Deborah Clark Tells Us Why Marketplace Will Never Do the Horse Race

Our Q&A with Marketplace's executive producer.

Deborah-Clark-ArtWhen we spoke over the phone with Marketplace vice president and executive producer Deborah Clark a few weeks ago, it was ahead of another meeting, one that would set the game plan for Marketplace’s 2016 elections coverage.

And if you are a radio program whose focus is business and the economy but you also cover politics, your rules of engagement for elections are going to be different. Marketplace‘s philosophy on how to approach elections is, as Clark puts it, “no horses, no race.” “We don’t do the horse race, ever,” she says. That’s true for its regular political coverage, and it will hold true for 2016.

Marketplace’s 2016 coverage will include a collaboration with PBS NewsHour as well as a re-upping of its partnership with PBS investigative doc show Frontline. Two years ago, that “really productive partnership,” which merged Marketplace’s voice and economic expertise with Frontline’s investigative and TV production chops, garnered an Emmy win, and Clark is excited to be working with them once again.

At the heart of those collaborations is a series of national polls Marketplace has begun conducting about the intersection of the economy and politics on people’s lives. “We know that the economy is still the number one issue that people are thinking about,” says Clark “but it looks different.” And in this case, when Clark says economy, she means at the scale of the individual, and not that impersonal collection of statistical measure, of GDP, interests rates and their ilk, that may or may not comport with people’s personal financial lives.

We talked with Clark about Marketplace’s approach to covering politics, her opinions on why horse race coverage persists and how Marketplace plans for an interview with President Obama.

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FishbowlDC: Marketplace focuses on business, economics and finance. In what ways does that focus allow Marketplace to cover political issues differently from other outlets?

Deborah Clark: What we try to do is carve out a distinct angle so that it isn’t the straightforward “here’s what happened” kind of approach, but to bring some kind of context and analysis to it.

I think that’s especially challenging and also great when we succeed at it around the issue of politics because it’s extremely well covered by a variety of print, online publications and also by our colleagues at NPR. They are in the beltway covering the minutia. We try not to do any of that. It can fall into the realm of not being interesting, so what we try to do is pull back and figure out what our specific focus is, and a lot of that ends up being about the business of politics and the business model of politics. We will take a bigger picture look at why [a piece of legislation] matters, how is that going to affect you, your personal economy, the country’s economy.

I find it really liberating to have much more of a focus. Otherwise, how do you really find something to sift through and help people understand why some things are more important than others if you’re just covering the constant horse race and the sausage getting made?

FBDC: Speaking of horse race coverage, do you feel that is something that’s going to continue in perpetuity?

Clark: There’s increasing demand for content, content, content all the time in so many different formats. There’s more places, devices, etc. on which you could consume content and that drives demand for more of it, so I’m not sure that we can steer the coverage away from the horse race.

I think it’s kind of up to the consumer. And these Republican debates have been so interesting because they’re getting record ratings relative to that stuff in the recent past, and that doesn’t send the signal that people aren’t interested in the horse race. It sends the signal that actually they are. For me, those things are little more than passing entertainment. I don’t think they add that much substantive to our specific discourse.

You hear a lot about millennials and what their interests are. Some of the research we’re all privy to suggests that they’re looking for a little more substance in the stuff they consume so I think that can also shape that as well. People have to say they want context, they have to say they don’t care about the horse race for the media to change. But as long as people are consuming it it’s going to keep on happening. You kind of get what you deserve, I think.

FBDC: How do you gage audience interest when you do cover political topics?

Clark: One of the more intimate ways we gage it—last year, for example, we did a series of live events around the country, including in Washington. We called them How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Numbers. Basically, they [explained] why all numbers are not created equal. That was one of the six shows that we did last year around that topic. The D.C. one was the one that had the highest level of audience engagement. They were reacting, the way they talked to us afterwards. It’s such a sophisticated crowd in D.C. and to be able to bring that content to them was different than what we experienced in the other markets. Not that people weren’t interested in the other markets, but I just remember there being a different audience experience there.

FBDC: Marketplace had a number of special features for the 2012 elections. Any special plans for 2016 coverage?

Clark: We’ve got huge plans, actually. This year we’re doing some national polling. Our first poll is out in the field right now, and it’s focused on questions about the economy and the macro economy. What we’re trying to do is assess the state of Americans’ personal economy and how well they’re able to withstand economic turbulence and their thoughts about the role that institutions like government and charity have and should have in their lives.

We’re going to do [polling] four times between now and November, so we’re sort of setting a baseline now, and then at some point as the cycle develops, we’ll overlay that with [which] candidates are speaking to it in different ways and how is that changing how people are feeling. We’re going to use that polling as a guide to thinking about how we will dive into certain issues.

We’re also going to knit that information together into something we’re calling the economic stress index. We’re hoping we’ll be able to give some perspective on what the anxiety is that some Americans feel about their personal economy.

FBDC: Any plans for partnering with other organizations?

As a piece of that [polling], we’re partnering with Frontline and PBS NewsHour to do some TV and video components. I think the frequency of that will probably be a monthly piece that emerges from the radio reporting that will then be translated into a piece for broadcast on NewsHour, with [Marketplace host] Kai Ryssdal as the reporter/correspondent/host.

Frontline [will be] be using that on their digital channel and, depending on what we surface over the course of the next six to nine months, we’re talking about doing a longer piece with them.

FBDC: What did you learn by working with Frontline on your previous collaboration, Big Sky, Big Money, which involved not just a partnership with another organization, but also working in a different medium?

Clark: I personally have done some television, which I think helped us going into that partnership because it wasn’t completely foreign and I realized how foreign it would be to a team of radio people.

We had very deliberately worked with a local formerly PBS station, KCET. We did a local piece with them that in a way was the trial run for Kai getting his feet wet doing that kind of stuff and us as an editorial team. Going into the Frontline collaboration we had that under our belts, which was a big help and let Frontline know we could do it.

I think the joke is that [TV] is 75 or 80 percent logistics and then the rest content, and we just don’t think about that in radio. You could go out at any point in time and do a radio story quite nimbly, and it’s very different in TV.

I will say though, that working with Frontline was an absolutely fantastic experience. We don’t do a lot of investigative stuff at Marketplace, and not because we’re not interested in it, but it’s a very resource intensive kind of reporting. Working with Frontline, that’s their DNA. And it’s just really, really compelling and exciting to work with editorial partners like that who are really good at what they do.

FBDC: Marketplace interviewed President Obama in June about trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. How did you decide on this focus?

Clark: We knew we were going to get 15 minutes–this was now round three for us, our third interview in the last three years–we knew that there wasn’t going to be any wiggle room on that, so we always go in with a very specific, tight focus. I think TPP, the trade stuff, was in the news at that time, and I think that’s probably why they picked that. We spent our prep time figuring out, how could we make news with this? How could we structure an interview in such a way that we ask the president something where they’ll be a nugget where there’ll actually be substantive, something new that we didn’t know before that?

A lot of economic issues presidents have to deal with can be quite turgid, and so they’re able to come to us to help translate some of it. We go into it knowing that our job is not to be their translators. Our job is to hold all institutions and individuals accountable for things and push deep into that, but I do know that they understand that there’s a lens through which people who consume our content expect to have things explained to them in a pretty clear fashion.