This week we’re chatting with David Wessel ’75, current economics editor for The Wall Street Journal and author of the Capital column, a weekly look at the economy. He’s also the author of several books, including In Fed We Trust and, most recently, Red Ink: Inside the High Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget, which was released just a few weeks ago.
Before he was an editor, Wessel was the Berlin bureau chief and Washington deputy bureau chief. He’s also worked for The Boston Globe, Hartford (Conn.) Courant and Middletown (Conn.) Press. Wessel has shared two Pulitzer Prizes.
We reached him at his office in Washington.
How did you get into journalism?
I was editor of my high school paper – so it seemed natural to do that when I got to Haverford. I had kind of an ususual first year. My freshman year was 1971-72, and at that time the black students all stopped talking to white people on campus outside of class, out of protest. I came from an urban school system where a third of the students were black. And so as a reporter on the paper I became a conduit between the students. Another favorite was when…the then-president of the Students’ Council – even then a budding MBA banker type – discovered that the food service was double billing. If you ate at Bryn Mawr you were also being charged at Haverford. I discovered that sometimes you get a lot more credit as the person writing about the scandal than the person who digs up all the dirt.
I interned at a newspaper between my sophomore and junior years. I thought about going to law school…but I got offered a job at a newspaper a week after I graduated. I’ve never done anything else since.
When did you get into business and economics reporting?
I majored in economics at Haverford. I awas always interested in writing about the economy. When I got to the Middletown Press, a small newspaper in Connecticut, I realized the paper covered an awful lot about city government but not about the local companies. And that seemed stupid to me – because what happened in the big aircraft company there, was a lot more important to people than what went on in the zoning board.
It was also true at the time that if you wanted to write about politics, there were a hundred reporters for every job…but if you wanted to write about the economy, there were three jobs to every reporter.
Do you think business reporting is a different animal from reporting anything else? Does it require more of an education?
It is not a different animal – the mistake people make is thinking it’s different. Any kind of reporting is all about figuring out what the heck is going on. It does require a certain ability to translate – but that’s true whether you’re covering France, China, or healthcare. Part of what good reporters do is to have an expertise in something so they can write about it knowledgeably.
So for aspiring young reporters, should they be getting degrees in economics, going to J-school, or doing internships?
I have a strong prejudice that journalism school is a waste of time – and you’d be better off learning something specific. Journalism is a craft.
There are two caveats. [Journalism school] does seem to be a good way to network, and that may help people get jobs. Increasingly there’s more technology in the practice of journalism…and that’s definitely something you can learn in journalism school. But if I were hiring (and I’m not) and had a choice between a person who had majored in economics or the person who majored in English and got a Master’s degree in journalism, I would choose the person who majored in economics.
Has the financial crisis changed what you do at the Wall Street Journal? Has your audience changed?
I think there’s always been a great deal of interest in the economy and business and it’s grown over time as a fraction of the reporting pool – and sometimes it’s during good times, like during the Internet bubble. The crisis has changed the way we do things because it made us realize that A) things could get a lot worse than most of thought would ever happen, and B) you have to listen carefully when nine people say good things, but the tenth doesn’t – and you should spend more time listening to that tenth person.
The economics blogosphere has exploded in the last few years, with a lot of professional economists and university professor-types posting their thoughts online. Has the blogosphere added new competition or changed how you do your job at the Journal?
There are a whole lot of sources of information that are not intermediated by the mainstream press – so people have a lot of alternatives to The Wall Street Journal or reading our stuff online. Secondly, it gives us a lot of quick tabs to keep up with stuff. And now we have a whole new set of critics, so when we say something that may not be quite right there are plenty of economists who pile on.
But I don’t think mainstream audiences are reading it – and part of that is just, the typical person doesn’t have time to go visit Brad DeLong’s blog. But the insiders read it, and one of the things we do is share that content with people online.
The whole thing is in flux – we don’t really know what’s going to work. It’s great ferment, great excitement, and great terror to work for a mainstream publication.
What kind of advice would you give for aspiring young journalists? Are there values you would like to seem them embrace?
The values are: you have to have a commitment to telling the truth the best you see it, and be willing to stand up when someone tries to interfere with that.
The other advice would be, learn something specific – language, science, math, it can be something about economics. But learn something specific. And second, it’s harder to get a job at a small daily newspaper than it was when I was graduated. So people have to find other ways to crack in. And a lot of it is going to blogs. It’s hard to believe you have to start at the bottom, especially if you went to Haverford, but I tend to think that people who start in small ponds do better, because they learn how to do a lot of things, rather than being the person who manages all the stories which start with the letter Q for the New York Times. It’s also better to make mistakes in a smaller environment.
Are you worried at all about the morality and professionalism of future journalists?
No more than I ever was – there has always been a fraction of people who are irresponsible. There’s always been plagiarism and hype – the newspapers of the time of the American Revolution would hardly resemble The New York Times or Wall Street Journal today. But I do worry when we make it easier to cheat…I worry a lot of kids go to colleges without an honor code that makes it easy to get away with. But technology makes it easier to find out when people are lying – almost right away, on Twitter and Facebook.