Expand your paper’s coverage of the coming elections

July 31, 2012

By Al Cross
Into the Issues

At many community newspapers, treatment of this year’s presidential election may be limited to online polls. If your coverage stops there, you are missing an opportunity to build your paper’s brand and help your readers cast their most informed vote ever for president, in what is likely to be one of the most consequential elections our nation has seen.
Why should smaller newspapers cover the race? If dailies rely on The Associated Press, the coverage won’t be localized. If weeklies just stick to local news, they will ignore a major topic of discussion among their readers, many of whom don’t read a daily.
Covering the race can help you build and maintain a brand as the most authoritative local source of news and information. But it’s a big subject, so it calls for planning and some clear objectives.
We did that in a webinar I conducted for the Iowa Newspaper Foundation and the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, via Online Media Campus. It’s at http://www.onlinemediacampus.com/2012/05/political-reporting.
In covering the race, your objectives should be twofold: Give your readers reliable information about the candidates, much of which can be gathered from, or linking to, authoritative national sources; and engage them by showing how the campaigns connect with local people. Here’s how:
Keep track. A presidential campaign is an enterprise that develops and changes daily. Sign up for updates and press releases on the campaigns’ websites, and follow reliable national sources. The papers I use most are The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal; their columnists I like best are moderately conservative David Brooks at the Times and moderately liberal Ezra Klein and Steven Pearlstein at the Post.
Other reliable, non-ideological sources include Politico.com, NationalJournal.com, Congressional Quarterly (www.public.cq.com), TheAtlantic.com/politics, and RealClearPolitics.com, which links to just about everyone else worth reading. For rural angles, there’s The Rural Blog (http://irjci.blogspot.com.)
Aim high. In swing states, interviews with candidates are possible, especially with those for vice president. The odds are against you, but the payoff can be really big. If your paper is part of a chain, which can expand your reach, mention that in your pitch.
Provide local context. Show where your community fits into the state and national landscape. Do a story with graphics about your county’s voting history. From election officials, get the demographics to show how turnouts and age cohorts vary from election to election. Turnout is higher and younger, but still not young, in presidential years. Such data can make good graphics; you can make your own maps at www.Geocommons.com.
Politics is more than elections; voter registration can also show long-term trends. Is your county becoming more Democratic, more Republican or more independent? Such data are easy to get, and so are comments from local political leaders.
Check facts. This is especially important in smaller communities, where solid facts can be lacking and the vacuum is filled with rumor, misleading ads and outright falsehoods. You can do fact-checking on your own, but it might be better to start by using the various nonpartisan services: Fact Checker (www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker) is Glenn Kessler, who took on President Obama’s campaign over its ads on Mitt Romney’s business record. Factcheck.org is run by Brooks Jackson, who was a reporter at CNN and The Wall Street Journal, and the service I like best—partly because you can use it for free, as long as you give credit.
The most popular service, PolitiFact.com, categorizes political ads and statements, ranging from “true” to the entertaining “pants on fire.” Few ads and statements fit perfectly into such categories, but the service won a Pulitzer Prize for its work in the last presidential election.
PolitiFact offers its service for a modest fee, about $50 a month for small papers and $100 a month for larger ones. It has franchised its brand to newspapers in several states: Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. In those states, you’ll have to check with the papers for their republication policies.
Conventions: If there are delegates from your area, do a feature on them: why they wanted to be a delegate, if they have done it before (and when), how they got elected (get them to talk about string-pulling and deal-making), what they hope to accomplish if anything, other than having a good time. If they don’t want people to know they will be out of town, you can do most of the story in advance and then wrap it up with a phone interview at convention’s end.
Make it personal. Delegates are one example of personalization. Are others in your area active in a campaign? Few wear buttons anymore, but look for bumper stickers. Line these folks up to comment on events such as convention speeches and debates; some may merit features.
Are there one or more gathering places in your community with people who have diverse opinions? Barber shops and beauty shops often fill this role. If you can’t find such a sounding board, create a diverse group of your own, and convene it at key points.
Is a young person from your area working in a campaign? This can not only be a good feature, but give you and your readers inside glimpses. When school resumes, talk with students and teachers about their political interests and activity.
Campaign finance. “Follow the money” is good advice. Most communities large enough to have a newspaper have contributors to one or more presidential campaigns. Look them up at www.fec.gov, where you can get familiar with the reports; and www.OpenSecrets.org, which has the best search functions and will do a custom search for a small fee.
Issues. Every community has issues affected by this race: the economy, jobs, tax policy, farm policy, education, energy, the environment, social issues, use of American forces (which are disproportionately rural in origin). Identify the issues that are most important to your readers, and the local people involved in them; tell the issue stories with their help and with information from reliable online sources, going beyond the press releases and platform statements.
Professors at area colleges and universities can be good observers to quote, but they also have their biases; however, they are usually up-front about them and willing to give you names of other authorities who disagree with them.
Opinion. Don’t feel obliged to run letters repeating debunked claims or gross misrepresentations. Your newspaper should provide more light than heat.
Finally, about those online polls: Be honest and tell your readers they are not scientific gauges of opinion. © Al Cross 2011

Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky, with partners at 28 universities in 18 states. See www.RuralJournalism.org.

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