Covering a presidential election in a swing state like Florida is all about preparing for the unknown.
Adam Smith, political editor for Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, had planned to write three stories on Election Day: an analysis about the race being undecided, another one about Barack Obama winning and another one about Mitt Romney winning.
But he only ended up writing one.
“As the results started coming in, I felt more comfortable writing the ‘Obama is winning’ story,” Smith told me just after Obama was re-elected. “I would have been screwed if suddenly Romney had launched a comeback. I could have adjusted, but I didn’t give myself a lot of time.”
Preparing for a close election
Amy Hollyfield, assistant managing editor/politics, was the driving force behind the Times’ Election Day preparations. The paper spent weeks getting ready and making sure everyone knew what their roles would be, Hollyfield told me Tuesday, during the 10 hours I spent reporting in the Times newsroom.
Managing Editor Mike Wilson said he woke up Tuesday morning thinking of possible headlines for the next day’s paper: “It’s Mitt.” “Four More.” “No Change.” “Mitt Is it.” He talked about the power of one-word headlines and said the two-word headlines he thought of seemed too wordy. In 2000, the Times went with a simple choice: “Recount.”
Ron Brackett, assistant managing editor/editing and design, said Wednesday’s front page was designed several days in advance. He learned after the 2000 presidential election that this kind of prep work pays off. “The stuff you can get a handle on — get it done early and get it out of the way,” he said. “You want as much time left for that final story as possible.”
Brackett, who oversees the Times’ designers and copy editors, said the paper had six designers working on the A and B section pages, and 20 people editing copy. He talked with copy editors ahead of time about catching common election mistakes — making sure reporters correctly used terms like “percentage points,” “ratio” and “margin” when referring to election results.
Staffers from all of the Times’ bureaus contributed to the election coverage. Prior to the election, St. Petersburg City Editor Heather Urquides met with reporters in the Times’ main office to address the paper’s expectations for Election Day. She talked about meeting deadlines, writing background information early, and not reporting vote totals until final results came in.
Jennifer Orsi, deputy managing editor/metro and business, said Urquides also talked with reporters about what the Times editors look for in election stories.
“We are covering so many elections that space is at a premium, so ideally we look for a tightly written story that conveys the results — or the lack of results — and includes comments and reactions from all the candidates in a race,” Orsi said. “We sometimes find the losing candidates like to disappear when we’re calling for quotes and sometimes we don’t get them, but ideally we have everyone represented who campaigned.”
Other departments also spent the past week talking about how they would cover Election Day and night. Boyzell Hosey, director of photography/multimedia, said the paper’s photojournalists started taking voting-related photos at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.
“We knew we were going to flip the switch on the election edition of the website at 7 a.m., so we took a look at everything that needed to be covered and looked at it with a sense of urgency,” Hosey said. “We made sure we had photos at 6:45 a.m. — even if it was a dark, low light photo — so people would know we were out hitting the streets. I asked the photographers to shoot and send liberally, so we [could] constantly update our photo galleries.”
Visuals were a critical part of the Times’ coverage. On the interactive side, Darla Cameron and William M. Higgins created a Florida election results map that showed preliminary results by county. The map relied on Associated Press data and automatically updated every five minutes thanks to a Python script.
Utilizing social media
Times staffers were also encouraged to take video and use social media while reporting. Prior to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Digital Audience Specialist Amber McDonald offered one-on-one training to staffers who wanted to improve their social media skills. During the week of the RNC, social media referral traffic to tampabay.com quadrupled, McDonald said.
Digital Content Editor Anne Glover said that since then, Times staffers have integrated social media into their workflow. “It got us thinking about engaging people and doing calls to action,” Glover said. “We’re still getting good at it, but it’s more of a routine than a challenge.”
Making last-minute decisions
Just after 9 p.m., approximately 1,000 votes separated Romney and Obama in Florida.
Wilson and Brown talked with other editors about the coverage. Hollyfield was corresponding with reporters in Tallahassee, where the Times shares a bureau with the Miami Herald. Around 9:30 p.m., she posted a story by Marc Caputo that addressed an important question: What happens if there’s a recount in Florida?
By 11:30 p.m., it was clear that Obama was going to be re-elected. The Times decided on an “Obama Again” headline for the first edition of Wednesday’s paper. Editor Neil Brown said the Times also considered “A Second Act” and “Rehired,” and was planning to change the headline for the second and third editions. The tone of the “Obama Again” headline, he said, seemed a bit off.
The Times didn’t have a photo of Obama accepting his win, so instead it ran an AP photo of Obama leaving the campaign office Tuesday morning.
“Later, we’ll get an acceptance photo,” Brown said just before midnight. “For the first edition, you’ve got to go with the best you can. We’re lucky; there was clarity before the first edition. Rarely does that happen.”