Tag Archives: The Wall Street Journal

A Campaign Trail Nomad Rooted in Nebraska

February 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Thankfully, the presidential horse race was over and the breathless autopsy of the results were ebbing by Thanksgiving. It gave CNN’s senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, a chance for a break—a quick holiday retreat to see his mom on the farm where he grew up outside Exeter, Nebraska, a tiny town an hour southwest of Lincoln.

“A little different pace,” he says wryly on the rainy Monday before Turkey Day. “I try to get back as much as possible. But I haven’t been back much this year. My mom has made me aware of that.”
While his CNN title suggests he is tethered inside the Beltway, Zeleny is, particularly during election season, more of a campaign-trail nomad. Thanks to his dogged work reporting on presidential campaigns for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, ABC, and CNN, he is one of the most respected political reporters and analysts in the business.

One reason for his gift for in-depth, spot-on work, his colleagues deduce, is his life and career trajectory—from farm boy, to sports reporter, to Midwest journalist, to D.C. insider. That path has made him uniquely qualified to penetrate and make sense of a political landscape deeply divided along urban/rural and white-collar/blue-collar lines.

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“Jeff is a brilliant journalist,” says David Chalian, CNN’s political director and oft-seen on-air analyst who hired Zeleny away from ABC. “He’s a reporter’s reporter. His work is so deeply sourced. He’s addicted to breaking news. He loves getting out on the road to talk to people.

“With all that, he’s such a good guy—he’s never ‘gone Washington,’” Chalian says. “You can’t take the Nebraska out of him… I think that helps him connect to almost anyone he meets.”

“Jeff is a remarkably gifted journalist,” adds Jane Hirt, a fellow University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum of Zeleny’s who was managing editor of The Tribune during his stint in Chicago. “He was born to tell stories.”

Indeed, by the third grade, Zeleny says he was already glued to the television each night, watching Walter Cronkite on CBS nightly news. In high school, he began his journalism career by calling in high school football results to the local newspaper. By his senior year, he, one of 12 Exeter High School prospective graduates that year, was at the other end of the phone, fielding calls from sports correspondents for The York News-Times.

“Sports coverage is the only thing that prepares you for election night,” he says.

Zeleny headed to UNL with dreams of being a broadcaster. Print journalism professors at UNL suggested he first pursue a print journalism path to build his reporting and writing chops. His sophomore year, he quit playing trumpet for the Husker marching band to join the staff of UNL’s college paper, the Daily Nebraskan, where he later became editor. In his summers, he landed prestigious internships, including one at The Wall Street Journal, where, in a crowd of Ivy Leaguers, Zeleny says the editors “really liked the idea that I was from Nebraska.”

“Your Nebraska brand is a really good brand,” he says. “The Midwest mindset and work ethic is something people believe in and respect. It’s an advantage, not a drawback.”

Zeleny’s biggest break, though, may have been back in Des Moines at his first job with The Register. For a young reporter, those bellwether Iowa caucuses, with its stampede of presidential hopefuls crisscrossing the state as the world watches, placed Zeleny’s detailed and astute reporting on the national stage.

Then he was off to Chicago, where he covered the rise of a young U.S. senator to the presidency.
After seven years with The New York Times, during which he increasingly made national television appearances as a guest political analyst, he took a position with ABC. As CNN began expanding its staff to cover the primaries and general election, Chalian went looking for “the top talent out there.”

“Jeff and I had spent a lot of time together on the campaign trail as colleagues in the press corps,” Chalian says. “I knew what a great reporter and great guy he was and I knew he was one of the most respected political reporters there is. I’m thrilled to have him here.”

The trick for Zeleny has been making the jump from being a newspaper reporter to a broadcast journalist—his dream job since his formative years watching Cronkite. A mere three years into diving into broadcast journalism, a time during which he says he’s received “a lot of behind-the-scenes training,” you could argue he still seems a shade stiffer than your typical broadcast journalist. While his reporting and writing is incisive and often witty, he’s still a little off with those affected vocal tone, pitch, and timing mechanics standard in the broadcast business. He doesn’t have the cheekbones of most of the guys in broadcasting. He’s more subdued than many. Basically, you can still kinda see that Zeleny is a newspaper guy doing television.

Good, Chalian says. Times have changed. “Many of the old-school broadcasting rules are less important now,” he says. “The key is great, robust, well-sourced storytelling whether it’s print or television or a podcast.”

Zeleny, good natured through a bit of ribbing from an old print reporter, seconds Chalian’s critique of the evolution of broadcast news. Viewers, he says, increasingly have made it clear that, “the blow-dried look,” as he put it, “isn’t important any more. We like real things.”

