The Australian

By Sally Jackson

With the US heading for a tight election tussle between Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney in November, the country's media is cranking up its campaign scrutiny to a new level.

Forget the 24-hour news cycle: national economics correspondent for The Washington Post Mike Fletcher talks about the two-hour news cycle, with the increasing demands on reporters to fill the insatiable online maw, meaning the smallest details of the US campaign will be covered.

Whether all of them deserve coverage is another matter. "It's just a different world. We ignore fewer things," Fletcher says. "I joke that it's the era of the presidential candidate's press secretary, because when they put something out, you feel obligated to file on everything. It can be next to meaningless but we worry someone else will pick it up.

"There's a sense now that if you're online you have to be in every conversation as a news organisation. And there are so many meaningless moments that take up a lot of what we end up doing."

The Post is one of the top trio of US newspapers, as renowned for the strength of its US political reporting as The New York Times is known for its general news and international coverage and The Wall Street Journal is known for its financial reporting.

But unlike those other two mastheads, the cash-strapped Post has opted to keep its website free, relying on viewer volume for its online revenue.

Fletcher, who was in Sydney last week as a guest of Sydney University's US Studies Centre, sees a growing divide between the more substantive coverage in the Post's print version and the click-maximising "conversation of the moment" on its website.

"We're almost operating on two levels at the same time," he says. "It feels like different things work online than work in the paper. There are some things that are just kind of 'buzzy' and 'onliney' and ephemeral. It's only a story for two hours, but still, it's a story for two hours.

"It's good and bad. You can't argue with it, it's the market necessity, but there are also some virtues to it, too. Everyone can get their message out, so it's harder to ignore groups or people or ideas that were probably more marginalised in the past.

"But, for a reporter, it feels worse because it feels like you are always in motion and you don't have time to settle in on your thoughts."

Fletcher, who has covered elections for two decades and spent four years as the Post's White House correspondent, counts himself as one of the lucky journalists who still have the time to dig deeply into stories. With voter perceptions of the economy shaping up as the deciding factor in the upcoming poll, he is undertaking a tour of the 10 or so key swing states, talking to people to find out how their economic lives are affecting their political behaviour.

He worries that the rise of digital is exacerbating the shallower, horserace aspect of political reporting. "I think there's going to be fewer in-depth stories. Now it's even more performance art for the candidates. How did they perform on stage, how did they look? That was always part of the mix, but I think that becomes a bigger part of the story, now."