David Leonhardt: Math's Loss, Journalism's Gain
The incoming New York Times Washington bureau chief places a premium on explanatory journalism and expresses optimism about the future. Fri. Aug. 12, 2011
By Andrew Damstedt
When he was at Yale in the early 1990s, incoming New York Times Washington Bureau Chief David Leonhardt reached a crossroads. The applied mathematics major needed to decide whether to make a substantial time commitment to journalism or focus more on his major.
Andrew Damstedt (email@example.com) is an AJR editorial assistant.
Enter upperclassman Jodi Rudoren, a Yale Daily News editor, with some advice.
"He was our star reporter, not surprisingly," Rudoren recalls. "He was thinking hard at whether or not to make the commitment to become an editor at the Yale Daily News, which is an incredible amount of hours. He was majoring in math and was thinking about becoming a math teacher or math professor. He was sort of toying between getting more serious about academics, specifically math, or more serious about journalism. I told him I thought he was singularly talented as a journalist and that he should be editor of the Yale Daily News and editor of the New York Times.
"I then proceeded to tell everybody that I had saved for journalism this great talent," says Rudoren, now the Times' education editor. She quickly adds, "I'm quite aware that I’ve had almost nothing to do with David's brilliant career, but I'm happy to take any credit I can possibly grab."
Leonhardt, a Times economic columnist who earlier this year won a Pulitzer Prize, says there is nothing surprising about his career choice. "The fact that I studied math is the accident, not the fact that I'm a journalist," he says. "I've always loved numbers for their power to explain what's going on in society. But, eventually, I realized that I didn't like math all that much, and I wasn't all that good at it anymore as it became more and more theoretical."
Leonhardt, 38, steps into his new role on September 6, the same day that his predecessor, Dean Baquet, becomes a managing editor of the Times and Jill Abramson replaces Bill Keller as the paper's executive editor. In July, in her first major staffing move, Abramson named Leonhardt D.C. bureau chief. A memo she signed along with Baquet and Managing Editor John Geddes described Leonhardt as a "dazzling" reporter, columnist and magazine writer who has a "keen understanding of how Washington works and the nexus of politics and economic policy."
Baquet says Leonhardt takes on one of the Times' great jobs at a time when economic policy "will be one of the most important stories in the coming years."
"I think he's one of the smartest people writing about the relationship between Washington and economics at a time when that's going to be one of the big driving stories," Baquet says.
Leonhardt says his goal is to keep the bureau's coverage as outstanding as he believes it has been. He points proudly to the paper's wiretapping coverage, stories on the Arab Spring and the week of reporting following the death of Osama bin Laden, not to mention the paper's health care reform stories and coverage of the Obama administration’s internal debates on economic policy.
Leonhardt believes it's critical that reporters dig beneath the surface and focus heavily on explanatory journalism. "I think too often modern journalism lapses into assertion without explanation ... So I think on any story, there is often an opportunity to ask, 'Are we being clear enough? Are we being detailed enough?' And when you do that, when you are clear and you are detailed, it actually allows you to make larger points, because then you can spring off of really substantive points. To explain the significance of something or to explain the possible scenarios that are going to happen going forward. When you're clear enough about the details, it allows you to do big-picture journalism better."
Leonhardt has enjoyed a sweet gig at the Times, writing the paper's "Economic Scene" column, doing pieces for the Sunday magazine and contributing to an economics blog. So why make the move?
"It's a great job," Leonhardt says, "because the Washington story is incredibly important right now, because the group of reporters and editors are the best collection of journalists in Washington, because - as much as I like being an economics columnist―economics is not my only interest."
Leonhardt says he is optimistic about the future of journalism and of his employer. Thanks to the Internet, "More people read the Times than ever before by a wide margin. We can do a much richer variety of journalism than we were able to do even five years ago, certainly 20 years ago," he says. "We've got, in my subjective opinion, easily the world's best staff of graphics editors. We can do podcasts; we can do slideshows; we can blog; we can tweet; and we can also do good ol' shoe leather investigative reporting just like we always could before."
He says he enjoys working with people, and being a columnist can sometimes be a solitary profession, although he often has found ways to collaborate with his colleagues. Before joining the Times as a business writer in 1999, Leonhardt was on the metro staff at the Washington Post and wrote for BusinessWeek.
Larry Ingrassia, the Times' business editor, says Leonhardt has a wide range of interests that have allowed him to stretch the parameters of traditional economics reporting. As an example, he cites a Leonhardt piece on the economics of the theater business.
His longtime friend Rudoren also praises his range, but adds that she was ahead of him in their "section race" - a competition to see who could get bylines in the largest number of the paper's sections - until she became an editor.
Ingrassia says Leonhardt is a sports junkie who has found many ways to include sports in his column. Leonhardt doesn't write game stories, Ingrassia says, instead focusing pieces on interesting aspects of the world of sports, such as the one he wrote with Ford Fessenden on how black coaches in the NBA have shorter tenures than their white counterparts.
"He's got an eye for the interesting, and he's got that ability to explain complicated things in very easy to understand terms," Ingrassia says.
Leonhardt is a diehard baseball fan, and for almost a decade planned annual trips with friend Greg Raskin to travel the country in search of ballgames. That's something he wrote about in 2006, relating their travels to the cost of gasoline.
"I didn't realize it at the time - I didn't realize it, in fact, until last week―but our timing was impeccable. Starting in the early 1990s, Americans got to enjoy a decade of the lowest gasoline costs in the nation's history," Leonhardt wrote in the column.
While he's a native New Yorker, Leonhardt is a Boston Red Sox fan. Not surprisingly, his favorite stadium is the venerable Fenway Park, followed by Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field. Besides baseball, Leonhardt enjoys reading about history, listening to jazz and cooking. At the time of our interview, he was reading "Descent into Chaos" by Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid and trying to master the intricacies of Southern Indian and Szechuan cuisine. He lives with his wife, Laura, and their three children.
Ingrassia says one of the reasons he picked Leonhardt as a columnist was that he wasn't sure precisely what he was going to get each week. "That's a great value in a columnist," Ingrassia says. "I want to be surprised by a columnist, by the choice of their topic, their reasoning, their writing. And not pick it up and say, 'I know what this person is going to say before I read it,' because then why should I read it?"
Ingrassia cites Leonhardt's intellectual curiosity as one of the reasons he's so successful. "He knows what he doesn't know," Ingrassia says. "He doesn't try to wing it. He doesn't try to bullshit."
A self-proclaimed Leonhardt fan is Times Assistant Business Editor Phyllis Messinger, who helped edit his columns weekly before the last one, "Lessons From the Malaise," ran on July 26.
"Each week was a different kind of thing. I felt like I would be going to school and learning something new every week because David had thoroughly researched it," Messinger says. "And plus he also had, which is unusual even now, umpteen links in his column that would show all the different places where he was getting his information from. I always felt like, even if he was sending the links after I had finished working on the story, it was always helpful to me in understanding more of the depth of what he was writing about. That's sort of the nitty-gritty, and yet if you are a reader of his online, it's a very rich experience."
Messinger mentioned Leonhardt's columns about renting versus buying and his idea to include an online calculator to help people figure out which was the smarter option for them. Rudoren says people frequently ask him for advice on whether they should rent or buy when they are moving to a new venue.
"He's got such a great ability to translate economics into the real world and make it something that people care about," Rudoren says. "I think he does that both in print and in life."
Ingrassia says he could see Leonhardt doing any job in the newsroom and believes that is one of the reasons he was tapped to become Washington bureau chief. "Everything he's done, he's not done just well, he's excelled at ... He's the whole package."