Annie Lowrey loves breaking up boys clubs. While the era of male-dominated journalism is changing, the world of econ writing is still heavily populated by men.
According to the Women’s Media Center’s research, just 40% of economic stories are written by women.
Even in Huffington Post’s list of 32 economic journalists to follow on Twitter, only 7 were women – that’s never been a barrier for Lowrey.
After attending Harvard, Annie Lowrey got her start as an assistant at the New Yorker’s D.C. Bureau conducting research, transcribing and making travel arrangements. Shortly thereafter, she moved to the Washington Independent, a small nonprofit publication where her burden of responsibility skyrocketed.
From there, Lowrey wrote econ columns at Slate and later became the New York Times’ economic correspondent in D.C., covering economic policy and the Treasury Department. Now Lowrey writes about economic policy for The Atlantic.
So, how did she get started in the world of econ writing?
In college, Lowrey interned at a small investment firm that gave her some perspective on business writing and with Bloomberg News, writing about small cap stocks. So when the financial crisis hit in 2008, she had a leg up on other journalists.
“When the financial crisis hit, when it started to get pretty bad in 2007, 2008, and 2009, this chasm opened up below the economy,” began Lowrey. “I was a really young journalist at the time, but I knew how to read a balance sheet. I knew how a lot of these companies worked, how debt financing worked, that kind of thing. That was a somewhat unusual experience for a reporter based in D.C., although certainly not unique.”
This gave Lowrey the insight she needed to write about complex economic principles and events with comfort and accuracy. After covering the financial crisis, Lowrey discovered that she genuinely enjoyed econ writing not just because she was comfortable writing about numbers, but because of the people who opened up to her.
“People are really, really open about their financial lives. I always find it surprising that people will tell you how much they paid for a car, how much money they have in their bank account, what kind of raise they want,” said Lowrey.
Everyday people are the real story of how the economy is working and who it is working for.
In Lowrey’s opinion, the big issue of econ writing in 2018 is that the collapse of local media has led to a dearth of economic coverage about huge parts of the country.
“Stories about what’s actually happening, how policy is affecting real people in really big parts of the country has just been totally gutted and hollowed out in a way that is bad for the media ecosystem and bad for the communities.”
The collapse of local media has led to the decrease and, in some cases, absence of coverage about important sectors of everyday life.
“Local government, local business, environmental stuff, I think are hugely undercovered,” said Lowrey. “Things having to do with public education get hugely undercovered.”
Lowrey cited a study that found cities and towns where local newspapers have closed actually experience higher borrowing rates and higher levels of government inefficiencies at the local level.
Without this essential local coverage, everyday people are being left out of the conversation.
“There should be more coverage of just what’s happening economically with lower-income folks, as a general point… it’s a lot harder to find really great coverage – not condescending coverage, just really realistic coverage of what’s happening for working folks.”
The general theme of working class families and lower-income people being left behind is not one that applies to media alone. A common talking point has been that economic anxiety in large parts of the country was the biggest factor in securing Trump’s victory in 2016. Lowrey would argue otherwise:
“He won a really, really narrow victory and therefore I think that there were probably a number of factors that were decisive. Perhaps economic anxiety was one of those, and certainly I think what was happening in the Rust Belt is a really important thing to look at, but it’s pretty clear that the political importance of white backlash is a really, really important part of that. The insistence on an economic explanation when a racial, socio-cultural explanation is probably more salient, I think, is important.”
That doesn’t mean that the plight of the working class is invalid or should go unheard; however, the current conversation around “the working class” can be troublingly reductive, Lowrey says.
“There’s this weird desire or weird presumption that the working class is just white people, and specifically white men. That’s not true. I think economics is so important to understanding the country’s polarization and political realignment, but it’s certainly not the only thing that’s happening.”
Lowrey argues that while economic factors are essential and polarization has made voters more predictable, what voters really care about is policy change.
“Voters really care about things like the ACA and healthcare… whether their state is expanding Medicaid, whether they’re supporting the exchanges… I think it still often comes down to the policy.”
There’s one big economic policy that has become increasingly popular with think tanks and writers alike in the past few years: universal basic income or UBI.
In July, Lowrey published her book on universal basic income, titled “Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World.”
