In Florida, convention coverage ranges from abundant to absent

The Tampa papers go all-in, while the Sun Sentinel goes missing

TAMPA — On Wednesday, the morning after the first night of the Republican National Convention, the front page of the Fort Lauderdale-based Sun Sentinel—the paper with the fourth-largest daily circulation in Florida—had not a single story about the GOP gathering. Not even a tease to inside coverage. There was nothing on the front about Ann Romney’s speech. There was nothing about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s speech, or that of any other speaker. The lede story was about problems with school bus drivers. A top-of-the-fold feature package was about a 17-year-old girl who is a high school quarterback.

Things were very different in Tampa, 264 miles to the northwest, where the GOP has gathered this week. Here, the Tampa Bay Times and Politico teamed together to publish a four-section package of more 50 stories and dozens of graphics, photos, and sidebar tidbits. It spread over 32 pages. Eight of those pages were taken up by a paid political advertisement for the American Clean Skies Foundation (the organization promotes the production of natural gas in shale rock); the remaining 24 were largely filled with convention coverage.

Stories ranged from speech coverage to an interesting analysis of the Republican Party that Mitt Romney is about to lead. There were articles about the Florida delegation bus being delayed for hours, problems with traffic, celebrity sightings, and even how the convention has had little impact on kids going to school. To say that there was no stone left unturned is to put it mildly.

This journalistic abundance was the product of a plan Times Editor Neil Brown explained to readers in a column last week:

The Times has deployed 150 staff reporters, editors, photographers and artists throughout Tampa Bay to capture the pageantry, the protests, the politicians and the parties. Their work will be polished by dozens more editors and designers. Tampa has been converted into part political theme park, part television studio; Times journalists will chronicle the spectacle in words, pictures, video and tweets.

But for me, the package also prompted a question: On Wednesday morning, when most people were quickly heading out the door to take the kids to school and/or head to the office, how many readers would really have the time or inclination to read more than a handful of these stories? Was all this just journalistic ego at work?

I wandered over to the Times/Politico convention center operation and spoke briefly with the very busy Brown about the impressive but perhaps overwhelming effort. “We want to own this story,” said Brown, who acknowledged that the volume of coverage was more than most people would be able to take in.

“We are giving people things they may want to know, and they can pick and choose like a buffet,” said Brown. Adding Politico to the mix also gives the newspaper information that is of particular interest to political insiders, he said.

All of this is part of an effort to enhance the Times’s reputation as one of the nation’s best newspapers. It also has benefited Politico by adding Florida experts to its campaign team.

While the Times would like to be considered Tampa’s hometown newspaper—hence its decision to swap Tampa Bay in for St. Petersburg as its namesake city—that distinction still remains with the financially struggling Tampa Tribune, which has teamed up with The Palm Beach Post for convention coverage. On Wednesday, the Post had five convention stories—one of which made the front page. The Tribune had 21 stories and numerous photos and sidebar tidbits spread over a dozen pages.

Longtime Tribune political editor William March said the goal of the paper’s story mix was to have something for everyone—including those who may not be interested in politics or the convention.

“The convention is having a huge impact on the daily lives of people in the city and part of what we are doing is reporting on that impact,” said March. “We have readers who want to know about the celebrities who are here, the parties, the food, demonstrations, law enforcement, and everything else that is part of a convention.”

Like Brown, March does not expect readers to attempt to devour the daily coverage. He too believes that folks will simply pick what interests them.

Outside of the Tampa Bay area, most Florida papers came down somewhere between the Sun Sentinel’s approach and that of the Times and Tribune. The Miami Herald had one story, an AP account, on its front page. The News-Press of Fort Myers and the Orlando Sentinel each had two. None appeared to have anywhere near the space devoted to coverage that Tampa area papers did.

Certainly, no one with any sense of a newspaper’s obligations to its readers can agree with the Sun Sentinel’s decision to ignore the convention on its front page. Florida is playing a key role in electing the next president, and even considering the fact that conventions are more akin to political rituals than “news” events, it is simply inept to treat the convention as a non-story. Even online, the Sun Sentinel offers little convention coverage—I had to scroll far down the home page Wednesday night to find the first article on national politics (a slideshow featuring “Republican beauties” appeared higher on the page).

Meanwhile, there are two ways to look at what the Times and Tribune are doing—you can consider the effort to be an excessive waste of resources that does little to genuinely serve readers, or you can applaud a mighty effort that both newspapers are executing well despite difficult times for the newspaper industry.

Ultimately, I side with the latter view, but with this pause: unless the financial outlook for newspapers improves dramatically before the 2016 conventions, all of this activity could be a little like the band playing on the Titanic. And that would be a shame.

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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.