Passing Interference

As politicians find new ways to connect with voters, journalists need a fresh playbook

At the Poynter site last week, Jason Fry had a sharp post about a major change reshaping the sports journalism landscape. The endless MSM-vs.-bloggers feuds are fading, Fry writes, as a new development comes to the fore:

That development? It’s that teams, leagues, associations, athletes and agents are all increasingly bypassing journalists and using digital tools to communicate directly with fans. Right now, this stuff is mostly marketing. But as sports organizations become more sure-footed digitally, they will become journalists’ competitors. And that will lead them to reassess bargains struck with newspapers generations ago.

That old bargain, of course, involved sports league granting reporters access—often going so far as to mandate that athletes speak with journalists—in exchange for the coverage teams craved. But as sports franchises become more and more able to reach fans on their own, they’re less likely to accept that bargain unless they can impose new terms.

Fry links to an April blog post by outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, in which Cuban acknowledged that print and TV journalists still reach audiences the Mavericks can’t. And he appreciates the work of unpaid bloggers. But professional web reporters, Cuban argues, reach the same audience the team can connect with through its own online outlets. And, because they’re chasing web traffic, they tend to focus on stories (e.g., trade rumors) that create conflict and headaches for the team.

The upshot? “Sooner or later,” Fry writes, Cuban or some like-minded owner “is going to decide that publicity from traditional news coverage isn’t worth the headache of locker-room interrogations.”

The fancy word for this process is disintermediation. And the parallels with political journalism—and with campaign coverage in particular—hardly need to be spelled out. Like sports teams, candidates for office crave media attention, and they’ve traditionally granted access, or consented to interviews, in exchange for coverage. And like sports teams, candidates are finding ways to connect directly with voters in ways that have the potential to disrupt that bargain.

The biggest example to date is probably Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which attracted millions of visitors to Obama’s official website, reached countless more via YouTube, and provided new tools that allowed diehard supporters to spread the campaign’s message. Since then, we’ve seen the growth of Twitter, which done more than speed up the news cycle even faster: as Politico’s Ben Smith told Howie Kurtz over the weekend, it’s created a situation in which basic news is often “being tweeted by the players themselves.” We haven’t yet seen a situation in which a candidate fully exploits the opportunity of this disintermediated world to freeze out potentially unfriendly press. But as campaigns think more rigorously and more strategically about how to control their message, the movement is in that direction.

Which leads to two separate but related questions: First, what can journalists do in response? And second, is this trend—which seems clearly a threat to journalists—actually bad news for the functioning of our political system?

In his Poynter piece, Fry offers these suggestions for sports departments looking to stay relevant:

• First, think about what news teams will hold back to break themselves, and get out of the business of competing with them for it.

• Next, discuss which stories are me-too fare that readers can get anywhere, and that waste reporters’ valuable time.

• Having done that, think about what niches teams can’t fill. Fortunately, there are lots of these — statistical analysis, investigative reporting, scouting upcoming opponents, minor-league reports and historical perspective, to name just a few. Think about if any of those approaches make sense for your news organization, and brainstorm how middlemen can use their status to add value. (For instance, become a great curator, using news judgment to collect the must-reads for a team’s fans whether things are good, bad or ugly.)

To put that another way: Forget about commodity news and other stuff that depends on easy access. Instead, focus your first-order reporting on stories that your subjects don’t want to cover themselves (“investigative reporting”) or that are obscure but meaningful to the hard-core audience (“minor-league reports”). Then direct the rest of your editorial resources to adding value through analysis, interpretation, and context-setting (“statistical analysis,” “scouting upcoming opponents,” “historical perspective,” curation). There’s wisdom there, and some insights that apply to the political press.

But to bring a bit of “historical perspective” to this tale, earlier episodes suggest that what’s good for the press’s parochial interests—e.g., an emphasis on “analysis” that gives reporters a leg up in the power struggle with campaigns—is not necessarily good for readers. In a recent essay for the online journal The Forum (free access with registration), Stanford political scientist Shanto Iyengar argues that the rise of “interpretive” campaign coverage in the 1970s was driven in part by a “media game” played between newly adversarial reporters and campaign operatives. Journalists, reluctant to simply quote what they saw as self-serving candidates, began emphasizing analysts’ voices. And as the focus of coverage shifted to the analysts’ area of expertise—the horse race—accounts of stump speeches disappeared, making it harder for voters to hear and evaluate the candidates’ messages. Ultimately, Iyengar writes, “one of the consequences of this game is that substantive questions of public policy are relegated to backstage status.”

Against this backdrop, he argues, the “unmediated campaign” can be a good thing, because the unilluminating media game is no longer the only game in town: “Rather than waiting for news organizations to report on the policies they might care about, voters can take matters into their own hands and visit candidate websites to examine their positions on the issues.”

Iyengar may be too sanguine about the likely results of this “motivated exposure.” Still, his points are worth taking seriously. At one level, his essay is a reminder that voters do need straightforward information about what the candidates are saying. And, so long as journalists provide prompt and consistent scrutiny of misleading statements, there’s value in the press serving as a conduit for that information.

It’s also a reminder of something deeper: while journalists like to think of ourselves as guardians of democracy who keep candidates honest, that status has to be earned. “Analysis” and “interpretation” sound like good things, but Iyengar’s framing offers an explanation for why much campaign analysis comes off as mean-spirited or shallow. When analytical coverage is motivated by a power struggle between reporters and campaigns, after all, it’s going to be different from analysis that flows from the question, “What else does a voter need to know to understand what’s happening here?”

Which means, in turn, that the challenge before the campaign press is really twofold. As candidates take advantage of an increasingly disintermediated world, reporters will have to prove they’re still relevant. And as they search for ways to do that, they’ll have to remember that campaign journalism matters not for its own sake, but for the role it plays in the democratic process—and that the people with most at stake are not reporters, but voters.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.