For me, the entry into covering the presidential primaries was abrupt, and the learning curve was a steep one. While some of the candidates were still declaring their intent to run, I was working as a municipal reporter at a small Boston-area daily newspaper. But during the late summer, I switched jobs and now report on politics—local, state and national—at the Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly with a reputation for strong political content.
With New Hampshire so close to us and the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the primary races have become a major focus of my reporting. To help me make the transition from covering zoning disputes and school board meetings to presidential politics, I turned to the vast array of Web resources—but lately I’ve become increasingly ambivalent about my reliance on them.
A Web Obsession Develops
Actually, my embrace of these Web resources of political reporting began a bit earlier. In fact, these sites helped me to get my job. While I had been reasonably informed by what I’d heard and read in the traditional print and broadcast media, I wasn’t a compulsive consumer of political news. But during the interview process, whenever I had a spare moment, I’d head to the Internet to delve deeper into the national political scene and generate story ideas. Before long, sites like Salon and Slate assumed a prominent place in my daily news-consumption routine.
Shortly after I got to the Phoenix, the balance between traditional and Web-based media shifted decisively. A politically savvy friend in Washington, D.C. sent me a list of must-read political Web sites. I put aside some slight moral pangs and started to use my friend’s password to read the subscription-only Web publication, The Hotline, the National Journal’s mid-morning omnibus of daily political news. Worried I might miss something important, I made sure to read the Journal’s shorter morning and afternoon Web briefings. I also became a compulsive reader of ABC News’s The Note, another Internet catchall for things political. Between reading that site’s commentary and using its many links to access stories by writers at newspapers throughout the country, The Note, alone, often took up huge chunks of my time each morning.
My growing obsession didn’t stop there. Each day, it seemed, I learned of another must-read Weblog, a place I could go and find new information along with sharply opinionated analysis. These blogs were hard to keep track of, but they all seemed important, so I made a point of visiting sites like the Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, and Andrew Sullivan.com whenever possible. Online sites of influential magazines like The New Republic, The Washington Monthly, The Weekly Standard, and National Review were also regular destinations: First I targeted their free content, then schmoozed my way into passwords that allowed me to access subscriber-only material. Reading the magazines at the library would probably have been easier, but then I might have missed a vital bit of Web-only content that I felt I couldn’t afford to not read.
As I look back, this campaign of mine to catalog and visit every worthwhile political Web site—a campaign that was bound to fail—served a valuable purpose. It tossed me headlong into an unfamiliar world where I became saturated with massive amounts of information and forced to master a new vocabulary. Ten years ago, such an immersion would have left me surrounded by stacks of newspapers, with a sore finger from clicking across the spectrum of TV news shows and political roundtables and with a radio dial worn down by my effort to hear more coverage. While those news sources are still available, heading to the Internet made this journey one I could accomplish at my desk and on my computer. And I was able to achieve my goal of learning as much as I could as fast as I could more quickly.
That’s the good news.
The Obsession Becomes a Liability
The bad news is that at some point—and I don’t know exactly when—my gung ho approach became a liability. Put simply, the bevy of Internet-only news sites and magazine Web sites and blogs, which once seemed so enticing, started to feel oppressive. For one thing, there was never enough time. Whenever I thought I’d managed to assemble a comprehensive list of must-read Internet sites, I found a new one to explore. And there was always one more blog or article to read as links at one site herded me to another with the lure of one more Web exclusive that I felt I needed to check out. Soon, what I’d envisioned as background reading to help me do my job more effectively was eating into valuable reporting time.
As the number of Web sites I visited daily increased, I also found I was processing their content less and less effectively. I’ve always preferred reading hard copies of articles, because I feel that I engage the material more fully than if I’m staring at it on a computer screen. Now my ability to absorb what I was reading was decreasing exponentially; often, I’d finish reading an article or blog and struggle unsuccessfully to remember what the point of the piece had been. The various elements of my Web regimen were converging into the verbal equivalent of white noise: Certain vague impressions stayed with me, but few concrete details were being retained.
Sites like The Note presented a particularly difficult challenge. Though I still read The Note religiously, find it entertaining and informative and plan to keep reading it, I sometimes wish I didn’t know it existed. Quick—imagine any primary election story you might want to write. Odds are that The Note A) has at some point during the past week synopsized several stories on this topic and identified their shared conclusions and unique arguments, or B) will provide such a comprehensive synopsis within the next few days.
This can create problems on a few levels. On one hand, there seems an implicit pressure to move in the same direction. If the big names in political journalism are writing this story, who am I—a newcomer to this stuff—to ignore this collective wisdom? Of course, if I decide to head in this direction, The Note allows me easy access to all of their stories without getting up from my desk. For me not to read each one of them seems negligent. But paradoxically, an opposite pressure can be created. If I decide—on my own—to write a story about Wesley Clark’s comeback, for example, then learn 11 political reporters chose to write about this on the same day in December, as a novice it’s tempting to throw up my hands in despair and scramble for something else.
It’s true that I write for a weekly, and as a reporter for this paper I have the freedom to write long and inject my voice into articles. But it’s easy to lose sight of these advantages and fret instead about the seeming impossibility of coming up with a piece that covers the same essential ground as these hypothetical 11 articles but also moves beyond them in a substantive way.
After six months as a political reporter, and with the presidential primaries entering their stretch drive, my Web experiences have led me to identify two goals. First, I need to become a much more discriminating consumer of Web-based political news. After my protracted binge session, I came to realize there’s enough overlap on these sites and blogs that I ought to be more selective. This selectivity might mean that I miss an argument or fact on a given day. But it’s fair to say that when I do miss things one day, I will almost certainly encounter them a day or two later. Second, I’m taking the time I devoted to this quest for encyclopedic knowledge of the Internet’s political buzz and using it, whenever possible, to watch candidates in action, to gab with supporters and undecided voters, and kibitz with as many political consultants and analysts and campaign workers as I can.
Of the primary election stories I’ve written so far, my best ones offer readers a close-up description of how a candidate interacts with people. As I look back, I wish I’d gone to a few more rallies and candidate house parties in New Hampshire, even if I wasn’t going to use what I saw there for a story. And I wish I’d spent fewer hours staring at the screen. Fortunately, though, the political season is still young.
Adam Reilly began his journalism career as an editorial assistant at Nieman Reports. He is now a political reporter for the Boston Phoenix.