How I Cover a Debate

How I Cover a Debate


Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

No hangar-size media center, no spin room and no Budweiser-sponsored hospitality tent.

Yes, as with seemingly everything else under the sun, the coronavirus pandemic has upended some of the norms of the presidential debates.

First, though, I suppose I should answer the question that may be on your mind: No, the print news media does not have access to the debate hall itself, virus or no virus. We watch these debates via screens just like you, our valued readers.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, that meant we watched on a bank of TVs inside the enormous filing facilities set up adjacent to the debate location or on the TVs in our New York City newsroom. But now, The Times’s reporters and editors will be watching Tuesday’s presidential debate exactly like most of you — in the comfort of our own homes.

We will, of course, be monitoring it differently than you.

For starters, we’re conscious of the clock. This first debate begins at 9 p.m. Eastern and our first print deadline is 9:30 p.m. I know, pretty tight.

So for that edition of the newspaper, we are able to get only the first few questions and answers into the story. What fills out the rest of the story, you ask? It’s mostly a summation of the stakes and race to date that’s called “B-matter,” in industry parlance.

After crashing the material for that 9:30 p.m. edition, we can breathe a little easier — the final deadline isn’t until about 11.

But the debate itself will last until 10:30, so how are we writing about it while it’s happening? Well, that’s why it takes two of us, along with a colleague or two pulling exact quotes and a handful of editors to perfect the copy. (Editors like it when you say things like that.)

Thankfully, I cover the debates with my friend and fellow national political correspondent, Alex Burns, a journalist nonpareil.

We have been working together on and off for over 12 years, so we have an easy rapport when writing about debates and the rest of our beat. We’ll split up the B-matter earlier in the day and then communicate during the debate via either Gchat or Slack.

What are we discussing? Yes, there is some breezy back-and-forth about the biggest moments and tenor of the debate, but that’s mostly during the commercial breaks. We’re mostly just relaying to each other who will write about what so we don’t duplicate our coverage.

So while one of us is writing up a newsworthy exchange, the other is watching the ongoing action so we don’t miss anything. And then we’ll switch off.

Sometimes an answer or exchange is so explosive or original that it’s clearly news. Recall, for example, how Senator Elizabeth Warren opened the Democratic primary debate in Nevada back in February by unleashing a torrent of attacks on Michael R. Bloomberg. Or when Joseph R. Biden Jr. used what turned out to be his final debate of the primary season to announce he’d name a woman as his running mate.

Other newsworthy moments are less clear to the naked eye. But to borrow from the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who was describing another graphic art, you know it when you see it.

Anyway, while we’re absorbing and conveying what is happening, we’re also getting feedback from our editors, who will offer thoughts and guidance via Slack. They know we’re in a harried state, so it’s usually a light touch from them. The most guidance from editors comes at the deadline for the final edition of the paper, when a number of them may weigh in about the framing of the story. After that, we may add a few more lines we weren’t able to get in for the print edition or make minor tweaks for the online version.

How is this all different in the Covid era?

If we were in the newsroom, we could have some of those conversations with editors over our shoulders and cold pizza next to our computers.

And if we were at the debate site, one of us (in addition to a number of our colleagues on different assignments) would be scurrying over to the “spin room,” where representatives of the candidates would assemble immediately after the forum to offer an upbeat assessment of the evening.

And, yes, when everything was done, we might have ended the night with a much-needed beverage by way of St. Louis.



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