Bus stopped?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 11, 2012

Most, like him, were in New Hampshire for at least the last 10 days leading up to the primary. The bigger papers sent several reporters, assigned to follow the different candidates.

That scope of newspaper presence remained the norm for decades — in fact, Wilkie notes, the 1990s added an increase in local television reporters joining the campaigns. (That has returned to being a rarity.)

The decline began in 2004, as the changing economics of the business prompted more and more newspapers to rely on wire-service reporting, and columnists observing from home.

Some newspapers reversed course in 2008, because of intense interest in both parties' highly competitive races. But 2012 has revealed that to be an anomaly. With a far more typical primary contest this time around, very few newspapers are on the bus, beyond the very biggest, and those with local candidates in the field.

"For the broader audience in the middle of the country," Wilkie says, "the idea that your local paper does not have a presence there, it's sad."

The San Jose Mercury-News no longer sends anyone to cover primaries. The Denver Post has a columnist in New Hampshire, but no straight reporter. And the Detroit Free Press, which counts Mitt Romney as a local candidate, had nobody in Iowa or New Hampshire, although they plan to send someone to South Carolina.

Even the Boston Globe, which has devoted considerable resources to covering the campaign, and in particular front-running former governor Romney, can't do what it could when Michael Dukakis ran in 1988. Wilkie says that year the paper established a full bureau in Des Moines, with editors and copy editors in addition to the reporters. "We must have had a dozen people," Wilkie recalls, "for about a month."

Many newspapers that do send staff reporters, do so just for the final day or two. (The Manchester Radisson, which normally charges $126 for a room in January, was charging close to $500 a night for the two days before Tuesday's primary.)

That means they are unable to get to know the candidates and their campaigns over time, and get a feel for changes in message, shifts in momentum, or internal staff tensions.

What newspapers can do is take advantage of the plethora of national coverage— there have been 14 televised debates, and dozens of campaign speeches and town hall meetings covered by C-SPAN.

"They don't even cover things on the ground any more," Wilkie says — they just watch it on TV and write about it.

There is a great deal of truth to that — which may partially explain why nationally televised events, such as the debates, have had an outsize role in influencing voter opinion in this cycle. It's not just that voters can watch them, it's also the only part of the campaigns they read about or see in their local newspapers or newscasts.


But there was no lack of journalists running around New Hampshire last week. That's because just when newspapers have depopulated the bus, a new crop of media outlets are eagerly putting people on board.

Most of today's political niche publications with large national audiences barely existed in 2004, and were just getting off the ground in 2008. Huffington Post debuted in 2005; Politico in 2007. National Journal relaunched as a free national Web site in 2010.

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Politics, Election 2012, media coverage
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