Expert Commentary

Econofact: Another great source for getting up to speed on newsy economic policy topics

If there’s an economics topic you’re rusty on, you're going to want to check out what academic researchers have to say about their work via our friends at Econofact.

(Maxim Hopman / Unsplash)

Economic research regularly touches almost every facet of life. Economists aren’t just about dollars and cents and supply and demand — they study income inequality and homelessness, lead exposure and public health, financing for higher education institutions and how the effects of historical racism ripple through time, to name a few intersectional topics.

If you cover business — or even that’s not your regular beat — you know that you might be covering sales tax holidays one minute and Main Street revitalization programs the next. If there’s an economics topic you’re rusty on, you’re going to want to check out what the research says at The Journalist’s Resource — and also see what academic researchers themselves have to say via our friends at Econofact.

Econofact is a nonpartisan online publication out of The Fletcher School at Tufts University. Their bread-and-butter content consists of memos written by academic economic researchers, usually about their own work. The memos begin with a straightforward introduction of an issue, like inflation, a few quick research-based facts about the topic, followed by the authors’ interpretation of their findings.

A small team led by Michael Klein, an international economics professor at Tufts, and managing editor Miriam Wasserman strive to make the memos accessible to readers who don’t have a doctoral or even undergraduate background in economics.

Econofact also produces a podcast — Econofact Chats — that’s landed some big names, including Nobel laureates Paul Krugman, a professor at the City University of New York and New York Times columnist, and Michael Kremer, a professor at the University of Chicago.

I recently spoke with Klein, who founded Econofact in 2017, to learn why he started the project, how journalists can use Econofact, and how economics and business reporters can improve their coverage.

“What we’re trying to do at Econofact is introduce journalists to a wide range of nationally recognized experts who they might not be aware of, but who have done very important work and who oftentimes have been involved in policy and have a lot to contribute to the public debate,” Klein says.

Keep reading for more. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and style.

Clark Merrefield: What made you want to start Econofact? I’m also curious about your editorial process, how you choose the writers and topics for the site.

Michael Klein: In the fall of 2016, in the run-up to that [presidential] election, I was disappointed by the level of conversation about a lot of issues, but especially economic ones. After the election, I decided to try to get economists’ voices into the mix to a greater degree, and to bridge the academic-public divide. So, I used a format that I first developed at the U.S. Treasury, when I was the chief economist in international affairs, of writing short memos that were accessible to non-PhD economists and, in this case, non-economists completely. I reached out to a network of friends. We launched in January of 2017 with about 20 people in the network and six memos. By now we have almost 300 memos and more than 120 people in the network.

We try to find topics that are timely — but also a little bit timeless. Topics that are in the news but topics that are going to be of continuing interest. We reach out to people in our network, or people who have been suggested to us, and ask them if they’d like to contribute. People who go into economics often do so because they want to see an improvement in the world. This is a way for their ideas and expertise to get beyond the normal academic audience to whom they usually speak.

All the memos have the same format. We start out with the issue, and then we have a series of bullet points with the facts, and then the authors are allowed to discuss their view of things. But we establish the facts and the issue first. We spend a lot of time editing the memos, to make sure that they’re accessible to a very broad audience. And also, very importantly for us, that they’re non-partisan. We check all the references, and you’ll notice that in the memos there are a lot of hyperlinks because we want to back up everything. The “fact” part of Econofact is a very important part of our name.

Also, beginning in the summer of 2020 I started a weekly podcast series. I’ve been fortunate to have some really prominent economists, including two Nobel laureates, Paul Krugman and Michael Kremer; the last three chief economists of the International Monetary Fund, Ken Rogoff, Maurice Obstfeld and Olivier Blanchard; and many other economists who are not only experts in their area but who have held very high public positions.

CM: And you’ve had journalists on the podcast too — Ben Casselman at the New York Times and several others.

MK: Yeah, that’s been really fun. So we’ve had Ben Casselman, we’ve had [New York Times economics reporter] Eduardo Porter. And we’ve had three podcasts in which we’ve had a panel of journalists with Heather Long from the Washington Post, Greg Ip from the Wall Street Journal, Scott Horsley from NPR and Binyamin Appelbaum from the New York Times. Every six months or so we get together and have a somewhat longer podcast. In early December we’re going to do the fourth of those, with that same panel, talking about the first year of the Biden administration.

