The Role Of New Hampshire Media In The First In The Nation Primary

Feb 5, 2020

Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

NHPR's podcast about the New Hampshire primary, Stranglehold, held the mirror up to the media itself, and the role of local media in our first in the nation status. We talk about how the primary has impacted news rooms and reporters, and how those same newsrooms influence the election. 

Listen to the episode of Stranglehold: "The Newsroom."

Original air date: Thursday, February 6, 2020. 

GUESTS:

  • Josh Rogers - NHPR Senior Political Reporter
  • Bina Venkataraman - Boston Globe Editorial Page Editor  
  • Howard Altschiller -Executive Editor and General Manager,  Seacoast Media Group which includes Portsmouth Herald and Foster's Daily Democrat 

The Boston Globe recently published an editorial: "Kill the tradition: N.H. and Iowa should not vote first"

Transcript

This is a machine-generated transcript and contains errors.

Laura Knoy: [00:25:03.93] This is The Exchange. I'm Laura Knoy. We're looking at the media's role in how the New Hampshire primary plays out. With me in studio is NHPR's Josh Rogers, our senior political reporter. And Josh, we really appreciate you helping us out. Thank you. So we heard an episode about the declining influence of the New Hampshire media in the New Hampshire primary. How would you describe that role today, Josh?

Josh Rogers: [00:25:24.69] Well, I mean, there's certainly plenty of people out reporting the primary from the start. I mean, I one thing is that, you know, campaigns have much easier time bypassing the media in general than they used to. These campaigns take place, you know, on a national through a kind of a national level on cable TV and national out. Let's send reporters up here earlier than they used to this primary. We also have a bunch of candidates who are really, truly national figures. And so the window of time in which candidates are introducing themselves to folks in New Hampshire and using the media to help do that. You know, it's gotten smaller and smaller.

Laura Knoy: [00:26:05.94] So given all the other sources of information that people have, Josh, including direct information from candidates through their Facebook pages, their Web sites, and the people have their social media accounts, the sort of it's kind of opened up a lot of other players, hasn't it? There's we have less of a mouthpiece than we used to

Josh Rogers: [00:26:21.11] Well, I mean, the media is less of an essential intermediary or membrane through which information passes from candidate. to voter. And so in the membrane is also smaller in terms of there's just absolutely fewer local reporters than there used to be. Both, you know, period. But certainly covering politics, you know, in a full time way.

Laura Knoy: [00:26:44.69] Interesting. Josh there has been a lot of discussion about endorsements, the role they used to play. I've been in the media long enough to remember that. Wow. When the local paper came out for candidate X or candidate Y, it was a big deal. There was that coveted Union Leader endorsement, especially for Republicans. We heard in the episode how much Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama lobbied for that coveted Concord Monitor endorsement. Does anybody still care about endorsements from the local newspaper Josh?

Josh Rogers: [00:27:34.14] Well, I think candidates would just as soon have an endorsement than not. I think that the record would reflect that the endorsements, you know, don't often print and necessarily translate into wins. I mean, certainly on the Republican side, the Union Leader has a pretty spotty record of actually picking winners, which isn't to say that the people who do get the paper's support on the Republican side don't want it, but I believe it's been, I believe, John McCain in 2008 was the last person that the Union Leader endorsed that actually won the New Hampshire primary and obviously didn't end up being the nominee. And, you know, endorsements, you look at people like I think Jon Huntsman was endorsed by the most papers on the Republican side the last time, when he ran. And obviously, you know, he didn't make it out of New Hampshire. In 2012, in in in in 2016, did Donald Trump get endorsed by a single paper in New Hampshire? I don't think so. He obviously won the primary easily. And so, you know, endorsements, you know, maybe wouldn't, have never been what they're cracked up to be. But it was an essential part of how a lot of papers saw their role as vetting the candidates on behalf of voters.

Laura Knoy: [00:28:41.75] Sort of that membrane that you described earlier, Josh, and this is a perfect segue way into another guest that I want to bring into our conversation. Joining us now on the line is Howard Altschiller. He's executive editor and general manager of Seacoast Media Group, which includes the Portsmouth Herald and Foster's Daily Democrat. And Howard, a big welcome back. Thank you very much.

