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Scott Swafford, 2013–2014 Reynolds Fellow, presented at the 2014 Missouri Press Association meeting on "Down-home Democracy: Why covering local elections is important and how small newspapers can do it well." Following are his notes for that presentation.

Slide 1

I appreciate the chance to talk to you folks today about something to which I’ve dedicated much of the past several years of my academic and professional pursuits. I’ve long felt that one of newspapers’ most important responsibilities is to provide adequate coverage of local elections, those for city councils, boards of aldermen, school boards and local ballot issues. The same is true in races for state representative and Senate seats and, in some cases, for statewide ballot issues.

I’m a product of small community newspapers: the Kirksville Daily Express, Fulton Sun, Columbia Daily Tribune and, for the past 11 years, the Columbia Missourian. Most of the papers I’ve worked at have taken local election coverage quite seriously and worked hard to give voters the information they need to make decisions. I’ve made a concerted effort to pass along my passion for election reporting to my students. When I decided to pursue a master’s degree, it made a lot of sense to apply my thesis to a study of election coverage at small newspapers. There’s very little academic research on this.

One thing I’ve always lamented about election coverage at the state and national levels is the focus on the horse race, or the strategies candidates are employing to win the game. Research shows that this makes readers apathetic and cynical about participating not only in elections, but also in the larger democratic process. We breed mistrust and cast politicians as sinister players with no real interest in working for the public good.

Summarize thesis intent and findings: very little horse-race coverage, but in many cases there was very little coverage at all. I looked at 292 articles from 28 newspapers with circulations less than 50,000, most far less. The relative paucity of election coverage I found started me on a mission to change that.

Slide 2

But wait a minute? As journalists, are we really supposed to “promote” anything? Along with truth and accuracy, we absolutely ought to be promoting the voice of the people. Election news — and other public policy news — should bubble up from the bottom, not rain down from on high. We spend an awful lot of time telling our readers what government has done to them — and in the context of elections telling people what politicians believe is important. But we spend too little of our time informing government and politicians what people want to be done, or what our readers believe the most important issues are.

Slide 3

Small newspapers do face a significant challenge when it comes to covering elections. Often they have only one or two reporters who are busy covering everything under the sun. If we get ahead of the game and do some advance planning, though, there’s no reason we can’t do comprehensive election coverage. We’ve known since March, for example, who would be running on the August primary ballot and, in many cases, who would be on the November general election ballot. Candidates for town councils or school boards always have to file months ahead of the actual election. With that much time to work, even one reporter can do some pretty thorough coverage, even if much of it will be published in the few weeks before the election.

It’s a matter of setting your priorities. Election coverage ought to be at the top of the list.

Slide 4

If a newspaper can establish itself as the go-to place for meaningful discussion of community issues, and elections offer a perfect opportunity to do that, it will pay dividends in terms of credibility, social capital and, we hope, circulation, advertising and revenue. The most recent research we did at the Reynolds Journalism Institute shows that the more people are exposed to newspaper coverage of elections, the more likely they are to talk about it with others, and the more likely they are to vote. That can only be a good thing.

Slide 5

What better opportunity than election season to help readers engage with their leaders — or wanna-be leaders — on potential solutions to local community challenges. Most campaign seasons feature public forums and candidate debates. At the Missourian, we have at times taken the lead in sponsoring and organizing those sorts of events. We’ve sponsored forums for local city council races and worked with the League of Women Voters and the Missouri Press Association on debates for statewide offices and U.S. Senate races. I consider this sort of stuff God’s work. It goes beyond the daily task of interviewing politicians and writing stories and helps promote a healthy democratic discussion of major issues. Marketplace of ideas.

Slide 6

Agenda-setting is one of those high-falutin’ theories that we study a lot in graduate school. But it’s really a pretty simple concept. Research shows that the press is very much in power to determine what the public believes are the most important issues — particularly in an election. So when we take our cues from politicians, we do our public a disservice. It’s the people, not the politicians, who should be determining what our focus should be in an election. There are lots of ways to do this. Getting out to coffee shops and other so-called third places to talk with voters. Soliciting their opinions online. Again, sponsoring candidate forums and debates where the public gets to ask the questions. Tell what we did with the U.S. Senate debate way back in 2004.

Slide 7

This sort of speaks for itself. As I mentioned about my thesis, a lot of small newspapers seem content to tell people the names of the people on the ballot, or to give just a cursory description of what a ballot issue is about. I believe we should be making firm commitments to do more than that. A journalist covering an election ought to always be asking: What have we done today to help a voter make a decision? If the answer is nothing, he or she should re-examine the approach.

