Beyond the riding profile: campaign coverage in a cynical age

Kirk LaPointe

Kirk LaPointeThese are difficult times if you’re not a political junkie. Campaigning is crowding other content from screens, speakers and pages.

These are also difficult times if you’re a political journalist, because today’s expectations are for instant and incessant multiplatform production and distribution of what you see and what you want to say.

This is the first election cycle in which scrutiny of, and participation in, social media might make a difference in the authority of the journalism and the result of the race. The candidates best able to leverage the capacity of the semantic Web and the journalists best able to assess and employ its tools will have a distinct advantage in this and subsequent elections.

In our case at the Vancouver Sun, the reporting challenge isn’t merely the federal election, but the nearby U.S. campaign in Washington State, where we’ll get glimpses of McCain and Obama or Biden and Palin. Even more relevant to our market are the heated municipal campaigns under way. Once we’re done with those near the end of the year, we’ll be into the thick of a provincial campaign scheduled for late spring. Reporter fatigue is a concern, audience fatigue is an even bigger concern.

In an age of more media options, it is no longer possible for large newsgatherers to assume any kind of proprietary hold on election information. You have to choose more specifically what you’ll cover and uncover and recognize that you’ll rarely be alone in delivering the content—or, that once you’ve delivered, there will be dozens of other outlets slicing and dicing the content across new channels in the digital sphere.

I’ve spent five years in B.C. and it’s been an interesting journalistic cleanse from 14 years in Ottawa and the rest of my life in southern Ontario, where federal politics correctly felt more palpable in daily affairs. The geographical distance, the three-time-zone cleavage, and the exceptional policy focus on seat-plentiful Ontario and Quebec contribute to a sense in B.C. that how it votes will not make the difference—part of what’s commonly-called western alienation.

Those factors make for interesting journalism-related decisions, because that emotion of exclusion can colour judgment on how advisable it is to structure extensive campaign coverage. If you’re not careful, it’s very possible to buy into the exercise’s irrelevance, which then creates indifferent coverage, which then contributes to greater lack of meaning. Any dysfunctional relationship can be caused by cynicism.

We’re part of the strong Canwest News Service and will carry its work from the campaigns. Our own deployment, without giving away any competitive secrets, is more obviously applied in understanding which issues matter locally and how candidates and their parties intend to attend to those interests.

There aren’t five parties in our ridings, but there aren’t only three any longer. The Green Party will be a presence in the campaign, which will break a routine.The days of routinely profiling the ridings are over, too. The audience is more sophisticated and it requires greater effort than ever to serve that space. And the days of commandeering the newspaper or Web site with election news during a campaign are no more. Our audience demands a more varied menu in the autumn: schools are back in session, the intensity of work returns, economic activity rises, we get back into the house and into traffic and the weather starts to shift. Hockey comes back, football takes hold. Our pages—print and Web—need to reflect those circumstances.

A major difference now is that our journalists participate in a Web-first culture, so their work will start with breaking news alerts on any meaningful statement or development, blogs that drive the conversation and wire-service-quick stories online to satisfy the breaking-news audience. We’ll create our first videos, our first forums, our first photo galleries and our first full election microsite. It will require us to staff the election with a team that coordinates that activity locally in ways that only a regional or national network would have in previous campaigns.

And then, too, there’s the newspaper, increasingly in need of a more reflective and measured tone to complement the hard-fact Internet. Much as it’s exciting to be participating in technological change in journalism, it’s imprudent to look past the loyalty and consistent attention of the ink-on-paper readership. For both the casual political reader and the fanatic, the newspaper will serve a central purpose for basic information and the best-packaged depth.

The horserace polls will, I hope, be few and far between, but I have hoped for that for six or seven campaigns now and somehow, with weeks to go, journalism gets drawn into the breathless vortex of who might win. Those polls might be the greatest gauges of our craft’s lack of ingenuity than anything, because they take up valuable space with which we could be raising awareness.

But the next number of weeks will be instructive on the degree to which Canadian journalism is adopting available tools to reach audiences immediately and deeply. Even though campaigns are expensive and enervating, they are excellent opportunities to secure longer-term support from a community or a country for your content. In this age of challenged loyalty, we need every such opportunity to earn connection.

Kirk LaPointe is managing editor of the
Vancouver Sun, adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s graduate school of journalism and a J-Source contributing editor.