Press starts coverage ahead of political campaigns

With 18 months before Election Night and no declared candidates other than President Obama, no dates for Iowa and New Hampshire voting, and only the barest announced plans for the conventions, you’d think that Campaign 2012 might be, for now, a journalistic nonstarter.

But that hasn’t kept the presidential campaign from making headlines nor the networks from laying the groundwork for a campaign season in which new media figures to play an ever greater role. The first GOP debate, sponsored by Fox News, is scheduled for next month. (NBC and Politico postponed until September what previously would have been the first debate, May 2 in Simi Valley, Calif., at the Reagan library, due to a lack of declared candidates.) And last week, CNN scheduled another GOP debate for Oct. 18 in Las Vegas, one of three they’ve planned so far this year.

Each network has been following prospective GOP candidates in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

“As far as I’m concerned, the campaign is under way,” CNN political director Sam Feist says.

Behind the scenes, each net has been meeting about political coverage, making plans on who and what to cover through the GOP primaries and beginning to hire off-air reporters whose work will supplement the on-air correspondents in key states. With the recent Chicago mayoral election, CNN called into action the “decision desk” that will work during the primaries and Election Night.

The fact there aren’t any declared candidates yet on the GOP side doesn’t surprise ABC’s “World News With Diane Sawyer” executive producer Jonathan Banner. There’s no shortage of storylines.

“There are a lot of concerns about jobs, about our competitiveness, housing, deficits and spending,” Banner says. “All those things will come to a head in the election.”

Politics have a way of making journos’ careers, from Dan Rather getting roughed up at the 1968 GOP convention to Katie Couric’s devastating series with then-veep candidate Sarah Palin. It’s too early to tell who might break out, but much has changed at the networks since the comparable pre-election period four years ago.

At ABC, for instance, correspondents Jake Tapper and Jonathan Karl are on the front lines of the network’s political coverage, and both George Stephanopoulos and Diane Sawyer are in new roles compared with ’08. Christiane Amanpour is now moderator of ABC’s “This Week.” CNN is looking for a D.C. bureau chief with the recent promotion of David Borhman. MSNBC is going into the campaign without Keith Olbermann (who has moved to Current TV) although Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews will fill in the gap on the left-leaning net, while Chris Wallace and Bret Baier will once again play a lead role for Fox News. NBC has the most stability, with anchor Brian Williams and “Meet the Press” moderator David Gregory.

Perhaps the biggest changes could happen at CBS, where Couric’s contract is up this summer. If Couric departs, CBS will be faced with introducing a new anchor to the perennially third-place evening newscast. CBS News has already undergone a change at the top, with the promotion of Jeff Fager to chairman and cable vet David Rhodes to prexy. Another change is imminent: The network will soon announce a new political director, whose task will be to run the Eye’s election coverage. Yet two of CBS’ key campaign players, “Face the Nation” moderator Bob Schieffer and D.C. bureau chief Chris Isham, provide stability.

What’s certain is that online, social media and mobile will take an ever bigger role amid the TV coverage. Many campaign stories break on Twitter, and the networks each have iPhone, Android and iPad apps that combine text, video and social media.

“We’ve seen a great migration to digital platforms for politics and political coverage,” ABC’s Banner says. “A lot more coverage is taking place online and on apps and mobile devices.”

Last election cycle, the burgeoning social media world started to play a bigger role in the way networks covered the presidential campaign. CNN paired with YouTube in 2007 for one Democratic and one Republican debate, with the candidates fielding questions from people who submitted videos. Many of the questions were genuine and heartfelt, although CNN drew fire for letting a faux “snowman” ask questions on global warming. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, ABC teamed with Facebook for back-to-back Republican and Democratic debates from St. Anselm College outside Manchester.

This time around, social media will demand a greater seat at the table. And that’s just fine with network executives, who have spent the past three years integrating that aspect into their coverage. CBS News prexy Rhodes points out that the journalism and political worlds have carved out a niche on Twitter.

“When you look at the people we cover, they use social media to get their message out,” Rhodes says. “Our use of the social media can be the same, promoting what we’re doing, talking about our reporting and reaching people who are potential viewers.”

Rhodes, who held key posts at Fox News and Bloomberg before becoming CBS News president in February, believes that this time around, any partnership with social media players will be influenced more by the new technology than it was in 2008.

“I hope it’s not as gimmicky as it was last time,” Rhodes says. “I think a lot of people rushed to make announcements in 2008 and, to a lesser extent, in 2004. But then these things weren’t really conceived a lot differently than a conventional television debate. The key is having social experiences integrated into the broadcast.”

Rhodes expects CBS News to revive its political-themed webcast, which followed the network’s convention and debate coverage and drew widespread praise. CBS News has already talked with corporate sibling CNET about other innovations.

“The Web offerings are more effective than they were even four years ago,” Rhodes says. “We can create in a lot of new ways than we could then.”

CNN network’s first debate will be in New Hampshire on June 7; around Labor Day, CNN will hold the first Tea Party debate in partnership with dozens of organizations.

The network — along with its rivals — is keeping its technology plans, like the video walls, touchscreens and holograms that marked 2008, close to the vest for now.

“I can’t promise you a snowman,” says CNN’s Feist, who adds that he expects the network’s debates to be different than in the past.

What could change, at least for some networks, is the coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions in late summer 2012. Long ago, the nets covered them wall-to-wall. But thanks to cable and a lack of news, conventions have become more pre-packaged, and broadcast nets’ coverage has dwindled to roughly one primetime hour on three of the four nights. It could be even less this time around.

There may be other technologies that pop between now and election day in what has gone from a 24-hour news cycle to what CNN’s Feist calls the “one-minute-ago news cycle.”

“Political news travels faster than ever,” Feist says, adding that today’s pace leaves journos and politicos little time to react.

“The speed of political communications will be a factor in 2012,” Feist says. But he adds that tempering things will be the need and desire for old-fashioned reporting and analysis, even if it’s provided in new ways.

The storyline of Campaign 2012 has yet to be written, and CBS’ Rhodes doesn’t think the technology will be remembered as much as certain moments or events in the campaign.

“The thing we’ll talk about is a piece of reporting,” Rhodes says. “I don’t know how that will be delivered, but when you talk about a campaign and how it was covered, you’ll talk about the big stories and who broke them; that’s what will matter in the end.”

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