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I had the pleasure several days ago at the annual conference of the Missouri Municipal League in Branson to talk about our effort at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute to encourage small community newspapers to beef up their coverage of local elections.

I wasn’t exactly sure how the message would fly in a room largely populated by elected officials, many from small towns with newspapers that struggle to cover elections well. Perhaps the relative silence of local media on elections would be viewed by these folks as a good thing. It’s no secret that candidates these days have many platforms from which to deliver their messages. Along with the traditional door-to-door campaigning, yard signs and direct mailings, they now have the web and social media to assist them. Perhaps they’d let me know they don’t need no stinkin’ newspaper getting in the way.

As it turns out, a lot of the folks in the room shared my frustration about the lack of strong election reporting. They’re actually looking for ways to get their newspapers to pay more attention and to help them engage their constituents in meaningful debates. Most in the room indicated their newspapers don’t give them adequate attention. Several said they got a one-shot Q&A with the local paper, and that was it. The questions, they said, were shallow and offered little opportunity to truly speak to substantive issues.

Heads were nodding as I described the research I did for my master’s degree, in which I found that most small newspapers in Missouri are failing their readers when it comes to reporting on elections for city and town councils, school boards and ballot issues. Although it’s true that smaller newspapers are eschewing the horserace and strategy frames that dominate big media’s coverage of federal elections, it’s also true that they’re providing very little coverage at all.

That’s too bad, because recent research by Ken Fleming of the RJI Insight and Survey Center shows that newspapers remain the primary source of local news in smaller towns and that community newspapers have very impressive levels of audience penetration.

Our goal at RJI is to inspire small newspapers to give local elections the attention they need. Right now, we’re in the planning stages of a workshop that will be held here at RJI the weekend of Jan. 31-Feb. 2. We’ll be specifically targeting editors and reporters from small newspapers in Missouri, and perhaps from surrounding states. Although the schedule is still taking shape, we’re hoping to assemble a slate of expert speakers and presenters who can not only inspire these journalists to embrace election reporting but also give them the tools and the strategies to do it. We’ll also be conducting research to determine whether improvements in election coverage produce any changes in readers’ and voters’ behaviors and whether it’s potentially profitable for a newspaper.

Elections arguably offer small newspapers their best opportunity to contribute to the local democracy, to engage citizens and to build social capital. As it stands, it seems that candidates for local office recognize that more than some journalists do.

Scott Swafford  
University fellow


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