CM: You mentioned that Econofact is nonpartisan. Is there a specific economic school of thought that you personally come from or that the site veers toward?

MK: There is a lot more consensus in economics than one would be led to believe by reading news articles or watching television shows or listening to the radio. Typically, what I’ve seen happen is that [journalists] will try to get both sides of a story, even if on one side of the story there’s a very small minority of people that believe that way. For example, with climate change for a long time, even though scientists were almost universally agreeing that there was in fact evidence of climate change, you’d often see a climate denier representing a deep minority opinion. But, if you didn’t know, you would kind of think it was evenly divided. In many ways there’s not that much controversy, certainly not as much controversy as you might be led to believe, but we do try to get people from across the political spectrum. We’ve been ranked as pretty middle-of-the-road by independent places that have looked at our site.

CM: On the topic of journalistic improvement, in economic news coverage is there a routine error or something that you consistently see happening that you would want to see done differently?

MK: What we’re trying to do at Econofact is introduce journalists to a wide range of nationally recognized experts who they might not be aware of, but who have done very important work and who oftentimes have been involved in policy and have a lot to contribute to the public debate. If you read articles, especially in newspapers, what you’ll find is a small cadre of people that journalists are always turning to. And many of them are very, very good. But there are lots of other very good people who can offer fresh perspectives as well. I can understand why that is. Journalists are operating under very severe deadlines, they have the people that they know. It’s easiest, and especially when you’re under a time deadline, most efficacious to turn to those people. But if they are able to look around a little bit more, they would see that there are other people as well.

Another issue that I have is that there’s often a human interest angle to the stories. Which is important, because it engages people. But it’s also important not to have those anecdotes be a substitute for data. And not to have an unusual or extreme case give the impression that that’s typical. I’d like to see more balance between these human interest aspects, but also a broader perspective of what’s actually going on, and noting whether these individual stories are really typical, or if they might not be a typical case.  

CM: One of the most interesting pieces on your site, to me, which came out in May of this year, was about the timing of unemployment insurance benefits and how they don’t always line up with the financial help that people really need. You also wrote a piece in 2018 that explained Treasury bond yields, which have come up again and again in the last few years. So there’s a lot of really useful stuff on your site for journalists on deadline to quickly get up to speed on whatever topic they might be covering. How do you suggest journalists interact with the site to get the most out of it?

MK: I appreciate that typically economic journalists have to cover a really wide range of topics, and it’s hard to become an expert in any one of them, much less to be conversant in all the ones a journalist will have to cover. One of the goals of our site is to allow people, in a way, to become an instant expert on an area by reading the views of one of the top people in the country who has been spending his or her professional lifetime looking at that issue. A lot of our memos are evergreen. They’re on topics — like you mentioned Treasury bond yields — that will always be coming up. They give a primer on how to understand these issues. Some other topics, like on unemployment insurance, are also evergreen but they have a very timely aspect given the illumination of the extraordinary support of workers that we saw at the end of the summer.

I would suggest journalists could use our site to come quickly up to speed on topics, but also to see who wrote the memo, and to use those people as resources as well. We have a lot of memos on a wide range of topics. If you wanted to look at the issue of trade or immigration we have lots of memos on those topics so you could get a pretty wide-ranging view of some of the important related issues.

We also have some really good podcasts. For example, my interview with Paul Krugman on trade, or with Kadee Russ of [the University of California, Davis] on trade. I think those give a really nice overview, in Krugman’s case on globalization and trade and in Kadee’s case on the link between trade and jobs. There’s a real opportunity in using our site to come quickly up to speed on these important and timely topics, and also to familiarize yourself with a range of experts who you might otherwise not know of who could really be an asset to your reporting.

CM: A lot of times for journalists — and I’m not talking about journalists from national outlets, more reporters at local or regional outlets — sometimes getting access or getting big names to talk can be a challenge. Would you say the folks who write for your site are accessible and willing to talk to journalists from a range of outlets?

