political conventions
What It’s Like to Cover Your First Political Convention

Editor’s Note: Tracie Mauriello, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, made her debut reporting on national political conventions in 2012. Tracie, a former Paul Miller fellow, wrote a series of blog posts for NPF about her experiences. We’re sharing them for first-time 2016 convention-goers.

By Tracie Mauriello

​Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012

In just a few hours, I’ll be headed to the Republican National Convention in Tampa and then on to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention. Did I do enough prep work? Will I be able to find the sources I need to flesh out my planned enterprise pieces? Did I pack the right clothes? Did I remember my phone charger? My backup phone charger? An umbrella? Scratch that. They don’t allow umbrellas near the convention center. Two plastic dollar-store rain ponchos: check.

Tracie Mauriello

Tracie Mauriello

I’m a first-time convention-goer and I don’t know what to expect so I’ve been searching the Interwebs for first-person blogs of reporters who’ve covered other conventions. Wouldn’t it be great to see how they planned their days, how they snared the big interview and when they found time to sleep? Turns out I could find no such thing. NPF staff suggested I fill the gap by writing one myself. I love the idea, but wonder when I’ll find the time to do it on convention days that will sometimes start with 7:30 a.m. delegation breakfasts and end at 2 a.m. after receptions for Pennsylvania politicians. Nonetheless, I’m going to try.

I’ve got a coverage plan mapped out; six enterprise pieces (half reported); and a loose-leaf binder full of phone numbers, convention schedules and travel confirmations. I’ve printed directions and maps to policy briefings, protests and other events I want to hit. (I even scoped out the location of the nearest Starbucks!) I don’t think a reporter can ever be prepared enough for these things, especially knowing there’s a fair chance of being forced to ditch carefully conceived coverage plans because of breaking political news or because of a hurricane that could interrupt the convention. (Where is the blog about transforming yourself from a political reporter to a weather reporter overnight?)

My tasks for these conventions are to write several broad issue pieces, to provide coverage of the Pennsylvania delegation that Post-Gazette readers won’t find anywhere else, to provide posts to our politics blog, to try to produce a few publishable photos and to tweet like crazy. (Follow me at @pgpolitweets) I’ll also be writing short web bursts on the major speeches each night while my colleague Jim O’Toole, who has lots more experience covering politics and reporting conventions, will write the lead story each day for our print edition, putting the speeches into broader context. It’s a lot.

That brings me to my No. 1 worry: That I’ll be too unfocused to do anything well. I’ll have to multi-task, but I don’t want to be scattered. (Lucky for me, I’ll be hanging out at least some of the time with Karoun Demirjian so I’ll have a chance to see a master at work. Karoun can juggle a camera, a notebook, a video camera and a recorder like nobody’s business. (She works for the Las Vegas Sun and I met her last year through NPF’s Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellowship.)

My No. 2 worry is that I will fail to recognize somebody important, miss out on a great interview and look like a fool. This concern isn’t unfounded. Earlier this summer, I was at The Washington Post for a party to celebrate the launch of the new David Maraniss book, “Barack Obama: The Story.” I chatted a long while with another guest who introduced himself as Terry. Later, my reporter friends at the party wanted to know what great scoop I had gotten out of Terry McAuliffe. Yes, that Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Talk about a missed opportunity.

Fri. Aug 24 – Morning

Getting started

I landed in Tampa and finished my first interview less than 30 minutes later. It gives me confidence when I’m able to do something productive right away, even if it’s just a short blog post.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I got to the DC airport this morning just in time to settle into a waiting area and join a conference call with Romney campaign strategist Russ Schriefer. He gave a rundown of events to come and I was able to gather a bit of string for a couple of the enterprise pieces I’ll be writing later this week. If he had broken news I would have tried to bang out a quick story.

Here’s the agenda, according to Mr. Schriefer:

Monday: What President Obama has done wrong.

Tuesday: Job creation and a tribute to Ron Paul.

Wednesday: Policy discussions.

Thursday: Members of the Mormon church tell delegates how Mr. Romney helped them in their lives.

