What’s A Local Site To Do?

Small and hyper-local sites gear up for the GOP primary

In June 2010, Craig Robinson got a midterm scoop that no other media outlet, national or local, was able to get. Robinson, the editor-in-chief of the website Iowa Republican was attending a campaign event for GOP gubernatorial primary candidate Terry Branstad in Jefferson, a small town fifty miles northwest of Des Moines. During a break in Branstad’s address, an aide approached with a piece of paper and whispered something into the candidate’s ear. “I never expected this,” a grinning Branstad told the gathering. “Sarah Palin just endorsed us on Facebook.” The future governor looked as if he’d just found a golden ticket.

The endorsement itself was not really a scoop for Robinson; the scoop was that Robinson had caught Branstad’s reaction to the endorsement on video. “I was rolling film and I actually had his reaction and expression on camera,” says Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa. “Other news media outlets didn’t get it. I was the only one there.”

Okay, so Robinson’s video was more of a “scooplet.” A Terry Branstad smile isn’t exactly the Pentagon Papers, even among hyper-local and niche political news outfits. But the one-minute clip that Robinson captured is the kind of reporting that can distinguish small-operation news outlets. An exclusive—no matter how mini—is particularly important for smaller sites during an election campaign, with large national outfits barging in and overwhelming your usual beat.

In Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—the four highly competitive and earliest GOP presidential primary and caucus states—local startups like Robinson’s will soon find their regular local focus drawn to the quadrennial national carnival and to the new competition from the press pack following it. Politico, for one, has staffers following every major candidate as they swing through the important states, reporting for the outfit’s hyperactive vertical, Politico Live 2012. And if the past is anything to go by, the major dailies and weekly magazines soon will have a similar system in place, trying to get the early read on the contenders. Robinson says that just “being there”—at every event, always, with laptop and camera in hand—will be crucial to the small guys staying relevant and offering something the big guys can’t. Others like him are similarly planning to make their mark as the candidates and their press buses roll onto their home fields.

Any discussion about small, local news websites must begin with the Huffington Post/AOL brand Patch, which has local news websites in twenty-one states. (Starting with Patch is a rule by now, right?) In May, AOL Huffington Post Media Group president and editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington announced Patch would be reaching into three “key primary states,” launching thirty-three new Patch sites in New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina. So far, Patch has launched six sites in New Hampshire, one in Iowa, and three in South Carolina. The rollout, Huffington said at the time, means “Patch positions itself squarely on the front lines of the presidential campaign and will be able to deliver a real-time snapshot of how pivotal communities are reacting to candidates—as well as immediate feedback on whether the issues that matter most to these towns are being addressed.”

Brian Farnham, who is the overarching editor-in-chief of Patch’s eight hundred-plus sites, says the move into early primary states is an obvious strategic one. “We thought, let’s be in place in those markets sooner rather than later because the election is a real opportunity to be part of the drivers of that big national conversation,” he told me in early June. Farnham stresses too that the sites are not flash-in-the-pan setups just to cover the primaries. To that end, the local Patch editors who have and will be hired on will be a mix of those with “political savvy” and strong generalist reporters and editors. (Patch sites typically employ one professional editor.) “They will be long-term Patches, this is not a short-term play.”

But Farnham has specific ideas in the short-term for this GOP field. Like Robinson’s Iowa Republican, the focus of Patch’s reporting in early primary states will be on getting the stories the mainstream outlets can’t, or choose not to. “What we hope for them to do in that short-term window of the elections is not chase the horse race, to not chase the buses around with all the hordes of other media that will be there when the players come to town. It’s: find the angles that are really local.” Patch will be something of a bulletin board for citizens to air their concerns about the race, with citizen blogs and forums, and reports will be infused at times by a before-and-after approach. “When the show leaves town, what are the issues that remain? What are the questions that remain for the people that live there?

If you’re a follower of the kind of debates that circle around election reporting, you will hear in Farnham’s words echoes of NYU professor Jay Rosen’s “Citizens Agenda” approach to campaign reporting—which involves, to crudely truncate Rosen’s ten steps, enlisting the input of citizens and directing resources away from covering the political race and toward covering how candidates are addressing the policy concerns of voters. Unsurprisingly, it was the driving philosophy behind a major election campaign project undertaken by AOL’s new partner, The Huffington Post, in partnership with Rosen’s site NewAssignment.net, for the 2008 presidential campaign. “OffTheBus,” as the project was called, enlisted some twelve thousand “citizen journalists”—from concerned locals to campaign insiders—to contribute the kind of campaign reporting that the mainstream press did not have the resources, or inclination, to do. The idea was to get the stories the traditional media was missing. These would then get national play in The Huffington Post.

