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Stern Somebody Presents: Jeanna Smialek

Running between the Classroom and the Newsroom

Jeanna Smialek is a part-time Stern student and a full-time Federal Reserve and Economics Reporter for the New York Times. In between balancing school, articles and her upcoming book, she made time to sit down with The Oppy for an interview. 

After going to UNC for undergrad, how did you decide to pursue economics journalism?

I had a fairly haphazard path into economics journalism. I grew up wanting to be a newspaper foreign correspondent, but then I interned at Bloomberg News the summer before my senior year of college and loved the company. Back then, Bloomberg required two internships before it would hire someone, so I interned again on the economics team in D.C. starting in January 2013. That turned into a full-time job, and I’ve been on the beat ever since — with Bloomberg in D.C., then New York, and now in the New York Times‘ Washington bureau. 

What has it been like reporting during this tumultuous election season?

I’ve had a much easier election season than the politics reporters. I worked on our debate and RNC fact-checking teams, though, and that was interesting. Statements that candidates might’ve just asserted unchecked a generation ago — labor market claims, trade claims — can now be judged against large, detailed and increasingly timely datasets, not to mention decades of economic literature. 

What do you find to be most challenging about being a journalist? Most rewarding?

It’s important to hold powerful people to account, but doing so can be difficult on a personal level. Even when an official or businessperson is doing something that I think the public needs to know about, it’s never lost on me that I am writing about a human being with friends and family members who love them. Empathy doesn’t stop me from writing critical stories, but it definitely keeps me awake the night before they publish. 

It’s rewarding to relay history as it’s unfolding. I’ve talked to moms who lost kids to opioids, ridden along with police on heroin busts, traveled with the Treasury Secretary throughout Africa and interviewed Fed officials as they responded to the 2020 financial market meltdown. Then I was able to pass those stories along to hundreds of thousands of readers. To me, it’s the coolest job in the world. 

What new challenges has working from home/Covid presented to you as a reporter? 

I usually do a lot of on-the-ground reporting and now I can’t. Especially in an election year, I missed the perspective of getting out to other parts of the country and hearing a more diverse set of views. 

Source: Bloomberg TV

What is your average day-to-day like when you’re publishing an article?

I publish articles most days. It depends on the story — for big projects, I’ve generally been working on them for weeks or months, so the last day is just final edits and fact-checking. For a quick turnaround piece based on breaking news, I sit down at my desk and write frantically until I’m done. The thing about the digital era is that your deadline on anything timely is generally “ASAP.” 

You recently wrote an article about regulations that had been rolled back by President Trump. What is your take on potential policy changes related to consumer protections and anti-discrimination policies under the new administration? 

Financial regulation is probably in for a facelift under a Biden administration, because it hinges on appointees — you can change a lot without consulting Congress. The agencies have quietly chipped away at key financial regulations during the Trump administration, though certainly not at the pace that many in the banking industry had hoped. I think we could see some of that reversed, and we’ll probably see new protections come down the line. The Fed has proposed a Community Reinvestment Act modernization, for instance, which is likely to be adopted in one form or another. 

What is your take on the Fed stimulus plan? Is the bond buying strategy 1) sustainable and 2) cause for concern in the long run?

The Fed is buying about $120 billion per month in government-backed bonds to keep markets chugging along normally and to boost the economy. People scolded that quantitative easing (to use the wonk term) would end in disaster after the 2008 crisis. It didn’t. If it created asset bubbles, they didn’t pop over the course of the longest expansion in American history. Inflation, the other big concern with such programs, has actually been too low for comfort. 

Source: CNN TV

Congratulations on starting your book! Could you give us a sneak peek on what we can expect when it’s released in 2022?

Thanks! The book is going to run through the Fed’s aggressive response to the pandemic recession, and it will talk about how its actions reflect a broader revolution that has swept the central bank since Ben Bernanke became its chair in 2006. The Fed has become more transparent and more oriented toward workers and Main Street — but it was built for Wall Street, so reimagining its role to fit the economy’s 21st century needs has been difficult and even awkward at times. It is chatty and character-driven. I think I might be the first millennial to write a Fed book, and you can tell.  

How do you balance school and your career?

Creatively, like anyone else. I’ve ducked out of several of Professor Schmeits’ classes to take calls. I’ve written at least two full stories from that weird line of radiators outside of KMC-60, and I have been known to study for exams during Fed press release lockups (which include a surprising amount of downtime). I was supposed to turn in a big “Data Mining for Business Analytics” assignment on the Sunday in March that the Fed cut rates to zero and held an emergency press conference. I got an extension, but it wasn’t pretty. 

Why did you decide to pursue your MBA? How do you plan on using your MBA In the future?

Stern’s program attracted me. I wanted a graduate degree in finance or economics but I didn’t want to quit my job, and I liked that NYU offered the full MBA coursework totally on the weekends. I’ve loved my corporate finance and valuation classes, so I’m hoping to study for a CFA (post-book) and I might try to branch into more corporate accountability reporting going forward. 

Would you ever consider bringing your professional journalism skills to the Oppy? (lol!)

I’m about to graduate! 🙂 

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/NYT

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