Breaking news staffer, Associated Press, Des Moines
Some journalists feel it more than others: that subliminal poke. It’s the compulsive itch to know more about something or someone who strikes them as quirky or just incredibly human.
It happens to 2015 Kip Fellow Barbara Rodriguez as a matter of course. Even off the clock, after posing all sorts of pressing or perfunctory questions on her beat, the reporter in her can’t help herself. Her curiosity won’t let her go.
That’s why during a 5 a.m. taxi ride she plied a female cabbie for details of her life. Where was she from? Did she have family in the area? Did she like to travel?
“In my 21 years of doing this, I’ve never had anyone ask me so earnestly about my life,” the woman told her.
“Beware, strangers of the world,” Rodriguez posted on Facebook. “I am feeling curious today.”
The thing about Rodriguez is, she’s always feeling curious. An Associated Press reporter since 2008 and now working for the Des Moines Bureau, she’s pressed for answers about job loss, campaign conspiracy, lawsuits and lottery rigging. She has been a breaking news reporter for AP in Columbus and Des Moines; a broadcast editor in Chicago; and covered state legislatures both in Wisconsin and, currently, in Iowa.
“I have a childlike wonderment about journalism, and it’s hardly diminished in the years since I was 16 and the news editor of my high school paper . . . ” the Boston University graduate said.
“I certainly have tough days, but the good outweighs the bad. In the end, if I did something that day which allowed me to talk to interesting people and learn something new, how can I not be grateful?”
She channels her inner Nellie Bly — “Her tactics aren’t necessarily considered ethical these days, but I respect her efforts at accountability journalism” —both on the job and off. Her Facebook background image is a 1950s Underwood Rhythm Touch typewriter on a composing room floor. (A friend commented that Rodriguez for months carted around a scavenged 1970s hunt-and-peck machine in her car trunk.) She buys sneak-preview tickets to journalism flicks and tweets tributes to favorite reporting icons.
But the true measure of her journalistic passion? Rodriguez gets positively stoked about a meaty legislative story.
“I know the industry is hypothetically falling apart and there are serious concerns about its sustainability,” she said. “Still, I can’t help but choose to focus on the idea that good journalism can change local governments, state agencies, federal policy and the world beyond. That will always win.”
She began covering the Iowa statehouse last year, writing about proposed bills and policy issues. Though the beat was new, the reporting modus was not. Those nagging questions of hers point the way.
“It’s important that reporters like myself are here to track how state officials do their work,” she said. “I’m still fairly new to the game of Capitol reporting, but I think there are advantages to that. I ask a lot of questions, and I find myself always thinking, ‘Why are things done that way?’ Sometimes, no one has a good answer.”
Growing up in a Latino neighborhood in Miami nurtured her appreciation for her Cuban and Ecuadorian heritage. She naturally applies that awareness to her work, and was promoted to vice president for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Print, in 2014.
“It’s impossible for that not to impact my work, whether it’s me using Spanish to communicate with people or me applying my life experiences from growing up in South Florida,” she said. “That said, there are not enough people in newsrooms across the country who look like me, and that’s a problem.
“I do believe such backgrounds encourage news organizations to think outside of the box when it comes to reporting on the vast number of diverse communities in the United States,” she said.
She’s lived in and reported from a number of those communities — five in the last seven years. Social media helps her maintain ties with friends and colleagues from all those places. She tweets about story ideas and working the holiday shift, but also posts campy Facebook reflections on her life: singing 70s rock, having a cat instead of kids, watching Veep on television.
(She sings a lot in public, by the way.)
She maintains separate professional and personal accounts. But — no big surprise here — being a journalist first motivates everything she posts.
“I don’t share opinions about current events, in either account,” she said. “Before I push any button, I do think, ‘Would this impact my ability to do my job as an impartial reporter?’ So yes, Blondie passed the test.”
That many in her Kiplinger Fellowship class also like to sing Blondie (and Queen and Cee Lo Green) might seem far-fetched. But most nights after fellowship training last April, the group hit Columbus karaoke bars in earnest. By day, however, they were all about being journalists.
“Everyone brought something to the table, and that didn’t go away because the week was over,” she said. “I think each one of us is committed to not only making our respective newsrooms better, but the industry as a whole. That often requires the sharing of ideas, and what better people to do that with then your lifetime friends from Kip Camp?
“There are too many things that Kip Camp taught me. At the top was the importance of building a community to figure out this pesky news industry together.”