Category Archives: Media

Politics After the Gazette, Part IV

This post concludes this week’s series by Adam Pagnucco:

For politicians, operatives, advocates and basically everyone seeking to get out a message, the new era without abundant mainstream media has both good news and bad news.  Let’s start with the latter.

The Bad News: You have to work a lot harder to get your message out and be noticed.

For those of you who long for the days when legions of press would show up to hear about your new office furniture, those days are forever gone.  Consider one of the most infamous figures in recent Montgomery County political history: Ruthann Aron.  The trials of this former politician and planning board member who was accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill her husband transfixed the County in the late 1990s.  Recently, Aron called a press conference to trot out her new book in which she alleges betrayal by her defense lawyer.  Only one reporter from Bethesda Magazine showed up.  Horrified, Aron squealed, “Where’s the Associated Press, where’s The Washington Post?”

There are 188 members of the General Assembly and many more city, county and municipal elected officials in Maryland.  In its current shriveled condition, the mainstream media might have fewer than a dozen reporters who regularly cover government and politics in the entire state.  There simply aren’t enough reporters to go around.  Unless they are doing something extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad, elected officials below the statewide or executive levels are unlikely to get much attention from the mainstream press unless they work hard to get it.

The Good News: You have more control over the content of your message and who receives it.

For those elected officials, operatives and candidates who are prepared for the new world, the absence of mainstream media is not so much a problem as it is an opportunity.  An unprecedented number of tools are now available for direct communication with the public: email, Twitter, Facebook, blogging and digital ads, to name a few.  Many of these tools can be targeted to very specific audiences.  None of this was possible fifteen years ago when politicians had to rely on newspaper reporters to get out news about their activities.

The gatekeepers to the public are almost gone.  In a way, it has never been a better time to be a politician.

The key to truly excelling in this new environment is to understand how the remnants of the old regime and the tools of the new world interact.  The old regime was top-down: politicians and the press at the top sending news down to the public at the bottom.  The new system is more organic, interrelated and even amoebic in form.  Everything affects everything else.  There is little structure.  Unpredictability is the rule.  What used to be big might have little impact now.  What used to be small can become big VERY quickly.

Consider the following alternative scenarios for how information can flow in this new world.

  1. An article about Politician A and an issue he is working on shows up on Bethesda Magazine’s website. It circulates on Facebook and Twitter.  Politician A blast emails it and gets an advocacy group to do the same, which gets the attention of the reporter.  This generates a follow-up in Bethesda Magazine.  A gets a two-fer.
  1. Politician B is working on another issue but can’t get any reporters to pay attention to it. So B takes out a Facebook ad on the issue and gets hundreds of likes and dozens of supportive comments.  A blogger also covers it and B tweets and reposts it.  B goes back to the reporters and says, “See?  It’s hot!”  Stories are written and reposted on Facebook with more ads to beef them up.  Now the issue is starting to move – and so is B.
  1. Advocacy Group X is all over Issue Z, starting up an online petition and Facebook page to push it. Politician C finds out and gets on board.  Boom – Group X lets their supporters know that C is their hero, and C gets both supportive Facebook posts and good press.  Other politicians get jealous and jump in to grab pieces of the pie.
  1. A group of politicians decides to team up against a common rival. The rival has a larger social media presence and official communications staff than any one of them.  But the group has regional diversity, many Twitter and Facebook followers between them, several blast email lists and a willingness to coordinate.  Each of them puts up social media posts that take on the common enemy.  The rest of the group then retweets and reposts, rotating between lead and supporting roles.  Coordinated blast emails carrying the content go out.  The group members take turns buying Facebook ads and digital ads promoting their statements.  Particular issues get hashtags.  Helpful activists, party sites and other groups pitch in and spread the messages even further.  The official media picks up on it and spotlights the campaign, amplifying it further.  Soon enough, the T-Rex is surrounded by velociraptors and the pack closes in.

Dealing with reporters is still necessary since they haven’t (yet) entirely disappeared.  But success in the new era depends on integrating the old tools with the new, amplifying the effects of both and building communication scale.  Those who master these arts will inherit the new world.  Those who don’t will fade away with the old, just like the ill-fated T-Rex above.


Politics After the Gazette, Part III

What are the consequences of the disappearance of the Gazette and much of the local media?  Here are a few.

1. An Information Vacuum

This is the most direct and obvious consequence: there are fewer objective news stories produced about state and local government.  Many things happen now without any public attention.  That’s a challenge for both elected officials and the public.  Here are a few comments from our sources about this new era of media darkness.

Elected official: “I think the lack of local coverage creates a huge disconnect between state and local elected officials/government and the governed.  It is particularly problematic in our area where there is such attention paid to the federal government.  I believe the lack of coverage is affecting voter turnout because people don’t know who their councilmembers or legislators are or what they do, so they don’t care enough to vote.  It is also difficult to publicize good initiatives or issues with no press coverage.”