After the call, I grabbed some airport coffee, got on the plane and began my convention adventure. My room isn’t yet ready, so I’m writing this post from the hotel bar where I ran into two friendly convention volunteers. They’ve been here a few days already and were able to suggest a nearby mall where I can buy rain gear if Hurricane Isaac hits. (Please stay away, Isaac.)

Blog posts: 1

Coffees: 3

Friday August 24 – Evening

Finding Pittsburghers

T-shirts, bumper stickers, shot glasses, temporary tattoos (to go with permanent ones on display), beef jerky, sticky notes and cruise tickets to the Bahamas. All of these and more could be had at The P.A.U.L. Fest at the Florida State Fairgrounds. (P.A.U.L. stands for People Awakening and Uniting for Liberty and was organized by Libertarians who support Ron Paul.)

Organizers said they are expecting 10,000 over the course of a three-day party that began at 1 p.m. today. But when I arrived at 5:30 – after a $30 cab ride – there were scarcely 200 milling about.

Lucky for me, a western Pennsylvanian had been volunteering in the ticket booth when I arrived. He heard me say I’m from his hometown paper, so he rounded up a delegate from the Pittsburgh area, who introduced me to a third western Pennsylvanian. I like to include locals in my stories to make my reporting just a little more relevant to my readership.

Meanwhile, I tried to record some images for use later by a colleague who is working on a short video project on Ron Paul. Photographer/videographer Steve Mellon, will arrive later this weekend to cover Ron Paul’s speech at the Sun Dome and he wants to include some material from P.A.U.L. Fest as well. I’m neither a photographer nor a videographer, but I did my best. I’m anxious to see if he can use what I shot.

By the time I finished, my colleague Jim O’Toole was off deadline and ready to pick me up in our rental car. He had been covering a convention Rules Committee meeting about 10 miles away. We had a late night dinner and talked about our coverage plans for the next few days. This is his 13th political convention so he’s a pro at this. Maybe someone will say that about me in 2036.

If you’re keeping score:

Blog posts: 3

Coffees: 3

Saturday Aug. 25 

Tossing well-laid plans, seeking rain boots

Instead of writing about the first night of the Republican National Convention on Monday, I and 15,000 other journalists will be doing what most reporters hate most: covering the weather.

As you know by now, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus delayed the start of the convention until Tuesday to keep delegates safe from Tropical Storm Isaac, which also is causing flight delays and other havoc.

So much for my careful planning. So much for the ample supply of sunscreen I packed. So much for my three-ring binder, complete with phone numbers and driving directions. Many of the events I planned to cover will likely be canceled and the rest of the schedule will change substantially as organizers compress a four-day convention into three.

This was my Saturday in brief:

I spent the morning framing a Sunday story about Ron Paul and reviewing the photos and video I shot yesterday.

My friend Karoun Demirjian of the Las Vegas Sun arrived in the afternoon. Conveniently, the Nevada delegation is staying in the same hotel as the Pennsylvania delegation, so we had lunch together and shared a cab to the P.A.U.L. Fest. The crowd was much bigger than Friday and I was able to get a few more interviews to round out my reporting. Bonus: I ran into an attendee from Charlotte who provided some guidance for navigating her city when I’m there for the Democratic National Convention.

Before long, word came about the cancellation of Monday’s convention events. I made some calls to find out how that would affect the Pennsylvania delegation while Jim got on a conference call with RNC officials and added the information to the mainbar he was already writing for today’s paper.

I finished my Ron Paul story and transmitted a few photos back to Pittsburgh.

P-G ace photographer and videographer Steve Mellon arrived around 9 p.m. and I remembered I’d only had one meal all day, so we headed to Charley’s, a steakhouse next to the hotel. We met up with three other Pennsylvania reporters. They all work for different newspapers but had an enviable camaraderie, having traveled together on the campaign trail for many years.

Back at the hotel, Steve and I set up shop in the lobby to edit the video from Friday and Saturday. It took two hours, but it was time well spent. When you’re a solo act in Washington, D.C., there aren’t many opportunities to work closely with colleagues on a shared project. In the end, Steve refused to take credit for his work, so the tag line on the video lists only one name: mine.

