Terry Neal: A view from the top
Iowa Presidential Politics.com
Where do you go when you’re at the peak of your professional
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
bags for an unlikely career move - to public relations at a large D.C.
Burnt out and willing to try something new, Neal didn’t last long
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
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
his first job covering local politics at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.
jumped to the Miami Herald to cover state politics and Jeb Bush’s
campaign in 1994 before he was offered a job at the Post, covering local
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
correspondent at the Post, becoming the youngest
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
As a “bigfoot” on the campaign trail — a top reporter from
publication — Neal
insider's advantage in covering the future president. Bush would talk to
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,
headphones after a day
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
for the online portion of the Post.
“.com was doing very well, and they wanted someone to do the [political
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
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
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.
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
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.
there is no such thing as a typical day for Neal. He gets some guidance concerning
from washingtonpost.com politics editor Ryan Thornburg
but mostly has the freedom to write what he wants.
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.”
Ali Noller at [email protected].