Howard Altschiller: [00:28:58.92] Good morning, Laura. Good morning, Josh.

Laura Knoy: [00:29:01.05] Well, we're just talking about editorial endorsements. What value do you think they have, Howard, for your readers and for your paper itself or papers themselves? I should say you've got several.

Howard Altschiller: [00:29:11.88] Well, I mean, it's hard to measure exactly what the what the value is. But clearly, you know, a candidate's most valuable time, particularly in the in the homestretch of a primary, race is their time. And, you know, they give up, you know, an hour to 90 minutes of that valuable time to come and sit with the editorial board and, you know, and review that, you know, the topics of the day. And so obviously, they they see a value in it.

Josh Rogers: [00:29:36.99] How many candidates sat with you all this time, Howard?

Howard Altschiller: [00:29:40.54] We had all of them. Except for the president who we didn't write. And I know in my mind I was like, you know, that could actually just happen. We're right out here at Pease, and maybe he flies in and piggybacks on another event, but he was here in 2015. But he did not. He did not come back this cycle. And then the only other candidate we didn't get was was Bernie Sanders. But every other candidate came in either in person. And then when the when the impeachment hit, we had to do a video conference with Amy Klobuchar from Washington. And we caught up with Elizabeth Warren while she was campaigning in Iowa through a video hookup.

Laura Knoy: [00:30:25.83] Because you endorsed Klobuchar.

Howard Altschiller: [00:30:27.6] Exactly. Exactly. In fact, she was the last person we talked to. And, you know, as far as whether her campaign valued it. I mean, she she stepped off the floor during a recess of the impeachment trial and, you know, tweeted about, you know, that she was honored to receive the endorsement and then went on the cable shows and talked about it. And, you know, and not just us, but also the Union Leader and the Keene Sentinel and some of the papers she had gotten in in Iowa. And so it has. It has. I don't know. I think I think it has some value. You know  readers come to us every day for, you know, for information. And I think we put in the we put in the time and we actually have a pretty interesting process here at Seacoast Online that I could talk about.

Laura Knoy: [00:31:10.62] Well, I'd love to hear about that. But you probably heard Josh earlier say, Howard, while you're waiting to come on that, you know, the track record of candidates who get these endorsements from newspapers actually winning isn't great. So I wonder what your thoughts are on that.

Howard Altschiller: [00:31:27.57] Well, we absolutely don't look at it like, you know, we're going to help this person win. You know, the way that we look at it is we do the work, we put in the hours in order to give our readers a really informed opinion on the candidates. And, you know, it's not you know, we're not you know, we're not all in for one candidate or another. We're saying we spoke with these candidates. Here's you know, here's who we think, you know, would be the best president or the best governor or the best mayor in Portsmouth. Whatever the case may be. And, you know, sometimes the voters agree with us and sometimes they don't. But, you know, we just try to give an honest opinion and also explain what that honest opinion is based on.

Laura Knoy: [00:32:06.63] Sure. And so you wanted to describe the process for us. Howard without too much detail, it was really interesting to hear in the episode of Stranglehold we just heard about sort of the long debates within the Concord Monitor's newsroom over who to endorse. So do you have long debates at Seacoast Media Group,

Howard Altschiller: [00:32:25.07] Well, yes, we have. We do. And our board is a little bit different in that we also have a lot of citizen advisers who serve on our editorial board and and their commitment to the process really helped drive it. I mean, they from the outset, you know, wanted to bring the candidates in and and and wanted to engage in the endorsement process. And we actually have a bipartisan group. We have folks like Doug Scamman, former House speaker, and Jackie Cilley, who is a former state senator from Barrington and ran for governor. We have Jennifer Horn, who's the former New Hampshire GOP chair, and Dan Chartrand, who owns the Water Street Bookstore and is vice chair of the Rockingham Democrats, and Nancy Stiles. And, you know, we have a lot of people who come from various viewpoints. And the conversations we have are pretty are pretty awesome. You know, and and they're quite... The candidates come in knowing who is going to be in the room and knowing they're not going to necessarily get traditional newspaper editorial board questions, because that's not the life that some of our community advisors are living.

