Bus stopped?

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  January 11, 2012

They and others are flooding the zone, in hopes of securing a lasting spot in the evolving national political sphere. National Journal had at least seven reporters filing with New Hampshire datelines this past weekend. The Daily Caller had at least five. Politico has had reporters assigned to travel with specific candidates since before they formally declared their candidacies.

The good news, argues Real Clear Politics reporter Erin McPike, is that this has increased competition, which makes reporters do better work.

In the old days, campaign reporters writing for their local newspapers could often afford to churn out the same story as reporters from other cities — a phenomenon Crouse cruelly depicted. That lack of competition has only increased since then, as more cities have become one-newspaper towns.

But reporters like McPike compete for national political readers against every other national outlet — or actually, in the Internet age, anyone at all.

No question, there has been plenty of coverage for anyone who wants it. But what stories are they competing for? Given the audience of political junkies, seeking hour-by-hour "news" about the race, there is naturally a tendency to write about new poll numbers, tidbits of campaign strategy, minor logistical hiccups, slight changes in a stump speech, and other trivia often referred to as "process stories."

"The coverage is far more inside-baseball than it ever was before," McPike says. "It's talking about process things that don't translate well out in the streets."

"It's a different audience," says Beth Fouhy, who covers the campaign for the Associated Press. "It's people who are passionate about politics. If regional coverage goes down, then that coverage drives the race. This has been a great race for political junkies."

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) — and a former Phoenix staff writer — says that this has already happened to coverage of Congress and the White House. A 2009 PEJ study found that local newspapers had shut down or scaled back their Washington bureaus, while specialty and niche publications had ramped up.

In that case, the average news consumer did appear to suffer, as coverage increasingly focused on matters of interest to their highly connected, Washington-insider audiences.

"There was a de-democratizing of the news," says Jurkowitz.

But he's not ready to say that campaign coverage will suffer the same way. Unlike Washington, where reporters cover their home state's members of Congress and issues with specific local impact, presidential campaign coverage has never had much of a local angle, Jurkowitz says.

Wilkie tends to agree. "If you're writing for Politico, maybe you're writing for a different audience, but as a reporter you're doing the same thing as [legendary New York Times reporter] Johnny Apple did 30 years ago," he says, adding: "if you're doing a good job."


Whether they're doing a good job is yet another question. Wilkie and others fear that the niche political publications are using young reporters, with little campaign experience.

"They've dumbed it down so much," carps longtime Boston scribe Mike Barnicle, now a contributor at MSNBC. "Sixty-five percent of the press corps today are examples of poor parenting. They're just playing Words with Friends and working out at the hotel gym."

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