Election season an opportunity to serve readers

May 07, 2006|By BILL KOHLER

It's important to you, so it's important to us.

Sounds simple enough, this phrase of customer service commitment, but it rings hollow for some businesses that ignore the needs and interests of their customers as they head down a slippery slope to losing their business and, at the very least, their customer base.

In the news business, we can't afford to ignore our readers, viewers or listeners, or we certainly will lose them. Not only is this a fundamental error of gargantuan proportion, but with the competition for our readers' attention in the new millennium, it would be like cutting off our hands.

A prime example of this is local election season. To politicians, journalists and those who follow local politics regularly, it's not just an election or a primary, it's an election season.


Primary elections affecting local voters will be held in West Virginia this Tuesday and in Pennsylvania the following Tuesday.

As with the candidates, preparations begin months ahead of time at The Herald-Mail. It begins with a filing period that we cover during January or February and continues after the period concludes.

Next comes my job of lining up the potential races in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia and Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania, assigning profiles and previews to the reporters with lengths, deadlines and headshots.

About a month before the actual election, we begin publishing profiles or Q&As, depending on the number of candidates and the range of interest in the races. For example, a countywide school board race usually will generate more interest than a town council showdown.

As reporters write their profiles, they are pressed with the task of fairness. They must make sure they have headshots of all of the candidates and that each candidates is asked the same question or questions and gets about the same amount of ink - number of inches - in the story.

With Wednesday's preview story about the Jefferson County Board of Education, we gave the candidates three questions and 25 words to answer each. I printed the story and counted every word for each of the 11 candidates.

Reporter Dave McMillion did his job well. Each candidate had 25 words or less.

These are some of the lengths to which newspapers should go to be fair.

The press gets accused of many things - being too left, being too right, covering too much about the incumbents, etc.

One thing is for sure: Our jobs are to report both sides, cover the issues, attend the forums, write fair headlines and double-check the accuracy and fairness quotient.

The story, of course, doesn't end here. Election night coverage requires hours of planning, designing graphics, making sure there's enough space in the paper to get all of the election stories in and even checking to see if we can get a phone line so we can file from the courthouse instead of coming back to the office.

After the chaos of election night, reporters stay at the courthouse until all of the precincts are in and the votes counted. Then, they refile their stories to update our coverage for The Daily Mail in the afternoon and for our Web site,

Then comes the follow-up. We talk to the winners (and sometimes the losers) about their plans for office or about the challenge ahead in the general election.

Editors get together the following day to discuss what went right and what went wrong and how we can do better the next time.

Within a few weeks, planning begins for the general election in November: Lining up races, collecting headshots and arranging for graphics.

Why do we do it? It's important to you, so it's important to us.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State Editor of The Herald-Mail. You may reach him at 1-800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at

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