By Dana Hull
During the Democratic primaries last winter, I was one of about a dozen journalists covering retired Gen. Wesley Clark's presidential campaign. Clark's traveling press corps prided ourselves on our high standard of kvetching: We regularly complained about the need for more sleep, better food and real campaign schedules at least a day in advance.
Dana Hull (email@example.com) is a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News.
But our No. 1 demand concerned filing capabilities: We had to have high-speed Internet access to file stories, video clips and photographs on deadline. Most of us had wireless laptops, but we still needed to be near a wireless hub to connect to the Internet. Others had air cards — modems that let you connect to the Internet through cellular services like Verizon — but they didn't always work in places like Oklahoma. When the campaign said we weren't giving Clark enough press, we fired back that we couldn't get news about Clark out because we were often stuck in rural locations with no Internet access, which made it impossible to make deadlines.
The final straw came in New Mexico, when Clark had an event with Gov. Bill Richardson and the campaign promised plenty of filing time at a nearby Internet café. It was a cruel joke: Not only was there no coffee — a horror in itself — but no Internet, just a bunch of dusty old computers and one dial-up line.
"This is ridiculous," we said in near unison. "Can't you get Soapbox?"
Six months later, Soapbox has become a household word among the nation's political reporters. Based in Washington, it's a small startup that describes itself as a "telecommunications support company offering portable, wireless and high-speed connectivity and accessibility for mobile operations." Translation: The tech-savvy "Soapbox guys" travel with journalists on the campaign trail, making it possible for them to file anytime, nearly anywhere. Essentially, the company sets up wireless access at each stop so reporters with wireless laptops can sit down and file in, say, Wyoming, as if they were in Manhattan.
"It's a lifeline. I can't imagine covering the campaign without them," says Tom Fitzgerald of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fitzgerald regularly traveled with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean during the primaries; now he rotates on and off John Kerry's bus. "During the primaries the plane would land and we'd all say, 'Let the Soapbox guy get off first!' We'd bow down to them. It's a brilliant idea."
As the 24-hour news cycle continues to compress, reporters are under ever-increasing pressure to file instantaneous updates. Newspaper reporters must feed to the Web; bloggers publish immediately; and broadcast and cable outlets are always searching for fresh video feeds. The competition for scoops, along with the leaps in technology, has created a media culture dependent on being constantly wired. Some veteran reporters still file by phone, dictating to their desks, but most are addicted to handheld BlackBerry devices, zapping off e-mails as they hop onto campaign buses.
Soapbox scouts out locations — whether it's high school gyms or diners — and sets up portable Internet connections, saving the lives of Luddite reporters. It's not always smooth sailing. There have been times when it's hard to get a strong signal, and as the candidate races from event to event, there's often precious little time to set up the wireless hotspot.
"Soapbox travels with us everywhere, and it definitely has made everyone's life easier," says Karen Burchard, director of press advance for the Kerry campaign. Soapbox employee Jim Jiranek has "embedded" with the campaign. "If we tried to pull them off, there would be a riot."
Nathan Naylor, a 37-year-old political junkie who spent years juggling the media's logistical demands, founded Soapbox in 2002. Naylor was Vice President Al Gore's assistant press secretary during his second term, and the traveling staff liaison between the White House Press Office and the Gore 2000 Presidential Campaign.
After the campaign he became communications director for Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The idea for Soapbox evolved as Naylor recognized the niche market in servicing on-the-road journalists.
"So much demand is placed on the traveling press to file content constantly," says Naylor. "The last thing reporters want to worry about is logistics."
During the recent Democratic primaries, the Soapbox buzz began to spread. Naylor handed out red-and-tan baseball caps with the Soapbox logo and catchy "Get in the Bubble" slogan at large campaign events.
"Sen. Bob Graham had us for his Winnebago trip across Iowa," Naylor says. "And we did Dean's 'Sleepless Summer' tour. But when Dean hired us to go out full-time in Iowa, things really sped up, and then we got on with Kerry, [John] Edwards and Clark. We figured that if we got out with one campaign, the others would follow."
The campaigns contract for Soapbox's services, but the cost, $100 to $200 a day for three different event sites, is passed on to the reporters who use the service. Many reporters feel it's worth it, particularly since it saves them precious time. While the candidate is giving a speech they've already heard five times that day, with Soapbox they can check e-mail, send a note to the boss and scour wire stories and blogs. Without Soapbox, some journalists would have to wait until they were back at a hotel with a good Internet connection to check their inboxes. While a growing number of reporters are becoming tech-savvy and hitting the road with an expanding array of gear, Soapbox often troubleshoots tech problems for journalists too stressed out to deal with frozen laptops or connection glitches.
At the moment, Soapbox has half a dozen employees, but Naylor has been swamped with résumés. The company is pointedly nonpartisan — though most of its work has been with Democratic campaigns, it would go on the road with the Republicans if asked, and it has had some discussions with the Bush campaign. The company was recently brought in to help with former President Reagan's funeral at the National Cathedral, and so far no other company has surfaced as competition.
Though its niche has primarily been politics, Naylor has big plans for a future in which the company provides support at everything from celebrity trials to NASCAR races to breaking news events.
"We would like to support every major press op in the country and in the world," he says.
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