High Tex: A new generation covers the campaign its own way

Sixteen journalism students from the University of Washington descended on Texas during the presidential campaign to see what they could do with few resources and little clout. In hindsight, one might ask, what could they not?
Crosscut archive image.

Rudy Malveaux, a community organizer and volunteer for Barack Obama, flips burgers at an Obama event in East Austin. While interviewing him, UW student Will Mari's shoe caught fire. (Charles Cadwallader)

Sixteen journalism students from the University of Washington descended on Texas during the presidential campaign to see what they could do with few resources and little clout. In hindsight, one might ask, what could they not?

A week ago, a group of University of Washington students traveled to Texas for five days to cover the "primacaucus" — a complicated combination of primary voting and caucusing that had the potential to end both the Democratic and Republican presidential contests on Tuesday, March 4. We thought it would be a grand learning experience, perhaps even a historic one. It was that and more: We saw the future of political journalism in America.

Along the way, we burned a shoe, were embraced by the Houston gay and lesbian community, went to church several times, met feminist icon Gloria Steinem and watched her words get twisted, saw the Clinton campaign literally turn things around overnight, experienced moments of mountaintop exhilaration as well as sleep-deprived exhaustion, and, on the final day, I — the professor on this wild ride — landed in the hospital, from which I am writing via wireless connection.

This is Journalism 2025. And it is good.

The trip to Texas was part of a last push of reporting on the presidential campaign for 16 students who, in recent weeks, had also covered contests in Idaho and Washington. Our forum has been a Web site called Seattlepoliticore, and we've sought to mix traditional reporting practices of verified facts and vetted sources with the kind of first-person commentary that is common among Internet bloggers.

When we created our site in early February, the students wondered if anyone would read it. A month later, they've posted hundreds of stories, photos, and videos on our site and also been invited to provide material to The Seattle Times, the Idaho Statesman, The Huffington Post, here at Crosscut, the popular "Texas on the Potomac" political blog of the Houston Chronicle, Texas' largest newspaper, and on the election section of KIRO-AM's Web site. The volume of output by the students has surpassed anything I envisioned and propelled them to become markedly better journalists.

Further, countless others began linking to Seattlepoliticore, and we found our content picked up by bloggers and traditional news outlets from New York to Miami to San Francisco to even Europe. Traffic increased so much and so fast that the site crashed twice within the span of a few days — both times engendering a mixture of unabashed joy and anxiety among the students. More than once while in Texas, the students interviewed people who said they had read things we had written, which made even their prof proud.

In today's politics and media environment, one can be part of the conversation within minutes and on a shoestring budget. We're proof of that.

For example, by the time we stepped off the plane in Texas, we were equipped with a web of contacts — aided by campaign staffers' always-on availability via cell phones and Blackberries, social networking sites such as Facebook, numerous blogs, and the online presence of news organizations. We split into teams and spent days traveling between Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Waco, and other points. The students took with them cell phones, laptops, pocket-size digital cameras, and wireless network cards (the latter have been the envy of several traditional reporters over the past month), which allowed me to talk with them roughly every few minutes, give or take a minute. I may not have been standing next to them, but I was with them every step.

One of those steps burned a hole in student Will Mari's shoe. He and two classmates were in East Austin, interviewing people at an Obama neighborhood event. While talking with the evening's burger-flipper, Obama volunteer Rudy Malveaux, Mari smelled burnt rubber. He looked down and noted that he was standing on a red-hot barbecue coal. He calmly stamped it out and kept reporting. When you've been in a van going 100 mph to get to a caucus in Idaho and now traveled across the country into the heart of Texas, you don't let a little shoe-fire stop you. But you don't disregard it entirely, either. Instead, Mari wrote it into his coverage of the event, providing a personalized, on-the-scene report that typifies journalistic blogging.

The following day, three other students headed to Houston to cover some campaign door-knocking. En route, they called a local contact (developed through a blog forum prior to arrival in state), who suggested the trio head to Montrose, a gathering place for gays and lesbians. The students found the community via GPS, walked into a coffee shop, and started asking about the locals' political leanings.

Soon they were talking with an out-of-state volunteer who was a former Montana state representative who had opposed gay rights and now was an Obama delegate living in Bellingham. Interesting stuff. But wait, there was more: The volunteer had been Tom Lee when he lived in Montana but now identified as Rebekah Lee. For student journalists down from Seattle, this was like manna from heaven. But it also required sensitivity and top-to-bottom reporting. Time on the Internet verified some claims, and then the students went old school. They called the Montana Legislative Services Division in Helena and had the librarians fax information about the former representative. They tracked down other sources in Montana. Their initiative got them a first-rate story, which is now being picked up around the Web.

