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?