Q&A: Political reporter Joel Ebert talks about his breakout career

By Connor Burnard, Studio M staff //

Chicago native Joel Ebert, 32, began his journalism career while attending the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he worked for the student newspaper while completing his bachelor’s degree in English.

Ebert received an internship in journalism and politics as a senior in college which turned into a job after graduation, but then he took a break from journalism. After three years, a job offer took him to the Capital Journal in Pierre, South Dakota, followed by the Charleston Daily Mail (now merged into the Gazette-Mail) in Charleston, West Virginia, before arriving at his current position as a state government reporter for The Tennessean.

Ebert spoke about getting started in journalism, adjusting to Tennessee and advice for budding journalists. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Political reporter Joel Ebert. (Photo courtesy NewsChannel 5)

How did you originally get involved in journalism as a career?

I was at the student newspaper (at the University of Illinois at Chicago) for about a year. Then, during my senior year, I get an internship in politics and journalism together at a nonprofit in Chicago. I took a pause from the industry for several years after I was told that there was no more money for me to continue my job there. In 2013, I restarted my career after serving at breakfast places and terrible restaurants for years and from there, I got into being a reporter again.

When you first started working in journalism, did anything about it surprise you?

It was kind of nerve-wracking. It’s kind of hard to have that initial feel like you’ve got a grasp on things when everything is new to you, and I think at first it’s kind of just getting your sea legs together. So that means writing dozens of stories and a lot of stories that you just don’t care about, you don’t have interest in. But it’s important at that time to really care about every single thing that you put into it. One word, one number, one letter off, and that undercuts your value. For me, that was something that I didn’t really expect to learn right away and I did. The best way to learn is by screwing up and doing it over and over again.

What was the first story you covered and what were any obstacles you faced?

Again, I got into journalism again in 2013, and I’m originally from Chicago, and I’m in South Dakota for this job and the first impression of this town is, “It’s 17,000 people. I just moved from a city of millions to 17,000 people.” And my first assignment is to write about a Menards coming to town. So the thing that you got to do, in that first lesson, is realize, yeah, it sounds piddly, it sounds like it doesn’t matter, but this is an important issue for this town right now. Back home, we would yawn about a Menards coming down the street. It wouldn’t be a big deal. But for this paper, and in this community, it was a big deal. So that was the thing I had to quickly adopt, to realize, that no matter how small it may seem in my previous life, you got to take every single thing for what it is and don’t pass your judgment on it.

After working in Chicago, South Dakota and West Virginia, why did you come to Tennessee, and what makes Tennessee different from those other places?

Largely I came here because it was a bigger paper. When this opportunity in Nashville opened up to continue writing about politics and be at a paper that Al Gore used to work at, that’s an offer you can’t turn down.

What’s unique about this place I think is it’s politically different from what I’m used to. I used to live in an environment where it was run by one party and that was Democrats, so it’s been interesting to learn the factions of the Republican party. The politics that play out in the most minute details, it’s all sort of through this Republican lens here. Every day goes by it seems, in D.C., and one of our U.S. senators is being mentioned in some capacity in the news. Our congress members are on the rise and important and playing huge roles in setting policy. So I think that Tennessee, unlike West Virginia and unlike South Dakota, is a major player on the national level and that’s what I think is really exciting about being here.

Do you have a worst story and a best story that you’ve covered?

I am not a big fan of breaking news. As recently as (September 24) I had to cover the Antioch church shooting. I don’t have the checklist system that I’m used to having when I go through my day-to-day routine as a political reporter.

Something that I felt like I was proud when we walked away from was we had some coverage the last two years of these lawmakers who were doing misdeeds, one of them is Jeremy Durham, another is this lawmaker Mark Lovell. He did some very inappropriate actions with a couple of people. The next day, I start reporting on it. Within hours, the guy resigns. By the end of the week, we found out that he was guilty of sexual harassment. Through our Durham coverage we had at least two laws changed. You realize the power of journalism. You realize, if I hit the right button and I’m on the right trail, my work might lead to some lasting change.

Do you have any advice for aspiring journalists?

The best advice I ever got was when I was a reservations agent at Yellowstone National Park from a person who was trying to book a room. This guy is a journalist or a writer of some capacity, and his advice to me was, “If you want to get into journalism, don’t go to the places where the reporters outnumber the stories,” meaning, you don’t need to get started by going to Washington, D.C., by going to New York, L.A., Chicago. Go to the little markets where there are tons of stories, and you will work your way up so fast if you prove yourself. That’s the path I took.

As young reporters, they should not feel that pressure of “I got to get where I’m supposed to be immediately.” It’s a process. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and be in the place that you think you should be in. You got to make the best of what’s in front of you.

Connor Burnard is a sophomore at Middle Tennessee State University.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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