Candidate coverage and more discussed during ‘Tales From the Trail’ program in DeKalb

Jim Webb (left), a former political editor for the Chicago Tribune who is now with the public relations firm Serafin & Associates, and Chuck Sweeny (center), senior political editor for the Rockford Register Star, were panelists during the Northern Illinois Newspaper Association’s “Tales From the Trail” training program, which took place June 16 in DeKalb.

By KATHY BALCAZAR – kbalcazar@shawmedia.com

DEKALB – The Northern Illinois Newspaper Association hosted its annual spring training program June 16 at the Northern Illinois University Campus Life Building in DeKalb.

“Tales From the Trail” was the title of the program, which examined how the media covers elections.

The event was broken down into three sections: the first exploring how hard it is to write an engaging and fair election-based story and how election coverage is changing with the shifting political and media landscapes; the second discussing what the press does well when covering politics and where it falls short; and the third delving into how digital coverage of elections is evolving and what effective strategies are for using various social media platforms in election coverage.

Panelist Jim Webb, a former political editor for the Chicago Tribune who is now with the public relations firm Serafin & Associates, noted that lending context to political stories can help media outlets stand out in a world markedly different from the past – a world where, because of advancements in technology, “everyone is in the wire service.”

“It’s an incredibly challenging environment,” he said. “How do you make a difference for your readers? I would argue that you add context.”

Fellow panelist Chuck Sweeny, senior political editor for the Rockford Register Star, discussed how he took two road trips as part of covering the 2004 presidential contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry.

While on the trips, he asked regular people what they thought about that election. And during the training program, he contrasted the road trips with having covered multiple GOP and Democratic national conventions (first noting to laughs from the audience that “the Republicans have better booze” at those conventions).

“I went to places that were obscure and places that were well-known, like the St. Louis Arch,” Sweeny said of the two trips that he took. “I think that ended up as better stories than going to a convention where I’m doing the same thing 150,000 others are doing.”

Professor Matthew Streb, chair of the NIU Department of Political Science, and Bill Catching, a former journalist and current supervisor for Aurora Township and spokesperson for the mayor of Aurora, joined Webb for the second part of the training program.

While discussing where the media excels and where it is lacking, Streb said, “In general, I think the media gets a bum wrap. … At the end of the day, people get the information that they need from the news media to make decisions.”

But, he noted, journalists should be cautious of falling into the 24-hour news cycle, recommending that they often take a step back to ask themselves whether a particular event or happening actually matters in the long run.

Catching, meanwhile, answered a question from the audience about what journalists might not realize about elected officials, to which he answered that the vast majority of politicians are human; that it can be difficult for them to campaign; that – as part of campaigning – they often have to request money from their friends and others; that they are not all narcissists, as many of them want to help; and that they work hard.

Roger Ruthhart, president of the NINA Board and managing editor of The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and Nicole Franz, who has served as a digital editor for the Northwest Herald, led the final part of the program.

Ruthhart used a projector to show the audience a new electronic database for candidates that his operation was creating, while Franz discussed utilizing new digital tools such as ScribbleLive for election reporting.

“I think as we try and figure out how to do more with less people and also present more information digitally … that’s one thing we’re working on,” Ruthhart said of the candidate database he presented. “I challenge you all to look for ways that we can do our reporting smarter and easier, and maybe better.”