For Obama in Ohio, a mix of substance and pageantry

In Akron, coverage leans too far toward softer stuff, but other outlets do better

OHIO — These days there’s no danger of an Ohio news editor barking at a political reporter for hanging around the office too much.

With President Obama making his ninth stop in the Buckeye State Wednesday, and Mitt Romney coming through again next week on a bus tour, reporters are racking up miles.

They’re also making some different choices about what to emphasize in their coverage—with some approaches more successful than others.

When Obama made his visits Wednesday to Mansfield, in north central Ohio, and Akron, in the northeast part of the state, there was some actual news to discuss:
a new Tax Policy Center analysis of Romney’s approach to tax cuts, the potential closure of an Air National Guard base in Mansfield, and a new Quinnipiac University poll giving the president a six-point lead in Ohio. Plus, of course, the rally scenes themselves.

The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, in a story filed from Akron by Henry J. Gomez (with an assist from DC bureau chief Stephen Koff and Columbus-based reporter Joe Guillen), took the most comprehensive look at the Tax Policy Center’s report, which found that a plan with the features Romney says he favors—lowering rates while eliminating exemptions and deductions—would “provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower- income taxpayers.”

The PD story cited the way Obama worked the new analysis into his attack, allowed Romney’s campaign a substantial rebuttal, and ran through an exchange between the campaigns about whether the report’s authorship suggested bias. (The article would have been improved by noting, as this Washington Post account did, that the analysis tried to account for economic growth from the tax cuts, despite the Romney camp’s complaint that it failed to do so.)

An earlier PD dispatch on the president’s Mansfield visit, filed by Guillen, used a little space to note the potential closing of an Air National Guard base there, while pointing out that the president did not mention the base during his speech. An Obama spokesman after the rally said the president was intent on finding a new mission for the base to save 800 jobs. It added up to typically solid coverage from the PD, bolstered by its move—alone among the local outlets here—to embed links to the tax analysis and some other relevant sources in the online version of its stories.

Meanwhile, the Guard base angle was a key for The Columbus Dispatch, in a detailed story by Joe Hallett topped by the not-so-subtle headline “Mansfield visit alters Obama’s Guard plan.” Hallett used the irony of Air Force One landing at a base that could close soon as his jumping-off point, writing in the lead:

When a president needs to win a state for his job security, then jobs in that state stand a better chance of being secure.

And later on in the story, more irony:

… it was in Mansfield, where the unemployment rate is 8.4 percent—more than a point above the state’s rate—that Obama’s jobs message smacked into GOP attacks that his budget had put in doubt 800 Guard jobs.

Hallett went on to report that while the aircraft fleet stationed at the base is still about to be phased out, the White House is expressing newfound determination to find a new mission for the Guard members stationed there. The remainder of the story moved on to the Tax Policy Center report and the Quinnipiac poll. While the focus was flipped from the Plain Dealer’s approach, this too was a solid piece that paid attention to substance and the political factors shaping it.

In Mansfield and Akron, the local news outlets had to be jazzed about the presidential drive-by, and that showed in the coverage, which was full of photo galleries and local feature angles. But the Mansfield News Journal was also strong on more substantive issues. As should be expected, the paper jumped all over the base closing story with advance filings, updating its audience and triggering a lengthy administration response the day before Obama’s visit that the White House was working to renegotiate a new mission for the base. That story contained the engaging nugget that “The C-27Js will be positioned at the base so Obama sees them when Air Force One taxis in…”

The News Journal also did a nice job covering the main event, weaving in some discussion of the Tax Policy Center’s report along with color detail. And the paper followed up later with a report that the commander of the 179th Airlift Wing at the base, Col. Gary McCue, met the president, who praised the communities’ efforts to preserve the base.

By contrast, the Akron Beacon Journal’s coverage leaned too far toward softer stuff. The paper put two reporters on the president’s speech, and the resulting account did lead with a couple paragraphs about Obama’s message framing himself as a defender of the middle class. And farther down, the article does note some details about his argument on taxes. But the Tax Policy Center report, from which some of those details were drawn, is never mentioned. (The Guard base is never mentioned either, though to be fair that’s less of a local issue in Akron.) Instead, most of the article is devoted to the color and scene of the rally, including attendee interviews.

The rest of the Beacon Journal’s coverage—an article focused on the lucky residents who were invited to meet Obama, and another about the local politicians and supporters who greeted him on arrival—only tipped the balance further.

Of course it makes sense for local outlets to cover the pageantry of a presidential visit—that’s part of the story, and plenty of readers want to know what it was like to “be there.” But a presidential visit, when everybody’s attention is turned to politics, is also an ideal time to dig deeper on substance, especially when there’s news afoot, and it was disappointing that the Beacon Journal didn’t do more of that. But Obama and Romney will be back here many more times, in a race that gives every indication of remaining close—in the weeks to come, there will be other opportunities to dig in.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.