E.W. Scripps Spins Up Voter Resources To Counter Election Complexities
Coming into 2020, news providers presumed the presidential election would be a contentious, wild affair, pockmarked by fighting words from starkly divided political parties, its integrity threatened by misinformation campaigns from abroad. Throw in a dash of pandemic social distancing that raises questions about the voting procedures for millions, and you have a truly confounding elixir of chaos, fitting for this extraordinarily turbulent year in our history.
The E.W. Scripps Co. has worked to mitigate the impact of this instability on its viewers by empowering them with important election data, found on recently developed voter resource pages. Featured on newsroom websites across Scripps’ 42 markets, page visitors can easily uncover key voter deadline dates and locally mandated voting rules and instructions. They can also watch and read a locally curated slate of Scripps-produced election stories.
The voter resource pages are the brainchild of Scripps’ VP of News Sean McLaughlin, who says their production partly came in response to the fluidity of the COVID-19 crisis, which at times generated understandable uncertainty about the situation on the part of viewers. He observed that the pandemic was also cultivating confusion about voting in this year’s presidential election.
“By mailing in my ballot, is the [delivery] deadline Election Day? Does it have to be at the post office by Election Day? What if it doesn’t make it? What are the key things that cause ballots to get thrown out?” McLaughlin says, providing examples of some questions Scripps newsrooms received from consumers, which varied by market because voting laws differ in each state. “So we got our broadcast and our digital teams united around educating people on just the actual act of voting, which [is] normally not that complex. This year [it’s] a little bit different.”
One thing the pandemic taught the Scripps news division is that they have to “move quickly on things,” McLaughlin says, now more than ever. When McLaughlin saw that many of the company’s consumers had concerns over how and when to vote this year, and with deadlines fast approaching, he spoke to higher-up executives about launching the election-dedicated pages.
The initiative was approved, and within 10 days of his meeting with Scripps brass, the voter resource pages began appearing on newsroom websites. An internal development team generated a user-friendly template, allowing staffers in each market to plug in the localized data with ease. They also upload election stories from within their own newsroom, as well as those produced by the company’s national reporters.
“There were certain things we required to be there,” McLaughlin says, including registration deadlines and other notable dates. “We [also] told stations that starting from late September up until the election that they should be producing a couple of stories a week related to what’s different about voting, how things are going.”
Those stories can be found on the voter resource pages as well. The uniformity and simplicity of the pages’ template aids in keeping Scripps news teams focused on news developments within their market.
“If we send them templates for projects like this that entails a bunch of work, it’s counterproductive,” McLaughlin says. He feels the sites are a prime example of how to effectively use central resources, making things easy for 42 markets, while having an outsized impact.
The pages’ content managers can also pull from the library of stories produced by the Scripps-owned Newsy, including its current Vote Smarter 2020 series. A collection of videos that run only about a minute each, the clips directly address common questions in the electorate.
Scripps acquired Newsy in 2014, and this year the brand is helping to ensure the company provides more widespread election coverage than ever before, according to Christina Hartman, Newsy’s VP of news and programming.
“No one thinks that [news] can be covered completely from a studio, and yet on Election Night, particularly at the national level, that is what a lot of folks do,” Hartman says. “In addition to our comprehensive focus on the vote, voters, voting resources, one of the big things that I think will be a hallmark for all of Scripps is that we will have more people in more places.”
McLaughlin says about a half-dozen Scripps stations have also partnered with ProPublica to produce content focused on the vote, while others are working with organizations like the League of Women Voters. All this coverage of an election, widely believed to be the most consequential such event of our time, can only serve to help boost Scripps’ consumer credibility — which the company says is already very strong — and brand awareness.In an election year when voting has never been more important — or more complex — E.W. Scripps has rolled out voter resource pages across its 42 markets aggregating local deadlines, rules and instructions, along with drawing from a… Click To Tweet
But there are even more vital rewards than ratings when it comes to keeping the electorate informed.
“At the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do,” McLaughlin says. “I know that sounds cheesy, but this is a mission-driven business and company, and that whole idea of making things better, we take that seriously.
“If what we’re doing is the right thing and it happens to resonate to a point where people are consuming our products at higher levels,” he continues, “obviously that makes good business sense. But in all honesty, these are things we’d do even without that.”
Editor’s Note: This is the latest of TVNewsCheck’s “Newsroom Innovators” profiles, a series showcasing people and news organizations evolving the shape and substance of video reporting. These profiles will examine the inception of their innovations, the tools they employ and how they’re reconciling experimental approaches to news storytelling within daily workflows. You can find the others here.