It’s also not enough to simply ask a candidate what his stance on an issue is, then tell your readers what he or she says. It’s incumbent upon journalists to provide the kind of context on an issue that allows readers to discern whether the politicians know what they’re talking about, or whether their proposed solutions to community challenges are really good ideas.

As for the candidates themselves, we need to go beyond giving basic background about where they work, what sort of education they have. We do our readers the most good by digging deep into these folks lives, not only doing thorough background checks but also exploring who they are as people, what drives their motivation to run for public office.

Slide 8

We’ll only be able to touch on these things briefly today, but there are many things we can do beyond traditional narrative stories to breathe life into our election coverage and make it more useful for readers, particularly with the advent of the web. We can create databases of campaign contributions and share them with our readers. We can do video interviews with candidates so that people can actually see and hear them speak for themselves. That takes the traditional question-and-answer piece to a new level. We can share public documents that add context to an issue.

Slide 9

These are important things to keep in mind.

Slide 10

Figuring that out was one of the goals of the research we’ve been doing with the Reynolds Journalism Institute for the past year or so.

Slide 11

We’re grateful to the Sikeston Standard-Democrat, the Branson Tri-Lakes News and the St. Joseph News-Press for agreeing to participate in some research.

Slide 13

I’m happy to report that all three newspapers significantly increased the amount of election reporting they did, and that they experimented with things they haven’t done before.

Slide 14

As you can see here, there was a tremendous increase in the amount of election coverage each newspaper did from 2013 to 2014. Each of these newspapers also experimented with types of coverage that they hadn’t done before.

Sikeston did some TV style video interviews with folks to discuss a $32 million school bond issue, then posted them on its website and on its Facebook page. The Standard-Democrat more than doubled its volume of election coverage. Branson did somewhere around 20 stories on its April elections in 2013. It jumped to nearly 50 this year, and it did some in-depth coverage on the proposed extension of a tourism tax. St. Joe wrote 17 stories related to the municipal election in 2013, and 74 this year. (None of these count stories about the results of the election.) It’s true that St. Joe had no city council elections in 2013, but even when you look back four years ago — the last council election — it did about 30 municipal election stories. So they did way more than double the coverage they normally do. They also did some cool stuff with video and with voters guide grids that we’ll talk about later, and they did some extensive coverage of a proposed smoking ban.

Slide 15

Here’s the depressing part. I can’t stand up here and tell you that we moved the needle on the public’s reported impressions of the coverage. In fact, in the 2014 survey, despite the big increases in election-related coverage, most of the quality ratings we asked about stayed about the same or went down a bit. We’re still trying to figure that out. One theory is that we put some of our survey respondents on alert when we asked them the first time around if they would be interested in participating in a follow-up survey. About 500 folks participated in both surveys. But even when you separate them out, ratings didn’t change or slipped down a little. Maybe folks were just in a bad mood the second time around.

Slide 18

These are the 2013 survey numbers. There were no significant differences in the 2014 survey. The order of these value rankings was identical, although all the ratings went down a tad. Again, we’re still trying to figure that out. It’s interesting that school board elections stand out as more important to folks than town council or board elections. And look how high bond issues and tax proposals score.

Slide 19

Conversations with other people actually edged out newspapers as the most valuable source of election information in the 2014 survey. Given our finding that attention to newspaper election journalism actually prompts people to talk more about elections, that’s a pretty interesting and encouraging finding.

Also, please note how people are rating information that comes directly from candidates through websites, newspaper ads, social media and direct mail. By and large, respondents ranked those sources of information much lower than news reports. I would argue that one reason newspaper ads don’t do too well is that they seldom convey any meaningful information.

Slide 20

The folks in our survey reported that they are less interested in personality profiles, photographs of candidates and stories about campaign fundraising. I would submit that is largely because they don’t see a lot of those things done well. I’m a fan of all those things, and I can say anecdotally that we get a lot of good feedback on the profiles and photography we do on candidates at the Missourian. Perhaps most important, though, is that people say they crave in-depth explorations of issues, not simply reports of what candidates are saying. They want us to dig deeper, to provide context, to check the accuracy of the assertions candidates make. I don’t think any of us are doing that nearly as well as we could. Two things, I think, contribute to the relative lack of interest in campaign finance stories. First, there’s not a whole lot of that going on in many small communities. Two, the campaign finance reporting that is done too often stops at simply telling people how much money a candidate or a committee has. We do more to help a voter make a decision when we talk to people about why they’re contributing to campaigns.

