April 16, 2014

Gallery Reporters Freed From the Tyranny of the Notebook

Updated: 5:17 p.m.

The 2012 State of the Union address might hold a special place in Capitol Hill reporters’ memories: the night they were finally allowed to bring electronics into the House chamber.

For the first time, beginning this evening, reporters will be able to bring iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and laptops into the press gallery that overlooks the House floor.

According to rules distributed by House Press Gallery superintendents, reporters will be “closely monitored” by gallery staff to ensure that the mobile devices are not filming, photographing or recording floor proceedings.

Reporters will not be allowed to make or receive calls in the chamber, and “no audible noise should emanate from the device, including vibrate mode.”

The new change in policy is in a “trial period,” say House Press Gallery Superintendent Jerry Gallegos, House Periodical Press Gallery Director Rob Zatkowski and House Radio-Television Gallery Director Olga Ramirez Kornacki.

Ramirez Kornacki said House leadership, which had to greenlight the proposal, said there was talk of instituting a 60- or 90-day trial period. But that it was decided that, short of a disaster, the new system would get a full session of Congress to work out the kinks.

The rules issued by the galleries states that the “use of electronic devices in the chamber portion of the media galleries will be reevaluated periodically by the Speaker’s Office and the media gallery directors and at the beginning of each Congress.”

The longtime standard has been that only pens and pads of paper could be brought onto the floor. Zatkowski said he believed that the precedent traced back to a time when the clanking of typewriter keys made too much noise.

In the mid-1990s, then-Speaker Newt Gingrich's (R-Ga.) offive gave its informal consent for laptops to be used by reporters covering the House floor from the press gallery, according to Gallegos. But computers were less user-friendly back then and the hassle wasn’t worth it for most journalists.

The issue came up again at the start of the 112th Congress, when Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) rules package included language stating that lawmakers may not “use a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum.”

Gallegos, Zatkowski and Ramirez Kornacki saw the rule change as an opportunity to see whether the press gallery could change its policy too.

“We decided in concert to try to get with the times,” Gallegos said.

As more and more reporters rely on mobile devices to communicate with colleagues and want to file stories in “real time” while watching the House floor, it made sense to expand where electronic devices are allowed to be used.

“This has been a long time coming,” Ramirez Kornacki said.

Senate Press Gallery Director Joe Keenan said if it works well in the House and becomes permanent, the other body might consider making the same change.

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