Presidential Press Pool Archive Finds Home at University of Maryland

At the University of Maryland (UM), College Park, a new archive is taking shape, tracking the history of the U.S. presidency through a slightly obscure series of original documents: White House press corps pool reports. Produced by members of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), these short briefs have tracked generations of American presidents while they travel internationally, campaign, and even vacation.

White House Correspondents at work
(photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times)

At the University of Maryland (UM), College Park, a new archive is taking shape, tracking the history of the U.S. presidency through a slightly obscure series of original documents: White House press corps pool reports. Produced by members of the White House Correspondents Association (WHCA), these short briefs have tracked generations of American presidents while they travel internationally, campaign, and even vacation. UM is working to preserve these records in collaboration with the Newseum—the Washington, DC interactive museum of the evolution of communication—and the WHCA, whose members take turns writing the reports. While the facts they document—what time the president got off of Air force One, for instance, and the weather when the plane landed—may seem trivial, they form the backbone of much White House reporting. “Pool reports are a contemporaneous record of the mundane, exciting, and important things that White House journalists cover every day,” Lucy Dalglish, dean of UM’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and a member of the WHCA, told LJ. These succinct reports are key to the White House press corps work, detailing the daily comings and goings of the commander in chief without editorializing. These ”just the facts” reports not only record the minutiae of a presidential administration; they also provide details for the stories of other reporters who couldn’t be on the scene, amounting to a kind of miniature wire service for journalists covering 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. When the president travels, for instance, it’s not possible for the entire White House press corps to accompany him, no matter how much some might like to rack up the frequent flier miles. Instead, a single correspondent will be assigned to tag along to provide the rest of their colleagues with details on the president’s day via pool reports. “Pool reports have kind of grown up alongside the modern presidency, starting in the late 19th and early 20th century when presidents started traveling on private rail cars and airplanes and campaign buses—places you can’t have a whole gaggle of reporters riding along,” said Chuck Howell, librarian for journalism and communication studies at UM. The briefs these reporters relay to their colleagues are short and notably lacking in editorial flair, but they provide valuable details and context about a presidential administration. And while pool reports are dry, they’re not entirely without character; after all, pool reporters are relied on to provide enough detail to make it seem that their colleagues were right beside them as they wrote, as a recent example from May 27 demonstrates:
POTUS motorcade departed the Trump National Golf Course at 3:12 pm eastern time. Your pooler requested information about activities that may have taken place while POTUS was there, and was told the WH did not have any other information to provide. It's now a toasty 85 degrees, a bit swampy, and feels like it might rain.
While today’s pool reports are easily accessible—anyone can keep up with them live on Twitter—that wasn’t always the case. Emailed pool reports only became the norm during the George W. Bush years. During the Clinton administration and beforehand, pool reports were relayed to the White House press office and typed up on site. Copies went into a basket where interested reporters could help themselves.

GATHERING THE POOL REPORTS

The White House Correspondents’ Association Pool Reports Collection is already beginning to take shape at UM. While electronic pool reports dating back to the early 2000s are already in hand, older material from previous presidencies is less easily accessible. Howell and his colleagues are currently working to bolster those records. One place they’re hoping to draw from is the collections of presidential libraries, many of which hang onto pool reports among other press clippings. Another source, Dalglish said, will be members of the WHCA themselves. An event planned for this fall aims to connect the burgeoning collection with journalists who may still be hanging onto pool reports from previous administrations, and looking for ways to clear out some space in their attics. While pool reports have pretty short shelf lives—it’s not unusual to see several filed in a single day—they can be of use to historians, students, and journalists. If you’re looking to recreate a day in the life of an American president, you can’t beat these documents when it comes to attention to detail. “A lot of what makes it into the pool reports may not make it into news stories at the time,” said Howell. “But from a historical view, there’s a lot of information to be gleaned from the less exciting things. They become a record of the administration itself in a highly detailed, if slightly pedantic, way.” And there’s no telling when the content of pool reports will take on an added significance. “If you look at pool reports for JFK’s trip to Dallas in 1963, those documents were pretty boring,” Howell pointed out. “And then they were suddenly historic.”

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