Amanda Terkel of HuffPost speaks on a panel at 2020  Campaign Journalism Conference in Chicago with Ben Smith, left, of BuzzFeed News, Sam Feist of CNN, and Margaret Talev of Bloomberg

Amanda Terkel of HuffPost speaks on a panel at 2020 Campaign Journalism Conference in Chicago with Ben Smith, left, of BuzzFeed News, Sam Feist of CNN, and Margaret Talev of Bloomberg

One of the biggest goals for the U.S. journalism industry in covering the 2020 election is to not repeat its mistakes from the 2016 election. So what steps are journalists taking to fulfill that?

The industry of 2019 is different than in 2015, for better or worse. Twitter still drives news agendas while Facebook, Google, and Amazon vacuum up the advertising dollars. Reader relationships have become a separate priority. Meaningful local journalism has continued to shrink while the standout national organizations have grown stronger. Misinformation and media manipulation are more and more studied, though growing more and more sophisticated.

But the campaign waits for no one. Presidential candidates have already hosted more than 600 events in Iowa this campaign, as tracked by the Des Moines Register, reporting embed teams have been assembled and sent out, and even Joe Biden has joined the race now as the Democratic field has ballooned to 25 contenders.

Matt Pearce has headed out on his first presidential campaign trail after six years on the Los Angeles Times’s national desk. His own organization underwent one of the most drastic transformations in the industry since Trump was elected: Newsroom unionization (which Pearce co-organized), multiple new top editors, one editor forcibly removed from the newsroom by old leadership, a new building, and a new billionaire benefactor now trying to rebuild the LA Times’s power after buying the newspaper out from Tribune Company. The lessons from his own newsroom’s reshaping are directing his reporting process for 2020—and it started with a Google form.

“I don’t have any special secret sources going to give me the inside dirt on what’s happening behind closed doors in Democratic politics. I don’t think I’m any smarter or wiser than anybody else when it comes to predicting what’s going to happen,” Pearce told me. “Why not tap into the big group of people I have who are a sounding board for what issues are really important to them? They can tell me about their communities, and give me indications for policy issues.”

In 11 questions developed in one day, Pearce surveyed respondents’ deal-breaker issues, voting strategies, thoughts on triaging coverage and determining frontrunners, “one big question” they would ask every candidate, and the difference between the stories they would assign reporters and the ones they would want to read. (They were honest: Policy explainers were “assigned” two-thirds of the time and only chosen to “read” a third.) He shared the Google form on Twitter on a Tuesday and by Thursday had 3,000 responses.

“It’s not just about covering this one campaign, but how we do journalism after 2020 as well,” Pearce said.

Along with a group of potential interviewees across the country, Pearce has built a (not the most scientific, but still substantial) database of tuned-in voters on whose behalf he can approach a campaign for answers. But there’s also a business case behind it: “I’ve been thinking a lot more about how to provide that value for people who are actually going to pay for my journalism,” Pearce said. “Ultimately the goal is to show these people the journalism that the LA Times and I are doing, and one way is to showcase transparency and buy-in into the process,” citing David Fahrenthold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning legal pad reporting as one example. The L.A. Times has 157,000 digital subscribers (“We haven’t scratched the surface,” new owner Patrick Soon-Shiong told analyst Ken Doctor), compared to The New York Times’s 3.4 million digital subscribers.

Many news organizations are bringing more and more audience members—some might even say community members—into their processes this election cycle, leaning on experiments from the 2018 midterms as well. New York University professor and press critic Jay Rosen has called for a renaissance of the citizens agenda this campaign: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”

He, as director of NYU’s Membership Puzzle Project, and Jennifer Brandel, as CEO and cofounder of Hearken, are working to enact this very thing. The pair are conducting their own grassroots campaign to build a citizens agenda approach into 2020 coverage: “This is not putting out one questionnaire that goes to 500 people, and calling it audience involvement,” Brandel wrote in the project’s announcement.

