Conventional wisdom has it that most voters won't pay much attention to a fall federal election campaign until after Labour Day. So when the Conservative government dropped the writ five weeks earlier, media outlets were handed an unexpected challenge.
The parties had been in unofficial campaign mode for some time. But after most news organizations planned and budgeted for six weeks of full-tilt, on-the-hustings campaign coverage, an 11-week contest presents logistical hurdles and stretches already strained budgets.
This long march to Oct. 19 has prompted a rethinking of the value of trailing party leaders daily, and a renewed focus on stories found away from tightly scripted events. And while newswires and the CBC – with its public mandate and funding – are stalwarts on the party buses, other outlets are saving money and setting their own schedules, which will shape what voters read, see and hear.
"Everything you do these days, you look through the prism of, can you afford to do it?" said Lou Clancy, the editor-in-chief for Postmedia News.
Well before the campaign was called, The Canadian Press newswire did the math and determined it couldn't fit an election campaign into its normal budget. So it labelled the election a premium product, asking its clients – newspapers, television networks and radio stations across the country – to pay an undisclosed extra fee, promising a CP reporter and photographer would cover each leader.
Virtually all major outlets paid up to gain access. But when the campaign nearly doubled in length, CP "didn't want to go back to everybody and, yet again, ask for money," said editor-in-chief Stephen Meurice.
"The revenue that we'll get from that [fee] will come nowhere close to covering our costs," he said. "We will still be out of pocket several hundred thousand dollars as a result of this."
The Conservative campaign charges $12,500 a person, per week, or $3,000 daily, to reporters or photographers who wish to follow Leader Stephen Harper on the party's bus.
When CP complained that that was too steep for a campaign this long, the Conservatives set a $70,000-a-person rate for outlets that commit from start to finish.
The NDP asks $50,000 for the whole campaign, as does the Liberal Party, which charges $2,500 for a single day or $12,000 a week, per person.
CBC News is also committed to all three campaigns, with general manager and editor-in-chief Jennifer McGuire noting that, "for public broadcasters, it's a big part of the mandate." But with CP there each day, making copy available to clients, some news organizations are gambling that they can spend less time on the buses.
And there is debate about whether the bubble inside the campaign bus still yields valuable insights.
"You can get a sense of the momentum and the feeling within the staffers and the aides and the candidates themselves," Mr. Meurice said.
Other outlets are being more selective. A spokesperson for CTV, the largest private TV broadcaster, said, "We have no hard and fast rules, and decisions are made daily about our coverage."
And for the first time, Postmedia – which owns newspapers such as the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun – has decided not to ride with the parties full-time.
"We're going to [do spot trips]," Mr. Clancy said. "This determination is largely because it has become a TV studio. There's little access."
The Globe and Mail is also not planning to be on the buses full-time.
"Our campaign coverage is split between studying the policies of each party and scrutinizing the leadership. We go on the buses when it makes sense," said the paper's editor-in-chief, David Walmsley.
"And the leaders will come to The Globe and Mail on September 17 in Calgary when we host the key campaign debate on the economy."
This election also features new media competitors, such as Vice News Canada and BuzzFeed News.
The latter hired two Ottawa-based reporters, partly in anticipation of this fall's election, among a Canadian editorial staff of seven. They won't be on the buses "for any extended period," said editor Craig Silverman, electing to "find other places where people aren't paying attention" and add some of the site's trademark lists and quizzes.
The Conservatives only allow reporters who are officially on the campaign to ask Mr. Harper the four daily questions allotted to national media (a local news outlet gets a fifth).
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's campaign is "happy to take questions from a wide variety of journalists, not just those who have paid to cover us," said director of communications Kate Purchase.
But the message control is tight with all parties, and some media are turning more to issues-based and regional stories, while introducing new social-media and interactive features. With the long campaign, "we'll be staggering the introduction of some of the features that we had planned," Ms. McGuire said.
That's partly a strategy to sustain voter interest.
Most outlets are expecting to ramp up in early September but, for now, many are pacing their coverage.
"It is a long campaign," Mr. Clancy said.