Terry Neal: A view from the top

By Ali Noller
Iowa Presidential Politics.com

Where do you go when you’re at the peak of your professional career?

At 33 years old, Terry Neal walked away.

Less than a month after completing his run as the chief Washington Post political reporter covering the Bush campaign in the 2000 election, Neal packed his bags for an unlikely career move – to public relations at a large D.C. firm.

Burnt out and willing to try something new, Neal didn’t last long in the world of P.R. before he was back doing what he does best: reporting on politics and government as the chief political writer for washingtonpost.com, a subsidiary of The Washington Post Company. Now 36, his career rivals those decades older than he, but he looks back at each experience appreciatively.

“How else can you see the political process and have someone else pay for it?” Neal said from his Arlington, Va., office.

Born “poor and black” in a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., Neal got his training at the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism before he landed his first job covering local politics at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. He jumped to the Miami Herald to cover state politics and Jeb Bush’s losing campaign in 1994 before he was offered a job at the Post, covering local and state politics in Maryland.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision to write about politics,” Neal said. “I had an aptitude for writing it, and my career was going well.”

The young and eager reporter worked hard, and his dedication didn’t go unnoticed. By 1997 – not yet 30 years old – Neal was promoted to national political correspondent at the Post, becoming the youngest national political beat writer in the country.

But being at the top of your career means sacrifices, mostly in the form of a personal life.

Neal traveled every week for a year and a half, chasing Bush around the country as a modern-day “boy on the bus.” Short nights, longer days and incessant travel bent Neal to the point of breaking.

And while it’s not just “boys” on the bus anymore – half the reporters are female – Neal was the only black print reporter covering the campaign.

As a “bigfoot” on the campaign trail — a top reporter from a major publication — Neal had an insider's advantage in covering the future president. Bush would talk to reporters almost nightly on the campaign trail.

Bush is “quite the talker, off the record,” but Neal was able to have one-on-one interviews with him once every six weeks because of his prestigious position. The reporter said he was not easily star struck, adding he would put on his headphones after a day of campaigning to avoid chitchat with Bush.

Although strong bonds were formed with the other reporters covering the campaign, Neal said print journalism wasn’t his true calling.

“You’re crafting people’s messages,” Neal said. “I’m not used to being an advocate.”

But despite his brief stint in public relations, he knew politics was his niche. Neal didn’t have to look far when he wanted to return to journalism. He was sought out by washingtonpost.com’s politics editor Chuck Babbington to write a column for the online portion of the Post.

“.com was doing very well, and they wanted someone to do the [political coverage] very seriously,” Neal said. “I didn’t know if I wanted to write for a website, but I’ve had more freedom to express my opinions, and the column has gotten a lot of notice.”

Neal is a well-respected journalist in the political community, frequently noted on ABC’s The Note and mentioned in columns across the country.

His columns reflect American politics this minute. This fall, he was in California covering the recall election, then spent several weeks following Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., through the state of Iowa. He goes where the story is and reports what he sees.

Isn’t it hard to write to an audience across America that isn’t familiar with insider Washington politics?

“I don’t feel like a Washington guy,” Neal said, after living near the capital for almost six years. “I don’t live inside the Beltway, and most of the people I associate with are not political junkies.”

This keeps him grounded, Neal said.

Working in online journalism has allowed him opportunities most political journalists don’t get. Neal hosts a weekly chat on washingtonpost.com’s Live Online where readers can discuss politics with him.

“The chats aren’t like McDonald’s – the customer’s aren’t always right,” Neal joked. “I kind of scrap with them.”

In addition to online communication, Neal receives plenty of mail about his work.

Following an article he wrote about New York Times’ fallen star Jayson Blair – and the role diversity played in Blair’s dismissal – Neal posted another article to answer questions about the overwhelming response he got from readers across the country.

He alluded to the Times’ hiring practices, saying “I imagine they are not much different than the Post’s, and the Post, in fact, has hired more young, white reporters with relatively little experience than black reporters of similar backgrounds in recent years.”

In response to his heavily debated (and assaulted) column, he started his next one like this:

In my 14 years as a journalist, I have tried to avoid being pigeonholed as just someone who writes only about race. In the 2,000 or so bylines I’ve had in my career, I’d guess that fewer than 5 percent were about racial issues.

Neal the journalist has been successful because of his effectiveness in writing about controversial issues – and backing up what he writes. He continues to press hot topics as the presidential race heats up.

These days, there is no such thing as a typical day for Neal. He gets some guidance concerning column material from washingtonpost.com politics editor Ryan Thornburg but mostly has the freedom to write what he wants.

Washingtonpost.com CEO Chris Schroeder said that politics are the “franchise” of The Washington Post Company, which includes washingtonpost.com, the Washington Post and Newsweek magazine.

Neal is grateful to be a part of the franchise.

“After awhile, it’s not just what you do. It’s who you are.”

E-mail Ali Noller at ali-noller@uiowa.edu.

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