The Currents Interview: White House Reporter Roger Runningen

November 10, 2011

Currents Magazine, Featured

“It sends a chill up my spine,” says Roger Runningen ’72 when he describes his arrival for work each day. Not surprising, perhaps, when your office is in the West Wing of the White House, a few floors below the Oval Office and steps away from the briefing room where Presidents of the United States have addressed the nation since 1970.

Runningen is an award-winning reporter for Bloomberg News, the influential business and financial information service. Currents sat down with Runningen in early August, a block from the Rose Garden where, a few hours earlier, President Barack Obama ended a national debate by signing the debt ceiling bill.

Did you always want to be a reporter?

Growing up (in Houston, Minnesota), I read newspapers and tuned into news on AM radio. But when I came to Winona State I thought I wanted to be a teacher.

What changed your mind?

A rambunctious classroom. I observed a class at Winona Senior High during my sophomore year and it was out of control. That was the turning point. There was no way I was going to teach.

You wrote for the student newspaper after that?

I joined the debate team and was persuaded to write for the Winonan. There were only three journalism classes at WSU then. Maybe it was just as well. Sometimes I skipped classes to cover a story. By my senior year, I was editor.

Talk about your first job.

I was the one and only reporter for the Wabasha (Minnesota) County Herald. I did it all:  police blotter, courts, school board, sports, city council, feature stories. I took photos, too, all for $120 a week.

And now you’ve been a journalist for nearly 40 years?

There have been a couple of breaks. I interned with Minnesota Congressman Al Quie when I was a student. That was a first-rate education in political science. In 1973 after a year in Wabasha, Congressman Quie asked me to come back to Washington to serve as his press secretary.

I decided to return to journalism when Quie was elected governor in 1979. I covered Capitol Hill for the SNG Group of newspapers, a family-owned chain of papers based in Illinois. In 1991, I was asked to serve as press secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture when George H.W. Bush was president.

When did you join Bloomberg News?

Bill Clinton’s election brought a change of administration to the USDA, and I wanted to return to journalism and spend more time with my family anyway. A friend who was president of the National Press Club told me about a new wire service that was looking for someone who knew agriculture and commodity markets. It was a good fit, and I’ve been with Bloomberg since 1994.

You transitioned to covering the White House?

A reporting position opened up at the White House in 2002 but I was happy where I was and passed it up. I was asked again a year later and was interested in a new challenge. I began working as a White House reporter March 17, 2003. Two days later, the U.S. was at war in Iraq. Nothing like plunging in.

Describe a typical day.

I’m one of five Bloomberg reporters who cover the White House. We work in the pressroom in the West Wing alongside the other major news operations – AP, Reuters, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, CBS Radio, NPR. Some days might include covering stories, filing reports, the daily news briefing, talking to sources. On another day, I might be aboard Air Force One as a member of the White House press corps. I’ve visited Europe, the Middle East, the Far East including Japan and Thailand with President Bush or Obama. I’ve been to Russia five times and South America four times. There was an around-the-world trip in 2007 that included leaving Iraq at night, with lights out in the cabin and shades closed for security. A five-nation trip to Africa with Bush in 2008 was the most memorable because I’d never been there. In all, there have been trips to 38 countries on six continents and I’ve filled four passport books. Still have to get to Antarctica and the North Pole.

In nearly four decades, how have you seen journalism change?

It’s been dramatic. Now, news is an instantaneous 24-hour cycle where Washington is ground zero. It’s a hyper-cycle where you can never really tune out. Even so, there’s a rush to be first to “tell the world.” And we do, 24 hours, 365 days. In the financial world, billions can be made or lost, based on a single story so it better be right. In addition to filing traditional stories, we’re on the radio, television, and urged to do Twitter feeds or update that first draft of history. The decisions that are made here, well, the stakes don’t get much higher.

Follow WSU alumnus Roger Runningen and his reports from the White House at Bloomberg News (www.bloomberg.com) or on Twitter (@rrunningen), or e-mail at rrunningen@bloomberg.net.

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About Winona State University

Founded in 1858, Winona State University is a comprehensive public university with more than 8,500 students. The oldest member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, Winona State offers 80 undergraduate, pre-professional, licensure, graduate, and doctorate programs on its three campuses: the original Main Campus in Winona, the West Campus in Winona, and Winona State University-Rochester.

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