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Palin story excites press row: Reporters are glad they stayed

The exit of TV news stars from St. Paul for New Orleans grabbed headlines, but the major news organizations aren’t going anywhere — and even in its tawdry way, the Palin family pregnancy justifies their decision.
By David Brauer

Nothing like a single teen pregnancy to put a political convention back in contention for the day’s top story.

The RiverCenter press bullpens were humming today after news broke that GOP vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter is with child, and then will marry the father.

The front-page fertility obscured a less sensational media truth: while electronic stars like Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams bugged out, the press ranks here haven’t noticeably thinned in Gustav’s wake.

I spoke with representatives of four major print organizations — the Washington Post, Tribune Co., USA Today and Time Magazine — and only Time had reduced its planned crew, and then by only a couple of people.

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The Washington Post was going the other way: staffing up late last week to cover the fascinating and endlessly surprising Gov. Palin.

“We’re lucky enough to still have enough people to cover the convention and the hurricane,” said Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor Bill Hamilton with a bit of gallows humor. (Times have not been good times for revenue-challenged news organizations.)

To be sure, we’re an Idiot Box Nation and the loss of any tube star wounds insecurity-plagued Twin Citians. But the glamour obscures a deeper truth: the vast majority of those 15,000 journalists haven’t left.

In fact, the sight of the pack chasing the day’s big story can be downright amusing. Inside Xcel today, I saw Norm Coleman, carrying a sperm-tail of journalists, all begging to get the senator’s view on the fecund Palin child.

The Post has 67 staffers here, a number that includes its website and two online properties, and One reason the organization is going big rather than going home: longtime executive editor Len Downie, in his last week on the job, is here helming coverage.

The New York Times deferred to a spokesperson, but I caught columnist David Brooks in the hallway. I asked him, impishly, if he had planned to bug out for Louisiana. “I’m in the opinion business, and in the opinion business, we’re not as attracted to national disasters,” he said with a smile.

A USA Today spokesperson said its parent corporation’s 60-person insta-bureau hadn’t been trimmed. In the Tribune Co.’s bullpen (they publish the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, among other properties), ChiTrib Deputy Bureau Chief Naftali Bendavid also avowed a steady headcount, and offered a simple reason why:

“I think the story here is that in some ways, this is already the most unconventional convention. It’s not like the old days where you don’t know who’s going to win, but conventions are usually carefully choreographed, and I’ve found more often than not, something unconventional happens.”

The Palin baby bomb was the latest example (assuming all goes OK in the Gulf, do you suppose Sawyer would rather be overemoting in New York about that than here about the Palin’s grandmotherhood?), but Bendavid recalled a similar sex scandal 12 years ago, when Bill Clinton adviser Dick Morris was caught sucking on a hooker’s toes just 12 hours before the then-president was scheduled to give his convention address.

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To be sure, it’s not all sex here; it just seemed that way this morning. While acknowledging the Palin news would “get a lot of coverage,” Washington Post political correspondent Dan Balz said that the politics will get lavish attention assuming Gustav’s wake doesn’t swamp New Orleans.

Time Magazine’s Karen Tumulty was the only print-side person who acknowledged her organization’s small staff-down, but mentioned a factor bigger than a hurricane: the massive media recession that’s reduced newsroom sizes long before Gustav started kicking up a storm.