“This means:

  • Planning ahead
  • Bringing the public into the process of your journalism and story production
  • Evaluating the success of your outreach efforts to reach new audiences
  • Establishing real metrics so you can determine where you’re succeeding and what to adjust”

Rosen shared a list of the 10 steps involved in developing a citizens agenda in his concurrent post. He had visited WBUR in Boston to guide the political reporters in planning their own 2020 coverage. “You cannot keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from campaign journalists. Who cares what they think? It has to originate with the voters you are trying to inform,” he wrote. Brandel and Rosen plan an October convening on this topic.

Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan echoed Rosen’s call this spring, and BuzzFeed News’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith pointed out the power of social media fandoms in the face of lagging mainstream media to drive a candidate’s fate.

As much as 2020 presidential candidates are zeroing in on individual voters’ support, news organizations are zeroing in on their readers. The power of the individual was a highlight at the 2020 Campaign Journalism Conference (CJC) at Google’s Chicago office co-hosted by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism (which is where, disclosure, I work as a staff writer at Nieman Journalism Lab) and the University of Chicago Institute of Politics (which, further disclosure, I participated in as a student). I shared specific points from the conference, a training ground for embeds and other campaign reporters on how to pack a campaign trail bag, evaluate polls, and more, in a Nieman Lab roundup here.

A top takeaway: “Don’t be so focused on what happened in 2016 and try to avoid those mistakes that you make more mistakes that we’ll have a conference about it,” HuffPost’s Washington bureau chief Amanda Terkel said.

Here are issues emphasized by the reporters and editors at CJC on how they plan to cover the 2020 election differently—better—than in 2016.

Diversity behind and in the journalism: Who are you interviewing, and who is doing the interviewing in your newsroom?

The diner trope, a longtime pin in how national political journalists approached America in the Midwest and other noncoastal parts of the U.S., was the butt of the joke. When Peter Hamby, Snapchat’s Good Luck America show host and a Vanity Fair contributor, spoke about the media’s self-inflicted removal from “normal people,” Sullivan countered with “We’ve tried to fix that by going to every diner in America now.”

More seriously, the question is which diners are reporters going to, The New York Times’s Jonathan Martin said. “The midterms were not played out in diners in Buckhead. The answer is not less diners—it’s go everywhere. Go to cities, go to suburbs. Don’t limit yourself to one demographic,” he advised.

But you should also check your assumptions on who you’re expecting to find at those “diners” or whose preferences you have in mind when thinking about a candidate’s likability. Vox’s Jane Coasten encouraged attendees to keep the intricacies of different demographic groups in mind: “I hate it when people say, ‘This is what African Americans think,’ because I don’t remember that coming up at our last meeting,” she said. “Mark Zuckerberg is a millennial. I’m a millennial. We have nothing else in common.”

And there’s also the very fair question of who is doing the reporting, as some news organizations have already been questioned about. Hamby described how “going into the black barber shops and churches made me a better reporter because I was uncomfortable… That makes you a better reporter because it makes you question all of your assumptions.” But in an industry trying to rebuild trust and share a group’s perspectives, wouldn’t it make more sense to have someone who already is comfortable in that space—because they are black and understand much more of the context of that perspective than a white person could?

Building relationships with voters (and news outlets) between the coasts

Part of the media’s self-inflicted removal from the majority of Americans’ daily life, as I hypocritically write from Cambridge, Mass., is its consolidated flight to the coasts and investment drainage from local news markets. Yes, there is the storyline of “you trust who you see at the supermarket,” but in reality you can’t understand an average family driving a minivan and getting groceries at a  no-frills Aldi if you shop at Whole Foods and take the subway home.

“You have the assignment of a lifetime with this campaign. It’s about covering the country, not just the candidate,” CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, senior White House correspondent, told the conference.

But you shouldn’t fit the country into your to-quote checklist items.

“Always ask who should I talk to next. Don’t just get the Rolodex that gets your assumption bias,” Sue Dvorsky, the former Iowa Democratic Party chair, said. “You see the person with the hay bale and you say, ‘Okay, I’ve got one!’“

Zeleny advised making friends and pen pals out of undecided voters on the campaign trail, checking back in with them throughout the cycle, and going to physical places where others might not go. “How many reporters are really attuned to what’s happening in evangelical churches? Probably not as many as are attuned to what’s happening in hipster coffee shops,” he said.