Laura Knoy: [00:33:26.16] I want to remind our listeners that you can join us as we talk about the role that New Hampshire media plays in the primary, especially this time around.  I want to bring another voice into our conversation. Bina Venkataraman is with us now. She's editorial page editor of The Boston Globe. And Bina, welcome. Thank you for being here. So we were talking about the local media and I'm going to include The Boston Globe in that because a lot of people in the southern tier read The Boston Globe, you reporters cover the primary extensively, I'd just like your broad thoughts first, Bina, on how you see your paper's role in shaping the way people understand the primary.

Bina Venkataraman: [00:34:29.82] Sure. So, you know, I speak mostly for the opinion enterprise and the editorial board and not for the newsroom, but of course I watch and admire the work of our newsroom reporters in covering the election and the campaigns and certainly the New Hampshire primary. But as an editorial board, we have been deliberating. We've been meeting with the presidential candidates, deliberating on an endorsement. But as you as you know, probably by now we've decided not to endorse in the New Hampshire primary because we have a broader point to make about that process as well as the Iowa caucus. But our intention is not to sort of relinquish the traditional editorial board role that we played actually only since 1968 with the endorsement of Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election, presidential race. Our point is not to relinquish that role. It's it's rather to define it and actually make it more powerful when we do endorse and have it really reflect our values. And so as we've been meeting with candidates and thinking about who we will endorse, we've been looking at how they align with our positions, how their character aligns with what's needed in the country. And certainly we've been considering... we don't have citizen advisers, so I found that to be a really interesting, interesting model that Howard just described. But we did take on a number of reader questions this year. We had almost a thousand reader questions come in on a range of topics. And that really also helped us prioritize what's important to voters, what's important to our readers as they think about who to vote for and in this really complex presidential primary field.

Laura Knoy: [00:36:03.64] Oh, that's interesting. So you don't have a citizens advisory board like Howard does at Seacoast Media groups sort of giving its input on what the perfect candidate, what qualities a perfect candidate should have. But you are hearing from your readers, Bina, about what they want you to consider in this endorsement. Is that new this time around?

Bina Venkataraman: [00:36:22.42] It is new. And it's part of what I think really needs to happen in the evolution of editorial board, which is to say that only we can take for granted that our readers trust us and that they understand even how the black box of an editorial board works. And in the tradition of these boards, the decisions and the deliberations and endorsement interviews kind of all happened behind closed doors. And I think it's important to engage our readers to show that we actually are trying to in some way reflect some of their concerns or at least their areas of curiosity in how we do the process. And when we do make our endorsement, we'll be sharing actually a lot more than we have historically about how that process works and making ourselves available to talk more transparently about that. But yes, we did solicit reader questions very specifically. And, you know, there was. It's hard. This is not like a scientific polling of our readers, but we did see, for example, just an outpouring of questions around climate change and that I think it's very new for a presidential race to be so, so influenced by that issue.And I think it speaks a lot to where we are with the climate crisis.It speaks a lot to the young voters who are coming into the electorate and really feel that this is a problem that affects their generation.

Laura Knoy: [00:37:39.04] I want to ask you about an editorial that you wrote recently. Bina, getting off the issue of endorsing candidates. You wrote recently and I know you know what I'm ask you. "Kill the tradition. New Hampshire and Iowa should not go first." And in this editorial, you make the arguments that are often made that these two states are not representative of the country demographically or economically. Just a couple questions on that Bina, if I could, please. First of all, what's been the reaction from your Massachusetts readers and your sizable New Hampshire readers?

