Adieu to Des Moines  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2009

Adieu to Des Moines   

After 35 years at the Des Moines Register, Iowa political reporting legend David Yepsen looks forward to a new career in academia. Online Exclusive posted 2/10/09 3:00p.m.

By Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar (2priyak@gmail.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     


One rainy day last April in Carbondale, Illinois, political columnist David Yepsen , along with a professor and a student ambassador, was dodging mud puddles as the three crossed the campus of Southern Illinois University.

"There's no way we're going to get across campus without you getting those shoes muddy," the professor said, referring to the student's polished black leather dress shoes.

"I can't get these shoes dirty," the student replied. "These are the only good shoes I own."

The power of that moment is difficult to convey, Yepsen says, but it showed him how young people who are "coming up the hard way in life" are motivated to "use their educations to move up in the world and to right the wrongs."


David Yepsen

Yepsen, who for years has been a formidable watchdog over Iowa state politics at the Des Moines Register, will leave the newsroom April 1 to become director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at SIU Carbondale. Founded by former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon in 1997, the institute works on projects that address policy issues and fosters student involvement in public affairs.

Yepsen has known for a while he wanted to move to academia after journalism, and says the industry's massive economic troubles were merely "background noise" as he made his decision. And to those who wonder whether his reporter's itch will return in 2012, Yepsen says the 2008 presidential election would be hard to top.

Yepsen, 58, has been at the Register since 1974, and before that spent a year reporting at what is now Iowa's Quad City Times. A native of Jefferson, Iowa, Yepsen received his undergraduate degree from the University of Iowa in 1972 and his master's of public administration from Drake University in 1985.

In addition to his thrice-weekly political column, Yepsen blogs and posts audio and video commentary on the Register's Web site. He is a panelist and host on the Iowa Public Television program "Iowa Press" and regularly appears as a commentator on national television and radio.

"For decades, David Yepsen has been a go-to source for political journalists, especially for some of the biggest names in the Washington press corps," says Michael Calderone, who covers the media for Politico.

Every four years, Yepsen, whose round face, gregarious laugh and affinity for steak make him reminiscent of the late "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert, became journalism royalty as reporters flocked to his home state to cover the Iowa caucuses at the kickoff of each presidential campaign.

Geneva Overholser, a former editor of the Des Moines Register who is now director of the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, calls Yepsen "the quintessential political reporter." She adds, "Anyone in the political world who has been through Iowa has been through Yepsen's notebook."

Calderone agrees. "I don't think anyone has the stature that Yepsen had in Iowa," he says. "He really made his brand in the Iowa caucus."

Last spring, Yepsen brought his expertise to a fellowship at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. There he led a study group titled "Picking Presidents: Are There Better Ways to Nominate Candidates?" He found the students' attitudes uplifting and refreshing.

"They're very dedicated, they're very ambitious, they're very committed. And they're not cynical," Yepsen says. "I feel better about the condition of the country knowing that people like that are getting ready to run things."

In the wake of scandals including the impeachment of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, emphasizing ethics in government is one of Yepsen's top priorities for his new job. The best way to help people become less cynical and more trusting of their government is to encourage more public affairs journalism, he says.

Fewer journalists seem more qualified than Yepsen to teach such skills. Jeff Zeleny, now a political reporter for the New York Times, worked with Yepsen at the Register. "David really viewed himself as the reader's advocate," Zeleny says. "He kept his eye on the workings of state politics so others wouldn't have to."

Zeleny recalls an instance at a press conference near the beginning of then-Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's first term when Yepsen asked the governor how Vilsack was going to spend the state's money. "Vilsack was not very schooled in the ways of David, and he said 'Who told you to ask that question, the Republicans?' " Zeleny says.

The Times reporter remembers Yepsen's reply vividly. "Governor, I ask that question on behalf of my readers," Yepsen proclaimed, his voice booming. "He can be rough," Zeleny says. "He certainly has put the fear of God into many campaign staffers and officials."

Though Yepsen knows the academic world will be slower than the exhilarating yet stressful "pacing around, making phone calls, writing and push, push, push" of a newsroom, he'll still be plenty busy.

"I'm just not interested in sitting back in the ivory tower and doing some thumbsucker thing," Yepsen says. In addition to his duties at the institute, he will teach at either the university's journalism or political science department and would like to write a book detailing his experiences covering the Iowa caucuses through nine presidential elections.

"I'm a big believer in the notion that we're all put here to make the world a better place," Yepsen said. And though he admits it sounds corny, he is ready to help a new generation of leaders do just that.

Kumar (pkumar@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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