Slide 21

It’s somewhat baffling that every one of these types of election information were rated less important in 2014 than in 2013.

Still, the trends remain the same in terms of people’s preferences for hard news about ballot issues and candidates stances on issues. One thing to note is the level of importance that people place on reporting that explores the accuracy of candidates’ statements and the quality or feasibility of their proposed solutions to community problems. This is one thing we don’t do nearly enough. Too often we’re content to cover forums or to let people offer their stances in Q&A pieces without taking the next step to provide the kind of context that would help a reader decide whether a candidate’s position — or an argument for a ballot issue — is a good one.

The folks in our survey reported that they are less interested in personality profiles, photographs of candidates and stories about campaign fundraising. I would submit that is largely because they don’t see a lot of those things done well. I’m a fan of all those things, and I can say anecdotally that we get a lot of good feedback on the profiles and photography we do on candidates at the Missourian.

Two things, I think, contribute to the relative lack of interest in campaign finance stories. First, there’s not a whole lot of that going on in many small communities. Second, the campaign finance reporting that is done too often stops at simply telling people how much money a candidate or a committee has. We do more to help a voter make a decision when we talk to people about why they’re contributing to campaigns.

Slide 23

Again, we’re struggling to figure out why people were inclined to rank things so much lower in 2014 than in 2013, but for the most part the trends are the same. It’s worth noting that we were asking about a lot of things that we see little of in small newspapers: good documentary photography (hire an intern); online chats (we just don’t do them, and probably wouldn’t have any luck); charts and grids, databases.

Slide 26

Candidate Q&As are among the most efficient methods of covering campaigns, particularly at newspapers that lack the resources to go out and do in-depth reporting on every candidate who appears on the ballot. Some Q&As are quite effective; others not so much. The key is in the writing of the questions. The Q is the mother of the A. It also makes a big difference whether you’re asking the questions in person or allowing candidates to submit written answers. I would submit that the former strategy is best. When we hear candidates answer difficult questions out loud, in their own words, it reveals a lot more about them as thinkers and as people. The problem with written answers is that they’re stiff. We have no real assurance that the candidate is even the person who wrote them, and we know there’s a really good chance that they’ve run those answers by a campaign team for revisions, etc. That’s not really what we want.

We also have to get beyond the standard softball questions, like why are you running for this office: Because I want to give back to the community. We let school board members say they want to make sure that every child gets a quality education. Again, that’s not doing much to help a voter make a decision.

So, let’s look at some examples of Q&As.

Missourian: Here’s how we did this at the Missourian in the spring of 2013. We met with each of the candidates in person and asked nine standardized questions, each of them about a pressing issue, then we ran them as separate items online only. I wish we had created a separate landing page and packaged them altogether. Not sure why we didn’t do that.

How many of you have considered hosting your own candidate forums? We’ve done this at the Missourian a number of times, with the candidates for U.S. Senate and with local candidates. We’ve also worked with the Missouri Press Association on candidates for U.S. Senate, governor and attorney general. The advantages are that you are able to get the public involved in determining what questions should be asked. When we did the Senate race back in 2004, which was televised and broadcast live on radio, we conducted focus groups and worked with the League of Women Voters to come up with a list of questions. The candidates didn’t like it much, because they came prepared to give their standard spiels. The Democratic candidate had been campaigning primarily on a plaform of creating jobs, but none of the three focus groups we worked with identified jobs as a priority in the campaign. Perhaps that’s why she didn’t get elected.

Fact-checking: Depending on the issue or the assertion involved, these can be difficult — or relatively simple — to do. One thing I think we all could do a better job of is tracking City Council and school board members votes over time, so that when they’re up for re-election we can readily go back and inspect the record. If someone says an incumbent is anti-growth, for example, we could go back and look at their votes on development proposals, land-use questions and/or tax incentives. We don’t make a habit of doing that at the Missourian, but we should. Because going back and reviewing voting records over a three-year period becomes a monumental task.

There are times, however, when we can check the record fairly easily. Here’s an example from the 2010 campaign for the Third Ward council seat in Columbia.

Exploring issues: Too often when we’re covering elections we allow the candidates to offer a stance, but we do so with no context or follow-up. We might assume that the reader has all the necessary background to know whether a candidate’s position makes sense. Or, in the case of a bond issue or tax increase, we rely too much on the official sources — who nearly always support the proposal for more money — to tell us what’s what. Here are some examples of efforts to get beyond that. I-70 story by Matthew Patane.

