From the Capitol to the Classroom with MPR’s Briana Bierschbach
Chances are if you follow news coverage of Minnesota politics, you know the name Briana Bierschbach. As a member of the State Capitol press corps over the past decade, with Politics in Minnesota, MinnPost, and now MPR News, Bierschbach has established herself as one of the most trusted names in Minnesota political journalism.
This spring, she will add a new credit to her resume: college instructor.
Ten years after graduating from the University of Minnesota with dual degrees in journalism and cultural studies and comparative literature, Bierschbach is returning to her alma mater to teach the course “State Governing and Legislating: Working the Process” at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, taking students behind the curtain of the Minnesota political scene.
As she prepares to balance her new role in the classroom with her work covering the 2019 legislative session for MPR, Bierschbach tells us why she's excited about returning to the University, what students in her class can expect, and how she sees the role of journalism in today’s political climate.
What interested you most about teaching this course?
A big part of my job is helping people understand the Minnesota Capitol, both through my stories but also talking through issues on the radio. I love the idea of continuing this mission in a totally new way—teaching.
Can you give us a sneak peek into what guests your students can expect to meet?
I’ve already enlisted some of the best (and most entertaining) personalities in politics to come and speak to my class. That includes Supreme Court justices, legislators from dueling parties, and some of the top political operatives in the state. They may also get a chance to hear directly from the new governor and lieutenant governor, schedules permitting.
As a political journalist, what perspectives do you bring as the instructor of this course, as opposed to an elected official or someone working in government/politics?
Journalists come at politics with pure and intense curiosity. I think that makes us some of the best students of the process. We have to learn the history, rules, personalities, and quirks of the Capitol in order to best do our jobs. Also, you see things more clearly when you don’t look at them through a partisan lens.
You will be teaching this course during the first legislative session with our new governor. Will that influence what you cover in the classroom?
Absolutely. I love the idea that Gov. Tim Walz and my students are learning about how the Minnesota Capitol operates at the same time. At the start of each class we will dig in to some events that transpired over the previous week at the Capitol, and we will definitely spend some extra time talking about state budgeting this year, as the governor and legislators attempt to craft their own two-year budget.
How has the Minnesota political scene changed since you started working at the Capitol?
It’s not exactly an earth-shattering observation, but I do think local politics has gotten more divided in recent years, mirroring national trends. Lawmakers are far less likely these days to break ranks and cast a vote with members on the other side of the aisle. Also, people are on Twitter a lot more.
What drew you to political journalism? Was that the beat you set out to cover?
Not at all, actually. I grew up loving to read and write, and a high school teacher pushed me toward journalism. Early on, I wanted to be a movie reviewer for a major daily newspaper, but my first job at the Minnesota Daily was covering city politics. I fell in love with beat reporting and immersing myself in an issue or a universe of people. I also love reporting on politics at the local level, where I really feel like my work has an impact.
Is there a story you are most proud of from your time covering state politics?
I’m proud of the coverage I did on #MeToo in Minnesota government and politics. They were hard but important stories to tell, and I hope the culture at the Capitol has improved as a result.
What about a story from your time on campus at the Minnesota Daily?
I broke another challenging story while I worked for the Minnesota Daily, about a candidate for Minneapolis City Council who had fabricated his entire past. It taught me a lot about the reporting process, but it also taught me how to handle a sensitive story. There was an underlying mental illness behind the falsehoods, and I believe we addressed that in the piece in a fair and meaningful way.
Have you made any changes in your approach in this climate of skepticism and “fake news?”
The core tenets of journalism haven’t changed: impartiality, independence, investigating the powerful, and holding them accountable. But I do think journalists are showing their homework more, disclosing things like how we got and reported an important story. It helps break down barriers with readers and makes the process more transparent.