Take two dozen young journalists from around the country eager to learn about Iowa and its politics. Feed them an elegant supper in the opulent Hotel Pattee. Serve them after-dinner drinks, and set them to chatting in the Soumas Courtyard with another dozen or so of Perry’s own unique citizens. Do all this, and what do you get?
A very interesting evening.
You also get a representative slice of Iowa political life as it is lived outside the beltway, so to speak, of metro Des Moines. And that is exactly what the Poynter Institute for Media Studies journalists were seeking in their crash course on covering the upcoming Iowa Caucuses: a glimpse of real-world Iowans caught, as it were, in their native environment.
The Poynter Institute is a St. Petersburg, Fla.-based center for journalism education. Using grant funds from the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation, Poynter partnered with the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communications to lead the group of working journalists on a three-day program in Iowa politics 101.
Most of the program’s activities were centered in Des Moines, and Perry was the group’s last stop on its last day, according to Kathleen Richardson, dean of the Drake journalism school.
“You know, it really isn’t very representative of Iowa if you bring people from around the country and all they see is Drake or some Des Moines neighborhoods,” Richardson said at the Tuesday evening event. “So we were looking around for a place that would get them outside of Des Moines but would also expose them to the changing demographic nature of Iowa. Several people said Perry was the first place that came to their minds that was within driving distance. And we asked several other people, ‘What would you suggest?’ and they all said, ‘Perry.'”
Richardson, a longtime Des Moines Register editor before switching to her present academic career, said she then contacted Perry Mayor Jay Pattee, who in turn arranged things with the Hotel Pattee and gathered a few people from the Perry community to serve as guinea pigs for the media interviewers.
The casual soiree came off without a hitch.
“This was a wonderful evening,” Pattee said. “There were a lot of very active minds here tonight, and I think the journalists got a good idea of what local politics is like in Iowa and how seriously but also how civilly we play our important role as citizens in the earliest-voting state in the presidential primary season.”
Along with their journey to Perry, the visiting journalists’ three-day tour included hearing presentations from a few of their fellow industry professionals — from C.N.N., the New York Times and other national media — who have covered Iowa politics and the presidential caucuses before. They also got a cracker-barrel course in Iowa history from Tom Morain, Graceland University history professor.
Presentations from a few of Iowa’s political operatives who have managed presidential campaigns in the state gave the program an authentic local flavor, which was topped off Monday night with a mock-caucus staged by the Polk County Democrats and Polk County Republicans.
Andy Shain, reporter with a Columbia, S.C.-based media group, The State Media Company, said he found the mock-caucus especially useful in showing the importance of issues-based politics in the caucus process.
“It demonstrated the process in a very forceful way,” Shain said, “which really brought home how the caucuses are democracy in action.”
Emily Cahn, politics reporter with CQ Roll Call in Washington, D.C., said she covered the Iowa caucuses during the 2012 election cycle and was glad to be back in the state this summer. She said she thinks this year’s election will hinge on whom the Republican Party nominates as their candidate.
“Right now the leading Republican contenders appear to be Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, and each will present a particular challenge to the Democratic Party’s nominee, presumably Hillary Clinton,” Cahn said.
Richardson, dean of the Drake University School of Journalism and Mass Communications, said the program enriches the journalists’ experience of the caucuses and informs their reporting, which is a net gain for their readers and viewers.
Richardson said she participated in a similar Poynter program in 2007 that was supported by a grant from the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation. Formerly known as the McCormick-Tribune Foundation, the charitable arm of the former Chicago Tribune newspaper, the foundation promotes education in open government, civic issues, democracy and also journalism, she said.
“One of the guys who works for the McCormick Foundation is a Drake alum,” Richardson said. “Seven years ago, the McCormick Foundation gave a grant to Poynter to bring journalists from around the country to Des Moines to learn how to cover the Iowa caucuses, and they did the same thing this year.”
Cathy Stone of Perry was one of the local residents to meet the traveling journalists.
“The conversation was very stimulating, very thought provoking” Stone said. “These young people are well informed about Iowa politics, and I think our meeting them helped bring to life some of the things they might have heard about in their formal presentations. This is Perry. We’re the real deal.”