How Sun rose to an unusually challenging vote

Public Editor

November 12, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Now that this angry, hard-fought election is finally over, one thing is certain - the challenge of covering elections has greatly increased for newspapers such as The Sun.

Even in the recent past, covering an election was something experienced editors and reporters had down to a science. A newspaper's political beat reporters would be assigned to report on specific campaigns and write about the key issues; the editorial board would endorse candidates; and the news pages would then provide election results in the next morning's edition.

But highly sophisticated political tactics, new voting technologies, more special-interest money and a closely divided electorate have combined to require a more extensive and intensive journalistic effort. These factors - combined with an increasingly skeptical and highly partisan public - have made the newspaper's job of informing and clarifying more demanding than ever.

There is much more to cover: Dozens of sophisticated and often negative campaign ads to analyze, a dizzying array of polls to decipher and concerns about the security of electronic voting systems to investigate. The 2006 election also offered the most competitive races in many years - including attorney general, comptroller and several congressional contests.

So in a year of shrinking resources here and at many newspapers across the country, The Sun has had to devote a larger-than-usual proportion of its journalistic resources to the statewide elections.

On election night, Nov. 7, more than 100 reporters, editors, page designers, graphic artists, photographers and online staffers were assigned to produce the front page; a 16-page special section, Maryland Votes, which by early Wednesday morning contained the latest results available, and the online edition.

The Sun's Website continued to update stories all day Wednesday - including Republican Gov. Robert L Ehrlich Jr.'s concession to Democrat Martin J. O'Malley in the governor's race and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's concession to Democratic candidate Benjamin L. Cardin in the U.S. Senate race. Thursday's print edition provided further analysis on how O'Malley won - with special emphasis on his surprisingly strong showing in Baltimore County.

This is exactly what a metropolitan news organization must do to be successful in this highly competitive media environment.

Reader Tony Langbehn said: "It was a very thorough and well done report on the election. Everything I wanted to know was in the paper, given the time frame. I really appreciated the analysis of why people voted the way they did."

From Edward Jannis: "I give The Sun credit for doing a really good job on this 2006 Election edition, but I still think, however, that you have been too favorable to O'Malley during the campaign. Nonetheless, he and Cardin won fair and square."

Helping voters before, during and after the election has become an important part of a newspaper's mission. At The Sun the best example was the interaction between reporter Melissa Harris - the lead reporter on electronic voting and absentee ballot issues - and readers seeking answers to problems or providing the newspaper with information.

Reader Ray Ranker wrote on Nov. 6: "I am a registered voter and I applied for an absentee ballot to the Baltimore County Board of Elections in time. However, despite repeated calls, e-mails and even faxes, I did not receive my ballot or a response from the board. I am very upset because this was a very important election and I have never missed one."

Harris responded to Ranker via e-mail: "The problem is that the ballots themselves were late in coming from the printer to the local boards, which was particularly acute in Baltimore County. Here's the number to contact the elections director and demand that she fax you and your family the ballots."

The Sun reported in the Maryland Votes section that 192,000 state residents had requested absentee ballots and that 130,000 ballots had been returned. State election officials began counting the ballots Thursday. Another article, "Fewer election flaws, in general," told readers that eight weeks after polling problems marred Maryland's primary election, the much-maligned electronic voting system worked very well despite a higher-than-anticipated voter turnout.

Another thing that is certain - this has been a very long political season.

"Ehrlich and O'Malley have been running against each other since November 2002 and Sen. Paul Sarbanes announced his retirement in March 2005," said Sun political editor David Nitkin. "This year was the Super Bowl of politics in Maryland. But the real Super Bowl is over in four hours."

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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