The most famous OffTheBus scoop came in April 2008 when contributor Mayhill Fowler reported on the San Francisco fundraiser at which then candidate Obama made his seized-upon “guns” and “religions” comments about rural Pennsylvanians—“…it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” The audio that Fowler recorded was soon all over cable and the quotes wound up on Meet the Press, fuelling the Obama-elitist-arugula meme. The impact was greater than Robinson’s grinning Branstad, but the principle was the same. It was being there that counted.

With Patch at its disposal now, Huffington does not need OffTheBus, and it looks like Patch editors and their citizen contributors will be filling in. “When Huffington Post joined AOL, we immediately all sat down to talk about how we can work with them since we have this really interesting high-low, one-two punch—the altitude of the Huffington Post, a national conversation starter and coverer, and Patch, doing that on-the-ground reporting,” explains Farnham. “How can we play off of each other? How can we go from local to global and back again? Elections are a great opportunity to do that, so that was very much part of the conversation.”

Of course, independent sites without Patch’s resources, AOL’s hamsterized ethos, and HuffPo’s platform will have a harder time cutting through with their election coverage. And the first step—bulking up for the fight, as Patch is doing with its launches—is often the toughest. Resources and money are often scarce, though Robinson feels confident that he will have a team of five reporters and writers (unpaid contributors) working by the time of the Iowa Straw Poll, which will take place this year on August 13 at Iowa State University. He is also preparing and distinguishing himself for the caucus coverage by taking his nimble one-man operation outside of Iowa as much as possible, to events like the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., to get an early handle on the field. “It allows you to see other candidates who may emerge as candidates, it’s a different knowledge base,” he told me. “All the Rick Perry talk that’s going on right now? I’ve seen Rick Perry speak four to five times.”

Elizabeth Crum, who runs the Franklin Center-affiliated nonprofit Nevada News Bureau out of Henderson, says she will cover as many primary campaign events as she can along with her single editorial employee, Sean Whaley, who based in Carson City. But she’s hoping to add one more full-time reporter whose primary job will be primary coverage. Money’s an obstacle, though, and so this summer Crum launched what she calls a “Hire Andrew” campaign. “The person I want to hire is Andrew Doughman, who was our statehouse intern from January through May,” Crum told me earlier this month. “He made quite a name for himself up in Carson City and gained a great deal of respect among the Nevada press corps.” Crum says she has a dormant $40,000 matching grant and if she can raise the matching $40,000 herself, will make Doughman an offer, “probably for a couple of years.”

Though her Nevada News Bureau is considered by many of the state’s politicos to be the state’s only serious and significant independent political news startup, Crum says it is difficult for smaller sites like hers to add much to the reporting on big, high-interest elections. When I ask what the Bureau can do that the mainstream can’t for GOP primary coverage, she says, “Honestly, perhaps not much. Certainly, with Nevada being an early caucus state, it’s going to be a very big deal every time a presidential contender is here. All of the major networks and publishers are going to have a reporter at these events. I don’t have any illusions.”

So far, her tack has been to take each event as it comes. She chose not to send anyone to Mitt Romney’s much-covered phone bank event in Las Vegas in May, at which the then unannounced candidate raised $10.25 million. But she will definitely have a presence at the GOP primary debate in Los Vegas in October, which the Western Republican Leadership Conference is holding in conjunction with CNN. Some events are unavoidable. When the candidates begin showing up more regularly in the state in the fall, her general tactic, Crum says, will be to go small and take advantage of her place in the press race as a local. “We will attempt to get as many embed opportunities as possible—get our reporter on the bus, particularly when other reporters are not there—and try to cover lesser events, get tips on smaller fundraisers and town halls. Everyone’s crunched with budget and resources,” she says, “and sometimes the big papers can’t always be sending a reporter to Elko, or other rural spots. I can.”

One advantage Crum will wield over any parachuters is her connections in the state. Having covered politics there for years, she knows the major press and political players. Robinson has the same advantage in Iowa. His advantage is perhaps even more pronounced—as onetime head of Iowa’s Republican Party, he is perfectly positioned to get the inside scoop on GOP primary movements in the state. The benefit is simple, Robinson explains with an example. “Before Newt Gingrich’s recent campaign implosion, he lost a key Iowa staffer. The other news media will be scrambling around trying to figure out who he is, if he matters, and what his phone number is. I’ve known this guy for fifteen years. So, it was easy for me to pick up the phone and have a conversation with him.” Robinson will use his connections and experience in the party to launch a Gallup-like poll of Iowa caucus-goers later in the year—a very ambitious project for an outlet of Iowa Republican’s size.

