Iowa Starting Line Closes Out Our Best Year Yet

The clock is ticking down on the end of 2019, though here in the Starting Line office, we’re mostly just concerned with who’s covering what candidate this weekend.

I thought it would be nice to take a moment to look back at the very exciting, transformative year we’ve had at Starting Line, one in which we grew significantly, now totaling six full-time reporters and another six part-time support staff.

As most of you know, this website began in January 2015 with just myself, largely writing from home and out at campaign events. We now have as many full-time political reporters as any other news outlet in the entire state, an office, a very large support team, quite the payroll and an ever-growing readership in Iowa and nationally.

It’s always amusing when people still come up to me today and compliment “my blog” or “my column.” This is quite the operation now, of which I’m only a part at this point, and an important piece of the state’s overall progressive infrastructure. You’d think that in the year 2019 (and soon 2020), people could wrap their heads around the idea that a news outlet might be online-only (you’d also be amazed at the number of older people who look at me with a blank stare after asking how to read Starting Line and I tell them to go to a website).

The Starting Line team had a lot of great successes this year, so let’s go through them.

Federal News Coverage

Starting Line became this year and remains the only news outlet in the state that has a fully-devoted federal reporter. This was the first, most important part of our news team I wanted to get funded, especially because the Iowa Caucus would take the spotlight off of Iowa’s federal electeds, like Joni Ernst, a year out from the crucial 2020 election.

Libby Meyer and Paige Godden have been doing excellent work keeping tabs on what Ernst, Chuck Grassley and the House delegation is up to. There was rarely a questionable comment or vote that Ernst made this year that didn’t get coverage thanks to our news team. As Iowa’s traditional news outlets get stretched thin in what they can cover, that’s important.

And thanks to Nikoel Hytrek, our courts/judiciary reporter, Starting Line was one of the only state news outlets in the entire country that drew attention to their senator’s votes on unqualified, controversial judicial appointments.

We’ve also highlighted the work that members of Congress like Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne have done, from worker safety to biodiesel tax credits to college scams to the USMCA to campaign finance and more. Most of what people read about Congress is dysfunction; it’s important to remind Iowans that their elected officials are also working on important policy behind the scenes. As you might imagine, it’s easier to get clicks off of stories on something that makes people mad, but we think it’s important to lift up these stories as well.

Driving National News

Here’s something I don’t think many Iowans fully appreciate about Starting Line: we drive a significant amount of national news coverage on Iowa politics. My personal belief has always been that you can only accomplish so much with an independent, online-only news site. If you want to have an impact, you need to find a way to get your stories picked up by larger outlets with a much broader reach.

We’ve done that in spades this year, as we usually do.

Our coverage of an Ernst town hall in Des Moines made national news, including an MSNBC appearance for an attendee. We helped get the only attendee at a Steve King forum on CNN. Our initial coverage of Ernst’s comments on Social Security was cited in the Washington Post. Our story on Ernst avoiding answering questions on foreign interference literally drove a national news cycle. We also broke news on Ernst’s FEC fine.

When Paige tweeted out Steve King’s pork joke at an Audubon town hall, there were literally two national news stories written about it before the event even ended, based off her tweet. Our reporting drove coverage in the New York Times, CNN, Fox News, the Huffington Post and Axios, among many others on that one.

Those are just some examples.

That kind of national pick-up really matters and is worth something, as I often tell people when reminding them about the importance of financially supporting local journalism.

Readership Spike

There are a lot of people reading Starting Line every day, with this year seeing our monthly averages spike significantly after our expansion.

My other personal belief in running Starting Line has been that you can write the greatest, most important, most in-depth pieces of journalism you want, but if not many people read it, so what? A big thank you as always to those who help share our stories on social media.

New Policy Coverage

The hardest things to get read are often those stories that everyone tells you are the most important, and you should really write more of them, you know. But then you’ll get ten times the clicks for a poll or endorsements story as you do a policy-heavy story.

Well, this year, we brought on multiple caucus reporters to cover specific issue beats, and we worked hard to find interesting and compelling ways to write about them so they got read.

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Paige covered the topic of labor unions, which usually only get press in Iowa when they’re under some sort of legislative attack. She looked at local unionizing efforts, highlighted women in the labor movement, how unions pressed the candidates at forums and covered how the 2020 Democrats talked about labor issues.

