There are opportunities to do better. The campaigns release their candidates’ schedules pretty far in advance (granted, some campaigns are better at this than others). Often, though, there’s enough time for a team in the newsroom to assemble a basic fact sheet on each stop: industry, demographics, major issues facing the town, how residents might be affected by a candidate’s policies, and so on. The point is to give reporters reliable, cogent information that they can use on deadline; resources tailored to the specific needs of the working campaign reporter.
And there’s no reason for these resources to be one-off fact sheets. News organizations might assemble and populate private internal wikis that give specific, actionable information about the people, places, and policies encountered on the campaign trail. These could be built and populated by news librarians, for those organizations that still employ news librarians; smaller news outlets could put interns on the task, or combine forces and build something together. As time-strapped trail reporters (and their editors) gain easy access to better resources, the ensuing reporting will only improve.
Reclaim your schedule. Campaign reporters spend most of their time with or around the respective candidates—and the trouble is that the candidates aren’t always newsworthy. They tend to make the same speeches over and over, and the only things that change are the settings in which those speeches are delivered. But, unfortunately, campaign reporters have little opportunity to explore the changing scenery, often because they are tethered to the campaign bus that transports them from event to event. There are upsides and downsides to bus-based reporting. If your goal is to monitor everything a given candidate says, then of course the bus is the best way to go. And, to be sure, this is a top priority for most of the publications covering the race. Political editors live in fear of not having a reporter on the scene when actual news happens—when a candidate suffers from heat stroke and lets loose a lusty “Viva Fidel,” or something like that. You don’t want to be the only outlet that misses a history-in-the-making moment. But the bus holds little appeal for reporters who aspire to more deliberate work.
I attended a candidate forum at Miami-Dade College that struck me as a prototypical bus-centric campaign event. I got there early, and was directed to a press room with tables, outlets, snacks, and a TV feed of the event. When the Romney bus arrived, the reporters poured into the holding room, put their recording devices on the table that held the television, opened their laptops, and proceeded to divide their attention between the respective screens. They listened to the speeches and plugged relevant quotes into an expedient template (“[Candidate] discussed [issue] with [interlocutors] at [location] this afternoon, hoping to appeal to [voting bloc]”)— they will be expected to file a story as soon as the event ends, and it helps speed the writing and filing process if that story conforms to a standard format. (This is exactly how sports coverage works, too.) Once the event finished, the reporters closed their computers and migrated to the next event, where they clustered at more tables and plugged more quotes into templates. This is the job that reporters have been told to do, and they do it well—they are accurate and speedy and largely professional. By nightfall, they’ve got an accurate record of what was said and done by the candidate that day, and a general sense of the candidate’s evolving skill at politicking, and they’ve come nowhere near the most relevant and interesting issues at stake.
The ceaseless time pressures of writing for the web obviously play a role here, but the bus itself is at least partially to blame. Yes, the campaign bus is useful in that it removes the need for reporters to drive themselves around regions with which they may be unfamiliar; it puts them in proximity to the candidates and, theoretically, helps them build relationships that might come in handy later on. But it also handcuffs them to the campaign, and lets the campaign set the narrative and the agenda. It’s the sort of access that makes for bland, indistinguishable content. The campaigns aren’t chauffeuring journalists around out of charity; they’re doing so because having reporters in close proximity makes it easier to control/influence them.