Statewide candidates deserve your attention, too
By Jim Pumarlo
A former mayor announces her candidacy for state lieutenant governor. Another local resident is running for Congress. Both are logical stories for a hometown newspaper.
On the other hand, numerous candidates seeking regional or statewide offices visit local newspapers, seeking, at minimum, a news story and/or photo to elevate their campaigns. An editorial endorsement by the local newspaper is a bonus.
Both sets of circumstances address the question of how local newspapers report on statewide candidates. In all instances, editors and reporters must focus on the local relevance and impact of these races. That's especially important in the countdown to the November elections as news rooms are stretched for resources and space in the face of repeated requests for candidate exposure.
Editors and reporters, if they have the pulse of their communities, should be abreast of local residents waging statewide campaigns. At the same time, community newspapers should hold no illusions that they'll be the source of breaking news; regional and statewide candidates are managed by staffs that are looking at broader exposure. Staff should monitor these races, then select those steps of the campaigns appropriate for stories where a local perspective can be offered.
All newsrooms must be prepared to deal with the second scenario – statewide candidates who regularly make stops to increase name recognition. Newspapers have no obligation to report on each and every visit, but it's worthwhile to let readers know what these candidates would bring to the table.
In that regard, keep two points in mind:
- Focus on local issues in interviews. Most candidates have a website or position papers that outline their platforms. Press for specifics on what their stances mean for your readers.
- Be open to reporting on a candidate's first visit. If candidates seek subsequent interviews, politely decline unless there are extenuating circumstances. It's important to understand the sophistication of polling today. A candidate's second, or third, visit to a community is likely a direct result of numbers that show lagging support among a specific constituency.
As always, newspapers should strive for fairness in these reports. If one candidate visits, expect the challenger to call, too, for an equal opportunity to speak to the issues. Reporters can be pre-emptive as well and call the opposing candidates' campaign headquarters or check their websites to present both sides of a story. Readers are best served by balanced reports that compare and contrast candidates' positions in the same story.
Two other points are important when dealing with the campaigns of regional or statewide candidates: Take advantage of the Web to report breaking news or other events in the continuum of cover age. The Web levels the playing field among dailies and non-dailies in terms of timely reporting. In concert with this, make the stories relevant to your readers. Identify the local issues at the beginning of election season and use them as a barometer of your coverage.
It's OK to acknowledge that some statewide candidates simply fall off the radar. Every state has its perennial candidates. A military veteran from decades ago announced his candidacy for the 2008 U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota. It was his sixth bid for the Senate and his 23rd attempt to win a variety of public offices. This year he filed papers for secretary of state. The statistics speak for themselves. Voters have made it clear that he should not be considered a serious candidate.
Newspapers have strong arguments to devote their resources to local candidates. Explaining and interpreting where statewide candidates stand on local issues is important, too. That's the role of community newspapers. On the other hand, if statewide media are ignoring certain candidates, community newspapers are in good company to give these races minimal attention as well.
© Jim Pumarlo 2010
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” You can contact him at http://www.pumarlo.com.
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