The bus plunge of 'The Boys on the Bus'

(Photo by Damon Winter/New York Times)

A couple of months ago I wrote an essay for Nieman Reports about the pressure for all-local newspaper reporting that would be have to be carried out in good measure by my generation -- which came of age in the 1970s and, inspired by Watergate and Vietnam, wanted mainly to cover the big national and global stories of the day. I particularly cited a landmark book for me and many of my peers, Timothy Crouse's "The Boys on the Bus," about the reporters covering the 1972 presidential race.

In 2008, that bus has virtually plunged (to use a popular expression):

For most of the others, the price of admission — more than $2,000 for just one person to travel on Mr. Obama’s charter flights that day — was too steep, in an era in which newspapers in particular are slashing costs and paring staff, and with no end in sight to a primary campaign that began more than a year ago.

Among the newspapers that have chosen not to dispatch reporters to cover the two leading Democratic candidates on a regular basis are USA Today, the nation’s largest paper, as well as The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Baltimore Sun, The Miami Herald and The Philadelphia Inquirer (at least until the Pennsylvania primary, on April 22, began to loom large).


The article adds:

For anyone familiar with “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s rollicking account of the reporters from papers large and small who provided blanket coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign — or with later accounts that noted the prominence of girls on the bus, and the swapping of typewriters for laptops by nerds on the bus — the presence of relatively few print reporters on the candidates’ buses and planes this year is striking.

The knee-jerk reaction would be that this is horrible, except that it's not the end of the world. There is a need for intelligent and clever reporters on the campaign trail who find innovative ways to dog a candidate, but hundreds of reporters doing the same thing in the same pack is, and was, a waste of time, talent, and money -- even back in the days before wholesale buyouts and layoffs.

The best White House race journalism combines a certain necessary level of access and candidate familiarity with a lot of real-world reporting that's focused on the political players who actually matter -- that would be the voters -- as well as some investigative digging into candidates that's best done 35,000 feet below and thousands of miles away from their press plane. The real tragedy of America's diminished 21st Century journalism is not fewer "Boys on the Bus," but fewer men and women to do the real, non-access work that's in the public interest.

Besides, as Jay Rosen notes, more boys on the bus would probably just mean more man-love for John McCain anyway.