Plant the seeds now for 2010 election coverage

by | Mar 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/March 2009

The conclusion of the 2008 political campaign – though one of the most memorable in U.S. history with the election of President Barack Obama – most likely brought a collective sigh to the general public and especially to newsrooms. Election coverage is among the most demanding and exhaustive tasks faced by newspapers.

But before editors and reporters shelve their election files for another two years, pause to consider that the election season is not over. The cynics, of course, say the next election cycle begins the day after polls close. That’s not too far off the mark as candidates and political parties waste little time in developing strategies to replenish their war chests and posture for the next election.

In all seriousness, however, election coverage cannot be simply turned on and off. Those newspapers that provide a continuum of coverage – in proper doses – will win on two counts. Editors and reporters will have an easier time gearing up for the next election season, and coverage will be more meaningful to readers.

It’s standard procedure for most media outlets to rate the first 100 days of the presidency. Community newspapers can put that principle to good practice as well in covering local office-holders.

In other words, what do the election results really mean? Newsrooms should keep that question at the forefront in the immediate weeks after the election, and the following months, as they examine various specific impacts of the election.

Some of the stories will be obvious, especially this election which saw the convincing victory by Obama who ran on an agenda of change and the many candidates who rode to victory on his coattails. Major media will continue to offer analysis on what this means as the president advances his agenda with the new Congress.

The 2008 elections provide similar opportunity for local examination by community newspapers. A state legislator is suddenly in the majority, or minority, and consequently has gained or lost a key committee assignment. A longtime incumbent is ousted. Or an incumbent bucks the trend and keeps a local seat. What does this mean for the advocacy of local issues?

Think about local governing boards, too.

Did a voting block change on the city council, and what did it mean for leadership of the body? Will it have an impact on the agenda – for example, a switch from a policy of controlling taxes to one of increasing spending for new services?

Many county boards have an urban/rural mix of representation. Did the elections produce a change in that balance, and will it affect future decisions? For example, will a moratorium on annexation be lifted? Will feedlot controls be tightened or loosened?

Many newsrooms do post-mortems on elections, and discussion typically focuses on coverage preceding the vote. But don’t forget to continue those discussions. These sessions will be most productive if editors and reporters convene a couple of months later and identify ways to bolster follow-up coverage.

Although many post-election stories should be pursued immediately – for example, the change of leadership of a governing body – other stories play out and coverage is more meaningful in the weeks and months to follow. Indeed, many of the issues explored will likely set the platform for campaigns, and the foundation for newspapers’ accompanying coverage, for the next election.

Planning post-election coverage – not just the immediate coverage but also analysis in the weeks and months to follow – has another important byproduct. Candidates seek voters’ support by advancing their personal “to do” lists. Their effectiveness in advancing their agendas – and the impact on constituents – can be the foundation for substantive reporting of government policy-making on an ongoing basis.

Most important, these types of stories will help readers make a better connection between individuals they supported at the polls and the resulting effect on their everyday lives.