A Multi-layered Approach to Election Coverage

By: Steve Outing

Syracuse Newspapers in New York has been on the World Wide Web since October 1994, as part of a joint business-academic partnership with the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Recently, the newspapers' Web service went onto its own server at http://www.syracuse.com/, taking what was learned in the academic exercise and turning it into more of a commercial venture.

Stan Linhorst, director of new media for Syracuse Newspapers, recently reported on an effort to cover local elections that was well received. I'll let Stan take over here and explain his strategy:

"The Syracuse Newspapers used a multi-layered approach to report election results to readers in real time. In Central New York, the 1995 election featured few hot races of general interest. But there were hundreds of races at the municipal level of great interest to the narrow segment of our general readership in those communities. That played to the strengths of new media and computer-assisted reporting. Using NewsLine, the newspapers' audiotext service, and Syracuse OnLine, the newspapers' site on the World Wide Web (www.syracuse.com), the newspapers delivered up-to-the minute returns on everything from the county executive campaign to dozens of town council races. The newspapers used three terminals connected via modem to Onondaga County's Board of Elections mainframe to monitor results in real time. Those were transferred by typists to a master Paradox database of results that resided on the newsroom's Novell network. Once the results were on the newspapers' PC network, those single keystrokes could be distributed to meet these multiple needs simultaneously:

* Internet documents: Paradox's report writing functions allow HTML tags to be built into templates that can accommodate changing data. That allowed us to create HTML documents containing the latest results on the fly by telling Paradox to "print" a report to a file that was ready to be viewed on the web. The files were sent to a special update folder on the newsroom network where they were transferred to the Web server. Prior to the election, fields in the Paradox table had been filled in with the names of the HTML files for the factboxes, profiles and preview stories for each race. That allowed the results list to include links that gave users instant depth.

* Newsroom updates: Real time electronic updates were available to all reporters and editors in the newsroom. One PC running Netscape was hooked up to a TV mounted above the city desk. That allowed point-and-click access to results that could be viewed by dozens of people at once. To speed things up, the PC connected to the television was used to monitor the results file from the newsroom network rather than our Web server.

* Customized reports: To keep the appropriate reporters who were working on the more than 140 races efficiently updated, the Paradox table also included a field listing the name of the reporter covering the race. A Paradox script triggered production of paper printouts that were grouped by reporter, so each reporter received a report listing results on just the races they were assigned to cover. All of the HTML and paper reports were generated automatically by a Paradox script running in the background. That script monitored the system clock and triggered updates every 10 minutes. That allowed the typists, reporters and editors to work without interruption throughout the night.

* NewsLine updates: With a Board of Elections terminal in our recording studio, we were able to keep callers updated continously, again well ahead of broadcast media.

Generally, the process worked smoothly. We usually were able to pass results from the Board of Elections mainframe to our staff and online users within 5 minutes. The ability to update all races simultaneously put us well ahead of broadcast media. A local public radio station used our Web page as a source of its report to listeners. The Board of Elections also monitored our pages and referred callers to our site.

There is always room for improvement. We confined our updates for Onondaga County to one file that was fairly large (49K), even though it contained no images. While that sped up our ability to update our site because we only had to replace one file, its size meant reloading it on a modem took an annoyingly long time for some users. This was particularly true when using America Online's browser.

Of course, the site got a good workout preceding Election Day as well. As you can see from the results page, every race -- no matter how minor -- had background on the Web. In advance, you could learn about the candidates. On Election Night, you could use those same pages to learn more about who won.

You can no longer find the election coverage from our home page, but the appropriate URLS are:

All of the Web election work was supervised by Tom Foster, the projects editor of The Post-Standard.

The Election coverage branches from Page One, a project supervised by Brian Cubbison, the news editor of The Post-Standard. Page One is an unusual combination. We can cover local news and breaking news, and we can integrate it with the rest of The Post-Standard.

Here's how Brian approaches his work:

"When I'm putting Page One together, I think about how nice it would be to have someone search the Internet while you sleep, then give you a focused list of sites about the news of the day. That's the goal of Page One. You then can explore on your own, but with the benefit of the context an editor can provide.

"Maybe someday the software will do that, except that one morning you'll wake up and want to know everything there is to know about Oklahoma City -- or Yitzhak Rabin. The software won't realize it, but the editor will."

Brian has integrated the Web page into the daily coverage in The Post-Standard. Day after day, he runs stories that refer readers to Internet resources. He gathers the resources into one place, on Page One. for the readers, there's no more wrestling with complicated URLs. Readers no longer have to rely on their own searches that return dozens of possible sites to sift through on their own. Brian gives people the Central New York perspective on news events by including stories The Post-Standard has published. He brings back from the Internet the conversations that are going on in newsgroups and mail lists, Web pages and forums. Page One has a Word for Word feature that gives people a sense of what's being talked about on the Internet before they go searching.

INMA Web site

More and more Web sites are popping up that are of great value to newspaper new media professionals. If you haven't visited it already, you'll want to check out the International Newspaper Marketing Association (INMA) site. One of its most valuable features is an index of more than 1,500 case studies of newspaper marketing practices worldwide. Access to the INMA site is currently free and open to all, but may be restricted to members in the future.

24 Hours in Cyberspace

Rick Smolan, creator of the popular "Day in the Life ..." photo book series, is at it again, this time developing "24 Hours in Cyberspace." This one-day Web event set for February 8, 1996, will see Smolan's team of photojournalists fan out around the world to document how online technology is changing people's lives. They will post their images to a Web site created on-the-fly in San Francisco. This instant Web site will be available to anyone using the Web. A permanent "24 Hours" Web site is expected to be unveiled on March 15, 1996. The project is being underwritten by Eastman Kodak Co., Sun Microsystems and Adobe Systems.

The team producing "24 Hours" is seeking story ideas about how cyberspace is changing people's lives, to be included in the assignments that will be made to the team of100 globe-trotting photojournalists. If you have any good ideas, send them to stories@cyber24.com.

The "24 Hours in Cyberspace" Web site is at http://www.Cyber24.com. (There's nothing to see on the site yet.)

Steve Previous day's column | Next day's column | Archive of columns
Presented 5 days a week by Steve Outing, Planetary News LLC.
Made possible by Editor & Publisher magazine.
Got a tip? Let me know about it

If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here