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Election Lessons

November 21, 2018

This time around, we were determined to do a better job on our election coverage. Two years ago, it was pretty pathetic.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

This time around, we were determined to do a better job on our election coverage. Two years ago, it was pretty pathetic.

So we had a plan. We outlined a set of stories for results in key races, with our reporter attending the victory party or the wake.

In addition, we sketched out a set of regional roundups from the Northeast, Southeast, South, Southwest, Midwest and California.

We included on-the-street interviews in the morning by reporters who were writing in the afternoon and into the evening as results flowed into public view.

We had a plan. But elections, we came to realize, are huge national beasts that are moving and morphing in crazy ways all through the day.

In the early afternoon on the West Coast, I realized we had almost no coverage other than the results. So we had nothing on the page while the neck-and-neck races were being called.

Instead, our feature about a habeas corpus action on behalf of an elephant in the Bronx Zoo dominated the page. Our reporters were sticking to their instructions and waiting for election results.

So we scrambled to get current stories on the page, a congressional race in Virginia that had flipped blue, another in Florida, a story on the reaction of voters from all around the country.

And we accelerated the stories where reporters had been waiting on final results and instead put provisional results of individual races onto the Courthouse News page.

And then the planned stories finally started coming into the editors.

By midnight in California, our page reflected the strength of Courthouse News on the ground, with reporters in every major city of the United States.

Our page was loaded with election stories from New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Ohio, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and California.

But then there’s the day after, and, as we learned, the weeks after. Races are too close to call. Experts are pontificating on the results, regional trends are analyzed, candidates are filing lawsuits, upcoming strategy is being discussed by the victors.

And there too we didn’t have a plan.

So we improvised again, with, for example, a story on the congressional races in California that were in play, with commentary from a political science professor at Claremont-McKenna College.

“In California, you can’t really talk about a blue wave because it’s pretty darn blue to begin with,” said professor Jack Pitney. “But there is something important afoot and that is the political transition of Orange County.”

The author of the article, Matthew Renda, wrote that Orange County has long operated as the de facto capital for traditional conservatives in California – a bastion for the business-friendly establishment of the Republican party.

But a changing electorate was, as the prof said, “afoot.”

“Orange County is majority minority,” he continued. “Couple that with upper middle-class people’s defection to the Democratic Party and you see more Democratic victories.”

It was only through the attempt to wrestle the national beast of an election into a series of news stories that I came to a full realization of the national upheaval that accompanies a mass pilgrimage to polling stations.

It builds and builds as the big day approaches. Then it is upon us. And all that work and speechifying and money erupts into a day of lines, ballots, voting booths and stickers, where the people really are using their power – and feeling it.

The day then winds down to a comfortable evening in the living room watching the election results on TV, a drama playing out the story of our democracy, accompanied by dinner and a glass of wine.

But even then – it ain’t over. There is the long denouement.

So in our push to improve our election coverage, we learned some very good lessons for the next time around. We will prepare stories for the day of the vote, adapt to the results as they start to flow in, publish roundup reports in the evening and lay out a rough guide for post-election stories, with the knowledge that the plan will inevitably have to change on the fly.

We learned that the news in a national election is many stories in one great whole.

It is the month-long buildup. It is the individual stories that come into focus as the day progresses. It is all the regional roundups finally put to bed by the page editor as the clock swings past midnight. And then it is all the analysis and races too close to call in the weeks that follow.

And the sum of it all forms just a snapshot of the great and wondrous beast that is our American democracy.

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