For a Reporter, Seeing Opportunity, or Its Absence, Is Everywhere

From a Times Insider column by Terence McGinley headlined “For a Reporter, Opportunity, or Its Absence, Is Everywhere”:

This week, The New York Times reported that the greatest wealth transfer in U.S. history, from baby boomers to their children and other heirs, is well underway.

The boomer generation is passing down trillions of dollars in homes and other financial assets, and that suffusion of wealth will reach far into the economy and American life.

Talmon Joseph Smith, an economics reporter for the Business desk, spent months reporting and writing the article, which he called the “opening salvo” of a line of work he plans to explore at The Times.

Mr. Smith says he will follow the wealth transfer as it permeates society. In an interview, he discussed the challenges and rewards of covering a subject that underpins culture, politics and everyday life.

How did you become an economics reporter?

I’ve always been fascinated by money and power — who has it, who doesn’t and why. In college I thought that I’d be an economics major, but I was bored and disengaged in my economics classes. I found myself disagreeing with a lot of the premises and dated models that many professors were basing lessons on. I often felt like what I could see in our economy, with my own two amateur eyes, didn’t match the equations in the curriculum.

I joined The Times in 2018 as a fact checker. I was able to start editing and naturally pivoted to stories about culture and economics.

If you didn’t like economics as a student, what drew you to the subject as a reporter?

I grew up in New Orleans, a city where you’ll see housing projects, mansions and middle-class neighborhoods within a mile of one another. New York is much of the same. It just comes from being very curious about how things work and why people of seemingly similar abilities, charisma and character end up with lives that are so much harder or easier than others.

How do you make sure you’re hitting the right balance of academic expertise and lived experiences?

It’s important to have on-the-ground evidence in your tool kit. Some of that comes from the metaphorical 30,000 feet — information collected by the government or by other trusted private organizations. Other times it comes from being in a place or calling a bunch of people. If it’s a story about a trend, I’m talking to people who are experiencing that trend.

Anecdotes can be misleading, but data can also be misleading if it’s not put into context.

It must be exciting to look for economic trends that haven’t been widely identified. Does that drive ever conflict with another journalistic instinct, which is to hear trends first from experts?

I feel a drive to make sure that if I’m being sent out to write on a given subject, I’ll give it my all. I fly or drive wherever with an open notebook and an open mind, hit the sack, wake up and find out what’s going on.

It was exhilarating, for example, to head to the Pacific Northwest and spend time at sea with oil mariners, who play a crucial role in a part of our supply chain that’s relatively forgotten in the “old economy.” I have plenty of local sources — economists at state or community colleges, or retail analysts that have connections to small businesses. But Wall Street C.I.O.s or superstar thinkers of macroeconomics are generally not going to spend their time in some random cranny of an industrial sector. It was challenging to sort out the concerns about labor force participation among men in maritime transportation and other male-heavy trades.

You published a big report on the watershed transfer of wealth from baby boomers to their heirs. How long have you been thinking about this topic?

I spent much of last year digging into both the surging degree of opportunity and change in the hospitality industry, as well as the industry’s lingering problems. I took some time off during the holidays and found myself wanting to zoom out and really assess power, opportunity, the sense of optimism, comfort, stability — or lack thereof.

I found myself revisiting how a lot of upward social mobility in this country can seem to come down to exceptional success stories or the support of family money. The research and the reporting that addressed it kept speaking of the wealth transfer — in the trillions of dollars — as this future event. I poked around and found it was already in motion and deeply affecting the present and near future of the economy.

What have you learned about people’s willingness to speak about their finances?

People say it’s rude to talk about money. Yet I have the awkward position of it being my job. But people all throughout their day speak in coded ways about money, their relationship to it, their community’s relationship to it, their desires for it or their disgust regarding the unequal distribution of it. Usually, if you give yourself and sources the time, you tend to gain people’s trust. Of course, there are times when a door is shut in my face. When I cold call individuals and businesses, I get far more hangups than pickups. But it’s worth it in the end.

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