“Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”
Invariably, student reporters covering the Missouri State Capitol for The Chart while I was at Missouri Southern would ask me what to look for on that beat.
When I would give them the above answer, they would look at me quizzically and ask me what they really should look for. And my answer would only vary a little.
“Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and higher education,” I would say.
And thanks to the Missouri General Assembly’s acceptance of technology, it is fairly easy to find any of that from anywhere. The state legislature’s website has a bill tracking feature that lets citizens and reporters search for pending legislation based on key words. And, because Missouri is a deeply red state, there are plenty of laws regulating or addressing all of those topics.
Covering the General Assembly from a barstool
I don’t suggest doing it that way, but it is theoretically possible. If a student reporter is assigned to cover state government, much of what they need is available online. And interviews can be done via cell phone.
I would always encourage the upcoming Capitol intern to check the pre-filed bills around the first of December and look for the SDRR and higher ed subjects. Then I would encourage them to do a legislative preview focused on the local representatives and senators, including any bills they may have filed.
Those assignments serve two purposes, it is a good warm-up for when the fur really starts to fly and it gets them introduced to their local lawmakers.
And they could, but shouldn’t, do it all from Buffalo Wild Wings with a laptop and a cell phone.
Always buy a program
That is what my dad used to tell me when we would go to a Kansas City Royals game. The most valuable part of the program was the scorecard. But close behind was the visiting team’s roster.
Know the players. Find out who are in the leadership positions in the legislature. Know who chairs what committee. Know what they do.
Now back to the scorecard. Politics is a game. It really is. You don’t just want to talk to a bill’s sponsor. Talk to a member of the opposition — preferably one on the committee holding hearings on the bill. If possible, attend hearings and quote those who testify. But we are doing this long distance, so that isn’t possible.
Get high, er, education
Nothing used to give me a better buzz than covering higher education. I once did a simple appropriations story and my adviser, Chad Stebbins, looked over my copy like a father whose son had struck out with the bases loaded.
“It’s fine,” he said. “But an enterprising reporter wouldn’t have just talked to [University President Julio] Leon.
“He would have called other university presidents. Maybe the commissioner of higher education. A lawmaker or two would be nice.”
I grew to dread and avoid at all costs hearing him tell me what “an enterprising reporter” would do.
“Give it back,” I said.
Two hours later the story had quotes from presidents at Missouri Western, Central Missouri and Northwest Missouri. It had comments from the commissioner of higher education. And it told readers that calls to area lawmakers were not immediately returned.
Hey. Nobody’s perfect.
A clipboard and a confident wave…
Presidents Ed Elliot (UCM, then CMSU) and Dean Hubbard (Northwest Missouri) asked me to call them by their first names. I knew the names of their secretaries’ kids. President Kayla Stroup (Southeast Missouri) told me she wished their student paper had a go-getter like me. Higher Ed Commissioner Charles McClain wrote letters to the editor of The Chart and called me with tips. And then-Lt. Gov. Roger Wilson called me “Chartster” and let me office out of his conference room.
Was I cool or what?
Or what. What I was was bold. Assertive. Fearless. You see, after I built one relationship, I thought “What the f**k?” I just started calling people. And they talked to me. I looked like a sourcing machine, but all I was was a guy with the gumption to pick up a phone.
If I could reboot my career, I would be Eli Yokely
Eli Yokely is a former student of mine, but he could teach the course. Yokely is also the founder of PoliticMo, a political blog with a large following. Including me.
Yokely got his readers by producing compelling original content and having the balls to just call, visit, phone, harass on the street public figures until he got his stories. O.K., he doesn’t harass. But he just goes out and makes it happen.
And that’s what you need to do.
All you really need to cover state government — the people who make the laws under which you live and fund the schools you attend — is a computer, Internet access and a phone.
And the guts to make it happen.