Local news operations are busy preparing for an active election season this fall. Station groups say the nature of their political coverage this season will be markedly different, as they heighten their commitment to probing candidates’ claims versus being just an outlet for press conferences and talking points. Plus, there will be increased use of digital and social media. This is the first of a three-part specai report on election coverage. Part 2 on election night coverage will appear tomorrow and part 3 on Thursday will examine the tools stations will deploy to create an edge with their election graphics.
For a growing number of TV station newsrooms, election season will be more than election night with fancy voting graphics, talking heads and remotes from hotel ballrooms, say local TV news executives and observers.
Debates, roundtables, aggressive campaign beat reporting and political fact-checking will be more prevalent on-air between Labor Day and Election Day than they have in the past, they say.
“This is going to be out of control,” says Tim Busch, COO of Nexstar Broadcasters, who is pledging robust election coverage from his Dallas-based group.
Station groups will also be populating the digital world with election-related content, testing the power of platforms like You Tube and Twitter to both enhance and supplement on-air coverage.
“We have only ‘x’ amount of news time — that’s reality,” says Gannett’s SVP of News Rob Mennie. “So as we go forward we are working together as a company on taking this to a different place where we can go into greater depth and cover more races in the social and digital world.”
It’s particularly notable that the activity is occurring in a mid-term election year, since local TV has traditionally paid little attention to non-presidential politics long considered “dull and boring to a lot of stations,” says RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender.
Cavender says he’s not surprised that local broadcasters are ramping things up considering they are serving a progressively more disgruntled electorate.
“Stations read that as a heightened interest in how the November mid-term elections turn out,” he says. “So they are going to make them increasingly important.”
Local broadcasters say the nature of their political coverage this season will be markedly different, too, as they heighten their commitment to probing candidates’ claims versus being an outlet for press conferences and talking points — and hopefully hook viewers by doing so.
“The role of journalists in terms of sorting truth from half truth or lack of truth is becoming more critical,” says Hearst Television’s VP of News Candy Altman. “There is so much out there now, that trying to find trusted sources for reality is really important.”
John Altenbern, president of the research and consulting firm CJ&N, says stations are recognizing the importance of playing that role and that it is well worth investing the time and resources it takes to secure it.
“You want to be the source of facts and fairness while everyone else is just repeating talking points,” he says. “There’s a lot more heat than light in most campaigns these days, and we find viewers and online users wanting someone to sort it out for them. Local television news is still seen as being less partisan than many other news sources, and we think local stations should be leveraging that advantage.”
For Hearst, that includes hosting at least 63 debates by the time Election Day rolls around on Nov. 4, Altman says. Stations will also air stories produced by PolitiFact, which they’ve done in the past, as well as do their own dissections of political ads and candidates’ statements.
In Washington, NBC-owned WRC is partnering with such organizations as Marist College, the University of Maryland, the local public stations and C-SPAN to do polling and host debates covering electioneering in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, says Assistant News Director Matt Glassman. The O&O will follow up those broadcasts with Google Hangouts during which viewers can ask questions.
Another NBC-owned station, WVIT Hartford, Conn., has launched a half-hour Sunday morning political show, Decision 2014, that will continue to air weekly before Meet the Press through Nov. 2.
Fox’s WJZY Charlotte, N.C., is embedding two reporters, one with each senatorial candidate’s campaign, starting after Labor Day.
Chicago CBS O&O WBBM will “throw the kitchen sink” at covering the Illinois governor’s race, says News Director Jeff Kiernan. The station is committed to the “blood sport” of local politics “whether you have a campaign underway or not,” he says.
Gannett will put the stations that it acquired from Belo to work during the campaign. All 10 of the group’s Texas stations reaching 83% of the state’s voters will carry a gubernatorial candidates’ debate being hosted by ABC affiliate WFAA Dallas.
In Louisiana, CBS affiliate WWL will host a debate between U.S. Senate candidates in partnership with Gannett’s five newspapers in the state.
Nexstar’s Busch says the group will be pooling resources to cover highly contested races in states including Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Arkansas.
Fox O&O KSAZ Phoenix is using its You Tube page to showcase some offbeat political reporting. Earlier this month, for instance, it showed six candidates in the gubernatorial primary pictures that captured Arizona issues – Gov. Jan Brewer wagging her finger at President Obama was one of them — and waited for their reactions.
Gannett’s NBC affiliate KSDK St. Louis couldn’t get candidates for St. Louis County Executive to debate on-air before the primary earlier this month. So, the station asked contenders individually to answer questions and posted their video answers online.
Gannett affiliates are also using the Web to air roundtable discussions among candidates vying for smaller scale positions — seats on county commissions and the like, says Mennie. The group may host Twitter-based debates if they can get candidates onboard.
Hearst’s “In Their Own Words” initiative offers candidates the opportunity to address constituents directly in a two-minute online video, although answering questions submitted by affiliates is part of the deal, too.
None of which, news execs say, is as easy to pull off as it might have been back in the day when candidates could make “a mistake locally and not everybody saw it,” Altman says.
“Getting any kind of spontaneous moment now is difficult,” Altman says. “Everything is so programmed now. Candidates need to stay on message because they know that one gaffe up on YouTube can be a campaign killer.”
Hearst has tried to make its debates more attractive to candidates by partnering with other organizations like the Louisville, Ky., chapter of the League of Women Voters and Maryland Public Television.
While looking to increase political coverage, broadcasters will also be careful not to overdo it.
“You need to be careful about candidate overload for the viewers,” says Nexstar Local Content Director Jerry Walsh. Which is why his stations always decide what to cover “rather than the candidates telling the viewers what’s important.
“If it doesn’t have a local tieback, there’s no reason to run it.”