A Front Row Seat to History
As the country gears up for the 2020 presidential election, most Americans will only see or hear the candidates when they appear on television. But Hunter Woodall, BJ, BA history ’15, has met most of them already.
Woodall is a reporter for the Associated Press (AP), assigned to cover the 2020 campaign from New Hampshire, which holds its presidential primaries after the first-in-the-nation Iowa Caucuses. He attends campaign events in the Granite State, listening to countless stump speeches from the presidential candidates and talking to voters to get their reactions to the remarks. He then files his report with his editor at the AP, and that report is shared with news organizations across the globe.
“The whole crux of this job, for me, is to talk to as many voters as possible, so I got to New Hampshire in February,” Woodall says. “I tell the voters and the campaigns, ‘I’m not parachuting in for a weekend—I live here, so you’re going to see me at the grocery store on Wednesday.”
— Hunter Woodall (@HunterMw) July 4, 2019
Woodall says that sense of belonging to the community he is covering is rooted in his days as a student journalist at the University of Missouri doing community and local journalism.
“I still feel passionate about showing folks that, ‘Hey, I’m a member of this community, and I care about it,’” he says.
Writing History’s First Draft
Woodall says it’s a cliché to say he’s taking a seat in the front row of history as a reporter covering the campaigns, but for someone who has always been interested in history, it’s an “amazing opportunity.”
He became steeped in the history of our country as a child growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, located just south of Washington, D.C. Woodall says he visited Mount Vernon, the historic home of George and Martha Washington, and other local historic sites countless times as a child. That interest in history led Woodall to pursue a degree in history at the University of Missouri while also earning his degree in journalism.
“My mother was a school librarian, and I always joke that I am the son of a librarian and grew up outside of D.C., so I was probably doomed for this,” he says. “Especially with journalism—so much of it relies on making sure we understand our own history, and I’ve always been fascinated by American history and Latin American history. It’s great to understand the politics of the moment, but it’s also important as a journalist to understand politics as it was 200, 100, or even 50 years ago.”
Woodall quickly cites two faculty members and a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of History when asked who had the biggest impact on him as a student: Robert Smale and John Frymire, both associate professors of history, and then-postdoc Benjamin Park, now an assistant professor of American history at Sam Houston State University. Woodall says he enjoyed learning about Latin American history in Prof. Smale’s class, and Prof. Frymire “taught a Reformation class which absolutely blew my mind.”
Frymire says Woodall was a student in his Survey of Early Modern European History course.
“I remember that he asked the kind of great questions that helped everyone in the class,” Frymire says. “He and another student earned the highest grades in the course.”
Park also recalls Woodall was a bright student with a keen curiosity.
“Because he had passion for the historical topic, he was able to investigate and dissect the sources in a convincing way,” Park says. “I’m sure these skills carry on with him as an AP reporter.”
“When Hunter Woodall first showed up at my door before his reporting semester at the Missourian, it was to ask for an assignment so he could get started,” Abbott recalls. “He couldn’t wait for the formalities of a class syllabus overview. He wanted to cover a story. Now.”
Abbott says throughout Woodall’s tenure at the Missourian, mostly covering the state legislature, his enthusiasm and dedication to journalism defined him. She says Woodall has a huge appetite for reporting and for tracking down a story and not stopping until he has uncovered every possible fact and angle.
That passion and persistence led Woodall to a number of newspaper jobs before he joined the AP wire service: The Kansas City Star and the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune, as well as paid internships at The Roanoke Times and the Omaha World Herald.
Journalism Bug Bites Early
Woodall says he has known he wanted to be a journalist since fifth grade, when he wrote in an elementary school journal that he wanted to be a photographer for the Associated Press. He says the dream of becoming an AP photographer eventually went away, until a recent campaign event with Senator Bernie Sanders.
“I was covering Bernie Sanders at an ice cream social over the Memorial Day weekend and took a photo of Sen. Sanders shaking hands and greeting voters,” he says. “I sent it to my editors, and it got on the AP wire, so I laughed and thought, ‘Okay, I can conquer two dreams at once.’”
Some people might balk at listening to a candidate give the same stump speech repeatedly, but Woodall says he doesn’t mind because, “I am probably the biggest political nerd some of these people will ever meet.”
He has observed Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts give her stump speech many times.
“I know her speech fairly well, but it’s fascinating to watch how different audiences receive it,” he says. “It’s like going to a movie at two in the afternoon and seeing how the audience reacts and then comparing that to the audience at nine at night.”
He also says the people of New Hampshire tend to be a bit more plugged in politically since their state hosts the second presidential contest each election cycle. During an informal event with candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Woodall noticed that a group of 16 year olds were asking probing, detailed questions.
“They were asking better questions than I do sometimes, and I wondered how it was they were so informed. Then it dawned on me—they’ve been going to these events with their parents since they were kids, this is what they do for fun,” he says.
Mizzou Fosters Lasting Relationships
Woodall says the lasting impact Mizzou has had on him is the friends and colleagues he made while he was a student, many of whom he stays in regular contact with, trading story ideas, reviewing story drafts, and talking about the news of the day.
“The best advice I can give is, you are around all of these incredible, intelligent, wonderful people—just try and help each other as much as you can,” he says. “The people who were helping me and whom I was helping since my freshman year—we’re still helping each other seven or eight years later, which is kind of incredible and wonderful.”
Woodall says he goes to campaign events in his free time just to talk to voters because he enjoys it so much and he feels a responsibility to provide the best campaign coverage possible.
“I knew he would be a success from that first knock on my door,” Abbott says. “If tenacity, persistence, and skill are the respected qualities of a good reporter, Hunter has them all.”