Elected official: “The most immediate impact is the simple fact that our constituents, particularly the less social media savvy folks, simply don’t know what’s going on in Annapolis and what we’re doing here as their elected representatives, good and bad.  This is particularly problematic in the DC media market. The Sun still has some meaningful coverage of Annapolis, the Post does not.  The Gazette was helpful in bridging that gap to some extent. If folks don’t even know what we’re working on, the ability to have any meaningful political dialogue with the community takes a big hit.”

Elected official: “An already opaque legislative process is becoming even harder to follow. To be sure, The Baltimore Sun still provides political coverage, and websites like Bethesda Magazine and Maryland Reporter are filling some of the void. Even so, there are fewer media eyes on Annapolis these days, and so lots of important legislation dies without any discussion and bad legislation advances without scrutiny. This also means that lobbyists who are paid to closely follow legislative activities have new advantages, especially if the bills they are working on are relatively low key. The upshot is that all this puts a premium on legislators directly talking to constituents through social media and other means.”

Advocate: “The State Highway Administration recently pulled the RFP for the construction of the Watkins Mill Interchange. This is a road project that has been on the books and fully funded for many years and the number one road priority of the County. This would have been front page news for the Gazette and at least one letter to the editor.”

2. Less Accountability

With fewer stories produced, there are fewer opportunities for voters to read about eyebrow-raising activities by public servants.  Stories like the Gazette’s report on tax liens against County Council Members, an allegedly secret contract circulated inside the council and a questionable, high salary job in county government are less likely to be written.  What’s going on now that we don’t know about?

3. The Rise of Government Media

The Montgomery County Government now spends over $5 million a year on County Cable Montgomery (CCM), its in-house cable channel, and Montgomery Community Media (MCM), a non-profit providing public cable access.  CCM’s full-time equivalent employee count (15.9) likely exceeds the size of Bethesda Magazine’s reporting staff.  Both of these outlets provide a mix of public information and what are essentially public relations pieces for county elected officials.  Neither of them would dare to undertake the investigative reporting described above for fear of funding cuts.  While they provide some useful information to the public, they are no substitute for an independent press.

4. Falling Voter Turnout

Voter turnout declined in MoCo gubernatorial general elections in both 2010 and 2014.  Turnout fell in the primaries too, from 138,914 in 2006 to 113,173 in 2010 to 110,602 in 2014.  The latter year had contested primaries for both Governor and Executive.

Could declining state and local news coverage be contributing to this?  There are probably several factors responsible, including increasingly targeted election campaigns.  But if voters don’t know their elected officials, don’t know what they’re doing and don’t know their rivals, they are going to be less likely to show up at election time.  Or if all they hear are negative things spread through social media and attack websites, they could react by passing term limits.

5. It Might Not Be All Bad

One journalist who covered the county many years ago told us this.

“Hmmm … I guess it could go either way: 1. There’s a reason it’s called the fourth estate. The media is there to keep politicians accountable and make sure they are being truthful, etc. 2. Without all of the grandstanding and manipulation of the media that I witnessed in MoCo, things may actually run more efficiently!”

And you thought we were spreading doom and gloom!

We’ll discuss how to adapt to this new world in Part Four.


Politics After the Gazette, Part II

The following post is by Adam Pagnucco:

When I used to work for a Montgomery County Council Member, there were three beat reporters on county government – one each for the Post, the Gazette and the Examiner.  They were competitors.  Each wanted to scoop the others.  One of them would glance at another’s laptop at the press table to see what the competitor was writing – an act that was decidedly unwelcome!  I dealt with them all.  And now the Gazette and the Examiner are gone.

Bill Turque of the Washington Post is the sole survivor.  Turque is an experienced pro who is respected and feared by those he covers.  Recent articles of his that had significant impact include one exposing an operative connected to the county employees union as the source of a website targeting a Council Member and one about campaign finance late in the 2014 election season.  But as skilled as Turque is, there is only one of him.  Fifteen years ago, the Post assigned multiple reporters to cover various aspects of Montgomery County.

Bethesda Magazine is the other outlet that regularly covers the county.  Lou Peck is a veteran political reporter who writes highly detailed articles about local elections.  Andrew Metcalf and Aaron Kraut are prolific local reporters.  Despite its name, Bethesda Magazine covers subjects in many parts of the county.  Its close attention to the county’s Department of Liquor Control has been outstanding.  But let’s remember that the Gazette used to have dozens of reporters in and around the County and Bethesda Magazine does not have that kind of scale.

That’s about it.  WTOP has occasional local coverage, though they are a regional outlet.  Local papers like the Sentinel and Takoma Voice have small audiences.  Patch came and went quickly.  MarylandReporter offers statehouse reporting but not much in-county coverage.  Center Maryland has the great columnist Josh Kurtz but no staff reporters.  The Sun does not pay much attention to Montgomery or Prince George’s Counties.  The local TV stations focus more on crime and weather than on detailed reporting of state and local governments.