Bina Venkataraman: [00:38:10.15] Well, it's been mixed. I think a lot of people feel that us standing up for this principle and holding back our endorsement in the primary and really saying, you know, we need to question the whole process and even our role in that process, which I hope we can get to and and really look at the ways in which these two early primary caucus and in New Hampshire and Iowa, respectively,  distort our electoral politics. There is a disproportionate influence that New Hampshire has played. And and this tradition, by the way, of New Hampshire going first, as you'll know well, it started a century ago and the country has just changed so dramatically since then. And just talk about this year's election, for example, where Latinos for the first time are expected to play a major force in the election and be the major nonwhite minority group voting in this election. Well, New Hampshire's percentage of Latino voters is third of the country's percentage of Latino voters. Iowa didn't fare much better. It's a 90 percent white state. New Hampshire percentage of blacks is 1.7 percent. The country is more like twelve percent. But this is not just about race. It's also about age, demographics, home ownership demographics, poverty, a number of ways New Hampshire is not representative of the country and yet going first gives voters more influence. One study of the 2004 Democratic primaries, for example, showed that voters in New Hampshire and Iowa in the primaries had, each single voter in one of those two primaries, had roughly the power of five voters on Super Tuesday or the later primaries. And that, I think, really shapes how the field moves. And, you know, looking back to Jimmy Carter that these early successes can either make or break candidates, they can bring candidates up from sort of not being known into being more better known or even can even propel a campaign into winning the nomination.

Laura Knoy: [00:40:11.8] So those economic and demographic factors, those are the things that you wrote in the editorial Bina. You know, these arguments have been made for a long time now. You said you got a mixed reaction to this. So can you give us a sense of the people who didn't like what you had to say?

Bina Venkataraman: [00:40:21.63] Sure. So I think like a lot of New England traditions, there are many of us who cling to the traditions because they have some sort of meaning for us in our lives. And I have to say, as a New Englander, married to a New Englander, I'm not a native New Englander, but I've been one now for more than a decade that I understand those traditions, the Fourth of July parades, the town meetings, and a lot of those are really valuable. And so I think some of the reaction we're getting from folks who are actually very conscientious primary voters in New Hampshire and Iowa and really participate in this process and take their civic role seriously is a bit of sort of, you know, why are you going after us?  Why do you why not give us this moment in the spotlight as small states? And I think my answer to that is not to say that New Hampshire and Iowa should never be first again, but that after a century of New Hampshire being first, of decades of Iowa being first, we should be sharing the love. We should be rotating the primaries so that we, in any given presidential election year have, let's say, a group of states that better reflect the demographics of the country along all different lines, including age, including race, including income and poverty, and that that would provide a fairer process and also allow the candidates to gain early momentum to be reflective of candidates who can actually marshal groups of voters when it comes to the general election. We know, for example, that it's going to be very hard for Democrats to win the White House without voters of color, for example. We want to know early in the process, it's actually served Democrats better, or Republicans, you might argue at some point in the future, to have a more reflective primary process.

Laura Knoy: [00:42:08.8] Well, Bina, thank you very much for being with us. We really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

Laura Knoy: [00:42:13.78] That's Bina Venkataraman and she's editorial page editor of The Boston Globe. Again, for the next 15 minutes here in The Exchange, we are looking at the media's role in the New Hampshire primary. We've been listening to a recent episode of NHP podcast Stranglehold called the NEWSROOM that looks at some of the themes raised around this. And Howard Altschiller, Josh Rogers. Let's go to our listeners. Reeve is calling in from Wolfeboro. Hi, Reeve. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller: [00:42:47.45] Hi. It's with great reluctance that I say, first of all, that the comment your guest just made that the, that we should maybe share this around and rotate them makes me really sad because I love it here in New Hampshire. But it is a good point that,l but what matters to me is that there are individual citizens who meet and talk together, because once you've seen a candidate, it's a totally different feeling. We need that curating whatever state it is. Although I'd prefer it be New Hampshire.

Caller: [00:43:24.95] But my primary point is this. I have been so frustrated this entire season more than ever before, listening that listening to the phrase "and others". So, Laura, you most particularly have done a stellar job of giving an hour at a time to candidates, and New Hampshire is good at that. But in the news cast. This is New Hampshire, Maine and its national. That only money and name recognition are the two coins that allow us to choose people. When a newscaster on NHPR or anywhere else says there are candidates in the state today or candidates on the debate stage, there's this one, this one, this one and several others. They've accidentally voted by removing name recognition for the very people that you're there to make sure you get full air.

Laura Knoy: [00:44:26.53] Well, we've I really appreciate the point. And Howard, talk about the special challenge this year with so many candidates. I you know, I have heard other people make Reeve's point that, you know, everybody deserves a mention, on the other hand. Time is tight and there are many, many names. Thank you so much for weighing in. Go ahead, Howard.

