looking to cover stuff that is of interest to the general reader-somebody that is smart, and interested in business news. We probably write more trend stories, we probably write more 'display pieces' where we're trying to add art and make it engaging. I prefer being at the Times as a business reporter, because you still have the power of the New York Times behind you, you still get your calls returned, but you don't have to spend a lot of time on these little stories that people outside the industry probably don't care about.

PRWeek: You're covering the Vioxx trial right now.

Berenson: I think that pharma's actually a great beat. I think it's probably the best business beat, along with oil, because the numbers are huge, the issues are huge, it's life and death for people, and people really care about it. And there's science involved, which is interesting to me.

PRWeek: Any books coming out soon?

Berenson: I actually have a novel coming out next year, which Random House is going to publish. The working title is The Faithful Spy, and it's a spy thriller. It's a little bit of a departure.

Name: Alex Berenson

Outlet: The New York Times

Title: Business reporter

Preferred contact method: berenson@nytimes.com

Website: www.nytimes.com

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