For those keeping score:

Blog posts: 4

Stories: 1

Videos: 1

Coffees: 6

Sunday, August 27
Duct tape can be good for the sole       

My feet are giving out already and the convention hasn’t even started. I’ve gone through my supply of Band-Aids and moved on to a half-used roll of duct tape left behind by protesters who had been posting signs.

Here’s how my Sunday went:
After five hours of restless sleep, I headed to the hotel lobby where Pennsylvania delegates were milling about, collecting their credentials and looking ahead.

Several planned events – including the first day of the actual convention – were postponed or canceled because of the threat of severe weather.

Several Pennsylvania reporters met up at 10 a.m. and we went together to pick up our convention credentials and parking passes. There was a mix-up with the Post-Gazette credentials. The Senate Daily Press Gallery, which controls the credentials, had been expecting my editor to pick them up, not me. Well, that wasn’t going to happen; she’s in Pittsburgh! Fortunately, gallery director Joe Keenan knows me from my work in Washington, and he straightened out the problem pretty quickly. (Lesson: When filling out credential applications name a “point of contact” who will actually be on site, not an editor coordinating coverage from the mother ship!)

Next, photographer Steve Mellon and I set out to find a group of protesters from Pittsburgh. A combination of blocked streets and a poor sense of direction had us walking in circles for more than an hour, but we managed to find the protesters.

I interviewed a few Pittsburghers, tweeted a bit, scavenged that roll of duct tape and moved on to my next stop: the historic Tampa Theater, where the Faith & Freedom Coalition was sponsoring a rally. The theater was only three blocks away, which was fortunate because it was starting to drizzle.

393452_10102171554444405_2067141240_nI found a great perch in the back of the theater where I could pull out my laptop and knock out a couple quick blog posts during the opening choral performance.

The stream of speakers included former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich, along with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose remarks will come in handy for a broader issue piece I’m planning to write later this week.

His speech was interrupted when protesters unfurled an anti-Walker banner from the balcony. They were promptly ejected.

Steve met me at the theater and we hopped a cab to the Log Cabin Republicans’ party at the Rusty Pelican Restaurant nine miles away. I got some good interviews to flesh out this enterprise piece. 

We got back to the hotel at 8 p.m. and realized that the only thing we’d eaten all day were donuts – one each — so we decided to set up shop in the hotel bar. Out came the laptops and we set to work – taking one short break to eat our sandwiches and another to say hello to Pennsylvania’s House majority leader who was having beer with friends.

My last stop was to an ice cream social downstairs in the hotel. I said hello to the delegates I knew, introduced myself to the ones I didn’t, and collected cell phone numbers so I can reach them later in the week. I also spent a few minutes talking with Pennsylvania First Lady Sue Corbett and wound up with a tidbit for our politics blog.

If you’re keeping score:

Blog posts: 9
Stories: 2
Videos: 1
Photos: 1
Coffees: 10

Monday, August 28

Making lemonade

On a day most convention events were canceled, I tried to make the most of every minute.

Morning: I went to the delegation breakfast at the ridiculous hour of 7:30 a.m. These breakfasts, I’m told, sometimes feature surprise big names, so I didn’t want to miss it. The speaker turned out to be Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett. I covered him for years when I was in Harrisburg, and he rarely breaks news in his speeches. This one was no exception.

Later I went back to my hotel room and caught up on what others have been writing about the convention.  Every morning a huge package of newspapers is delivered to convention-goers rooms. A news junkie’s dream, if only I had the time to indulge!

Afternoon: Rob Gleason, the state’s GOP party chair, offered to have lunch with Pennsylvania reporters. He was generous with his time – probably owing to the day’s many event cancellations. He spent nearly two hours with us and let us exhaust all our questions.

Late afternoon: I returned to the hotel to make sense of my notes from the Gleason interview and to write a blog post. I wasn’t on deadline so I decided to work in the hotel lobby instead of my room. Good decision: I met a few more of Pennsylvania’s delegates. And I made some progress on this story.

