Megan Cassella is a reporter at POLITICO in Washington, D.C., covering the trade beat. She previously worked at Reuters news service. This interview was conducted by email.
Q. Describe your job at POLITICO. What is your typical day like?
A. Every day is a little bit different, which is what I like most about the job. My workday starts at home, occasionally with a few early-morning emails and phone calls and always with a first reading of the day’s news and a scan through Twitter. Because I cover international trade, my beat spans time zones, and we’re often reacting early to news that broke overnight in Beijing or Brussels.
By 9 or 10 a.m. I’m out the door, either to the newsroom, an event somewhere downtown, a coffee or breakfast meeting with a source, or to the Capitol. I work as part of a four-person team covering trade policy, so we’ll divide up the events of the day and then spend our remaining free time — when there’s no breaking news and no events to cover — meeting with sources and reporting out longer-term stories.
By late afternoon, we’ve shifted into planning for the next day, including by starting work on Morning Trade. It’s a policy newsletter we put out every weekday morning, and it serves as a preview of sorts for the next day in trade. On the couple nights a week that I spearhead the newsletter, I’ll aim to file it to my editor around 6 p.m., then dive back in around 10 p.m. to do a final headline sweep and “put it to bed,” as we say.
Q. The tweet pinned to your Twitter account says: “Who knew the trade beat would make you a war correspondent?” How so?
The line is meant to be a sort of play on words because I spend every day covering what many people would consider a trade war. It’s not an armed conflict in the normal sense of the word, but it’s still a prolonged and politically fraught standoff between the United States and many of its trading partners that has tremendously high economic stakes for most countries involved.
The “who knew” bit is a reference to the fact that when I switched to covering trade three years ago, it was a relatively sleepy beat. There was always something to write about, but in the pre-Trump era it was rarely front-page news and only occasionally caught the attention of major news outlets and the White House press corps.
These days, with an ongoing conflict with China and with Trump having declared that passage of his new North American trade deal is his top legislative priority for the year, we’re seeing trade news break almost every day. And we’re competing with everyone in covering it.
Q. How do headline writing and story editing work at POLITICO?
A. I have a deputy editor and head editor who both oversee trade, and I’ll file to either one of them when I’m writing a daily story. I’ll include a headline when I file, but editors have authority to change it, and sometimes we’ll go back and forth for awhile before we settle on one that suits us both.
For a larger or longer-term story, the piece often goes through a second edit by a deputy editor. Much of what I write is only for subscribers and remains behind a paywall, but if it’s moving to what we call the main site, an editor from that department will look it over. Big stories will often go through what we call A/B headline testing, meaning we’ll try two different headlines on it and someone from the web team will monitor to see which one is more successful online.
Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and ideas that you learned there do you use today? What new ones have you picked up?
A. It’s hard to put together a succinct list of everything I learned at UNC’s j-school that I use at work every day.
Chris Roush’s business journalism program gave me a solid grounding in economics reporting techniques and the ability to find stories in federal documents and data filings, skills that are fundamental to my beat. Ryan Thornburg’s data journalism class also gave me a familiarity with numbers and spreadsheets that I rely on frequently. And Paul O’Connor’s reporting class, which required us to travel to Raleigh once a week to talk to lawmakers, was a perfect preview for reporting on Capitol Hill and interacting with members of the House and Senate regularly.
More broadly, I felt the j-school instilled a sense of how dynamic the journalism industry is and how every reporter these days must be willing to work quickly, to learn on the job and to adapt to new demands and new trends in media. That willingness to be flexible has helped me in every position and every newsroom I’ve entered.