Local coverage of elections uneven

Robert Washburn

With the election now in full swing, a survey of community
online newspapers across Canada shows some outlets choose to highlight
community-based stories with little (and sometimes no) coverage of the federal
election while others provide exciting examples of what can be done, even with
meager resources.

Strategists for major political parties say a federal
election campaign focuses 90 per cent on the national leaders and 10 per cent
on local ridings. But, in watching the coverage provided by some community
newspaper over the past week, it would seem local campaigns make up just five
per cent, or maybe even less.

Hyper-local newspapers tend to focus on a specific geographic community and
emphasize the news within that area. There is no effort to compete with larger
urban newspapers, which are left to cover provincial and, especially, national
news. The small community newspapers and
the regional and national ones have a symbiotic relationship that ensures
citizens get the news they need.

Some great local news stories, but what about the election?

With the election now in its third week, I conducted an informal, unscientific
survey over several days and it was clear the smaller communities in rural
areas provided muted or no election coverage—yet. The Queen Charlotte Island
was an excellent example with its front page stories focusing on a
nearby lake being used for municipal water service and the subsequent debate
surrounding this issue. There were no election stories, but there was a letter
to the editor criticizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The Prairie Post, in
southwestern Saskatchewan, is another example of a local paper with little election coverage, just one
small piece on a farewell dinner held for retiring MP Monte Solberg.

In both of these cases, candidate profiles and platforms of
local candidates were not easily available.

It is reasonable to assume smaller, independent newspapers lack time and
resources to cover everything. And, there is still time to produce relevant
materials before the Oct. 14 vote.

A more reasonable approach to examining community newspaper might be to look at
newspaper chains, since these sites would have more resources to invest in an
online presence and the collaborative energy could overcome some of the
barriers the smaller publications face. In doing this, the results were varied
between some pretty sad efforts and some rather amazing sites.

A big disappointment

One big disappointment was the Black Press newspapers in British
Columbia, a company that holds over 100 newspapers in areas
including the lower mainland, Vancouver Island,
and the B.C. interior. The company uses a standardized template for all its
newspaper websites, providing local coverage and the ability to hyperlink
between the various holdings. An examination of several papers showed an uneven
level of coverage.

The 100 Mile House Free Press had sparse election coverage on
the front page with a generalized story that only named the candidates running,
without any details about the various platform or local issues. However, the
audience may not be interested in the campaign. The most read news story on the
site was a story about a Kelowna
family getting an extreme home makeover. If it is the job of newspapers to
respond to the demands of its customers, then political coverage appears to be
low on the totem pole.

Another paper in the chain, the Maple Ridge News provided even less campaign news, leading
its home page with the Terry Fox Run and a town hall meeting about a farm being
converted into parkland. The only reference to the election was found in a blog
post about a local NDP candidate.

Another community newspaper chain worth examining is Metroland, the community
newspaper division of TorStar, the company publishing the Toronto Star, operates numerous papers across Southern
. Each division, consisting of a handful of
newspapers, posts to its own site. Obviously, this is done for cost
effectiveness and efficiency. It would seem reasonable to expect better
election coverage, since each paper would only need to post a few stories to
give readers the impression it is providing extensive coverage.

, a site that posts content from papers from Ajax, Pickering, Oshawa, Scugog and Uxbridge, provided more specific
coverage of the candidates’ positions on a proposal ethanol plant in Oshawa. The format for
the story provided background on the issue and then a formal response was
submitted by each candidate and presented verbatim. 

Journalists framing the issues

A poll on the site asked readers what issue they feel is the biggest in this
election: the economy, Afghanistan,
global warming, leadership or something else. While this could be a great
interactive feature, it was completely wasted in this case. First, the question
is standard and boring. And, it repeats a very traditional pitfall in modern
journalism: the news organization giving the audience the answers. In this case
the journalists were framing the issue rather than letting them be identified
in an organic manner. There is no section or tool to allow the audience to
identify an issue that may be of concern to them. The poll merely reinforces
issues set out by the national political parties and not by the community.

The Metroland West Media Group posts newspapers from Ancaster, Burlington,
Cambridge, Dundas, Flamborough, Guelph, Hamilton Mountain, Milton, New Hamberg,
Oakville, Sachem and Stoney Creek using a template. However, each publication
posts unique content. For example, the Hamilton Mountain
’ top story was about the three-way race in its local riding. A column
provided by John Williamson, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers
Federation, gave his organization’s views on the election. However, he
addressed issues only in a national context. There were no opinion pieces that
provided any local context on the issues.

Putting social networking tools to work

Something a little different on the Hamilton Mountain News site was a social
networking feature that allows people to post the story to a website like
Facebook, MySpace or Digg, among others. This facilitates the viral spreading
of news through other distribution networks based on social relationships
rather than traditional news distribution channels.

Similar to Metroland’s coverage, the Transcontinental chain of newspapers’ look
at elections was not terribly energized. SaskNewsNow.com, servicing Grenfell, Broadview, Oxbow,
Radville and Deep South, led with a story around the safe return of a local
soldier from Afghanistan and a piece on a 60th wedding anniversary celebration.
The only nod to the federal election was a poll asking users if they were going
to vote in the upcoming election.

However, despite the lackluster coverage of the election at some outlets, there
were also some very exciting examples of what can be done. 

Whats really possible – some exciting examples

Inside Toronto, a
group of neighbourhood newspapers from the Annex, Beaches, City Centre, East
York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough and York, created a special website devoted to
election coverage (http://insidetorontovotes.ca).
This site is a dynamic combination of multimedia, solid news a rich array of
interactive features. There are detailed riding maps, which users can use to
identify where they live and where they will vote. And, with a click of the
mouse, users can find details about the various candidates.

Also, a one-minute long video of each candidate outlining their platform is
prominently featured on the home page. Brilliant. And, there is a calendar to
allow instant access to each day’s reporting. Inside Toronto also provides links to crucial sites
for election information from Elections Canada.

Even more exciting is the Amherst
Daily News
website, which has a huge range of stories from local campaign
coverage to Canadian Press material on the national campaign. This demonstrates
how a community newspaper can provide hyper-local coverage and the
regional/national material often left to larger urban newspapers. What is more
compelling is the number of people who comment on these stories—one boasts
eight responses. There is an interactive map showing where the national leaders
are each day of the campaign with charts that give instant analysis of where in
the various parties are strategically focusing their election efforts. The
Amherst Daily News is part of the Transcontinental chain, but it stands out on
its own as an excellent example of what can be done.