Hyperlocal news sites stay away from election endorsements

It’s election primary season in the United States, and I’ve noticed a traditional element of newspaper election coverage missing from the hyperlocal news websites I follow.


My first full-time job in newspapers was writing editorials, so I’ve spent a fair number of days interviewing local politicians who shuffled through our offices in pursuit of an endorsement. We told ourselves that our endorsements helped educate local voters and led to more enlightened decisions at the ballot box.

I soon learned that the folks in the newsroom didn’t always share that view. (/understatement)

So I decided to email many of the editors I know who are running independent local news websites, to see what their plans were, and what they thought about the tradition of news endorsements.

Not one of the editors replied that he or she was planning to endorse this election season. Not only that, I got a “No!”, a “NO” and an “absolutely not” among the responses, so some editors appeared to, uh, feel strongly that endorsements were a bad idea.

The most common reason I heard why local news websites wouldn’t endorse was that they could not. They had organized as non-profits, so they are barred from endorsing political candidates due to tax law. That point should help illustrate how decisions about business models affect editorial operations down the line. If you’re considering starting a news website, and making endorsements is important to you, then you’ll need to consider how important they are before thinking about taking the non-profit route.

Non-profit or for-profit, though, the editors I contacted were unanimous in opting out of endorsing.

“It is rather pompous of a news organization to try to tell people who they should vote for,” wrote Tracy Record of the West Seattle Blog. “What makes our opinion any more important than yours? Our job is to bring you information, not our opinion.”

Polly Kreisman of theLoop echoed that thought. “Why on Earth would a local publication that readers trust for news and curation of information put its own political opinions on the line? This is not the New York Times.”

The Sacramento Press‘ Ben Ifeld challenged the old editorial pages ideal that endorsements were an effective form of voter education.

“I’m also not convinced it is a good way to educate the public and engage them in healthy debate. I would much prefer covering everything we can and empowering our community to write editorials and have lively debate in person and on our site.”

While these start-up editors rejected the idea of endorsements, they were nearly unanimous in embracing a responsibility to help inform and engage potential voters in the weeks leading up to an election, with Oakland Local‘s Susan Mernit calling this role “critical.”

Tim Jackson of New River Voice and Lindsey Chester of Cary Citizen both cited question-and-answer features they ran as examples of how local sites can help educate voters without endorsing. Each publication sent candidates for an office identical questionnaires, and the sites ran the candidates’ responses online.

“We felt it gave everyone an equal chance to connect with our readers, and gave our readers a chance to compare and contrast the candidates’ styles in their own unedited words,” Chester wrote.

While I enjoyed my time interviewing candidates in the weeks leading up to our endorsements when I worked in print, I was often bothered that many of these races were for boards and councils the paper rarely covered otherwise. I felt like we were parachuting in every two to four years with a hastily reported endorsement (which was often colored by the editor’s personal partisanship). But with an entire metropolitan area to cover, and a limited amount of news hole each day, this was the reality of newsroom budgeting.

One of the great potential strengths of “hyperlocal” news sites is that they can give day-to-day attention to school boards and municipal councils the big metro papers notice only at election time. And every one of the editors I wrote was eager to talk about their local election-related reporting. But we can’t forget that many readers don’t read the news on a daily basis, as we do – whether that’s a big print metro or a hyperlocal website. They “parachute” into the news around election time just like so many editorial writers.

Endorsements were designed to provide an easily accessible way for part-time readers to catch up on what someone who supposedly is paying attention (and is allegedly neutral) has to say about various candidates. If we’re to leave endorsements behind, I think it’s important for hyperlocal publishers to find other features and tools that allow infrequent readers to get up to speed easily, as well. And to keep those links around in a prominent position. Don’t be afraid to repeat Tweets and Facebook page posts to draw attention to your voter guides, candidate Q&As and community forum schedules, either. This work is important, and publishers should be proud of telling people about it – as many times as it takes for them to notice.

But, as with anything you publish, always keep your community’s needs in mind. As important as it is to cover the news that drives election decisions, sometimes readers don’t need more political coverage. The Batavian‘s Howard Owens wrote to me about the backlash he felt from readers over his “saturation coverage” of a nationally-covered special election last May.

“In hindsight, it’s the worst mistake I’ve made as publisher of The Batavian,” he wrote. “Never again will I cover an election with such zeal, or anything approaching it. We received numerous complaints along the lines of ‘I want my old (The) Batavian back.’ Our site traffic fell by more than 30 percent. It took several weeks to get it back. The turnout for the election was abysmal, even in our county, which, in my estimation, had the best coverage available. People simply didn’t care about the election and were actively hostile to the over coverage of it.”

Tips and tools to innovate with during election night coverage

In our world, there is no better story that reflects the power and value of good journalism than an election.

