united states project

Meet the 22-year-old journalism prodigy shaking up Missouri political reporting

PoliticMo's Eli Yokley strives to fill the state's coverage gap--and finish college
February 2, 2015


Eli Yokley founded the website PoliticMo to cover state politics during the summer after he graduated from high school. (Photo courtesy of The Yokley Company.)

It’s not easy to steal a few minutes with PoliticMo’s Eli Yokley.

His startup political news site, which has covered statehouse politics in Missouri since 2010, is a one-man operation that demands much of his time. But he also serves as statehouse correspondent for both The Joplin Globe and KY3, a TV station based in Springfield, MO. He runs his own news service and has done freelance stories on Missouri politics for The New York Times, Politico, and others. He’s a frequent radio guest statewide, and is prolific on Twitter as well.

He’s also a 22-year-old senior in college, studying journalism and political science at the University of Missouri.

“Sometimes I worry a little bit about, are you getting your studies done?” says Carol Stark, Yokley’s editor at The Joplin Globe, which is his hometown newspaper.

Despite his youth, Yokley is already a respected member of the statehouse press corps. Last week, he made the latest Washington Post list of the best state political reporters (not for the first time), and the Missouri Capitol News Association voted to issue him a credential, officially enshrining him as one of their own.

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This means Yokley will have access to office space, parking, and a spot at the Senate press table. In symbolic terms, it merely confirms what has been the reality for years now: He is a full-fledged pro.

“He’s not treated as one of us, he is one of us,” says Phill Brooks, who is one of Yokley’s professors at the University of Missouri but also one of his colleagues, as a longtime statehouse correspondent for KMOX radio in St. Louis and an active member of the news association.

Indeed, Yokley comes across as less aw-shucks newcomer than wizened veteran. He launched PoliticMo fresh out of high school, before he even started college—but that didn’t seem like a big deal to him because he had already published his own local political website, The Fuse Joplin, while still in high school. That is when the Globe’s Stark first encountered him, as he was covering school board and city council meetings in his southwest Missouri hometown.

“He’d show up at political events and you’d say, who is this kid?” Stark says. “He wasn’t getting paid by anybody; he was doing this on his own.”

After high school, Yokley broadened his sights to statewide politics because, he says, “I was fascinated by it”—and because he saw a coverage gap. The pool of statehouse reporters has dwindled in Missouri over the years as it has throughout the country.

“All these newspapers are cutting their budgets,” Yokley says. “There was a void that needed to be filled.”

He leapt into that void in time to cover the 2010 midterms, launching PoliticMo in the summer after his graduation from high school, and soon made a name for himself through his willingness to follow the state’s politicians everywhere they went, from Kansas City to St. Charles to Springfield—where he drew national attention for catching Rep. Todd Akin on tape comparing Sen. Claire McCaskill to a “dog.”

“It’s always kind of funny to see where he pops up all over the state,” Caitlin Legacki, then-McCaskill communications director, told the Missouri-based magazine Vox in a 2012 profile of Yokley, when he was still 20 years old. “I don’t know how he does it. I don’t know when he sleeps.”

Shoe leather and gas mileage, along with judicious use of social media, helped Yokley build an audience and win the respect of pols and colleagues alike. And early success in new media gained him entree into old media; in late 2012 he started reporting for the Globe, and he began freelancing for national papers as well.

He also quickly showed his talents were not limited to capturing campaign trail gaffes. Stark points to his explanatory pieces on some of the state’s confusingly worded ballot measures from the 2014 election.

“He did exemplary work on explaining those initiatives to our readers, and who was behind them and where the money was coming from,” she says.

Yokley has recently written for The New York Times on Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster’s ethics controversies and on the Ferguson protests in Jefferson City; for Politico on Gov. Jay Nixon’s struggles to deal with the Ferguson crisis; and for such varied publications as the wonky, D.C.-based Government Executive and the St. Louis Business Journal.

He has established this varied national profile, somewhat ironically, by remaining focused on Missouri—and by maintaining that ability to show up at the right place at the right time.

Last week, for instance, he was one of a small group of reporters on hand to document one of the more bizarre and brazen scenes in the annals of legislative practice: a Missouri House committee hearing held in a country club, with dinner provided by lobbyists.

“With saffron sea bass, honey miso chicken and an eight ounce filet au poivre on the menu, members of the House Telecommunications Committee met for an official committee hearing Tuesday evening, hosted in a banquet room at the Jefferson City Country Club,” Yokley wrote for PoliticMo. “The meeting was one of two scheduled there this week, only a few miles away from the Capital. At these hearings, meals were to be paid for by representatives of industries the lawmakers were tasked with regulating.” (He also tweeted photos of the event, of course.)

An all-too-perfect manifestation of the Missouri legislature’s laissez-faire ethics laws, the story was widely picked up, and the state House speaker quickly announced that such outside hearings would now be banned.

“When people saw the pictures from the country-club hearing, they were shocked,” Yokley says. “If more people hear about what’s going on, I think that could go a long way to cleaning things up in Jefferson City.”

He is quick to note that it was probably the presence of a KRCG-TV crew at the “hearing,” more than his own reporting, that took the story semi-viral and prompted the legislative rules change. But, as the St. Louis alt-weekly Riverfront Times pointed out, in the KRCG video it is Yokley who is heard asking the questions that seem to rattle the committee chairman in charge:

Yokley: “And [the dinner is] being paid for by the telecommunications industry?”

Rep. Bart Korman: “Probably so, yeah.”

Yokley: “And those are the guys you’re supposed to be regulating.”

Korman: [Pause] “Yeah.”

Yokley: “So is there some impropriety here, with you guys taking dinners from these folks who are trying to get policy through your committee?”

Korman: “I don’t know.”

Even aside from that dogged questioning, Brooks says, the fact that Yokley was there at all “says a lot about his tenacity as a reporter.”

“It makes sense to show up to these things sometimes,” Yokley says. “That’s why statehouse reporters are so important.”

But while the need for such reporting on the ethically challenged legislature is evident, the economic model remains tenuous. Stark says there is a strong readership in Joplin for Yokley’s dispatches from Jeff City, but the Globe does not have the budget for a full-time statehouse correspondent. Yokley, who is paid per article, is the first Globe capitol correspondent since the death of longtime reporter James Wolfe in 2001.

It’s a good deal for the paper, and for the time being, the arrangement works for Yokley as well. He admits that the PoliticMo audience remains “pretty limited,” for all his successes. His old-media gigs “pay the bills,” he says. “The website is a public service.”

This spring, he’ll be faced with a version of the dilemma that most graduates encounter: What now? Is Missouri too small a stage for the man who, Brooks predicts, “is going to be one of the top political reporters in the country”? Probably so, according to Stark, who doesn’t expect to be able to retain Yokley’s services indefinitely.

“I believe that we’ll see him in Washington D.C.,” she says.

Yokley, like so many undergrads, says he’s not sure yet. But he’s open to the possibility of continuing to cover his beloved home state as a freelancer–ideally taking on more clients once he no longer has coursework and classes to worry about–and continuing with PoliticMo.

“There’s still a big need in Missouri for political coverage,” he says. It’s a need that will be felt even more acutely if he moves on.

Deron Lee is CJR’s correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee.