Local TV

Election 2008: Stations Get in the Swing

Local reporters covering the McCain-Obama duel in key battleground states may decide the election's outcome 10/24/2008 08:00:00 PM Eastern

WTOL isn't content to simply send the news truck out to cover the seemingly nonstop visits from the likes of John McCain and Barack Obama, not to mention vice presidential hopefuls Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, in and around Toledo. No, the Raycom station is traveling in style, as chief anchor Jerry Anderson embarks on a 15-stop tour of the DMA in a plush 40-foot bus, reporting his findings on the station's newscasts. WTOL VP/General Manager Bob Chirdon says the suburban assault vehicle, a loaner from a local dealer, is hardly lacking in amenities. “I mean, it is decked,” he says with a laugh.

Anderson starts the day with breakfast at a diner at the crack of dawn, chatting up folks to see how they're feeling about white-hot issues such as the economy and, well, the economy. “We're finding out what's really on the minds of real Northwest Ohio people,” Chirdon says. “Everyone talks about them as the crucial voters—we find out what they're actually thinking.”

Call them swing stations. TV outlets in battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are intimately familiar with the fact that the blockbuster presidential election and its record spending is hardly business as usual.

With the boost in revenue—Campaign Media Analysis Group estimates that almost $1.1 billion has been spent on political advertising since Jan. 1, and the presidential candidates were said to have coughed up a combined $51 million on television during one recent week—comes a significant responsibility to cover it effectively. And as indicated by WTOL's “Countdown to Vote” express, wrapped in the station branding and schlepping through Joe the Plumber's home market, stations are coming up with increasingly novel ways to cover the McCain-Obama slugfest. That means tapping digital platforms, user content and sometimes even rival media outlets to better tell their election stories.

If all politics is indeed local, station-level reporting may ultimately decide America's next president. “When the candidates are there, we're reporting on it,” Hearst-Argyle President/CEO David Barrett said in a recent interview. “That's the filter through which some people will make their determinations.”

EVERYONE'S A REPORTER, ALL THE TIME

On one hand, there couldn't be a worse time for stations to cover such a monolithic event. By all accounts, the broadcast economy is dismal, and rare is the general manager who won't be laying off staffers by the end of the year. Yet as reporters become more adept at wearing multiple hats and tapping various media to get the story out, stations have never been better armed to report on American history in the making in their DMA. “Everyone's aware of just how significant this race is,” says WTVG Toledo News Director Brian Trauring. “We know we need to do a great job so voters can make informed choices.”

As much as they're turning up at viewers' doorsteps in fancy newsrooms on wheels (like WTOL, Raycom's WOIO has its “Vote Smart Express” tooling around Cleveland), stations are inviting viewers into their homes. Similar to what the networks do following the debates, stations such as WESH Orlando have assembled juries of undecided voters to share their reactions on-air to debates and speeches happening in their neighborhoods.

WINK Fort Myers took the concept a step further, putting together a panel of small-business owners before a McCain-Obama debate that was focused on the economy. It not only provided compelling programming, WINK managers say, but also gave producers a group of solid sources for future reports. “Every time we solicit people on the Web, we get a great response,” says News Director Russ Kilgore. “When we're looking for people to help tell our stories, we now have a place to go for them.”

Stations are calling on viewers to share more than their perspective. With the presidential principals essentially camping out in these make-or-break states, opportunities abound for citizens to capture often candid footage of the candidates at rallies, going door to door, or even shooting hoops with local youths, as Obama did in Toledo recently.

WTOL produced a candidates' slide show garnered from the station's See Snap Send feature. (One particularly memorable sequence sees a buxom woman beaming next to Obama, then the woman a moment later sporting what's presumably his autograph on her shoulder.)

As WTVG prepared for an interview with McCain, it solicited questions from viewers—some of which ended up being fielded by the Republican nominee.

Stations are increasingly taking advantage of digital media to report the countless election stories. WTVG aired a full Obama speech from Toledo live on its digital channel a few weeks ago, and WNEP Wilkes-Barre/Scranton—the DMA rivaling Toledo as perhaps the most heavily trafficked by the candidates—has been running speeches from all the presidential players on the Local TV outlet's WNEP Anytime digital channel. “That way, we make sure viewers who want regular programming are getting it, but we're offering the political news for those who want that, too,” says News Director Erik Schrader.

