Small steps will begin to give reporters the resources and direction they need to transform trail reporting into a more issue-centric vocation, one that serves and focuses on ordinary people, rather than politicians and their adherents; one that covers politics as a means toward a substantive end, rather than an end in itself; one that leaves behind the endless dull assessments of who is leading, who is trailing, and who will eventually win. We’ll find out who’s going to win when November rolls around; until then, polling does a much better job of answering those questions than do on-the-ground reporters. Why waste their time doubling up on stories that are already being done better elsewhere?
This isn’t just a good-journalism issue; it should be a practical issue, too. There is, at a basic level, a reason to cover stump speeches. It’s helpful for people to know what politicians are saying—not just in an “accountability” way, but also because, in their speeches, the politicians are conveying information about what they stand for. Even in a pseudo-event that offers little to no policy substance, there’s signaling going on, and signaling can guide voter choice.
But there is no good reason for modern-day news outlets to make stump speeches the primary focus of their campaign coverage. On a strictly competitive level, it makes no sense for a site to offer the exact same thing that every other site offers. News outlets around the world are scrambling for ways to differentiate themselves from their competitors, to convince a skeptical reader to click on their link rather than someone else’s. The best way to build a dedicated following for your publication is to offer something that your competitors don’t have. Everyone has rote, by-the-book campaign reporting. But you can differentiate yourself by getting off the trail and doing something different. Let the wire services report on the speeches and the hand-shaking. Send your reporters off to do things that your readers can’t get anywhere else.
Though Super Tuesday is over and done with, the race for the GOP presidential nomination continues. The longer the campaign lasts, the more frantic it will become for the media; the campaign stops will continue to spread out, the rhetoric will continue to heighten. The bad habits formed during primary season will, if anything, only get worse in the runup to the November general election. Let’s try to fix them before it’s too late.