Jim Pumarlo will outline strategies during RJI's "Down-home Democracy" workshop. He and 15 other speakers will equip participants with practical tools that will help them take their reporting on local elections to new levels. Workshop topics include the following: covering election night, handling election-related letters to the editor, doing deep background checks on candidates for local office and mining online campaign finance reports.

Jim PumarloElection season is upon us, and people are announcing their candidacies. Some simply show up at the office. Others forward a press release. The more polished candidates might stage a formal event.

No matter the circumstances, newspapers must be prepared to introduce candidates to their staffs and their readers. Newspapers play an important role in helping the electorate form initial impressions of candidates.

Newsrooms must present election information in a clear and meaningful manner — from the initial announcements to candidate profiles and the continuum of coverage in between. Here’s a checklist newsrooms can use as they map coverage of candidates:

Know the issues

Identify key issues in the campaign before you interview candidates. Convene a newsroom brainstorming session and review coverage of the governing body for which a candidate is seeking office.

Prepare the questions

Preparing a list of core questions should be almost second nature if your newspaper regularly reports on public affairs. Quiz employees in other departments and ask people in the community what issues they think the candidates should address. Try to think of questions beyond those usually asked at candidate forums.

Cross-examine candidates

Among the greatest challenges is to have candidates speak to issues in their own words, minus the political jargon. Don’t accept simple yes/no responses, and don’t be afraid to have them elaborate if answers are incomplete.

Assign reporters to specific races: It’s ideal when editors can assign reporters to races where they are most familiar with the issues. At least try to have the same reporter interview and cover the campaigns for all candidates in a specific race. Candidates and readers alike will understand who is covering what as campaigns progress.

Decide on format for profiles

Different reporters have different writing styles, but information should be presented in a consistent format. One avenue is to write profiles that give readers insight into what makes candidates tick and identify their priorities. Standard Q&As and biographies can make good sidebars. Always include a photo.

Written questionnaires

Limited resources mean some candidate interviews will be handled as written questions and answers. This requires careful attention, as there is no opportunity for follow-up questions. If questions can be answered by simply “yes” or “no,” be sure to have candidates explain “why.” Set and enforce word limits for answers and edit consistently.

Prep your advertising department

Familiarize your advertising department on the candidates and the issues. Candidates should be introduced to both departments, but take care to maintain separation between news coverage and advertising campaigns.

Provide candidates with a written election primer

What are the guidelines and deadlines for letters to the editor? Will the newspaper endorse candidates?  Will a Voter Guide be published, allowing opportunity for additional news coverage and advertising? These types of questions are also excellent fodder for explanatory columns by the editor or publisher during election season.

Fairness and consistency are the trademarks of election campaign coverage, and that begins with a plan. A solid launch with all candidates will pay all-around dividends.

Jim Pumarlo of Community Newspaper Success Strategies will be the keynote speaker at “Down-home Democracy: Empowering Citizens With Outstanding Coverage of Local Elections,” a workshop scheduled for Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2014, at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. For information about the workshop and how to register, visit rjionline.org/downhome. 

Jim Pumarlo  
Guest blogger


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