Current Online

Campaigns a la carte
Site filling gaps for coverage-starved voters

Originally published in Current, Oct. 21, 2002
By Dan Odenwald

In an election year when many local commercial broadcasters are ignoring the decisions facing voters, pubcasters are investing in individual and collaborative web campaigns to educate the electorate.

The Online NewsHour, for example, has partnered with approximately 35 public TV stations to produce Vote 2002, featuring news and reports on this year's midterm contests. Launched Sept. 16, the project is funded by a $288,000 CPB grant.

The site aims to pull together the best of public broadcasting's election coverage in one place, says Lee Banville, editor of the Online NewsHour. Relying on journalism from local public TV and radio stations, plus national reporting by the NewsHour staff, the site merges local and national content into a one-stop-shopping election hub.

The project also seeks to tighten the relationship between the NewsHour and local public TV stations by creating the infrastructure to share web content easily, Banville says. The two-way partnership enables the NewsHour to distribute headlines and stories to stations' sites, and allows stations to add original local content to the national site.

The partnership employs PBS's content management system, which gives the NewsHour an easy way to update PBS web content on stations' election pages. Partnering stations will be able to customize national content for local audiences, Banville says.

Visitors to the site will find "localized issue backgrounders" that include original reporting from participating stations and NewsHour transcripts covering key issues such as the economy, terrorism and prescription drug insurance. Regional political reports are updated weekly. Lesson plans on the site meet national curriculum guidelines and state standards.

Following the Nov. 5 elections, Banville plans to shift the focus of Vote 2002 to regional and local issues on the national agenda. By building on relationships forged with stations in the pre-election rush, the Online NewsHour hopes to create a permanent home for joint public affairs coverage. "We don't want it to drop off the map until 2004," Banville says.

Other public TV and radio stations around the system are driving voters to the Web to learn more about their local elections. Residents of New York can tap into by the state's PTV stations-to learn more about the candidates in the nation's second-most populous state. Wisconsin PTV hosts to inform voters about congressional contenders. Maine PBS and KUED in Salt Lake City, among others, also offer extensive voter information on the Web.

As in their broadcasting, the stations are filling a vacuum left by their commercial TV counterparts. A study released Oct. 16 revealed that more than half of local commercial newscasts included no campaign coverage for 17 days this fall. Researchers from the University of Southern California and University of Wisconsin examined newscasts of 122 stations in the nation's 50 largest markets. Among those that did cover campaigns, the average political story ran 90 seconds and featured average candidate soundbites of 9.5 seconds.

About 15,000 users visit Vote 2002 each week and view a total of about 31,000 pages, says Banville. He expects usage to peak in the final weeks before the election as PBS promotion of the site kicks in, stations air more election content and public interest builds.

Though the site doesn't cover every congressional and gubernatorial race, Banville says every station can choose among eight "regional snapshots" of hot contests in their areas. Much of the reporting on local elections is produced by the stations themselves, and Vote 2002 simply links to it.

KQED, for example, hosts a rich election site accessible through the Vote 2002 portal, says Mark Taylor, web producer. The station features interactive elements to encourage Californians to learn more about candidates and ballot initiatives. KQED partnered with the League of Women Voters to create a section on its site that allows users to type in their addresses to obtain sample ballots. The site also includes audio clips from KQED-FM's coverage of the election.

Maine PBS producer Dan Carrigan says the Online NewsHour partnership with stations allows web visitors outside of Maine to zoom in on local races in his state, plus pull back to gain a wider perspective on races in other parts of the country.

"I'm very happy that the NewsHour is reaching out this way," Carrigan says. "It's a great step for the NewsHour to start partnering with local stations."

For years, stations have wanted local cutaway opportunities in the NewsHour broadcast, but the show's producers have resisted. At the PBS Annual Meeting in June, Dan Werner, president of MacNeil/Lehrer Productions, floated the idea of giving the stations one minute a night (Current, July 8). Many station managers balked at the limited offer.

Banville doesn't view the Vote 2002 as a response to that touchy issue. But he notes the Online NewsHour has unlimited space and the broadcast has less than an hour. The website persists after broadcasts disappear, costs less and covers more ground. "The Vote 2002 site allows us the opportunity to explore issues that the broadcast might not have time to get into before the election," he says.

Vote 2002 is fully funded by CPB through July 2003. It's unclear whether CPB will renew funding or the NewsHour budget will have to absorb the costs.

Most of the $288,000 grant was spent on one-time startup costs, Banville says. As producers streamline their procedures, costs will drop dramatically. The goal is to build a low-cost, self-sustaining project, Banville says.

These days, transmitters have little or nothing to do with some things put out by public broadcasters. Current cites some sites:

New doors to old content: WNET's African American World and WGBH's Global Connections

Niche streamer: WAMU's

Campaigns a la carte: NewsHour Online's Vote 2002

Webumentary tryout: P.O.V.'s Borders

Toolmaker for station sites: Public Interactive.

Follow the reporters: Frontline's pre-broadcast diary.

To Current's home page
Outside link: Online NewsHour's Vote 2002 page.

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