Journalists question DNC media overkill

A story this week on the media being stretched thin by back-to-back Olympic Games and national political conventions in Forbes has stirred up the ever-cantankerous press corps who live by the motto: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

While the news industry faces stark financial pressures resulting in ongoing layoffs, newspaper fire sales and tumbling stock prices, 15,000 journalists with flush expense accounts are expected to report from the dual Democratic and Republican political conventions in the coming weeks. Forbes claims that media outlets are cutting back their staffing at the low-viewer conventions as a budget-cutting move and then contradicts itself:

In 2004, with the U.S. embroiled in two wars, just 15.5 million homes tuned in to the Democratic convention at some point and 16.8 million watched the Republican convention, according to Nielsen Media Research. In 1992, 20 million followed the Republican confab, and 20.5 million watched the Democratic event–the highest viewership of a political convention since 1984. By contrast, American Idol drew audiences of 27 million for an single episode.

This year, USA Today, published by Gannett, is sending 34 journalists to each convention, and Dow Jones will have 23 reporters in both Denver and St. Paul. The L.A. Times plans to have 15 journalists at each event, working in concert with other reporters from its parent company, Tribune Co.

The New York Times Company wouldn’t provide numbers for its convention staffing, but a spokeswoman said the company anticipated sending fewer people. The Washington Post did not respond to requests for comment.

Enter Mark Potts at Recovering Journalist who rips off the last vestiges of the Emperor’s clothes:

… there’s really no (legitimate) excuse for a single news organization to send a large number of journalists to the convention. What stories are they going to get that the AP can’t supply? Hijinks of the local delegates? Inside info about what the candidates hope to do for the economy back home? Local color on Denver and St. Paul? It’s really hard to understand the need for this kind of bulk coverage.

Unless, of course, you understand that the conventions serve as gala social events for journalists, as well. It isn’t just political reporters that go to big events like these–it’s editors, managing editors and publishers who get to go along for the expense-account ride (in expensive style, no doubt). That puffs up those numbers of attendees. It’s a way of showing the flag, of hanging out with old friends, of doing some (much-needed these days) job networking.

But that doesn’t make it right. In fact, at a time when coverage is being cut back and newspapers and broadcasters really need to be devoting more resources to local coverage and other journalism that readers truly care about, this sort of boondoggle is just plain wrong.

The comments on Potts’ post by fellow ink-stained wretches are well with perusing too.

Veteran journalist Michele McLellan at the Knight Digital Media Center weighs in with similar concerns:

I think Potts is onto something in his mention of “bulk coverage.” As newsroom executives struggle to “do more with less,” they must increasingly focus on what they can provide that is unique to their franchise, rather than following the pack. I cannot think of a more “pack” event than a political convention whose speeches are carefully scripted, whose presidential nominee has been long decided, and whose vice presidential nominee likely will have been announced before the delegates convene. Providing coverage that is unique and relevant to a particular audience is key.

I also am frustrated when I thinking about all the stories that thousands of reporters might be covering closer to home as the conventions unfold. With the troubled economy, mortgage foreclosures, health care, the federal budget deficit and rising energy costs, I don’t think it’s possible for journalists to be developing enough stories about the impact of these issues on their communities and the people who live in them. Not to mention creating and linking to resources for people in trouble and holding officials accountable for their share of the problem (or explaining why they have no share).

I couldn’t agree more.

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Wendy Norris

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