This is the first article in a new series called #ElectYourCareer, which will focus on millennials who work in politics. Each month we’ll cover a different aspect of politics, and we’re kicking things off with journalists. What is it like to cover Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump on the campaign trail—or interview them live on TV? In the next month, as primaries and caucuses in various states are underway (including Iowa (Feb. 1), New Hampshire (Feb. 9), Nevada (Feb. 20), and South Carolina ( Feb. 20 for Republicans; Feb 27 for Democrats)), Levo will talk to reporters about what presidential election coverage really requires.
Instead of attending journalism school, Jacob Soboroff picked up a digital camera in 2007 and went to Iowa. He had no expensive network equipment or paycheck, but he did have the drive to talk to political newcomers like Barack Obama and other presidential hopefuls like Mitt Romney for Why Tuesday, a nonpartisan group devoted to increasing voter turnout. His big break came in the form of a TED Talk. The talk was called Why do Americans vote on Tuesdays? (Answer: “There’s absolutely no good reason at all,” Soboroff, 32, told Levo. “It was designed for people to travel by horse and buggy and I have not seen too many horse and buggies around here in Iowa.”) Soboroff’s media career began at HuffPost Live, The Huffington Post’s streaming network, where he was a founding producer. He has since worked with networks including MTV and NPR and is currently a correspondent for MSNBC. (He likes to call himself their advanced man, but we’ll get to that later.) Soboroff, who is from Iowa, spoke to Levo about how he became interested in politics and offered advice on staying calm while filming. He also got honest about the challenges of doing a story on Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat factory.
Levo: With the Iowa Caucus finally upon us on Monday, February 1 after months of campaigning, what is the atmosphere like now?
Jacob Soboroff: I spent this morning in the freezing Hy-Vee parking lot, which is a grocery store chain here in Iowa. I talked to people about the Caucus process and it seems like everyone is really engaged. While the locals are very hospitable, I think they’ll be happy when we leave in a week.
What first got you interested in politics?
JS: I used to work as an advance man for Mayor Bloomberg when I was in college. For those who don’t know, an advanced man is somebody who goes out and sets up events before the mayor arrives. He also tells the mayor what’s going to happen and provides any necessary information beforehand. The skills I developed while working that job has helped me a lot in my journalism career. Sometimes you find yourself in situations where you have to take in all the information and spit it out later. I was doing a story on pot becoming legal in Oregon, and then the shooting happened in Roseburg that same day. When I got there, that night I talked to Lester Holt on Nightly News and Brian Williams on MSNBC. I told them what was going on and showed them what I saw. I see myself as the resident advance man at MSNBC. I like to explore an area and get to know it before something big happens there. That way, when I report on the event, I can give my audience more context about what people are saying.
[Related: Lea Gabrielle, Fox News Correspondent and Former U.S. Navy Fighter Pilot]
Your work is defined by bringing new media into your on-air coverage. Could you speak a little bit about how you use Snapchat and other social media outlets to add another perspective to your political reporting?
JS: Even though I’m 32, the oldest of five siblings, and my youngest sister is only 22, I still had a lot of difficulties understanding Snapchat. However, it turned out to be the best way for me to keep in touch with all my brothers and sisters. Now I just try to have a good time with it—I think it’s a good way to connect with people and I think people end up trusting you more when they know that you have a goofy side. But Snapchat is also for more serious topics. For example, I used it during the San Bernardino shooting to watch a bomb disposal robot check out a potential bomb. It’s really versatile like that- you can use it for anything. Plus, two-way conversations are way more enjoyable than one-sided ones in my opinion.
I think one of the toughest things for a political reporter is remaining objective and not showing your bias. Does that ever get difficult for you?
JS: No, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to share my opinions on MSNBC. My job is to tell you a story, and I would rather keep my opinions to myself and to those who are close to me. My goal is to make you feel something after reading my work, but I don’t care what that feeling is. For example, when I visited the Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” hat factory outside Los Angeles and talked to some of the Latino workers there. While speaking to conservatives, I was asked why I tried to get people to talk badly about Mr. Trump. Liberals posed the same question, but with a different concern- they don’t want people losing their jobs because of what they say about Mr. Trump. All I wanted was to go and work in the Donald Trump hat factory and see for myself what it was like. If people are criticizing me from all sides, then I must have done my job well because that means I’ve told the story objectively enough for people to make their own decisions.
You always seem very cheerful on camera. Are you ever nervous before going live, and if so, how do you get past those nerves?
JS: Nerves are a part of life! If you never get nervous, you’re not human. When I look into the camera, I think about what I would say to my loved ones. Being in front of a camera can feel like having all the answers is mandatory, but the honest reality is that I actually do better when admitting that I don’t know everything. I understand that there are likely people more knowledgeable than me on this subject, but I am confident in sharing the information I know. It helps me feel at ease.
What is the biggest career obstacle you have had to face and how did you overcome it?
JS: In all honesty, the hardest thing for me has been to simply be myself. I have had opportunities where they would tell me that in order to work with them, I would need to cut my hair or not wear glasses on camera. I’m extremely happy to be here at MSNBC because they allow me to share stories as myself. I understand that I might not be the most popular guy on TV, but hopefully, you can see that I’m being truthful with my storytelling.
The reporters on the campaign trail probably get to know each other pretty well. What’s the atmosphere like behind the scenes?
JS: I always have a great time when I get to spend close quarters with people, like Kristen Welker. She’s our White House correspondent who has been covering Hillary Clinton on the trail. We spent the morning chatting in between live shots while we were cooped up in a tiny little car warming up. Not only are you getting to know people online, but you also get to see them in rural areas of the country, like Evan McMorris-Santoro who covers Bernie Sanders for BuzzFeed. I’ve been a big fan of his for quite some time. You’ll only get the chance to hang out with people in person if you go to these remote places, and it’s always a good time.
If you’re passionate about politics and want to pursue a career in political journalism, what is the best advice you can give?
JS: I started working on the Why Tuesday project almost nine years ago, but I only got my start with it three years ago. My goal has always been to be on MTV News. Finally, I’m doing what I love! After coming back from college and working for Mayor Bloomberg and then Howard Dean, I decided to start creating content to post on YouTube. I arrived in Iowa eight years ago without any connections or a large salary, but I started talking to politicians. In 2007, I interviewed Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, then John McCain. I filmed it on a small digital camera and uploaded it to YouTube. I believe that’s why I have this job today because people saw that footage. With technology being so available today, all you need is your phone and the courage to approach people with a story to tell in order to get into journalism. A great story will always be well-received no matter where it’s told; if it’s a good story, people will respond positively and doors will open for you.
Soboroff’s latest video for MSNBC, “The Place for Politics,” explains the Caucus process in a way that is easier to understand. Don’t forget to watch MSNBC’s Iowa Caucus coverage next week! In addition, you can follow MSNBC on Snapchat where Soboroff will provide followers an exclusive look at the Caucus.
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