Covering politicians as a small town journalist

Be ready to ask tough questions of anyone, including Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber.

Covering the political beat can be at times exhilarating, frustrating, enlightening, demoralizing, and a lot of fun.

But it might not look that way from your desk in Casper, Wyoming.

People who dream of becoming a White House or Capitol Hill correspondent get thrown through a loop when they step foot into their first job in a small market in the middle of nowhere. Working in a place like Charlottesville, Va. can seem like a million miles away from the excitement of Washington, D.C. The reality is that your first job likely will not be in the nation’s capitol or in a political hotbed, so some young reporters give up on those dreams and look for a different beat.

But I’d like to present a different argument: covering politics while in a small town can be a great lesson for people looking to do it as a career.

“Now hold on, Steven,” some of you might be saying. “What kind of experience am I going to get in Helena, Montana or Laredo, Texas? Covering the tight race for dogcatcher?”

Hardly. No, you may not be secretly meeting with Deepthroat in a parking garage near the Watergate Hotel, but you will be learning how to follow the money. You’ll learn about how politicians are influenced. You’ll know how to get answers to questions. You’ll keep politicians accountable to the people.

In short, you’ll learn how to cover politics. And you’ll do it at a level where politicians can be accessed.

Let’s start by dispelling the notion that you won’t be covering national politics from a small town. Wrong.

Members of congress love to talk, so make sure you ask the right questions when they stop by.

Every inch of the country is represented by senators and congressmen who desperately want to be reelected every few years. It means they are going to take actions that best represent their constituents (or, more likely, give the appearance that it’s for everyone’s benefit). It also means they will be making regular appearances at events, conferences, meetings, and photo ops in between their time in Washington. That’s where you come in.

Take advantage of the times that national politicians come to town and ask them all the questions you need. Just be prepared for those questions to come after a tour of a factory or the dedication of a monument. And be prepared to do it quickly. Politicians are busy people, and like to schedule their time in their home state with one stop after the next on a whirlwind couple of days. When you grab them after a speech, you may only have a few minutes to ask questions before their handlers announce that the time us up, and they need to be moving on to the next stop.

Once during the Republican primary campaign for a congressional seat, I needed to organize my time very carefully. The challenger, a local candidate, had given me a long, in-depth interview in which he criticized the longtime incumbent. I needed to make sure that I provided equal time and get relevant answers from the congressman. But he was only going to be in town for a short time, with a busy schedule. So I followed the following steps:

1. Call the press manager

Most national politicians have a media liaison to help set up interviews. Call and email them ahead of time and tell them you would like an interview. I always liked to keep a good relationship with the press managers and was very clear about what I needed.

2. Coordinate a time to talk

When politicians are on a tour of their home sate, they put out an agenda of where they will be and when. I looked at the congressman’s itinerary and saw he would be giving a speech in Medford, so I arranged to get an interview afterward.

3. Have questions ready

You will only get a couple minutes with members of congress, so make sure you know what questions you need answered and write them down. Also, if you know of a story coming up in the future that you want to include the person on, ask the questions then and edit them in later.

4. Swoop in quickly

Politicians, believe it or not, are actually popular people. And after events, they will be swarmed with well-wishers, people wanting to shake hands, or those with an axe to grind. So as I stood at the congressman’s speech, I positioned myself in a place that allowed me to reach him quickly. As the speech ended and he walked away from the podium, I moved in, shook his hand, and motioned him over to my camera (and since you’ve arranged things with the press agent ahead of time, the congressman will know it’s coming). My camera was waiting, all of my equipment had been thoroughly checked beforehand, and I conducted my in-depth interview in less than five minutes.

You’d be amazed how much you can accomplish with a five minute interview if you’ve done your homework and prepared.

And technology has made it even easier to reach out to politicians, even if they are hundreds of miles away. Got a question? Tweet at them! Worst-case scenario: they ignore it. Best case: you get a quote that other reporters missed because they didn’t know where to look.

Local governments will also teach you a lot about how the political process works. They may not be passing bills or working with the president, but local county commissioners and city councils still make decisions that impact thousands of people. They key advantage for you is that they are accessible. It’s much easier to call a council member’s cell phone or drop into a commissioner’s office than to track down your state’s senator.

I learned firsthand the advantage of working with my local officials.

In my early months as a reporter in Medford, I would hear people in rural communities talk about the importance of “timber payments.” The timber payments had a big impact on local economies, jobs, and even public safety, and they were a very divisive issue for the region. The trouble was, I had no idea what they were or how they worked.

And of course, I was assigned a story on it.

I arranged an interview with C.W. Smith, a local county commissioner, worrying about how much I would screw up a story I knew nothing about. As I walked into his office, Smith looked like he had walked right out of a John Wayne film, with his big belt buckle and cowboy paraphernalia on the wall. He looked like a sheriff (and I later learned, he had been the county’s sheriff), and I knew he was someone who understood the issue of timber payments inside and out. I couldn’t screw up in front of him.

So I took a big gulp, and simply asked him about it.

“You’ll have to help me out here,” I began. “What exactly are the timber payments? I don’t really know how they work.”

Smith leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows.

“Oh!” he said. “Well that’s OK. They are pretty complicated, aren’t they?” And he then took an extra ten minutes out of his day and explained the entire process to me – how they were federal reimbursements to counties in exchange for harvestable timber land, and how the decline of those payments was putting counties in a financial hurt.

After that, I could do a timber payments story in my sleep. Local politicians are more likely to help you like that. Not all of them, but a good number of local leaders will be more accessible and more willing to help you as a young reporter, as long as you are clear about what you want.

Now, let’s get this out in the open: politicians will lie. They will spin things, evade questions and sometimes make it hard to get answers. And it can be intimidating to ask tough questions to a senator or a governor. After all, they’re trying to protect their comfortable nests. But your first news job will teach you that these are all just people. They are not untouchables, and asking them questions is the same process as interviewing people on the street – you still need questions answered.

The first time I ever interviewed Oregon’s governor, I was 22 years old and my heart was beating out of my chest. But the more I learned about politics and the issues facing Oregonians, and the more I developed as a reporter, the more I pushed myself to get my questions answered. Before long, I was willing to approach the governor at a tour of a fire camp and ask about forest management, or use a senator’s shill for a college tuition bill, go off-script, and ask what he would do about growing student debt.

City council meetings can be BORING! But they are essential to seeing how local government works.

I sat through my fair share of boring city council meeting and endless commission meetings that went nowhere, and read through so many agendas until my eyes hurt. But it all taught me how government worked, what the big issues were that affected the community, and what it really took to fix them. Knowing how the whole machine worked made me a better reporter, because I could go back to those (accessible) politicians and ask them why no one made a motion at the meeting. And I could track down a member of congress, point to the real-life evidence in our towns and ask what they were doing about those problems.

If you want to become a correspondent and play the political game, there’s no better place to learn the rules than in your first job.

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