CNN has also made an attempt to bring regular voters to the forefront of the campaign news cycle, hosting over a dozen town halls with candidates in prime time, as Washington bureau chief Sam Feist mentioned in a panel. While it has made some curious choices in its booking—did Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz really need a platform before being an actual declared candidate?—its town halls have propelled some contenders into the spotlight who previously hadn’t been taken seriously, like South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg. CNN hosted town halls in 2016 as well, but this cycle’s prominence also signals the network’s caution after giving Trump unfettered access by airing many of his rallies live.

What about the local outlets whose reporters may be some of the very same voters the campaigns are trying to woo? The conference was largely geared toward roving campaign reporters, but the reporting from local newsrooms—on local issues that matter to local voters—should not be overlooked. Collaborations between local and national outlets are at new heights, and a network of locally-grounded freelancers to counter parachute journalism launched in recent months. Many local newsrooms are in much more dire straits than any outlet that can afford to send even one journalist out on the campaign trail.

Staying aware of the platforms’ awareness: How to respond to media manipulation and the algorithms

A real-life Twitter debate erupted onstage between CNN’s Feist and BuzzFeed News’ Smith—one bemoaning the loss of scoops to Twitter rather than the organization’s website, and the other commenting: “There’s a reason big TV networks who employ a lot of people don’t break a lot of news” and the retort: “We break news!” And on and on…”Per capita?”

While both agreed that reporters should not rely solely on Twitter for their communication—“The worst thing you can do to a reporter is say, ‘Oh my god, did you see this tweet? Can you write it up?’” Smith said—Smith also was clear in BuzzFeed’s perspective of Twitter as a tactical and trust-building tool. “The way you get people to trust you is being transparent and being clear who you are,” he added.

The most important piece to remember is that Twitter is not normal—but activists, particularly right-wing, have seized upon reporters’ use of it to push items into the news cycle. Yochai Benkler’s research has proved this. Panelists frequently cited The New York Times’s recent reporting on the differences between the Democratic electorate on Twitter and the Democratic electorate in real life. Hamby’s own 2012 postmortem for the Shorenstein Center foreshadowed the fuel of the 24/7 news cycle to Trump’s rise: “According to Chuck Todd, it was all but certain that some candidate in 2016 would find a way to harness the social media beast and run with it.

“Some candidate is going to say, ‘I’m going to make this my advantage. I’m going to take the fact that the news cycle is 24 one-hour news cycles,’” Todd said. “So why not be totally unfiltered and take the McCain à la 2000, and take it to the next level, and just say everything is on the record, everything is open-sourced. The first candidate that cracks that code and does it will get rewarded. The public will reward them, the media will reward them, a whole bunch of people will reward them.”

Unlike the buttoned-up Romney, this hypothetical 2016 candidate would probably have to be a natural, at ease with both a new generation of reporters and the modern tools they use.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the best example of this on the Democratic side, though the media missed her rise in 2018, HuffPost’s Terkel pointed out. Twitter is weaponized as never before, teens disregard Facebook for Instagram, and new features mean new heights for disinformation and outreach (beer on Instagram Live, anyone?). And the irony is not lost on the LA Times’s Pearce, who used a tool from one of the biggest tech companies in the world to build out his 2020 reporting.

One of the sections in his survey was “The Big Question: If you could ask every candidate one thing, what would you ask?” So I turned it on him instead: What is his big question for every journalist reporting on this campaign?

“What are you doing to ensure that you’re controlling the way you want to cover this presidential campaign, as opposed to letting yourself be influenced by these tech platforms controlled by Silicon Valley?” he said.

“During this campaign we’ll see over and over again: who is Twitter going to be kicking off its platform, which news outlets are going to be featured most prominently on Facebook, which candidates or parties are going to be favored by these big powerful structures created by these companies. Ultimately there is a level to which this election is going to be decided by these huge companies in Silicon Valley… We still don’t totally understand the extent to which Facebook and YouTube have changed our entire political reality.”

Further Reading

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