Howard Altschiller: [00:44:44.11] I mean, the thing that it's it's really a great honor for news organizations to be able to go out and, you know, and cover these candidates and meet them. And the one thing that you, the one thing that you come away with is that even the candidates who are like polling at less than 1 percent are usually pretty fascinating people and have have a lot to say. And and, you know, and you can learn a lot from them. So we try to give all the candidates as much coverage as are as are, you know, time and staffing allows. And, you know, I think I think of Pete Buttigeig. I mean, how many people had ever heard of him before he showed up? And I remember he did a town hall meeting in Raymond and it was standing room only. And people came back and said, wow, you this guy was really impressive. And you really had the crowd going with him. And, you know, and his star has really risen from being almost nowhere. Andrew Yang was not somebody that I think most of us knew much about before, before the primary process. He came in for an early editorial board and we're very casual about it. Like it. Oh, okay. Andrew Yang, you know, uou know, it'll be an interesting conversation. And he was fascinating. You know, we went out and, you know, afterwards read read his book and and saw it, you know, his thoughts on what was causing kind of, you know, the disaffection with, you know, the status quo in America. And, you know, the way he did a really good job identifying some of the causes of unrest among people in the country. And, you know, these are fascinating conversations. So I agree. I mean, I think I think America loses if we don't try to give a platform to everybody,

Laura Knoy: [00:46:21.76] Josh same question to you. You know, the challenge of presenting coverage of the primary that feels fair to listeners like Reeve. On the other hand, there's only so much airtime and there are some so many people this time around.

Josh Rogers: [00:46:34.51] It's certainly a challenge. And, you know, any first fortunate enough to have an of staff to basically get out there and we've tried to cover everybody in this race and have covered to some extent. You know, you do have to make choices. I mean, you know, when Howard brings up Pete Buttigeig, I mean, it's interesting because I don't doubt what he says about this town meeting and Raymond, but you know, he said that Pete Buttigeig rose, a lot of it was due to national media attention. A town hall meeting that took place on CNN was one that really caught a lot of people's attention and you know, kind of a canny media strategy by his campaign to get him in front of as many national reporters early in this race. And he had run for DNC chair. So his name was familiar, although many people can pronounce it that, that is really what sort of seeded his rise here as much as his ability to succeed with voters in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Laura Knoy: [00:47:29.05] I'm so glad you raised that point, Josh, to talk a little bit more about that, the CNN town halls. You're absolutely right. Those have been big. They've held them in, you know, various states. There's a whole bunch going on right now as we speak at St. Anselm College. So in a way, right. It's great. CNN gives these candidates, you know, many, many hours. But that's a role that New Hampshire media has traditionally played.

Josh Rogers: [00:47:50.14] Sure. I mean, in New Hampshire, I mean, you know, there's always New Hampshire has always been both the place where candidates interact with voters and into Reeve's point. You know, the retail aspect of politics in New Hampshire and Iowa is something that people who, you know, as she said, might be predisposed to accept the argument that maybe other states ought to go first. That is a valid concern. I think that, you know, could you easily replicate the sort of retail political cultures that exist in Iowa and New Hampshire? That's perhaps the strongest argument that supporters of the current system make. You know, typically the role of New Hampshire has been, you know, the New Hampshire voters that the candidates in him for media events, the candidates, you know, there has always been an element of New Hampshire being, you know, I wouldn't say like a theme park for which the candidates run for president. But there is an aspect in which New Hampshire has always been a stage set for a campaign that is truly national in nature. And that is a. Celebrated over the years, there's absolutely no doubt about that.

Laura Knoy: [00:48:52.27]  And Howard and Josh, let's go to Roger calling in from Stratham. Hi, Roger. You're on the air. Welcome.

Caller: [00:49:07.23] Thank you, Laura. You know, my wife and I got rid of cable about 10 months ago. And as a consequence, we have learned more about the candidates through local media here in New Hampshire, through entrepreneurial journalism online. The economy has hollowed out local media to the extent that I think there are more candidates than reporters in New Hampshire. But nevertheless, we've learned more about the candidates, more about their character, their policy. All because of the work that local media has done and the way that they have distributed their content in different channels, it's been terrific.

