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Authors and Journalists Interviews

An Interview with Ben Casselman, FiveThirtyEight’s Chief Economics Writer

Ben Casselman is the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight. Prior to working at FiveThirtyEight, he worked at Salem News and at The Wall Street Journal. Casselman graduated from Columbia University in 2003 with a B.A. in political science. His reporting on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill won him a Gerald Loeb Award and a Pulitzer nomination.

The Politic: How did you get into journalism?

I got into journalism in what I think is probably a pretty classic story. I’d been vaguely involved in a student newspaper when I was in high school, but like a lot of people I was involved in lots of different things in high school. I wenat to Columbia for undergrad, I walked into the student newspaper in my first week on campus, and just totally fell in love with it and basically didn’t go to class for the remainder of my four years there. I officially majored in political science, but for all intents and purposes I majored [in] being at a newspaper. I like to say I didn’t graduate with any marketable skills, so off I went into newspapers once I graduated. I did an internship the summer after my junior year at a small newspaper up in the Boston area, and was lucky enough to have a job open up there when I graduated, so I’ve been at this ever since.

The Politic: What happened after? How did you end up working at the Wall Street Journal and FiveThirtyEight?

I spent three years working for a newspaper up in the Boston area (Salem News) and I was a pretty typical newspaper writer. I covered the local school committee, the city council, covered local Labor Day parades and all the rest of it. I was extremely lucky after being there for about three years to get a job at The Wall Street Journal in what was then called their Weekend Journal section. They’ve renamed it a couple of times since then, but they had a reputation for hiring fairly young writers into feature jobs and letting them work their way into the main newspaper. My first job there was actually writing the celebrity real estate column: “Britney Spears Buys Condo.” This was not necessarily my idea of high-impact journalism, but it was a foot in the door, and I did that for a little while, and I covered trends in the celebrity real estate and broader real estate.

The first inkling of a break was when they needed somebody to cover Mike Bloomberg’s potential campaign for the presidency, and the odds were that he wasn’t really going to run. They didn’t want to deploy a full-time Washington political writer to cover his campaign, so they said: “Ben’s got some time on his hands.” And they had me, while still doing my other job, cover the Mike Bloomberg campaign. Obviously, he never ended up running and it never turned into much, but it got me into the newspaper and out of the celebrity real estate space.

Then I was lucky enough to get a chance to go down to Texas, and spend a few years down there and cover the oil and gas industry for the journal, which ended up including a couple of big stories. That was when the first shale boom was getting going, and it was also when [Deepwater Horizon] exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, so I covered that. We covered that as a real investigative story. A couple of colleagues and I really poured ourselves into that for a period of time, but basically we didn’t leave the office for three months. Coming back to New York and covering economics for the Journal, I sort of got progressively more into data, doing my own research. That led naturally to crossing over to FiveThirtyEight and doing work [that] was similar in some way to what I was doing at the Journal, covering economics, trends in economics, demographics, but doing it from a data-driven standpoint instead of just reporting what other people were up to.

The Politic: You mentioned the oil story. I’d like to note that you won the Gerald Loeb award and were a Pulitzer finalist for that story. Could you tell us more about what’s it like working on a story of this magnitude?

Yeah, it was an incredible experience. The Journal, unlike some big newspapers, is really a very much a beat-driven newspaper. This was even truer than it is now. I was one of a couple of reporters on the oil and gas beat. A colleague of mine, Russell Gold, was also on that, and we had a reporter in London and a few other people. When the rig blew up, I remember checking my Blackberry at 6:30 in the morning on April 21st (the rig blew up overnight). I ran downstairs still in my pajamas and started to report that first-stage story, faster than other newspapers. We had a larger team that understood the oil business better than most newspapers. We figured out quickly that this was going to be a significant story. We put it on the front-page the first day and covered it pretty hard from the outset. We covered it as beat reporters. We didn’t call an outside investigative team; we didn’t turn it over to the hotshot investigative team as maybe some other newspapers would have. We understood technology and the challenges in the oil business probably better than any reporter out there who hasn’t been covering the oil industry.

I had been out on offshore drilling rigs before, and I knew the companies involved, knew the players. We sort of took the view that the best way to get at the story was to try and figure out what had gone wrong aboard the rig. We did little stories that highlighted small things that had gone wrong, and we gradually built towards larger ones and began to be known to people who were in the industry as people who understood the complexities well enough that they could talk to us in oil language. So that allowed us to build towards some of the larger stories. They were very large, sweeping stories, but the groundwork was laid with the small stories earlier in the process, where we highlighted little things that seemed fishy aboard the rig or seemed atypical about the well.

