Veteran Political Reporters Discuss New Technology — And How It’s Changed Their Work — Since 1970s

By: Andrew J. Nusca

In the final stretch of the 2006 midterm elections, famed reporter Tom Edsall started his day with a virtual information overload ? reading no less than 10 blogs to keep abreast of the 24-hour coverage of Senate and House races across the nation. It’s as if he’s been doing it for all 65 years of his life ? instead of for the first time. In reality, neither he nor anyone else in politics had even heard of a blog during the last midterm election ? and since then, it’s hard for many reporters to remember the time when they were considerably less connected.

“Technology, along with 24/7 cable and YouTube, have accelerated the speed of campaigning,” Edsall explained in an e-mail. “Events, comments, speeches, et cetera are all immediately available to all players, including editors back at the news desk who are now able to intrude and direct coverage much more actively.”

But times indeed have changed. In just three decades, the emergence of computers, mobile phones, the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet have radically altered the way political reporters do their jobs. Generation after generation of journalist continues to grapple with the evolution of technology, a seemingly Darwinian plot that weeds out those reporters who resist change. Longtime users of the typewriter, scissors and glue, today’s senior political reporters are more likely to be found with a Blackberry handheld device than a black pen.

A special correspondent for The New Republic and guest op-ed columnist for The New York Times the past month, Edsall said the breakneck pace of technology is both a blessing and a curse for reporters, campaigns, and most of all ? voters.

“Technology has increased the ‘value’ of campaign staffers who can respond to and initiate story lines very quickly,” Edsall wrote, “but it has also diminished the importance of thoughtful, considered presentations by campaigns in the heat of battle.”

The Internet has fundamentally changed how political reporters cover news allowing them to use its constant availability of information to compile data on the fly, Edsall stated. “It has given journalists instant access to campaign finance records, background material and the ability to search histories of subjects and individuals, all from a campaign bus or hotel room,” Edsall wrote. “E-mail has created instant contact with sources, as have cell phones.

“Cell phones and computers equipped to send and receive material from the Internet are especially important for reporters covering presidential and other candidates when much traveling is required. It is now possible to get a response from the opposition while on the road.”

But it wasn’t always so easy for political reporters. Dallas Morning News senior political writer Wayne Slater said an ornery computer at The Associated Press offices in West Virginia in 1973 often put his otherwise uncanny ability to turn in clean copy in jeopardy.

“The computer terminal was fairly primitive,” Slater, 56, said. “Hit the wrong button and everything would be erased.”

On more than one occasion, Slater said he would spend 25 minutes writing a newscast only to accidentally erase it just before he sent it to a waiting outlet. Panicked, Slater said he would hastily rewrite the story in the remaining five minutes and, without proofreading it, push the send button.

“On occasion, I would produce embarrassing typos ? writing ‘pubic’ instead of ‘public,’ ” Slater said. “At these early-morning rip-and-read operations, it was often a disc jockey reading the news. So when the copy said, ‘The mayor said he would seek a pubic hearing,’ that’s what they read. And I heard about it.”

Since then, Slater said he’s grown accustomed to mastering new tools of his trade.

“My laptop is equipped with a phone card so I can send from anywhere there’s a phone signal,” said Slater, who once transported his stories by pneumatic tube. “Following the presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004, I would write on the plane or at political events and send via a wireless card. Sometimes, I’d simply dictate on a cell phone.”

Cox Newspapers White House correspondent Ken Herman said the convenience of mobile phones can’t be understated. As a reporter for The Associated Press in Texas in the late 1970s, 52-year-old Herman said he often covered stories in rural areas, isolated from the “pay phones that were the link to the outside world” and the only way to file.

“At trials and other courthouse stories it used to be a race to the pay phones when other reporters were around,” Herman said. “We learned tricks, such as staking out a pay phone in advance, unscrewing the mouthpiece and removing the device inside.

“Without it, the phone would not work for anybody else. With it in your pocket and ready to reinstall, the device provided a personal pay phone when you needed it. It also was a good way to annoy competitors.”

The round-the-clock connectivity of the Internet can help in fact-checking, Herman said, but it can also diminish making true connections with sources and potential sources. “Used properly, it’s an incredible tool,” Herman said. “But I do fear it can cut down on the human contact that remains so crucial to our job.”

Yet some political reporters have been slow to adapt.

Slater said one of his colleagues simply wouldn’t give up the system that they first used for the 1986 Texas elections ? a Radio Shack T100 computer that used a payphone to transmit the story.

“In Austin, a colleague was resistant to give up the Radio Shack and move up to a better laptop computer,” Slater said. “[He] ultimately did so when the Radio Shack wore out and the company had long since abandoned making parts for them.”

Slater said some of his colleagues were simply skeptical of the new technology. “I remember sitting on the floor of a sports arena in 1990 at the Texas Democratic State Convention and hooking my cell phone bearing a long antenna to my computer [and] sending stories to my newspaper,” Slater said. “When a colleague walked by the table and saw my computer, cell phone and a mass of black wires, he said skeptically, ‘Oh, now that ought to work.’ It did.”

For all of its benefits, 86-year-old White House correspondent and Hearst columnist Helen Thomas said the information overload that technology offers doesn’t replace the minutia-catching eyes and ears of a seasoned reporter.

“Good reporting and great journalism demand being there on the spot, seeing and hearing [for] yourself,” Thomas wrote in an e-mail. “The Internet helps, [but] blogs can be misleading. Good old-fashioned reporting one-on-one [and] good sources are the way to go. Accuracy above all, not technology.”

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