Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election night shows newsrooms still have long way to go

So it is 1:30 a.m. as I write this and two key statewide elections in South Carolina are too close to call. The lieutenant governor's race has the Republican leading by 5,605 votes, and the Democrat leads the educatation superintendent's race by 504 votes. Both are out of more than 1 million cast.

Three counties have precincts still out: Greenville, Charleston and Sumter. It's nice to know some things never change. It's the usual pro-GOP upstate (Greenville) against the Dems in the two others.

But some things need to change. So let's look at how the major papers in those counties have handled what should be updates on their Web sites explaining exactly what is going on. Here's Sumter:

That's nice. voters are still heading to the polls. At 1 a.m.!

Click on the election results line and you'll get actual vote totals. But will you get any kind of explanation about what is going on in what is a key county in two key races?

I can't find it.

Let's next turn to Greenville, where five precincts remained out.

That screen grab is a little small, so let me help. Under that picture it says "Just 6,000 votes separate them." Only off by a factor of 10 or so at this hour. (And a little dissonant with the story underneath that says the margin is 300 votes.)

At least there is a story, if you look for it, explaining what's up in the Upstate -- the five-year batteries on five voting machines in four precincts conked out after two years. Local technicians didn't have whatever was needed, so a technician was coming in from Charleston and should arrive by 2 a.m. Wednesday (just about as I am writing this).

Of course, through the magic of this Gannett paper's constantly updating Web site, this all was gone within 10 minutes, replaced with a story about how the Fresh Market might locate in town. (Guess undecided elections that only mean whether the GOP controls the entire mechanism of state government for the first time in modern times become old news fast.) Fortunately, there was a "more coverage" election button up top that did take me to a shell page -- but not to any updated stories. And the explanation story was even lower on that page.

Let's move to the coast and Charleston, the key counterpoint to the GOP-heavy Greenville. It had almost 10 precincts out.

Again, a little small, so let me help. Just a list of stories with a button pointing you to results "updated 11 p.m." Second from the bottom in this screen grab is the education superintendent story with this breaking lead:

Democrat Jim Rex held a slim lead over Republican Karen Floyd in the race for state superintendent of education, early results showed. Rex appeared to be reaping at least some reward Tuesday night for his unwavering support of the public school system.

Rex, who has campaigned on an anti-voucher platform, ran ahead of Floyd and four third-party candidates at 10 p.m., but counties such as Spartanburg and Greenville had not yet reported results.

Now, remember, I am writing this at 1 a.m. And were there any details of how close this lead was or why it was taking forever to get key precincts counted in this paper's home county? No, this was pure condom journalism -- throw some noncommittal words up on the site that can't get you into that much trouble and let it sit.

As for those results "updated 11 p.m."? Hardly. I just clicked on them, and they have barely half of the precincts reporting. Those figures were in by 10 p.m.

But then again, did the AP have anything explaining what was going on? Not that I could find on any sites around the state. So I checked the raw wire feed. Here's the 2nd LD-Writethru filed at 1:19 a.m.:

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina Republicans closed in on their hopes of securing a sweep of statewide offices Tuesday night, even with two races still too close to call.

Republicans came into the elections with seven of the nine statewide offices. They gained a seat when Thomas Ravenel ousted Treasurer Grady Patterson, the only statewide Democratic incumbent on the ballot.

The race for the only other office occupied by Democrats was too close to call early Wednesday morning. Democratic education superintendent candidate Jim Rex had a slight lead over Republican Karen Floyd.

And although an official call on the race had not yet been made, Republican Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer thanked his supporters for their help during his campaign against Democratic challenger Robert Barber.

"It's been a tough, tough year," Bauer said, making reference to surviving a small plane crash in May and two opponents in the GOP primary. "I can't say enough about God getting me through this process."

The races for lieutenant governor and education superintendent will likely trigger automatic recounts, said Lachlan McIntosh, a spokesman for Barber.

The other six Republican incumbents won easily.

Bauer wanted a second term to primarily to preside over the Senate during session and oversee the state Office on Aging, which was transferred to the lieutenant governor in 2004 after Bauer asked for more responsibilities.

Barber, a former legislator and Lowcountry restaurant owner, had said he wanted to help improve the state's economy and improve public education _ issues he says are linked. He likely won't concede until all the votes are counted, McIntosh said.

(The rest deals with other races)

Finally, The (Columbia) State, which has always prided itself on being the political paper of record. It did have constantly updated results displayed prominently. But as for those close races, more condom journalism as we now move past 2 a.m.:

Early returns Tuesday put Democrat Jim Rex, a former college professor and administrator, in position to be South Carolina’s next superintendent of education.

Rex led Republican Karen Floyd and four third-party candidates in Tuesday’s election, but large numbers of votes in Greenville County were slow to be tallied. Rex appeared to beat Floyd in her home county, Spartanburg.

Well, actually Floyd won her home county. The Greenville votes still aren't all tallied (three precincts are still out), and one Sumter precinct remains out. As I have written this, the Democrat's lead in the education race has expanded to 1,579. The Republican still leads the lieutenant governor's race, but now just by 1,862.

And newspapers have chalked up another vote in explanation of why people increasingly look to other places for their information.

Was this information elsewhere to be found? No, not necessarily. I checked a bunch of other sources, and Greenville was as good as it got. But that's the wrong question. The point is that if newsrooms are going to distinguish themselves and attract the eyeballs they need to survive, they have to do things differently -- things like understanding the issues and questions and answering them as they develop, not put early-cycle condom journalism stories up on their sites and leave them there.
(Wednesday morning update: The education race has now tightened to just about 200 votes, Democrat ahead, with one precinct still out -- in Greenville. Even given Greenville's heavily Republican nature, I think the Democrat may win by about 50 votes (third party candidates, such as Libertarian, will tend to suck away some votes that normally would go to the Republican). The Greenville News, to its credit, has updated its story on voting machine problems to now explain the one precinct has about 400 votes to count by hand -- although no explanation why it is by hand and the others were machine. And the story is out front. It also is prominently displaying an updated race story.)

Further update: Kudos to the Herald-Journal in Spartanburg -- a long Frisbee toss east of Greenville. It kept its site updated through the night and has used a blog right on the home page ("Zowee, why didn't I think of that?" I can see editors saying now as they slap their heads) to quickly publish. Example below taken around 1 a.m. with an updated educuation superintendent story:

But of more importance is that the site, Go Upstate, has quickly moved to put other highly useful graphics up for people, including a visual reprsentaton of where the votes were for each candidate. That's using your head -- and the Web:

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At 11/9/06, 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's an excellent and very correct critique of what goes on at many newspaper Web sites.

I don't know how big the paper is, but they need a little tech cross-training at times like this so a few more people can post online.

Nice work and keep this up so I can refer to it later, please. Temple Stark, Arizona


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