Virtually every story can be boiled down to one thing: money. Who has it? Who doesn’t? Who’s successfully lobbying for it? Who’s disenfranchised and deserves more of it? Economics is at the heart of most stories worth reporting, and yet it is the one subject journalists, collectively, are rarely expected to understand with any depth.
In journalism school, professors admonish us to “follow the money,” but that adage seems tailored only for obvious stories about campaign funding or sweetheart zoning deals. In my time as a reporter for The Houston Chronicle, my paper’s pages have been filled with features on topics that, at first blush, don’t necessarily appear to be economic in nature. Hurricane Katrina evacuees and skyrocketing crime. The rise of the Minute Men and border patrol issues. The war in Iraq and how national security is tied to oil. As a profession, we’re great at politics and culture wars so we approach a lot of news from those angles. It’s an easier approach, but it ignores the fact that politics and culture are inextricably linked with economics. When I look at newspapers with a critical eye, I am often left wondering, “Where’s the money?” Even the most masterly narratives can fall flat when economic issues are conspicuously absent or, worse, given superficial treatment.
I saw just how much more comprehensive coverage can be when metro reporters and business writers collaborated two years ago after an explosion ripped through BP’s Texas City refinery, the nation’s third largest, killing fifteen people and injuring 170.
In the moments after the blast, editors treated the story as a standard industrial catastrophe. Reporters rushed to the scene and to local hospitals to gather information on the blaze, the casualties, and the possibility a toxic cloud would descend onto the community. It didn’t take long to realize, though, that Texas City would be a much longer, more arduous reporting slog, requiring expertise in everything from corporate finance to engineering to government regulation. After the initial heartrending stories of courageous workers trying to rescue their colleagues and broken families trying to plan so many funerals, Chronicle reporters would have to get to the bottom of what exactly went wrong and why. Was this truly an accident, or just an accident waiting to happen?
I remember vividly the first editorial meeting of the Texas City reporting team. George Haj, our deputy managing editor of news, said metro and business reporters would work together on this story like never before. It was a concept that had received a lot of lip service in the newsroom but had never been put to the test on a grand scale. From the start, I could see why the wall between
sections had not come down easily. Some reporters on the metro and business desks looked at the world in fundamentally different ways.
Right off the bat, one metro reporter said labor union officials were talking off the record, blaming the blow-up on shoddy work by contract employees. That reporter thought the focus of all stories to come was obvious—the ills of outsourcing. To the business reporting contingent at the table, that was stereotypical liberal media bias writ large.
I noted that any contract work performed at the site would have had to be inspected and signed off on by BP’s own plant managers, who were probably part of the union themselves, so that argument didn’t wash with me. This was BP’s facility, run by BP engineers, creating gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel that would be sold and booked on BP’s balance sheet. Whatever happened was bound to be a more complicated problem than the well-worn union-nonunion employee argument.
As it turned out, the fifteen dead were not BP employees but contract workers. And they had absolutely nothing to do with the explosion, which occurred in the isomerization unit, where octane-boosting gasoline ingredients are created.
The workers were meeting in a mobile construction trailer, planning maintenance for another part of the refinery, when the isom unit blew. The ensuing fireball rolled over the flimsy trailer, obliterating it. The explosion erupted while BP employees were restarting the unit after a two-week tune-up. A series of mechanical and monitoring problems caused a geyser of hot, flammable liquid and vapor to back up inside a hundred-foot-tall ventilation stack that is designed to relieve pressure inside the unit, and then overflow and ignite.