Election coverage tougher than ever, but ideas abound

News flash: Newspapers are understaffed. But elections are still happening and innovative coverage ideas are surfacing.

On May 11 at NIU, in two town-hall style conversations moderated by Dirk Johnson and Roger Ruthhart, NINA journalists talked about challenges they face and some solutions they have found.

“It’s our duty as gatekeepers to wade through what’s true and what isn’t,” said Daily Chronicle managing editor Jason Schaumburg.

That’s become tougher than ever for understaffed newspapers (practically all of us). Savvy campaigns understand this and crank out the press releases, sometimes two or three a week. Newspapers are left with the choices of turning these releases into stories – which may contain too many unchecked assertions; ignoring the releases completely – and potentially miss real news; or simply posting the press releases to an online bulletin board page and let readers investigate for themselves.

None of those are great options for newspapers.

“Our traditional role is to filter the crap down to what readers need and want,” said Larry Lough, executive editor at Sauk Valley Newspapers.

Combine that with often-restricted access to candidates, and you have an even bigger problem of getting at the truth.

“Stories constantly quote the campaign manager but never the candidate,” said Ruthhart, managing editor of the Rock Island Argus.

“Plus, everyone’s a publisher now. Candidates don’t think they need us as much as they used to,” added Northern Star adviser Jim Killam. “When they publish it on their own sites they can manage and control their message however they want.”

Voters also need full information earlier than ever before. The advent and popularity of early voting has altered timetables for publishing profiles, endorsements and other election information.

Here are a few ideas that surfaced during the conversations:

• Newspapers rely on their websites for profile information. Create “Election Central” sites, post the information early and add to it as you can. If your website CMS allows, tag stories so they filter onto the election pages.

• Realistically, understaffed newspapers cannot cover every campaign issue. Ask your readers to help identify three or four key issues in your community. Then focus your paper’s coverage – and your reporters’ time – on those issues.

In this way, papers can maximize reporters’ time and focus on issues and stories that touch the most readers.

Ruthhart’s suggestion: “Find issues that overreach politics – like daycare centers losing state funding, or in our area employment at the arsenal – and then you can connect those back to the election cycle when needed.”

Johnson, who teaches at NIU and writes for the New York Times and other publications, asked about taking a community’s pulse at election time.

“Is there a way to get at what the influential people in a community think?” he said.

• Be strategic and intentional about which campaign events you cover. If your publication can’t cover every speech and chicken dinner, then think about only covering debates or forums where all major candidates are present.

• Archive candidates’ online questionnaires so

you and the public can check later to see if they kept their campaign promises. Maybe after someone’s been in elected office for a year, give them a report card based on those earlier promises.

• Video record editorial board sessions with candidates and post it to your website, unedited. Let the public in on your endorsement process. If you don’t endorse, this is still a great way to help the public decide.

 Join the conversation by commenting: What innovative coverage ideas have worked for your publication?

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