Will Folks, who runs the conservative-libertarian news website FITSNews out of Columbia, South Carolina, shares Robinson’s advantage. Folks is the former spokesman for disgraced governor Mark Sanford—and former lover of current governor Nikki Haley, if you believe him—and has the kind of overstuffed rolodex you would expect. “I know most of the in-state political operatives,” he says, “and they know they can call me and feed me information and I’m not going to rat them out. I think we’re going to get a lot of the stories just by virtue of the relationships we have with South Carolina staffers.” So far, that’s been true enough. Folks, who says he writes about 95 percent of his website’s content, broke the story of one of Jon Huntsman Jr.’s first major hires in the Palmetto state. It helped last time around, too, when his connections landed him interviews with Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain (twice).

Those connections can cut both ways, though, especially when you’re as polarizing a figure as Folks; FITSNews’s motto is, after all, “Unfair. Imbalanced.” “There are a lot of South Carolina staffers who hate my guts because I’ve written very negatively about their clients in the past,” says Folks. “We’ll probably lose some stories because of that. But when your niche is a hybrid like mine [between news and opinion], for every story you break, you’ve got people coming to get your take on stories other people broke.”

Attitude and intent are other elements that help distinguish these smaller, independent sites. Where mainstream outlets adopt a tone, perspective, and interest that serves a more generalized audience—fair and balanced—these sites deliver the news in a manner befitting their readership. For Crum at the Nevada News Bureau, that means still playing it straight, with a bit of inside-politics pop. For Robinson, that means looking for issues that would concern Republicans—“If someone says something that I think would totally turn off a Republican voter, I pick it up probably more so than traditional media would.” For Folks, that means holding feet to the libertarian fire. “Every candidate who comes to this state has said, ‘I’m for less government and I’m for lower spending and I’ll protect your liberty.’ Well, we’ve heard all that shit before. If they provide only rhetoric and no specifics, then we’re going to rip them a new one.”

Many of these smaller sites had test-runs for their presidential primary coverage in the 2010 midterms, and some go as far back as 2008. It was the midterm elections that showed Farnham and the Patch team that being ready for election coverage was key, and that election reporting could be a big traffic draw. “We were already large enough in scale to know that it was an important moment for us,” says Farnham. “There were lots of different areas and regions, California for instance, where there was coordination between Patches covering the same elections. We learned a ton and we saw a ton of new users and traffic lifts that a lot of people see around those elections. People really just run online to get information.”

2010 changed the way that Robinson thought about other members of the media who were moving in on his ground. “You get to know your role,” he says. “I don’t really view people as competition, like I might have done in the early days of traditional media. I just look at them and realize I need to use the strengths and advantages that I have to report and provide a different kind of coverage.” He also learned that part of his role was to be a “concierge” to the mainstream media. People from the Des Moines Register and even the Los Angeles Times have used Robinson as a guide to who to speak to in the state GOP. “Those are connections I use every day, and I think the major media has realized that and turn to me as a resource, not just a guy other there who’s trying to compete.” Crum takes a similarly open approach to outlets sharing her beat. Her site has a “Steal Our Stuff” button on the front page that links to a Creative Commons policy explaining that you can take whatever you want from the Nevada News Bureau, as long as you attribute it. She says talk and news shows in the state use audio clips from her website on an almost daily basis.

When quizzed on whether he learned anything covering the 2010 midterms, Folks is characteristically blunt. “We learned last time that not getting into bed with one of the candidates was probably a good idea, and we won’t be doing that this time.” But the big difference for Folks between past election cycles and this GOP primary will be that the audience reading him is larger. In 2008, he says, FITSNews drew between one hundred thousand and two hundred thousand hits a month. Today he says he gets over one million.

The numbers for most smaller sites follow the same trajectory, from Patches that local communities are becoming increasingly aware of to local political sites that have been slowly building a following as they prove their ability to grab scoops, or scooplets, as the case may be. For Folks, “Bigger audiences bring pressure to produce more content and to produce better content,” a challenge for sites with few resources and tough, mainstream competition. But he has what he sees as a foolproof plan for drawing clicks and respect as the primary season rolls on. “We’re going to be an equal opportunity destroyer in this race.”

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , , , , ,