AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Into the Spotlight   

How intense interest in national politics and the insatiable appetites of the 24-hour news cycle mean plenty of national exposure for local journalists. Weds., March 7, 2012.

By Michelle G. Chan
Michelle G. Chan (michelle.grace.chan@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Every election year, two categories of new stars emerge on the political scene: hot new candidates and the national correspondents who give those candidates ample exposure. But there's a third, more unlikely category: local political reporters. All it takes is an important presidential primary or general election battle in their home state or a closely watched congressional contest. Suddenly, the local writers become fixtures on cable television.

Exhibit A: columnist Jon Ralston of the Las Vegas Sun.

Since the beginning of the media frenzy surrounding the 2008 presidential election, news outlets including MSNBC, Fox News Channel and PBS have called on Ralston, 52, to join their shows to give feedback on political developments in Nevada and their national implications. Ralston has appeared on such programs as "The Rachel Maddow Show," "Hardball with Chris Matthews," "The Ed Show" and "NewsHour."

One of the reasons he is in demand, Ralston says, is the colorful nature of his home base. "It has a quirky fascination," Ralston says. "Anything with politics and the 'Sin State' are going to attract attention." He says the hosts of the TV programs he appears on are generally "national folks looking at Nevada through a telescope, grateful to get someone on the ground who knows what's going on."

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, was once one of these journalists "on the ground." Yepsen was widely respected for his expertise on Iowa politics during his long stint covering politics for the Des Moines Register. In 1997, Washingtonian magazine described him as one of the "best Washington reporters who doesn't live in Washington."

Yepsen says the phenomenon of local journalists becoming national figures during election years is in part due to the importance and interest in presidential politics, and also partially due to the support journalists want to give to one another. He says there is a sense of professional camaraderie amongst journalists.

Yepsen says he never took his appearances on national TV lightly. He says the pressure was daunting, knowing that his words might affect the political narrative and even decisions at polling places.

"You'll have a lot of reporters from around the world, and the work of the local journalist has an impact. People will analyze the work," Yepsen says. "The decisions those people make become part of the story."

For Ralston, the journey toward national spotlight began in Ithaca, New York.

He started his journalism career in the late 1970s and early 1980s as an assistant sports editor at the Cornell Daily Sun. At Cornell University, Ralston studied English but went on to get a master's in journalism at the University of Michigan and an internship at the Sacramento Bee. It was here that the aspiring sportswriter fell in love with covering the news. After graduating, Ralston joined the Las Vegas Review-Journal as a political reporter.

His first job in 1985 was reporting on government in Clark County (read: Vegas). Covering a zoning story, Ralston got a crash course in how money and influence affected decision-making in Sin City. After some initial reporting, Ralston realized that simply by changing the zoning classification on a property, massive amounts of money could be made because of Las Vegas' best-known venues: casinos.

Ralston says he "fell in love with the beat, became a columnist in 1988 and the rest is history."

As his prominence grew, Ralston left the Review-Journal in 1992 to start his own political newsletter, The Ralston Report. He also wrote three columns a week for the paper on a freelance basis until the end of 1999. Then, the rival Las Vegas Sun approached Ralston and offered to buy his newsletter, have him write an e-mail newsletter and host a television show on a new cable network it had launched.

"It was a very difficult decision, but I finally decided it was too good to pass up," Ralston says. "I have never looked back."

In 2010, he raised his national profile significantly while covering Tea Party favorite Sharron Angle's aggressive challenge to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The race had huge national implications, since a victory by Republican Angle was critical to the GOP's efforts to take control of the U.S. Senate. While the conventional wisdom held that Reid was finished, Ralston stuck to his belief that the Senate veteran would survive.

It was a classic case of how a local election can become a huge national story, and it meant plenty of exposure for Ralston. "It was the most intense and exhilarating experience covering that race. It was so important nationally," he says. "There were so many twists and turns, and it was just the most intense, nonstop experience I've had."

Many commentators and political experts thought Angle would prevail because they saw the election as a referendum on Reid and his ties to President Barack Obama. Ralston based his prediction on his own analysis. He had access to private polling information that he believed was more accurate than what was being published elsewhere. He trusted his instincts and held firm to his conclusion that Reid was going to hold on. And he did.

"The most gratifying experience of it, I try not to brag, but all the conventional wisdom in Washington was that Angle would win, and I pushed back against that," Ralston says. "It was nice to be vindicated. It showed people that I knew what I was talking about."

That experience helped Ralston cement his reputation as the go-to guy for analysis for Nevada politics. And, he says, it has helped him do a better job covering his beat. "People will alert me to things," he says, "because they see me now as the guy who was on TV talking about politics."

Ralston's busiest times are obviously during those high-profile election years. But even without an election on tap, he says his life is hectic. During an election year, it "merely goes from super-intense to super-super-intense." Normally, he begins his day at 5 a.m. and doesn't wind down until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. on most evenings.

He is consumed with his television show, which airs on local television stations in Las Vegas, Reno and Elko five days a week; writing three columns each week; putting out his daily electronic newsletter on issues pertinent to the Las Vegas audience, for which subscribers pay more than $300 per year; and maintaining a strong social media presence on Twitter, where he breaks most of his stories.

"Time management has become something I'm very good at. Some days are better than others," Ralston says. "Sometimes I have to give up one thing to do the other. It's a constant challenge to my time to get everything done that I need to do."

But he says that when the national media call, he tries to answer as often as he can. "It's something I always want to do, because it's good for the brand, and so I do it»not all of the time, but most of the time."

Yepsen says those calls now come so frequently because of the merciless pressures of the 24-hour news cycle. Cable news channels have an insatiable need for "people to fill their time," he says. Web sites must be constantly refreshed.

But that doesn't mean what the reporters do isn't important. Yepsen and Ralston both say it's meaningful because politics can change the direction of a country.

"You have to write about it in front of God and all mankind»on deadline," Yepsen says. "It was not an ego trip. It's a lot of responsibility, and you take it very seriously."