By Mike Wilson, Immediate Past President
From writing classes to city police beats, reporters learn their craft in a hundred unique ways. And sometimes one defining aha moment can mean more than all the college journalism classes combined.
For DTN/The Progressive Farmer ag policy editor Chris Clayton, that moment came at a writing workshop just months after earning a journalism degree in 1993 from the University of Missouri.
“Clarke Stallworth was an editor at the Birmingham News, and a writing coach,” Clayton recalls. “I spent four years in journalism school and this guy basically taught me all I needed to know in one day.” And that is? “When it comes to reporting something complicated, just fall back to this simple phrase: What does this story mean to the reader? It’s the theme you should always repeat in your head.”
Clayton has had plenty of opportunities to do just that over a 25-year career in ag journalism. He was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald before taking his current role in 2005. Chris has been recognized as writer of the year by AAEA and won story of the year multiple times from the organization. He also has won the Glenn Cunningham Agricultural Journalist of the Year Award from the North American Agricultural Journalists and served as the group’s president in 2012-13.
At a recent Ag Communicators Network writing workshop, Clayton offered four tips for how to cover the tricky ag policy beat:
Get plugged in. Thanks to the internet you can cover Washington, D.C. and the ag policy beat from just about anywhere. Start by paying attention to all the important committees on Capitol Hill. Clayton subscribes to policy analysis media outlets like Politico Pro, as well as Informa. He tries to stay informed on what’s coming up on various committees, but heed this advice: You can be inundated with emails if you try to track too many information sources.
“If I didn’t clean out my inbox every month I’d have 12,000 emails to look at because every month you’re accumulating so many pieces of information,” says Clayton. “It’s best to just try to keep tabs on specific areas.”
When tax reform was an issue last fall, Chris was keying in on the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committee websites. “I may be working on one story but in the background on my computer I may have a hearing going on, and if I hear something related to farmers I know I need to start paying attention,” he says. “Even so, it’s hit and miss. There are things happening in D.C. all the time and it’s hard to keep tabs on it all.”
Simplify. Another challenge for anyone covering this beat: how to simplify the convoluted prose that often makes government policy impossible for the common ear to understand. That’s when Clayton falls back to advice from his one-time mentor Stallworth. Don’t just write about sweeping bills that cost billions of dollars. Write about how this specific policy, law or trade reform would impact one individual or business.
Cultivate your sources. If you’re covering technology, production farming, or policy, you need to find good sources and build relationships. Clayton speaks frequently with sources both in and outside Washington, D.C. On tax stories, he’ll chat with financial sources such as Paul Neiffer. “I spend a lot of time combing through whatever the committees are putting on their website,” he says. “You need to do this on an on-going process to absorb as much as you can read and pass that along as quickly as you can to your readers. Tip: If you’re a reporter covering taxes, take a tax class.
Have a thick skin. That’s especially true in today’s polarized, partisan political environment. “A lot of farmers support Trump, so if you’re writing about issues that they perceive in a negative light – NAFTA was a prime example early on – expect some push back,” he says. “Last January when Mexico was pushing back about who would pay for Trump’s wall, a lot of farmers were getting irritated with our coverage. I just said, I didn’t make up that quote where a Mexican senator said they should buy corn from Argentina.’ A lot of times you have to write things that your audience doesn’t agree with.
“You’re always going to get criticized no matter what you do, you have to be able to accept it,” Clayton adds. “For much of my career I was just a byline but now it’s completely different thanks to social media, people know so much more about you. You’re not as anonymous.
“Right now there’s so much criticism of media, but I always feel like, I’m the one who is going to tell you maybe what you don’t want to hear, but what you need to hear. I’m sorry, I’m not going to write a story that makes it sound like everything is peaches and cream.”
Clayton’s reporting earned him notoriety with mainstream media networks. On the day after the 2016 election he happened to be in Washington, D.C. for the monthly USDA crop report. He was at a party when he saw the numbers coming in for Trump, went back to his hotel room and pulled an all-nighter, filing a story at 6 a.m. His story focused on how Trump dominated rural counties in states like Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. Someone saw that story and sent it to MSNBC’s Chuck Todd.
“Next thing I know his producer calls me to do a podcast,” recalls Clayton. “Then they want me to do a live national broadcast from a local TV station. Well, Chuck Todd liked my answers. I’ve been on there several times since then. It’s been fun to try to offer a little more view from Iowa, what I see going on in national politics.”
Clayton lives in Glenwood, Iowa, with his wife and children. He offers some solid professional advice to students at this link.