Business of News

Bridging gaps in year-round election coverage

February 25, 2021

US state legislatures are largely back in session, and they’re introducing hundreds of voting bills. In the wake of the 2020 election—which introduced significant changes to allow voters more safety amid a pandemic—the number of election procedure bills is four times higher nationwide this year over last, the Brennan Center for Justice reports: 165 restrictive voting bills in thirty-three states, and 541 bills to expand voting access. Changes to voting procedures are immensely important, as are the ins and outs of the process itself, but coverage of the intricate world of county clerks can be difficult to prioritize when outlets have scant resources. 

Voting stories are, in large part, local stories. Even as local journalism plays an important role in informing the democratic process—encouraging civic engagement, increasing bipartisan voting—it also plays a crucial role in covering the process itself, a complex operation that varies widely from place to place and changes most in the off-season, when most reporters are paying the least attention. Robust local news can offer voters resources to be better informed about the measures and options on the ballot; it can also teach voters about how the electoral system—and its infrastructure—works. But, all too often, it doesn’t.

Jessica Huseman is the editorial director for Votebeat, a nonprofit newsroom and spinoff of Chalkbeat aiming to cover voting rights and election administration beyond election cycles. Votebeat sees America facing two big problems when it comes to local voting coverage: either newsrooms are neglecting election coverage, or they don’t have enough reporters to cover the beat. Following in the footsteps of the Chalkbeat model, Votebeat aims to address both problems, through partnerships with local newsrooms or establishment of their own local offices: different solutions for different communities. 

Votebeat ranks states according to two factors: the existence of voting news coverage and the adequacy of the state’s news resources. And Huseman has found that those states with the best election coverage have something in common: the presence of strong nonprofit newsrooms. “Nonprofits don’t really need the flash and razzle,” Huseman says. “We don’t need you to click on our ads. We just need somebody to donate because they decide that this is important.”

Though many local newsrooms have been struggling to find sustainable business models for years, and the pandemic has further starved them, there’s not a one-to-one correlation between struggling newsrooms and newsrooms that are failing to cover election infrastructure: the purchase of voting machines, voter roll purges, or election legislation. Some outlets do it well; many don’t. “For a really long time, voting has been the sort of ugly stepchild to campaign coverage,” Huseman says. “We’ve decided that it’s not important because it’s not always sexy.”

Huseman’s point hits on a bigger dilemma: for-profit newsrooms, by nature, may not be set up well to cover perennial stories that are important but unglamorous. This is especially true in a time of scarcity, when outlets are just trying to get by. “People who think voting is important are not in short supply,” Huseman says. “People who are entertained reading about voting might be.” 

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Different financial models incentivize and enable different kinds of coverage. It’s worth considering how gaps in coverage match gaps in funding—and how to keep bridging as many of those gaps as possible. With one model, Votebeat hopes to fill in some of the gaps, but there are plenty of holes left to fill. 

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Below, more on recent media trends and changes in newsrooms across the world:

