Journalist spotlight: Andy Sullivan offers an inside look at covering the U.S. government shutdown

Over the past few weeks, Reuters has been extensively covering the budget crisis and looming government shutdown in the U.S. Andy Sullivan, a Reuters correspondent based in Washington, was a key part of the team covering the story, delivering regular news and analysis that was widely-cited in the press. Andy also frequently appeared on TV and radio outlets to discuss the crisis. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Andy offers an inside look at how he and the team covered the shutdown.

Q. How do you go about covering a major event like this?

A. This story occupied most of our Washington bureau and pulled in Reuters journalists from around the globe. Our Capitol Hill team – Rick Cowan, Tom Ferraro, David Lawder, Caren Bohan and Amanda Becker – did most of the shoe-leather reporting, often late into the night and through several weekends. Ian Simpson covered many of the wacky side stories, like the House stenographer who ranted about Freemasons during the final vote. Reporters across the United States pulled together anecdotes about how the shutdown was affecting military contractors and motel operators. Jason Lange, new to the Treasury beat, owned the “what happens if we default” story. Markets reporters in New York and elsewhere examined how it would affect investors.

My role as the “wrap writer,” alternating with politics reporter John Whitesides, was to pull all of these threads together into a daily story. I’d write up to 10 updates a day; often each would require a top-to-bottom writethrough. It was like drinking from a fire hose: Republican infighting, market gyrations, sad tourists at the Grand Canyon, Asian summits. Twitter was an invaluable tool to keep an eye on rivals’ work. On days when John was handling wraps, I pursued analysis pieces. These could be spurred by a political-science paper, comments from a lawmaker or a stray thought on my bike ride to work. One story examined how demographic shifts and redistricting have made it hard for Republicans to compromise; another pointed out that many Republicans don’t seem particularly worried by the prospect of default. On the day the crisis was resolved, I delivered a story examining how Washington policy blunders have cost the U.S. economy millions of jobs over the past several years.

Q. What are some of the big wins we’ve had on this story and how did we score them? What types of reporting/sourcing were involved?

A. There weren’t many classic scoops in this story because it moved so slowly: the threat of a shutdown had been brewing for months before it actually happened and Republicans began making overtures to end the impasse a week before the crisis was resolved. Working sources didn’t yield much either, as the Democrats maintained near-total discipline while the Republicans couldn’t tell you what was going on because they were in disarray much of the time. There were few actual closed-door negotiations; much of the action came from public pronouncements. Susan Heavey played a key role every morning rounding up comments as various characters paraded through the morning shows.

The “wins” on this story came through insightful coverage that highlighted key themes ahead of our competitors. Gabe Debenedetti and James Kelleher were a week ahead of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on the business-lobbying story. Caren Bohan pointed out that contrary to conventional wisdom the shutdown had wide support among Republicans, not just a few Tea Partiers. Cezary Podkul’s obsession with the Treasury Department’s daily cash reports inspired several unique stories about federal salaries and default scenarios. Mark Felsenthal was the first to note that Obama will now turn to immigration reform as a top priority.

Q. What is the most challenging part of covering a high-profile event like this?

A. It’s extremely competitive. Every news outlet in Washington is throwing everything they have at the story, so the challenge is to differentiate our coverage. It’s also tricky to write the story in a way that delivers insight to investors in Hong Kong, policymakers in Washington, newspaper readers in Chicago.

Q. What advantages does working at Reuters give you in working on this type of story?

A. Our reporters have expertise in so many areas – the personalities in Congress, the workings of the Treasury department, how financial markets respond. Few news organizations have that kind of firepower.

Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?

A. I get a chance to learn something new every day and meet people I would never encounter in another walk of life. On the best days the job delivers an adrenaline rush that you can’t get elsewhere. Finally, it’s a thrill to make a living working with words.

To read the latest from Andy Sullivan, click here.

This post originally ran on Reuters Best.

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