MK: Our experience is that’s very much the case. These people aren’t getting inundated with calls from reporters every day and they’re very interested in having their ideas and their expertise used in the public sphere. The people who are writing for us and are on our podcast are people who, by virtue of them writing for us and being on our podcast, want public engagement. And then, they’re willing to go the next step and speak directly to people from the media.

CM: I did a Q&A a few months back with a sociologist and a journalist who collaborated on an investigative project that spanned several years, and they’re probably unique in the closeness that they worked together. But I wonder if you think there are ways that journalists and economists could collaborate directly, whether on a major project or just on the level of getting to better understand what each profession does?

MK: I think there are definite opportunities for synergy. One opportunity would be if a journalist wants to go deeper into a topic, an economist who is an expert in that topic could give the journalist a very powerful framework. Economists are trained to think in very precise, careful ways. I think people who want to delve deeper, to write a popular piece, would benefit from that. And, they can provide ways to parse out, for example, what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Can you really understand what’s going on by looking at some simple correlations, or could those be misleading?

Economists, too, could benefit from speaking more with journalists, especially if they are interested in reaching a wider audience than just what they find in academic journals. Journalists know how to appeal to a wider audience, how to make an argument that resonates with people. At Econofact, that’s what we try to do, although we’re still kind of wonky compared to the typical journalistic article. But we’re a lot more accessible than what you would read in scholarly journals. Even though the material in scholarly journals can have a very important public impact, we offer a way in which the public can have access to that and understand it.

CM: What are some general challenges in communicating economic topics to the public? I’m not sure there’s a huge amount of understanding of how complex the economy is, and how much control a single person, like the president, actually has.

MK: In [the U.S.] there’s a view that government can both do more than it can do and that government can’t do as much as it can. And what I mean by that is, for example, the president is typically blamed or lauded for the performance of the economy. In fact, the president doesn’t have that many levers to pull to affect the economy.

On the other hand, there’s a view that the government can’t do things in this country when, in fact, there is opportunity to, for example, help children in poverty. Or help people learn new ways to work as the economy evolves.

There’s a bit of a paradox that in some ways the government is seen as more powerful than it is in terms of macroeconomic outcomes and in other ways the government is seen as more impotent than it really is in terms of social welfare issues. It’s hard to convey those things. You can talk about how the structure of the economy doesn’t give the president free reign to change the way the macro economy is going. Or, you can compare what’s going on in this country to other advanced countries in terms of support provided to poor children or poor families, or those who might not otherwise have access to higher education. Perhaps those kinds of examples would be useful. Sort of contradicting myself a little bit by saying these anecdotes are important, but I understand that’s how a lot of people look at the world, through stories. It would be great to have those stories that were actually characteristic of broader trends and ideas and help people understand, in a more realistic way, what the role of government could be or should be and when we should be satisfied with outcomes and when we should think that we can do much better.

CM: I’m also thinking about the news stories, opinion pieces and social media where the word “socialism” is mentioned in relation to proposed government spending. I’m not sure people understand what “socialism” means, or maybe it means different things to different people. And that government spending and tax policy have been used to benefit families living in poverty, as you said, and also benefit the wealthy.

MK: There’s a lack of context. It’s probably apocryphal, but people talk about the bumper sticker, “Keep the government’s hands off my social security check.” Journalism could go a long way toward educating the public. As you mentioned, what is socialism? What is capitalism? Nobody really gets rich on their own. There’s a huge infrastructure, both physical and institutional, that enables people to rise within the economy, and there should be an appreciation of that. People benefit from government spending, but you have to tax people in order to pay for spending. There’s a tendency, I think, to isolate things and take them out of context. Then they become these talking points that really don’t make sense and aren’t well understood. There’s a lot that journalists could do to better educate the public in the wider context of what’s going on. Not only in this country, but as this country compares to other advanced economies.

Check out Econofact’s memos and podcasts, along with recent economic coverage from The Journalist’s Resource on state sales tax holidays, the debt ceiling and the link between race, tax delinquency and life expectancy.

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