American Culture

Booting the boys off the bus: Coverage costly, newspapers whine

Timothy Crouse’s book gave us the overused phrase “boys on the bus.” Now, it seems, the boys (and girls) are being yanked off the bus in droves. Fewer and fewer reporters for the nation’s major dailies are riding the campaign bus and flying on the press plane to regularly cover the remnants of the pre-convention presidential race.

That bodes poorly for both the survival of the print press and the level of political knowledge of the electorate the print press decreasingly serves.

Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times reports that 650 journalists parachuted into Cleveland, Ohio, in February to cover the debate between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “But,” Mr. Steinberg writes, “early the next morning, as the two candidates set off for engagements across Ohio and Texas, representatives of only two dozen or so news organizations tagged along.” [emphasis added].

Newspaper managers say they have reasons for pulling the boys off the bus.

Covering a presidential campaign is pricey. If candidates are flying hither and yon each day, the cost per day for a newspaper to put a reporter on that plane can teach $2,000. Multiply that by several days a week, per month, per election season. This political season has been interminably long and therefore uncommonly expensive for the press to cover. Newsweek, to its credit, is shelling out $30,000 a month to have a person ride full time on the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

Newspaper owners claim they are increasingly unable to write checks that big. Ad revenues are down. Circulations are declining. Profits are shored up by reducing costs — especially in “human resources” — by cutting editorial jobs, all for the benefit of institutional investors concerned only with short-term gains. So newspapers don’t have oversea bureaus any more, and many are closing bureaus within the United States as well. And they’re shedding coverage of presidential politics as well.

According to Mr. Steinberg, among the boys and girls no longer on the bus are those from USA Today, the nation’s largest paper; The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Baltimore Sun, The Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer. (My newspaper, The Buffalo News, is owned by one of the richest men in the world, Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway, and even it doesn’t have a boy on the bus.) The only newspapers covering the campaigns full time are The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal and The Times.

Mr. Steinberg quotes Lee Horwich, a senior editor at USA Today who oversees political coverage:

We’d all like to be able to be out there. Given the reality of the costs and various priorities, not just political priorities but across the rest of the newspaper, it just isn’t realistic for us. [emphasis added]

Well, so what? So what if there are fewer reporters daily following the candidates? After all, some observers think it’s a good idea to cut back. Says S. Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University:

I’m not sure too much is lost. There used to be a self-defined cadre of campaign reporters. Now the news comes from everywhere — from bloggers, maybe some guy with a video camera. Anyone can generate news and everyone can generate news. What’s the advantage of being the 50th guy on the bus?

According to Mr. Steinberg, this is who provides your regular, daily mainstream press campaign coverage:

For firsthand, daily dispatches from the campaign trail, most of the [newspapers no longer on the bus] have relied heavily on reports from the wire services, including The Associated Press, Bloomberg and Reuters; a handful of Web sites; and video captured by camera-toting producers from the television networks and cable news channels.

I suppose that’s good enough for the health of American democracy. Why invest more in coverage of a campaign to place in office a man or woman who will become the most powerful person in the world?

Who needs reporters to daily follow the candidates to catch conflicts in statements or positions, reveal pandering to special interests, track down inconsistencies in a candidate’s background, learn who has the candidate’s ear and could become a Cabinet member … and so on. Newspapers, whose profit margins average 15 percent, have placed financial considerations over the obligation given them in exchange for First Amendment protection against government interference: hold government and those who campaign to govern accountable.

Yes, the current coverage might be sufficient for that. But suppose a Buffalo News reporter (if Mr. Buffett would cough up 30 large per month) got on the bus and the plane and covered all the above but focused on how candidates’ words and acts might affect Buffalo and western New York state? Ditto the Des Moines Register, the Seattle Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, the Houston Chronicle … You get the idea. Homogenized campaign coverage does too little to serve regional issues and concerns.

When a candidate is elected, I certainly hope newspapers not now on the bus will rush correspondents to the White House to cover the president for the next four (eight?) years. But how well trained will those newly minted White House correspondents be? Reports Mr. Steinberg:

Deep and thoughtful reporting is also being produced by journalists off the trail. And some news organizations that can afford it are doing both. But the absence of some newspapers on the trail suggests not only that readers are being exposed to fewer perspectives drawn from shoe-leather reporting, but also that fewer reporters will arrive at the White House in January with the experience that editors have typically required to cover a president on Day 1. [emphasis added]

There’s another cost to major regional newspapers’ shortsighted shirking of daily campaign coverage.

Newspapers say they’re losing younger readers (and older readers, too: We tend to die). So they’ve added style and flash in special sections to attract those young readers. But campaigns this year, particularly that of Sen. Barack Obama, have been fueled by youthful interest and vitality. They like politics, they take it seriously, and they want substance from their newspapers, not wire copy.

Defecting from the daily grind of presidential campaign coverage shows these younger readers that newspapers do not mirror young people’s commitment to the political process. These cutbacks show newspapers surrendering an informational and therefore competitive advantage with other forms of news gathering and dissemination — particularly blogging — in terms of connecting regional and local issues to national campaigns.

Maybe newspapers have already lost this round. According to The Times‘ Brian Stelter:

[Y]ounger voters tend to be not just consumers of news and current events but conduits as well — sending out e-mailed links and videos to friends and their social networks. And in turn, they rely on friends and online connections for news to come to them. In essence, they are replacing the professional filter — reading The Washington Post, clicking on — with a social one. [emphasis added]

Regarded solely as demographic targets for circulation boosts by mainstream newspapers and other media, these young people whom traditional media do not serve well have created their own social networks for obtaining and sharing political news about the presidential campaigns.

In one sense, this social filter is simply a technological version of the oldest tool in politics: word of mouth. Jane Buckingham, the founder of the Intelligence Group, a market research company, said the “social media generation” was comfortable being in constant communication with others, so recommendations from friends or text messages from a campaign — information that is shared, but not sought — were perceived as natural.

The town crier is old and yet new again. This is what newspapers used to be — a voice of and for all the people. But the press’s disheartening cutbacks in this presidential campaign has only hastened its departure from remaining meaningful to all the electorate.

photo credit: Jim Bourg, Reuters

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