Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Why Capitol Reporters Change Careers

Riley Vetterkind, now the Elections Commission spokesperson, latest to make the move.

By - Nov 22nd, 2021 11:16 am
Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

Wisconsin State Capitol. Photo by Mariiana Tzotcheva.

Riley Vetterkind started his new job as spokesman for the state Elections Commission the same week that several Republican legislators — including two Senate leaders — demanded that the official who hired him, Elections Administrator Meagan Wolfe, be dismissed.

It was a challenging transition for Vitterkind, who only weeks before would have been reporting on the Republicans’ call for Wolfe to be ousted as a Capitol reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.

Vitterkind is the latest respected Capitol reporter to change careers. That happens for many reasons.

Capitol reporters work in a beautiful building, watch important decisions being made and interact with interesting — and very ambitious — elected officials and candidates willing to do almost anything to get elected.

The reporters compete to get news first, but they also get to know each other well enough to congratulate a rival’s good story (“scoop!”) and lament each other’s personal or professional setbacks or losses. But they also face grinding, 24/7 deadlines to meet the demands of social media and the Internet. They work long, irregular hours that can hurt or destroy personal relationships and marriages. (“Sorry, but I don’t know when I’ll be home. The Joint Finance Committee plans to meet to finish the budget tonight — or early tomorrow.”)

They also never know whether friend or foe will walk into the Capitol pressroom. And, when someone in power objects to their reports, Capitol reporters can be labeled — fairly or unfairly — as too biased to be trusted.

“Covering politics in a turbulent state such as Wisconsin was exciting and a great opportunity and experience. But, partially due to the challenges presented by the pandemic, I found myself worn out from continuing to do the same work,’ Vettekind said last week. “I decided it was time to challenge myself in a new way.”

“It’s well known that the news industry has suffered an array of challenges over the past 20 years,” he added. “I’m really proud of my work as a journalist, and the work of former colleagues and Capitol reporters. Working with smart, talented people was one of the joys of the job. But I took a hard look at my career goals, and concluded that journalism, given the challenges facing the industry, probably wasn’t a long-term sustainable option for me.”

Jason Stein graduated from UW-Madison, started at the State Journal as a business reporter and moved to Capitol coverage. He joined the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a Capitol reporter in 2010, covering the Act 10 controversy.

In 2018, Stein resigned to become research director for the non-profit Wisconsin Policy Forum. It came with a pay raise, regular hours and the ability to research issues like Wisconsin’s declining tax burden, local policing costs, problems recruiting rural volunteer firefighters and EMS responders, and local governments’ increasing reliance on wheel taxes.  A “secondary issue was the fact that it would be years before local journalism outlets fixed their business model — if in fact they ever do,” Stein said last week.

“This is about as close as I could come, outside of journalism, to my prior work of informing the public,” Stein noted. “I get to learn constantly. And, he added, “I still get to interact with members of the media and elected officials and public servants all the time, just like I used to do.”

Vetterkind agreed: “I get to continue working with reporters and others in state government, so the job has a lot of overlap with what I was doing. Also, similar to reporting, it’s a fast-paced job, which I enjoy.”

Capitol reporters smiled when WISC-TV3’s Jessica Arp entered the pressroom. The personable Arp was the press corp’s version of Alice in Dairyland, growing up on a dairy farm, graduating from Poynette High School and UW-Madison, interning for WISC and then earning the Capitol and political beats. She also willingly covered sleep-interrupting breaking news like fires and explosions.

Elected officials and staffers respected Arp’s energy and attitude. She won Edward R. Murrow, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and Emmy awards. She also pioneered social media reporting and was never too busy to help less experienced reporters. She described herself on LinkedIn this way; “I want to inspire the next generation of journalists to do it even better than I can.”

There were laments when WISC made Arp an editor, since it meant she wouldn’t come to the Capitol as much. And then, in December 2019, after she and her husband had their second child, Arp resigned to become communications manager — and work regular hours — for the Wisconsin Alumni and Foundation Association.

Ex-Capitol reporters also have important jobs in the UW System, at UW-Madison, the Supreme Court and departments of Workforce Development and Emergency Government.

Vetterkind was hired for his knowledge of issues and public officials, people skills and ability to meet deadlines. He won’t be the last Capitol reporter to change careers.

Steven Walters started covering the Capitol in 1988. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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