Laura Knoy: [00:49:54.93] Very good. Well, Roger, good to hear from you and Howard, that probably is making you smile there on the other end of the phone.

Howard Altschiller: [00:50:00.75] It is. And, you know, it's so funny. We're such a small state. I know who Roger is. And he writes letters to the editor and he's very involved in in politics in the state.

Laura Knoy: [00:50:12.27] But in all seriousness, Howard, talk about what Roger says. You know, at some point it feels like there's more candidates than reporters. I mean, he's right. A lot of local newspapers have either folded or been hollowed out, as he says. So how do you still make it, you know, meaningful and of good quality on a real shoestring now at local papers?

Howard Altschiller: [00:50:32.25] Well, first, we work really, really hard. I mean, you know, there's a lot of us,  you know, those of us on salary who often are working seven days a week to make sure, you know, we have a standard that we've set for ourselves through the years and we really try to uphold that. And it's it's tiring. But but we believe in what we're doing. And it's important to us. And, you know, we also we really, the Globe editor mentioned, you know, reaching out to readers to get their questions. And we did the same thing. And as I was thinking about this show in the media's role, I think what our real role is, is using the access that we have to give access to our readers, to the candidates, and helping them get their, you know, their thoughts to the people who are looking to run the country. Now, in 2008, we had a lot more staff and a lot more room in our building. And we actually hosted forums here with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and John McCain and Joe Biden and John Edwards on and on. And that was one way of providing access. This year, we reached out, we asked for their questions to share with the candidates when they came in for the editorial boards and we also live-streamed most of our editorial board meeting so people could see exactly what the conversation was. And then the other thing that happens is right now we have an incredible op ed section where I'm receiving hundreds of letters every week and publishing as many of them as fast as I can. And people really want to engage in the political process. And one thing we can do that social media can't do or doesn't do, chooses not to, is that we ensure a civil debate. I don't let people attack one another personally. And when they do attack one another personally, I'll write back to them and say, you know, hey, I'm going to afford you the same protection if someone attacks you, let's stick to the ideas, but not beat up on each other.

Laura Knoy: [00:52:26.09] Well, Roger, it's great to hear from you. And we got an e-mail from Laura who says she works for the Nackey Loeb School of Communications. Laura says, As the state's only standalone communications school, we see an increase this year in students wanting to take classes in content production, like digital media, podcasts, video and print. The interest, Laura says, in citizen journalism is strong but will not fill the space of declining professional reporters and editors. So Laura says she's asking how do we teach people the skills of newsgathering and production while also instilling an appreciation for consuming news of high integrity and ethics from local independent professional news sources and how to throw that to you. And then, Josh, have another sort of related question. So go ahead, Howard.

Howard Altschiller: [00:53:09.48] If you don't mind, I'll throw on another hat, which is that I'm also the president of New Hampshire Press Association. And this year we've actually we're in the process working with some other journalism groups in the state and putting a mentorship program in place where we try to pair up seasoned journalists with either, you know, folks or, you know, students who are still in college or just graduating who can kind of, you know, be there available to them to answer their questions, to guide them to, you know, if they're facing a thorny authority issue, you know, helping them think it through. So that's that's a process. We also just opened up our our contest this year to the college journalists. And so we're going to start seeing some of some of their work in the annual press. Press. You know, better, better newspaper contests. So we're aware of the need to bring the next generation along. And then, of course, most of our newsrooms have, you know, good internship programs. And, you know, when we do have positions open, a lot of times those are the people we hire interns because we know them. We know their work and we know their work ethic.

[00:54:15.44] Well, Laura, it's a big topic and we can probably talk a lot more about it, but we will wrap it up there for now. We, of course, have internships and fellowships here at NHPR as well. Howard Altschiller, thank you very much for helping us out. I'm sure we'll talk soon. That's Howard Altschiller, executive editor and general manager of Seacoast Media Group. And Josh Rogers, thank you very much as well. I'm Laura Knoy.