Secrets from the sanctum: A year in the life of a beverage trade journalist

Photo: Pete/Flickr

As a trade journalist I sometimes pinch myself – not too hard – and recall that I’m lucky enough to cover such an exciting industry and everything from Coke’s latest corporate shenanigans to nascent beverage taste trends.

So as the tumbleweed rolls across that dust-smeared sandwich board marked ‘2014’, I thought I’d share with you the inside track on a business journalist’s mind – what makes us tick, even explode! It’s less a ‘year in the life’ than a summation of the issues and attitudes that constantly crop up in this job.

Lack of sleep, a knowledge deficit – yes, some of you doubtless question our industry knowledge, but believe me, the beat is tough to cover – are both symptoms of the modern working world. Count yourself lucky that, in my case, unlike our politicians I’m not in charge of nuclear weapons – just that big red button marked ‘publish’.

Though even this confers a certain power, and with that an associated responsibility. This job can be like a drug, or perhaps, rather, drugs are like this job – you want to learn more about the industry, get bigger, better scoops that fluster the competition, win higher site traffic, get positive feedback for a useful article.

As with all professions, connections are vital in journalism. I prize those of mine who have passion, because with passion comes an interest in the subject matter that often extends to free thought and interesting opinions or information, and the need to communicate these.

Things I don't like - A quick A-Z...

Things I don’t like. Emails that tell me simply because a company exists, or (drum roll) launched a new website, I have to write a story about it; also the sometimes schizophrenic slide between different frames of reference as a journalist – as one shifts from one sector and form of discourse to another on a regular basis. Though this can also be exciting.

Things I don’t like. One example this year was a beverage packaging designer telling me that a story I wrote and that they liked so much that they re-tweeted it enthusiastically needed to be edited – two months after the event...

They'd decided they didn’t like the story – which had upset a customer. The story was accurate, so I had to say, politely. ‘No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way.’ Several times, in fact, as email acrimony levels increased.

FYI, if I ever interview you, it’s on the record unless you tell me otherwise during the call. And once the piece is published, I’m only willing to correct errors of fact. And yes, even though I'm super-human I still make errors.

Also, we don't publishes press releases

Things I don’t like. Press releases from traditional companies – one large machine supplier is a habitual offender here, stating: ‘I look very much forward to publication and receiving a voucher copy accordingly’.

I can hear the crackle of starch collars and crinoline here. Really? A voucher copy. We’re a web only publication and ‘voucher copies’ probably fell out of fashion in 1994. I’m clearly living in the wrong decade…Also, unlike some of our competitors, we don't just publish press releases.

Conferences or trade shows – they’re interesting events. Sometimes you rock up at a conference and it’s more mournful violincello – people by an orchestra manned by a tight-knit industry elite who don’t even consider you suitably qualified to play a small-sized triangle, in terms of taking part.

But some people at these events welcome you and are keen to chat over coffee…about the industry, yes, but also about their ultra marathon training program (no-one goes for a ‘jog’ nowadays, do they?) or interest in breeding rare dogs. This is always fun, and it can be useful, the kind of interaction that yields stories, and helps pass the time of day.

Journalism: It isn't all shameless smears and taps

Other folks want to feed you the boring corporate line (you doodle on a pad and, if you're on the phone, count the second until you can escape to make a cup of tea) or react as if they’ve just seen the first symptoms of leprosy and run a mile, because they think every journalist is in the business of shameless smears and taps.

You get this reaction on a day-to-day basis as well, when you’re chasing a story and get a bit of a kicking on the phone. Well, it gets the blood pumping, I suppose, and it’s all part of the great game, this great serious game.

Neither my colleagues nor I are in the business of catching people out. That said, bad news happens, and if it’s of clear industry import and it’s my job to cover it.

Remember this before you vent. Yes, it might be bad news for your firm, but ask yourself the question: ‘In terms of free expression, would I prefer to live under the rules of the DPR, or (apologies, it’s a great country, so no offense if you live there, but still, I think I have a point) Russia?’

The press is the ‘fourth estate’, and when its freedoms (and those of a judiciary or democratically elected parliament) are quashed or its message controlled, there’s no check on the powers of the executive, or on big business for that matter.

'It's about relationships and brand building, on both sides'

In this respect, I’d like to commend the behavior of a company like Dr Pepper Snapple, as a ‘for instance’. Last year I wrote a news piece on that firm that was, on any reading, negative. But they didn’t put the frighteners on me, remained courteous and professional, and communicated their point of view.

My most worthwhile relations in this job are with industry contacts who prize relationships with press irrespective of whether they have news to share – I can deepen my market knowledge by speaking to them, and then know who to reach out to when there is a story to cover.

It’s about relationships and brand building on both sides. They totally get it.

Ending on a positive note, I’d like to extend a Christmas and New Year greeting to you all, and tell you that you work in a vital industry that brings refreshment and joy to billions.

Things I do like. You! Without you, your knowledge and your passion, we wouldn’t have any stories, or drinks. So I’ll be raising a glass to you on Christmas Eve, as I think fondly on all the great people I’ve spoken to in 2014.

Thanks for all the memories, and see you in 2015, when BeverageDaily.com will also have a new site editor in my colleague Rachel Arthur.

Ben Bouckley is a senior editor at William Reed Business Media, and has edited BeverageDaily.com since late 2011.

e:ben.bouckley@wrbm.com

t: @benbouckley

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