Sunday, June 13, 2010

The gradual abandonment of on-the-ground campaign coverage

Walter Shapiro at PoliticsDaily (h/t Political Wire):

It was the perfect political scene to cap the weekend's campaign coverage less than 72 hours before the state's most raucous, riveting and, at times, repugnant gubernatorial primary in decades. Hartsville (population: 7,465) may be a small town in the Pee Dee region, but it is just 70 miles northeast of the state capital (and media center) in Columbia. But still there was one thing missing from the picturesque scene -- any South Carolina newspaper, wire service, TV or radio reporters.[...]

As a veteran of eight presidential campaigns, I know there is a virtue to being there in person rather than virtually. Reading the polls and watching TV ads may equip you to loudly opine on cable news shows, but it is no match for interviewing the candidate, listening to the stump speech, gauging the mood of the crowds, and quizzing voters in diners and BBQ joints. Traveling with candidates (particularly in states like South Carolina and Kentucky where personal campaigning matters) gives you a sense of nuance about who they are as people and politicians."

"The gradual abandonment of on-the-ground campaign coverage means that polls are fast becoming the only way to glimpse voter sentiment. Since most polls in statewide races (particularly primaries) are automated short-answer surveys, it becomes easy to jump to blunderbuss conclusions like 'all incumbents are imperiled' or 'the Tea Party movement is all-powerful.'
One of the races Shapiro notes happening in an area with no local reporters?

South Carolina, home of the Unknown Candidate.

We're lucky enough to have no such problem here in Utah, with two large "state-wide" news outlets, and many local papers, television, and online news orgs. But South Carolina has a similar set of organizations (two large newspapers, many radio and tv news outlets, and even a handful of hyper-local rags). And according to Shapiro, their silence on the political campaigns and election season at large is due to a lack of resources and staffing, leading their focus away from on-the-ground coverage.

I don't think the troubles facing newspapers and radio are going away, and the dynamics of our local news could change quickly. After reading Shapiro's story, I started cataloging the times -- just this week -- that I learned something about the Utah Senate race from Robert Gehrke's posts, or followed breaking news with Ben Winslow's tweets. The Salt Lake Tribune's online political content alone is some of the most informative stuff out there these days, and it's all being generated by a handful of names we'd all recognize.

I don't know what the solution is, and sometimes it seems like the CEO's of the companies who own a lot of these local papers don't either. I'd pay a subscription fee for the content, but recent experimentation by new orgs implies not many others would (No offense Utah Policy Daily... Who?  Exactly). I'd wager ad revenue has hit rock bottom already, but how high it will climb back up for newspapers, who knows?  And according to Shapiro, newsroom staffs nationwide have already shrunken 25% since 2001.

Regardless of where this all goes, every one of us would pay -- in a longer term sense -- if local political coverage we enjoy today gets tossed aside for cheaper, "easier" content.

Go hug a journalist, while you can.

1 comment:

  1. As someone who worked on the 2006 Ashdown campaign, I can tell you now that you are absolutely incorrect about the Utah political news coverage situation. I doubt we had a reporter from either the Tribune or D News show up to cover any stump speech, and they rarely showed up at our press conferences. They only usually called to find out our fundraising situation at FEC filing deadlines. TV was absolutely incompetent. I'm not saying we did everything we could to keep coverage interesting for them, but all they did then was take a couple polls and prejudge the race pretty early on. They did a pretty good job rehashing Hatch's press releases while rarely taking any opportunity to ask our reaction, or even print our reactions when we specifically offered it to them.
    I also don't think we get much good coverage from them in the 2010 races either. Few people read reporters blog posts and tweets, compared to those who read what's on the front page of the paper or on the evening news, admitting those numbers dwindle quickly too.
    In my opinion, the Utah political media is just as lazy as the national media. I don't blame them that much, because they have been decimated and a few reporters have to cover a lot. That in addition to the complete takeover of the Deseret News by the Republican party. Our local TV political media, such as they are, closely follow the Lear Center at USC's findings that locally TV spends more time on weather, sports, and traffic accidents, than local politics (presidential races are excepted).
    With such a comparative media blackout, it's up to candidates to buy most of their media and that leaves it to candidates to essentially self-finance, at the start at least, which is an unappealing prospect to most people.