12/30/2011 09:51 am ET

Iowa Media Plays On National Stage As Caucus Nears (SLIDESHOW)

NEW YORK -- When Craig Robinson launched The Iowa Republican in March 2009, he hoped to bring his decade's worth of Republican campaign and fundraising experience into the coverage of state politics. And Robinson's been successful in making the site a must-read not only among Iowa's political junkies but also national reporters trying to get a handle on the upcoming Iowa caucuses.

But Robinson didn't expect back then to become something of a fixer for reporters flying into Des Moines from the Beltway and beyond. "Some days, I almost feel like a concierge service to the media in directing them to Iowa activists," Robinson said. "It's something I never thought I'd be in a position to do."

For decades, top national political reporters sought on-the-ground guidance from David Yepsen, the oft-dubbed "dean of the Iowa press corps," who left his lofty perch at the Des Moines Register in Feb. 2009 to head the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. Tim Albrecht, communications director for Gov. Terry Branstad, described Yepsen as the "definitive voice and historian of the caucuses and one of its biggest promoters."

Yepsen hasn't vanished from national caucus coverage, appearing Thursday on MSNBC's "Hardball." But changes in the media landscape that have impacted the rest of the country can be felt in Iowa, too. New reporters have emerged since the 2008 election, and there has been an increase in blogs, Internet radio, and the use of social media. For that reason, Albrecht said its "really hard to pinpoint" a single, definitive voice this cycle. So in the days leading up to the Jan. 3 caucuses, television bookers and national political reporters have been seeking out a variety of newspaper reporters, columnists, bloggers, and talk radio hosts to try and explain Iowa's unique role in the presidential nominating contest to the rest of the country.

The journalist who may come closest to matching Yepsen's footprint in the state is Iowa Radio News director O. Kay Henderson, who Albrecht says has "emerged as the leading reporter" this cycle.

Over at the Des Moines Register, Jennifer Jacobs has won plaudits from her colleagues, while Albrecht described her as the cycle's "breakout star." In recent months, Jacobs has become a must-follow among political reporters on Twitter and gets praised on cable news. "You know Iowa better [than] almost anyone," CNN's Jessica Yellin told Jacobs during an appearance on Tuesday.

Jacobs' colleague at the Des Moines Register, columnist Kathie Obradovich, has also been a familiar face on national networks. She recently stopped by ABC's "This Week" and heads Sunday to NBC's "Meet the Press" for a roundtable with New York Times columnist David Brooks, Time's Mark Halperin, NBC's Andrea Mitchell, and political operative Mike Murphy. The following night, Obradovich will appear on Politico's pre-Caucus panel, alongside "Meet the Press" host David Gregory and other high-profile political journalists.

And Tom Beaumont, a former Des Moines Register chief political reporter who's now working as a Des Moines-based political correspondent for the Associated Press, has also been fielding calls from cable bookers and national reporters looking for direction -- or, literally, directions. "You get asked all the time where a county is, or how long it'll take to get here," Beaumont said.

The national media spotlight hasn't only turned to Iowa reporters and newspaper columnists. Conservative talk show hosts, who likely carry more sway among Republican caucus-goers than more traditional journalists do, have also been called on for their takes on the race and issues like the Evangelical vote.

Syndicated host Steve Deace, who left Iowa AM talk radio powerhouse WHO earlier this year, has appeared this month on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC and was the subject of a recent ABC News/Yahoo News profile.

Deace, who supported Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in 2008, said that during this cycle he's been more "interested in helping voters vet the rest of the candidates" than picking one. "My goal, frankly, was to help Iowans," he said.

But in the process of vetting candidates as they criss-cross Iowa, Deace has become national media resource -- as has his WHO replacement. British-born talk show host Simon Conway, who took over the afternoon slot in April, was recently profiled by The New York Times and could be found commenting on the race Wednesday on MSNBC.

He also caused a bit of a stir on the network two weeks ago. MSNBC's Chris Matthews had simulcast an interview with Conway, whose radio show he described as an "essential stop for the Republicans who want to be president in Iowa." But the interview grew contentious after Conway described Matthews as a "Democrat" who is "clearly working for the reelection of Barack Obama."

Meanwhile, Jan Mickelson, widely considered to be the most influential conservative radio host in Iowa, hasn't been leaving his studio for national cable hits. Instead, cable producers have come to him.

On Thursday, C-SPAN brought its cameras into Mickelson's studio to simulcast his interviews with two candidates, Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Ron Paul (R-Texas). Over the past week, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have all stopped by the popular talk show as well. (After a famously testy exchange over Mormonism last cycle, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn't come back this time around.)

Since Mickelson has covered the past half dozen presidential cycles, he is accustomed to Iowa's brief moment in the sun. During the 2000 race, Mickelson even interviewed 11 Republican candidates back-to-back, with C-SPAN cameras catching the non-stop vetting of presidential contenders. Then and now, Mickelson said he's happy to let C-SPAN broadcast the interviews because "it's a genuine blast to hear from people all over the country who may be introduced to Iowa for the first time." He described it as "a Chamber of Commerce moment for the state."

In interviews with The Huffington Post, several Iowa media figures described their roles similarly, saying they served as both the first line of defense in vetting candidates and as ambassadors for the state of Iowa. "The caucuses are about promoting Iowa and we are a resource to get the word out about Iowa," said Albrecht, who regularly connects national reporters to local activists while also providing quotes for print and television pieces about the race.

But like clockwork, the political press corps will pack up on Wednesday and head to New Hampshire for that state's upcoming primary, on Jan. 10. Beaumont recalled his first post-caucus experience in 2004 as "jarring." Robinson noted that while he created a news site as an alternative to the establishment media, he'll still miss having some national reporters weigh in on Iowa politics. "As the circus is about to leave town," he said, "I'm somewhat sad because I've made a lot of friends in terms of journalists who've come in to cover the state."

Still, it's a feeling all of Iowa's currently in-demand journalists and talkers get used to. "We fully understand this is unearned attention and that's its ephemeral," Mickelson said. "That’s why we take this so seriously."

"On the 4th," he noted, "we'll be flyover country again."