On the Bus, But With No Reason to Go?
Monday, October 13, 2008; Page C01
INDIANAPOLIS -- The reporters waded gingerly into two-inch-deep mud and settled behind scratched wooden tables as Barack Obama was being introduced to more than 10,000 screaming fans at the state fairgrounds here.
Before the Democratic nominee took the podium, the text of his speech arrived by BlackBerry. The address was carried by CNN, Fox and MSNBC. While he was still delivering his applause lines, an Atlantic blogger posted excerpts. And despite the huge foot-stomping crowd that could barely be glimpsed from the media tent, most reporters remained hunched over their laptops.
Does the campaign trail still matter much in an age of digital warfare? Or is it now a mere sideshow, meant to provide the media with pretty pictures of colorful crowds while the guts of the contest unfold elsewhere? And if so, are the boys (and girls) on the bus spinning their wheels?
"Anything interesting that happens on the road is going to be eaten up before you can get to it," says Slate correspondent John Dickerson. "By the time you see the papers, you feel like you know it all."
On the road, some of the nation's top print journalists morph into bloggers who post paragraphs on each mini-development, giving them a more stenographic role that leaves less time for actual reporting, or even thinking. Obama advisers have concluded that newspaper and magazine stories no longer have the same resonance but that a brief item by, say, Politico bloggers can spread like wildfire.
With a single correspondent's campaign travel costing as much as $10,000 a week, the number of cash-strapped news organizations willing to pony up has been dwindling in recent years. Only five newspapers -- the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune -- are traveling regularly with Obama and John McCain. The big regional papers, USA Today and Time magazine are there only intermittently, and Newsweek, which had been a constant presence on the trail, pulled back last week for financial reasons. (The networks, which used young off-air "embeds" during much of the primary season, now have front-line correspondents on board to do daily live shots.)
In the slower-paced, pre-cable age, what newspaper reporters wrote each day had major impact. These days, the candidates' rallies are often carried live on cable. Top strategists hold dueling conference calls for the press and send out the audio for those who miss it. Each new ad is instantly on YouTube, each new e-mail assault splashed across the Web. What, then, is the value of being on the plane?
"Having a blog is a terrific bonus for me because I get to put out everything I know in a constant way," says Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times. But, she says, "being on the plane is very, very expensive and does not necessarily provide stuff you could not get elsewhere. When you have limited resources, it's a corner to cut."
The greatest advantage of campaign travel, journalists say, is access to senior officials who rarely return calls or e-mails. Beyond that, says Chicago Tribune reporter Jill Zuckman, "you look at a campaign with a more critical eye when you're there. You get a better sense of crowds and enthusiasm levels and mood that you cannot get off TV."
Lack of access is accepted as a given. Obama held his last press availability two weeks ago, while McCain -- once renowned for his nonstop schmoozing with journalists -- has held one brief news conference in a month and a half.
Boston Globe reporter Sasha Issenberg, who covers McCain, says he gets more richly textured stories on the road. But, he says, "I haven't had any personal interaction with McCain for months. In any reasonable cost-benefit analysis . . . it's probably getting harder to justify. When we're on the plane and there's no TV and you can't read blogs, we're more walled off from the story we're covering than I would be if I were in my bureau."
David Broder, the Post veteran who covered his first White House campaign in 1960, says the daily speeches chronicled by journalists were once newsworthy. But campaign officials eventually "learned that that let the reporters decide what the sound bite of the day was. They could control that by shrinking the options that reporters had. You went to the abandoned mill or polluted stream and delivered your two sentences, and that was it for the day."