Patrick Terpstra is the kind of journalist who has never been anything else. At age six, he started a neighborhood newspaper. Print soon gave way to video, as he watched historic moments like the Challenger explosion and Bush 41’s inauguration. Terpstra graduated from the University of Missouri in 2003 with a bachelor’s in journalism, then moved to Florida to cover NASA for Central Florida News 13. From there he went to Norfolk, Virginia, for four and a half years, then back to the D.C. area, where he was born, and has covered everything from “thugs and drugs, crime and slime,” to the earthquake in Haiti.
Terpstra was recently selected as an NPF Paul Miller fellow and has just started as a senior producer with Cox Media Group in its Washington bureau.
You can tell from your demo reel that you’ve covered a lot of different topics. Which one has been the most rewarding for you personally?
Going to Haiti was the most rewarding. Yes, I was telling stories, I was bringing home these incredible images, but I was really showing people in Norfolk what their sailors were doing. They all had family there and never before had they been able to see what their loved ones were doing on assignment, because a lot of it is top secret. It was also rewarding knowing that our coverage helped the Haitians.
How does covering politics compare with some of those other subjects?
It’s tough. Politics are tough because you have to take things that are complicated and boil it down and tell people how this affects them. A lot of people in Washington are really cynical, even a lot of editors. They all say, “Congress doesn’t do anything.” Well, that’s just not true. A lot of the debates going on in Congress are a reflection of the debates going on in America. People never talk about the fact that there have been three wave elections, that the past three elections people have dramatically changed the dynamic of Congress. To me, a wave election is one where a party has substantial gains or losses at the polls, not necessarily one where control of a chamber of Congress switches parties. Under that definition, 2006, 2008 and 2010 were all wave elections.
What was your initial impression of Washington journalism?
That people are very smart. The reporters here are very educated, and good at taking huge fire hose quantities of information and narrowing it down to garden hose information. I noticed that right away.
Are there any areas of knowledge that you wish you had more training in?
It’s real tough. It’s a long process and that’s what I like about Washington. It’s not easy, it is a challenge. That appeals to me. I absolutely know how to cover the criminal court system. That I know how to do, but I’m not good at using the Freedom of Information Act on a federal level. That I don’t how to do well.
The slogan for Capitol News Connection is “All politics is local.” What does that mean?
That was a Tip O’Neill quote. (Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. was the Speaker of the House from 1977 to 1987 and a legendary politician who died in 1994.) It simply means you have to fight every battle. Everything you do in politics you do at the local level. You can never look at something macro or you lose the little battles. If you fight on the micro level, you win the bigger picture.
You work in several different formats. Do you find that one story fits one format better than another?Absolutely. I think there are some stories that lend themselves better to print. There was this one in The Washington Post about people who put their pets to sleep in their homes, instead of on the cold steel of the vet’s office. It would have been a better television piece, to show the emotion. But I hate number stories in television. I always steer away from those stories, because when I read numbers I like to go back and check again, “OK, how much money did they spend again?” We’re lucky now that with the internet we can sort of pick and choose.
When you switch formats, do you switch your approach to the material?
No, the one thing that is common in all those things is that you want to start off with an extremely captivating lead, a really compelling person, something that people can relate to. I don’t think the formula is that different depending on the medium, but the elements are different.
You have done a lot of community journalism. Have you continued to pursue that with your political experience?
In my current role we just sort of cover day-to-day Congressional happenings. Hopefully I will in my new role. I think that is one of my strong suits, and every journalist wants to ask that question, the one every one at home is saying, “Go ask that question!”
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