Obama courts weekly newspapers in Iowa, which say Clinton's been the least cooperative candidate

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Iowa may be more important than ever in the Democratic presidential nominating process, because Sen. Hillary Clinton is considered likely to win the nomination if she wins the state's Jan. 3 caucuses, while a victory by Sen. Barack Obama or former Sen. John Edwards could burst her balloon of inevitability. With such huge stakes, candidates "are scouring the state like never before," going to towns that have rarely if even been a campaign stop, Iowa veteran Jeff Zeleny reports on The New York Times' political blog, The Caucus. On that trail, Sen. Barack Obama is paying special attention to such towns' weekly newspapers -- while Clinton has given at least one weekly publisher a semi-stiff-arm.

Zeleny, who once worked for the Des Moines Register, knew there was a story when he saw Obama giving interviews in Clarion with The Wright County Monitor (which published the photo above) and in Grundy Center with four other weeklies in a 10-mile radius, three with circulations under 1,000. "There is, perhaps, no better way to give an hour-long presidential visit far greater staying power than appearing on the pages of the weekly newspaper, particularly in an edition that is likely to be sitting on coffee tables at Thanksgiving time," Zeleny wrote, reflecting his knowledge of Iowa and its small towns.

Monitor Publisher Barb Mussman, a former elementary-school teacher whose paper has a circulation of 1,367, told Zeleny that no presidential candidate had ever offered her an interview, so "He's going to get a story," not just the usual picture. Her 794-word story focused on Obama's appearance at a local school and appeared to devote only 176 words to her interview, in which she asked about education and global warming. Its style was matter of fact, with one major exception: "The word, hope, keeps entering into Obama's remarks."

Zeleny's post spurred dozens of comments to The Caucus. "Everybody here thinks that it’s the blogosphere that is sooooo important - but these small newspapers, I bet they can make a real difference in a community. Why? Because everybody knows the journalists who write them," wrote a poster identified only as Petra. "In the case of Ms. Musmann, readers probably learned how to read in her classroom. Smart move indeed."

David Bordewyk, who identified himself, but not as general manager of the South Dakota Newspaper Association, wrote, "Midwestern community newspapers are plugged in to the communities they serve. The weekly gets a story and Obama gets a better sense of the local pulse. Go one better: Scrap all the TV ads, buy ads in the community newspapers and the campaign will win big."

That, of course, is not Obama's strategy, or that of Edwards -- and certainly not of Clinton (in Associated Press photo by Cheryl Senter). A survey by NBC News of 15 weekly and small daily papers in Iowa -- which has 272 weeklies -- found they had "mixed experiences with all the campaigns, Democratic or Republican," the NBC political unit reports in First Read. "Most papers said that their inboxes were flooded by e-mails from all the campaigns and many received phone calls before an event to remind them to attend. The majority of newspapers reported being able to get a few minutes with a candidate either immediately after the event during the rope line or with a one-on-one interview. Senator Clinton was the exception in this case. Both Edwards' and Obama's staff were praised for their efforts to reach out to reporters and provide access to the candidate." (Read more)

Clinton has yet to grant an interview to John Beaudoin, publisher of the Logan Herald-Observer and Woodbine Twiner, who has gone public with his problem. In a comment on Zeleny's post, Beaudoin wrote, "Barack Obama and his handlers have been extremely professional to work with during this campaign. I have interviewed 21 candidates for President, including Mr. Obama, and I have been impressed with how his people have delivered information to our newspapers. I am the Publisher of two small newspapers in Southwest Iowa and have promised my readers as much information as possible on the candidates. Mr. Obama’s campaign has been top notch (which is something I unfortunately cannot say about Hillary Clinton’s campaign)."

Beaudoin has posted interviews with candidates on this page of his Web site. He said in an interview with the video site Current that the Clinton campaign has offered him a group interview with other journalists, but he has declined because of the success he has had with other candidates. "Once we got that going I thought we were building up some credibility with the Hillary campaign," he said. "This is not an entitlement thing ... I promised my readers I was going to bring them every presidential candidate, and by God, I still feel like I'm going to. Her campaign, bar none, has actually been the most defiant as far as trying to make thet interview happen." But when asked who he thinks the next president will be, he said, "I have a hard time saying it will not be Hillary."

The lack of journalistic access to Clinton was the focus of a Nov. 30 story in The Washington Post, by Howard Kurtz. He wrote only about national media, except to conclude the story with this quote from Clinton: ""We try to balance what we do every day. I'm trying to reach as many voters as possible one-on-one" while also dealing with the local press, "which has a very big role to play" in the early caucus and primary states. (Read more)

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 11/30/2007