Media Moves

NYT's Leonhardt explains Pulitzer-winning column writing

April 25, 2011

Posted by Chris Roush

TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE

Last week, David Leonhardt reached the pinnacle of journalism. He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his weekly columns about the economy in the New York Times business section.

Leonhardt had been a finalist the year before.

Leonhardt writes “Economic Scene,” a weekly economics column, for The Times business section, looking at both the broad American economy and the economics of everyday life. Many of his recent columns have focused on effects of the economic downturn.

Leonhardt is also a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine and contributes to the Economix blog. In 2005, he was one of the reporters who produced “Class Matters,” the paper’s series on social class in the United States. In 2004, he founded an analytical sports column, called “Keeping Score.”

Before joining The Times in 1999, he worked for Business Week magazine and The Washington Post.

Leonhardt won the Gerald Loeb Award for magazine writing in 2009 for a Times Magazine article, “Obamanomics.” He was a winner of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers Best in Business Journalism Contest for his Times column in 2009 and 2007.

He was part of a team of Times reporters whose coverage of corporate scandals was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. In 1998, he won a Peter Lisagor Award, from the Chicago Headline Club, for a BusinessWeek story on problems at McDonald’s.

Leonhardt spoke by e-mail with Talking Biz News about his approach to column writing. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you get interested in writing about the economy?

I’ve always liked numbers, and I like reporting about issues that have a big effect on people’s lives. Economics seems like a natural extension of those two interests.

How do you decide on your topic each week?

There is a small list of topics that are the subjects of most columns — the job market, the deficit, housing, health care. If one of those is in the news — or, even better, is about to be in the news — I’ll often go with it. Otherwise, I tend to go with the specific idea I find most interesting.

How much of your weekly column is reporting vs. your opinion?

It’s hard to say exactly. Reporting informs my opinion, so I don’t think of the two as separate. With that being said, a significant chunk of just about every column could fit comfortably in a straight news analysis — in substance, if not always in tone.

Are there topics that you enjoy writing about more than others? If so, what are they?

Housing used to be my favorite, because I thought the bubble excess was obvious and many other people — real-estate agents, bankers, some homebuyers — insisted there was no bubble. But the bursting of the bubble has caused terrible damage, and housing stories these days are often sadder than they are anything else.

I’ve always enjoyed writing about academic research and continue to. I also enjoy learning about and then explaining issues that aren’t as simple as they first seem — like the widely held (and incorrect) notion that almost half of American households pay no taxes.

You do a great job of explaining complicated topics to readers. How hard is that?

Thank you. The column format makes it much easier. In a news story — with a get-to-the-point lead and a pyramid structure — it can be very hard. But in a column, it’s possible to walk readers through an issue step by step, the same way I came to understand it.

How much time do you spend writing each column?

In a typical week, part of Monday and almost all of Tuesday.

How much do you rewrite?

I rewrite a fair amount as I go — tweaking the first 3 paragraphs before writing the 4th, etc. Lately, I’ve occasionally found myself scrapping my entire lead when I’m already well into the process. It’s painful, but I’ve yet to regret having done so.

Are there columns from the past year that you’re especially proud of?

A few come to mind: Age discrimination, the deficit puzzle, the deficit we want, the history of opposition to new social programs, and work and motherhood.

You seem to have written a lot about taxes recently. Why?

Many Americans want generous government benefits and low taxes. Those two simply can’t co-exist for very long. The disconnect explains our huge looming deficit. Yet too much of the discussion of the deficit focuses on only one half of the equation: spending

What kind of reader reaction do you get from the columns?

It varies widely. Some columns get relatively little feedback. Some get hundreds of Web comments and hundreds of emails from readers. Many get somewhere in between. I also try to pay a lot of attention to the reaction on economics blogs, because there are so many good econ blogs.

How is writing the column different from the other writing you do? How is it similar?

Switching back and forth between column writing and news writing is a little tough. They require different approaches. So I’ve cut back significantly on my news writing and now do very little. Almost all my writing is for the column, for the Economix blog or for the NYT Magazine. All of those call for a similar style.

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