January 26, 2016

Every four years, the national media’s attention turns to Iowa.

In the past few months, The New York Times has published over 150 articles on the upcoming Iowa caucuses, which take place next Monday. ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC all have national reporters embedded in the state who attend as many caucus event as they can.

And this week, over 1,600 reporters and crews from across the country are expected to descend on Des Moines’ Iowa Caucuses Media Center, where hotel prices have climbed to $900 at some hotels, reports Michael Morain in The Des Moines Register.

I am not one of these reporters. But I did spend the past weekend on a couch in North Carolina, pretending that I was living in Iowa.

This might sound strange but my goal was simple: I wanted to get away from the national news coverage of the caucuses and see how news organizations in Iowa were covering national politics taking place within their own communities. If you want to get a sense of the Iowa caucuses outside of national reporters standing in hayfields, I highly recommend following some of these news sources over the next week. They span counties, political persuasions and different kinds of media — and they all plan to stick around Iowa after February 1.

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Where the candidates are: Drake University launched the Iowa Caucus Project, which has an excellent blog run by Drake students who are following the candidates, as well as a candidate tracker that shows where the candidates are from day to day.

The Des Moines Register also maintains a candidate tracker that shows where each candidate is throughout Iowa’s 99 counties. The paper also has a handy candidate comparison tool that lets you see how the candidates stand on various issues, and a series on the history of the Iowa caucus — which includes Three Tickets, the paper’s 10-part podcast. If you’re a political junkie, you’re going to want to hear all 10.

Speaking of the radio: Iowa Public Radio’s extensive coverage can be found here. Their Perspectives series features residents across Iowa expressing their views on a variety of topics.  The Sioux City Journal’s podcast “On Iowa Politics” features a variety of reporters from around the state. Think Meet the Press, but in Iowa.

Including farmers: There are several newspapers in Iowa that cater to the agricultural community, including Spokesman and Iowa Farmer Today. The latter notes that “there is very little discussion of agriculture as a major issue” in the campaign so far.

In Ames: The Ames Tribune’s political feed makes it very easy to keep up with caucus-related news from a variety of different sources.

The Iowa State Daily, also based in Ames, has also had excellent coverage over the past few months. Alex Hanson, the politics editor of the student newspaper, tells me that the paper “mostly [goes] to political events happening in Ames (where Iowa State University is located), but occasionally we branch out to surrounding areas — mostly Des Moines for bigger events.”

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“For example, on Monday we’re heading to Des Moines for CNN’s forum with all three Democratic candidates, and Thursday we’re going down there for the Republican debate on Fox News,” he says. “For enterprise stories, we usually take national issues and localize them to Ames/Iowa State by talking to voters or political science professors here.”

Hanson spends upwards of 60 hours a week working at the paper, in addition to completing his school work. He says the staff has spent a lot of time thinking about how to package political material for their audience. “I love writing about politics, so I could go on and on, but college students won’t read the old-school story format, so we’ve decided to break things down and do alternative formats — mostly just because we realize that is the only way students will stay reading,” he says. Those alternative formats include explainer articles that break down the major issues and make it really easy for students to understand what to expect.

Alex highly recommends the experience for other budding student political journalists. “I’ve been blessed with so many opportunities, like interviewing candidates and attending big events, that most high-profile, big times journalists get to do — and I’m only 20 years old and in college,” he says. “It’s been a great time and Iowa could not be a better place to go to school if you want to be a political journalist.”

Results of mock elections: College students aren’t the only young Iowans who cast votes in the caucus. Every four years, the future voters of Iowa are taught about the caucus through a series of mock caucus held throughout the state. Donald Trump came out ahead in the Centerville’s student mock caucuses, gaining 91 votes out of 322 cast by the town’s high school students. In the state’s mock election for students, in which 1,600 students participated, Ben Carson faired better, taking 23.8 percent of Republican votes cast. (On the Dem side, Bernie Sanders came out ahead, with 53 percent of the vote.) Local reporters covered the events in Cedar Rapids, the Quad-Cities, and Des Moines, where students at McCombs Middle School selected Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ben Carson. (Colleges across the state also hold mock caucuses to teach first-time caucus goers what to do.)

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Caucuses are confusing: The reason students need to learn how to participate in a caucus is because they’re not the easiest to understand. And the rules differ for Democrats and Republicans. The Sanders campaign and the Trump campaign have both released videos explaining how the caucuses for their respective parties work. This 2012 explainer from The Des Moines Register is also really good.

The blogs: Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa, covers news from a Republican perspective in the The Iowa Republican. His assessment of the candidates is here.

This week, Bleeding Heartland —  a year-old community blog about Iowa politics — reported that Robinson’s company “has been paid to do direct mail for or against certain candidates” and has a financial interest in the outcome of the caucus campaign. Bleeding Heartland is run by three residents of Iowa who also cover the caucus in great detail.

Other blogs: Caffeinated Thoughts covers politics from a Christian and conservative point of view, John Deeth blogs about politics across the state and in Iowa City, and Blog for Iowa covers Iowa politics from a progressive point of view.

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On Twitter: The Iowa Starting Line has a great list of who to follow on Twitter to keep up with the caucuses. The list includes the entire Iowa press corps, the Des Moines Register team, and reporters from major Iowa blogs. I also recommend this Iowa list created by a local Iowa resident. It has fewer journalists but contains a lot of people who care deeply about politics.

The People: Jennifer Jacobs is the chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register. Kathie Obradovich covers politics for the Register.

For Fun: And the Raygun t-shirt shop in Des Moines has created a series of shirts aimed at out-of-town reporters. The shirts, reports AdWeek, contain slogans like “Sorry to interrupt your meal, but are you alive and have an opinion on the election?”, “Is there a bale of hay I can interview you next to?,” and “Didn’t I interview you four years ago?”

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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