New year brings more reporters to Iowa statehouse

Good news stories about journalism are few and far between these days. The decline of statehouse reporting across the country has been well documented over the past two decades.

However, more eyes will be on Iowa government in 2020.

JOURNALISTS ASSIGNED TO THE STATEHOUSE

Iowa benefits from the latest expansion by States Newsroom, a nonprofit based in North Carolina. Kathie Obradovich left the Des Moines Register to become editor-in-chief for Iowa Capital Dispatch. The site’s website is expected to launch sometime before the state legislature opens its 2020 session on January 13.

Three other reporters will work for Iowa Capital Dispatch, Obradovich announced on December 18.

Deputy editor Clark Kauffman, a 2004 Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting, has worked for 30 years at the Des Moines Register and Quad-City Times. He most recently served as assistant ombudsman for the state of Iowa, investigating citizens’ complaints of government wrongdoing.

Senior reporter Perry Beeman, award-winning environmental and business writer, has nearly four decades of Iowa newspaper experience, including at the Register and most recently as managing editor of the Business Record in Des Moines.

Reporter Linh Ta has worked at the Register since 2013, most recently covering retail business and Iowa caucus candidates. She was the Iowa Newspaper Association’s 2019 Young Journalist award-winner.

While some of the States Newsrooms affiliates have an explicitly progressive orientation, Obradovich told me “our news coverage will be non-partisan and without preference to any particular ideological perspective.”

On some days, States Newsroom may have more correspondents at the capitol than any other media outlet.

The Des Moines Register has typically assigned two reporters to devote their full attention to the legislative session, with others pinch hitting as needed. The newspaper’s political editor Rachel Stassen-Berger told me that Stephen Gruber-Miller and Barbara Rodriguez, who both covered the legislature in 2019, will be joined this year by Ian Richardson, who has been covering communities and some presidential candidates. “Ian will remain on the Statehouse beat after the caucuses so Barbara can continue doing her fine health reporting,” Stassen-Berger said. (Rodriguez is covering health-related stories while Tony Leys is on a journalism fellowship at MIT).

The Cedar Rapids Gazette also has two statehouse reporters, Rod Boshart and James Q. Lynch. UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: The Gazette has long partnered with the Lee Newspapers group, for whom Erin Murphy serves as statehouse reporter. On many days, that team has three members working different stories at the capitol.

The Associated Press used to hire a temporary correspondent to help cover the legislative session, but that wasn’t the case in 2019. Iowa/Nebraska news editor Scott McFetridge confirmed that the AP won’t have a second reporter assisting statehouse correspondent David Pitt in legislative coverage this year. (Ryan Foley also covers state government for the AP but rarely reports on legislative happenings.) The nonprofit news cooperative provides copy to dozens of Iowa newspapers and radio or television stations.

The following news organizations will have one reporter at the capitol daily:

Iowa Public Radio (Katarina Sostaric)
Radio Iowa (O.Kay Henderson)
Sinclair Broadcasting group (Caroline Cummings)

Some other media outlets frequently assign reporters to the capitol, including WHO-TV, KCCI-TV, WOI-TV, WHO radio, and the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald.

Iowa Starting Line may also have a full-time statehouse reporter after the Iowa caucuses, Pat Rynard announced on December 31.

I’m currently putting together the funds for the statehouse job, but it may not start for another month or two, in the middle of session. However, a big part of their focus will be the legislative campaigns.

That’s good news, since Iowa’s other statehouse reporters rarely cover legislative campaigns in any depth.

The Iowa Informer‘s Gavin Aronsen may also do some reporting on the legislative session, he told me this week, in addition to his usual focus on news about Ames, U.S. Representative Steve King, or other candidates running in the fourth Congressional district.

Conservative writers Shane Vander Hart of Caffeinated Thoughts and Jacob Hall of The Iowa Standard post regularly about the legislature too.