Later afternoon:  No entiendo lo suficiente español para esto. How convenient that former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu and U.S. Rep. Francisco Canseco, R-Texas, scheduled a press conference for Hispanic media at the very time I’m working on a story on Latino voters! I rearranged some other plans to hear their remarks but I didn’t anticipate that the press conference would be in Spanish!

Now, I learned enough in my high school language classes to find a bathroom in Ensenada, order dinner in Tijuana and even explain that a hotel shuttle driver in Punta Cana had just driven away with my luggage still in his van. However, I don’t understand enough to reliably report on the nuances of immigration policy when they’re explained to me in Spanish.

I can tell you for certain that Mr. Sununo and Mr. Canseco said they believe in hard work and the American dream. Beyond that, well, I could hazard guesses, but not when 205,000 readers deserve for me to get it right.

Evening: There was a delegation party at the hotel. Reporters were allowed in so we could hobnob, but the event was off the record so I can’t really tell you about it except that it was fun.

I was able to get a couple of interviews I needed — with Congressman Lou Barletta about immigration reform and with Gov. Tom Corbett for this blog post. I also talked with delegate Walt Vogler for a yet-to-be-written post about being half of what we think is the only father-son pair of delegates at the convention. (Now I need to find his son Chris.)

Late night: I ran into a Pennsylvania delegate whom I’d been looking for all day. Two other delegates told me that this man been to more conventions than any other Pennsylvanian. I was tired but the opportunity was in front of me.

The longwinded delegate started out by telling me about the first convention he listened to on the radio. That was 1948 and he wasn’t old enough to vote, though he wouldn’t tell me his age then or now. He told me, off the top of his head, the birth years of all four Republican primary candidates. Then he told me all about why Taft was a better candidate than Eisenhower in 1952. He told me who he supported in 1956, in 1960 and so on. After an hour, he let me interrupt to ask him how many conventions he’d been to. Two. TWO! My tipsters were wrong! Still, he’s an interesting delegate so I may end up using him for a story or blog post. But first, sleep.

Tuesday, August 29
First day in the convention center

Morning: I headed to the delegation breakfast in the hotel to hear House Speaker John Boehner and Mitt Romney’s son, Josh. A group of protesters attempted to disrupt the breakfast but were stopped at the door. One of the protesters tipped me off earlier so I was prepared, but the delegation was not.

Late morning: Back in my room, I wrote a blog post about the morning protest.

Then I got on the phone to make some preparations for my visit to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next week. I arranged to meet with some sources there on Sunday. I also sent my payments to the
Pennsylvania Democratic Party to cover my food and transportation costs so I can eat with the delegation and travel on their bus between the hotel and convention site in North Carolina. (The Republican Party did the same. It’s a great time savings to be able to pop in to their hospitality suite to grab a quick bite from trays of food.)

Afternoon: I grabbed a hotdog from the hospitality suite and ate it on my way to meet photographer Steve Mellon. We headed to a policy briefing sponsored by the Hispanic Leadership Network where he shot video while I interviewed delegates from Puerto Rico and Nevada. We stayed long enough to hear Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno. I got what I needed for my stories and we were anxious to get to the convention center so we headed over.

Afternoon and evening: Steve and I arrived just in time to hear a speech by Pennsylvania Congressional candidate Keith Rothfus. My colleague, Jim O’Toole, was already in the Tampa Bay Times Forum and ready to write about the Rothfus speech, so I got a floor pass and headed down to get reaction to the speech from the Pennsylvania delegation and to track down some information about a Pennsylvanian who made a floor motion. Jim was able to use the quotes in this story.

558387_10102171613096865_1555302271_nWhen I got back from my floor visit, I got straight to work writing this story on Hispanic voters and sidebar.

I wanted to file those pieces early so I could pay attention to former Sen. Rick Santorum’s speech at 7 p.m. The plan was for me to write a short breaking news post for, while Jim was going to handle a longer and more contextual piece for the print edition. So, 7:00 came and went, then 8:00, and no Santorum. Was his speech nixed? Jim saw a Santorum aide in the stands and found out that there was a schedule change. The speech will be at 9:15 p.m.

