Why do some local TV stations have political beat reporters when most don’t?

If you watch local TV news in different cities around the country, and I’m not suggesting you do so, you see that a small number of stations have political beat reporters, but most do not.

Why?

“Most stations where politics is a beat with dedicated reporter happen to be in places where politics is part of the culture,” Deborah Potter, who writes about television news for the American Journalism Rewiew.  “So stations in Des Moines,  for example, Chicago, New Hampshire, New Orleans, places where politics is what makes the world go round.”

James Pindell, the political beat reporter for WMUR-TV in New Hampshire told me that’s exactly why he’s covering politics there.

“My station is crazy about politics,” he says. “It’s the state sport. We spend a lot of time on politics. It’s very much based on market.”

Pindell, who’s on the board of the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, could not explain why a station in a place like Denver would cover politics so closely.

Potter said a local TV news beat may be driven by the “passion of an individual reporter.”

“Unless you have some kind of huge story involving a particular person and particular issue are you ever going to say that’s something that will get more people to watch,” said 9News News Director Patti Dennis. “It’s about being responsible.  It’s about all the things I believe a media organization is responsible for.”

9News has a political beat, including YourShow, a  public Sunday affairs program airing on Channel 20, that’s divided between Matt Flener and Chris Vanderveen. Dennis said she’s interviewing now to add a possible third reporter to the beat.

Fox 31′s political beat reporter Eli Stokols files daily stories about Colorado politics, taking a newspaper-like approach that’s highly unusual for any market.

I asked longtime Fox 31 anchor Ron Zappolo how the political beat got established at his station.

“I think we’ve always wanted to, but I think [Stokols] has been the impetus,” said Zapplo whose own interest in politics is refelected in the frequent political topics you see on his Sunday night show, Zappolo’s Poeple. “And I think he’s pushed it. Some people have been into it. Some people haven’t been. But I think he’s been the impetus to really put more emphasis on politics.”

“Our newsroom has gone through a lot of changes during the last couple years,” Stokols explained. “That change created an opening for me to stake a claim on this beat. I mean, when we were between news directors in 2008, at the end of that year right after the Presidential election and into 2009, it was easy for me to start showing up at the Capitol when the session opened. And I said, this is what I do every day. And I would call in and send them stories, and I would work long hours. After a while, they got kind of comfortable with it or used to it, because it like, all right, we don’t have to worry about him. He’s doing this on his own, and we’re getting it done. Four months later, we’d been at the Capitol every day.”

But Stokols says he’s not the only one driving the political coverage. His station manager was the one, he said, who came up with the idea of leading off the sweeps earlier this year with a five-part series on the state budget and schools.

“To do five nights on education and the budget, when most people are bending over backwards to show flaming cars and dancing bears, it’s quite a contrast,” says Stokols.

Stokols agrees with Dennis that political coverage won’t help Fox 31′s low ratings, at least in the short term.

“Shifting view habits will be pretty hard to do based on political coverage,” Stokols told me. “And even if that were going to take place, it would take a long time.

 “This is about building a brand that’s recognizable and respected,” Stokols said. “Because you want people to think , if we want political news we’ll go to Fox 31. And then when you build that brand up, eventually, that’s when you start to see, perhaps, the numbers picking up.”

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