BLEEDING HEARTLAND’S PLANS FOR STATEHOUSE COVERAGE

Coverage of state government and the legislature has been a priority for Bleeding Heartland since the earliest months of this blog’s existence in 2007. I will continue to devote much of my attention to happenings at the statehouse. That will include reporting on:

  • important bills that were just introduced, are moving through, or have cleared both chambers;
  • lobbying for or against controversial bills, especially when unusual alliances form or something irregular happens, like Iowa Supreme Court justices contacting legislators;
  • amendments that change the impact of a significant bill, making it more likely (or less likely) to pass;
  • action by legislative committees, like the Administrative Rules Review Committee’s recent objection to an Iowa Utilities Board rule on electric vehicle charging;
  • newsworthy comments by state lawmakers at legislative forums in their districts;
  • campaigns in battleground Iowa House or Senate districts;
  • news from state agencies, such as turnover at the Iowa Civil Rights Commission or Iowa Department of Corrections policies to reduce racial disparities.
  • Guest authors have provided original statehouse reporting for Bleeding Heartland, and I hope their work will inspire more writers to participate this year. A few examples:

    Randy Richardson closely follows education-related matters and has discussed newly introduced bills, as well as legislation that passed with little notice. In his most recent post, he advocated for legislation the House and Senate should approve this year to address a problem affecting tens of thousands of teachers.

    Matt Chapman has reported on a range of legislative topics. Last year he paid particular attention to bills affecting Iowans on public assistance programs. He reported on the substance of the proposals and the main out-of-state group lobbying for their passage. Because he frequently checked the legislative website, Matt was first to report some nonpartisan fiscal analysis that showed administrative costs for the state would far exceed any savings from removing people from Medicaid or food assistance.

    Mark Langgin reported on a dark money group’s early spending through Facebook advertising to promote MidAmerican Energy’s bad solar bill. That post was among the 30 most-viewed out of 638 pieces Bleeding Heartland published during 2019.

    Bleeding Heartland also welcomes commentaries advocating for or against legislation. Amanda Rex-Johnson reported on a lesser-known bill she lobbied for last year, which would allow conciliation in contested divorce proceedings only at the discretion of a court. Noah Mathis, Alena Gamble, and Rachel Overla urged lawmakers to ban conversion therapy. Connie Ryan made the case against changing Iowa’s judicial selection process. Emma Schmit and Adam Mason called on Iowans to contact a key House Republican about a factory farm moratorium bill.

    As for the executive branch, John Morrissey has scoured Iowa Insurance Division records in search of newsworthy information. He was also the only person to report last year that Sedgwick landed a lucrative contract to administer the state’s workers’ compensation program, despite not submitting the highest bid.

    Marty Ryan noticed that the Iowa Board of Corrections did not follow its statutory duty to recommend candidates for Department of Corrections director to the governor. His exclusive reporting on the matter also showed how hard it can be to get the Iowa Public Information Board to investigate a possible open meeting violation.

    Please contact me if you would like to write about state government this year. If you don’t already have a Bleeding Heartland user account, I will set one up for you.

    Even if you are not interested in writing for the website, I encourage Iowans who attend legislative committee meetings or weekend forums to record the audio or video on their phones and let me know if anything noteworthy occurred. A recording will allow me to report accurately on what transpired. I never name tipsters unless they want credit.

    • This is very cheering news

      Thank you to all those who will contribute to the coverage of this critical session.

      And BH readers, we can never tell when news-tipping opportunities may arise. Years ago I was idly dial-twirling through radio stations in my car during campaign season in rural Iowa when I heard something that seemed weird and mildly funny. I sent a postcard (yeah, this was long ago) to a REGISTER reporter, expecting nothing but possibly an amused thank-you. What happened instead was a reasonably-long story that may have contributed, a tiny bit, to the defeat of a bad incumbent. When in doubt, share your tip.

    You need to signin or signup to post a comment.