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Election coverage boldly goes where no man has gone before

June 06, 2009|By BILL KOHLER

Have you seen the new "Star Trek" movie yet?

If not, I highly recommend it.

After all, what's not to like?

A smokin' hot cast, great special effects, lots of explosions and other loud stuff, a good script and a bunch of cool gadgets and spaceships.

As I tried to recover my hearing after the movie, I watched the credits roll and realized how much work goes into a movie behind the scenes.

Without the work of the costume director, the characters of Kirk, Spock and Uhura wouldn't look so cool in those clingy Federation shirts.

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Without a strong makeup crew, Spock's ears would look like he picked up a set from Wal-Mart before filming began.

You get the picture.

It made me think about some of the behind-the-scenes efforts that fueled coverage of the May 19 election in Hagerstown, as well as the primary election in Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania.

What you saw in the newspaper and on our Web site that night and the next day was a well-presented and organized (we hope) display of words, numbers and photos telling the story of who won and who lost. We were unable to completely tell the story because the Hagerstown City Council election was too close to call by our deadline.

And just like a movie, TV show or play, none of that happens without lots of planning and behind-the-scenes work.

It all begins with planning and organization. Candidates face deadlines to file for office and we follow that. Soon after, we cruise the lists of candidates, looking for story ideas, interesting races and incumbents hanging up their public-service hats.

Months before a primary, we plan pre-Election Day coverage. In Hagerstown, City Editor Linda Duffield and reporter Dan Dearth, who covers the city as his beat, plotted out a plan to cover the primary like a blanket. Dearth asked each candidate for mayor and city council the same questions and had them answer them in their own words.

Once we had the answers, we blocked out pages and pages of space in papers leading up to the primary. Copy editors and page designers then contributed by laying out the pages and including headshots of the candidates.

We did the same for the city's general election as well.

In Franklin County, we also mapped out strategy a few months ahead of time, picking out the key races for our readers. Reporters Jennifer Fitch and Kate Alexander offered input on new ways to cover the elections, including more Q&A's for the paper, and using video interviews on our Web site.

Election coverage is time-consuming and a bit stressful because we must be fair down to the letter. When I read election preview stories, I print them out and count the number of lines. If one is longer than the other, I cut it. When a candidate goes over the 50-word limit to a question, I cut it.

Once we get past the previews and the election is less than a week away, newsroom graphic artist Chad Trovinger produces the election boxes that accompany nearly every story we run about a contested race. He's always thrilled to see me coming with a pile of papers in my hand.

The boxes then are checked and double-checked to ensure they are mistake-free and easy to read.

The final step is planning the coverage for the reporters on election night, including deadlines, lengths of stories, quotes, transmission issues from the courthouses and sending updates for our Web site.

On election night, a cast of thousands (OK, more like seven or eight) are in the main office reading the stories, checking vote totals, designing pages and double-checking the pages, while the reporters are gathering the vote totals, filing stories, interviewing candidates and meeting deadlines.

This planning, scheduling and added attention to detail behind the scenes add hours to the day, but is worth it when the finished products hit the streets or our Web site.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 1-800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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