Case Study: Trash Talking with Doug Belkin

17 Nov

This piece was a class assignment and  unrelated to entrepreneurs

“Chicago Mayor Trashes Politics of Waste Removal”

by Douglas Belkin, Wall Street Journal






The writer: Doug Belkin, 43, is a Midwest general assignment reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Besides being a generalist, Belkin also occasionally covers politics. Previously, he was a reporter for the Boston Globe where he covered police and crime before getting promoted to Bureau Chief and did general assignments along with news features. Belkin graduated from Colby College with a degree in English and waited until he was 27 to pursue journalism.

The story: “Chicago Mayor Trashed Politics of Waste Removal,” a 2,000 word journal explainer discusses the trash sector, one of Chicago’s most inefficient departments.

Belkin’s main objective was to cast light on what Mayor Emanuel was up against in dealing with Chicago’s problems and how his budget will impact the trash sector.

After taking office in May, Mayor Emanuel had to face Chicago’s $636 million deficit and did so by cutting city jobs, extending school days, shuffling police from desk jobs to the streets, and hunting down tax invaders. In order to continually chip away at the deficit, Emanuel must tackle other departments.

Belkin’s piece dissects Chicago’s backwards trash system and points out inefficiencies with anecdotes and statistics. According to Belkin, Chicago’s union garbage system continually wastes taxpayers’ money on unnecessary workers, fuel-wasting routes, and high salaries.

Chicago doesn’t have a centralized garbage system but rather 50 wards, where routes are carved out based on political agendas and not efficiency.  Because of union contracts, each garbage truck is assigned three workers instead of the standard one or two. The garbage men pull in a nice salary working an average of 5.5 hours a day. This wasteful system requires residents to pay two to three times more for trash removal than their counterparts in Dallas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Miami.

The city inspector general points out the job could be done with 25% fewer works, which would result in $40 million in savings.  Mayor Emanuel is planning on only trimming $20 million in hopes of appeasing both the people and the union.

The Idea and “news hook”:

In order to measure Emanuel’s success as the mayor of Chicago, The Wall Street Journal waited for an inflection point, the release of the budget, where people could judge for themselves if Emanuel was doing a good job. Because the budget covers numerous sectors, Belkin wanted to home in on one sector in order to explain the bigger picture—Chicago’s massive debt is partially due to inefficient unions and contracts. The story was published a few days after the budget was released and a statement by Mayor Emanuel promising a more effective trash system.

The Reporting:

Initially, Belkin wanted to find a way to explain why a relatively wealthy city was accruing so much debt and how Mayor Emanuel was going to clean up the mess.

The issue couldn’t be answered in 2,000 words, so Belkin decided he wanted to only look at one department in hopes it would provide correlation to the bigger issue.

To wrap his head around the deficit, much of Belkin’s time was consumed sifting through budgets, reading what other journalists and academics were writing, and reviewing the city inspector general’s reports.

After extensive research, Belkin chose trash because he believed it was not only the “life blood of politicians,” but also because the ward system is one of the most wasteful expenses for taxpayers.

After choosing his focus, Belkin spent several weeks getting background information about the system, which involved meeting with four or five aldermen to discuss the ward system.

While Belkin was doing background research, he also began the process of contacting the mayor. From Belkin’s initial contact with Mayor Emanuel’s staff, it took approximately five weeks to get an interview.

The hardest group to interview was the garbage men. Belkin explained how both the aldermen and the public information officer of sanitation told him he wasn’t permitted to interview them. At this point, Belkin had to make a decision to ignore their request.

“You cut through the red tape and go straight to the source,” Belkin said.

Once he approached the garbage men, many were apprehensive to discuss the inefficiencies of Chicago’s sanitation department because not only was their job at risk but management may come down on them. On the other hand, they complained their side was never heard. After about four hours of discussion, the garbage men finally opened up.

In the end, the piece took about five weeks to report and between 15 and 20 sources.


Luckily for Belkin, The Wall Street Journal requires a proposal process for “first page leaders.” The reporter must submit a 400 word statement detailing their purpose. This process helps keep the reporter focused and is a useful tool to refer back to when making decisions about what to include in the piece.

Once the proposal was approved, Belkin spent about two to three weeks in the field before submitting a 2,000 word draft to his editor. The draft provided a snapshot of the industry but was completed prior to his interview with the mayor and the garbage men.

After his editor approved the direction, Belkin was able to add color with his interviews from the mayor and the garbage men.


In choosing what to include in the story and what to leave out, Belkin continually reverted back to The Wall Street Journal proposal to keep him on track.

In terms of editing, Belkin finds the hardest parts to cut are the great anecdotes.

“I once had an editor in Florida say, ‘it’s like killing your children.’ You find these things, and you really care about them but you can’t use them. You have to discard them—they just don’t fit. They don’t serve the reader,” Belkin said.


Surprisingly, the garbage men were complimentary of the piece and believed it accurately portrayed them. The mayor did not comment on the story, which meant he didn’t have a problem with it.

Since Belkin doesn’t cover city hall, he was unsure of the immediate affect it had on citizens but will return to the topic at the end of this month.

How Belkin Evaluates His Story

Besides the gratification Belkin receives from the community, he also discussed a “dirty little secret.”

“Journalists generally write for other journalists and their editors. Who cares more about your writing than the people who put out the paper and the competition?” Belkin said.

Belkin provides as much weight on the journalism community as he does the community he serves.

[Images via Wikipedia]

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