Build better research tools. So how can reporters learn more about the places the campaign takes them? At that Santorum stop, I might have checked the Somersworth Wikipedia entry, which has a lot to say about the town’s history and various school district fire code violations, and that would’ve given me something. (“What do you think of Rick Santorum’s position on fire codes?”) Lots of campaign reporters tend to consult Wikipedia while writing or researching their stories. But as anyone who has ever used it knows, while Wikipedia is great, its entries are often unfocused and incomplete; they exist to edify a marginally curious generalist, not to improve the work of a reporter charged with performing a specific task.
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.