Three hopes for the Des Moines Register's new chief politics reporter Jason Noble

Congratulations are in order for Jason Noble, whom the Des Moines Register hired as chief political reporter after conducting a national search. Noble joined the Register in 2011, having previously covered the Missouri statehouse for the Kansas City Star. He wrote most of the Register’s articles about Michele Bachmann before the 2012 Iowa caucuses and reported on Jeb Bush’s Iowa campaign last year. Since March 2015, Noble has been on the “Reality Check” beat, checking the accuracy of political or policy statements for the Register and occasionally for Politifact. He also produced the 10-part Three Tickets podcast series about the history of the Iowa caucuses.

I’m excited to see how Noble approaches what he called “the best job in journalism.” The Register has a massive agenda-setting role, not just for other Iowa media. The paper’s reporting on this year’s U.S. Senate race will be watched closely by the national press corps. As Noble puts his stamp on his new position, I hope he will:

Focus his attention on things that have happened.

This statement may seem as obvious as saying, “Only facts can be fact checked.” But the Register has sometimes devoted an excessive amount of space to curtain-raisers by the chief political reporter. Every column inch speculating about “X things to watch for at Y” is space Noble can’t use to dig deeper into things newsmakers on his beat have already said or done. There will always be an opportunity to write about “X key moments from Y” after the big event.

Report stories no one tried to get into the paper.

In a job less focused on covering day-to-day news, I hope Noble will have the time and flexibility to write more deep dives, such as last year’s multi-part look at the finances of the Central Iowa Expo in Boone.

I can only imagine how many story pitches Noble already receives from political operatives. Now that he’s been promoted, those will proliferate, and while some will be worth pursuing, hunting for different newsworthy angles could add more value. That could mean pulling back the curtain on unpleasant campaign tactics by candidates and their allies, or holding newsmakers accountable for promises that dominated news cycles of the past.

Speaking of pitches, I would guess Noble gets plenty of misleading tips. Burning sources who lie to him would be one of the fastest ways for the new chief political reporter to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with.

Speak with authority.

Media Matters fellow Carlos Maza recently joked about telling a child who asked for a “scary story,” “Modern journalism avoids resolving factual disputes due to fear of being accused of bias.” Noble’s new position will draw greater scrutiny to his reporting. Partisan activists or strategists are likely to “work the refs” at the Register by challenging any hint of subjectivity in Noble’s stories.

What Jay Rosen has disdainfully called “The View from Nowhere” is a common journalistic defense mechanism against such attacks, but that approach can obscure truths. Upon leaving the New York Times in 2010, economics reporter Peter Goodman lamented, “With the dysfunctional political system, old conventional notions of fairness make it hard to tell readers directly what’s going on.” He left the country’s most prestigious newspaper after getting tired of “laundering my own views, through the tried-and-true technique of dinging someone at some think tank to say what you want to tell the reader.”

Although Noble’s not moving into a columnist role, he should be able to comment in his own voice on claims that can be validated or disproved. He did this well in a 2014 story about state economic data on job growth and family incomes.

When telling Register readers last year about his main tasks as “Reality Check” reporter, Noble wrote,

In the Statehouse and on the trail, I’ll be cataloging comments from Iowa politicians, presidential candidates and party flaks. I’ll be watching their campaign commercials, scrolling through their Facebook posts and reading deep into their white papers.

And if they’re wrong, I’m going to call them on it.

That commitment needs to continue, even if Noble’s no longer writing many separate pieces evaluating the accuracy of a specific claim on a five-point scale. While it has become increasingly popular for media organizations to publish fact-checks as stand-alone features, it would be even more valuable to weave fact-checking into Noble’s everyday reporting.

Final note: I asked executive editor Amalie Nash yesterday whether the Register plans to hire someone to cover Noble’s old beats, or whether “Reality Checks” and other stories he would have covered would be distributed among several people on the politics team. She responded, “We’re going to take a look at what we need across the newsroom. We staffed up on politics going into the caucus cycle, so it’s time to assess that – no decisions have yet been made.”

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