Election Coverage, StateImpact Style

With the November elections quickly approaching, everyone wants in on the game. But before you roll up your sleeves and dig in, take a minute to consider your mission as a StateImpact reporter–to “report on how state issues and policy affect people’s lives.” To help iron out what that means in terms of election coverage, Chris Swope put together a little FAQ for you, below. We hope it is helpful.

Q: What’s the StateImpact mission when it comes to covering elections?

A: It’s the same as when we’re not covering elections. StateImpact explains the impact of state policy on people. Think of our election coverage as explaining the impact of the state policy choices before voters.

Q: Should I focus only on state-level races?

A: Generally speaking, yes. State and issue coverage is our niche — it’s how we’ll distinguish ourselves from all the political blather out there. Let’s be the go-to source on governors’ races in our states, key state legislative matchups, ballot measures and other state-specific issues related to our beats. Leave races for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and Obama v. Romney to others.

Q: Really, I should ignore Obama v. Romney?

A: For the most part, yes. Don’t worry — NPR and many, many others will do a fine job covering the presidential campaign. Use your aggregation tools to link to the best and most relevant stuff you see, but spend the bulk of your reporting time owning state-level stories relevant to your beat.

**An exception is that the education states might want to team up on an explainer on what the presidential candidates are saying about education–something that can be localized. Energy states and economy states might want to do something similar.

Q: But there’s this really great race for Congress in our state with two absolute crazy people running for office.

A: Leave it to aggregation.

Q: What about local races?

A: There’s more room to wiggle here if there are issues closely tied to your beats. For example, if you’re an education state and half the state’s school districts are voting on levies, that is worth exploring — there’s such a tight tie between the state and the local. You might find similar examples in the energy and economy states. But we’re not covering mayors’ races or council races just because they’re interesting — they need to tie in closely with the state-level issues we cover.

Q: Should we report on what public opinion polls say?

A: Our reporting energy is best spent on exploring the impact of the choices before voters, not speculating about who is going to win. Let others cover the horse race. We can link to it in our aggregation posts.

Q: With so much off the table, what’s left for us to cover?

A: In most of our states, there’s plenty to cover!

  • Oklahoma and New Hampshire have ballot measures related to economic issues.
  • Texas has an open spot on the railroad commission.
  • There are governors’ races in New Hampshire and Indiana.
  • Indiana’s state superintendent of education is up for reelection.
  • Ohio has state board of education races and some enormous school levies on the ballot.
  • All of our states have state legislative races. While it would be surprising if party control changes in any of our  8 states, these races might be wilder than usual this year because it’s the first election cycle since redistricting. States like Florida that have tight term limits on legislators are in a nearly constant state of turnover, with new House and Senate leadership coming almost every cycle.
  • All of our states have key issues that may ripple through the campaigns, whether it’s the impact of the anti-FCAT crowd in Florida or the aftermath of Issue 2 in Ohio or drilling controversies in Pennsylvania.

That said, if you’re finding that there’s really not much at stake for your issue at the state level this year, there’s no need to force more election stories than seems necessary. A lot depends on what’s going on in your state.

Q: How will we squeeze election coverage into all the other stuff we have going on?

A: Come up with a plan. Plot out a schedule of the key stories you know you want to do. Decide who will do them and when they will publish/air. And leave some wiggle room for follow-up stories or campaign twists you didn’t see coming.

Planning Your Election Coverage

In your planning, keep two things in mind. Do your topics pages first so that they can earn some love from the search engines (more on that below). And don’t forget that with early voting, a lot of voters are looking for information weeks before Election Day. Don’t leave all your best stuff until right before November 6. To the contrary, at least with your digital stories, the earlier they run the better.
Here’s when early voting begins in our states:

  • Idaho: September 21
  • Texas: October 22
  • Ohio: October 2
  • Indiana: October 9
  • Florida: October 27
  • Oklahoma: November 2
  • New Hampshire: No early voting
  • Pennsylvania: No early voting

Topic Pages are Crucial

Topic pages should be some of your best performers. So take time to build out topic pages that are relevant to what’s on the ballot in your state. And keep them updated to improve your Google rank.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Make topic page buildouts one of the first election-related tasks you do. These pages will be search magnets, so you want to get them live early. That way they’ll have some SEO mojo by the time voters start hitting Google.
  • Write with voters in mind. Remember that your main audience for these pages is going to be information-hungry voters who are Googling to educate themselves shortly before going out to make a choice. Make StateImpact the most useful place they find.
  • Pay special attention to the first 170 characters of your buildout. That’s the part that will show up in your Google results underneath your headline. Show voters that your content will help inform their vote. Hard ledes only here, no anecdotal ledes.
  • Some of your election topic pages may already exist. They just need to be retooled. This is most likely the case in the event of key people who are running for office. For example, Indiana already has a Tony Bennett topic page because he’s the state education superintendent. But as his reelection campaign heats up, the top of his topic page should be edited to reflect the coming election.
  • Some races may have more than one topic page associated with it. For example, if there are five serious candidates for the state Board of Education seat, you’ll likely want a topic page on each candidate. Plus a sixth on the Board of Education race as a whole. With a lot of cross-linking.

