The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) has a long-established press corps, in which a smaller group of reporters follows the U.S. President— from the Oval Office, to Air Force One, to his motorcade—and disseminates their written pool reports to the rest of the press corps.
These reports can turn into front-page news, but plenty of what’s documented never gets national coverage. Still, the reports are a valuable view into the day-to-day workings of the White House and a fascinating repository of historical record.
In 2018, the University of Maryland Libraries—in partnership with UMD’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, the College of Information Sciences, the Newseum Institute, and the WHCA—embarked on a new vision: a permanent and ongoing digital, searchable archive of these presidential pool reports available for journalists, scholars, and the public at large.
This first-of-its-kind repository not only supports the university’s mission of advancing knowledge in areas of importance to the State, the nation, and the world, but of the greater ideals of a free press and democratic society.
This project is an ambitious undertaking. The reports themselves comprise tens of thousands of text documents that need to be sorted and classified to allow the public to find what they need through searching or browsing by date, topic, or reporter.
The Libraries got to work developing custom digital tools to reformat the reports, generate metadata, and redact targeted personal information. By 2021, a prototype website with search functionality was available for approximately 1,800 pool reports dated from June 25, 2020 to September 30, 2020. Project staff were in the middle of collecting pool reports from October 1, 2020 to the present, and had obtained new pool reports from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, but the project was in need of financial support to keep the momentum going.
Two main hurdles existed: more digital tools to assist with harvesting and processing the pool reports, and the creation of lessons, stories, timelines for the collection that would help promote it to the wider world.
Enter Cathy Merrill, CEO and owner of Washingtonian Media. Merrill, who oversees the award-winning Washingtonian.com website, is also chair of the Merrill College of Journalism’s board of visitors as well as a UMD Trustee.
Cathy and the Merrill Foundation, Inc. generously gifted $115,000 to fund a one-year programmer and a one-year graduate assistant to fill these crucial holes in the project and take it to the next level.
“Accessible presidential reporting is essential to the functioning of a transparent, healthy democracy,” says Cathy Merrill. “This historic collection will be a rich trove of primary resources with the potential to spur limitless lines of inquiry for journalists, scholars, and educators across the globe. We are proud to support the next phase of this important project.”
As a Trustee, Merrill sits on the Board’s Advocacy and Government Relations Committee, which assists the board by reaching out to the Maryland community and stakeholders (including elected and appointed officials, business executives, alumni, faculty, students, civic and community leaders and the general public) to advance higher education in general and the University of Maryland, College Park, in particular while promoting their human, social, educational and economic impact.
The WHCA was originally founded more than 100 years ago to promote excellence in journalism and robust reporting on the U.S. presidency. Now that vision can be expanded even further thanks to the generosity of Cathy Merrill and the Merrill Foundation.