Josh Cook handled health care and rural topics. He shared countless stories of Iowans’ struggles with health care access, and tracked the ad spending by conservative groups on health care (something very few others did). Josh also told the saga of this year’s biofuels mess, the impact of Midwest farmers, and he investigated the challenges many small towns face. He also found some cool projects happening in rural areas, as well as some heartbreaking tales of people fighting to improve the healthcare system, or just keep protections. Josh also wrote some more niche stories, including the beginning of the pushback on Medicare for All, and one special event dealing with issues facing special needs families.

Isabella Murray did the important work of giving the issue of housing a bigger platform in the news, by looking at how it impacts Iowans and how the candidates were addressing it (make sure to read her Waterloo red-lining story if you haven’t yet). And she covered the rise of the climate movement in Iowa, from young students in the Sunrise movement to how youth organizing is affecting development for young people internationally.  She also reported out farmers’ involvement in the climate movement, a concept widely adopted in most candidates’ climate/rural policies.

And Nikoel Hytrek shined a spotlight on the Trump Administration’s efforts to fully remake the judiciary, along with the role Joni Ernst played in those efforts and how Democratic candidates hope to reverse or lessen the effects of an overwhelmingly conservative judiciary. She also covered issues of money in politics, voting rights, Iowa’s evolving voting rights laws and fair elections. Hytrek also wrote stories about how youth in the state have become more involved in politics and how they’re learning about Iowa’s political processes.

Sharing More Iowans’ Stories

One thing I’ve long wanted to do with Starting Line is engage various communities throughout the state and lift up personal stories of Iowans not often talked about. That, however, takes time, but this year we were able to get started on that project that will hopefully become an even bigger part of our mission going forward.

We were particularly pleased to bring on two reporters — Claudia Thrane and Fabiola Schirrmeister — to cover Iowa’s Latinx community. Claudia is particularly skilled at telling the personal stories of Iowa immigrants, and we’ve compiled quite a nice collection of unique life journeys. If you want to have a better understanding of what people in the Latinx community go through in this state, you should really read through them all.

Even with the Iowa Caucus going on, we still put out a decent number of municipal campaign stories, including highlighting many local candidates of color.

Other Successes (And A Disappointment)

There were so many other great moments from the year that it would literally take too long to write it up all here (seriously, I need to start working on my next story). Other highlights included growing our podcast listenership with our great episode guests, the newsletter, getting incredible caucus photos courtesy of our photographer Julie Fleming, interviewing just about every single presidential candidate, opening our new office, our ridiculous multi-candidate event planning sessions, our media sponsorship of the Waterloo forum and much, much more.

For me personally, it was very professionally fulfilling to build this up into a serious business and get to hire a great group of journalists to cover Iowa politics. It took unbelievably long hours to do, as I cobbled together funding for this operation little piece by piece. I’m not sure people fully appreciate how hard it is to build up a fully-fledged news outlet in this day and age from scratch, especially when you don’t have one major funder.

There were a few disappointments, though, most of all that I didn’t have nearly as much time to write this year as I personally would have liked. I have had a ton of unique analysis on the caucus race that has unfortunately just stayed inside my head. That, of course, comes with doing more management work when you expand, but I’m hopeful for next year to add an administration position to Starting Line to free me up some more to do more reporting.

What Comes Next

The overall plan for Starting Line going forward is to always have at least three full-time reporters: a federal reporter, a statehouse reporter and myself to manage the overall operation and write on a variety of topics. I’m currently putting together the funds for the statehouse job, but it may not start for another month or two, in the middle of session. However, a big part of their focus will be the legislative campaigns.

Our issue beat positions this year are just through the Iowa Caucus, though Libby, our federal reporter, is here for the long haul.

However, we have bigger aspirations than all that. It depends on what I’m able to put together in the next few months. I’m hopeful that once the caucus circus moves out of town, I’ll have much more time to refocus on the business side again.

But even if we just stick with three full-time staff, that will continue to be a huge boost to the journalism scene in Iowa, especially given our huge reach and history of success in pushing out stories far beyond our website readership.

A very big thank you as always to those who have been helpful along our journey.

And please help us enter 2020 on good financial footing by donating here.

Okay, back to writing other stories now.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 12/31/19

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