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A visitor to Exeter, a town of nearly 600 on U.S. 6 in Southeast Nebraska, won't see a billboard touting a famous native son, but that could change.

On Monday, Exeter alumni Jeff Zeleny was named senior Washington correspondent for ABC News, meaning he'll cover Congress and politics for the national television network.

Zeleny, 39, grew up on a nearby farm with childhood dreams of becoming a journalist and today is considered one of the country's premier political newsmen. He has been at The New York Times for seven years and was the lead reporter on the 2012 presidential campaign.

"It's kind of neat to know that somebody that came from a small town has made it that big," said Kay Due, an agent with First National Insurance Agency in Exeter.

The Fillmore County town already had good reason to be proud of Zeleny, who began his political reporting career in 1997 at the Des Moines Register, where he covered the Iowa caucuses and the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign.

"I think beginning my career in Iowa, for me, was a lucky break because it gave me a front-row seat on how presidents are elected," he said in a phone interview.

At the end of 2000, Zeleny moved to the Chicago Tribune. During his six years there, he was part of a team recognized with a Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for coverage of gridlock in the country's air traffic control system.

A University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism graduate, Zeleny also covered Illinois politics for the Tribune, including then-state Sen. Barack Obama.

"The 2008 (presidential) campaign of Senator Obama was probably the most interesting because of the dramatic story of his rise," said Zeleny, who has covered four presidential races.

During his newspaper career, Zeleny traveled to all 50 states and reported from more than 24 countries. In 2009, he covered Obama's first major address to the Muslim world in Cairo. Later that year, he covered the president when he accepted a Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

Zeleny also has worked for The Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Florida Times Union and the Lincoln Journal Star.

But he's no stranger to television.

During the last presidential campaign he appeared on "Fox News Sunday," CNN's "State of the Union" and "Washington Week" on PBS. He also was doing video broadcasting at The New York Times.

"I think the changing nature of the news industry has sort of made this more of a possibility for me," Zeleny said. "I didn't think about being a television reporter. I just wanted to be a reporter for as long as I can remember."

That goes back to elementary school. And while Zeleny was in high school -- he graduated from Exeter High with 11 classmates in 1991 -- and college, he worked for the News-Times in York.

"Jeff was filled with drive. He was driven in whatever he was working on," said Debra Fette, 61, who had him in English and speech in high school. "I mean Jeff is so incredibly successful. No matter what he took on he was a perfectionist."

ABC approached Zeleny in January and negotiated with him last month. He declined to disclose his salary and said he'll start his new job in March.

"I think my family was not surprised that I would be seeking a new job that has more time on television," he said. "... I think my mom did ask me if I would ever write stories again."

He assured her he will, but they'll be for online and TV.

"I think there's no question that every time I pick up a newspaper I will miss the ink, and the news, and the permanence of a newspaper," Zeleny said.

But, he noted, more news is appearing on mobile devices and other social media formats. This point in his career, he said, is a good time to see a different side of the craft.

"The news and information is changing very rapidly. Learning this new skill and being able to convey stories instantly for television is very exciting," Zeleny said. "Going to a network -- with a strong history like ABC -- is very attractive and humbling."

Diane Zeleny will miss reading her son's stories in print, but she is very proud.

"Well, I think it will be exciting," she said. "I don't get to see him in person often."

Zeleny comes home when he can, visiting family around Christmas and trying to make it to see Nebraska play football. He was in Lincoln recently to speak at the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce's annual banquet and at UNL's commencement.

"I don't know," his mother said. "I just enjoyed everything he did. I know since fifth grade, he has chosen a journalistic path."

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Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or


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