Local news’s scattershot approach to covering the Russia allegations

Former FBI Director James Comey, at the opening of a North Dakota office in June 2016. Photo via the FBI's Flickr page

IN THE WEEKS SINCE PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP fired FBI Director James Comey, local newsrooms have tried to guide—or be responsive to—their readers’ interests in the ongoing inquiry into ties between the Trump Administration and Russia. With very rare exception, however, local coverage of the story varies as dramatically as the audience it hopes to reach.

On June 3, “March for Truth” events were held in scores of American cities across the country, nearly all of them spurred by the ongoing inquiry into President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI director James Comey and his administration’s ties with Russia. A website launched to facilitate the marches counted rallies in more than 135 cities. Many of those rallies—in San Diego, Seattle, Jackson, Austin, Sarasota, Rapid City, Chicago, Nashville, and Colorado Springs—received some form of local news coverage.

Many, too, were coordinated by local chapters of Indivisible, which had published a toolkit encouraging the electorate to put pressure on their congressional representatives to “create an independent commission to look into Russia.” In order to achieve that end, the toolkit urges its readers to make use of local news.

“All politics is local,” reads the toolkit. Members of Congress “can ignore one of you, or maybe even ten of you, but MoCs can’t ignore something that makes it in the local paper or the nightly news. We have to keep this issue in the news so that MoCs will really feel the heat and start doing their jobs.”

Here, the Indivisible Guide confronts a bit of Orwellian irony. All politics is local, sure—but some politics are more local than others. And nothing drives the point home like studying coverage of the Russia inquiry through the pages of local newspapers.

While the political and media world has been riveted by the Comey affair and his scheduled public testimony on Thursday, press interest at the local level, by comparison, has been scattershot. The surge of stories around the recent “March for Truth” may typify the local approach to Comey and Russia, and anchor a national event to a local community’s response. But such a surge—dozens of stories tied to dozens of communities, published on the same day—is rare.

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There’s a whole Internet full of opinion out there that people can access to find commentary on national topics.

 

CORRESPONDENTS FOR CJR’S UNITED STATES PROJECT recently spoke with editors at two-dozen newspapers across the country about their coverage of Comey’s firing and the Russia investigation, as well as reader responses.

Most editors say their relative dearth of Comey coverage can be attributed to a few basic and unsurprising factors. First, their newsrooms need to focus their limited resources on policy issues of greater local relevance. Coverage of Comey and the Russia inquiry has been more pronounced in the editorial pages, where numerous local editorial boards have eagerly provided commentary. But with little exception, local reporting on the Russia inquiry has been nearly nonexistent—save for those opportunities to localize wire copy or to grill a congressman on his response to the latest update, usually reported from another newsroom hundreds of miles away.

Several of the editors also described an ambivalence to the subject among their readers. That theme was not universal; a few newsrooms responded to a steady (if not overwhelming) supply of reader letters with steady commentary and occasional localized responses. But far more told us that they heard little from their readers about Comey’s firing or the ongoing Russia inquiry—whether they published on the topic or not.

“There’s a whole Internet full of opinion out there that people can access to find commentary on national topics,” said Dwayne Yancey, the editorial page editor for The Roanoke Times. Yancey published just one editorial about the Russia inquiry, in which he pressed for his district’s congressman, Bob Goodlatte—chair of the House Judiciary Committee, and up for reelection next year—to request an “independent investigation.”

Since the inauguration, Yancey says, “I’ve been SWAMPED with letters about Trump…an unprecedented amount of letters. But only a small number deal with Russia.” The most popular topic of letters to the Roanoke Times has been health care, but Yancey named a number of local subjects that attracted a stronger response from readers, including a local zoning story, and a controversy regarding feral cats.

 

As soon as I come up with a column idea pertaining to Russia or Comey, somebody else—usually lots of somebodies—uses the same arguments in the national media.

 

LOCAL COVERAGE OF THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION has been most pronounced in the editorial pages. Many local newsrooms lack the editorial resources to provide subject expertise and analysis, but wield their editorial boards to surface questions for their readers, or as civics refreshers.

Elizabeth Sullivan, the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editorial page editor, said her paper has published “at least 15 letters with the words ‘FBI,’ ‘Comey,’ or ‘Russia’ in the headline” since January 1. “Letter and op-ed submissions on this topic have been steady since last fall,” says Sullivan, who characterized reader interest as “very intense.”

Since the election, the Plain Dealer has convened several editorial board roundtables, in which multiple editorial writers express their thoughts on an issue and then invite readers to weigh in. Two recent roundtables—on Jeff Sessions’ meeting with a Russian ambassador and Comey’s firing—each drew more than 1,000 comments and were shared more than 400 times; a third, on Mike Flynn’s firing, was shared more than 1,000 times.

