FAIRWAY, KS — In the five days leading up to the government shutdown on Oct. 1, Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas was a busy man.
He helped lead the charge of Tea Party Republicans pushing House leadership to refuse to fund the government unless Obamacare was defunded or delayed—making a cameo on the Senate floor to plot strategy with Republicans there, successfully inserting a “conscience clause” regarding contraception into House appropriations legislation, and signing onto a House GOP letter demanding antiabortion revisions to Obamacare.
And in those five intense days, Huelskamp did not exactly skirt the media. He penned an op-ed on government spending for the Wichita Eagle; gave live interviews to CNBC, Al Sharpton on MSNBC, and David Brody on CBN; and spoke to an astonishing number of national and Beltway outlets—Time, the Associated Press, Roll Call, NPR, The Hill, Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Real Clear Politics, National Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor.
Very little of this frantic activity, however, penetrated the local media in Huelskamp’s own district.
There are a number of reasons for this.
Huelskamp’s district, called The “Big First,” is a sprawling rural area that has a few small- to mid-sized community papers and no congressional correspondents. Editors here, as is no doubt the case in similar communities across the country, are understandably not focused on covering national news, which can be outsourced to wire services.
“I think people who read my newspaper are more interested in local stories,” said Jason Probst, news editor of The Hutchinson News, one of Huelskamp’s local papers. “Our M.O. is that local is our first and biggest effort.”
This is not to say that Probst and colleagues are inattentive to their members of Congress. In recent months, for instance, they have taken on Huelskamp in some provocative editorials. But, Probst told me, “I wouldn’t say we were watching and tracking his votes and trying to write a story off that every day.”
Very few papers can send reporters chasing members of Congress around the Beltway, especially in smaller markets. And in the case of The Hutchinson News, it’s difficult getting as much face time with the increasingly high-profile Huelskamp as, say, a national cable network could.
“We don’t see the level of responsiveness from him or his office that he seems to give for national media or friendly media,” Probst said. “It seems like he’d grant 10 television interviews at Fox News before he’d give us a call back.”
The problem of access, as well as resources and focus, creates political coverage gaps at many local papers. Staffers can cover the city council, the AP can provide an overview of what’s happening in Washington, but who’s tracking the local delegation in DC?
This is not a new problem, although it may be somewhat exacerbated now by ever-tightening newsroom budgets. But it’s a problem that can be somewhat alleviated with some basic new-media strategizing.
Despite the disadvantages facing smaller news operations, especially in an era of declining print revenues, the Web does offer unprecedented opportunities for reporters to keep tabs on their local delegation without leaving the newsroom or even working the phones.
The simplest way to do this is modeled above, in the first three paragraphs of this piece.
Aggregation, for better and worse, has become a venerable journalistic tradition, a tool that is susceptible to abuse but invaluable nonetheless (“‘Shameless’—and essential,” to quote a 2011 report published by CJR.) The practice of aggregation predates the Web, but the age of hyper-text has made it commonplace. Hyper-linking allows journalists everywhere to connect their readers with the world beyond, and to provide a hub for news items that could come from anywhere (particularly DC, for our purposes) but are of interest to local readers in particular.
Journalists in smaller communities are heirs to this technology just as much as those in New York and DC. If a mega-aggregator like the Huffington Post can link to Probst’s work, as it has, Hutch News reporters need have no misgivings about returning the favor when their own member of Congress would rather talk to HuffPost.
Wire stories remain a valuable source of political news for papers across the country, but carefully-curated aggregation can provide a more targeted digest of news that may be salient for local readers. A wire story can convey, for instance, that the government has been shut down, but it may not highlight the central role that Huelskamp and other area legislators have played in making it happen. (One may rework wire copy, but this is often difficult to do without the seams awkwardly showing.)