One other thing I’ll say is that we identified very early on that one of the central questions was to what extent was this a one-off, freak occurrence or something specific to this well, and to what extent was this something that happened elsewhere in the industry and could have happened anywhere. The industry really tried to portray it as a one-off, freak event or something that was brought on by a particularly bad decision made by a reckless company. It was best for the industry to paint BP as an outlier, and the evidence that we put together showed that this wasn’t the case. The problems existing at that well were pretty pervasive in the industry, and there had been signs of danger long before this ever happened.

The Politic: You’ve made the transition from the Wall Street Journal, which is a newspaper with a strong print presence, to FiveThirtyEight, which is exclusively online. How did this transition affect you personally?

It’s a great question. I’ve always thought of myself as a print person. I grew up reading the print versions of the newspapers. I still subscribe to the print version of the New York Times and the print Wall Street Journal. My parents always read the print Boston Globe growing up, and I still love print in a lot of ways even as I do more and more of my reading online and on my phone. It’s funny – if you had asked me before I made the transition how big a switch I thought it would be, I would have thought that it might not make all that much of a difference. We obviously were publishing on the web at the Wall Street Journal, and we were pushed to think “digital-first,”, but it does make a big difference and part of the reason is that as long as you have a print newspaper you can talk about the digital being first, but you really have to be print-first. The reason for that is that if you print up a newspaper tomorrow, and you don’t have enough content, you have white space on the front page, or white space on A4 or C5 or whatever page. You don’t have white space on the web. As long as the fear is “Oh my goodness, we don’t have a fifth front-page story, or we don’t have an A3 feature, or we don’t have a B1 lead story,” that will always be your focus.

Part of the advantage of being exclusively on the web is that we’re not tied to the same production schedule. It makes sense for the story to go live at two o’clock in the afternoon, and when there’s a day when we want to run three 600-word stories and no 2000-word stories, we can do that. And when it makes sense to run three longer stories we are not tied down by the physical space that’s in the newspaper. There’s something seductive about the print newspaper, picking it up, and, especially if it was a front-page story, seeing your name on the front page. I think that, at least for me, there’s still no kind of seductive quality to seeing your name on the front page of the website, so that’s why we’re all still adjusting to what it means to have a big story in the digital age. What does it mean and how ephemeral is that kind of work? How do you create a permanence to work that exists exclusively online?

The Politic: You’ve mentioned before your research and your work in data-driven journalism. This is a new concept. As far as I know, not a lot of people implemented this back in the print-age days. How did this happen and did you get involved in this?

I would start by saying the idea of data-driven journalism is not as new as it is portrayed sometimes. The term that used to get used was computer-assisted reporting (CAR). It goes back decades. That term sounds very old-fashioned now, because everything we’re doing is computer assisted reporting in some sense, but if you go back and look through the history of this, there have been people, reporters, trying to use spreadsheets, documents and data to find stories for decades now. The notion of having an entire news organization like ours, that’s exclusively dedicated to that kind of work, is certainly new and we certainly have the ability to do a lot of things now that weren’t possible just because of the sheer availability of computer power and the amount of data that exists out there. There’s clearly an evolution, but I think it’s a mistake to think of it as a completely new idea. I like to think of what we do as evidence-based reporting as much as anything. As a practical matter, most of that evidence is data or statistical evidence. There are a lots of kind of evidence, but the thing that we stand in opposition of is the “expert-quote on one side and expert quote on the other side and we’ll call it even” style of reporting. Or “we found three people doing this and we’ll call it a trend.” We stand in opposition to that kind of pretty shoddy reporting, but there are plenty of ways to demonstrate that something is real and not exclusively data-driven. There’s document-based reporting, there’s on the ground reporting, which I’ve got a lot of respect for. While that’s not the majority of what we do here, I think it’s still philosophically very much in line with our own thinking of what good journalism is.

The Politic: I’d like to move to more current issues. One of the hot topics of the day is the minimum wage. You wrote a lot about it so, in the end, what’s your opinion?

My role, as a journalist, isn’t to take a position in favor or against. What we’re trying to do is add a little bit of evidence to the debate. One of the things I’ve been writing a lot about recently is trying to change the way we think about minimum wage in order to think about it in the context of living costs in the area where it’s being applied. We have a tendency to talk about the minimum wage on a national level, a $7.25 minimum wage with some states having a higher minimum wage, without recognizing that the living costs vary tremendously. They are very different in New Haven than they are in New York City, in rural Georgia or Wyoming than they are in Los Angeles or San Francisco. You have to think about the minimum wage in context. I did a story the other day where New York is talking about raising the fast food minimum wage to $15 an hour. That means something very different in New York City than it does in Buffalo, Syracuse or Rochester. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad idea to raise it, but we ought to be adjusting the minimum wage for the local living cost.

