Bloomberg’s Women Behind the News: Laura Zelenko

November 15, 2012 —

Bloomberg Managing Editor Laura Zelenko talks with finance reporter Laura Marcinek about opening Bloomberg offices in Eastern Europe and covering emerging markets.

Laura Zelenko was a stringer in Prague in 1992 when she learned that a little-known newswire was looking for reporters. A few months later, Zelenko and a colleague, Rob Urban, were filing stories from the city’s Intercontinental Hotel and searching for space to establish Bloomberg LP’s fourth European bureau after London, Paris and Frankfurt.

They found an office in Old Town Square, the city center with a clock tower and churches that date as far back as the 10th century. The building, with a narrow, winding stone staircase was across the square from Credit Suisse. Zelenko remembers pushing a luggage cart full of equipment over the cobblestones to move in.

In 1994, Zelenko and Urban helped win Bloomberg News its first Overseas Press Club award for a series on global financial fraud involving prime bank guarantees, which they uncovered when examining the collapse of a small Czech bank.

Zelenko moved to Moscow in 1998 and, in 2001, to New York to run Bloomberg’s Latin American coverage. She oversaw global stocks coverage for two years, and now is managing editor for emerging markets, overseeing more than 90 reporters and editors responsible for bond, stock and currency stories in developing countries. She grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and has a BA in politics from Princeton University. She speaks Polish, Russian, French and Portuguese.

Zelenko spoke with Laura Marcinek, a member of Bloomberg’s New York-based team covering finance. Marcinek joined Bloomberg News in 2010 and covers small and boutique investment banks and regional banks. She holds degrees in journalism and political science from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Marcinek: When you started at Bloomberg, what were some of the biggest challenges of setting up offices in Eastern Europe?

Zelenko: There were a lot of infrastructure issues and there were a lot of money issues. The biggest challenge was that there weren’t a lot of reporters who understood finance, just like the countries didn’t understand finance.

Bloomberg was expanding at a time where these former communist countries were just learning — or re-learning — about capital markets. The whole process of data collection and of educating journalists there was pretty new and challenging.

We took the approach of hiring local journalists who had contacts inside central banks and among finance officials. We used foreign reporters to help improve their writing and editing. Our initial hires were from the countries or had been living in the country for a long time and had the language skills. It was really important to have fluent Czech, fluent Polish, fluent Hungarian, fluent Russian to start the bureaus. Now what you see is a real mix of foreigners and locals in all the bureaus.

Marcinek: You manage a global team that often intersects with governments that are far from democratic and might not have the same free-press laws that the U.S. has. How does that affect coverage?

Zelenko: What we’ve tried to do is raise the level of our coverage in emerging countries to that in developed countries.

When reporters say, “This is really hard to get,” or “I can’t get this on the record,” or “No one’s going to speak to me,” we really encourage them to take the same line that we have in any developed country. It’s challenging, but for many of these markets, we are catering to international investors. That goes for China, as well as Brazil and Russia. The players in the markets are demanding more openness and we’re pushing reporters to go after their sources with that in mind.

It some ways it can be harder to get information, but in some cases, because there’s a lack of sophistication, it may be easier to break news.

Marcinek: How often do you come across language barriers, and how do you manage around it?

Zelenko: We are very well set up now globally with the proper language skills in all of the markets that we cover, as well as in New York, London and Hong Kong, where we have editing hubs. It’s very different from the way it was 20 years ago and we only had a handful of reporters covering emerging markets. Now, we have more than 90 just on the markets team alone.

You need people who can read documents in the original language and I think that we partly overcome the potential for problems by having, for instance, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and Chinese speakers in New York and in London as well. It can be hard in places like the Middle East to find fluent Arab speakers who are also able to write very well in English.

You definitely need a balance in all these markets. Otherwise, the day Russia sends out its default notice in Russian and you don’t have anyone to read it, you’re in big trouble.

Marcinek: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in an emerging market country and how has that shaped your coverage?

Zelenko: I’ll use an example that really struck me recently. That was going to Warsaw. I was there often in the 1990s, and there was a lot of expectation that the capital markets would develop, that there would be all this building, and that the economy would improve.

On my return trip this year, I was pretty amazed by the expansion of the financial sector and with the quality of the reporting in our bureau. The office is much, much bigger than the last time I was there.

The changes are happening very rapidly. We see this, for instance, in many emerging markets on the corporate issuance front, in terms of the local currency issuance. We’ve increased our credit coverage in these countries as their bond markets have become more liquid, and more foreign investors are going into it. The same goes on the stocks side.

Marcinek: What is the biggest goal that you have for your reporters?

Zelenko: We want to break news in all the markets, and we want to break news that will move the markets. That’s a really top priority.

The other thing that we’re very focused on is getting our coverage to be as sophisticated and complete and well-written as it can be. There’s a perception that perhaps the quality of the reporting or the writing out of the less-developed countries is going to be worse. To the extent that we can put in front of our clients very important news with all the context and perspective that’s needed is a very important goal.

I’m amazed every day at how the staff has changed. We have a fantastic group of people all around the world. They’re very capable and really stand out in these countries as experts on financial news coverage.

Marcinek: What’s the most important story that you’re working on?

Zelenko: An interesting and ongoing theme is the increase in borrowing and subsequent defaults that have happened. I was very involved in the coverage of the Russian default in 1998 and the coverage of the Argentina default in 2001. We find ourselves writing on this theme in lots of parts of the world almost every week, whether it’s a company or a government getting into more trouble. This is a topic that doesn’t go away.

We’re also spending a lot of time looking at how market structures are changing to lure more foreign investment and to what extent that’s working.

Marcinek: What’s your best advice for navigating Bloomberg, and what do you tell reporters to get the most out of their careers here?

Zelenko: I like to tell reporters that if they want to work on the big stories, they really need to own their beat.

The people that have written some of the best enterprise and award-winning stories are people who owned their beat and broke news constantly. It’s something that’s very hard, especially for new reporters, to understand because they’re dying to write some big magazine story. If you own your beat and the ins and outs of what’s going on in that market, you can always step back. And that story is going to be much more informed than anything else. It’s a really important lesson. It’s something I learned very early on in my career at Bloomberg in Prague.

It’s also important to build relationships with people across the company. I encourage my team leaders do to that. When you’re in a smaller office — and I felt this a lot in Prague and Moscow — you feel very distant from headquarters. To the extent that these team leaders and the editors can be advocates for reporters in small countries, it’s a benefit to the company. It’s our job to promote them.

Reporters also need to build those relationships and understand how working with people in other bureaus will increase their visibility and improve their stories.

Photos by: Lori Hoffman, Bloomberg

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