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.