For all of Zeleny’s immersion in both rural and urban political landscapes during the last election cycle, he still didn’t predict a Trump victory. But news junkies and CNN fans know he was arguably the most prescient regarding the depth of frustration throughout the rust belt and other parts of the country with the perceived impact of trade deals and environmental regulations on the economy, and the idea of maintaining business-as-usual in D.C.

“Trump was seen as the exterminator,” he says. “It was a change election. Then Republicans came home to him. A lot of things came together.”

Now, Zeleny says, as interesting as this election season was, things may get even more interesting in the coming years.

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“It’s going to be fascinating,” he says.

And rough, and weird. In late November, Zeleny reported there was no evidence to back Trump’s claim that millions of people had voted illegally in the 2016 election.

Trump himself then targeted Zeleny, retweeting a rant from a 16-year-old: “@Filibuster: @jeffzeleny. Pathetic—you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame! Bad reporter.”

Also, this retweet: “Just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist!”

Zelleny, professional and measured as ever, responded: “Good evening! Have been looking for examples of voter fraud. Please send our way. Full-time journalist here still working.”

Much of the battle now, Zeleny and Chalian say, is providing people with real news amid an onslaught of fake news, fake news that even the President of the United States seems uninterested in fact-checking.

“Our job now is to make sure we’re doing the best job possible and holding people accountable,” Zeleny says. “You need people to be there to call a ball a ball, and a strike and strike, and just keep going and going to get it right. It’s a very important time in the country. My job is to keep pushing and keep asking the tough questions.”

Visit cnn.com/profiles/jeff-zeleny-profile for more information.

Homer’s Manager Mike Fratt

August 2, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

I walked into the oldest business in the Old Market looking for Mike Fratt. My search for the general manager of Homer’s Music was blocked by towering racks of vinyl records and CDs.

Then I heard his voice. The voice that hosted a three-hour radio show called “Sunday Morning” for 10 years on 89.7 The River—until he got tired of getting up at 5 a.m. every Sunday. The radio show on the campus of Iowa Western was 16th in the ratings when he began. Several years later, ratings had zoomed to third place.

A bassist, Fratt has played in local bands for 30-plus years, touring to concerts in cities such as San Francisco and New York. (He harbors a special love for western swing and bluegrass.) He also has written about music for various publications.

Fratt has worked in the retail side of the music biz since his high school days in 1975, when he worked at Musicland at Crossroads Mall and the Record Shop at Westroads Mall.

The Omaha native has worked at Homer’s for 38 years. One of the few independent music stores still standing in the nation, Homers once had as many as 11 locations in Omaha and Lincoln. Now all that remains is the glass-front store in the Old Market boasting album covers and local shows.

“The ‘Walmarting’ of music, followed by the digital revolution, pushed independent music stores out of business,” says Fratt.

The recent resurgence of the popularity of vinyl records and their warmer sound have brought buyers back into the store. Record Store Day, a worldwide event held the third Saturday in April that was co-founded by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (CIMS), also has created enthusiasm.

As a CIMS board member, Fratt helped organize Record Store Day. He is currently CIMS chairman.

It’s an exciting day for vinyl record fans. A line forms down Howard Street and around the corner, with people hoping to get a limited edition item. Some fans arrive at 3 a.m. The store doesn’t open until 10 a.m. This year, an estimated 500 people stood in line.

The scene is duplicated around the world. “In some cities, people start lining up the night before,”
Fratt says.

In 1985, a fire in an adjacent building destroyed the space Homer’s occupied at 1210 Howard Street. Homer’s moved to 1114 Howard after the fire, where the store did business for 25 years.

Homer’s returned to 1210 Howard in 2010, one of five locations the Old Market store has occupied in its 45-year history.

From a small shop in the middle of the country, Mike Fratt has made a nationwide impact. The Wall Street Journal featured him on its cover in November 2014 when he led a battle against moving Record Release Day from Tuesday to Friday.

“People already shop weekends,” says Fratt, who at the time served on the Music Business Association board of directors.

He lost that battle, but won another after organizing retailers to file an amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the right to sell used goods.

“Justice Breyer noted part of our brief in his decision,” he says. “That was a career highlight for me.”

Fratt also served on the board of directors of the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. He organized the first multi-venue showcase in the Benson area, where he and his wife, Sarah, live.

About three to five percent of Homer’s sales happens online. Tourism is a healthy contributor to the bottom line, he adds.

“From April through October, one-third of our business is from tourists. They don’t have a store like this in their city, whether New York, Kansas City, or Chicago.”  Encounter

Visit homersmusic.com for more information.

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