Then there are the blogs.  Whatever you think of them, there are several features that distinguish them from mainstream news outlets.  1.  They tend not to have clear and consistent standards for publishing.  2.  Most are driven by opinions, sometimes with facts to back them up and sometimes not.  3.  Many posts are derived from mainstream news articles, which act as original sources of content.  4.  None of them have the reach of news sources like the Gazette, which once dropped hundreds of thousands of papers in front of doors around the region.

The hierarchy of the past is gone.  Yes, Bill Turque and Bethesda Magazine are probably at the top of the heap – but there is no heap.  There are no longer dozens of reporters patrolling the county for stories on civic events, restaurant openings and closings, local sports, transportation projects, school programs, politics or anything else.

We will examine what that means for state and local politics in Part Three.


Politics After the Gazette, Part I

The following post is by Adam Pagnucco:

Quick.  Name a key difference among the following local congressional races.  Connie Morella vs Stewart Bainum.  Chris Van Hollen vs Mark Shriver.  Connie Morella vs Chris Van Hollen.  Al Wynn vs Donna Edwards.  And the current races in Congressional Districts 4 and 8.

The latter two are the only ones not covered by the Gazette, because the Gazette no longer exists.

The Gazette has been gone since the Washington Post, its parent company, killed it in June 2015.  It’s worth remembering what it was in its heyday.  The Post’s 2001 annual report summarizes how extensive its operation was in the time of Josh Kurtz, its statehouse bureau and its paid spin-off, the Gazette of Politics and Business.

The Company’s Gazette Newspapers, Inc. subsidiary publishes one paid-circulation and 35 controlled-circulation weekly community newspapers (collectively known as The Gazette Newspapers) in Montgomery and Frederick Counties and parts of Prince George’s, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Howard Counties, Maryland. During 2000 The Gazette Newspapers had an aggregate average weekly circulation of approximately 554,000 copies. This subsidiary also produces 11 military newspapers (most of which are weekly) under agreements where editorial material is supplied by local military bases; in 2000 these newspapers had a combined average circulation of over 200,000 copies. The Gazette Newspapers have approximately 125 editors, reporters and photographers on their combined staffs. The Gazette Newspapers, Inc. also operates a commercial printing business in Montgomery County, Maryland.

That same year, the Post bought eight community newspapers in Prince George’s, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties and consolidated them into Southern Maryland Newspapers.  Those papers added 40 employees and tens of thousands of copies to the Post’s local media empire.

But a decade ago, financial pressures led the Post to start trimming the Gazette.  The newspaper endured several rounds of layoffs.  It withdrew from Howard, Carroll, Anne Arundel and Frederick.  It ended its paid Gazette of Politics and Business, consolidated local editions, dropped most of its statehouse coverage and dismissed its political columnists.  By the time the paper finally shut down, it was down to just twelve reporters and two photographers.

Twenty years ago, the Gazette was one component of a large, official local media.  Montgomery County had its own daily newspaper (the Journal).  The statehouse was jammed with four full-time reporters from the Sun, three full-time reporters from the Post and countless more reporters from local papers.  The Montgomery County Council building had a press bullpen in which legendary Doug Duncan operative Jerry Pasternak would trade tips with reporters over games of darts.  Print drove television and radio coverage.  Reporters had a career path leading from small local outlets to medium newspapers to the big guys, the Sun and the Post.  An official network of veteran reporters and long-time editors would judge what was newsworthy, and stories that didn’t pass muster went unreported.  There was no other way for them to get out.  But those that did were circulated to hundreds of thousands of readers, viewers – and voters.

Almost all of that is now gone.  The Gazette was one of the last vestiges of the old world.

What is left?  And how does that affect local politics and government?  We’ll have more in Part Two.


Rules for Dealing with Reporters

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Adam Pagnucco.

One of the most critical tasks for politicians, operatives and staffers is dealing with press. If you do it right, you can make sure that your point of view gets represented fairly and regularly. But if you do it wrong, you will lose opportunities to get your message across. Working with a number of sources who have experience in journalism, I present the following rules for dealing with reporters.

