Travel Costs Concern White House Correspondents Association

By: Joe Strupp

Now that the White House press corps is back in its home following nearly a year of renovations to the press briefing areas, the next issue for the White House Correspondents Association is a likely escalation in travel costs, according to President Steve Scully.

Scully, a C-SPAN producer who will leave his WHCA post at the end of July, said fewer journalists are expected to travel with President Bush during his final 18 months in office, with many turning their attention to the presidential campaigns. The reduction means the cost of each journalist on press charter flights will go up, a real issue for news organizations at a time when most are dealing with resource cuts and budget problems.

“In the last year and a half, the interest in traveling with the president is diminished, so the cost per person increases,” said Scully. “If there are 30 people on a plane, you divide the cost by 30. If it is 50, you do it by 50. The costs of charters are increasing.”

Scully, who will hand over his presidency to Ann Compton of ABC News in August, says an effort to keep charter travel costs down will have to be a top priority. “We’ve got to figure out how we can get the most economical charter planes out there,” he said. “Gas prices have increased, the planes are expensive. We try to use smaller planes, but they cannot be too small because you’ve got to think of equipment.”

Scully said up to a dozen members of the press can travel aboard Air Force One, which is usually reserved for wire services and major outlets. All others must share the cost of a charter plane. “The price of the plane is the same, but if there are fewer people, the cost goes up,” he said. “The major news agencies, the wires, the top papers, still travel. But some others will have to reduce travel and rely on wires.”

White House spokeswoman Emily Lawrimore agreed that costs would likely increase, but offered no specific solutions. “Obviously it is going to be more expensive to charter a plane,” she told E&P. “Our travel office works with the White House Correspondents Association to keep costs as low as possible. That is one of the main goals.”

Less interest in the final year and a half of a second-term president is nothing new, Scully admits. But with the 2008 presidential campaign starting so much earlier, the impact will be felt more severely, he said. “Typically, the people who cover the White House also cover politics and it comes down to resources,” he said. “The lack of resources [at news outlets] compound the problem.”

Compton agrees that the costs will likely increase, but says the problem is nothing new for those covering a second-term president’s last years. “In the last months, most news organizations pump their resources into the campaigns,” she said. “There are almost always fewer people who cover the president. Travel costs are always a problem and they are always going to be.”

But Compton went on to praise Scully and his predecessor, AP radio reporter Mark Smith, for taking care of many of the organization’s most pressing issues prior to her arrival. She said, in addition to the briefing area renovation, Scully and Smith helped to streamline the press office travel procedures and raise more money for more scholarships.

“I have nothing to do but plan the dinner,” Compton joked about the annual event that has drawn more and more interest in recent years for its entertainment and growing A-List celebrity guests. “They have handled all of the big issues.” When asked who might be the host of the annual dinner in 2008, which drew complaints several months ago for Rich Little’s poor performance and controversy in 2006 for Stephen Colbert’s anti-Bush comments, Compton said she had not looked that far ahead. “It is many, many, months away,” she said. “I have not even begun to think about it.”

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