Josh Dawsey sitting in The Daily Gamecock offices during an October visit to the University of South Carolina.
Courtesy of Sarah Scarborough.
By Larissa Johnson
When the U.S. fired 69 missiles into Syria, Politico White House reporter Josh Dawsey was with President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
“We were all standing underneath big palm trees and watching people clink wine glasses and all of a sudden the president came out and said, ‘We bombed Syria,’” Dawsey said. “It was a bizarre moment.”
Especially bizarre because less than 10 years before, Dawsey was living on a farm in Aynor, South Carolina, a city of 600 people and two stoplights. On the community news page of the city government, there’s just a blank space. The last local newspaper, the Aynor Journal, stopped publishing in 2011.
By then, Dawsey had already gotten his start. He covered local sports and town hall meetings for the tiny paper run “basically out of a barber shop,” he said. In summer 2008, just before he was about to enter the University of South Carolina, someone commented on a Myrtle Beach Online article criticizing the Aynor Journal: “I miss the stories written by Josh Dawsey.”
Perhaps his first accolades, but definitely not the last.
USC Student Media Director Sarah Scarborough remembers Dawsey’s first day of college. He went up to The Daily Gamecock offices and asked how to get involved.
“He was one of those people who had an eye on the (editor’s) office since the day he walked in,” she said. “He certainly scared a few people.”
He was never afraid to cold call anyone or march into his or her office, including Scarborough’s. Even as a writer freshman year, administrators started to recognize his name and persistence in getting people to talk. Jerry Brewer, the long-time associate vice president of student life, became particularly close with Dawsey and was one of his regular sources.
Sydney Patterson started as a freshman copy editor when Dawsey was news editor. Dawsey had collected a few more internships at places like the Free Times and The State and was writing articles almost daily for The Daily Gamecock.
“I remember my impression of him being like, wow this guy is super stressed out and doing a lot, but he’s like a bulldog,” Patterson said. “He never let go of a story idea.”
Dawsey’s coverage for The Daily Gamecock ranged from fraternity drama and struggles in the law school to Columbia’s World Beer Festival. His esteem around campus continued to increase, especially after breaking an investigative story on pay increases for the top echelon of USC staff.
“I cared more about reporting and being out in the field and meeting people than I did going to classes and doing my homework,” Dawsey said. “I felt that The Gamecock was probably the best part of Carolina for me.”
Patterson said that he concentrated on watchdog journalism, and when he became editor in spring 2011 he held the rest of the organization to the same standards. Patterson worked as mix editor under Dawsey.
“He was a very loud editor,” she said. “That was definitely one of the hallmarks of having him in charge.”
He would come out of the office during production yelling about an AP Style mistake and watch over the section editors’ shoulders as they wrote headlines, she said. Even though he was demanding, people wanted to work with him because they recognized his talent, Scarborough said. The perhaps overbearing leadership paid off — Dawsey won 2011 collegiate journalist of the year from the South Carolina Press Association and the Gamecock earned a record 17 awards.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come through up here and there are a handful of folks who led the newsroom that I think stand out, and Josh is probably at the top,” said Scarborough, who has worked with USC’s student media for 17 years.
In his farewell letter as editor in fall 2011, he wrote: “It is bittersweet; leaving anything you love is difficult. Yet we are all born for leaving.”
A few months later he left not only The Daily Gamecock but South Carolina. Two weeks after graduation, he moved to New York City. It didn’t matter that he had a Southern drawl because all his neighbors spoke Spanish, anyway. Without friends in the city, he would sit in his apartment at night listening to the people partying below.
“All of a sudden I moved from rural South Carolina to the middle of Upper Manhattan,” Dawsey said. “It was jarring.”
He worked as a news assistant for the Wall Street Journal covering foreign exchange and economics for seven months before being hired as a reporter for the Greater New York section. He made friends and started covering local politics, including reporting on New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaigning and spending. Living in the city for over four years, Dawsey describes himself in his Twitter bio as a “Southerner & New Yorker.”
A recent article in Vanity Fair by Joe Pompeo described Dawsey in his time with the Journal as “a well-respected but not terrifically well-known New York City Hall reporter.” But over the past 12 months, he’s become a rising star, moving to Politico in December 2016. He had just six or seven thousand Twitter followers when he left the Journal, Dawsey said. Now, he has almost 50,000.
Dawsey attributed the rapid gain to his new position as a White House reporter. “Everyone wants to know every move that the administration in making,” he said. His tweets – frequently more than 20 a day – range from live Trump quotes to cheering on Gamecock football.
How many times a day does he check the social media site? “I probably shouldn’t answer that honestly because you’ll laugh at me.”
In addition to always having Twitter open to get breaking news, Dawsey often reads up to two or three hours a day to stay up on what the competition is doing and to get story ideas.
“I hate to lose,” he said. “I compete against a lot of people and I really hate to lose to other outlets.”
When he was at USC, that meant beating The State to any news about the university. Now, he’s competing against names like The New York Times. He has a unique perspective, though, coming from a heavily conservative and Christian small town.
“A lot of people in Washington really think the president’s doing a terrible job; a lot of people in South Carolina really think the president’s doing a great job,” Dawsey said. “You have to remember that how things are perceived here aren’t maybe how they are perceived out there.”
His parents still live in Aynor. He comes to South Carolina around four times a year to visit and to try to find time to relax. Sit on a porch with some iced tea in the rural South and Washington, D.C., seems thousands of miles away, Dawsey said. His parents live on a dirt road and don’t want it to be paved.
“I think they’re kind of amused by [my job],” Dawsey said. “My parents are very conservative and very supportive of Trump and they think it’s great that I get to be around him.”
While frequently seeing Trump at press briefings and on Air Force One, Dawsey has interviewed Trump only once one-on-one — in April for a feature on the first 100 days of the presidency. Trump brought up Dawsey’s South Carolina roots, mentioning his broad support in the state.
“He’s kind of disarming,” Dawsey said. “Actually has a pretty decent sense of humor.”
Dawsey’s expertise in covering Trump – the Vanity Fair article calls him a “West-Wing savant” – has earned his next big career step: joining the Washington Post’s White House team. The move, announced via Twitter on Nov. 3, puts him in one of the most prestigious teams in the country starting late November. He is just 27 years old.
With such a quick rise, Dawsey can’t predict what he’ll accomplish in his career.
“Everything is moving too fast,” he said.
Johnson is a multimedia journalism senior