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.
Many reporters, to their credit, realize that this is a problem. But there’s little they can do about it, which is why it falls to their editors to ease the burden. If I were a political editor at a publication covering the campaign, I would prohibit my reporters from riding the bus. Having to drive yourself around doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll end up finding better stories and fresher angles; but it makes it more likely that you’ll find different stories and different angles. More generally, editors need to let their reporters set schedules that separate the reporter from the candidate at points—even if this just means more time spent with the members of the public who come out to see the candidates.
Improve your opening gambits. In Concord, New Hampshire, I talked to a woman who said she had been interviewed about ten times over the course of the week of the NH primary, and the question she was always asked was, “Who are you voting for?” I would bet that some variation on that line—or of its cousin, “What did you think of Candidate X?”—is the first part of almost every exchange between trail reporters and voters. These aren’t bad questions, per se. They’re simple and straightforward, and, if the reporter is any good, they will often lead to deeper interactions. And as the imperatives of the beat lean ever more toward urgent transcription and tweeting, you have to applaud any effort—no matter how feeble—to get out and talk to actual voters.