Sequestration as a business news story
by Chris Roush
John Walcott is team leader for national security and foreign affairs at Bloomberg News. Previously, he was the chief content officer and editor-in-chief of SmartBrief.
He has been McClatchy’s Washington bureau chief, foreign editor and national editor of U.S. News & World Report, national security correspondent at The Wall Street Journal and a correspondent at Newsweek.
Walcott is the inaugural winner of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard and was also the Knight Ridder Washington bureau chief.
His work has won the Edward M. Hood Award and the Freedom of the Press Award from the National Press Club and three Overseas Press Club awards.
Walcott spoke with Talking Biz News by email about Bloomberg News’ four-part series on the sequestration. Today’s story in the series, by David Lerman and Nick Taborek, is about the $37 billion program to build the U.S. Navy’s Littoral combat ship, which has been derided by critics at the “Little Crappy Ship.”
Friday’s story will focus on the F-35 fighter jet.
The idea was to avoid the “daily commodity” story — reporting about the dealmaking and what got cut — that is running in many media outlets.
Instead Bloomberg News activated a team of reporters/editors in Washington to examine the big-picture historical context of defense spending. There are four stories running as a result of this work, none of them specifically about “sequestration.”
How did Bloomberg develop the idea of covering the defense budget cuts this way?
We’d been discussing the mismatch between the changing nature of warfare and a number of dubious weapons programs since the middle of last year and the March 1 sequestration deadline gave the effort the urgency it needed.
We decided to launch a four-part series, taking a closer look at whether some of the nation’s largest weapons programs make sense.
Reporters on Bloomberg’s Pentagon and contracts teams had been reporting all along on the problems plaguing the LCS, the F-35 and other new weapons, using their own sources and congressional and defense department reports. So when we launched this project back in December, we had a substantial head start on many of the major elements.
At the risk of sounding like a Christmas song, nine Bloomberg Washington Bureau reporters from those two teams and the politics team, three graphic artists/reporters, two people from the design team in New York, and at least that many editors pulled this together in a month.
How often did the “team” get together to talk about their reporting and where it was going?
There were three or four formal team meetings, but more important is the fact that the reporters and the graphic artists were in touch with one another constantly, so a great deal of the coordination was bottom-up and frequent rather than top-down.
What are the logistical hurdles in pulling off a series like this?
Assembling reliable data to support a series such as this is always a challenge, especially at a company that compiles as much data as Bloomberg does. Coordinating the reporting, the travel, the stories, the graphics, the design, the headlines and the other elements of a big package such as this requires constant attention. I think that one of the keys, especially on subjects as complex as the defense budget, is to make sure that at some point near the end of the process, an editor who isn’t familiar with or invested in the stories takes a hard look at everything.
How were the stories assigned?
This was that rarest of things in Washington these days: an exercise in common sense. We simply put our heads together and assigned the stories to the reporters and editors who were best equipped to do them well.
When did you begin to realize the magnitude and importance of the series?
Even before we launched it, we’d been discussing the major elements of this series for more than a year. On an almost daily basis, we talked about the questions about the cost overruns and flaws in the LCS and the F-35 and about whether the need justified those costs. We discussed the outsize role that congressional and industry lobbying plays in shaping the defense budget and the absence of a hard look ahead at what defending the nation — and against what threats — will require over the next decade or so. I guess we should thank the Congress for kicking us into gear with the prospect of sequestration.
Why not just cover the budget cuts and hearings as they are announced? What does presenting the information in this way do for the readers?
At a time when so many Americans may be affected by the mandatory across-the board budget cuts, the whole of this story is much greater than the sum of its parts, as I think you’ll see when you read the last story, on the F-35, on Friday. It was high time, we thought, to step back from the day-to-day news and try to paint the big picture, the fact that no one has made much of an effort to square the nation’s defense spending with its defense needs.
How much time was spent editing the stories, and what were the biggest issues with cohesiveness among the stories?
The reporters would tell you that too much time was spent editing their stories, and ordinarily, I’d agree. In this case, though, it was critical to make some fairly obscure material understandable to readers who don’t bathe in it every day and to make sure that all the assertions were supported by data, experts or both. Cohesiveness wasn’t a big problem, frankly, because of the way the series was laid out, with an opening big-picture story and then more detailed looks at three parts of it, the politics, the LCS and the F-35.
What is the significance of these potential cuts for the average person?
If they live in a place such as Marinette, Wis., where one version of the LCS is being built, the effects of significant cuts to the program could be painful. As the stories report, though, the defense industry has mastered the art of spreading the supply chain for major programs to as many congressional districts as possible, and in the case of the LCS and the F-35, overseas, as well, so the effects on workers could literally ripple as far as Australia and Japan.
Has Bloomberg uncovered a different way of presenting what has been in the past humdrum news events?
I’m not sure spending billions of your tax dollars and mine or building weapons on which the lives of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines depend has ever been humdrum. If it has, maybe that’s partly the fault of the way that we in the media have covered — or failed to cover — these issues, but I hope that, yes, we’ve found a compelling way to present a dollars and sense issue.
Anything else you want to say about how the series was put together from a journalism perspective?
I don’t think there’s any more important role for journalism than holding accountable those in power, whether it’s political, economic, military or even religious, social or, yes, media power. We have new tools available to help us do that in clear and compelling ways, and I hope we’ve taken advantage of them in this series, but that’s for our customers and readers to decide.