Talking Shop: Johanna Neuman

A conversation with an author of the LAT's "Countdown to Crawford" blog

Johanna Neuman, along with James Gerstenzang, writes Countdown to Crawford, a one-month-old blog on that follows the Bush administration’s last few months in office.

1. Was Countdown to Crawford originally your conception?

It was the conception of a group of editors in L.A. and Washington that there was a great deal of material about the Bush administration that was getting ignored by the tsunami of campaign coverage. That offered us an opportunity both to rescue items that were falling between the cracks and to remind readers that the Bush administration has several months left on the watch and is doing things that affect us as citizens—things that might be important to blog about and make note of.

This week is a good example. The coverage of Obama in Europe is overwhelming, almost everything. And yet the president reneged on a housing bill. That was kind of interesting.There just doesn’t seem to be any lack of information or behavior that is of interest to people. Dick Cheney seems relentlessly interesting no matter what we post about him. He seems to draw a lot of attention. Certain committees on the hill that are Bush-centric, if you will, the judiciary committees and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform are regularly churning through the controversies of the last seven-and-a-half years, trying to pin down culpability and do post-mortems. Those topics are not only of import, but also of interest.

2. Have there been any frustrations in covering the White House in the midst of such frenzied campaign coverage?

We are actually quite pleased. It’s early—the blog is about a month old—but for a baby blog it’s had considerable traffic. We think there’s actually an audience of people who are interested in what the Bush administration is doing as it goes out the door, that think it’s important for someone to put a spotlight on that.

3. How has it been to write this blog alongside the L.A. TimesTop of the Ticket campaign blog, which, for obvious reasons, must be getting a good deal of traffic?

Top of the Ticket is an inspiration to all of us that blog at the L.A. Times. They are usually at the top of our internal count in terms of hits or page views. They’re hustlers. Those two guys [Andrew Malcolm and Don Frederick] are always working and posting and are usually ahead of the curve. So in that sense we’ve just tried to follow their example. Theirs is somewhat different in that theirs has an edge to it, I think. There’s a little bit of an attitude that comes through. And because ours is tethered to an institution of government, we’ve tried to stay closer to the news and further from opinion. We tend not to put in commentary about the subject at hand.

We also have the resources of the entire Washington bureau to help us, and we welcome their contributions. We have a stellar team at the Pentagon that provides items; we have a fabulous Justice Department reporter, a great Supreme Court reporter, and all of those people have items that involve the Bush administration in its last days. And so part of the instinct for this blog was to corral a lot of the material that we already have in-house that was maybe falling through the cracks.

4. What were you doing in terms of political reporting prior to this?

For the primary season, I was the Web reporter for politics on the campaign—I watched the raw feeds of the candidates talking, I took in their e-mails, I got feeds from the reporters that we had traveling, and I would cobble together a news story for that on most days did not end up in the newspaper (which I now refer to as the dead tree edition). Our chief mission now is to get the news out quickly, or to blog something quickly; that has become the ruling ethos. It’s not what the topic is, but the purpose. And the purpose is to put it in context, to do the best you can as quickly as you can, crafting it with some style, but then sharing it with the readers.

5. How does Countdown to Crawford fits into the spectrum of coverage priorities at the L.A. Times right now?

I think the context we see this in is more about extending our reach on the Internet. There’s a wide perception that print journalism is shrinking while Internet journalism is growing. If we’re to have a future, this newspaper with a very proud past needs to embrace that thought while still maintaining our standards of journalism—that quality that Otis Chandler stood for that we try to emulate.

6. Campaign reporters are often accused of covering the politics more than they do the issues. But beyond the election, there are policy decisions going down in Washington that sometimes get swept under the carpet by more exciting campaign news. Is the blog a counterpoint to that?

I remember other campaign years where this has happened, where there’s a rush to the door and everyone forgets about the president incumbent. And I guess you could say that we saw it as an opening. And the response that we’ve gotten from the public suggests that the editors were right about that. Even the people who don’t much like the Bush administration want to know what the White House is up to, and they want to know what Congress is doing to hold the White House to account.

I suppose this is an opportunity for them to vent their feelings about it. I remember one day I posted an item about Bush sort of switching positions and suggesting that we should lift the ban on offshore drilling, and I was surprised by the reactions in the comments. There were quite a number of people who were having second thoughts, who were saying, “I’ve always been a Democrat” or “I’ve always been an environmentalist, but gosh, I’m having trouble filling my gas tank.” There was a lively debate in the comments about this policy shift, and I thought,this is cool, people are talking amongst themselves about something that matters to all of them. And that’s a good thing.

7. How culpable is the press for rushing straight to the campaign bus?

Well, I think it’s what we always do, and it’s understandable. There’s an excitement about the new and whoever is coming next. It’s just inevitable. And also, because reporters tend to be more driven by the horserace than by policy.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.