11 Ways To Take The Planet Money Approach To Your Stories

This morning, StateImpact Florida aired its first piece in a series of “Planet Money-style” explorations on an issue of interest. Reporters take a single question and pursue the answer, then they have a (scripted) conversation with one another with relevant sound bites sprinkled in.

Planet Money’s conversations come in the form of their tremendously popular podcasts and radio pieces, and their explanatory approach to reporting has landed their first Planet Money piece, “The Giant Pool of Money,” as one of the Top Ten Works of Journalism of the DECADE.

Florida StateImpact reporters John O’Connor and Sarah Gonzalez are aiming to do these segments regularly, and it’s a format you, too, can try in your own state. It’s a good way to work together with your reporting partner and give your audiences an answer to important question on your beat.

How does the Planet Money team do what it does? Here’s the guidance from Planet Money’s Robert Smith, who spoke with our Florida staff. (Hat tip to WUSF’s Scott Finn for taking notes that I could then turn into a blogpost.)

RESEARCH: The Planet Money team does a lot more research per story than most other reporters have time to do. You’ll routinely find them scanning obscure economist studies or reading entire books for a single interview. Really understanding a subject is essential to breaking something down in a simple way. You have to be confident to say, “this is the way things are.”

PURSUE A SINGLE QUESTION: The hallmark of a Planet Money piece is focus and depth. Don’t try to do a thousand things in a story or podcast. Planet Money picks one provocative question and saves the rest for another story. But you have to be able to say the answer is surprising, or else, it’s not worth answering.

THE SIMPLER THE BETTER: You could ask a million questions about the best way to restructure Fannie Mae. But Planet Money started with a more basic and more interesting question. “How was Fannie Mae created, and what did it do to us?” The surprising answer: It created the most dangerous financial product in the world: the 30 year fixed mortgage. What might just be a toss-off sentence or definition in another radio report becomes an entire podcast for Planet Money.

MAKE A LARGER POINT: You ask the obscure question and seek the answer to teach us something broader about the world or about your beat.

FIND THE RIGHT PEOPLE: Note this is “people” not “experts.” Planet Money treats politicians, economists and researchers as real people. You want people who can tell the story, can be funny, have enthusiasm for the subject and have something at stake. Take the time to ask an official how do you feel about that or how is it different than you thought? That helps make them real.

RECORD YOURSELF IN THE INTERVIEWS: Make sure you’re on tape asking questions to you can either sum up in an interview and restate jargon as something real. If you’re going to do that for your final podcast, why not do it in interviews? Also, feel free to express amazement or skepticism, to include your emotions in there as well.

TELL IT AS A STORY: Sometimes you’re telling one person’s story, sometimes he’s a history or an idea of a policy. Sometimes the story is the reporters search for an answer. Planet Money uses a narrative format: This happened, then this happened. Here’s what it means.

BE TRANSPARENT: Planet Money tells people what it’s doing, exactly. Here’s the question. Here’s why it’s important. We’re going to find the answer this way. Here we go. This happened. Here’s what it means. Which raises another question. Something else happened. This guy told me something surprising. I thought this. To recap, here’s what we’ve learned so far. One more thing, and the take home message is…

BE RUTHLESS WITH EDITING: If a piece of sound doesn’t explain something in a simple way, or show some emotion or tell a little story, cut it out. If you as a reporter can explain something better, do it.

TAKE YOUR TIME: Sometimes Planet Money slows down the story to really nail a point. They repeat words and ideas. Say it in different ways. They seem to know when they get to the crux of an issue and emphasize it so no one misses it.

STYLE: Each Planet Money reporter brings his or her own personality and style to storytelling. If they find something fascinating, they say it. If it bores them, they admit it. Obviously, this is easier on the podcast, but it’s in their radio stories, too. They are not afraid to be genuine. This is probably the most important hallmark of a Planet Money story, in the end. Reporters always sound like they’re excited to tell you something, because they find it interesting and worth your while. The enthusiasm gets them through policy pieces that can be boring, and that enthusiasm is infectious.

One thought on “11 Ways To Take The Planet Money Approach To Your Stories

  1. This is awesome! Good job, Florida. We’re gonna try this with a piece in a few weeks.