For Fox correspondent, children’s tales are serious business

A few minutes before going on the air, Peter Barnes surveys the piles of papers on his desk.

“I mean, look at all this stuff,” says the Fox Business News senior Washington correspondent. Several New York Times business sections. Wall Street Journals fanned out. A stack of office paper at least three inches thick.

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“I mean, this stack” — he takes it in one hand and thumbs it with the other — “is stuff I printed out just from yesterday,” Barnes says.

The veteran business journalist needs to provide no further evidence that he is in the midst of reporting the biggest story of his lifetime, yet it keeps showing up.

A co-worker walks into his office to tell him that CNBC is reporting that the Treasury will release the results of its banking stress tests on May 4.

“Can we match that?” he asks. Barnes turns to his computer keyboard and begins to narrate his response: “So I just had to ping three sources,” he says.

Behind him, a half-empty bookshelf holds what looks to be survival food — a box of Fig Newtons and two cartons of Lance Toast Cheese sandwich crackers.

Barnes jumps from his seat to take his place on the set, bringing with him his BlackBerry and muttering, “I’m just trying to see if I can nail this before we get going.” He calls out for a man named Bruce and tells him, “I just talked to Treasury. It’s the Fed.”

After finishing his live shot, the 50-year-old correspondent returns to his office and pulls from a shelf perhaps the only counterbalance to reporting stories about bank bailouts and home mortgages: a children’s book called Nat, Nat the Nantucket Cat Goes to the Beach.

Barnes is the book’s author, and his wife, Cheryl Shaw Barnes, its illustrator.

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be a fiction writer,” he explains. “And I used to write poetry and poems and stuff like that.”

But it was Barnes’s entrepreneurial spirit rather than his literary interest that led him and his wife to begin a book business. His start in business journalism led to a master’s in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business and stints at The Wall Street Journal, CNBC and Fox News. When Fox shut down its Los Angeles entertainment business operation, where Barnes was working at the time, he and his wife decided to start a business.

“I just wanted to get my entrepreneurial chops going,” he says.

Before they got into book publishing, though, they went for the weight-loss crowd. Barnes and his wife started a Jenny Craig franchise (“One of Jenny’s daughters is my wife’s best friend,” he says) but sold that venture three years later. They broke even, he says.

They then realized on one of their trips to Nantucket, Mass., where his parents had moved in the 1970s, that there was no children’s book about the island.

Their first book, Nat, Nat, the Nantucket Cat, sold approximately 5,000 copies in one summer.

The Barneses now have 18 children’s books to their name and are working on their latest. It’s a book about the new Capitol Visitor Center, and its main character is a squirrel named Cappy Tail.

Barnes started his more cerebral writing pursuits with an internship at The Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau. Though he got to cover the Pentagon for three months, it was a story on the price of nickel that made a lasting impression with him.

“A government agency had sent a release that nickel prices were up, and I’m sitting there going, ‘Well, this is wild,’ ” he says. “I was oddly fascinated by that kind of thing … Here was this obscure corner of the news business that I was not familiar with, and I just felt like I was back in school all over again.”

After dipping into and out of the news business in the late 1990s and earlier this decade, Barnes returned to Fox in 2007, when it launched its business channel to compete with CNBC. He sees his business experience — which also includes being part of a failed group attempt to merge Delta and Northwest airlines — as assets to his reporting the current economics story he calls “the equivalent of the Great Depression for our generation.”

“I have practical experiences in trying to run companies,” he says. “I have signed payroll checks. I’ve done all that.”

He’s now doing no less than 12-hour days on a regular basis — the channel goes live at 5 a.m. on weekdays — and working lots of weekends, too, thanks in part to its new Sunday show.

Barnes looks no worse for the wear, but Cappy Tail has suffered. His wife is ahead of him on the illustrations for the couple’s latest book.

“I wrote a couple of verses a month ago as we were playing around with ideas,” he says, not sounding too concerned about finding time to craft the story of a squirrel’s tour through the Capitol. He and his wife own the book publishing company, after all, and can adjust their deadlines at will. Barnes expects the book to hit stores in the late fall.

“I’ll do it on the weekends,” he says. “I’m finally getting my desk at home cleared from [paperwork for] taxes.”

Forty-five minutes have gone by since Barnes’s last live shot, and he’s up again. During that time, while talking about Nat the Nantucket Cat and Jenny Craig and the price of nickel, Barnes has confirmed the date of the Treasury’s stress-test release and can report it on his own.

As he sets up for another on-air report, he predicts that news organizations will be unraveling the repercussions of this economic crisis for years to come.

“It’s been one of the most incredible stories ever,” he says, “and I’m having a ball.”