Lee Horwich was named political editor of USA Today in August 2003. He joined USA Today as national editor in 2000. Prior to that he served as editor of Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, from 1998 to 2000. From 1990 to 1998 Horwich worked at the Baltimore Sun, serving as national editor for the last three years. Horwich talked with Campaign Desk as part of our continuing series of interviews with reporters and commentators covering the election.
Thomas Lang: On Monday the top half of USA Today’s front page was given over to a poll story with a huge headline that read “Poll: Bush Leads by 8 Points.” I’d like to ask you a question that Dan Okrent, the public editor of the New York Times, asked his own bosses: What makes a poll commissioned by your newspaper front page news when so many polls are flying around that most of us can’t even keep count?
Lee Horwich: USA Today has a long history with the Gallup organization which is seen by many in the political community, both journalism and campaigns, as one of the best, if not the best, and most reliable polling organization. We are proud of our association with Gallup. In the past it has proved to be an interesting and informative poll.
I think what people forget is that polls don’t predict. Polls are just merely snapshots in time. It was certainly both interesting and newsworthy that after three debates, which those same polls say Kerry won that Bush, had regained his standing from before the first debate was held.
T.L.: What do you think has been the high point of campaign coverage so far for USA Today? Also, what do wish you USA Today had covered differently?
L.H.: I think our coverage of the campaign has been highlighted by a few different things. One is I think we’ve provided interesting and explanatory coverage of voting problems. [Specifically], Jim Drinkard’s stories throughout the year about problems with provisional voting, military voting and the continuing coverage he’s had of what could happen on Election Day I think have opened a window for USA Today readers into those problems. We’ve been consistent about that. I think Susan Page’s coverage of different gaps, for lack of a better word, how single women differ from married women, how people who attend church regularly differ from religious people who don’t attend church regularly, have provided insights into voter behavior. I think our coverage of the campaigns themselves, of the Kerry campaign — of his ups and downs — and similarly with the Bush campaign have been consistent and informative. I also think our convention coverage was really outstanding.
For what we could have done better…
T.L.: It’s a tough question, right?
L.H.: It’s a tough question only because I’m so involved in looking ahead that I haven’t looked back and tried to analyze where we could have been more aggressive. I think there are always places where you wish you had been quicker off the mark as the story evolved.
You and I have talked about the Swift Boat [Veterans for Truth] before. We did do a lot initially. I think overall the press can be criticized for devoting either too much or too little attention depending on your point of view, to that controversy.
T.L.: Looking ahead to the final days of the campaign, what do you think are the most important aspects of the race for USA Today to focus on?
L.H.: I think it’s important to focus on what the candidates are saying and why they are saying what they are saying. I think it’s important for us to be aggressive about early voting and problems with the voting that are occurring and those problems that could still occur on Election Day. And just to be prepared for outcomes that we might not have been ready to acknowledge in 2000. There is a lot going on in a lot of places and that is a challenge for a national paper. It takes a lot of preparation to put together the day-after paper and possibly the day after that and possibly the day after that.
T.L.: Most of the papers with similar circulations to yours target large east coast cities like New York City and D.C.. How do you tailor your coverage to match USA Today’s motto “The National Newspaper?”
L.H.: We don’t tailor our coverage to match Washington D.C. and New York markets. We tailor our coverage to match what we believe readers across the country are interested in. By our polling and everyone else’s polling they are incredibly interested in this election. We try to explain the various facets that are going into this election from the candidates’ visits to the candidates’ advertising plans to the problems, as I’ve said, with voting in their areas or nearby areas.
So, I’m not as tied to the inside-the-beltway buzz as sometimes I think we are perceived to be.
T.L.: Can you give me an example of your coverage that demonstrates you aren’t tied to the inside-the-beltway buzz?
L.H.: I think there are a lot of logistics inside the campaigns — who’s up, who’s down — whether Kerry talks to [Kerry campaign advisor] Bob Shrum eight times a day or seven times a day that can be reflected in other’s paper’s coverage that we don’t believe our readers are as interested in as readers of other papers.
T.L.: Besides your political coverage which other papers do you think provide good coverage?
L.H.: I think widely the papers that you read, that you criticize on your site, have provided excellent coverage throughout the year. I don’t love every story that every other newspaper does, [but] the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal have all been very strong this year.
T.L.: So no one paper in particular?
L.H.: With your site and with the other political blog sites that link to other papers it’s easy for anyone in my position to read quite a bit of the other papers on any given day and depending on the story of the day you want to focus on you may be reading those papers as well as other’s coverage — including the Boston Globe certainly on Kerry — on any given day. So, I don’t sit and kick my feet up and open a newspaper and just read through that every day.
T.L.: USA Today recently raised its price from 50 cents to 75 cents. What are you guys doing with all the extra cash, or did you all receive a pay raise with the price raise?
L.H.: The wonderful thing about our price increase is that we haven’t had a significant drop off in our circulation. So the money that we have made has gone to making sure that we haven’t had a significant drop-off [in our coverage]. It has certainly been reflected in the freedom I’ve had to send reporters across the country to cover this campaign and the freedom I’ve had in determining where to send reporters on Election Day.
T.L.: So no pay raise?
L.H.: I’ll leave that for others to talk about. Compensation is not uppermost in my mind with less than two weeks before the election.Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.