RJInnovation Week: Gerald M. Boyd Politics & Press Responsibility Lecture Series

The section I had the opportunity to attend in this lecture series was Covering the GOP Primary: Has fixing the economy been in focus? I was particularly interested in this talk because of my dual degree in Political Science.

This discussion was made up of a panel of leading journalists,  including Major Carrett (National Journal), Jake Wagman (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), Darrel Rowland (The Columbus Dispatch) and Rochelle Riley (Detroit Free Press). Together, these panelists were from 4 swing states and brought a national perspective, a local outlet focus, and hyper local focus. I wanted to highlight a few of the questions Mark Russell asked these panelists.

To what extent did debates drive further coverage in the election? 

Garrett believed that the debates really did drive and shape further coverage. A few examples he drew on was Romney’s comment on nuclear bombs and how that ultimate promise will come back to haunt him if he is elected. He also mentioned that Herman Cain’s “I check with my advisors” answer to nearly all the foreign policy questions sensitized voters to his ignorance. Then, when he was asked the Libya question, he was crushed, thanks to the build-up from the debate.

Wagman said that it is a struggle to find substance at all in the everyday grind of the newsroom. He said it is so difficult to actually find something to write that is organic. Most things are just passed along from one news source to another.

Riley mentioned that what she realizes in Detroit is that people really want to see who they are. People are frustrated when the debates became more entertainment than information.

Is it true that there is too much coverage on horse race issues? Has this year’s coverage raised or lowered the bar? How about your publication specifically? 

Riley admitted that her paper is part of the reason why it’s hard to cover something that is substantive, beyond the auto industry. that kind of myopic vision can be dangerous.

Rowland said that instead of going to the candidates first, journalists need to go to the people first and understand what their needs are. Like any other story, you must go out into the community and tell people’s stories.

Wagman pointed out that politicians and advisors are generally so scared of going out on a limb that there is no distance between their positions. Often, the horse race becomes the most interesting part. If you try to talk policy, politicians will just give you their talking points. And with limited resources and time, there is hardly any way to dig deeper and go beyond the nuts and the bolts.

How do you provide that dig deep coverage?

According to Rowland, The Columbus Dispatch uses a few staff for those “think pieces”.

Riley argued that the press honestly hasn’t provided that kind of “dig deep” coverage for decades. She held that pack journalism killed in-depth political coverage. Instead of hardworking people, journalism is becoming filled with people who want to make money and become a star. Overall, local papers don’t have the time. And they are not getting the honest, candid questions that are needed in the debate. Instead, the political process is analogous to a soap opera and it becomes mainly about personalities.

Garrett added that the only way to continue to have the resources to cover issue-driven stories is to persuade people to pay for content. One must build a subscriber base. The National Journal‘s subscription fee is $4000/year. 65% of their content is behind a pay wall.


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