Lackluster Caucus Coverage in Florida

The Tampa Bay Times stands above the field

FLORIDA — By the end of this month, the contest for the Republican presidential nomination will move to the Sunshine State, so you might think that readers here had a particular interest in the outcome of this week’s Iowa caucuses.

If so, they weren’t well-served by the state’s newspapers. A look at a dozen Florida front pages from Wednesday showed that nearly all relied on The Associated Press or their parent companies’ Washington bureaus to report the results from Iowa.

Two of state’s major papers gave particularly short shrift to the caucus results. Both the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel played stories about Iowa inside their Wednesday morning editions. The Sun-Sentinel teased from a small front-page box to 3A, the Orlando Sentinel from the front-page mast to A17.

The late hour when the caucus was finally called for Mitt Romney may have had something to do with those decisions—and the Sun-Sentinel also directed print readers to its website—but the papers’ coverage was not any more impressive online. Both newspapers are part of the Tribune chain, and it was surprising to see how their next-day coverage treated the caucuses as a minor event. The newspapers seemed to be telling readers that they knew they simply could not compete with late results and overwhelming television and web coverage.

Around much of the state the coverage was similarly uninspired, the headlines unimaginative and predictable:

“Down to the wire in Iowa” - Bradenton Herald and Daytona Beach News-Journal

“Photo finish in Iowa” - Sun-Sentinel, “A photo finish for GOP” - Miami Herald, and “GOP photo finish in Iowa” - Tampa Tribune.

There was a “Dead heat in chilly Iowa” - Naples Daily News and a “Deadlock in Iowa” - The Palm Beach Post

The Tallahassee Democrat made an effort to look ahead by supplementing its front-page story about Iowa—“Romney, Santorum tie in Iowa voting”—with a second front-page article looking at Florida Republicans rushing to get absentee ballots for the Sunshine State’s Jan. 31 presidential primary.

Only one Florida newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, sent its own staff to Iowa to report on the caucus. That commitment to invest in staff coverage was rewarded with more creative and dominant play on the frontpage. The Times had the most informative headlines “Iowa a virtual tie for first GOP test” with the subhed,“ Santorum and Romney top the field, Rick Perry returns to Texas.”

By Thursday morning, the Florida press was catching up. The Orlando Sentinel and Sun-Sentinel shifted gears, prominently playing on their front pages an article by Washington bureau reporter William Gibson about the potentially pivotal role of the upcoming Florida primary.

The Miami Herald also featured a look at the Republican contest in Florida on its front page, while A1 of the Palm Beach Post presented both an article by political writer George Bennett looking at Rick Santorum’s challenges in trying to win the Florida primary, and a Washington Post story examining the race in New Hampshire—a smart approach.

Once again, however, the Tampa Bay Times won the day because of its decision to send its own reporters on the trail, with Adam Smith and Alex Leary filing a front-page dispatch from New Hampshire. That investment continues to demonstrate the Times’s determination to be Florida’s best source for election news.

On the whole, though, I couldn’t help but feel after looking at Florida’s front pages that newspaper editors simply found Iowa too daunting a challenge—that they have conceded that they just can’t compete with non-stop coverage on the cable channels, social media, and the web. But if this is all the attention the state’s papers devote to major campaign events, how can they expect to be trusted resources in other ways—to be the place readers turn for close scrutiny of the candidates’ messages, or a clear-eyed explanation of what a policy proposal would actually do?

The editors are right—newspapers can’t compete in print by just rehashing what everyone already knows. Instead, newspapers need to be more imaginative. They need to work harder to provide readers with relevant, unique copy so that newspapers remain part of the conversation.

That discussion should start in news meetings well before the New Hampshire primary.

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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.