September 22, 2011

The abundance of ideas that elections tend to generate can tempt newsrooms to think big. Very big.

We should think big, but we should also start small. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill said that “all politics is local,” and all elections — even presidential elections — are local, too.

Most news organizations should focus on the local opportunities first, last and always. With that mantra in mind, and a general election almost a year away, here are some tips for how newsrooms can prepare for great online coverage.

Decide early what information to gather

Your reporters and editors will provide a lot of election-related coverage, but your readers will want more of what makes the Web what it is: maps, interactives, charts and photos, to name a few. So decide early what information you will need to gather. Previous election results, voter registration information and campaign finance data are all important.

But keep in mind that the most identifiable election-related interest in your community may be an event that candidates attend again and again, such as town hall meetings or debates. Whatever this event is, you’ll probably want to track it somehow. Just choose carefully: for the 2008 election, I thought it would be a great idea to track all of the presidential candidates’ campaign stops. I still think it’s a good idea, but it took way too much time and effort and prevented us from doing other, more valuable, work.

The information you gather will be heavily influenced by the number of folks you have working on elections. But even with a single person you can do great things. Al Shaw, who is now at ProPublica, was the lone developer for Talking Points Memo during the 2010 elections. He built a poll tracker that was the envy of a lot of us because it zeroed in on one area.

Take the time to find out how your community holds elections. (You should have previous results, voter registration and campaign finance data on hand regardless. They are handy for lots of reasons.)

It helps to have a place to store your election data so that two or four years later you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I say this as someone who has several wheel reinvention episodes under his belt. Putting information in a database makes it easier to respond to changes in the campaign and answer the question: “Hey, has this ever happened before?”

Get fresh material for race pages

One feature of online election coverage is the “race page,” where news organizations attempt to provide as much information as possible about an election in a single page. Here’s the 2010 Colorado Senate page from The New York Times; the Kansas state treasurer race from; and the Sixth Ward Alderman contest from the Chicago Tribune. I really like what the Tribune has done to put the basic information front and center. Since it’s a local election, the local map is huge, and the job description is a great touch.

Getting fresh material for these kinds of pages is tough, but by dipping into social media and reaching out to readers, you can make them livelier than they have been in the past. Anyone who has built an election guide knows how much work goes into collecting all the information for it. But it’s a shame if that just then sits on a page, unchanged, until Election Day. Consider asking readers for their experiences of the campaign in photos, videos or posts. Draft a panel of people to weigh in on the races. Give readers insights into the campaign that candidates don’t necessarily provide.

Given that these types of pages all have common elements, you have to find ways to make them stand out. Election coverage — like campaigns themselves — are about distinguishing yourself from the crowd.

Be ready to pivot from campaign to results

Election coverage is tough because it embodies two extremes; campaigns last for months (or years), and then election night is over in a matter of hours. While you plan and build your pre-election coverage, you also need to start thinking about what election night will look like on your site. As much as you will do really cool stuff before the election, most readers care about the results, so you have to be ready to pivot from campaign to results.

The first and most important question is where you’ll get your results information, and how. The Associated Press has been doing election results for decades, and if you can afford access to their electronic results feed, you can reap the advantages. One advantage is that the AP holds regular tests of its data, so you can simulate what election night will be like. Another is that the data comes in several formats, so adapting it to your CMS or election app shouldn’t be terribly difficult.

But there are some drawbacks, aside from the price tag. One is that the AP typically stops tallying the vote within a couple of days of the election, so your “final” results may not be so final. It’s worth investigating whether local or state authorities have in place a live election results system that you could use, particularly if your efforts will focus on local and state races. Florida, for example, provides a tab-delimited text file of election results, and individual counties may have similar systems. You may find that some of them are as timely as the AP’s.

The other major concern, if you’ve done a good job with election coverage up to the election, is traffic. It’s a good problem to have, but it can still be a problem, especially when results data is updated every three to five minutes and readers are repeatedly refreshing pages.

At The New York Times, we’ve relied on what Web servers do best: delivering static HTML. So although a results page might contain an interactive map and constantly updated data on 30 different races, we made sure that assembling all of those parts takes place before a user loads the page. All of that content was pre-assembled and then rendered out to a single page (we call it “baking”) for our readers to see. That way our servers don’t have to work very hard and our users get to view the latest results right away.

That kind of process adds some complexity to your election preparation. (If you want to see the technical details, my colleague Ben Koski has written up a good post about how it works). But it was well worth the effort to know that, barring a truly monumental flood of traffic, our results site would always be there for readers.

I’ll share more tips in a related presentation at the ONA conference on Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET. If you’re at the conference, check it out.

This How To is part of a Poynter Institute/Online News Association partnership aimed at bringing more digital know-how to more journalists.

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Derek Willis is a journalist and developer working in the Interactive News Technology team at the New York Times. Based in the Washington, D.C., area,…
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