Sometimes I feel nostalgic for my "past life" covering Russian politics. Social media didn't exist, and my colleagues and I had no information about which articles most interested our readers. Potential for clicks or shares didn't factor into our story selection. We wrote up what seemed important to us.
On any given day, a half-dozen or more newsworthy Iowa politics stories present themselves, but I only have the capacity to cover one or two. I look for ways to add value: can I highlight events not covered elsewhere? Can I offer a different perspective or more context on the story everyone's talking about?
Although chasing traffic will never be my primary goal, doing this for more than a decade has given me a decent sense of which topics will strike a chord with readers. But you never really know. Just like last year and the year before that, surprises lurked in the traffic numbers on Bleeding Heartland posts published during 2018 (353 written by me, 202 by other authors).
Ground rules: this list draws from Google Analytics data about views of individual posts published during 2018. I left out the site's front page, the "about" page, and the page linking to all stories tagged "2018 elections."
A relatively small number of hits separated number eighteen from the next dozen most popular posts. Guest authors wrote several pieces that barely missed the cut, including:
Let the countdown commence:
I only spent a few hours writing about Selzer & Co's first poll on the Democratic field for governor. Weekends aren't usually a promising time for political website traffic, but this post didn't appear on a typical Saturday evening. Readers were highly engaged two and a half weeks before the most competitive Democratic statewide primary since 2006.
Many white readers were shocked by this story, but people of color were not surprised. It's sadly common for police to stop and question African Americans doing political work in mostly-white neighborhoods. Keilon Hill's story was unusual only because 1) he recorded most of the encounter, and 2) the officer detained him.
Deep dives on campaign finance disclosures are my wheelhouse, but that subject matter is usually the furthest thing from clickbait. It took me several weeks to pull this post together after the January 19 filings showed "little sense of urgency among Democratic incumbents who could do much more to help others win competitive [Iowa House] districts this November."
I got quite a bit of pushback on this piece, and arguments on various Facebook threads drew more attention to my case. A follow-up post in August didn't generate nearly as much interest, possibly because the lawmakers in question didn't engage.
I wrote this post in early April, as Iowa’s leading newspaper experienced heavy turnover in the newsroom and on the opinion page. Developments at the paper should concern all Iowa politics watchers, because the Register sets the agenda for most of the state's media outlets.
While I was encouraged to see the Register promote Brianne Pfannenstiel to chief politics reporter in the spring and hire Barbara Rodriguez away from the Associated Press in the summer, I was very sorry to see investigative journalist Clark Kauffman leave this fall for a job in the state ombudsman's office.
The Register will ring in the new year more short-handed than in 2018, as several experienced reporters (including William Petroski and Kathy Bolten) have accepted yet another buyout offer.
A writer's nightmare: publishing a post with an error in the headline and first two paragraphs. Contrary to what I'd heard and believed, turnout for this year's Democratic race for governor wasn't "record-breaking"; thousands more Iowans voted in the 1990 Democratic primary. Although I had to correct the headline and lede, the other figures in this post held up.
Strong primary numbers for Polk and Johnson counties foreshadowed extremely high participation by Democrats there in November. Huge margins in some urban areas carried Cindy Axne to victory in the third Congressional district, but unfortunately weren't sufficient for Fred Hubbell to win the governor's race.
I would never have guessed this post would end up here. Nothing I'd previously written about racial disparities or Waterloo ever took off like this piece. Perhaps it helped that I published late on a Friday night. Not much breaking news was competing for readers' attention that weekend in mid-November.
Guest author Matt Chapman delivered this scoop on a Saturday in January. Two days later, the Waukee school board formally voted to settle with former human resources director Terry Welker. He was one of several whistleblowers who had faced retaliation after reporting misconduct by the district's chief operating officer, Eric Rose.
A few weeks ago, a state audit laid out mismanagement in the Waukee school district in great detail. Tyler Higgs' commentary on the audit was one of Bleeding Heartland's 40 most-viewed posts of 2018.
I've written hundreds of posts during the past decade about actions by the Iowans in Congress. Rarely have those pieces been widely read or shared. If anything, posts about Congressional voting tend to produce below-average traffic. But once in a while, a piece like this will gain momentum. It happened last year after Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst voted against legislation to raise the debt ceiling and provide Hurricane Harvey relief.
On a Friday afternoon in August, I read that Iowa's senators had signed on to a public relations stunt. Press releases claimed the Republican co-sponsors were committed to protecting Americans with pre-existing conditions. Just one problem: the proposed legislation "would require insurance companies to sell policies to people with pre-existing conditions, but it wouldn’t stop them from excluding coverage for those very conditions."
Monday afternoon, I realized I hadn't seen any Iowa news organizations cover this story, so I set aside what I was working on to write a quick post. Lots of readers shared this piece on social media.
The rumors started in December and accelerated in January. By early February I felt confident enough to predict that a large number of Iowa House Republicans would end their legislative careers in 2018. Usually retirements are a bigger problem for the minority caucus.
