Covering Scott Walker as a local and national story

Photo: Associated Press

Jason Stein’s beat has gone national. The state capitol reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has tracked Wisconsin political drama locally for a decade. But with Governor Scott Walker instituting sweeping policies and then navigating a presumed presidential campaign, Stein has found that he is no longer just elbowing in-state competitors for scoops.

“Is it more of a challenge to compete with The New York Times and Yahoo News? Yes,” Stein said.

The incursion of national media doesn’t negate institutional knowledge local outlets have spent decades building, but it is forcing them to make clever use of minimal resources, as each makes its bid to be a national leader in Scott Walker coverage while still keeping up with the state’s everyday political news.

“It’s a major challenge for all of us,” said Andy Hall, executive director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. “You’re seeing that a lot of journalists in this state work a lot of extra hours, and you’re seeing news organizations change their staffing patterns to devote more resources to Walker, even with, in many cases, reduced staff.”

The Wisconsin State Journal, for example, recently delegated its full-time Walker coverage to capital reporter Matthew DeFour—a beat within a beat, as it were. While the paper is hiring another reporter to round out its political coverage (replacing Mary Spicuzza, who left for a job at the Journal Sentinel), its investigative reporter, Dee J. Hall (Andy’s wife), has been deployed to do more stories from the capital. That frees up DeFour to follow Walker on campaign trips to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. “My mission statement is basically to give the readers back home a front-row seat to a historic moment,” DeFour said.

Meanwhile, Gannett Wisconsin Media, which owns 10 newspapers, is beefing up its capital coverage. It hasn’t had a statehouse reporter in Madison in more than year, but on March 27, Keegan Kyle, an OC Register reporter, announced on Facebook that he had been hired to do similar work beginning in May as an investigative reporter for the company. “I’ll be digging into a wide array of issues in state government and beyond,” Kyle wrote.

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And Wisconsin Public Radio’s Joy Cardin Show, on politics, is featuring more guests from outside the state, said producer Bill Martens. Voices from Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina give local coverage a national scope. “Everyone in Wisconsin has feelings on the governor at this point, one way or another, and it’s interesting to hear how he plays in other parts of the country,” Martens said.

Over at the Journal Sentinel, journalists have been digging into the governor’s life story, publishing or re-promoting information that wasn’t necessary to exhaustively detail until Walker became an early presidential frontrunner.

“A lot of it too is rewriting stories, and updating stories that we’ve written before, but have new relevance in light of the campaign,” Stein said. When the Washington Post and Boston Globe put up stories in February about the governor’s years as a student at Marquette University, the Journal Sentinel reposted a solid 2013 story on the same subject. It was not updated, but it capitalized on the national relevance of the subject.

But as Walker draws a larger share of the media glow, there is less to shine on regular old Wisconsin political news. Whether it’s the upcoming election for state Supreme Court or everyday legislature coverage, there is less attention to go around. “It’s sort of a mixed bag for people in the state,” Stein said. “There’s much, much more scrutiny in some ways, particularly in things have to do with the governor, and on other hand, we have to be careful that something important that doesn’t involve him (slips by).”

The Journal Sentinel is carefully parsing out a travel budget that expands beyond its borders, according to Stein. Just like the rival State Journal, it has prioritized covering Walker’s early out-of-state campaign visits in places with influential primaries. “We’re lucky Iowa is so close,” Stein said. The governor also has planned trips to Israel and Western Europe. Stein said it was “highly unlikely” the Journal Sentinel would send a reporter on the European trip, but it will probably send one to Israel. The choice came down to which trip the staff felt would illuminate more about Walker as a candidate. “The trip to Israel seemed to hold greater potential resonance,” he said. “It’s a much trickier challenge for any leader in that part of the world, compared to, say, Spain.”

Finally, plain old advice-seeking goes a long way as Wisconsin reporters prep for a once-in-a-lifetime story. There have only been three serious presidential candidates from Wisconsin since 1924, so even veteran reporters in the state are on new ground. DeFour tapped into contacts through the alumni network of the Medill School of Journalism, while Stein spoke with a reporter who was at the Chicago Tribune when another state politician rose to national prominence with greater speed than anyone anticipated: Barack Obama.

And as the gears get readjusted in Wisconsin’s media scene, Andy Hall said that it’s important to remember that “nuances matter.”

“Yes, it’s true that newsrooms are downsizing,” he said. “Yes, it’s true that in many communities the actions of the powerful receive less scrutiny than they used to receive from the news media. But I think the managers of many news organizations here in Wisconsin and across the country deserve some credit—as well as individual reporters and editors—for finding ways to maintain a commitment to watchdog journalism, even in the face of economic difficulties.”

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Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.