Emily Ramshaw didn’t hesitate when asked why she was on her way to North Carolina on Friday to cover the Democratic convention as a one-woman bureau for The Texas Tribune.
“You can cover the big speeches on TV,” Ramshaw said, but “you definitely can’t do the source-building, or cover the morning delegate breakfasts—where our dear Texans tend to drop some bombs.” There’s the valuable schmoozing time, the opportunity to report on state tiffs and contretemps, and the chance to promote the brand. “There’s just so much more access in person,” she said. “Access ... we really couldn’t pass up.”
And so The Tribune, a feisty nonprofit news organization that punches well above its weight in Lone Star political circles, came up with the couple of thousand bucks so that its young star Ramshaw could join 15,000 other journalists at the mother of all staged events in Charlotte. In attracting a huge media contingent, the national conventions are exceeded only by the Olympic Games. It’s too much ado about little, says a covey of media critics.
“A waste,” wrote author, scholar, and consultant Jeff Jarvis on his blog BuzzMachine. For the $60 million that he guesstimates it will have cost to keep the press corps billeted and fed in Tampa and Charlotte, the industry could have hired an additional 600 reporters to keep power in check and cover real news.
“What actual reporting can you possibly do that delivers anything of value more than the infomercial?” Jarvis asked. “Can we in the strapped news business afford this luxury?”
Fair questions, said Doyle McManus, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, but easily answered. Political parties use national conventions to certify the results of the primary and caucus process that selects the nominee; to promote a potential president to the nation; to make a statement about their beliefs in a party platform; and to fire the starting gun for the fall campaign, he said. That’s important stuff, and the press has an obligation to be there.
Fresh stars (Sarah Palin and Barack Obama) emerge, great speakers (Ronald Reagan and Mario Cuomo) dazzle, and unscripted moments (i.e., Clint Eastwood) occur. There haven’t been any knockdown battles since a series of bitterly contested conventions in the mid-20th century—but there had not been a contested election for 124 years before Bush v. Gore in 2000, either.
“A convention is a chance. It’s an opportunity to change the momentum and introduce a new theme—and an opportunity to fall flat on your face,” McManus said. “If you get every major figure from either of the two political parties together at one time, that is worth covering—even if they’re only playing golf.”
Indeed, Glen Johnson could have watched the televised show at home for Boston.com, but then the columnist and blogger would not have discovered Sen. Scott Brown, the ostensibly centrist Republican from Massachusetts, conferring in Tampa with Karl Rove, a conservative strategist whose popularity in liberal Boston ranks right up there with Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone.
If Sheelah Kolhatkar had skipped Tampa, the Businessweek writer would have missed her chance to infiltrate Rove’s super PAC meeting with fat-cat donors, and his wistful suggestion that Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri be taken for a swim in concrete galoshes.
“Good reporters learn a lot by hanging around in hallways and talking to people,” McManus said.
Today’s conventions are a hybrid of old-fashioned TV coverage and a “hyperactive and very intense cocktail of new social media,” McManus said. As a Washington bureau chief in the golden age of newspapers, he once led mighty contingents of reporters, editors, and columnists to the national conventions. This year he will write, comment, and be the on-camera host of the Los Angeles Times Google+ Hangout.
For most news organizations, talk of poolside breakfasts and illimitable per diem are hearsay from the elders. With her iPhone and a MacBook, Ramshaw will file several stories a day for the online Tribune and a number of partner news organizations that include The New York Times, where she has squatting rights in a workspace. She’ll conduct and produce radio and video interviews, tweet around the clock, and shoot photographs and video footage with what “technology I need in a single backpack,” she said.
For The Tribune and Texas, it won’t be a waste.