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Fewer Newspapers And “Boys On The Bus’ Cover Presidential Candidates

March 26, 2008

I think it would be a blast to have a newspaper send me along on the trail of a presidential candidate as the campaign stretches across the nation in search of voters and the party nomination.  The romance that I have long held about the hard drinking reporters who could smell a great story, and then write it out in one take on a typewriter as the bus lumbered down the road has never left my soul.  It is those types of reporters who have forgotten more about the politics of this country than the upstarts with their college diplomas will ever know that impress me.  Robert Novak may be conservative and wrong on many things, but think of the stories he could tell.  He is but one of the many such reporters who I truly find fascinating.

But this year the budget crunching of large newspapers has made for fewer reporters who cover the candidates non-stop.  And as The New York Times reports today, there is a price to pay for the shortcuts.  (The New York Times does have full-time reporters with each of the major candidates.)

Traveling campaign reporters say they try to do more than just regurgitate raw information or spoon-fed news of the day, which anyone who watches speeches on YouTube can do. The best of them track the evolution and growth (or lack thereof) of candidates; spot pandering and inconsistencies or dishonesty; and get a measure of the candidate that could be useful should he or she become president.

Deep and thoughtful reporting is also being produced by journalists off the trail. And some news organizations that can afford it are doing both. But the absence of some newspapers on the trail suggests not only that readers are being exposed to fewer perspectives drawn from shoe-leather reporting, but also that fewer reporters will arrive at the White House in January with the experience that editors have typically required to cover a president on Day 1.

For anyone familiar with “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s rollicking account of the reporters from papers large and small who provided blanket coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign — or with later accounts that noted the prominence of girls on the bus, and the swapping of typewriters for laptops by nerds on the bus — the presence of relatively few print reporters on the candidates’ buses and planes this year is striking.

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In the past, one advantage for those reporters who committed to spend as many as two years on the campaign trail was that they were often vaulted into the White House press room; many of those assigned to cover the next president will not have had the benefit of such seasoning, or exposure to the new president’s advisers.

Not so at Newsweek. Jon Meacham, the editor, long ago assigned at least one writer (doing double duty for print and the Web) to ride full-time on the Obama and Clinton planes — at a cost that can exceed $30,000 a month per person.

“We have a commitment to getting as firm an understanding as we possibly can, as nuanced an understanding as we possibly can, of these candidates and their staffers,” Mr. Meacham said. “The only way to do that is to be there with them.”

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