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Is There News at a Convention?

We've just gotten over the Democratic convention. It may not have been as predictable as advertised, but the question is still raging in local newsrooms: Should we keep going to conventions or just skip 'em?

One side declares we owe viewers political coverage of a very important election. They claim that national conventions are where party platforms are hammered out and where candidates wheel and deal. The other side takes the position that party conventions are no more than theater. The candidates are already nominated, thanks to the primaries, and the platforms have been put to bed long ago.

During the decades of the 1970s, '80s and '90s, I managed news departments in several major markets. Then, as now, there was healthy debate about sending people to political conventions. I heard the arguments that we had to be there because "conventions are an important part of the political process." Or that it was important to "show the colors" so audiences would know we were a serious news organization.

I have also heard the argument that audiences are not interested in political coverage.

Unfortunately, over the past several decades of watching local TV coverage, I have seen little that impressed me as good journalism. Instead, most stations' coverage is limited to the delegation's hotel accommodations and predictable interviews with delegates. None of this is compelling content that will inform viewers—or attract audiences.

Audiences are interested in political-convention coverage, but it's no different than other reporting. If it's uninspired reporting of obvious subject matter, viewers won't care. But hard-edged content that digs into the subject and offers viewers a unique approach to the story will get their attention.

For nearly 50 years, Frank N. Magid Associates has been studying newscasts from all across the country. That experience has taught us that viewers are demanding informed, emotionally charged questioning and great storytelling—essentially, solid journalism. Currently, our firm works with clients who are focusing on research that will provide direction for their political coverage in the upcoming months. You can call this "research." A better name would be "preparation."

Look at it this way: The conventions are orchestrated by political parties for TV, not unlike ordinary news conference. A good reporter can get a lot out of them. The staff with a good plan, thorough background and hungry reporters will serve viewers well during the political season. The rest can stay home. The conventions should be more than just a site for an impressive "standup."