Adam Smith was named the political editor of the St. Petersburg Times in 2001. He has covered Florida politics for more than a decade, and regularly reports on the candidates’ appearances in the state. He spoke with Campaign Desk from St. Petersburg as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters and commentators covering the election.
Thomas Lang: As you have reported, the Tampa/St. Petersburg market has been bombarded by campaign advertising that often contains half-truths and inaccuracies. Given the saturation of ads, how do you go about counteracting the candidates’ spin for your readership?
Adam Smith: We have a periodic debate on doing these “truth squad” pieces on the ads, and that’s for any campaign. They can be difficult to do because a lot of times, especially near the end, the ads come so fast and furious that sometimes without backup it’s tough to do. We just had this discussion earlier and someone asked, “Is it more trouble than it’s worth?” My view was that I get huge feedback from readers, just random readers calling in, saying, “Thanks for doing this, I’ve been wondering what the deal is with that ad.” That said, we have not been doing them yet with the presidential race, but I think we will.
TL: In your own reporting, are you conscious of the fact that readers are reading your articles a few times a week, while they see many more ads?
AS: Yeah, I’m conscious of it. I’ve tried to with most stories, even if it is a horse-race or a strategy story, to fix some issue into the story with some explanation. We are swamped with the ads, but I don’t hear a lot of talk about the ads, certainly not about the substance of the ads. I mostly hear complaints about the volume.
TL: You reported the other day on Florida’s burgeoning Hispanic population and its electoral relevance. How do you tailor your coverage to meet the demands of this demographic and its growing importance?
AS: Our particular circulation area has a long-standing Cuban population, which is very distinct from the South Florida Cuban population. Cubans in Tampa Bay have been in the United States a lot longer and tend to be Democratic and not obsessed with Castro. We have a vast growing Puerto Rican population, just as Orlando does, on the other side of the I-4 corridor. But it’s distinct because there are not Puerto Rican neighborhoods, it’s more scattered. So we are very aware of it. Are we targeting that population aggressively? Probably not. But certainly we are writing about the political implications and the issues. In a lot of ways the issues are the same for that population as they are for everybody else.
TL: Florida is a hotspot for the candidates this season and when they come to town so does the entourage of traveling reporters. What’s the interaction like between local reporters and national reporters?
AS: It’s fun. Florida is blessed with a lot of really good newspapers. Most states don’t have what we have, which is three or four papers that are really good, aggressive newspapers, which is pretty rare. Most of us travel pretty extensively, sometimes out of the state, so the interaction is pretty good. Sometimes the interaction involves exchanging ideas or brain-picking about what’s happening in Florida. A lot of times … on the daily story of the event the national press will often take a different tack than we will because they have to pump out a story a day. For instance, if Kerry or Bush comes to town I feel an obligation to report what the candidates say. Now if one of them comes to town for a two- or three- day swing I usually will try to take a different angle on at least one of those days, while reporting a little of what they say.
TL: And you feel the national press doesn’t feel the same obligation to report what the candidate says?