Unconscionable political convention coverage

In May, as part of the Carnival of Journalism, Ryan Sholin asked:

What should news organizations stop doing, today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?

I have another take on that question, and it is one that more news organisations are being forced to ask. What can news organisations no longer afford to do? What is your news organisation doing that is either too costly or provides so little value to your readers/viewers/listeners that it’s no longer justifiable? Or put another way, if it’s not unique and it’s not really uniquely relevant to your audience, is there something else that you should be covering that is? What is the opportunity cost of covering that event that everyone and their dog, cat, sister, brother and third cousin covering? What are you foregoing to cover that event?

Why do I ask this question? I give you 15,000 reasons, which is the number of journalists covering the US political conventions. That is 3.75 journalists per delegate. It might be defensible if those 15,000 journalists was actually doing something unique in terms of coverage. But they aren’t. Furthermore, that is 15,000 journalists covering an event that the New York Times aptly described as “effectively a four-night miniseries before an audience of 20 million people or more”.

During a planning meeting, I was asked what kind of news we could expect. I responded: None. The entire goal of the conventions is not to make news, not to have surprises. They are carefully choreographed, scripted and stage-managed. Yes, the candidates will make an acceptance speech that is newsworthy, but the rest of the evenings are designed to net as much free air-time and coverage as possible to launch the candidates’ campaigns.

Political conventions are like class reunions for American press corps. I’ve covered two, and they are great fun and great theatre, but they aren’t great news events. Ted Koppel left the 1996 Republican Convention early, complaining that it was little more than a picture show. This year, he’s there as an analyst for BBC America. His assessment of the coverage is pretty damning:

Amy Gahran, writing for Poynter, called the numbers of journalists covering the convention an unconscionable waste of news resources in light of the current state of the news business. Mark Potts said:

At a time when news budgets are being slashed because of declining revenue, how can a news organization possibly justify sending a raft of people to the conventions? (I suspect the numbers for the Olympics are about the same-and just as ridiculous.) …

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.

And I couldn’t agree more with Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center who says that news organisations must focus on what is unique to their franchise. As I often say, the danger of Google News for news organisations isn’t that it steals your traffic but that it shows how little is unique in most coverage, how much re-packaged wire copy we re-produce. That’s the real danger, and it’s why the average news website visitor views about 2 pages per month. And Michele echoes my concerns about opportunity costs:

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).

At the end of the day, the Columbia Journalism Review lays out the naked truth, of the 15,000 journalists:

7,500 aren’t doing much at all. This isn’t surprising. Only a small number of reporters actually have a reason to be here. The rest are conventioneering—seeing old friends, eating Democratic-themed menu items (“Barack Obama’s Turkey Chili”) in pandering local restaurants, brandishing their press passes at all comers, looking for free things, and spending about 14 percent of their time trying to rustle up enough stories to justify their presence to their editors. These reporters are the ones mostly writing about themselves, or their friends, or their experiences exploring Denver with their friends (“I was enjoying some turkey chili with David Broder yesterday…”). At least they’re open about the fact that they’re enjoying themselves.

And I blame journalists as much as their editors. Yes, trips have always been used by editors to reward good journalists, but there are journalists who have come to treat the profession like their own personal travel bureau. They come up with the flimsiest pretence for extravagant travel that is of little journalistic value and of little benefit to their audience, who in the end are footing the bill.

No journalism organisation has ever had unlimited resources, and now, newspapers are fighting for their very existence. It is not a time for profligate spending, as if it ever were. If we are true to our word that journalism is essential to a healthy democracy, then we have to use our limited resources judiciously and for the benefit of our audience. If we provide them relevant information, then, hopefully, they will support our efforts. If we continue these wasteful ways, then our lofty arguments about our essential democratic role will be seen as disingenuous and self-serving.

Disclosure: Yes, I am taking a trip in October to cover the US Elections. But I am keeping a close eye on the bottom line. The quality of coverage is not directly proportional to the cost. I use digital technology to undercut the traditional cost basis of journalism. It’s what we all need to do. We must use disruptive digital technology to reduce the cost basis of what we do. It will give us more resources to do journalism and to innovate.

I have one prediction that I am reasonably confident in making. In 2012, there will not be 15,000 journalists. Not because news organisations finally come to their senses but because so many have ceased to exist.