Emma Hurt didn’t sleep much as Election Day stretched into Election Week. The politics reporter for WABE, Atlanta’s NPR station, estimates she slept about two hours a night with an additional nap thrown in. She carried her phone and laptop from room to room to stay on top of the presidential election results. Hurt said she barely spoke to her husband, even though they were under the same roof, and she also drank a lot of coffee but didn’t have time to make the amount she needed.
“Last week was the wildest week of my life. I have never been so glued to screens because the numbers were changing, and the numbers were so important,” Hurt recalled last Wednesday. “You had this story that was building toward ‘Is Biden going to make it over the top? Is he going to lead?’ And then it was tracking his lead growing always in the context of how many ballots were outstanding. The minutiae of that was just a lot to keep track of, and things were changing all the time.”
In the days after the Nov. 3 presidential election, much of the country zeroed in on the new battleground state of Georgia and a few others as election officials counted votes. It was a stressful and adrenaline-pumping week for many sleep-deprived reporters covering politics in Georgia, who without skipping a beat are now covering the leadup to the two Jan. 5 Senate runoffs in the state: between GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff, and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock. These runoffs, the possibilities of which were discussed repeatedly in Georgia, are crucial in the political world because they will determine control of the U.S. Senate.
They’re also not a huge surprise to Georgia journalists.
“We’ve been predicting this for a long time,” said Greg Bluestein, a political reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a Georgia native. “I’ve written stories about the potential of double runoffs in Georgia and all the attention coming to Georgia … we saw that come into sharp, sharp display the last few days of this race.”
Georgia, which has voted for a Republican for president in every election since 1996, has long been an afterthought for coverage on election night. But it has become “battleground central” due to several factors that include the 2018 midterm elections, Stacey Abrams (who fell short in her bid to become Georgia’s first Black woman governor), and a change in demographics, Bluestein said. His newspaper mobilized its politics team and brought in staffers from other beats to help out through Thanksgiving and other major holidays. Bluestein reminded everyone who would listen (including his wife) that after the presidential election “the battle was just beginning” in Georgia.
“We are the constant,” Bluestein said he likes to tell Georgia politicians of his work and that of other journalists in the state. “We’ll be here before the rush, during the rush, and after the rush.”
Local journalism matters
“I covered all of it. I love it. I love it,” Bluestein said. “This is what you’re here for, but contrast that to four years ago, when it would’ve been huge just to get one of those names coming to Georgia — let alone all four of them.”
President-elect Joe Biden captured Georgia last Friday, narrowly defeating Trump in the state.
Stephen Fowler, who covers state and local politics for Georgia Public Broadcasting, Georgia’s NPR and PBS station, said covering the visits by Trump, Biden and Obama was surreal because Georgia is not Washington, D.C., and he is not a national reporter.
“Everyone wanting to know what’s happening in Georgia was overwhelming, but in a good way because too often I feel like there’s a focus on Georgia and the South in a reductive way, or in a parachute way,” said Fowler, who also hosts a podcast called “Battleground: Ballot Box.”
Suddenly, Georgia was on everyone’s mind.
“There was a great sense of vindication that local journalism matters, and local journalism was keeping people informed and educated and apprised of a seminal moment in history.”
Fowler’s job at GPB News is his first out of college. He described their team as a small ship of three bureaus, five reporters and a total of about 15 staffers doing newsgathering and the station’s political talk show, “Political Rewind.” Asked how he’s been able to stay afloat, Fowler said he drinks a lot of herbal tea (he’s never had coffee) and gets reminders to eat from his wife. He also tries to get as much sleep as he can in fits and starts.
Maggie Lee, a freelance data reporter who covers state and metro government in Atlanta, spent election night in front of a computer screen to ensure her code was working as part of the work she produced for local outlets. She had designed a map of Georgia’s election results and number of voters by county for Saporta Report and a live graph for the Clayton Crescent. Most of Lee’s work consists of hyperlocal deep dives, but the data reporter said her next project will probably be to improve her maps and graphs for the runoffs.
Hurt said her newsroom is a pretty good size of 20 people (including editors and digital), but political stories come from mostly her and her colleague Emil Moffatt, who focuses a bit more on voting. She said they tried to stay afloat in the days after Election Day. Since Pennsylvania was called for Biden and the pressure was pulled off of Georgia as the deciding state in the presidential election, Hurt said things at work have let up a bit.
“Now what’s settling in is that we are going to be the scene for four national campaigns: There are four Senate candidates, they’re running to be senators of Georgia, but much of the country is placing their hopes and energy into these two races and these four candidates,” she said. “It’s becoming a reality that we’re going to witness the full force of a national campaign just focusing on Georgia’s 10 million residents, and 7.6 million registered voters.”
The reporters who spoke to Poynter have fielded many requests for interviews from journalists at outlets across the U.S. and even international outlets who want to understand what’s happening in the Peach State. Lee was surprised that there were journalists in other parts of the country who were surprised that the state might have runoffs.
Asked what she thought of this heightened attention on the state, Lee said she’s always worked in Georgia.
“I don’t know what it’s like to work in a state that constantly gets attention,” she said. “Welcome to Georgia. Y’all come on down here and visit.”