Campaign Lifesaver

Article excerpt

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.

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 cafe. 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.

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"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."

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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. …