In the past, budget day would be really big wherever I worked, all hands on deck. Every reporter with a beat would be rushing through a book to get to the section that dealt with his or her area—transportation, health, defense . This year, that still happens, but to a much lesser degree than it used to. It also comes down to the fact that it’s bigger in a president’s first year because that’s his first statement of priorities.
What was the priority this year?
This year, the feeling was that we could put as much as possible on the web straight away. So it was on the web all day Monday—an overview story that I did and then separate smaller pieces and graphics that others did. For the paper on Tuesday there’s a sense—and this isn’t unique to The New York Times—that readers who are interested in the budget have already gone online and absorbed it there. And so there is less space given over to budget coverage in the paper the next day than there once was.
It sounds like you have everything you need before the budget physically arrives. I’m wondering then what you do with it in the hour before embargo when it does finally land in the office?
We get multiple sets of the five-volume budget. Some editors look through them, the beat reporters look through them—for instance, Robert Pear absorbed everything he could on health policy—but it’s less of an all-hands-on-deck effort than it used to be.
When I get it, I start at the back where there are tables numbered F-1 to F-10. The really important tables are F-1 and F-2, where you get the spending outlays, receipts (tax revenues), the overall deficit, the total budget, the size of it as a percentage of GDP. You have to know what you’re looking for. If I were doing this for the first time I would take the previous year’s budget and study that before I just went in cold.
I did a story Sunday night embargoed for Monday’s paper, and at 10.30am on Monday, when the embargo on the budget itself was lifted and I had been through it, I updated the story online. An hour later, I updated it again, because the president had spoken in Baltimore. Then you start getting reactions. So, all day Monday you are updating for both things you learn and the reaction to the budget. It’s all great for the reader but the one drawback for anybody who covers the budget is that spending that much time feeding the beast of the web, it’s time you’re not really digging into the numbers and the policy. I’m still looking for things in it today.
How do you decide the initial angle of the first big budget piece—what to focus on most intensely? Is it a group effort at the Times?
I definitely suggest my thoughts, but there is other input. My editor here, Dick Stevenson, who has the virtue of being a former fiscal and economic and White House correspondent himself, does a lot of talking with me. The editors in New York—and Bill Keller and Jill Abramson both headed the Washington bureau—also have their thoughts. It definitely is a group effort. And then it falls to me to execute it.
Were the angles here obvious?
Pretty much. You always want to look at both the projected deficit for the current year, because that’s when the administration updates its figure, but also for the year for which the budget is intended. You want to look at how big that deficit is not just in dollar terms, but also as a percentage of the economy, the GDP, because that’s how economists across the board judge whether a deficit is sustainable or not. The rule of thumb in the United States and abroad is that 3 percent of GDP in a growing economy is considered sustainable. So, I look to see how much over we are—and we are well over right now. You also look to see what the trend is. When will those numbers, both in dollar terms and as a percentage of GDP, start to come down?