Dropping the election ball

Even though I feel like my local newspaper completely dropped the ball when it came to providing timely coverage throughout election night, I have to give my respect to the staff’s work here in Gallatin County, Montana. I used to be a reporter on their staff, so I know how frustrating late nights waiting for election returns can be, and the results in Gallatin County were indeed late.

The elections office, per state policy, did not release any results until the polls closed. What that meant was that everyone in line at 8 p.m., when the polls officially closed, was allowed to vote. This wrapped up at about 10:30 p.m. Some of the voters who had changed voting districts had to be called in to the state capitol and checked against records there. In all, the early election results did not start to trickle out of the office until 12:30 Wednesday morning.

How do I know all this? I know it courtesy of the newspaper’s staff, who were crawling all over the courthouse pursuing stories all night long. When did I learn all of this? This morning at 8 a.m. when I visited the paper’s Web page. That same Web page, please note, was not updated at all between Tuesday morning and the time I went to bed at 12:30 a.m.

All the long lines at the courthouse, the three-hour waits for some people, the delayed election returns, the fact that Obama had won the presidential race… all of these things went un-noted on my local newspaper’s Web site until this morning.

Maybe I’m expecting too much. This is the fourth largest paper in Montana, but that only means a circulation of about 18,000. This isn’t exactly the Denver Post or the Spokesman Review, after all. Those larger-market papers likely had larger staffs than the half-dozen or so reporters working at the local paper, and those papers likely had larger Web departments to handle things like blogs, tweets and other posts from the front lines.

Still. Shouldn’t the job of the newspaper be to get the news to the people? I know that live coverage and instant news are supposed to be the realm of television and, sometimes, radio news. Newspapers are supposed to be the more considered format, the format with the deep analysis and long-view that the instant television culture just can’t provide.

But the local paper didn’t have any of that this morning. Hell, the local TV news actually brought in local political commentators and political scientists from Montana State University to comment on the elections live last night. The local newspaper had the same kind of stories you’d expect from any media outlet. Here’s the news hook. Here’s what a few people at the scene said about it. Here’s any statistics I could persuade the officials to give me. File it. Print it. Done.

Considering that the local newspaper elections coverage wound up no better than the television coverage, even on the morning after, why not abandon that traditional role of “newspaper” and embrace the Web 2.0 style of instant journalism? A simple blog, updated every half an hour or so, or when news warranted, would have kept voters at home in the loop on what was going on with the lines at the courthouse, the vote-counting process, etc. A Twitter feed, though probably not the most popular thing in Montana, would have been a cool thing too. (As a side note, I found out about most of the “breaking” election news last night courtesy of the status updates of my Facebook friends who happen to be layout designers at the paper, the people who were waiting for text to lay out.) All the reporters in that newsroom pack laptops. The courthouse has wi-fi. Blogs are free, easy, and dummy-proof. How much easier could this have been?

The paper dropped the ball here. It missed an opportunity to really show the community the inside of the elections process and turn out the same stories they would have otherwise. The coverage could have been considerably deeper.

The damnable thing is that the public doesn’t expect any more than the coverage it got. The paper could have shown them something spectacular last night.

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