Given the saturation-level coverage of the Palin family’s Winnebago vacation this Memorial Day weekend, you might be surprised to hear that the 2012 election has been getting relatively scant media coverage when compared to 2008. But cast your mind back to the early summer of 2007, when political reporters scrambled to cover large and colorful fields on both sides—one featuring a viable African American candidate and a female frontrunner—and you will quickly see that a bus tour and a few goofily patriotic YouTube videos ain’t got nothing on that circus.
Rather than be thankful for life’s small mercies, Politico media reporter Keach Hagey has put in the shoe-leather and gathered the opinions of a number of big-name political editors and directors on why 2012 is taking so long to get underway. The key reason is the obvious one—we have an incumbent president this time around whereas last time the field was wide open on both sides. But even then, says Hagey, political directors are surprised by just how slowly things are coming along:
even seasoned pros are surprised by how long it has taken for the Republican field to take shape and for the media to become fully engaged in covering the campaign.
“If you had asked me six months ago where we would be right now, I think I probably would have said that we would have a bigger and more dynamic field, a more engaged campaign, and debates, and a relatively full cast of candidate reporters out there following the kind of day-to-day activities of a presidential race,” said Richard Stevenson, political editor of the New York Times. “And clearly, this year, things have been very slow to jell.”
There is much of the usual tortuous questioning about whether we’re in a 2008 or 1996 cycle before Hagey gives some interesting hard numbers on where exactly political coverage currently stands. For example, at The New York Times, Jeff Zeleny is doing the bulk of candidate coverage by himself, travelling to early primary states, whereas at this time in 2007, the paper had individual reporters assigned to the two top-tier candidates in each party. It’s a similar scaling down across all major papers, including the Post, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal.
Hagey explores a couple of interesting aspects of this downsizing. First, some editors suggest that a lack of audience interest is playing a part in their allocation of resources. Noting that, Hagey adds that a “Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that just four percent of the people polled last week said they followed the 2012 race most closely [of all news stories], compared to 27% for Osama bin Laden and Pakistan, and 19% the Mississippi River floods.” Of course, it’s difficult to gauge interest in the election by this measure, given the extraordinary amount of focus that bin Laden’s death has drawn. But anecdotally, it seems there is probably a strong case to be made that interest in the GOP field right now pales to interest in primary candidates leading up to 2008.
More interesting for media watchers is the suggestion that some newspaper and TV political directors are leaving the daily grind stuff to the web. And websites, from Politico itself to the Daily Caller, are picking up the slack, assigning reporters to candidates and providing blanket coverage. Here, Hagey speaks to David Lauter, chief of the Tribune Company’s Washington bureau.
“The events of the day are being much more intensely covered by new media, and I think that puts pressure on folks like us to figure out a different way of doing what we do - something that’s more enterprise focused, less focused on the story of the day, than it would have been in ’88 or ’92 or the ’96 campaign,” Lauter said.
That new media, it should be noted, is often closely tied to the mainstream, as nearly ever paper and TV network has a web presence that covers “the events of the day” on political blogs and through social media.
One aspect of today’s election coverage that goes unmentioned in Hagey’s piece, and which might play into the way that political editors assign coverage of the upcoming election, is the way in which reports are increasingly shared—willingly or not. A CNN report on Sarah Palin snubbing reporters, for instance, can be rewritten and linked to as far afield as The Daily Caller, The Huffington Post, or on a New York Times blog without the need for any original reporting. Or, a Politico report on the scaling back of election coverage can be excerpted and analyzed immediately at cjr.org. In an age in which original campaign reports are repackaged, rewritten, and retweeted—with zero feet necessary on the ground—editors may not feel the need to over-assign their reporters.