Regardless of the medium, election stories can and should be as varied as investigative pieces, people profiles, contextual stories, and, because politicians are so colorful, stories of the weird.

Put these under an umbrella of breaking news and see us do our thing.

The midterm elections are just around the corner and they are more than promising a newsy season. By now many of us have established a general plan for election night coverage.

But to help foster innovation and advancement in journalism, last’s week #wjchat, a weekly chat about Web journalism held through Twitter, had its first Elex Exchange where we shared ideas and tools to help with this year’s coverage.

Inspired by the chat (transcript), here’s a list showing how to take advantage of the latest technology to make election coverage more powerful and dynamic:

TWITTER // reporting + distribution
It’s a basic tool that should be part of your daily journalism routine, but Twitter is still best tool for covering a real-time news event, especially when covering breaking news or an election.

As written before, Twitter is the tool to help you find sources and trends in real-time. Either by zip code or by topics/keywords, make sure you are using and monitoring Twitter throughout the election. Use a Twitter-client like TweetDeck with predetermine searches that you occasionally check on.

The next basic minimum is to have a Twitter feed on your homepage specifically for the election coverage. No programming is required to create this widget, you just need to decide whether you want public tweets with a hashtag or you want to create a list of the accounts that will appear in the feed.

Either way, Twitter has got you covered with their ‘goodies.’ Make sure you take the time to customize the colors to have it match your site design.

If you haven’t yet, check to see if a hashtag or hashtags relating to your local races have been created by the community. If no one has, create them now. If someone beat you to it, don’t worry and embrace them – but either way start using them NOW!

This simple act gives you a head start in becoming the lead authority on these races, in social media and beyond.

Take a page from the Pulitzer Prize winners for Breaking News, seattletimes.com, and get in the habit of creating and using hashtags when covering all types of news.

FOURSQUARE // geolocation + distribution
This election season, news outlets should create ‘check-in’ places for polling locations in their town. The geolocation community is small but growing and will be checking in as they go to vote. Like a hashtag, if you don’t create a location, they will.

Become the leader in coverage by not only creating the locations but add a tip (Ex. Tip links to LAT story about Venice Beach fight) that links back to your site’s live, active, up-to-date election coverage.

Remember, by having these locations, you can also find potential sources as they check in to the venues.

USTREAM // live streaming
Who says TV broadcast gets to have all the fun with their live coverage. Okay, it may not be your idea of fun, but live streaming is a tool more newsrooms need to embrace. No expensive satellites required, services like Ustream allow you to do a live shot from your newsroom with a laptop and camera or from your smart phone.

Stream the candidates’ celebratory or concession speech election night live straight onto your homepage. It’s easy and it should be another standard tool in your journalistic toolbox.

CROWDMAP // crowdsource reporting + mapping
This tool comes from Sarah Day Owen, #wjchat colleague and Augusta Chronicle‘s Social Media Editor, who heard about it from the new hyperlocal site TDB in Washington D.C. She is hoping to experiment with this tool that takes crowdsourced information from cell phones, news and the web and maps them.

This application, originally built to crowdsource crisis information, begs to be used by news outlets, especially for something like election coverage. It’s free and pretty simple to setup – so you still have time to pull this off. Even if you don’t get participation from the community, get your reporters to file dispatches.

STICKYBITS // social media + user-generated content
I recently wrote about this tool and want news organizations to experiment with it, so here’s a second pitch.

Like Twitter’s hashtag or FourSquares’s digital makers, create your own barcode and literally post it at as many polling places in your town, asking a question (Ex.: What do you hope comes out of this election?) and a note encouraging them to download the stickybits app and upload their responses. See if you get people in your community adding election related “bits” — video, text, photos, audio, etc. — to your barcode.

IMAPFLICKR // user-generated photos + geolocation
Okay, getting the community to download an app to scan a barcode then post a message is a sizable hurdle (I know, but try it anyway!) Here is a simpler tool that takes a Flickr feed and maps it.

In other words, you can open up a Flickr account and have people submit photos from polling places and get them mapped. Like the Twitter feed, no programming is required and the biggest decision you have to make is whether or not you make this a public or staff driven feed.

PHOTOSYNTH // photo + crowdsourcing + magic
This tool, originally created by the University of Washington before it was purchased by Microsoft, is something I’ve been trying to push into newsrooms’ toolboxes for years. It finally made its mainstream debut with CNN’s “The Moment” in 2008, but hasn’t been used much in news since.

It may not work perfectly in this scenario, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it. PhotoSynth takes a collection of photos — from different contributors — of one location and “stitches” them together to create a virtual experiment.

Let’s say we’re at a candidate’s headquarters for the party: take a ton if photos of the scene, throw them into this program and post an experience like no other. It’s more powerful if you crowdsourced the images.

