Aggregating Congress

Smaller papers can't put boots on the ground in Washington, but the Web offers ways to keep tabs without leaving the newsroom.

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.)

And aggregation efforts need not be limited to politics, of course. The Lede, a blog on The New York Times website, is a good model; it “remixes” reporting from all over the world, in order to “supplement articles in The New York Times and draw readers in to the global conversation about the news taking place online.”

This broad approach can work on a local scale, as well—even in Kansas.

Just an hour up the road from Hutchinson (though in a different congressional district), the Wichita Eagle editorial board produces the WE Blog, which features political coverage but is not limited thereto. WE bloggers produce several short posts a day—some editorializing, some offering a take on the Eagle’s own reporting, and some aggregating material from around the Web that might in some way hit home for Wichita readers. The blog has picked up CNN reports on Huelskamp, and eyebrow-raising quotes from his recent media blitz, that don’t appear to have made the papers in his own district.

In terms of presentation, this and most other newspaper blogs cannot compete with The Lede and other large-scale aggregators. But a national outlet cannot serve as a local hub either; readers are underserved if their local paper doesn’t use the Web to engage with the outside world.

A newspaper blog is not an end in itself, but a means to an end—to link to relevant outside material, to keep the website fresh throughout the day, and, most importantly, to quickly generate timely content—even for the print product. The Eagle’s Phillip Brownlee told me in an email recently that WE Blog posts are printed in the paper; this may be a necessary inducement for cost-conscious smaller-market publishers who remain reluctant to devote resources to Web-only content.

Of course, aggregation and blogging are no substitutes for editorial judgment and boots on the ground (in DC or back home). As I wrote last month—and Brendan Nyhan touched on here—what members of Congress say and do in DC and how these words and deeds are playing at home is local news, and should be treated as such even by smaller outlets. But aggregation is one simple step toward—a walk before you can run approach to—improving local coverage, a way to at least get what a member of Congress is saying or doing into the paper.

Now, with Congress having shut down the federal government and threatening to push the nation to default, it is more critical than ever that reporters hold their members’ feet to the fire, even from 1,000 miles away.

“I’m from a district that pretty much ignores Washington,” Huelskamp said last week, in a quote that was buried at the end of an AP story. “If you say government is going to shut down, they say, ‘OK, which part can we shut down?’”

Back in Hutchinson, Probst told me that while the district is strongly conservative, constituents are not necessarily as sanguine about the shutdown as Huelskamp believes.

“I don’t think he’s on as solid ground as he thinks he is,” Probst said.

Aggregating and prominently featuring statements like the one above from Huelskamp would be a good way to enliven the debate back home in the Big First, and put that proposition to the test.

Note: For journalists (and citizens) looking to track their members of Congress from afar, good-government sites such as OpenCongress and GovTrack remain invaluable resources. The best of these might be Project Vote Smart, whose frequently updated site displays not only voting records but issue positions, public statements, interest-group ratings, pledges, campaign finances and other documents—including, for instance, the House GOP letter from August that arguably kick-started the shutdown showdown.

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Deron Lee is CJR's correspondent for Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. A writer and copy editor who has spent nine years with the National Journal Group, he has also contributed to The Hotline and the Lawrence Journal-World. He lives in the Kansas City area. Follow him on Twitter at @deron_lee. Tags: , , , ,