Despite what you’ve heard about the decline of American manufacturing, one thing remains true: every city, large or small, has a factory.
Some places are so dominated by their manufacturers that they become company towns (think Koehler, Wis.; Holland, Mich.; and Kokomo, Ind.) In others, factories are simply part of the economic mix. You might not think of Chicago as a center of manufacturing, for example, but there are factories from the shores of Lake Michigan to the western outskirts.
Manufacturing is usually a beat that is covered by reporters on the business desk, but it can be part of beats on the metro desk, particularly if labor unions are involved.
If you work as a business reporter for any length of time, your editor will likely ask you to do a story that involves manufacturing in some way.
You might be asked to write up an earnings release for a company that produces a product. Or, your state might announce tax incentives to keep a plant in your community. There could be layoffs that anger the union representing workers at the factory. Or, the factory may close in your town, and you will be asked to write about its history.
Beyond simply dipping into the topic, you may be asked to take on manufacturing as your sole responsibility. Often, this happens when you’re assigned to cover an industry that’s important to your community, such as autos, steel or food products.
In that case, you will have to become an instant expert on manufacturing, and your stories will have to make sense to the people who work in the factory. You may have never built anything in your life, but now you have to understand a sometimes technical and mystifying language.
To be good at covering manufacturing, you need to have the big-picture and the small-picture view. Manufacturing is influenced by the macroeconomics, because broad economic measurements have a direct impact on companies that make products. For instance, the automobile industry closely tracks what happens with employment, consumer confidence and housing, since a car is the second-biggest purchase consumers make, behind a home.
Manufacturing reporters also will need to understand what is going on at the grass-roots level. They need to have a feel for what customers are thinking and which way consumer trends are heading, so they can predict how their industries will fare in the wake of change.
Beyond that, the manufacturing beat requires an understanding of workplace issues. You might deal with a major union, or a local one. Your company may not be unionized, which makes the task of telling employees’ side more difficult. Inside the factory, a manufacturing reporter needs to have a grasp of technology and the concepts used by engineers to design the products made there.
Manufacturing touches many parts of the economy, but reporting it does not have to be a daunting. In this primer on beat basics, we’ll talk about the best ways to approach it, and ways to look for the knowledge you need.