A VIP Pass to Cover the Caucuses

Credentials offer access, amenities for a cost, but some reporters take a pass

IOWA — There are a lot of journalists in Iowa right now. But on Tuesday night, when results of the long-awaited Republican caucuses finally start to arrive, much of the coverage will be coming from one place—the Polk County Convention Complex in Des Moines.

At least that is what organizers at the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (GDMCVB), who have designated the complex as the caucuses’ “media hub,” are hoping for. While the state’s Republican and Democratic parties have jointly coordinated caucus media in the past, this year the Iowa GOP asked the visitor’s bureau to take over the task. And the GDMCVB has approached the job with gusto, consulting with numerous journalists during the planning period and stuffing the facility with every journalistic amenity it can think of.

Reporters will be able to monitor live results in the Google Media Filing Center, and to interview campaign staff and candidates in what is dubbed, without apparent irony, the AARP Spin Room. (The filing center is open from Dec. 26 to Jan. 4, the “spin room” only on caucus night.)

A “Hangout Room,” also sponsored by Google, is stocked with beanbag chairs, treadmills, baristas serving local coffee, and special gloves that can be worn while operating touchpads (handy in cold Iowa weather). And in a new touch, there will even be an actual caucus at the same site as the media center, making it easy for broadcast outlets to get footage and interviews with caucus-goers.

“We’ve done everything we can to accommodate the media and to make sure they have the information they need and the access they need to cover everything very easily within this one space,” says Tiffany Tauscheck, vice president of marketing for the GDMCVB.

As of Friday, 1,500 journalists, representing at least 100 media outlets including NBC, C-SPAN and ABC, had taken visitor’s bureau up on the offer, Tauscheck said. But robust amenities and easy access do not come without a cost. To register for a credential that provides access to the center, journalists must purchase a $400 work station. There are also discount options for bloggers ($200 will secure a work station behind scaffolding) and group plans for broadcast outlets (a camera platform, which costs upwards of $1,000, comes with four credentials).

While Tauscheck says the center’s services have been “elevated” this year—and the visitor’s bureau has also made a greater effort to promote Des Moines businesses to the visiting press—neither the corporate sponsorships nor the credential charge are a brainstorm of the GDMCVB. Google partnered with the caucus media center in 2008. And Mike Glover, the veteran Iowa political reporter for The Associated Press, recalls the parties charging for caucus press credentials as early as 1976.

According to Tauscheck, this year’s fees are only to recoup the cost of operating the center, and are in keeping with prior caucus years. (Neither the visitor’s bureau nor the state parties could provide specific price information for earlier years.) Iowa appears to be the only state to credential reporters and coordinate services for media covering their presidential caucuses and primaries. A spokesman with the Republican Party of New Hampshire, for example, said that journalists covering the Granite State primary coordinate directly with the campaigns, and there is no central filing space there.

The chance to pay for everything a journalist might need under one roof would seem to have the most appeal for out-of-state media, and indeed, 30 of the outlets that had paid for credentials are based outside the U.S. But Tauscheck says even local journalists with office space in the Des Moines area have “seen the value of being on site” and exchanging ideas and information with other reporters.

In my very informal survey of journalists, I didn’t find that to be the case. Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson says the network has never applied for credentials or purchased space at the caucuses’ media hub because it already has its own headquarters.

Likewise, Glover has never bothered with the caucus credential. “There’s no reason to be there,” he said. “We get results from the wire and work out of our own filing center.”

Some of the non-local media also choose to go without credentials. The Washington Post has only several of its journalists covering the caucus in Iowa registered at the filing center. And Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokeswoman for The New York Times said that paper has its own work space, and so did not pay for any credentials. “Our reporters are across the state with the candidates, which requires a notebook, but no credential,” she added.

The credentialing charge has at least one prominent in-state critic: David Yepsen, the longtime dean of the state’s political press corps who is now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

“It’s excessive and counterproductive because it creates ill will toward Iowa,” Yepsen said. “Once again Iowans look like they are trying to profit financially from this event. I’ve had several reporters tell me they really don’t need it and won’t be there.”

And while all the attention is on the GOP this year, the Iowa Democratic Party is hosting its own caucuses, which will feature a televised address from President Obama. Should any reporters want to cover the Democratic caucuses, they can also register for a credential. This year, there is no charge.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.