Slide 27

We also ran these on our local government blog, The Watchword, as audio files. Let’s check those out. What do we like about this? Dislike about it? I really like hearing the candidates wrestle with the questions, but I sure wish we had at least a face we could look at. Voices coming out of the ether are a bit disconcerting. The good thing, though, is that this wasn’t difficult to do at all. It also guarantees to the candidate and the audience that we got it right.

Slide 28

We also tried a video version of this a couple years back. Let’s take a look. It was more effective, I think, because you could see and hear the candidate. It took a heckuva lot more work, though.

At Sikeston, they did a talk-show type video featuring the newspaper publisher, Mike Jensen, and representatives of the committee advocating the school bond issue.

In St. Joseph, they partnered with their television station to run video interviews of all the council candidates.

Slide 29

Slide 30

Campaign finance can be a tricky thing to do well. If you’re going to write narrative stories, the key is to get beyond how much money each candidate has and to actually talk to the people who are giving money to these campaigns. What do these folks like about the candidates? Are there particular issues that they think the candidate is in position to act on? This can help other folks decide whether that’s a person they would want to support as well.

By creating databases of campaign contributions, we can allow people to tell their own stories.

Slide 31

Fact-checking: Depending on the issue or the assertion involved, these can be difficult — or relatively simple — to do. One thing I think we all could do a better job of is tracking City Council and school board members votes over time, so that when they’re up for re-election we can readily go back and inspect the record. If someone says an incumbent is anti-growth, for example, we could go back and look at their votes on development proposals, land-use questions and/or tax incentives. We don’t make a habit of doing that at the Missourian, but we should. Because going back and reviewing voting records over a three-year period becomes a monumental task. There are times, however, when we can check the record fairly easily. Here’s an example from the 2010 campaign for the Third Ward council seat in Columbia.

Slide 32

Exploring issues: Too often when we’re covering elections we allow the candidates to offer a stance, but we do so with no context or follow-up. We might assume that the reader has all the necessary background to know whether a candidate’s position makes sense. Or, in the case of a bond issue or tax increase, we rely too much on the official sources — who nearly always support the proposal for more money — to tell us what’s what. Here are some examples of efforts to get beyond that during a debate about crime a few years ago among folks running for the Columbia City Council.

Slide 33

This is a fairly ambitious undertaking. The Branson Tri-Lakes News did an extended series on a proposed quarter-cent sales tax to consolidate 911 services. (Mindy Honey, managing editor). The series does a pretty good job of explaining what the issue is. As you can see from the headlines here, we get an explanation of the proposal, what would be taxed, the thoughts of a group opposed to the tax and a look at other counties that have done similar things. There’s also a controversy about having no ordinary citizens on the board that governs how the money is spent, and a piece that examines what it would be like if there were no 911 (although we don’t know how real that possibility is).

What can we say about the sourcing? What was done to test the assertion that this was necessary to improve response times? About how the $3.2 million would be spent? The series relies entirely on official sources, the director of the 911 center, and the folks on the committee promoting it. We can dig into public records to figure out whether what they’re saying is true.

Slide 34

Here’s an example of what the Missourian did with a similar proposal here in Boone County. It’s very similar in many ways. There’s a pretty heavy reliance on official sources, most in favor of the proposal. The opponents pretty much get one shot at telling readers how they feel (except for reporting on debates at candidate forums.) Might we have found people who were adversely affected by delays in 911 response? If not, that’s telling in and of itself.

The main differences in these packages:

  • Visiting the 911 center to describe conditions there.
  • Using public documents to shed more light on exactly what the proposals are and how the money would be spent
  • Offering more depth in arguments for and against the proposal

Slide 35

Endorsing candidates can be a difficult thing, particularly in a small town when you might risk offending a candidate who advertises with you or whom you know well. Hank Waters atthe Tribune probably has about the best track record in the state or even the country in endorsing candidates. He calls them like he sees them. He invites the candidates to come and chat with him about why they’re running, what their qualifications are and what they think about particular issues in the community. He’s able pretty quickly to size them up and to determine whether they know what they’re talking about. Sometimes Hank will lay out all the candidates qualifications and thoughts and declare them all good for the job. But he’s also not afraid to call someone out if he thinks they’re unfit for the job. The key is that the candidates feel like they got a fair shake.

