Late night breaking news analysis, candid candidate snowball fights and politicians taking over the Midwest … as TFAS alumnus Neil Vigdor (IPJ 98) says, “There’s nothing mundane about being a political reporter.”
Vigdor is one of many TFAS alumni who is playing the important role of covering the 2016 presidential race.
He is the state-wide political writer for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group where he writes for four daily newspapers on state, regional and national politics.
In February, he traveled to New Hampshire amidst a foot of snow and blizzard conditions to cover the state’s primary election.
While in New Hampshire, Vidgor wrote customized front-page stories for each of the four newspaper markets within his media group about the events leading up to the primaries. Vigdor’s job is to tailor stories for each specific area, making them applicable to what the readers care about, and that varies greatly with each of his sophisticated readerships.
“My goal is to provide content they can’t get from a national outlet,” Vigdor said. “You’d be surprised at how often there is a Connecticut angle.”
Vigdor got an up close view of the “fish bowl” that candidates live inside. He stayed at the same hotel as Marco Rubio and got to see firsthand how the candidate interacted with his staff, his family, the media and supporters.
“Getting to see a candidate during down time when they’re unscripted is unique and refreshing,” Vigdor said. “I watched Rubio and his kids have a snowball fight outside of the hotel… Getting that opportunity to be so close to the candidates is a very neat experience.”
In addition to getting up close and personal with the candidates, Vigdor saw how the citizens of New Hampshire took part in the primaries. He saw supporters travel from all over, in dangerous snowstorm conditions, just to door-knock and make sure their voices were heard.
“One of the highlights was seeing the people of New Hampshire,” Vigdor said. “They see it as a duty and responsibility to vet these candidates.”
Twelve hundred miles to the west of New Hampshire, TFAS alumnus Ben Nuelle (IPJ 14) got his first taste of covering a presidential race during the 2016 Iowa caucus.
In Iowa, the soil isn’t only ripe for corn; it’s also one of the largest political hubs of the presidential election. Nuelle took to the polls in Des Moines to get an up close view of the Iowa caucuses as a reporter, spectator and caucus participant.
Nuelle began working with the Iowa Agribusiness Radio Network last year after completing his second summer with TFAS as a program advisor. At his current job, Nuelle produces radio shows and stories relating to the “big agriculture topics from the day.”
He compared the caucuses and the days leading up to the event to “living in a media fantasy world.”
“The media flock to Des Moines the Friday before caucus day,” Nuelle said. “They take over every coffee shop, the capitol and the court house.”
When topics aligned with his beat in agribusiness, Nuelle took the opportunity to write stories for his readers and listeners. He was able to interview Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, and he covered the Iowa governor’s views on the candidates when it came to ethanol – an important topic in Iowa.
“I saw more politicians in Iowa than I ever did in D.C.,” Nuelle said.
While some TFAS alumni are covering the campaign on the ground, others are taking the news and analyzing it. Amber (Parcher) Phillips (IPJ 07) is a staff writer for The Fix – a nonpartisan political blog for The Washington Post.
At The Fix, Phillips analyzes events in the political world and discusses “the how and why” to help break stories down for the average reader. Phillips says for every political decision, event and announcement there are many possible outcomes that need to be analyzed.
One of Phillips’ goals is to try to expand young people’s interest in politics and experiment to see how much further she can push the nation’s interest in it.
“It’s helping explain what’s going on to someone who doesn’t know what’s going on,” Phillips said. “I love when I can do that on both sides of the political aisle, and I love when I get feedback from my readers that they ‘finally get it!’ I think it serves the reader better to try to look at as many angles of a political story as possible.”
Phillips says big political events, such as Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death and Senator Harry Reid’s retirement, equate to late nights for a political analyst.
“The day Harry Reid retired was a huge day where I dropped everything and just analyzed until the wee hours of the night,” Phillips said.
This type of writing takes a unique skill and passion for politics that Phillips may not have found if she had not enrolled in the TFAS program.
“TFAS changed my life,” Phillips said. “TFAS showed me what I’m interested in and gave me a leg up to try to make it happen.”
Like Phillips, Vigdor says he doesn’t know if he’d be where he is today without his TFAS experience.
“I don’t know if I would have gotten bit by the political bug if I hadn’t done IPJ,” Vigdor said. “It certainly turned me on to politics – the gamesmanship and the process of politics – I just became enthralled with it in my summer interning there.”
This is part two of a series on TFAS alumni working on the 2016 election. If you are, or know of, an alumnus working, reporting on or volunteering with a 2016 campaign, please send your update to alumni@TFAS.org.
Do you know of a young journalism student who would benefit from a summer in Washington? The deadline to apply for our 2016 Institute on Political Journalism is March 16! Apply today at DCinternships.org/IPJ.