MEDIA ROUNDUP: Turning the tax code into news consumers can use

Tax laws have always struck a cord with Americans, but wading through the jargon can be a daunting challenge. As David Ward reports, this often esoteric issue is popping up in some unexpected places.

Tax laws have always struck a cord with Americans, but wading through the jargon can be a daunting challenge. As David Ward reports, this often esoteric issue is popping up in some unexpected places.

As the founding fathers surely knew when they used "No taxation without representation" as a rallying cry for the American Revolution, taxes have always been a hot-button subject in this country. Even though most people are resigned to pay a portion of their income to government, few are ever happy with it and, as such, consumers keep a close eye on news that impacts their tax levels. As recently as 20 years ago, many media outlets had reporters focused solely on tax-related issues. But the traditional tax beat is becoming an endangered species. "The major newspapers and periodicals, even the major TV networks, are continuing a trend toward generalization," notes Peter Sepp, VP of communications with the fiscally conservative National Taxpayers Union. "We don't see many tax beat reporters with those publications the way we did 15 years ago." Taxes are now far more likely to be covered either as part of the personal finance section or, more likely, as a political issue. Despite the complexity of the nation's tax codes, political reporters tend to look for easily understood hooks and themes. "All they want to cover is who the players are, what each side wants, and what they hope to get," says Sepp. William Ahern, director of communications for the business-centric Tax Foundation, says the knowledge level of reporters writing about tax issues can vary dramatically, depending on an outlet's size and location. "At a big, well-funded paper like The Washington Post, you're going to have reporters on staff with either advanced degrees or with enough advanced courses in tax subjects that they don't need basic explanations," he says. "But outside Washington and the larger markets, most reporters covering taxes also cover other beats and have no special knowledge base." But even if they're writing it from a political or personal finance angle, Sepp gives many reporters credit for at least wanting to get into some of the minutiae of tax policy - even if they are quickly overwhelmed. "When a reporter comes to us and says they want every possible detail on a new law or a new law's effect, they end up being quite surprised by the amount of information they need to go through," he says. Wading through the details The bigger problem facing reporters may be working that content into an interesting story. "The typical person who files a 1040 long form will spend up to 27 hours learning about preparing the form," Sepp says. "With that type of complexity in the system, it's very difficult to get into the nuances without putting people to sleep." Local, state, and federal tax laws are also continually being tweaked. As the de facto paper of record for the tax industry, the trade journal Tax Notes often exceeds 130 pages of tax-related announcements each week. Outside of economic policy wonks, there isn't likely to be much interest in that kind of detail. Instead, most people simply want to know how much they have to pay and what new deductions they should know about. "The explosion in self tax preparation has empowered more Americans to take control of their tax situation," says Scott Gulbransen, manager of corporate communications for Intuit's TurboTax software. "And as people get more savvy about their finances, they begin to realize that every time they make a major financial decision, there's a tax implication. They want more information, and so when newspapers do surveys on what their audience is looking for, while taxation is probably not a huge category, it is a growing one." With the media push toward doing more tax journalism as part of the personal finance page, Gulbransen says Intuit has been changing its PR strategy away from product and service reviews and toward positioning key executives within the company as experts for tax trend stories. "We've noticed the number of reviews going down," he says. "So we're doing a lot more things that aren't directly related to the product. For example, we were the first to post a calculating tool online after President Bush's new tax proposal so people could punch in their numbers and see how it would impact their taxes." While taxes are a year-round phenomenon, most outlets view them as a seasonal story. "About 80% of the stories are printed between January 1 and April 15," says Ahern. "Outside of tax season, it's just much slower. The only thing that would cause a great deal of coverage would be a major piece of legislation, such as in May/June 2001 when Bush's first tax cut was being debated." The leading journalists on tax issues today include The Wall Street Journal's Tom Herman; USA Today's Tom Fogarty; John Berry, who covers the Federal Reserve for The Washington Post; along with nationally known personal finance experts such as Money magazine editor and Today show contributor Jean Chatzky, and Eileen Alt Powell of the Associated Press. Family Circle, the final frontier? Tax advice definitely falls under the "news you can use" category, and Weber Shandwick account executive John Feld, who represents H&R Block, says his team has been looking to expand their media outreach to include more lifestyle outlets. "In mid-November we went to family and women's publications like Family Circle and gave them a soft call on how a person's tax issues change depending on what stage of their life they are in," he says. "The expecting mothers of their first children or families buying their first house have different tax issues than older people more worried about their estate." Feld says the pitch attracted some interest, although he adds that several of these outlets have such long lead times that November was too late to make their March/April issues. "We established contact so we'll do more later this year," he says. H&R Block also targets television and radio with media tours that have company experts fielding calls from both reporters and the general public. These tours are successful in maintaining the company's national profile, but Feld says company officials occasionally have to finesse their way around politically charged questions related to tax law. "It comes up more than we'd like it to because it's always handled delicately and we don't take positions," he says. Kirk Green, president of Gonzo Communications, recommends targeting the ethnic press as well as smaller community-based weekly and biweekly print outlets. Green recently completed a 60-day campaign for Liberty Tax Center's arrival in the Southern California market. Liberty was offering free tax service for the first 100 customers at any of its new locations and, Green says, "We went after a lot of publications that would fall under the radar screen of a lot of PR campaigns. Because they were giving away free tax service, we wanted to make sure we were reaching as many people as possible." Green prepared press releases and media kits in both Spanish and English and says he would vary the reporter he was targeting depending on the size of the outlet. "We would try first with personal finance editors at places like the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register, and then as you go down the food chain to smaller outlets, you'd end up with the business editor, and further down you end up with just the editor." ----- Where to go Newspapers Chicago Tribune; Los Angeles Times; The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; USA Today Magazines Bloomberg Personal Finance; Business Week; Forbes; Fortune; Inc.; Kiplinger's Personal Finance; Money; Newsweek; Smart Money; Time; US News & World Report; Worth Trade Journal Daily Tax Report; Small Business Tax Review; Tax Notes; Tax Notes International TV & Radio CNBC; CNN; CNNfn; Fox News Channel; NBC's Today; NPR; local news Web Money.com; MSNBC.com; Stateline.org; Tax.org; Taxplanet.com; WSJ.com

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