Editors in this political season must feel like sous chefs in a fine restaurant. They do all the preparation, never taste the meals, and get none of the credit.
Day after day, they serve up pages of copy on the presidential and local election races that seems to satisfy no one and only causes readers to scream about the newspaper’s bias against their particular candidate. And little of the campaign money is spent on television advertising and direct mail. Nobody has been able to figure out how to divert that money into newspaper pages yet, but the coverage issue is worth scrutinizing.
Let’s start by noting that Americans view presidential election coverage the way they viewed television coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. They say they’re sick of it, but they could not get enough of it.
The Pew Research Center poll conducted in June reported six out of 10 Americans said they were already worn out by the coverage. And yet, a different Pew poll showed there was greater interest in this election than there had been in previous campaigns. And 91 percent of the people in that poll had learned about the election in the previous week. The trouble with that poll—for newspaper editors—is that only 5 percent of those said they had viewed the election news in a local or national newspaper.
Editors have fewer reporters than ever to cover local elections. So coverage must be prioritized. Yet, local election coverage has not changed much except to say that there is less of it.
So what’s an editor to do with fewer reporters, a bitter national election, and a readership that says it wants less, but truly wants more?
Focus on local elections. If you think this is a no-brainer, then ask why so much space in local newspapers is devoted to presidential coverage. I don’t think there is a reader in America who turns to the local newspaper for penetrating analysis of national races. Your strength is in local coverage.
Focus on issues. Yes, the insults are entertaining, but they have little to do with the way one governs. The candidates do their best to obfuscate the issues, but it is more helpful to voters to take the time to dissect positions, review the candidates’ past performance and offer readers a perspective on how the candidates differ on the issues that matter most.
Conduct local debates. Play a part. Newspapers derive strength from civic engagement and deep roads into the local community. The best of those are taking an active role in sponsoring debates, taking the moderator role, inviting the public and helping readers cut through the clouds.
Borrow the best practices with fact-checking. One national newspaper trend I love is the “on the fly” fact-checking that does not let a candidate get away with half-truths for more than one news cycle.
Dig into those ballot measures that no one understands. In California this year there could be as many as 18 ballot measures—each of them accompanied by a see-saw of TV commercials. Voters get confused by these commercials (often aired back-to-back) featuring people who say Measure A will either mean the end of civilization or will save us from doom. Spend some reporting time helping readers understand these measures.
Cover the races “no one cares about.” Down the ballot are races for special districts, water districts, parks districts and so on. They’re small and we tend to ignore them. And yet, many of these small districts elect scoundrels who engage in small time graft for years and fly under our radar. Stay on top of these small races and vet these people. Your local parks and water rates impact on your readers’ lives as much as the next president.
If you won’t endorse, then analyze. Some newspapers eschew endorsements for fear that they will be accused of bias. I think a good explanation of the endorsement process can overcome that, but if you won’t endorse, then at least use your editorial page to offer deep analysis of the issues.
Print letters. Lots of them. Make sure you encourage and print a lot of short letters. When possible, identify the writers and their position in the community. It can be as simple as “Russell Hinson, Retired” or “Jill Davis, teacher.”
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.