BISMARCK - Rep. Austen Schauer, R-West Fargo, is explaining to a reporter how his first year at the Legislature has gone.
“A lot of great things can happen when people work together,” he said.
Then, reverting to a previous career, he points to the reporter and says, “That’s your quote right there.”
Schauer, a freshman representing District 13, is a savvy communicator. An interview with him flows like a conversation, devoid of long silences. When faced with a difficult question, he pauses and chooses his words carefully, as if analyzing their impact before they are uttered. During an interview, he tends to flip the script and ask the reporter questions, as he’s used to doing from his previous job as a television news anchor.
Schauer was in broadcast news for 35 years. He worked at WDAZ in Grand Forks from 1977 until 1980 while attending the University of North Dakota. He then worked as an anchor for WDAY until 2000, and as an anchor for Fox-affiliate KVRR in Fargo until 2013. Now, he’s a hiring consultant for businesses.
Schauer said he got out of the television business because of his age. “If you’ve ever noticed, there seems to be pretty women and good-looking men that do television,” he said.
“I could’ve probably hung on. But there comes a point where you really have to reinvent yourself. It’s risky, because you have a profession you love and know, you’ve got the experience, you’ve got the name.... and there’s a certain amount of ego too because you're in television. To let that go and move into a new area is risky, but it’s also invigorating, energizing.”
Schauer said that although he never expected to be at the Capitol, he enjoys his new job as a state legislator. His running mate in District 13, Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, said he can tell when Schauer’s “TV voice comes out” and teases him about his television background.
“I always tell him, ‘Is the makeup straight?’ or ‘Cue the camera,’” Koppelman said. “We have a lot of fun with that.”
Koppelman said he first got acquainted with Schauer years ago, when they would pass each other in the hallways of the WDAY building, where Koppelman’s business office was located at the time.
“We never knew each other really well until he ran,” Koppelman said. “So, it’s been fun working together and getting to know one another better.”
Koppelman himself comes from a print media background. During high school and college, he worked part-time at a paper in Richland County. He later spent two years as editor of the West Fargo Pioneer.
Koppelman and Schauer agree that it’s much different to make the news versus reporting the news. Schauer said his first time being interviewed rather than conducting the interview was “awkward. Very awkward.”
The former media members have noticed changes in journalism and media over the years.
“We live in a different era, with bloggers and with the social media aspect. It’s a lot different than it was decades ago,” Koppelman said.
Schauer said the media’s watchdog role is crucial for lawmaker accountability.
“There’s fewer newspaper reporters, fewer reporters in general,” Schauer said. “We need more reporters. You need to make sure you keep these people, including myself, accountable. It’s imperative for you to keep these people as accountable as possible when dealing with public dollars.”
Schauer said he tries to impress fellow legislators with the importance of the media, but he doesn’t want to seem too critical, especially as a freshman. “You want to make suggestions, but don’t want to step on any toes,” Schauer said.
Rep. Bill Devlin, R-Finley, a former newspaper publisher, said the biggest thing former members of the media bring to the table is an appreciation for the importance of transparency in government. “We understand open meetings and open records better than anyone,” Devlin said. “I’ve never found a time when openness in government was a bad thing.”
For much of his legislative career Devlin’s colleagues included two other weekly newspaper publishers, Sen. John Andrist of Crosby and Rep. Glen Froseth of Kenmare. Steve Farrington ran a newspaper in Harvey when he was a legislator in the '70s.
And although Schauer too is a proponent of government transparency, he’s not above taking a joking jab at the news business and the reporter he’s been talking to, sharing his story.
“Well, if you need anything more,” he said, smiling, “just make it up.”