Reporting on budgets: Tell a story with the numbers

By Jim Pumarlo

It's not too early to brainstorm ideas for timely and meaningful coverage of local government budgets. Shaping and adopting budgets is often a months-long process encompassing hours of meetings and hundreds of pages of documents. Yet most newsrooms likely observe and report only a snapshot of that process.

Taking steps now will help prevent the pitfalls that occur when reporters first view the budget days in advance - or maybe even at the meeting itself - of its adoption. Those circumstances usually are a recipe for disaster from the perspective of the governing body, the newspaper and the readers. Confronted with a story on budgets, reporters naturally seize on the statistics. But the numbers will make minimal sense without proper benchmarks and interpretation.

Step one: Get inside the numbers. 

Prepare a calendar. Familiarize yourself with the steps of formulating budgets and share the appropriate dates with readers. Some benchmarks are internal such as budget workshops, public hearings, and preliminary and final adoption of budgets. Some dates are external, such as state certification of local levies. Even if you do not report on all the meetings, you may want to attend some of them for background.

Dissect the puzzle. It’s misleading and incomplete to simply treat the budget as a single figure assessed against— funded by—taxpayers. Be aware of the pieces of the puzzle. For example, examine the differences among the general fund, enterprise funds and capital funds. Budgets also include projects funded by grants. All of these expenses may show up on the bottom line, but it’s important to note whether they are ongoing or onetime expenses, and the funding sources.

Identify variables. All budgets are a best guess. It’s important to note that projected expenses and revenues are moving targets. For example, contracts with health care providers may not be finalized until year-end. Also, government bodies may negotiate contracts with several different units of union and nonunion employees. These contracts may vary by length and date of ratification.

Step two: Provide meaningful interpretation.

It’s beneficicial for readers and local government bodies to provide as broad a picture as possible. This can promote thoughtful community discussion, too.

What is the overall tax picture? Budgets of cities, counties and schools, plus other local taxing authorities all contribute to tax statements sent to individuals and businesses. Reference the tax impact of other local government units when one body adopts its budget. When all budgets are final, write a story presenting the cumulative impact.

Where does local cost-of-government rank? Discussions often prompt the question: “How does my city, school district or county budget rank with its counterparts across the state?” Providing the answers in advance of public hearings can lay the foundation for meaningful discussion. It’s most instructive to focus on expenditures per capita versus tax levy per capita to reflect the varied sources of funds. For example, a government unit in a similar-sized community may have a relatively low tax levy because it receives a significantly larger amount of state aid.

Give numbers proper context. Explaining budgets necessarily involves identifying increases and decreases in revenues and expenses. The best interpretation utilizes a combination of reporting the dollar amounts as well as percentages.

Visit budgets regularly. It can be worthwhile to track budgets a couple of times throughout the year to see how the performance aligns with the stated objectives. Even if there’s no story, the review can help prepare reporters for issues that surface when work starts on the next budget.

Finally , don't be afraid to ask the question.

Your goal is to ensure a thoughtful and educated discussion. There is a good chance that the elected officials themselves don't have a full grasp of all the numbers. Furthermore, if you don't understand the statistics, the resulting story will be confusing to readers.

The strongest coverage of all public affairs reporting, and especially reporting of budgets, is two-pronged: solid advances to lay the groundwork for an informed discussion, and follow-up reports that provide meaningful interpretation of actions taken by elected bodies.

Developing relationships is at the foundation of this process, and it requires efforts from both sides.

So here's a starter. Imagine the reaction if you invite the city administrator to explore how city hall and the newspaper can cooperate to enhance the understanding of city budgets. You might be surprised at where the conversation leads, and--most important-your readers stand to be the ultimate beneficiary.

© Jim Pumarlo 2010

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” You can contact him at http://www.pumarlo.com.

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