Jeff Jarvis nails it with this headline: “Reporters: Why are you in Tampa?” And he goes it one better by running some numbers that estimate that media organizations will spend $30 million this week covering a Republican convention of which the outcome is already known. Then they’ll do the same thing next week for the Democrats.
Here’s what we’ll get for this investment:
- On-the-spot analysis of speeches that could be covered just as easily by watching them on television;
- Interviews with political junkie delegates who in no way typify the American voter;
- Journalists talking to each other;
- TV reports that are supposed to look more urgent because the reporter is standing in front of a sign labeled “Wisconsin.”
All this is happening in an industry that’s in free fall.
- Digital advertising is expected to pass print advertising for the first time in 2012.
- More than 6,000 jobs have disappeared in the U.S. newspaper industry over the last 20 months.
- Credibility of major news organizations is at its lowest point since Pew Research started tracking it in 2002.
Yet what we’ll get over these two weeks is the same political pabulum we’ve gotten for decades, served up to an American public that’s sick of it all.
Political convention coverage epitomizes what’s wrong with mainstream media today. Conventions long ago ceased to have any news value. The last brokered convention was in 1952. Since then, the only purpose of the quadrennial party has been to deliver what Jarvis calls an infomercial. Everything is scripted for the greatest possible momentum going into the fall campaign, and the media plays right along.
Why? Well, as Tevye said: “Tradition!” It’s always been done this way. Conventions aren’t about news. They’re a junket for senior reporters. They’re easy to cover because everyone who attends them is media-trained and has a scripted message. There’s what media needs today: stuff that’s easy.
How can you cover the reaction of voters back at home when all your best reporters are down in Tampa snarfing down shrimp and free booze? Why are the TV networks interviewing a small number of delegates and ignoring millions of online conversations between real voters? How can the media, which prides itself on independence, cooperate so willingly with the PR manipulators who script this stuff? How can it possibly spending so much money on something that produces no news?
Let’s ask different questions: What if The New York Times, Washington Post or NBC made a statement in 2016 and announced that it would skip the conventions and invest that money instead in an investigative unit or database journalist? What if the media stopped coming to the conventions entirely and left the coverage to Journatic? Do you think we would be any worse off? Do you think the economy would suffer? Do you think anyone outside of the media would even notice?
Won’t happen. That would be rocking the boat. And for heaven’s sake, why would anyone want to do that?
Update: Andrew Cohen writes about the unholy camaraderie between media and political parties in the Atlantic. Noting that Huffington Post, The Politico, CNN and Bloomberg spend lavishly on receptions for delegates, he notes, “People are angry about politics and politicians. They are angry about the way the media cover politics and politicians. Can you blame them, in the face of [media-sponsored] spas and sports bars, in the face of the self-promotion, for perceiving some sort of unholy alliance between reporters and the people upon which they are supposed to be reporting?”
Apparently a Pulitzer Prize is no protection against the ravages of the marketplace. The Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot-News, and the Syracuse Post-Standard will reduce print frequency to thrice weekly beginning in January. They follow the lead of their Advance Publications brethren in New Orleans and Alabama, which scaled back this spring. The news is particularly disappointing because the Patriot-News won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for its coverage of the Penn State scandal. These are not small marketers. The two papers have a combined Sunday circulation of nearly a quarter million. They’ll keep publishing on Sunday. The other two days of the week haven’t been decided. Expect more members of the Advance family to follow.
Update: A tipster says he’s been told there will be a 50% staff reduction at the Post-Standard starting next week. “That’s 200 lost jobs in an already hard-hit community.”