Q&A: New York Times columnist discusses economics, journalism in the Trump presidency

David Leonhardt, this year’s Baldwin Business and Financial Journalism lecturer, is a Pulitzer prize-winning op-ed columnist and associate editorial page editor at the New York Times, where he has worked in a variety of roles since 1999. A former economics columnist and Washington bureau chief, he went on to serve as editor of “The Upshot,” a New York Times blog launched in 2014 to deliver political and policy news with infographics.

Leonhardt will examine the role economic conditions played in the 2016 presidential election and the role they currently have in the Trump presidency in his talk “The Great Stagnation: How It Created President Trump.” The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 7 p.m., March 14, in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications auditorium.

We caught up with Leonhardt to ask him a few questions about politics, economics and the future of business journalism.

Throughout the fall, a lot of political commentary focused on divisions within the Republican Party. With the victory of President Trump, talk shifted to challenges on the Democratic side — especially its difficulty in attracting rural, white voters. Is this the group Democrats should be focused on, or are there other lessons to be learned from the 2016 presidential campaign?

“The Democrats still have a lot of long-term advantages. Just about every growing group of the electorate — including people born after 1980, Latinos and Asian-Americans — strongly supports the Democrats. These groups tend to see Republicans as hostile to many values that they hold dear and that they consider core American values, such as equality of opportunity, diversity and environmentalism.

Yet Democrats do have real problems, and they shouldn't wave them away by focusing on the popular vote or complaining about gerrymandering. Republicans didn't win just the presidential election. They control the Senate and the House. They control about two out of every three governorships and state legislatures.

Republicans are such in a dominant position because many older white voters, outside of the country's largest metropolitan areas, see Democrats as hostile to their values. President Trump's success in appealing to these communities was unusually impressive. But it was also part of a larger trend. Unless Democrats can change the situation, they will struggle mightily to win Congressional control, or control of many states, and to pass policies they believe would make life in this country much better.”

President Obama left office with the unemployment rate below 5 percent and the stock market on the rise. Given that the economy already has historically low unemployment, is it realistic to think that President Trump can create more high-wage jobs for Americans?

“Most economists would argue that presidents receive too much credit and too much blame for the economy's performance on their watch. Presidents matter, but forces beyond their control matter more. Having said that, I'm still waiting to see a set of proposals from the Trump administration that seems likely to create a lot of high-wage jobs.”

How can journalists most effectively cover this administration, given access issues, and set the news agenda, rather than having it dictated to them?

“We need to keep doing what we've been doing — developing sources outside of the official channels, compiling objective information, not relying only on official statements. I find President Trump's hostility toward the media (and other independent sources of information, such as federal judges, intelligence agencies and the Congressional Budget Office) to be deeply worrisome, because it suggests a disrespect for our Constitution. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker magazine, recently called it an emergency.

But journalists are still doing their job, and doing it extremely well. Much of what we've learned about the administration in recent weeks has come from journalists.”

With some news organizations using “robots” to write earnings reports, what does the future of business journalism look like?

“Large parts of journalism have become commoditized, and we can't expect readers to pay much, if anything, for them. Some parts are even being automated, as you point out. I'd guess that, in the future, computers will be able to produce charts and summaries of economic reports and earnings reports that are as useful as many basic news stories.

But I'm not at all worried about robots eliminating the need for journalists. Judgment and analysis are still crucial to good journalism, and human beings can do that in ways robots can't. The key is giving people valuable analysis and context.

I spent last year leading a New York Times team charged with helping our top editors think about the future. Our No. 1 conclusion was that The Times should not get caught up in an arms race for eyeballs and clicks. Instead, we should aspire to provide journalism so good and useful that several million people are willing to pay for it — even though so much information is available for free. (That team's report is publicly available.)”

What skills, technical or otherwise, do you think will be essential for tomorrow’s business journalists?

“Journalists need skills that let them tell people things they don't already know. For many journalists, that will mean subject expertise — on the economy, for example, or a specific industry. Expertise is probably the most important thing for a journalist to have today.

There are also technical skills that matter, including the ability to analyze quantitative information and the ability to produce journalism in different forms (audio, video, graphics, photography). And the traditional skills — reporting and writing — are as important as ever.

The best way to become a better journalist is to do the work — in public, be it for a school publication, a community publication or a larger one. You will learn lessons and get feedback that improve all of your skills.” 

Learn more

The Baldwin Lecture Series is hosted by the School of Journalism and Mass Communications and funded by the Baldwin Business and Financial Journalism Endowment, given by Kenneth W. Baldwin Jr.  A 1949 graduate of the school, Baldwin funded the endowment in 2009 to equip students with a depth of knowledge to investigate and report on the most significant and complex business and financial topics that affect consumers and taxpayers. Learn more at the Baldwin Initiative website.

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