Covering Budgets

Convener:  Joe Magruder


  • Diane Scarponi
  • Glenn Adams


I proposed and took notes for the “Covering Budgets” session at the open space session last weekend. My co-conferees, both AP budget veterans, are listed above.

We all assumed that budgets, especially state budgets, are, by definition, something that matters. (Someone was quoted here this week saying the budget is the most important policy statement a Legislature deals with.) We agreed the nature of the beast makes it hard to cover. Agencies make requests, the governor proposes, legislative committees hold hearings and debate alternate versions of the budget. In the end, legislative leaders and the governor usually cut deals behind closed doors and produce a final budget that may differ substantially from anything proposed earlier.

In our discussion, we recognized things we do well already:

  • We’re selective. We pick things that are important for readers to know about.
  • We try to use understandable illustrations to help readers get the big picture.
  • When we know a proposal is going nowhere, we try to avoid taking readers down that path — or at least very far down the path.
  • We all try to minimize the number of numbers in stories. The best budget stories have few numbers in them.
  • We try to give perspective and context. We resolved that we should keep reminding ourselves of the importance of doing these things and try to keep doing them.

We all agreed that some budget concepts and information is conveyed best graphically. Unfortunately, bureaus (unlike the AP’s national desks) have very poor graphic coverage. One idea we had was trying to find third-party graphics – from executive or legislative budget offices or credible academics or other analysts – and refer to these in our stories. (Many papers have good graphic artists, who, if told where to find a good graphic, can adapt it or ask permission to use it in their papers.)  We agreed that we do, and should continue to, minimize coverage of budget hearings. Cover the issue, not the hearing.

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