Tuesday Talk… with Ben Weyl

Ben Weyl is a 2003 Hillsborough High School alumnus who took several of my classes and was in HHS Debate for four years. He was always engaged politically in high school and college, so I was eager to follow his career path. I’ve watched his career ascent jealously — except when he was covering business issues — as journalism has always fascinated me. 

Was your whole childhood in Hillsborough or did you grow up somewhere else? 

I was born in New Brunswick and moved to Hillsborough when I was about a year old.

Tell me about your experience as a high school student. Has your perspective changed as you’ve gotten more worldly experience and gotten some distance?

High school had its ups and downs, of course, but I think I enjoyed it for the most part. I had good friends and took part in a lot of fun extracurricular activities, including Model Congress and Model UN.

What did you like — or not like — about social studies classes?

As someone who loves history and politics, social studies classes were typically my favorites. English classes were probably a close second.

You went to Grinnell College in Iowa. What attracted you to that school (beyond one or both of your parents going there)? 

I first heard of Grinnell because both my parents went there, but I initially had no plans to follow suit. But I had a terrific time when I visited as a prospective student. I knew I wanted to attend a small liberal arts school, and it seemed to promote good values and have a great community.

What was your major?

Political Science, with a concentration in Global Development Studies.

How did your focus and career goals evolve as an undergraduate?

I didn’t know what I was going to do for a career while I was in college, though I was always drawn to politics and writing and was a reporter and editor at Grinnell’s newspaper, The Scarlet and Black. Eventually I interned at a newspaper and magazine in Washington, D.C. during a couple summers but even then, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about pursuing journalism after school. But I did really like Washington, and I was pretty sure I wanted to move there eventually.

Did you have any jobs before going to work for CQ? If so, tell me about those glorious days.

My first job after college was as a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. It was a year-long fellowship and was an incredible experience. As the program was ending, I realized I missed journalism and wanted to see if I could give it a shot. I went to journalismjobs.com and applied for a ton of jobs. Finally, I got hired at Congressional Quarterly to essentially watch C-SPAN all day and enter vote tallies into a database when the House or Senate voted. It was mind-numbingly boring at times, but I also learned a lot about Congress and most importantly, it was my foot in the door.

You worked at CQ Roll Call on an economic beat, if I remember correctly. How much about regulatory policy, economic philosophy, and law did you learn on the job? Was the learning curve steep?

After a year watching C-SPAN and another year as a relatively junior reporter, I moved on to the economics team. My main focus was financial regulation — something I had no real background in, apart from a general interest in economic policy. But one of the great things about journalism is that you don’t have to start out as an expert in something; you just have to be willing to throw yourself into the material and be willing to call the actual experts. It’s a great job for those who are curious and have no problem asking questions of strangers or powerful people. I remember feeling a bit intimidated by the subject matter at the time and not sure I would enjoy it or last very long. I ended up staying on the beat for four years.

What was a favorite story (or two) that you covered?

As nerdy as this sounds, I loved covering the Federal Reserve. It’s one of the most powerful institutions on the planet and yet largely flies under the radar. The politics surrounding the Fed are also fascinating, with populists on the left and right taking aim at it.

You’ve always had a rather youthful appearance. Was that ever problematic on the job?

No, not really. A press pass is a powerful thing.

Do some members of Congress recognize you or know your name?

When I was a reporter working on Capitol Hill, yes, there were lawmakers who did. But after having been an editor for the last few years and not regularly roaming the hallways, it’s less likely.

You next worked at CQ Weekly as an editor. Did that feel like a significant step up in responsibility from working as a reporter? How were you able to use your experience as a reporter to inform your new role?

One of the things I like about being an editor is the ability to have my hands in a lot of different stories at any one time. I also like working with other reporters and editors to try to frame the big picture, and being an editor allows you to really shape coverage.

When did you make the jump over to Politico? As a congressional editor, are you basically working on the same type of stories that you were with CQ? Favorite story or two so far?

I joined Politico in February 2016 to be an editor covering federal budget policy. A year later, I moved over to be a congressional editor. Politico’s Congress reporters are superb. They have a real knack for getting key details from behind closed doors and getting inside the minds of congressional leadership. One great story my team did recently was on how Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her caucus finally embraced impeachment after resisting for so long.

How do you (or Politico generally) handle assigning reporters to various stories? I gather there are departments that have relative jurisdiction over particular matters, but are there assignment editors who say, “Hey Scoop, dig into this story”? Or do reporters come up with story ideas and run them past their editors to decide whether to dedicate more time to them?

It’s a mix of both. Most of the time, the reporters on my team come to me with a story idea, and I say, “Go forth!” But sometimes I’ll go directly to Scoop and suggest a story. The reporters do have particular beats, but there’s also a lot of collaboration across the team.

How do you feel about the use of anonymous sources in news reporting? 

It’s not ideal to use anonymous sourcing, but sometimes it’s the only way to report crucial information and so shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. One thing that shouldn’t be done is to let a source launch ad hominem attacks while hiding in anonymity.

Who writes the headlines for articles on the web site?

Editors typically write the headlines, though the reporters have some say. Especially at a time when many people will only read the headlines on social media and won’t click through to see the stories themselves, it’s more important than ever to get the headline right.

Have you watched many Hollywood films or television shows on journalism? If so, what do they basically get right or wrong? 

It’s always fun when the hero of a film or television show is a journalist. But some do a better job than others of showing what journalism is really about. Spotlight is a great, recent movie that also really gets at how to be a good reporter.

Do you ever miss being a reporter?

Yeah, sometimes. It was fun running around Capitol Hill and being in the middle of the action. But being an editor has its upsides. It’s good to be in charge.

What’s your advice for a high school or college student that is thinking about going into journalism?

It’s an uncertain time for the industry, and no one really knows how things are going to shake out. In that sense, it’s a bit of a risky career move. But more people are reading/ watching/ hearing stories than ever before, and I think the demand for good journalism is only growing. It can also be a pretty fun gig. I say go for it.

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