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Are you ready for 2018 elections?

pumarlo_jim_mug_1_circleby Jim Pumarlo
Newsroom Writing Trainer

The year is winding down, and it’s time to start planning your editorial calendars for 2018 – including plotting coverage for 2018 elections. I can hear the reactions in newsrooms, “Another election, already? The cycles are neverending.”

The grind of election coverage is the strongest incentive for a brainstorming session now. Early planning will result in orderly coverage and fresh approaches to stories. That’s a win-win for your newsroom and your readers.

As a beginning point, poll your staff. What’s your collective Election IQ?

Who can identify the races – local, state and national – that will be on the ballot?

What are the dates for caucuses, endorsing conventions, local elections, primary and general elections?

Why does your newspaper choose to endorse – or not endorse – candidates for elective office?

How does your newspaper handle initial candidate announcements?

The list goes on.

No mistake, the months-long campaign season is among the most exhaustive and scrutinized tasks that face newsrooms. Thorough election coverage – especially of local races – also should rank among the top of your responsibilities when it comes to reporting on public affairs. The individuals elected at all levels of government will make decisions that affect readers’ everyday lives.

Readers have a variety of sources for election information in today’s fractured media landscape. That’s all the more reason to get an early start on planning. No medium better understands its communities and is in a more informed position to help readers understand what candidates will bring to the table than community newspapers. You have multiple avenues to do so from your print editions to text, audio and video on the web to the multiple social media channels.

The enormity of the task demands that staffs thoroughly plan all aspects of coverage. Among them – overall campaign coverage, introducing the candidates, letters to the editor, endorsements, election night/post-election coverage, political advertising. The better your organization, the easier it will be to handle the unexpected circumstances that are certain to arise.

Each element requires a checklist – assigning specific responsibilities to individuals with due dates. So begin with a 2018 calendar. The general election may be months away, but parties and candidates already are gearing up for determining who will be on the ballot.

Mapping out a schedule – setting deadlines – is most important for election coverage because these stories are woven among your responsibilities of everyday news. You’re also coping with many factors out of your control – for example, the number of candidates.

Calendars keep you on task. They provide a wealth of story ideas to make coverage more meaningful and interesting. For example, what insights do campaign finance reports provide for the level and breadth of candidate support?

Early and frequent conversations help you explore fun stories. For example, ask one or more candidates to keep diaries tracking their campaigns by the numbers. How many pairs of shoes did they wear out? How many pancake breakfasts did they attend? How many miles did they walk, put on their vehicles? How many hours were they on the campaign trail? How many speeches did they give?

Draw up a preliminary “to do” checklist. Start the conversation, and other ideas are certain to surface. Don’t be afraid to include individuals outside your newsroom. You may even want to invite community members to discuss certain aspects of election coverage. For example, write a column and readers to identify the races that warrant the most attention and the key issues in those races.

Don’t be afraid to make the deliberate decision that some races will receive minimal coverage or no coverage at all. You have limited resources. Local races should be your priority.

Elections don’t have to overwhelm your staffs. Your coverage, if planned step by step, can be fulfilling on many fronts, delivering dividends for your staff as well as your readers and community.

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Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.