There’s a lot of good economic research on the effect of small minimum wage hikes. This is a fundamental question: Will raising the minimum wage reduce employment? The overwhelming majority of the evidence is that a small minimum wage hike has, at most, a very small effect on employment. Some studies find it has basically no effect, some studies find it has a small effect, but it’s pretty modest. I think there’s a temptation that we sometimes see in stories that get written about this to extrapolate and to say that for any increase of the minimum wage will have a small effect. I don’t think that’s a safe assumption. There’s a big difference between raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.25 and raising it to $15. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean it would have a large negative effect on employment, but just because a 50-cent increase won’t have one, it doesn’t mean that a $5 increase won’t. I think that sometimes we get a little sloppy when we write about the research, and it’s important to pay attention to what the research actually says.

The Politic: I’ve read your article on Clinton’s economic plan, but I’d like to hear your views on Bernie Sander’s plan. How realistic do you think it is?

First of all, I don’t think Bernie Sanders has laid out a detailed economic plan as Clinton has. I think we have a pretty good idea of where his philosophy is, and he’s made specific proposals – a $15 minimum wage, among others. I think the view of the political team at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver and Harry Enten, is that Bernie Sanders has essentially no chance or a very, very low chance of ending up getting the Democratic nomination. It makes more sense to view him as an activist candidate who’s trying to influence the debate, and I think we’re already seeing ways in which he is influencing the debate. I think Hillary Clinton came out much harder on Wall Street in her address than she probably would have if he weren’t coming at her from the left. She’s made a big deal about some of these worker protections to an extent that she probably wouldn’t have if he weren’t coming at her from the left. I think that’s probably the best way to think about his role rather than as somebody who’s making proposals that he’s likely to get a chance to implement as president.

The Politic: Let’s move on to another interesting topic in the financial world – Greece. Negotiations are in place to offer them a bailout package worth up to $96 billion. Representatives from the EU, IMF, European Central Bank and the European Stability Mechanism are currently in Athens to finalize the agreement. How do you think the news that Syriza members planned to enact a parallel transaction system will affect the confidence in the current government?

This whole situation is evolving so quickly that for almost anything you ask me now there’s going to be six more turns of the screw by the time anything goes to print. I think that the way to think about this is in a game theory way. What you have is European creditors – Germany and its backers in the EU – thinking about this as trying to get the greatest concessions that they can from Greece. They’re deeply skeptical of the Greek government’s willingness and ability to make good on the promises it’s making. On the flip side, you have a Greek government that is being pulled back and forth between the need to try and stay in the Euro, which is apparently the desire of most voters, and at the same time the need to look tough and stand up to the more radical elements of their own party, who are the ones that helped put them in power in the first place. It doesn’t do either side any good to back down before the absolute last second. So we’ve seen that time and time again, in these games of chicken both sides wait until the last second. It looks like this is really the time it’s gonna come to an end, and it’s really the time that it’s all gonna fall apart. Then, of course, at the last second, there’s some kind of deal made.

There are sort of two ways of looking at the long game here. I don’t pretend to know which of them is going to come to pass. One of them is they keep kicking the can down the road the way that they have been, but that gradually gives the Greek economy something of a chance to get back on its feet. We had started to see some improvement in the Greek economy late last year before Syriza took over. Over the long haul, they are able to make enough progress to put the crisis behind them. This is the optimistic view. The sort of less optimistic view, which is probably the one that I tend towards right now, is that this is an endless stalling tactic and that at some point this comes to an end. The Greek economy can’t fully improve unless they find a way to devalue, and that’s either an internal devaluation assisted by the Germans, or it’s an actual, formal devaluation – leaving the euro and being able to control their own currency again. I think that anybody who has claimed along the way to see what the next turn was going to be has often been proved wrong. I’m reluctant to make any sort of bold predictions.

The Politic: As a final question, what advice do you have for an aspiring Yale journalist?

My main advice is to write, to find a place you can write where there are people doing work that you admire. If you go to a place where there’s nobody doing anything that you admire, nobody doing the kind of work that you would like to see yourself doing, then you’re not going to have anyone to learn from. When I got into this, I was lucky that there was this model of going to a small newspaper, learning the ropes and working your way up through a series of larger newspapers. My advice to people used to be to go to a small paper, get out of New York and DC, go somewhere far afield, and learn the ropes. I don’t give that advice anymore because I think you get trapped in small newspapers, if you’re lucky enough to get a job. There’s no way out of it. At this point [my advice] is to find a place that’s doing work that you admire even if you’ll not immediately be doing the kind of work you’d ultimately like to be doing. But it will give you the freedom to write, and that may mean writing in your off-hours, it may mean writing in weekends or grabbing projects where you can, alongside doing the kind of work it is that they have you doing formally. You have to find somewhere with people you can learn from and latch onto, and where you can write frequently enough that you can make mistakes and learn from them and try again.

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    How did a person with a degree in political science (not economics) get hired as a chief economics writer?