I just spent about $5,000 at the two national political conventions.
No, I wasn’t out wining and dining with the heavy hitters, and despite how much my critics would love to finally be able to prove my biases, I wasn’t handing out political contributions to candidates either.
I spent the money to send Michigan Radio reporters to cover the Michigan delegation at each convention.
When the Democratic National Convention wraps up tonight, roughly 15,000 journalists will file their last stories from the conventions and head home for the weekend. That’s a lot of reporters covering an event where the outcome is predetermined, the daily messages are tightly controlled, the participants work hard to stay on message, the public relations folks have already flooded our emails with all the information, and the amount of real news could be scarce.
(Actually, that sounds like most of the press conferences our reporters cover.)
More than a few professionals in our business have questioned the wisdom of local news outlets spending this money, including Jeff Jarvis at Buzz Machine and Michael Calderone at the Huffington Post. They argue we local news directors only send our reporters to the national conventions out of habit, to feed our own egos, and to position ourselves against our competitors who don’t send reporters.
All of those arguments are true, of course, but they’re not the only reasons and not the reasons I spent the money.
If the local reporters sent to national conventions are any good, they should be able to find among the state delegations, stories that are of value to local audiences, and that the national media are not going to cover.
The Michigan economy and the narrative of the “auto-bailout” has played a dominant role at both conventions. Executives from Ford worked the Michigan delegates at both conventions, General Motors was notably absent, the President of the UAW spoke during prime time, and Michigan’s former Governor will speak tonight. Those stories are touched on by the national media, but can be covered more completely and in richer context by Michigan reporters.
There are also stories that don’t rise to the level of national interest, but are of interest to our audience. Only Michigan reporters would cover them. Examples include the events in Tampa honoring former President and Michigan native Gerald Ford, or the lobbyists from DTE and other Michigan businesses trying to spread their message at both conventions, or Michigan Democrats promoting a fake “No one’s ever asked for my birth certificate” party at the RNC to poke fun at Mitt Romney.
There are also the fun and serendipitous features, like a story on the odd souvenirs available for purchase at the conventions, or how Michigan delegates found a restaurant serving Detroit Coney’s not far from their hotel. No, these are not earth-shattering stories, but they’re just as valuable as all the features our lcoal TV stations will produce this month about university tailgate parties.
$5000 is a lot of money for Michigan Radio to spend for two weeks of stories, but it’s an expense that only comes every four years. We can plan for it, and budget for it. It’s not much more money than I would spend sending a reporter for one weekend to cover the Detroit Lions in the Superbowl. (I know, I know, but a guy can dream can’t he?)
The good stories are there, if the local reporter will just look for them.
When I was a young reporter, a senior reporter told me that a good journalist is one that can be dropped off anywhere, and that journalist will find a story by the end of the day. A national political convention is more than just “anywhere”. The major players of both political parties are gathered in one place, with easy access to lobbyists, businesses, other politicians, money, alcohol, policy discussions, partisan bickering, and more.
If a reporter can’t find a good story in that mix, it’s not because there aren’t stories to be found.
The critics are correct that there are lots of reporters covering the conventions, but there were only a handful thinking about Michigan specifically as their audience. Michigan Radio's Lester Graham says the only other Michigan press he's encountered at the DNC are student reporters from MSU. (Good for them for going though.) So if there are only a few reporters there from Michigan, I want one of those reporters to be working for Michigan Radio, and that makes it worth the $5000 cost.