Q&A: Politico’s Cassella talks about covering the trade beat
Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for Politico Pro.
Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Cassella worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign.
It was in that role that she first began covering trade, including Donald Trump’s rise as the populist candidate vowing to renegotiate NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s careful sidestep of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
A D.C.-area native, Cassella earned her bachelor’s degree in business journalism and international politics at the UNC-Chapel Hill.
Cassella spoke by email with Talking Biz News about covering the trade beat. What follows is an edited transcript.
How did you first get interested in covering trade?
The trade beat turned out to be the perfect fit for my background, because I had studied business journalism and international politics in school, and trade is right at the intersection of that. But I first started paying attention to it only after I sort of happened upon the subject while covering the 2016 presidential campaign at my previous job.
It fascinated me the way the politics of it seemed so scrambled: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump seemed somewhat aligned on the subject, while Hillary Clinton was getting slammed for aligning herself too closely with Barack Obama. Trade is always a huge topic during election years because it is particularly relevant to swing states, and 2016 was no exception. So when I saw the job open up at Politico in the middle of campaign season, I applied — even though I didn’t have a ton of trade experience at the start.
It doesn’t seem like the most scintillating topic. How do you make it interesting to readers?
It’s an interesting subject because you’re right, it does not have an immediate, tangible effect on people – not the way that the education beat does, or local politics, or even something like healthcare. But it does ultimately affect everyone in so many different ways. So I think the challenge for us is figuring out how to drill down through the wonky details to find ways of explaining to readers how their lives will change as a result of certain policies.
One of my colleagues wrote a story this week, for example, that shows how if President Trump moves forward with some of the tariffs he has threatened against China, items like beer kegs and birth control pills will get more expensive. That’s a perfect example of what we’re always trying to do: show readers the relatable connection between their everyday lives and what’s happening in foreign capitals around the world on trade policy.
Why has the trade beat become a daily story?
Largely because President Donald Trump personally has a huge interest in trade policy — and has for years, since way before he was a presidential candidate. He has an almost singular focus it seems on reducing the size of the U.S.’s trade deficit, which is a data point that shows at a basic level that the U.S. imports more than it exports. There are a huge number of factors that play into it, and most economists are agree that having a trade deficit is not bad for the economy — but the Trump administration appears to feel differently.
So they’ve taken a number of steps to try to reduce the size of the U.S.’s deficits, and those have angered our trading partners and set in motion a series of new trade discussions around the world.
You’re based in DC, but trade is an international story. How do you keep abreast of everything?
It can be hard. At Politico we’re lucky to have a full bureau based in Brussels that helps us out by covering all things Europe-related. It’s a huge help to be able to collaborate on transatlantic stories with our reporters there, who have better sources in the European Commission, for example. And we also have a new partnership with the South China Morning Post, which allows us to pick up some of their coverage from Beijing.
Sometimes travel is involved, like to the World Trade Organization or its ministerial conferences, for example, or to trade negotiating rounds that are held overseas. Trips like that are helpful because all of your sources for a given story tend to be in one spot, and you can make connections there whose contact information you can then bring back to Washington.
Beyond that, it requires spending a lot of time on the phone and sending emails to try to connect with the right folks. I learned how to dial out of the country from my desk line on my first day at Politico. Many officials based overseas also pass through Washington at some point, so we try to meet them in person when we can to make it easier to keep in touch once we’re living in different time zones.
What’s your average day like?
Every day is totally different, which is always the best part of the job. But the average day starts with an early morning check-in as soon as I wake up to see what I missed overnight. That particularly means seeing if anything has happened in Asia — like retaliation from the Chinese, for example — or whether Trump has tweeted anything about trade, which he tends to do. More and more often, something happens pre-9 a.m., and I’ll file a first take of the day’s story from my house before I leave to head to the office.
From there, my days are usually split between keeping up with the breaking news story, or peeling off to work on an analytical take, or looking ahead to try to break news on wherever the story is going next. I try to get out of the office whenever I can to spend time meeting with sources or covering events or heading to the Capitol.
And if it’s my turn to take the newsletter, I try to turn my attention there by mid-afternoon or so. I’ll wrap up a first draft of it usually between 6 and 7 p.m., then head home for a few hours before tying together a few loose odds and ends and filing it around midnight. And it all starts over again the next day.
What government agencies do you spend the most time covering?
The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative is traditionally the agency that trade reporters cover the most closely, as they have authority over the bulk of the nation’s trade policy. Some specific authorities are also housed in the Commerce Department and the Treasury Department too, though to a lesser extent.
We also cover the White House a lot, particularly under this administration. We often hear from sources that most decisions on trade are coming from the president himself rather than any of his advisers because he does have such an intense interest in the subject, and he wants to have the final say in what’s happening.
How is the Morning Trade newsletter put together?
The newsletter is a collaborative effort that a number of team members contribute to each evening, but that one person is in charge of putting to bed each night. We focus on using our own original reporting to write a newsletter that’s as forward-looking as possible — which aims to set the tone for the coming day rather than come off as a wrap-up of the previous day’s news.
It used to sometimes sound to me like a daunting task to have to pull together a full newsletter of trade policy news every single day. But these days, more often than not, we’re tasked with picking and choosing what we have room to include, and what we have to leave on the cutting-room floor.
How big is Politico’s trade team, and how do you divvy up responsibilities?
We have three full-time reporters based in Washington, and another reporter who floats between the agriculture and trade teams. And then we have two more trade reporters based in Brussels for Politico Europe.
Among those of us in Washington, dividing and conquering the beat has always been fairly fluid. Whoever is free on a given day will pick up whatever the breaking news story might be, which allows the other team members to continue working on enterprise or to help out with the newsletter. We all tend to cover every topic, which can make it hard to focus on any one thing, but it also makes it much easier to help out wherever you’re needed if someone else is out of the office or tied up with another story.
What was the hardest thing to learn about the trade beat?
I think it was just the sheer magnitude of it, and how easy it was to get bogged down in super wonky policy details. Especially these days, sometimes we have as many as four front-page stories a day on four different trade topics: NAFTA, China, steel, the looming trade war with our allies in the G-7, the trade fight in Congress, the national security threat that companies like ZTE pose — you name it, and we’ve probably written at least something about it just in the past few days.
For me, I dug through archives and read everything that I could before I started, in a desperate attempt to feel grounded at least on the most active topics that I knew I would be writing about every day. And then I used every new story as a chance to gain a little bit of expertise in a slightly different aspect of the beat.