  1. Reporters are not your friends and they’re not your enemies. They are people who are doing their jobs. That’s it.
  1. Tell the truth. If you try to spin them, they will know. (You are not their first source!) If you lie to them and they find out, you are done and they just might expose you. They will never regard you as a trustworthy source again.
  1. Talk like a human being and don’t rely on canned pablum. A source says, “More and more operatives and flaks will only respond with prepared emails. It may feel safer, but it precludes exchanges that can actually be helpful or even enlightening.”
  1. If you have a problem with a story, point out the issue civilly and supply evidence that you’re right. Everyone makes mistakes, even seasoned pros. Never, ever question their integrity. And don’t go over their heads to their bosses. That’s a sure way to make an enemy.
  1. In regards to seeking a correction, it’s acceptable to dispute a factual matter but you will have less success in arguing against a reporter’s analysis or interpretation of events. Source: “There’s a distinction between a factual error – which a reporter will want to correct immediately – and, say, a disagreement with a reporter’s analysis, which is a different matter entirely.” Another source: “Any source who insists on a correction for what’s really interpretation will lose the respect of the editor.”
  1. Deal with multiple reporters and learn their interests. Over time, you will be able to match the right reporter with the right story.
  1. Until you have a relationship with them, always make clear when you are talking on the record or off the record. Source: “Tell the reporter in advance that you have information that can’t be attached to your name. Negotiate how the source will be attributed. Always inform the reporter that information isn’t on the record BEFORE sharing the information.” Another source: “Always assume that if you haven’t set up a prior arrangement and haven’t said the conversation is off the record, that it isn’t off the record. It is on the record.”
  1. Understand the limits of reporters’ ability to control the presentation of their story. Editors play in this. They can and do write headlines and change language in the article. One reporter I knew was regularly embarrassed by headlines written by editors. Source: “Reporters can’t promise a specific headline, placement in the paper or really what the story says.”
  1. If you try to overtly kill a story, it will probably backfire. Source: “Jumping up and down and yelling ‘There’s no story here’ will only encourage the scribe to persevere.”
  1. Deal in facts whenever possible. Never mischaracterize a rumor as a fact. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”
  1. When you get a request from a reporter, respond rapidly. Source: “In today’s day and age reporters expect you to get back to them quickly – in hours, not days. Even if you don’t have all the info, it’s best to get back to them with something initially, let them know you’re looking for the information and then once you have it, provide it to them.” Another source: “Please don’t ask ‘When’s your deadline?’ In digital 2016, that’s like asking for the nearest pay phone. Deadline is now. It’s as soon as you can provide whatever is being asked for.”
  1. Understand that you are one source among many. If you stop talking to a reporter, he or she will just move on to another source – and possibly a source who opposes your agenda and/or you. So get past the article that irked you last week and keep the dialogue going.
  1. Forget about Friday night surprises. Source: “Folks still believe that they can somehow sneak a negative story under the radar if they put it out late Friday afternoon. This thing called the Interwebs makes it a quaint idea. It only alienates the reporter by screwing up the start to his weekend.”
  1. Pick your shots. Not everything is newsworthy. Source: “A chief of staff, campaign manager or press secretary who tries to convince a reporter that there’s a story every time his or her boss goes to the bathroom will quickly become background noise and risks being ignored.”
  1. Never share a tip given to you by a reporter with another reporter. You are risking having a competitor scoop the person who was generous enough to give you that tip. And the person who got scooped will know it was your fault.
  1. Reporters don’t decide newspaper endorsements. If you get mad at a reporter because his or her publication didn’t endorse you, you are not helping yourself.
  1. Understand that some reporters talk to each other and to their successors when they leave. Your reputation as a source, good or bad, will make the rounds.
  1. Have a sense of humor! Reporters may not be at liberty to say what they really think about certain things, but almost all of them appreciate a good joke.

If this all seems like common sense, it should be. But I have seen many people run afoul of these rules. Some politicians believe that reporters can be schmoozed into being “friends.” Then when their “friend” prints an article they disagree with, they feel betrayed. Other politicians distrust the press so much that they speak rarely to them, if at all – thereby creating openings for their competitors. Many politicians perceive bias when a reporter makes a simple mistake. Some believe they can “control” the press when in reality a more achievable goal is to get your voice heard.


Those who break one or more of the above rules probably outnumber the ones who respect them. So be one of the people who adhere to them. If you do, you will have an advantage over the folks who don’t!


Goodbye to Tell Me More

Like many people, I listen to the radio while I’m driving. I often flip over to WAMU 88.5 and check out the program. Tell Me More, a program focused on issues particularly of concern to minorities, especially African Americans, and women.

Though I was not necessarily part of the target demographic for Tell Me More, I found myself catching the program frequently and enjoying it. Its excellent host, Michel Martin, never shied away from questioning guests from all points of view or nuances around many of today’s complex social questions. She combines her probing mind with a deep respect for all opinions.

Although Tell Me More met its targets for getting picked up by stations around the country, it had a relatively small audience. Like Talk of the Nation, it was a victim of NPR’s budget cuts needed to staunch the network’s budget deficit and aired its final show on Friday.

Fortunately, Michel Martin will remain with the network with a focus on bringing similar issues to NPR. Like many, however, I will miss this particular high-quality platform and  join the many others who have already expressed regret at the end–for now–of Tell Me More.