So why does Cain’s campaign merit press coverage? For one thing, even on weighty issues—and issues don’t get much weightier than presidential elections—journalists should be alert to good stories, whether or not they are likely to “matter” in a conventional sense. And, as Jason Horowitz has just shown with a profile in The Washington Post, Herman Cain is a good story. The son of a chaffeur, he became the first college graduate in his family and went on to a very successful business career. He is, with some justification, entertainingly self-confident. (From Horowitz: “Being an overachiever, Cain said, ‘is an understatement.’”) He refers to himself in the third person, and goes by THEHermancain on Twitter.

More substantively, a campaign like Cain’s, even if not a real threat to win, can provide a window to important issues. Horowitz is appropriately skeptical of Cain’s presidential prospects, but, he writes, his campaign raises some serious questions:

Who’s calling the shots in the Republican Party—the elite establishment or the grass-roots activists? What does the popularity of a black tea party hero say about the movement’s relationship with race? Is the goal of the upstarts in the Republican field the presidency or a cushy Fox news gig? And in the tea party era, do quixotic candidates tilt at windmills or reap electoral windfalls?

And while Horowitz’s profile offers scant discussion of policy, there’s room for the press to do more there, too. Cain has come under scrutiny for his amateurish understanding of foreign policy, but probably more consequential is that he is attracting non-trivial support while, as Horowitz writes, adopting far-right economic policy positions that include speaking “with reverence of the gold standard.” That means there is an opportunity for reporters to explain—rather than assuming readers know—what the gold standard is and why it was abandoned, to fit Cain’s surge into the general rightward drift of economic conversation, and to explore what impact his candidacy may have on other, more viable, candidates.

Doing that sort of reporting now will prepare both journalists and readers to more intelligently scrutinize the candidates who come to the fore as this campaign grinds on—and that’s something we can all agree is important.

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.