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Home > Publications > Quill > 10 Tips for Covering State Elections


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Thursday, September 27, 2007
10 Tips for Covering State Elections

Melinda Dudley, SPJ Pulliam Kilgore Intern

Get your whole newsroom informed

Covering a statewide election is a big undertaking for any newsroom, and it will involve a huge portion of its staff in one way or another. Preparation needs to extend to everyone, not just state politics beat reporters.

“Other reporters, as well as anchors in TV, will talk to the candidates and the voters. Editors and producers will have to decide how all of that information is presented.” said Kevin Finch, news director of WISH-TV in Indianapolis. “That means knowing the key races, the issues, the players, all of it.”

There’s no such thing as too much planning

“It may sound obvious, but preparation is the key,” Finch said. “Elections are on the calendar years in advance. There’s no excuse not to plan for them.”

“File prewrites, set staggered page deadlines, have a design plan in place. Take advantage of AP coverage,” said Kirsten Stromsodt, news editor of the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald. “Being prepared will help everyone deal with breaking news and upsets on the big night.”

For Election Night, establishing coverage and editing responsibilities, deadlines and story lengths in advance pre-empts the need for hasty decision-making at deadline, said Andy Owens, an assistant managing editor at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.

Publicize your election efforts

Sharing your coverage plan with your audience can add a whole new element to your election coverage.

Bill Church, executive editor of the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., suggested keeping a blog of your election plans, sharing newsroom discussions, coverage changes and internal critiques on your Web site.

“The inside-politics approach will appeal to campaign watchers,” he said.

Keeping readers and viewers informed as to what they can expect from you on Election Night keeps them primed to your coverage and can help you net a large audience.

“Tell readers for several days in advance what to expect,” said Susan Ihne, executive editor of the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times. “What will be online when?”

Look for truth (and lies) in advertising

“Critique the campaign information voters see on television, hear on the radio and receive in the mail,” said Tom Spratt, state political editor of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. “Such critiques can be in the form of watchdog A1 stories or ‘ad watches’ that run inside the newspaper.”

During the 2006 state election, ad watch coverage received a bigger response from the Republic’s readers than its candidate profiles, Spratt said.

Think outside the box

“State elections offer a great chance for local-news organizations to show their multimedia moxie,” Church said.

Among Church’s suggestions for election season were creating a candidate database searchable by key issues, and beefing up the opinion page with podcasts, video and blogs. Converged newsrooms can produce their own televised elections special, or newspapers can build partnerships with public-access cable.

Multimedia should also play a big role on election night. Your Web site should have charts and graphics that make returns easy to digest and automatically refresh, and you can change the appearance of your home page to focus on elections and prominently display all of your updates, Church said.

Know your online strategy

“At least two months before the election, begin putting together an online election strategy that features stories, graphics and video, including contribution by staffers throughout the newspaper,” Spratt said. “Provide frequent online updates, blogs and accounts of voters’ experiences at the polls throughout Election Day, continuing throughout the night as results roll in.”

During the planning stages, be sure to ask yourselves all the important questions about format, function and responsibility

“How often will you change your photos? How many steps does a reader have to click through to get the race they want?” Ihne asked. “Can you realistically do updated numbers faster than TV? Who’s going to work overnight to keep updating the site?”

Cover election dynamics and voting issues

“Rather than merely writing about the individual legislative races, explore overall voting trends and how they could affect the makeup of the Legislature and state policies,” Spratt said. “How many races are competitive? How many seats are likely to change from one party to the other? What are the five hottest races in the state and why?”

Spratt suggested assigning one reporter to exclusively cover voting problems, issues and trends.

Get acquainted with the bigwigs

Organize a meet-and-greet between your top newsroom staff and top elections officials in advance of the big day.

“Meet with election officials two weeks before the election so you, as the editor, have a clear idea of what’s coming when,” Ihne said. “Invite (them) over for a meeting with a few key editors to figure out anything that could go wrong. Or better yet, take your editing team over to election headquarters.”

Spread out your issues coverage

“Give candidates a chance to express their views on key issues throughout the campaign, rather than lumping them together in one or two big stories,” Spratt said.

“One way we’ve done this is to provide a ‘Quiz the Candidates’ feature that gives candidates a chance to address one important issue each week leading up to the primary and general elections,” he said. “We ran the quiz for governor on Sunday, attorney general on Monday, secretary of state on Tuesday, etc.”

Feed the troops

“Always order pizza, and order more pizza than you think you’ll need,” Owens said.

“It’ll be eaten in that blank time between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. when all the prep work that can be done has been done and everyone is nervously waiting for the rocks to start rolling,” Owens said.

“One year we ordered pizzas too late,” Stromsodt said. “Nothing worse than a copy editor with an empty stomach!”

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