Bidding a Fond Farewell to Statehouse Correspondent Joyce Russell

Nov 12, 2018

After 30 years of informing Iowans about what pieces of legislation are being considered at the Statehouse, Iowa Public Radio's Joyce Russell is retiring. Friday was her last day. During this River to River interview, she talks with Ben Kieffer. 

Do you have a favorite memory of your time working for WOI and IPR? 
I remember the first time one of my stories aired on All Things Considered on NPR back in 1995. It was a story about a new domestic abuse program here in Iowa. I always admired Robert Siegel, so when he read the setup to the piece, and said my name, I literally felt weak in the knees and had to sit down.
 
Is there a story or show you look back on as being a lot of fun to do, or one you're especially proud of? 
I really enjoyed the two features I did in 2012 and more recently on Monica and Nilvia Reyes, undocumented immigrants who moved to Iowa as children. I interviewed them first as college students when they had just begun enjoying the benefits of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, including work permits and driver's licenses. In 2016, they were starting their careers and families as DACA came under threat. They are wonderful, brave women.
 
You have spent a lot of time covering the legislature. Was there ever a time when you felt "history is really being made here today?"
I remember when the Iowa House approved the bill adding sexual orientation to Iowa's civil rights statute. Iowa is still a leader on this issue, as the federal government still does not ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. A lot of people cried in the House that day, including presiding Democratic House Speaker Pat Murphy.
 
Which politician over the years has always been good for a helpful quote? 
Retiring Republican Representative Clel Baudler of Greenfield gets the nod for the saltiest and most irreverent remarks. Retiring Democratic Senator Matt McCoy was always good for zingers.
 
How has the work of reporting changed during your career? 
It's changed technically, of course, from analog to digital.  With a lot of help from younger students and colleagues I braved the transition. The immediacy of the internet has changed daily reporting so a good journalist has to be plugged into social media constantly. And all our stories go up on the web now which has required new skills, including taking pictures at the scene while also trying to concentrate on the story!
 
Do you feel it's tougher to be a journalist now than it was when you started?
Year by year, not really, until current times. The divisiveness of politics right now has been demoralizing for many. Being immersed in it in order to cover it has been difficult.  
 
What will you miss about going to the capitol every day? What will you not? 
From day one, I loved being in that beautiful building and reporting on important issues. Getting out the top legislative story of the day on deadline, in long form, was always a thrill. I won't miss the commute, especially in winter, and I won't miss the overnight debates.     
 
What's the funniest story you have from covering the legislature? 
I remember the time back in the 90's when a construction mishap sent plaster falling from the dome of the capitol all the way down to the ground floor. The inside of the dome was painted sky blue with fluffy clouds, so everyone joked that the sky was falling. A couple of lobbyists were hit with the falling plaster. One threatened to sue but only in jest. No one was hurt.   
 
How many WOI/IPR coffee mugs do you own? 
I've given them all away as stocking stuffers over the years.
 
What do you tell young people who want to go into journalism? 
No one has asked me that recently. It's hard work with sometimes bad hours and not as well remunerated as some careers. But if you have the fire in the belly for it, it is so rewarding. Also, don't even try it without a supportive spouse.