One of my better conceptual scoops of the year didn't explode the first day after publication, but gradually gained traction as more GOP lawmakers confirmed they would not seek another term.
The Secretary of State's office updates absentee voting totals every weekday during the last several weeks of the campaign, but the government website doesn't make it easy to compare the new numbers to previous ones. Since 2012, I've found it helpful to create my own tables and leave them all in one place.
This post didn't get a ton of views on any one day. The numbers added up as readers came looking for the latest news and trends on early voting. The same thing happened two years ago.
Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported this bombshell: "After a major provider agreed to stay in Iowa’s troubled Medicaid program, a top aide to Gov. Kim Reynolds quietly signed a deal letting its hospitals and clinics keep $2.4 million in mistaken overpayments, according to records released Thursday." That was Thursday, December 6. Foley had been chasing this story since early October.
My post focused on how the Iowa Department of Human Services failed to comply with the state's open records law or the agency's own policies on releasing records to journalists. The stonewalling served an obvious political purpose: protect the governor from damaging headlines before Iowans went to the polls.
Speaking of flouting the law, Reynolds became the first governor in 55 years to screw up the straightforward task of appointing a judge within 30 days of receiving finalists' names from a judicial nominating commission. After reviewing hundreds of pages of public records, I was able to show that instead of following the process outlined in Iowa’s constitution, Reynolds had her staff lie to the news media and to the chief counsel for Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady. The governor and Secretary of State Paul Pate later signed an appointment certificate that was backdated, creating the false impression Reynolds had appointed District Court Judge Jason Besler on time.
Attorneys widely shared the post within the legal community, generating enough buzz for the chief justice to inform all Iowa judges in early October that he did not plan to "confirm" or "ratify" Besler's appointment. Des Moines attorney Gary Dickey later filed an unusual civil action charging that Besler “is unlawfully holding the public office of district court judge.” Courts may resolve the matter next year.
Tyler Higgs did solid investigative work after noticing an oddity on the July campaign finance report for Anna Bergman, a first-time Republican candidate for an open Iowa House seat.
Her campaign accepted a $20,000 contribution from an obscure company named “Drain the Water, LLC.” The company doesn’t appear to do any other business and is registered at the same address as a different company. It has all the appearances of being a shell company, including a lame pun name. $20,000 represents 95 percent of Bergman’s cash on hand as of July 14.
He reached out to Bergman and two people who were listed as points of contact for "Drain the Water, LLC." They didn't confirm the donor's identity, but one likely suspect sent later Tyler a threatening e-mail.
I hesitated before writing this post, not wanting to give readers false hope that King might be disqualified from seeking re-election. I went ahead because the story was newsworthy and touched on an obscure aspect of Iowa law. As expected, the State Objection Panel (Attorney General Tom Miller, Secretary of State Paul Pate, and State Auditor Mary Mosiman) unanimously rejected Hanson's challenge. Miller joked that it was the "First time I have voted for Steve King."
Progressives should not cheer the idea of knocking political opponents off the ballot on technicalities. Iowa's signature requirements are designed to ensure that candidates have some baseline level of support. King has that, much as we might wish otherwise.
State Representative Chris Hall, the ranking Democrat on the Iowa House Appropriations Committee, filed this suit on the second day of the year. Three months earlier, Reynolds had ignored State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald's warning that state law did not allow her to use emergency funds to cover a budget shortfall without legislative approval.
The fine details of budget controversies aren't usually hot topics for my readers. I suspect this post did well because many people were catching up on political news after the holiday break.
Many Bleeding Heartland readers care deeply about state policy on public education and collective bargaining rights. Those happen to be Randy Richardson's areas of expertise. One of this website's most prolific guest authors during the past two years, Randy has written quite a few popular posts. He interviewed working and retired teachers for this commentary about six factors prompting educators to leave the profession.
I met Allison Engel for the first time about a week before the general election. She'd been helping to coordinate Democratic volunteers in the Des Moines area for four months. Would she consider writing a guest post? As it turned out, she already had a draft about men denying canvassers access to the women in their households.
Many friends and acquaintances had shared stories about "husband-blocking" on the doors, and I'd experienced the phenomenon too, so I had a feeling this piece would resonate.
Tied up with non-blog obligations, I hadn't posted any new content to the site that day. I had a couple of posts in progress and was trying to decide which one to finish first when I got the usual Friday-afternoon phone message from Roosevelt High School Principal Kevin Biggs. I don't always listen closely to these calls, but he grabbed my attention early: “Tonight I feel compelled to discuss something that’s been weighing on my mind heavily.” This was the day after President Donald Trump made national news by denigrating immigrants from so-called "shithole countries."
Within a minute I knew I needed to share the principal's inspiring words with a wider audience. Fortunately, the delivery system allows listeners to press "9" to hear the call again. That gave me time to get my recorder ready. Once I had the audio clip, it only took about an hour to transcribe Biggs' message and provide some context.