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Beyond the Beltway and Back Again: David Ellis Talks CQ Roll Call (Part 2)

Don’t miss part one of this two-part interview with CQ Roll Call’s David Ellis!

Welcome back to our special two-part interview with David Ellis, chief content officer of CQ Roll Call. Last week, we got the score on the 54th Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game and President Obama’s surprise appearance, and discussed Ellis’ efforts at CQRC over the past year with regard to branding, social media presence and multimedia innovation. In part two, Ellis introduces a few new faces in the newsroom, details some notable scoops coming from his troop of talented journalists, and offers his perspective on the state of political journalism.

“The Hallway, Not the Hearing”: New Blood and Scoops Galore

Since Ellis took over CQ Roll Call, the organization has seen a major expansion of its talent pool, though he is quick to note the incredible assortment of existing talent as well, first discussing “the editor in chief of Roll Call, Christina Bellantoni. She was at Roll Call, then went to PBS NewsHour, and came back to be editor. She’s a brand in her own right; she’s been on Real Time with Bill Maher, recently, she gets a lot of TV hits. Christina was already in place when I started. I replaced myself [as vice president and news director] with Steve Komarow, who is first class. He was the White House editor at Bloomberg, he’s covered two wars, people in the defense industry know and trust him, and he’s kind of a talent magnet.”

Ellis calls the talent influx a major accomplishment for himself and for the brands. “Many new and notable faces came to the CQRC newsroom just in May. At Roll Call, John Helton came on board as political editor, following his previous role overseeing election coverage for CNN Politics. At CQ, Catalina Camia joined the fold as leader for the CQ Money and Influence team, most recently a national political correspondent at USA Today and editor of its OnPolitics blog. Matt Mansfield, previously National Geographic’s executive editor for digital, will now oversee CQRC’s digital content and development, introducing “bold new graphics and multimedia capabilities at both Roll Call and CQ,” Ellis explained. Additionally, cybersecurity reporter Ryan Lucas has joined CQ Roll Call from the AP, and Jennifer Koons, previously with the National Journal, is now running the defense team.

Ellis rightfully points out the new and existing talent as a major asset. “You see the journalists that are coming in here . . . this is an organization that two years ago was afraid to tweet. Now we have people coming in who were running websites for CNN and USA Today as part of our overall news generating effort. What I’m most proud of is the people I’m surrounded by. I’m hiring people that are smarter than me, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said humbly.

Ellis’ prime directive with his reporting staff is “getting the reporters beyond the event: the hallway, not the hearing. We’re not stenographers, we’re reporters,” he proclaimed, citing his catchy journalistic mantra. It’s what Ellis calls “around-the-corner journalism,” and has led to another recent development at CQRC: a series of notable scoops. At CQ, John M. Donnelly “got a hold of a Senate committee report on Defense funds ahead of anyone else, and found that lawmakers were accusing the Navy of regularly gaming Congress by requesting less money than it needed for critical programs, assuming lawmakers would bail them out by providing the cash anyway,” Ellis explained.

Two other scoops at CQ concerned campaign finance and appropriations: “In March, reporter Kate Ackley Zeller beat all others, including the AP, by a week with the news that the AFL-CIO was freezing all campaign contributions until lawmakers decided on fast-track trade authority. When she called the AFL-CIO for comment, their first remark was, ‘How did you get that memo?’ In April, reporter Tamar Hallerman showed why with a comprehensive preview of the fiscal 2016 spending wars to come. She and Kerry Young also scooped our rivals with the funding allocations, known as ‘302(b)s,’ House appropriators had settled on. They had the figures a week before anyone else. If you’re subscribing to CQ and you’re one week ahead of your competitors on who’s getting federal funds, we’ve paid for ourselves.”

Beyond scoops on appropriations, defense and campaign finance, Ellis also recounted a notable scoop with national notoriety from “Hannah Hess [of Roll Call, who] is killing it on Capitol Hill coverage, most prominently with breaking news on problems with the police force,” Ellis explained. “On May 1, Roll Call had a scoop on Capitol Police leaving guns in problematic places. The story featured a photo, obtained from a source, of a glock sticking out of a Capitol Visitor Center toilet seat holder. Capitol Police launched an internal investigation into how the photo got leaked to the press.  Three weeks later, the House committee with jurisdiction over the department called the chief in and grilled him about the problems. The potty talk made Capitol Police the butt of a late-night TV joke.”

The State of Political Journalism: Horse Races and a Crisis        

Reaching beyond CQRC’s brand-building initiatives, new faces in the newsroom and the incredible scoops they bring to the table, Ellis is able to see the bigger picture at play in political journalism, and is quick to distinguish what CQ and Roll Call do from what he calls “horse race journalism. Too many people are conflating political journalism with horse race journalism, which is easy to do,” he admitted. “There’s a hell of a lot of political journalism, but it’s of the non-accountable, not-necessarily-right and doesn’t-need-to-be-informed variety.”

While at TIME, Ellis worked in the Nation section under the legendary Walter Isaacson, later TIME’s editor and the author of the authorized biography on Steve Jobs. Ellis invokes Isaacson’s words of wisdom to him then. “Walter used to say: ‘We only have to be right a week.’ It soon went in political journalism to you only have to be right a day, to you don’t have to be right at all. It doesn’t matter as long as you have an opinion.”

When asked about the state of political journalism, given the advent of publish-first, ask-questions-later sort of journalism, Ellis said flatly, “if you’re talking about [journalists covering] the impact of politics and policy on people, then we’re in a crisis.” With many news organizations laying off statehouse reporters, Ellis lamented that “the things that really matter are not being covered. I’ll pose a question, and I don’t know the answer: ‘What’s the state of drinking water in West Virginia a year after that chemical spill? [It was] national news for a week, but people are still living with that impact. There are dozens of stories unfolding across the country that people are not connecting the dots on. The shooting of unarmed civilians by police . . . people are now starting to connect the dots on that, but that didn’t just happen in Ferguson. That’s been happening for years. Horse race journalism is alive and well and destructive. Political coverage, as in how it impacts lives, is in crisis. That’s why we exist and that’s why we’re still thriving and I think that’s why we’re necessary.”

The weight on Ellis’ shoulders is too much, likely, for most people, and probably for many journalists, to sufficiently grasp. But in speaking with him, one immediately feels the incredible sense of duty and respect of history that Ellis brings to his role, which he infectiously imparts to those noble journalists who make up CQ Roll Call. They deliver sizzling scoops, attract more new talent, and help Ellis to capitalize on the unique resources at his disposal, honoring Nelson Poynter’s original mission as Ellis leads CQRC into the future. However, despite everything on his plate, Ellis also maintains a healthy perspective on it all, as he is able to take a moment and appreciate what’s really important in his retelling of the Roll Call baseball game:

“I have a nine-year-old who’s a big fan of the [Washington] Nationals. You put up with a lot of things in a job like this, but when you get to take your nine-year-old out on the field of ‘Nats Park’, and he gets to hold the trophy and hand it over to the winning manager . . . the kid’s on the Jumbotron, it kind of pays off being in this role.”

Be sure to follow Roll Call at @rollcall and CQ at @CQNow to keep tabs on Congress, both inside the Beltway and beyond.

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About Jason Morgan

Jason Morgan is a features writer for Cision Blog, writing spotlights on media influencers and trends, also editing daily media updates. Outside of Cision, he enjoys an unhealthy amount of TV (everything from House of Cards to Real Housewives), keeping up with pop culture (particularly comic books and video games), as well as cooking and baking.

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