I was driving to work Monday morning and heard a report about Federal workers starting to get notices about furloughs from Curt Nickisch, at WBUR-FM, NPR’s station in Boston. I’m in Phoenix and was listening to KJZZ-FM and I thought, “Wait a minute. Sequestration from Boston? It’s a Washington, D.C. story.”
Well, maybe not. And certainly not now that it is here.
So I asked Nickisch, WBUR’s only business and technology reporter, about covering this story now that the impact is being felt across the U.S. He also offers tips for balancing the business angles with the political sides of the sequestration story.
His first response to my request for comments is telling: “I think I’d ask the question differently, why DC? Why not Phoenix, Sitka, Sioux Falls and Tuscaloosa?”
Curt Nickisch, WBUR-FM
You can find more from Curt at @CurtNickisch on Twitter or on his profile page at WBUR-FM.
1) You are WBUR’s business and tech reporter, why are you getting so much national airplay on sequestration stories?
It honestly hasn’t been that much airplay but I’m glad it stood out. One story (how sequestration cuts are already affecting higher education) was especially relevant for my local market where colleges are big business. At the same time, it happened to appeal to a national audience also because colleges are economic drivers across the country. And mailboxes nationwide are receiving the letters that Boston-area and other colleges are sending incoming freshmen, warning that their student aid package may shrink thanks to cuts in federal work-study money.
The other story was simply about federal workers receiving furlough notices Monday. Yes, Boston is a regional headquarters for the GSA, so this could have been told at any of the other ten. But it could have been done from nearly anywhere. There’s a federal building in Pocatello, Idaho. There are government observers monitoring catches on fishing boats out to sea. Somehow, like it or not, those voices sound more authentic than those of furloughed workers in a suburban D.C. office park. Far-flung reporters can use that to their advantage.
March 1 story: Boston’s Federal Workers Fear Sequester Furloughs
Feb. 27 story: Boston-Area Colleges Already Struggling With Sequester
2) Sequestration is one of those stories that could be on the politics desk or the business desk. Any tips on business folks making it their own?
Sequestration is about money, and money is oxygen for business stories. The key is finding slices of the $85 billion that are happening now where you are. More on that in an answer to Question 5.
But business reporters do need to remember that this is a political story, too. Sequestration is the result of a political choice, as clumsy as it came about, to reduce the budget deficit. The political choice has economic tradeoffs.
When listeners heard from a federal worker in Boston expected to get a furlough notice to take six unpaid days between April and October, I’m sure some listeners thought: ‘How inefficient. Poor family.’ Other listeners thought, ‘That’s not that bad. I’m okay with that.’
When you find a good local business story in the sequestration issue, don’t neglect to balance how much taxpayers are saving, so your audience can weigh the political choice at issue.
3) How did you get up to speed on such a complex story that has been so securely based in Washington, D.C.?
My public radio colleagues in D.C. have really been doing the heavy lifting on the political and macroeconomic scope of this story. They’ve been raising listener fundamentals on the issue, and mine, too. That frees me to tell more locally-differentiated stories. Some of those can go on to add value for a national audience.
Parents at a South Boston Head Start program fear that sequestration may slash the program. Photo: The Boston Globe
4) Sounds to me like you are reaping the benefits of doing good local work — localizing national stories and the universal appeal of any good business story. How do you do that in a quick-turnaround news world?
I feel like the sequester, with its long-set deadline and slow-drip release, has made that fairly manageable. My editor here at WBUR, Tom Melville, had been wondering aloud for days about the growing uneasiness that federal workers must be feeling as the sequester deadline neared. We knew we were going to do the story. We only had to figure out when to do it. Likewise, I expect in the next weeks and months, we’ll see a crescendo of the sequester’s effects.
You probably still have to turn around the story quickly. For my college piece, I did in-person interviews with people from four campuses and produced the story in one day. But at least you can anticipate the news.
5) What tips to you have for other business reporters looking for local impact of the sequestration?
Robin, in the Reynolds Center’s backyard in Arizona, wildfire season is fast approaching, it flares up first in the southwest. Hotshot crews must be done hiring now, what are they doing? Will fires be worse? Are cutbacks at the EPA already slowing permitting for new construction in your market? I like how Frank Morris at KCUR-FM in Kansas City had a great local/national story about USDA meat inspectors.
I think every business reporter probably already knows where the federal government has its fingers in their local economies. There’s a rendezvous of taxpayer dollars in all those public-private partnerships you’ve reported on. Look at direct federal spending and employment. Look at regulated industries and businesses. Definitely look at your airport control tower. But there may be some surprising stories you can find and even perfectly time that haven’t been told yet.