Generally, larger newspapers devoted more editorial attention to Comey and Russia. The Raleigh News & Observer—one of the largest papers in North Carolina—has published nine staff editorials about the Russia investigation. Managing editor Dan Barkin tells CJR in an email that the paper has also published “more than 40 syndicated columns (George Will, Krugman, Krauthamer, Ruth Marcus etc.) with Russia themes.”

The Denver Post, Colorado’s largest newspaper, has frequently editorialized on the investigation and Comey’s firing. Those pieces join a steadily growing archive of editorial responses to decisions and events that have contoured the Trump Administration so far.

“We called Trump a liar in a headline five days after the inauguration,” says Chuck Plunkett, the Post’s editorial page editor. “That one went completely batshit crazy.”

If local editorials have catalyzed the electorate’s interest, they haven’t necessarily generated huge audiences. Plunkett analyzed the online response to the Post’s op-ed coverage since the day after Trump’s election. Of the Post’s top 20 most-viewed editorials, 13 were Trump-related, but did not focus on Russia or Comey. “I’m not saying the Russia editorials don’t do well,” says Plunkett. “They’re just not in the top 20.”

Several smaller papers—those with circulations under six figures—had yet to discuss Comey or Russia on their editorial pages. The Athens News, a twice-weekly paper in Athens, Ohio, has not published anything about Comey since March. Editor and publisher Terry Smith searched the paper’s archives, but found only submissions from readers, some to the paper’s “Athens Voices” section, which features short, anonymous opinion pieces.

I normally would have talked about it in a column,” says Smith, “but this is such a fast-developing story that as soon as I come up with a column idea pertaining to Russia or Comey, somebody else—usually lots of somebodies—uses the same arguments in the national media. So it’s worn out by the time our print edition would come out.”

Zach Hacker, the news and online editor for Kansas’ The Emporia Gazette, says the paper has not written anything concerning the Russia investigation.”We have run columns and content from wire services regarding the investigation, but nothing produced by our own staff,” says Hacker.

Rich Desrosiers, executive editor of GateHouse Ohio Media and The Canton Repository, has a similar take. “Our editorials, almost without exception, address topics originating locally (or at the state level that will produce local ramifications),” writes Desrosiers. “This topic does not meet those criteria.

Colorado’s Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, which serves the largest city between Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah, editorialized about Comey just once. The paper’s op-ed page typically sticks to local issues. “If we write about inside-the-beltway stuff, it’s usually about policies that hit home—health care or public lands management, for example,” says editorial page editor Andy Smith.

When the Sentinel decided to weigh in on Comey, says Smith, it did so after an influx of letters, the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to the investigation (“the dominant issue of that news cycle”), and the opportunity to speak directly to its audience about government systems.

“It was a chance to weigh in on something of national significance and remind readers of the importance of our institutions, checks and balances, separation of powers, etc., and letting the process work instead of rushing to judgment,” Smith says.

 

Asked whether the newsroom should devote its own resources to covering Comey and Russia, one editor replied, ‘No. That’s absurd.’

 

THE LOCALLY FOCUSED NEWSROOMS contacted by CJR were unanimous on one point: None saw much merit in diverting editorial resources for more coverage of Comey or Russia. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s editorial pages may offer good opportunities for civics refreshers, but the paper has not strained itself to localize the Russia investigation or Comey’s firing.

“I don’t see incredible news value for our readers there,” says Sentinel Managing Editor Mike Wiggins. “Perhaps if there were a local tie-in—a local resident with expertise in those areas concerning the investigation—I could potentially see value in that perspective. Otherwise, our coverage might consist of the dreaded what-do-you-think, man-on-the-street interviews, and those types of stories tend to have very little substance or news value.” Instead, says Wiggins, “We try to be hyperlocal in our news coverage and direct our attention to issues that more directly impact our readers’ lives on a daily basis.”

News coverage of Comey and Russia in local papers is dominated by wire copy. Multiple papers named stories from the Associated Press or The Washington Post as their only news coverage of Russia or Comey, which they anchor with comments from elected officials. Others, like Gannett’s USA Today papers, carry national and international stories reported and written by reporters in other USA Today newsrooms.

“Certainly we aren’t trying to cover the day-to-day story, aside from monitoring our own delegation when appropriate,” says Lee Ann Colacioppo, editor of The Denver Post. The paper published many wire stories about Russia and Comey’s firing, as well as a handful of local stories focused on how the issue played out with the congressional delegation.

The Gannett-owned Coloradoan, in Fort Collins, has access to stories from the USA Today Network, written by a team of reporters from outside its newsroom. Another USA Today paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, uses the wire to deal with breaking news on the Russia investigation, and reserves its newsroom to delve deeper into the investigation’s impact on Wisconsin political figures.