FYI: StateImpact Ohio’s three best-performing topic pages from the Issue 2 debate in 2011:

  • Issue 2 (headline: “A Guide to Ohio’s Issue 2, the Item Formerly Known as the SB 5 Referendum”)
  • SB 5 ( headline: “Ohio’s SB 5, Explained”)
  • November 2011 Election (headline: “November 2011 Election Results”)

SEO Tips

Remember that search is especially important when it comes to election coverage. Around mid-October, more and more people start reading up on the issues and try to figure out how to vote. This is when they turn to Google. So you want to make sure you have high-quality SEO-friendly posts and topic pages ready and indexed by the time they do.

  • As you’re writing headlines, imagine you are a voter trying to educate yourself on an issue. What search terms are you going to use?
  • If you’re writing about a ballot measure (i.e., Proposition 27), get that keyword in the headline
  • “Pros and cons” and “Arguments for and against” are good keywords if the post merits it.
  • One of StateImpact Ohio’s best-read posts from the Issue 2 debate in 2011 was called “The Pros and Cons of Ohio’s Issue 2 for Educators and Taxpayers”

Google Adwords

If you anticipate doing a lot of coverage around a specific issue, person or event, please let Jessica know ASAP so that she can look into purchasing Google AdWords (or key words) if possible.

Story Ideas, Angles and Devices:

Ballot initiatives
  • What would this ballot initiative do?  Ballot initiatives are perfect for straight-up explanatory reporting. They often relate to complex or niche issues that can be really difficult for the average voter to understand. They can be worded in confusing ways, sometimes deliberately so. Even the official descriptions from the secretary of state’s office can be confounding. StateImpact should be the clearest source of information voters can find anywhere on what ballot initiatives related to our issues would do.
  • What did this ballot initiative do in another state? A lot of ballot measures are like viruses that spread from state to state. It’s worth looking at whether an initiative before voters in your state has come up in another state before and looking at how it worked out there.
  • Who is pushing/financing this ballot initiative? Many of those ballot measures that spread like viruses are the pet issues of certain organizations or individuals. It’s always worth figuring out who gathered the signatures to get an issue on the ballot, how they’re financed and whether it’s part of a state-by state campaign. (Here’s a Stateline example from 2010.)
The candidates
  • Candidate profiles: Take an education/economy/energy- specific view of candidates for key offices. What are they proposing? Where did they get the ideas from? Is there something in particular about this issue that motivates the candidate?
  • Getting key candidates on the record: Candidates for governor, certain statewide offices, legislative leadership or certain committee chairs should have something to say about education / the economy / energy for specifics. While you obviously can’t be an advocate for any particular point of view, you can and should be an advocate for these issues being part of the debate. Your stations picked these issues because they’re important in your state. Get candidates on the record.
Legislatures

One way to think of the legislative elections is as a way to get familiar with the people and issues that will drive discussion in 2013.

  • Legislative leadership: Even if your legislature isn’t due for a party switch, key posts may be up for grabs: Speaker, majority leader, key committee chairs on education, energy or business issues. Be on the lookout for rising stars. These are the folks who will shape the legislative agenda in 2013, so let’s meet them now and get familiar with their agendas.
  • The mood of the legislature: Even if party control stays the same, the makeup of the dominant party may change. Is the Tea Party ascendant among Republicans in your legislature, and what would that mean when the legislature convenes? Is labor’s influence rising or declining among Democrats and what does that mean? Any other factions on the rise or fall?
The issues
  • Road-testing campaign ideas: Almost any idea you hear discussed on the campaign trail this fall will be a re-hash of something that’s been tried elsewhere, or possibly even within your own state. Look to history and look outside your state’s borders to see how it turned out.
  • Topic page agenda-setting: Look at your traffic analytics. What are your most popular topics? How are those topics playing on the campaign trail?
Campaign finance & other forms of influence
  • Out-of-state money: When a state election attracts a lot of out-of-state money, there’s usually a good story to tell. Here’s a good example of one Kyle Stokes has already told about Indiana State Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett.
  • Ad Watch: Is there an ad related to education/economy/energy on the air? Embed it in a post and fact-check the claims it makes.
  • For campaign finance resources and tips, watch this space or send Jessica an email and she’ll be happy to pass along some tips and tools.

Events

Elections are perfect fodder for live events, whether it’s something formal like a panel discussion or as informal as a ‘policy in a pint’ discussion along the lines of what our colleagues in Oklahoma and Texas have been doing.

  • Convening a debate: Consider inviting candidates to debate matters related to your issues, either live or online.
  • What did it all mean? Two days after an election (i.e., Thursday November 8) is a good time to host a panel of experts to discuss what the election results mean. People are always hungry for this kind of analysis after an election and StateImpact is well positioned to convene the discussion.

For Further Information and Inspiration: the 2012 Election Reading List

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