News Leadership 3.0

August 13, 2008

Crowding the conventions

15,000 journalists will cover
summer political conventions
Why?

I was astonished to read in Forbes that officials for the Democratic and Republican conventions expect 15,000 journalists will be on hand for each one. This number is about the same as for the last two convention seasons, Forbes reports, and some organizations report they are cutting back.

My initial reaction was very similar to that of Mark Potts, who writes:

“At a time when news budgets are being slashed because of declining revenue, how can a news organization possibly justify sending a raft of people to the conventions? (I suspect the numbers for the Olympics are about the same-and just as ridiculous.)

“The Los Angeles Times is sending 15 people to the conventions, Forbes says. And that doesn’t count journalists from other Tribune Co. papers that will be helping out. With what? Apparently, the Zellot cost-cutters missed this line item. Too bad. USA Today plans to send 34 reporters to each convention; Dow Jones is sending 23 to each. The New York Times and Washington Post aren’t disclosing their numbers, but you can believe they’re similarly inflated. The good news is that many organizations say they’re cutting back from previous convention coverage-but it’s still too much.

“Sorry, but in most cases, there’s really no (legitimate) excuse for a single news organization to send a large number of journalists to the convention. What stories are they going to get that the AP can’t supply? Hijinks of the local delegates? Inside info about what the candidates hope to do for the economy back home? Local color on Denver and St. Paul? It’s really hard to understand the need for this kind of bulk coverage.”

I think Potts is onto something in his mention of “bulk coverage.” As newsroom executives struggle to “do more with less,” they must increasingly focus on what they can provide that is unique to their franchise, rather than following the pack. I cannot think of a more “pack” event than a political convention whose speeches are carefully scripted, whose presidential nominee has been long decided, and whose vice presidential nominee likely will have been announced before the delegates convene. Providing coverage that is unique and relevant to a particular audience is key. 

I also am frustrated when I thinking about all the stories that thousands of reporters might be covering closer to home as the conventions unfold. With the troubled economy, mortgage foreclosures, health care, the federal budget deficit and rising energy costs, I don’t think it’s possible for journalists to be developing enough stories about the impact of these issues on their communities and the people who live in them. Not to mention creating and linking to resources for people in trouble and holding officials accountable for their share of the problem (or explaining why they have no share).

Linda Austin, editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader, offers a similar reaction: “I wish we could get the person power of 15,000 journalists focused on something that really needs investigating as opposed to two coronations.”

The Herald-Leader will rely on McClatchy’s Washington Bureau for overall coverage and is recruiting citizens to blog from the convention floor. “What we are trying to do is get a citizen blogger from our area who is going to each convention to write about the spectacle of it all from the average Joe’s vantage point. I’m trying to avoid the stars of our delegation and look for the people who are going who are not in the limelight,” Austin said.

Sherry Chisenhall, editor of The Wichita Eagle, will send one reporter to each convention and rely on McClatchy as well. Chisenhall thought the large numbers might reflect in part a desire for local coverage. “My assumption is that all of those journalists are not there to cover simply the nomination process. I would think that a significant percentage might be there for local same purposes we are - to localize coverage of a major national news event. I could be wrong, and perhaps the percentage of local news-focused reporters is small. But it strikes me that, even if it swells the ranks of the media pool covering the convention, there’s value in bringing big national news to the local level for a relatively small travel budget. Bloggers are probably another group that’s bringing the news pool so high, and again, I see value in that type of coverage.”

While Forbes focused on staffing for national news organizations, I checked by e-mail with editors of local and Metro newspapers, which are more apt to send one or two reporters, if any. A sampling:

The Seattle Times will send one reporter, as it did four years ago, to focus on the Washington delegation and local issues. “For regional papers, it’s as important as a networking and sourcing platform as it is a news event,” says Executive Editor David Boardman.

The Dayton Daily News will send two reporters to each convention in addition to staff blogs from home, a slight reduction from four years ago. Like Seattle, Dayton will focus on Ohio and delegates from the region. Says Editor Kevin Riley: “We really questioned whether we needed to go, and I’m still not sure it was the right decision. In the end, I like our local politicos to know we are there, and we are watching them.”

The Miami Herald will send two reporters, including one that does multimedia, says Manny Garcia, senior news editor. The two will focus heavily on South Florida stories—including whether the state’s delegation will be seated at the convention—and hot local issues such as immigration and health care. A third journalist based in the newsroom will focus on honing the convention Web package.

The Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., will rely on a reporter from Gannett News Service who will be covering for all New York Gannett papers and focus on that state’s delegation. Traci Bauer, Managing Editor for Multimedia/Innovation, says that’s the same practice as four years ago.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is sending a reporter and a columnist to both conventions to cover the Texas delegation, with a special focus on people from our area.  “We need to send someone because if we don’t then those local stories won’t be told - obviously we can count on the wires to provide the national coverage for us,” says Editor Jim Witt.

As you might expect, smaller news organizations were unlikely to send anyone. John Smalley, editor of the LaCrosse Tribune in Wisconsin, said his organization would not send anyone even to nearby St. Paul. Smalley called the 15,000 count “Totally insane and a massive waste of news resources.”

While traditional news organizations are cutting back, the ranks of bloggers are growing, convention organizers told Forbes. “More than 120 bloggers got passes for Denver, compared with about 30 at the 2004 Democratic convention. The GOP event will host 200 credentialed bloggers, compared with just 12 in 2004.”

Live-blogging seems like a great way to capture the mood and comments from delegates on the convention floor, while leaving the podium coverage to national organizations. I’d like to hear from news organizations that will be blogging from the convention. Is anyone planning to Twitter the convention, or, better yet, ask delegates to Twitter on their news feeds? Please share your plans and ideas in the comments.

(Thanks to Romenesko for the pointer to Forbes.)

 

Comments

I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. It seems like such a waste when you think about all the local stories that these reporters could be doing while at the convention - repeating everything else that will be reported by the wires.

Horse-race politics wins the day.


Who wants to bet that so many reporters will not bring us a range of angles or distinctive coverage, but will just amplify the insipid echoing of scandalous rumors and gaffes that are, in the end, completely useless in deciding who should be the next president?


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