, Gloucester, MA


February 2, 2013

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? The stories behind budget numbers

Are you good with numbers?

Well, I’ll tell you something. A lot of journalists, including myself, are not.

I guess people that are good with words, good at digging for information and presenting stories often don’t have the head for complex math. And I’ve seen more than one reporter over the years essentially freak out over trying to work through line after line of numbers — with an order, of course, to produce a story on it all within, oh, maybe, 3-4 hours.

Yet, this is the annual budget season, with the city of Gloucester, Cape Ann’s towns and school districts and all three of our local school districts presenting, holding public hearings and ultimately adopting their revenue projections and spending plans for the coming fiscal year. And it is indeed our duty to deliver you those figures, so that you, as a taxpayer, not only know how much of your money your elected officials are spending, but where it is going as well.

When you look through our budget stories, you won’t find every line item referenced, every dollar accounted for. In that vein, you may well wonder what goes into our municipal or school budget coverage, or why we cover budget sessions the way we do. Why, in other words, does your community’s newspaper do that?

First, our reporters and editors wade into a budget story with a goal of presenting you the information you need to know. In my book, that means the overall budget, how much it’s up or down compared to the previous year, and where the money is going.

More importantly, however, we try to be sure to present the budget information in a form that is readable. That means translating a maze of numbers — the new Manchester Essex Regional School budget covers five pages; the Gloucester city budget for fiscal 2013 includes 181 — into an actual story. And it includes noting other facts that clearly contribute to spending changes, even if they’re not cited in the budget at all. Those usually include contracted pay raises for various officials, or the addition and subtraction of positions that might not show up by merely looking at a department’s “bottom line.”

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