MEDIA POLITICS: Media Roundup - Voracious political press presentspitch possibilities

Shortly after September 11, Jay Leno joked, "Gary Condit couldn't

get in the papers if a shark bit him in the ass." But the entire

landscape of political journalism was changing long before then, and PR

people have had to change the way they pitch. David Ward reports



As any elected official, legislative aide, or government reporter will

tell you, politics is addictive. The exclusive access to the ins and

outs of public policy-making, party skirmishes, and election-night joy

or anguish is a potent mix that often turns its participants at the

local, state, and national levels into lifers far more interested in the

process of government than the result.



But political journalism, while intriguing for insiders, is suffering

from a perceived decline in standards. Despite the proliferation of

cable news outlets, websites, syndicated radio programming, and print

publications devoted to politics, it can be argued that the public may

know less about the role of government in daily life than ever

before.



"Political journalism suffers from the same affliction as journalism in

general, which is a lack of substance," says Mack Bradley, vice

president with St. Louis-based The Vandiver Group. Bradley argues that

this trend has been going on for 20 years, and stems from a general

detachment Americans have from their government.



"What the reader tends to want is the 'gotcha' story," says Stan

Collender, national director of public affairs for Fleishman-Hillard.

"Depending on the publication, you do have beat reporters that focus on

the economy, and those people are always looking for substantive

stories. But the front pages of The Washington Post and The New York

Times often end up being what the Republicans are saying about the

Democrats, and whether Dick Gephardt is getting along with Dennis

Hastert as much as what the bottom-line implications for you and your

wallet are."



Media bias beyond left versus right



This is especially true among television political reporters. With the

exception of outlets such as C-SPAN, NY1, and, in certain instances,

CNN, most TV outlets are looking for visuals, conflict, and

personalities, often at the expense of nuanced analysis.



But PR execs also need to understand the particular biases of the

reporters and the outlets they represent. "The good reporters really

work hard to cover and understand the issues, but each reporter's

coverage reflects the priorities laid out by their newspapers," says Dan

Weiller, press officer for the New York State Assembly in Albany, NY.

"The tabloids of New York City cover Albany differently from, say, The

New York Times."



"On a national level, you'll see the networks put a correspondent on a

particular candidate, and if that candidate wins the Presidency, the

correspondent will end up covering the White House," notes Steven Swatt,

NCG/Porter Novelli partner and GM of its Sacramento, CA office. "It

raises a concern in that if it can help your own career advancement if

the candidate you're covering wins, do you want that candidate to win,

and does that impact your coverage?"



The other lament among PR professionals is that regardless of whether

the seat of power is Washington, DC, the state capital, or the local

city hall, the number of issues and pending legislation is far greater

than can be covered in a media outlet. "It's difficult to break through

the clutter," says Swatt. "I know some folks in PR firms in Sacramento

who tell me they don't even bother with the state-capital press corps

anymore because they've been covering politics and government for so

long, they've gotten cynical."



Collender says that in DC, the three most important news outlets are The

Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.



While not impossible to pitch, Collender says it helps to establish

relationships with these outlets by delivering solid information in an

unbiased, straightforward way. "If what you've done in the past is spin

stories, they'll be more reticent to take your call," he says.



On a national level, the leading political reporters include David

Broder and EJ Dionne of The Washington Post, David Rosenbaum and Richard

Stevensen of The New York Times, George Hager of USA Today, Evan Thomas

and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek, James Warren of the Chicago Tribune,

David Gregory of NBC, Brit Hume of Fox News Channel, and Alan Stewart

Murray, Washington bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal.



But there are also political commentators - including conservative radio

talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, Hardball moderator Chris Matthews, and New

York Times columnist Maureen Dowd - who can have an astonishing amount

of influence in interpreting political news for the average person.



Analyzing the analysis



Indeed, in an era when several "all news, all the time" television

networks have an insatiable news hole to fill each day, a huge portion

of political coverage has shifted away from breaking stories to

analysis, and in some cases, analyzing the analysis.



Stories such as the disappearance of Chandra Levy and her relationship

with Representative Gary Condit (D-CA) take on a life of their own,

often pushing more important - albeit complex - political debates off to

the side. "The political press generally tends to latch on to one big

issue, and ride it until it dies," says Swatt.



But Mike Paul, president of New York City-based MGP & Associates PR,

argues that instead of bemoaning the personality-driven aspects - and in

some cases, the ideological slant - of modern American political

journalism, PR people should use those angles to their clients'

advantage. "When you're talking to someone from the New York Post, you

know they're looking at it from a conservative angle," he says. "And

when you're talking to someone from The Village Voice, you know they're

looking at it from an ultra-liberal point of view."



Paul also warns against pitching political reporters with insider

language.



Instead, he advises keeping the lingo to a minimum, and always keeping

the final readers at the forefront of every contact. "You always want to

make sure complex issues are accompanied by simpler examples that the

layman can understand," he says.



Paul adds that since the September 11 terrorist attacks, reporters -

especially in New York City - are often doing double duty, writing

several stories a day for multiple beats. He took that into

consideration when doing PR for the Democratic primary runoff debate

held by his client: New School University Graduate School of Urban

Policy. "They wanted to make sure the place was packed with reporters,"

he says. Paul only reached the city's three main papers, as well as

Spanish-language and other ethnic papers. But he also contacted numerous

reporters within each outlet, focusing not just on City Hall reporters,

but also on those who cover the metro and education beats.



"We contacted reporters a week in advance and told them, 'You heard of

the event. I want to make sure you get the information you need. Tell me

what angle you're going to be coming from,'" Paul says. "The result was

that the debate was one of the top local news stories alongside the

World Trade Center recovery efforts and the decision by Rudy Giuliani

not to seek a third term."



Perhaps the secret, then, is to employ a classic PR tactic: fine-tuned

targeting.



WHERE TO GO



Newspapers: The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington

Post; Washington Times; New York Daily News; New York Post; Chicago

Tribune; USA Today; The Village Voice



Magazines: National Journal; National Review; The New Republic; Time;

Newsweek; US News & World Report; New York; Washingtonian; The New

Yorker; Vanity Fair



Trade publications: Congressional Quarterly; Roll Call; The Hill; The

Hotline; Congress Daily



TV & Radio: Fox News Channel; CNN; CNBC; Bloomberg News; C-SPAN; NBC;

ABC; CBS; MSNBC; NPR



Internet: The Drudge Report; CapitalImpact.com.



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