  • NONPROFIT NEWSROOMS CONTINUE TO GROW: Nonprofit newsrooms are growing in the wake of the pandemic, Axios reported. The Institute for Nonprofit News now includes more than 300 journalism groups as members, and its NewsMatch funding campaign increased newsroom participants by thirty-sex percent. (For NiemanLab, Hanaa’ Tameez reported on the launch of The Forth Worth Report, a nonprofit newsroom in Texas that aims to fill coverage gaps.)
  • CANCELLATION WON’T HELP, CALIFORNIA REPORTERS UNIONIZE: Following the news that Alden Global Capital will soon take over Tribune papers, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn asked readers to continue supporting the paper financially. “You can’t punish the hedge fund in advance by first punishing the reporters, editors, photographers and, yes, columnists who are working to provide as comprehensive and balanced a daily newspaper as possible under the circumstances,” Zorn writes. And in California, journalists at Alden-owned Southern California News Group—comprising eleven dailies and more than a dozen weeklies—have announced plans to unionize. (Elsewhere, Josh Sternberg wrote for The Media Nut newsletter about the rise of media unions and the hypocrisy of the executives that shut them down.)
  • CHARLESTON POST AND COURIER LAUNCHES WATCHDOG PROJECT: In South Carolina, the Post and Courier has launched Uncovered, an investigative project intended to focus on reporting local corruption and sharing coverage across twelve small community newspapers, NiemanLab reported. “News deserts and weak ethics laws allow corruption to run rampant” in the state, the project’s founders write.
  • IN AUSTRALIA, THE FACEBOOK SAGA CONTINUES: “What happens now?” Mathew Ingram asked today for CJR’s Media Today newsletter, after Facebook announced Monday it would stop blocking news on its platform in Australia. “The war itself shows little sign of stopping,” Ingram writes. “If anything, Australia’s pressure on Google and Facebook, and the resulting settlement with the latter — as vague as it may be in practice — only seems to have increased the interest other countries have in trying to repeat Australia’s measures.”
  • SOON-SHIONG CONSIDERING SALE OF LA TIMES: The Wall Street Journal reported last week that LA Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong is exploring a sale of the company, possibly to Alden Global Capital. Soon-Shiong denied this on Twitter. “The mention of Alden Global Capital, which has a reputation for deep cuts at the papers it has acquired, alarmed reporters in San Diego who immediately questioned whether Soon-Shiong was committed to continuing his stewardship of the Union-Tribune because he did not mention the San Diego paper in an initial tweet,” the LA Times reported, adding that editor and publisher Jeff Light told staff in an email that the paper was not being sold.
  • STAFF-OWNED NEWSROOM SEES SUCCESS: Defector Media’s venture into a staff ownership model is going well, Margaret Sullivan wrote on Sunday for the Washington Post. Subscriptions provide the only revenue, and six months after the publication’s launch, it’s self-sustaining. “In a media world that is increasingly corporate and increasingly homogenized, Defector’s experiment is worth rooting for,” Sullivan writes.
  • “KNIGHT FOUNDATION TIES TO RIGHT-WING EXTREMISTS UNDERMINE JOURNALISM’S FUTURE”: The Knight Foundation, one of the most influential philanthropic funders of journalism, largely avoids scrutiny because of its influence, Simon Galperin wrote for The Objective, adding that the organization’s behavior, “from its speaker lineups to its grant-making to its board of trustees and endowment—is actively undermining its mission and grantees.” The organization declined to comment. (On Medium, Farai Chideya wrote about the need for journalists at all publications to cover civic decline, disinformation, and racism with better cultural competency.)
  • THEY WON THE NEWSPAPER GIVEAWAY. THEN THE PANDEMIC ARRIVED: For CJR, I wrote about the winners of a 2020 local newspaper giveaway in Alaska who have worked overtime—with little compensation—to cover their tourist town, which faces mounting financial challenges as cruise ship bans limit the number of summer visitors. Gretchen Wehmhoff and Melinda Munson arrived in town in March of 2020, just before then-president Trump announced a national emergency. Though they briefly considered abandoning their new job as local news owners, they threw themselves into the work instead. “It’s easy to celebrate Munson and Wehmhoff for their resilience and their optimism,” I wrote. “Celebratory coverage, however, can obscure bleak realities.”
  • STUDENT NEWSPAPER USES MEMBERSHIP TO RAISE FUNDS: When Syracuse University’s student newspaper faced revenue decline amid the pandemic, they started a four-tier membership program that enlisted alumni support, Elise Goldstein reported for the Lenfest Institute. The Daily Orange has never taken any money from the university itself, but its staff wanted the publication to remain free and accessible. “Their goal is to ensure that the student journalists can focus on creating meaningful journalism and build their skills without worrying about the paper’s longevity,” Goldstein writes.
  • PUBLIC NOTICE STARTUP GAINS TRACTION: The Column startup, which aims to modernize the traditional role of public notices in providing revenues for local newspapers, has announced deals with Ogden Newspapers, Wick Communications, and McClatchy, NiemanLab reported. The company already partners with the Washington Post, in addition to newspaper groups in six US states. 

JOURNALISM JOBS AND OPPORTUNITIES: MediaGazer has been maintaining a list of media companies that are currently hiring. You can find it here. The Deez Links newsletter, in partnership with Study Hall, offers media classifieds for both job seekers and job providers. The Successful Pitches database offers resources for freelancers. The International Journalists Network lists international job opportunities alongside opportunities for funding and further education.

Lauren Harris is a freelance journalist. She writes CJR's weekly newsletter for the Journalism Crisis Project. Follow her on Twitter @LHarrisWrites