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March 8, 2013

Uncommon interview: Jeff Zeleny

Surprising his colleagues across the journalism world, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jeff Zeleny recently announced his decision to leave his post as national political correspondent for the New York Times to be the Senior Washington Correspondent at ABC News. He has spent years as a newspaper journalist, most notably as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune before joining the Times in 2006. Before sharing his experience covering the 2012 campaign at the IOP panel “Looking Back & Looking Forward: Lessons of the 2012 Campaign,” Zeleny sat down with the Maroon to talk about political bias, the advantages of broadcast journalism, and the days before the Times had a food section.

Chicago Maroon: How did you first get started in political journalism?

Jeff Zeleny: My first job out of college was at the Des Moines Register, and it was in the run-up to the 2000 presidential campaign. I started there [in 1998]. Anyone who wants to run for president visits Iowa because of the Iowa caucuses, so I got involved early on. I was on the staff of reporters who were covering the presidential candidates, but I had interned at the [Chicago] Tribune here in town before that. I had an interest in politics when I was in college as well, but my interest and love for covering presidential campaigns started back in Iowa. I was covering the lowest candidates on the rung—people that were dropping out [of the races]. I was just the new kid, but I learned a lot and went from there.

CM: You’ve been working for a pretty largely left-leaning publication; how has that affected the way your sources treat you?

JZ: You can say that the Chicago Tribune is a right-leaning publication because the editorial page is right. But I would draw a distinction between publication and the editorial page. The Tribune’s editorial page is very conservative. As for the New York Times, the editorial page is definitely liberal, but I don’t work for the editorial page; I’m a reporter for the paper. It has the reputation of being that, but we cover both sides. I spent a fair bit of time on television in 2012 and I did some FOX News Sunday appearances. Once a month I was on FOX News Sunday, and it was interesting because the public was like, “Wow, the New York Times guy is on FOX. He must be balanced.”

CM: You were recently hired by ABC News to be Senior Washington Correspondent—what are you looking forward to with the new position and what potential challenges do you see?

JZ: I see a lot of challenges, because for 20 years I’ve been basically a print reporter with notebook in hand and obviously a Blackberry and iPhone, but this is a whole new world. The exciting part of it—and the reason I decided to make the switch—is to learn a different side of this business that I really love. I love storytelling and the craft of journalism, but this is the side that we’re dabbling in a lot on the print side. The biggest initiative at the New York Times this year is expanding its video on the Web. We’re doing so much video that I thought, you know what, I want to actually learn this, not from the newspaper side. I want to actually immerse myself in a television network, and the opportunity was there. I think the challenge is obvious, going from print to TV, but the opportunity is interesting—of telling stories in a different way. Everything is shorter and compressed, but the pictures convey so much. I’ve always liked photography and I liked video, so I think the challenge will be storytelling in a new way.

CM: One of the ways broadcast television is different from print journalism is that there’s a constant tension between airing human-interest stories that are good for ratings and hard political or foreign news. What do you think is the best way to report on important issues while still keeping a stable business model?

JZ: I think it’s day by day, and that’s not just unique to television.  Newspapers are doing a lot with other feature sections. Once upon a time, the New York Times was too serious to have a food section. Well, that’s ridiculous. You can cover international news and still have a great food section. With television, I think the challenge is just that there’s a limited amount of real estate. There’s just a short, half-hour show. Good Morning America, for example, on ABC has a two-hour show in the morning. But I just think it has to have a balance.

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