Ann Romney spoke at 10 p.m. and Chris Christie spoke right after. I ended up pretty much writing three stories in less than an hour. I didn’t think I could write so fast.

Jim was still finishing his story and I debated whether I should catch the delegation shuttle or wait for him to finish and get a ride in his rental car. I opted for the latter. It took us nearly an hour to get out of the parking garage because of all the people leaving at once. I kept thinking I should have taken the shuttle. I found out later that I made the right choice. The shuttle system was a mess, and the Pennsylvania delegation didn’t get back to the hotel until 2:40 a.m.!

For those keeping score:
Sorry, I’ve stopped keeping track.

Wednesday, August 30

I’m recharging my batteries, literally and figuratively. I was so tired when I got back to the hotel last night that I went straight to bed without putting my phone, laptop and camera on chargers, so that was my first order of business this morning. (Lesson: ABC. Always Be Charging.)

My colleague Jim O’Toole covered this morning’s 7:30 a.m. breakfast so I could sleep late. The speaker was Chris Christie, and it would have been nice to have seen him in a more intimate setting so soon after
his keynote address last night, but sleep was more important this morning. I’ve got a lot of long days yet ahead.

I did have a bit of angst this morning when I couldn’t get my laptop to connect to the Internet, especially when I had all kinds of contingency plans. (Plan A: my netbook’s built-in broadband. Plan B: my MiFi. Plan C: a convention wireless line that some regional reporters chipped in to buy.) So, I was prepared for the wireless networks to jam and fail, but not for my actual problem: a computer failure.

So, instead of working on this story about the religious vote, I spent the morning on the phone with three IT specialists in Pittsburgh. The good news is that, in the end, they solved my problem.

At 4 p.m. I hopped on a conference call, hoping to hear Condoleezza Rice provide a preview of her floor speech, but she was tied up and never got on the line. It would have helped me get a head start on my story tonight.

I headed to the convention center. Instead of going to the press stands, I bought a sandwich and sat at a table, which turned out to be a pretty smart move. Delegates were coming and going and I got to meet some fascinating people, including the attorney general of Colorado and several delegates from Oklahoma. One turned out to be a church secretary whose comments on politics and religion added a lot to my story. (I love it when a perfect source appears at the perfect moment!)  Several of the delegates were quite chatty, which would have been great, except that I was rushing to file before the evening speeches.

Thursday, August 31

Final Day

I feel like I should have some profound thoughts to offer on the last day of the convention, but I’m took exhausted. Instead I’ll tell you how I spent my day.

This morning I headed down to the Pennsylvania delegation breakfast where the speakers included Rick Santorum and West Virginia gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney. Santorum broke some minor news by saying the presidential race was going to turn into a “bloodbath.” It was enough for a blog post and it provided the inspiration for a daily story, too.

I followed Maloney out. Part of West Virginia is in our circulation area and part of the Pennsylvania regional economy, too. I’d seen him at some other Pennsylvania delegation events and I wanted to know why he’d been around so much. Read my Early Returns blog post to find out.

After that I headed back to my room to start packing for the trip to Charlotte tomorrow, sneak in a nap if I could, and get to the convention center early to beat the crowd.

An e-mail message from my editor changed that plan. He had an idea for a daily. I said I would need some help, and my talented colleague Mackenzie Carpenter pitched in from Pittsburgh. Here’s what we came up with.
421653_10102171827472255_240785570_nOnce that story was filed I headed to the convention floor to check in on the Pennsylvania delegation. I came back to the press stands, filed a blog post
and waited for Mitt Romney to deliver his acceptance speech. My colleague Jim O’Toole was writing the lead-all for our print edition. My job was done.

An hour later confetti and balloons rained down on the Republican faithful and as they fell I couldn’t help but relish the moment too. It was a fitting end to a satisfying week for this convention newbie. I can’t pause too long to take it all in because I’ve got a plane to catch. Off to Charlotte for the DNC!


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