Lowrey wrote 5,000 words about UBI and sold the idea, publishing it almost exactly 2 years later. Her motivation for writing the book was that UBI was an idea “big enough for a book.”
“It lets you talk about lots of other things, like there’s this whole historical component, and then there’s all this stuff about safety nets, about social insurance, about race and racism, about feminism. There’s pilot [programs] and people are talking about it all over the world.”
Journalists in the U.S. are talking about it plenty as well because people love to read about it. Universal basic income is, in Lowrey’s opinion, policy that’s positive, futuristic, fun to read about and has a bipartisan quality to it that makes it appealing.
So UBI is being covered, but is it being covered seriously?
“I think [journalists] are giving it a fair shake, but I do think there’s this kind of constant question of, oh, well could we even do it, would it be affordable, would it even happen? But the way that policymaking happens in the U.S., generally, is you kind of start small and expand.”
Talking about a universal basic income also opens up the conversation surrounding smaller, more marginal policies.
“I think it’s worthwhile to talk about universal policies, cash policies, unconditional policies,” said Lowrey. “So I think that UBI is actually useful in that way, it lets you talk about things that otherwise there’s just no need to be talking about.”
Another big conversation in the world of economic policy are those policies that disproportionately affect women. But is it right that they should also be disproportionately reported on by women?
“I feel no specific desire or responsibility to cover women’s issues. In fact, I’m all for breaking up boys clubs,” said Lowrey.
“I would say that this notion that issues that affect women, or issues that affect people who don’t engage in paid labor but instead engage in unpaid labor, or economic issues that primarily affect children… The idea that those are somehow niche and they should be advocated for, covered or better covered by non-mainstream economic journalists… Those aren’t niche, those get to the very heart of how people experience the economy and how the economy is shaped.”
Issues affecting women and children are mainstream economic problems and deserve (and oftentimes receive) coverage from mainstream economic reporters.
“I’m always happy to see that there’s a lot of male journalists that are delighted and really interested in covering that, too,” said Lowrey.
Though coverage of “women’s issues” is expanding, female journalists still face challenges of sexism.
“Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not,” said Lowrey. While covering a story for the New York Times, a source took it upon himself to explain what a yield curve was to Lowrey.
“I would really hope the New York Times would not hire someone to cover Treasury who didn’t know what a yield curve was,” she said. “It’s not necessary.”
“I do think that economic journalism has the same issue as the broader profession does. I think that one way of getting around it is to focus on people, and then sort of backfill the policy from that.”
Seeing economists as consultants on a story who can help explain things rather than an authority figure there to “tell you how things are,” is one way of circumventing the issue.
“It’s hard because there’s so many female financial and economic journalists who I love and who are doing the most amazing work, I just wish there were more of us,” said Lowrey.
Another thing that female journalists face disproportionately in the field is sexual harassment. According to the Women’s Media Center, almost two-thirds of female journalists have reported experiencing “threats, sexist abuse, intimidation, harassment” while doing their jobs.
“I get constant sexual harassment,” said Lowrey. “That’s part of being a female reporter. It’s fairly persistent on Twitter and on email. You certainly encounter it while you’re reporting….that’s really hard. I feel pretty lucky that I don’t feel like it’s ever stopped me from doing my work, but its pretty frustrating. It can be pretty demoralizing.”
Though she believes that journalism as a male-dominated field is changing, Annie Lowrey says that the profession still has serious work to do.
“You still see a lot of white faces, you still see a lot of male faces. You still see a relative dearth of folks from different socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s also pretty hard for LGTBQ journalists, so yeah, it’s tough.”
A 2016 study by the American Society of News Editors found that white men and women made up roughly 83% of the workforce in surveyed newsrooms. Overall, women comprised roughly 39% of the workforce.
“The profession has a lot more work to do to see diverse voices as being essential to providing readers with as good content, as good stories, as good investigative work as possible, as opposed to some sort of token,” said Lowrey.
“There’s a lot more work to be done to see newsrooms that look more like America and I’m just excited because that means that the stories that come out will be just so much better. We’ll be capturing that pool of talent that’s out there that might’ve been discouraged or not considered before.”
Check out Annie Lowrey’s work here and follow her on Twitter @AnnieLowrey.