“I do have a seat, third row, smack dab in the middle,” April Ryan said in one of many interviews with C-SPAN in 2015. “I was in the sixth row when I started.”
Ryan is the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, a minority-owned media outlet that caters to an urban, African-American audience. She has been recording her daily show, “The White House Report,” since 1997, and while her move from the sixth row of the White House briefing room to the third may seem small, it symbolizes specialty media’s growing importance in the White House press corps.
“We are not the ABCs, the CBSs or the CNNs,” Ryan said. “We are the American radio networks … the Telemundos … LGBT newspapers … Christian broadcasting. We’re all sorts of different things that are not necessarily part of that illustrious front two rows.” Still, she’s closer to the illustrious front rows than she is to those jockeying for attention in the back.
While the traditional media outlets might be asking about ISIL or Benghazi, Ryan is inquiring after community-police relations or a new labor tax affecting minorities.
“They may be focusing on one thing and you may be focusing on another, and that’s the greatness of having the people in the room asking questions” from different perspectives, Ryan said.
A unique perspective is not always an advantage. Ryan says White House officials are sometimes afraid to call on her in briefings because they don’t know what questions she’ll ask or if they have a good response prepared.
Still, Ryan’s defined audience makes her the go-to reporter when the president needs to communicate with an African-American audience. And often Ryan’s coverage of a story earns it more press in mainstream outlets such as CNN, the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Press room seating chart
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A reporter’s seat in the briefing room matters. The farther back a reporter sits, the less likely she will be called on. Often, press briefings are the only opportunity for reporters to get White House officials on the record about the day’s news. If Ryan isn’t called on in the briefing, she loses an opportunity to get the White House perspective on an issue she’s covering.
It should be noted that the White House doesn’t have much control over the press pool. The White House Press Office coordinates credentials with the U.S. Secret Service, but it’s the media outlets themselves that determine which reporters attend the briefings and the White House Correspondents’ Association that decides where they sit.
With financial constraints forcing some publications to cut back their coverage and social media’s growing popularity bringing new organizations to the room, the White House press corps has changed over the past decade. In March 2015, relative newcomers Al Jazeera and BuzzFeed earned seats in the fifth and seventh rows respectively.
One wonders how long it will be before these organizations — with their own distinct audiences — join Ryan in the third row?