News Organizations Grapple With 2016 Presidential Race In Which Everyone Is Running

05/28/2015 07:47 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2015

NEW YORK –- No one will announce they’re running for president on Friday, the first workday in this holiday-shortened week without a campaign kickoff.

It was Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont on Tuesday, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, and ex-New York Gov. George Pataki on Thursday. After the announcement-free Friday, the political media circus that already has traveled this week to Burlington, Vermont; Cabot, Pennsylvania; and Exeter, New Hampshire, will arrive Saturday in Baltimore, where former Maryland Gov, Martin O’Malley becomes the second Democratic challenger to Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, was trailed this week by journalists -- and Republican contender Carly Fiorina -- in South Carolina, where Sen. Lindsey Graham is scheduled to make his presidential announcement on Monday. Three days after that, it’s former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s turn in Dallas. And by mid-June, Donald Trump is scheduled to announce … something.

The ballooning field has placed news organizations in uncharted territory and forced upon them difficult editorial decisions. How do you cover a Republican race that could swell to 16 candidates? How do you distinguish between the newsworthiness and the side-show?

Already, television networks are drawing arbitrary lines in an effort to add clarity to an increasingly out-of-the-ordinary process. Fox News and CNN last week announced debate criteria that relies on national polls to narrow how many participants appear on stage at one time. The decisions have sparked criticism that second-tier candidates will forgo time on the campaign trail for cable news studios in hopes of boosting national poll numbers before the first debate in early August. And some campaigns have bristled at the networks' rules amid arguments that early voting state polls are more meaningful than national numbers anyway.

It’s an imperfect solution, but represents the type of difficult, and potentially controversial, coverage decisions that news outlets will be making in the coming months.

“Every news organization is grappling with that question right now because of the size of the field,” said Charlie Mahtesian, senior politics editor for Politico. “We’ve never had to contend with a field like this.”

For candidates, barriers to entry are lower than in the past, according to Mahtesian, who noted that presidential hopefuls are no longer expected to guarantee victory in their home states or to have recently won an election. And the incentives are now higher, he said, given that national exposure could help propel a candidate's budding media career.

Mahtesian said it’s “going to get worse” for those overseeing political coverage. “The campaign hasn’t even heated up yet,” he said. “We don’t even know how big the field is going to get and we recognize it’s a challenge.”

Given the unprecedented number of presidential announcements and candidate "cattle calls" scattered around the country, five TV networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, and CNN -- have begun pools that share responsibilities for covering events earlier than in previous presidential cycles, according to a senior network staffer not authorized to discuss the arrangements. The networks rotate which is responsible for manning a camera and providing satellite trucks for speeches, a cost-cutting measure that can help newsroom budgets as even more candidates join the competition.

It may seem easy to simply write off 2016 candidates drawing support of about 1 percent in national polls, and chop the Republican field down to a more manageable size. But political directors and editors told The Huffington Post in interviews that they’re often reluctant to dismiss presidential contenders who have track records of winning Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, even if polls suggest those candidates are long shots.

There’s always the fear, too, of ignoring a candidate with low poll numbers early on, like Santorum in the 2012 election cycle, to give attention to someone more soundbite-friendly, like Herman Cain. In January 2012, Santorum won the Iowa Caucuses and mounted a surprising run against Mitt Romney, the better-funded establishment favorite. For that reason, some have expressed concerns about giving oxygen to 2016 candidates more likely gunning for a TV contract -– or promoting an existing show -– instead of to candidates with serious policy objectives.

“Our social media culture rewards vanity candidates, unfortunately,” said Chuck Todd, NBC News’ political director and host of "Meet the Press." “That’s a resource suck. And it is going to hurt serious second-tier candidates collectively. I just hope not to be the network that does that.”

Todd described the less-serious candidates as representing a “coverage rabbit hole” he hopes not to go down. It's likely, he said, there will be internal disputes at news organizations over which candidates deserve legitimate coverage.

“Some of the vanity candidates may be fun coverage, entertaining, but that doesn’t mean that they’re worthy,” Todd said. “And I think that’s going to be the challenge for all producers and all executives and all editors -- in print, digital, television -- which is, can you show some restraint in covering the vanity candidates? If you can, then your resources aren’t going to be as stretched as it appears."

While news organizations have assigned reporters to Clinton for months, even years, before she officially jumped into the race, the Republican side lacks a clear front-runner. Most likely, political editors and directors will wait until after the first couple of debates and the Iowa straw poll before deciding who merits a full-time reporter or network embed -- calls that can rankle second-tier candidates who don’t make the cut.

The New York Times has 11 full-time campaign reporters, including several with significant experience covering former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Sen. Mark Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), and a potential contender across the river, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). The only candidate at this point with a dedicated reporter is Clinton.

“We haven't done strict man-to-man coverage yet, partly because we don't have 16 bodies, but more meaningfully, we need to capture broader dynamics in the race, the issues that are driving the debate, and stay nimble as the field develops,” Times Washington bureau chief Carolyn Ryan said in an email.

“The focus in this early period, given the vastness of the Republican field, has been, with each announcement, to provide our readers with a biographical sketch of each of the candidates," Ryan added, "a realistic assessment of their chances and a basic guide to where they stand on key issues.”

The Times has examined Republican candidates' positions on issues, their faith, and financial backers. The Times has broken several Clinton stories, from her exclusive use of a private email account at the State Department to trove of Benghazi-related correspondence.

The Times is doing some zone coverage, with a reporter already based in Iowa. Major TV news divisions also can be expected to position reporters in Iowa this fall, along with New Hampshire, South Carolina and possibly Florida and Nevada.

CNN has assigned reporters to early states, and will have an especially large number of political staff to pull from. The network has added at least 45 TV and digital employees since the 2012 cycle and now has roughly 100 staffers available for 2016.

Washington bureau chief Sam Feist said CNN will arguably "spend more to cover the 2016 campaign than any news organization has ever spent to cover an American election campaign."

“We have almost doubled the size of our political team for the 2016 cycle; In terms of our ability to cover the large number of candidates, our staff is well positioned to cover them all," Feist said.

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