The Big (Press) Tent

BOSTON — Hollywood stars often demand riders in their contracts guaranteeing themselves everything from posh trailers on film sets to special meals. Though one might think the press pavilion at the Democratic National Convention might be just as glitzy and glamorous, it isn’t. No Diptyque candles scenting the air; no bowls full of M&M’s with the brown ones picked out. Alas, there isn’t even indoor plumbing.

The temporary home of the press is defined by gigantic banners letting everyone know that the New York Times is over here and Newsweek is over there. Without those banners one wouldn’t know where to find a former colleague, future employer, or old buddy. God forbid someone miss your booth and think your publication had been relegated to the press center outside the pavilion, a.k.a the kiddy table.

It’s all about having a seat at the adult table. The place to be, status-wise, is the press center atop the former site of the storied Boston Garden a mere 30 yards from the FleetCenter. It has the paneling and girth of a golf dome, but is shaped more like a large HAZMAT tent. All the usual suspects are front and center. After passing through the food court (which offers mediocre and grossly overpriced sandwiches) you immediately hit the Washington Post. Beyond them, Newsweek. Next is the New York Times and the Boston Globe, which each occupy a few thousand square feet according to the giant mockup of the pavilion on display as you enter. Up the stairs you go, where you’ll find Gannett, the Associated Press, and the Tribune Company occupying gigantic spaces up to 8600 square feet.

It’s the space itself — not the banal workstations — that defines who you are at this convention. In an attempt to play with the big boys, small regional papers banded together and won a sliver of room in the upper corner of the second floor. Jake Thompson of the Omaha World-Herald sent out a notice late last year to members of the Regional Reporters Association asking who wanted in on his application to the Senate and House press galleries. Six responded, including the swing-state Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The space is adequate, says Thompson, noting that it’s smaller than in past conventions.

The Boston Herald, this city’s equivalent of the New York Post, seems, at first glance, to have some prime real estate. That is, until you realize that the closer you get, the larger the goose bumps get on your arms until you can see your breath: The paper’s workspace is directly under what is labeled as “AC Unit” on the pavilion’s floor plan.

The New York Post itself wasn’t even that lucky. Along with fellow Rupert Murdoch-owned publication The Weekly Standard, the paper shares a basement room next to the dungeon better known as the Unassigned General Filing Center in 98 Washington St. According to the Democratic National Convention Committee volunteers on hand to help confused reporters, you can get to 98 Washington by taking a left on Causeway and then a right after passing under the highway. But all anyone notices is how the building is outside the security perimeter and thus requires a second or third trip through the airport-like security.

Stationed on the fourth floor of 98 Washington St., United Press International’s Editor-in-Chief Martin Walker says he prefers to be outside the press pavilion. The outer filing areas, he says, are quieter and, above all, cheaper. With his people filing from 98 Washington he is budgeting $20,000 for the convention space — if he had pushed for the main pavilion press tent, he said, the bill would have climbed to six figures.

Still, on a floor dominated by obscure radio outlets and the foreign press, there’s an office marked only by a handwritten sign in cursive reading “The New Yorker,” which embodies the forsaken atmosphere of the fourth floor. Inside there is little other than an untouched press kit from the Weekly Standard and a note from a college student in search of an internship. An AOL photo editor a few doors down says many of the offices have been abandoned, perhaps by people in search of better space.

Back on Causeway Street outside the main press pavilion, scores of the bylined are hastily checking their blackberries — the status symbol of the adult table — nodding as colleagues pass, exchanging handshakes and notes, happy to be at the place to be.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.