Frozen Out in Florida

Campaign reporters face reduced access, reduced budgets

FLORIDA — Florida’s political reporters are a lonely bunch. Presidential candidates avoid them. Senior campaign staffers rarely return their calls or emails. In fact, it is hard to believe that the state’s January 31 presidential primary is less than seven weeks away.

Sure, the Republican candidates have been to Florida. But most of their trips here have involved private fundraisers with an occasional public event. And one thing they almost never do is take questions from reporters.

“There is no access whatsoever,” says Adam Smith, veteran political editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

Marc Caputo left the Miami Herald’s Tallahassee Bureau earlier this year to become the newspaper’s political writer. Since he took on the job, Caputo says, it has been “impossible” to get access to a presidential candidate’s senior campaign staff—never mind the candidate.

And the challenge of reduced access to candidates and campaigns—new this election cycle—is compounded by a more familiar, widespread challenge: shrinking newsroom budgets.

Smaller budgets, in turn, often means less campaign travel, both in-state and beyond. William March, the longtime political writer for the Tampa Tribune, says that while he used to travel the state to attend candidate events, he now rarely leaves the Tampa Bay area.

Even at the Herald, once a trendsetter of political reporting, Caputo says, “it’s tough” to get the paper to pay for travel, although he expects that to improve as the Florida primary draws closer.

Much has changed since I left The Palm Beach Post in 2008. During my 28 years there, mostly as political editor, traveling to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and other states was the norm for the Post and reporters at other Florida newspapers.

Presidential campaigns could count on being greeted by an aggressive Florida political press corps at every stop in the state. Today, the reporters are just as aggressive but their hands are frequently tied by the lack of access and travel money.

The shifting terrain raises obvious questions: Does it matter whether Florida’s political reporters have access to the candidates and their senior staff? And are Florida’s readers being shortchanged?

One result of the lack of access to candidates and senior staff is that much of Florida political coverage at this point has been reactive, with reporters rounding up replies from local GOP activists and political operatives in response to a broader news peg.

Polls, polls, polls are most of our coverage so far, interspersed with the debates,” says the Herald’s Caputo.

George Bennett, political writer for The Palm Beach Post, remembers having much more access to Republicans Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani during the last primary contest. In this cycle, there are fewer opportunities to see how Florida voters are reacting to the candidates or how the candidates are reacting to the voters.

“I feel like four years ago, I had much more of an opportunity to understand a candidate’s Florida strategy,” says Bennett. “And whether it was a one-on-one interview or a gaggle after an event, you were more likely to get a Florida-specific story.”

As a result of the lack of access, Bennett says, his recent presidential campaign stories have been “off the news, after debates.”

For his part, Caputo suggests these stories are what readers want at this point in the campaign. “I think we’re still in the sport of politics stage,” he says. “Soon, we’ll be in the meatier, policy stage.”

As proof, Caputo notes that when he wrote a policy story about Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, “no one read it”—an assessment based on the Herald’s web traffic for the story.

As the state’s primary draws closer and the field is narrowed, he says, readers will become more interested in issues and “we can examine them more in depth.” Meanwhile, Caputo often takes his own unique approach to breaking news, such as this look at “10 political lessons” from Herman Cain’s failed campaign.

March, of the Tampa Tribune, said that in the face of reduced access and a limited travel budget, he concentrates on political analysis aimed at making the Sunday front page, like this recent piece exploring what might happen to Florida’s delegate count at the Republican National Convention. “I’m going to write about Florida—what high-level GOP activists are doing, who are they going with, what are they thinking?” he said.

Complicating matters for March: he ended a two-week furlough on December 13, the same day that Media General announced 165 layoffs at the Tribune and other smaller community papers in Tampa Bay.

There have also been staff reductions and pay cuts at the St. Petersburg Times. While that has meant somewhat less travel, Smith has still managed to roam out-of-state to cover the campaign.

His emphasis, though, remains closer to home. “My focus is where does Florida fit in, how are the candidates doing here,” says Smith. One example is a December 9 column looking at whether nearly 100 Florida insiders and political observers still believe that Florida will decide who will become the GOP nominee. (I am on the list of survey respondents, and I participated in this one.)

Two days later, Smith wrote a solid story about the rise of Newt Gingrich. What was missing—and would not have been four years ago—was a quote from Gingrich or a senior member of his staff. That may be partly due to the fact that Gingrich is still building his staff. But it also, Florida reporters suggest, underscores a lack of interest from the campaign, at this point, in talking to the state’s press.

If campaigns continue not to respond, they will only hurt themselves, says Caputo. “Print still sets the baseline of the conversation in the race,” he says. “The non-MSM still uses us as the point of departure.”

Perhaps. But at least at this point in the election, the campaigns seem to have decided that print reporters in Florida, and elsewhere, matter far less than they did four years ago.

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Brian E. Crowley is editor of Crowley Political Report. A political journalist for more than two decades, Crowley is an analyst for WPTV NewsChannel 5 in West Palm Beach and is a principal of ImMEDIAcy Public Relations.