Slide 36

We invest a lot of time and effort into candidate personality profiles at the Missourian. It’s our feeling that voters should know as much as possible about the backgrounds of the people who want to lead their communities. They’re also a lot of fun to read. Profiles, as we do them, generally tend to avoid rehashing candidates well-known stances on issues. These are more about who these folks are as human beings. It’s important that if you’re going to do these sorts of profiles that you — and the candidates — understand what it takes to do them well. These aren’t the kinds of stories you can do over the phone or by meeting a candidate for a half-hour interview. You need to spend time with the candidate as he or she is out campaigning. You need to talk to members of the public about their reactions to candidates at forums. You need to talk to friends, family, co-workers, people who have served with the candidate in other capacities. You need a heavy dose of description. You need to spend time with the candidate as his or her home, at his or her job, as he or she enjoys hobbies. If a candidate is an avid fisherman, go fishing with him. If she enjoys racquetball, go a round with her, or at least watch her play. We got a lot of blow back from Mr. Pauls while we were working on this profile. In the end, though, he was quite pleased with it.

These are my favorite kinds of campaign coverage, but there also the types of stories I seldom see. In my thesis research of 28 small newspapers in Missouri, I found no examples of personality profiles. I think that’s too bad. We get good feedback from readers and from candidates about these pieces. But again, you have to tell the candidates what they’re in for. Bill Pauls, in this example, became quite angry with us for a time because he couldn’t understand why we wanted to talk with his wife, or his daughters, why we wanted to watch him go door to door (his style was to run while doing so.) For a time, he refused any further cooperation, but he eventually relented. When he saw this piece, he paid a personal visit to our newsroom to apologize and to thank us for what he thought was a well-written and accurate story. At his campaign watch party, he singled Jacob Kirn out as the best journalist he’d ever had the opportunity to work with. That’s particularly interesting, given that Mr. Pauls didn’t win the election.

Slide 37

Voters guides might be one of the most useful things we can provide to our readers. If you do them correctly, they allow even those who don’t pay attention to the election until the last minute to get pretty well up to speed and to cast an informed vote. I’m particularly fond of the grid approach, which the St. Joseph News-Press pulled off very well, both in print and online. When we do these at the Missourian, we almost always have readers tell us that they took them to the polling place with them.

Slide 38

Here’s another approach.

Slide 39

Here’s another online approach to a voters’ guide that’s kind of cool. Each of these has its strengths and weaknesses.

Slide 40

Strategies for election day. Some papers, including the Tribune, conduct informal surveys at the polls and write mid-day stories telling people how it’s going. We decided several years ago at the Missourian that we weren’t going to do that anymore, but we do go out and engage voters in conversations about the races and issues they believe are most important. We use that to write a mid-day story and to feed material to reporters for use when they’re reporting results. We’ll also just run long series of comments from residents that can be very enlightening.

Planning for election night is important. Stories should be written well ahead of time. Graphics should be ready to go except for plugging in actual numbers. You need to know days ahead of time where the candidates will be so that reporters and photographers can map their strategies for going out and getting color for election parties. You need to be able to report results as they come in from the county clerk as quickly as possible. In this day and age, waiting until the next morning to tell people who won doesn’t make much sense.

Slide 41

Mapping election results precinct-by-precinct is a great way to let people tell their own stories about how the vote played out. In the old days, we would do this by hand. We’d get a thick stack of paper results from the county clerk and enter the numbers for every race, one precinct at a time, into an Excel spreadsheet, then print it out and paste it into the paper. What a nightmare. These days, with some advance work, we can get the results from the clerk in electronic format and publish them with a few clicks of the mouse. This version, I’ll admit, required a lot of advance coding work, and we haven’t had anyone at the Missourian since Mr. Canipe who can actually figure out how he did it. But even simple charts can go a long way beyond the totals to make the results more interesting.

Slide 42

Strategies for election day. Some papers, including the Tribune, conduct informal surveys at the polls and write mid-day stories telling people how it’s going. We decided several years ago at the Missourian that we weren’t going to do that anymore, but we do go out and engage voters in conversations about the races and issues they believe are most important. We use that to write a mid-day story and to feed material to reporters for use when they’re reporting results. We’ll also just run long series of comments from residents that can be very enlightening.

Planning for election night is important. Stories should be written well ahead of time. Graphics should be ready to go except for plugging in actual numbers. You need to know days ahead of time where the candidates will be so that reporters and photographers can map their strategies for going out and getting color for election parties. You need to be able to report results as they come in from the county clerk as quickly as possible. In this day and age, waiting until the next morning to tell people who won doesn’t make much sense.

Scott Swafford  
 
University fellow


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