The students talked to so many people in Montrose — what the locals called "the gayborhood" — that by the time they left, they were honorary members: The coffee shop packed them food for the road, and there were hugs all around. For good or for bad, this wasn't detached, objective reporting. But the end result was journalism featured in the mainstream San Francisco Chronicle's blog and alternative outlet The Advocate. Hitting the sweet spot of both is unusual these days but will be common in tomorrow's political journalism.

Hoping to feel similar Houston love, five other students spent Sunday morning, March 2, in church there. Actually, it was multiple churches. Some went to Joel Osteen's mammoth Lakewood Church — just missing Bill and Chelsea Clinton, who had come unannounced to an earlier service. Some went to hear Republican Party candidate Mike Huckabee at a nearby church, and yet others went to Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, a predominantly African-American congregation. The Houston Chronicle featured two of these pieces (here and here; the third is here), and its Washington, D.C., bureau chief, Richard Dunham, told me, "I think you have more people covering the primary than we do." That's what's possible in a new-media environment in which insitutions are no longer as important as initiative, and costs are lower than ever.

Meanwhile, in Austin, a contact tipped us off that Gloria Steinem would be speaking, without fanfare, at a local eatery. Two of the students joined a word-of-mouth crowd of 200 or so. Both students took the cue and wrote about it in introspective terms (here and here).

The institutional press took an entirely different approach: It focused on a couple sentences and then offered a misreading of them.

Specifically, the only other reporter (apparently) in the room, from The New York Observer, reported that Steinem had said, "Suppose John McCain had been Joan McCain and Joan McCain had got captured, shot down and been a POW for eight years. [The media would ask], 'What did you do wrong to get captured? What terrible things did you do while you were there as a captive for eight years?'" The words were correct, but the headline over-reached and triggered a firestorm in which Steinem — and by extension the Clinton campaign — was portrayed as mocking McCain's military history.

But then one of the UW students in attendance, Devon Mills, found something interesting when unpacking her gear upon return to Seattle. She had shot three minutes of video during Steinem's address — and she just happened to catch the pivotal words. When she watched the video, she saw that media and pundits had badly misread Steinem's comments. I agreed. So we jointly posted a piece on Seattlepoliticore in which we do what online journalism and bloggers uniquely do: offer a forum in which anyone, anytime, from almost anywhere, can correct the public record. Don't believe us? Fine. Read what we say, watch the video, and join the conversation. That's the future of political journalism.

It's a dynamic that the Clinton campaign has seemingly come to realize, late but perhaps just soon enough. For almost a month, across Idaho and Washington, the campaign's on-the-ground staffers had kept Seattlepoliticore's student journalists at arm's length. Never dismissive, just not welcoming. In contrast, the Obama campaign and the Republican candidates took our phone calls, returned our e-mails, invited us to see their shops. It was a potent contrast that I wrote about on Crosscut. When we did our advance mapping of contacts in Texas, the pattern remained. And on day one, when we were on the ground in the state, the story was the same. But then, just before we wrote the "They Simply Donít Get It" story, the Clinton campaign got it.

On Friday morning, Feb. 29, the Clinton campaign headquarters in Austin had no time for the students, while the Obama office fed us local story angles. But that evening, at dueling rallies in San Antonio, the Clinton campaign treated us with the same respect and access as the Obama camp. The following morning, staffers at the Clinton H.Q. in Austin greeted the students warmly, invited them in, introduced them to people who came through the doors, fed them story ideas, fed them literally, and invited us to see the campaign through their eyes. The shift in posture toward us was astounding — and it stayed like that through the March 4 voting.

Something profound had changed. Perhaps it was a genuine change of heart, a sense of optimism in the campaign's progress against Obama, a renewed energy, a belief that Tuesday really was Hillary's last stand, or a recognition that how one treats the press actually shapes how the press covers the candidate. Regardless, if it continues, I think it's a shift that opens up possibilities for Clinton's candidacy that were unthinkable just a few weeks ago. And it also points to the realities of the new media landscape.

Everyone who walks through the door today is a journalist. She or he might not be driving a news van or carrying a shoulder camera and, indeed, is far more likely to carry a MacBook than a reporter's notebook. It is unlikely to be someone who is 60, white, and male; instead we will see a rainbow of ethnicity, gender, age, and sexual orientation. Video storytelling will be as important as — perhaps more than — written words. Digital media are the new printing press. They allow people to tell stories 24/7/365.

That's what I'm doing as I write this in a hospital room in Austin, which is where I arrived on the morning of March 4 after realizing I had contracted a nasty-but-treatable bacterial infection in my leg. From my hospital bed, with my trusty cell phone and laptop, I went to work with my students covering the day's primacaucus. They were out talking to people, and I was not standing next to them, but I was with them every step. This piece is dedicated to them. They have boldly brought this 40-year-old, old-school reporter into the 21st century of political journalism. The future belongs to the fearless.


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