“I think it’s a model that small news orgs across the country could benefit from,” says Coloradoan editor Lauren Gustus in an email. “It enables us to offer coverage without having to develop expertise in Russia, Turkey, North Korea and Syria.” News outlets the size of the Coloradoan—whose daily circulation, according to a 2016 Gannett report, is roughly 20,000—”should focus on local-local,” says Gustus.

In Pueblo, Colorado—a county that in 2016 went Republican for the first time since Richard Nixon carried it in 1972—The Pueblo Chieftain has published numerous AP stories about Comey and the Russia investigation. Asked whether the newsroom should devote its own resources to the topic, managing editor Steve Henson replies, “No. That’s absurd.”

In the Denver suburbs, The Aurora Sentinel has published columns, guest columns, contributing columns and house editorials about Trump, Comey, and Russia. In its news pages, the paper ran AP stories on the issue and localized them by rounding up local reactions from politicians.

“The Russia investigation issues affects the region and community directly and indirectly,” Sentinel editor Dave Perry says. Choices made by members of Congress regarding the investigation have “fast become campaign fodder for the 2018 election,” says Perry. Chief among those representatives is Republican Mike Coffman, the first GOP Congressman to air an anti-Trump ad in 2016.

Perry makes a strong case for connecting the themes of the Russia investigation and Comey’s firing to local concerns. “Indirectly, the underlying issues of the investigation—credibility, criminal acts and malfeasance — dictate a Trump Administration agenda that focuses on the Aurora area almost daily,” he says. “This diverse community is critically [affected] by administration progress on the travel ban, legal immigration, refugees, illegal immigration, military spending and deployment, health care, a border wall, climate change and more.”

Still, if a local newspaper broke pressing news on the Trump Administration’s ties to Russia, would enough people notice?

On April 5, Boulder Weekly published a story headlined “The Russian connections to Michael Flynn’s Turkish benefactors.” The story scrutinizes a web of previously unreported connections between Alptekin, Russia and others with interesting ties to the Trump administration and even Trump himself.”

A few weeks later, Politico published a story that touched on several of the same subjects, though it also focused on other, different connections. The Politico story initially published with a line that said a link first raised by the Boulder Weekly story had not been reported. A Politico editor told a CJR correspondent that the line was removed once the Boulder Weekly piece was called to their attention.

 

Even when our congress people had town hall meetings, it hasn’t been a major issue. Most of it has been about health care. That’s what people are mostly interested in.

 

THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION IS NOT A MAJOR TOPIC of conversation in the border city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, says Lucas Peerman, news director of the Las Cruces Sun-News. Rather, immigration has dominated headlines in recent weeks. Readers’ attention has been captured by a series of protests organized by immigrants rights groups.

“When I go out into the community I don’t hear people talking about Russia,” Peerman says. When there’s a big development on the Russia investigation the Sun-News will pick up a wire story but otherwise the newsroom isn’t investing resources in it.

Several editors remark that readers don’t seem bothered by a dearth of Russia coverage in their local papers. “None of the stories did well in terms of traffic,” says The Denver Post’s Colacioppo. “The No. 1 story on this issue was actually a compilation of political cartoons. The No. 2 story appeared on our Cannabist site, where readers are generally opposed to Jeff Sessions.” At the Coloradoan, Gustus says the newsroom hears “far less about how our readers think we cover national politics, likely because it’s not often that it appears on 1-A.”

Todd Franko, editor of the Youngstown Vindicator, says his paper has published roughly one editorial each month about the Russia investigation, and “a single ‘constitutional crisis’ story after the Comey firing.” The Vindicator hears more from Trump supporters than opponents, he says. “Trump foes have not called with complaints or encouragement as much as Trump fans have called with anger and cancellations.”

At the Aurora Sentinel, editor Perry says readers appear “keenly interested in Russia investigation news, but they also appear to be developing Trump fatigue in commentary on the subject. The most vocal response comes from partisans who use the issue and comment as a wedge against one candidate or another.”

Dennis Anderson, executive editor of the Peoria Journal Star, hasn’t received a single call about the Russia investigation. “When we get calls it’s usually about the state budget and even when our congress people had town hall meetings, it hasn’t been a major issue. Most of it has been about health care. That’s what people are mostly interested in.”

In response to CJR’s inquiry, the Albuquerque Journal Managing Editor Dan Herrera did a keyword search for “Russia” in the paper’s database of letters to the editor. Over the past few weeks the paper received a couple of letters a day on the subject of Russia, but readers have been more general in their responses, which have been split between support for President Trump, disdain for Trump, and—no surprises here, either—disdain for the media.

Reporting by Gwyneth Doland, Corey Hutchins, Jonathan Peters, and Jackie Spinner. Additional writing by Brendan Fitzgerald.

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United States Project covers state and local journalism issues for CJR. Follow our work on Twitter @USProjectCJR.