STORIFY // social media + curating (Invitation required)
The great thing about Twitter and other social media networks is the real-time stream of content that flows out of them, often like a fire hose of information. The bad thing about these tools is the content can get drowned out rather quickly. Storify, whose creator we profiled recently, is a tool that let’s you build a story through social media elements, adding context and comments around elements from Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and more.

You create an article on their site, but you embed the created piece on your site. It’s in beta and there are a few limitations, but if you want to tell the story of how the election night was covered through social media, this is the tool to use.

Do you have a tool you plan to use? Have you experimented with these? What examples of great election coverage have you seen? Make sure you add your thoughts and experiences in the comments, before and after the election.

Robert Hernandez is a Web Journalism professor at USC Annenberg and co-creator of #wjchat, a weekly chat for Web Journalists held on Twitter. You can contact him by e-mail ([email protected]) or through Twitter (@webjournalist). Yes, he’s a tech/journo geek.

Training key to helping journalists become comfortable with Web 2.0

Mike Noe is the editor of the Rocky Mountain News’ website.

When Denver hosted the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1908, American Indians were still referred to as “wild” by famed Rocky Mountain News journalist Damon Runyon. Delegates were entertained by snow hauled in from the nearby mountains. And the Rocky chronicled the convention in a broadsheet format. It would be three more decades before Colorado’s first newspaper would take a chance on publishing in the tabloid format that its readers still embrace today.

To say the least, 2008 was a far cry from that 1908 DNC. A staff of 150 field journalists covered this year’s convention 24 hours a day for five straight days, posting vignettes, photos and video to RockyMountainNews.com. So much content poured into the site at once that we used two scrolling windows on the home page to channel the flow of information. A nurse at a local hospital told me she was glued to the site throughout the week, checking back whenever she could to see the latest updates on protests, celebrities and the delegates.

Planning for the convention started well before January. We purchased LG VX9900 for several reporters so they would be able to shoot photos and video for the Web site. Early in the year, we contacted other newspapers within the Scripps chain about using reporters, photographers and videographers for the event. And the editor made it clear that the Web was the newsroom’s first priority.

Judging from the 2004 conventions, we knew protests and demonstrations could play a significant role in our coverage. Editors began planning to station journalists and photographers throughout downtown Denver to cover any disruptions and immediately post the information on the site.

We knew we couldn’t use our traditional workflow of channeling content through our print system. Even e-mail would be clunky with most of our team limited to tapping out messages on their mobile phones. We decided on Twitter. It had gained recent fame in Sichuan earthquake as a news gathering tool. And it integrated nicely with our new online content management system.

In late Spring, reporters began practicing with filing short, headline-formatted new items to RockyMountainNews.com. Training sessions took about an hour and most picked up the new format quickly. By the time the convention rolled around, everyone in the newsroom – including editors and the copy desk – had been trained. We combined each person’s RSS feed into three main RSS feeds that fed the following categories – official events, parties and celebrites, and protests. Users were then able to follow the updates through scrolling windows on RockyMountainNews.com, or on their own mobile phones using their personal Twitter accounts.

For more substantive news accounts, we trained our staff to file directly into the Ellington system using laptops with air cards. Once the reports were on the site, a team of copy editors in the newsroom cleaned up any typos or problems.

We applied the same concept to photos and video with Flickr. Reporters and photographers sent images and video into accounts specifically set up for the DNC. Then a team of editors would review the images or video and place them with the appropriate story. The concept worked well when police surrounded several hundred protestors outside the Rocky’s downtown office. Within five minutes, reporters, Web producers and copy editors had posted several photos of the confrontation.

We also set up a page where users could submit DNC-related photos or video of protests, celebrities or themselves directly onto the site. A warning noted that the feeds were unedited.

You can see examples of what we did on the following pages:

Twitter archives:

Live coverage:

Flickr photos:


Special wrap-up video produced by the Rocky and Media Storm:

Some key things we learned from our convention coverage:

  • Keep it simple: With the Web taking center focus, the temptation for some editors was to create Web categories for every topic we covered. The problem is that you can create a maze of content silos that a user will ignore. Most of our users visited the home page, multimedia page and individual story pages.
  • Train, practice and train again: Our first attempts at Twitter were rough. One example was when we sent a reporter to a campaign fund raiser with the instructions “Tell us what is going on.” That was about the extent of her instructions. She wasn’t allowed into the actual event so she was stuck in a hotel lobby. In addition to the candidates and political players coming in and out of the building, we received reports on a custodian cleaning floors, what delivery people were bringing in, etc. Our follow-up instructions included cheat sheets with examples of what we were looking for – details they would report in the paper, nice, tight sentences, constant updates.
  • Also make sure your staff is comfortable with the technology you’re using. We picked events leading up to the convention to get them used to the phones, cameras or laptops they would be using. You want technology to be second-nature when the big event begins.