In West Palm Beach, where polling-station foibles can be as much a news story as the election itself, WPTV will go with commercial-free coverage from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on its digital channel. Hearst-Argyle's WESH saw its Web traffic quadruple in some time slots, says News Director Barbara Maushard-Jones, after a concerted push to get viewers to comment online during the debates. A highly charged election is a great way to make regular viewers (and users) out of folks who sample the station's content—whether it's breaking news about a candidate sharing his bailout plan from the stump, or standing features like fact-checking “Truth-O-Meters.” “The great thing about getting people to our site is that it exposes them to more information,” Maushard-Jones says. “Hopefully when they're there, they'll spend more time there.”

To further their reach on a limited budget, stations are tapping a range of media partners. WOIO gains insights on the young-persons vote by airing reportage from Ohio University students embedded in the McCain and Obama campaigns. WTOL's bus venture is a joint one with the Toledo Blade newspaper, which publishes daily updates from the road. WPTV enjoys an exclusive relationship with CNN correspondent Samantha Hayes to cover the presidential players, while Bright House's Tampa news channel Bay News 9 partners with the St. Petersburg Times to produce the weekly Political Connections program.

DOING MORE WITH LESS

With few stations afforded the luxury of adding budget during the election run-up, they're getting more out of corporate siblings—and their own staffers. ABC O&O WTVG interviewed World News Tonight anchor Charles Gibson when Gibson anchored from Toledo earlier this month. WBNS Columbus enjoys the reach of Dispatch siblings Ohio News Network, with 1.6 million subscribers in Ohio, and the Columbus Dispatch newspaper; an “editorial convergence manager” is tasked with sitting in on editorial meetings and “cross-pollinating” the various outlets, says WBNS President/General Manager Tom Griesdorn, one of the few GMs who enjoy a Washington bureau.

The Fox O&Os share reportage when an event occurs in one station's market, get insider insights from Fox News Channel anchor Shepard Smith and enjoy timely polling research from Rasmussen Reports. “We're taking advantage of our larger resources,” says WTXF Philadelphia VP/News Director Kingsley Smith. “It's nice to have that to pull the whole thing together.”

And when WMUR Manchester, N.H., bagged that rarest of quarries, the Sarah Palin interview, the video was shared with all of its fellow Hearst-Argyle stations.

With all eyes on the bottom line, stations also learn to repurpose content like never before, such as WTVG's interview with McCain flavoring its Sunday public-affairs show, and footage from WTXF's nightly political program The Last Word peppering its newscasts. Weary reporters are pushed to keep all platforms in mind all the time. “You're always looking for innovative ways to do more with less,” says WBBH Fort Myers Executive VP/General Manager Steve Pontius. “These are the days when you've got to come to work every day with your game face on.”

Indeed, even the most adrenaline-charged reporter may be looking forward to Nov. 5. Many are not only covering the presidential (and vice presidential) aspirants, but local races and the increasingly prickly ancillary issues inherent in any election season, such as voting booth breakdowns and voter registration fraud. Viki Regan, a veteran of Palm Beach County's infamous hanging chads while at WPBF, now trains her eye on the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections office across the street from her WEWS Cleveland digs. The Scripps station's investigative team is producing some 30 stories a week on everything from absentee ballot foul-ups to the high cost of a new paper ballot system.

“We're not only trying to get to the root of the issue, but trying to be on the viewer's side,” says VP/General Manager Regan. “We hope we can empower them with information they need to make their decision.”

Broadcasting watchdog groups give stations high marks for their coverage of the marquee election, though not so much for the local races. “At the presidential level, if a voter chooses to be informed, stations are doing a great job of informing them,” says Campaign Legal Center policy director Meredith McGehee. “Any [race] below that may as well be in the twilight zone. The presidential race has sucked all the political oxygen out of the room.”

When the whirlwind election wraps and a new president is crowned, managers at these swing-state stations will get back to a more normal routine, including figuring out where revenue will come from until the next election. But until then, they're all about covering this thing until the (surely) bitter end. Sunbeam's WSVN Miami, for one, will skip network coverage to stay local on Nov. 4, and likely into Nov. 5. “We'll start with our 4 p.m. news and we won't go off until it's over,” says VP of News Alice Jacobs. “More people than ever are paying attention, and our viewers count on us to do it.”

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