By Chris Adams
For such a big beat, the space for reporters at the White House is shockingly small.
The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is tight and congested, and the working area for White House reporters is confined to a warren of closet-sized news offices and desks, some in a basement with limited cell phone coverage.
But from those cramped quarters, White House reporters work one of the most prominent and high-pressure beats in journalism. In sessions with the National Press Foundation’s Paul Miller fellows, four veteran White House reporters described how they do their jobs – particularly in this year of non-stop news and round-the-clock deadlines.
For Julie Hirschfeld Davis (work, Twitter) of The New York Times, “It’s the best beat to have and the worst beat to have at the same time. You are expected to know and write about everything under the sun.” She previously covered Congress and said that the network of people she gained covering that end of Pennsylvania Avenue helps her stay knowledgeable on what is happening at the White House. This year, the Times has six people covering the White House, and they trade duties covering spot news – which in this administration, means waking up with the president’s pre-dawn tweets.
Margaret Talev (bio and work, Twitter) is a White House reporter for Bloomberg and also president of the White House Correspondents’ Association. She advised reporters on basic survival strategies – when traveling in the presidential press pool, for example, be early for departure because they will leave without you – and more substantive ones. In early 2017, Bloomberg was finally granted an interview with the president – well after other news organizations had gotten their time with him. But in the interview, President Donald Trump ended up making news about the U.S. relationship with North Korea; Talev and her colleagues used the 30-minute interview in several stories.
“It really doesn’t matter if you get the interview after everybody else does – you can still make news,” she said.
Anita Kumar (Twitter) of the McClatchy Washington Bureau described how she approaches the beat, given that she shares it with just one other colleague; she is forced to pick and choose carefully, seeking stories off the news rather than just the big story of the day. Kumar, a Paul Miller alumni, talked about the steps she takes to get sources outside the White House – at advocacy groups, think tanks, Congress, and the like – when getting word from within is difficult.
For one story, she described how she used information from the U.S. Office of Government Ethics to document which officials hadn’t filed required disclosure reports after they left the Trump administration.
“The White House is very difficult to cover, from a perspective of getting information,” she said. “It’s important to find ways around that.”
Jeff Mason (bio and work, Twitter), a reporter for Reuters and past president of WHCA, gave reporters a tour of the White House press area and talked about the often-frenetic first year of the Trump administration. One of the misconceptions about the Trump White House, he said, is that access is bad.
“It’s not,” he said. “He takes our questions on a regular basis. The access is pretty good. We’re always going to want more.”
But when it comes to questioning the president, shorter is better – no long-winded, multi-parters, Mason said. “With President Trump, shorter questions are definitely better.”