Election Coverage Aims to Inspire the Young to Vote

AAN Papers Try New Approaches along with Traditional Stories and Pointed Commentary

Even though summer has just arrived, the media is already looking ahead toward fall because of the importance of the upcoming U.S. election.

Papers belonging to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies have already published a plethora of opinion pieces on the presidential race. Larger AAN papers supplement the steady commentary with more traditional coverage, running stories of national interest, while smaller papers are busy bringing the election down to a local level.

You won’t find many reporters from smaller papers spending more than a few days on the campaign trail with candidates or traipsing around the conventions. An exception is The Santa Fe Reporter, which will have a reporter at the Democratic convention in Boston following the state’s governor, Bill Richardson, who is convention chairman.

Papers with lower circulations face the challenge of devising innovative ways to cover crucial national and state elections without diverting precious resources from their core coverage areas.

Smaller papers try novel approaches

Something different is what the staff at the Tucson Weekly tried prior to primaries in Arizona. The paper’s January presidential primary coverage consisted of a light-hearted, albeit informative, look at the race written by senior writer Jim Nintzel. The story was accompanied by a candidate chart that broke down candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

Nintzel’s witty candidate profiles included information like this for Sen. Joe Lieberman: “So close and yet so far. Joe would have been vice president if some yahoo in Palm Beach hadn’t experimented with a butterfly ballot that led a bunch of seniors to vote for Pat Buchanan. Now he can’t break double-digits anywhere in the country. Lieberman thought the whole campaign wasn’t going to be about outrage over the 2000 results. Instead, Dean’s turned the campaign into outrage against the Democratic establishment Joe represents.”

The comedy mixed with insight was seen as a way to relate to young voters. A “Presidential Primary Puzzle Page” — complete with a crossword puzzle and word search — was another part of the package.

The word search featured a hunt for campaign-year words such as Iraq and Weapons of Mass Destruction. The crossword offered clues like 18 down: pill popper. A four-letter word starting with “R” may have been a gimmee, just like the concept for the package.

“It kind of made fun of the whole process, yet it made fun of it in an intelligent, issue-oriented way,” Tucson Weekly editor Jimmy Boegle says.

At the Ventura County Reporter, Editor Hillary Johnson was looking for a way to spark her readers’ interest in politics and have it grow as November approached.

“The idea is to focus on local races and hope to use them to stimulate interest across the board,” she explains.

The paper’s biggest project to date is running a weekly candidate’s diary written by a local Democratic underdog Congressional candidate, Brett Wagner. As Wagner faces off against a nine-term incumbent Republican, the series gives the reader a behind-the-scenes look at running for office. The pieces are not only intended to spur a desire to vote, but maybe even inspire readers to take up the challenge themselves.

The Santa Fe Reporter has decided to focus on its readers’ involvement in the election process as well as the issues, says editor Julia Goldberg.

“We are trying to analyze what is going on in this county and how Bush’s presidency is affecting people in a very real way,” she says. “During the primary we didn’t just ask local candidates to talk about local issues; we asked them about their reactions to events taking place around the world and their understanding of these events.

“Through that line of questioning, we are seeing and tracking trends. One in particular is the high number of first-time candidates running this year solely because of the abhorrence of Bush. His policies have galvanized them to want to make a difference.”

The Reporter has offered a hipper alternative to the youth-oriented “Rock the Vote” drives sponsored by a nonprofit foundation by introducing its own “Hip Hop Voter Project.”

The events, including a recent paper-sponsored concert by De La Soul, take place on the first Friday of every month through October. The shows are a combination concert/voter registration and education drive focusing on young, first-time voters.

While these movements have received some criticism regarding their actual effectiveness, Goldberg says the act of registration isn’t nearly as important as the project’s educational benefits.

“Registering people in and of itself doesn’t necessarily have a lot of impact,” she says. “But registering them may spark them to want more information about what’s going on, and then we have the outlet to give them that information.”

Larger papers dig deep on some election issues

While smaller papers are trying to find different ways of disseminating information, larger ones are doing what they’ve always done, devoting resources to analytic and investigative reporting, and sometimes breaking significant news that the dailies missed.

Papers like The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix, Seattle Weekly and The Memphis Flyer have had no shortfall of election stories and commentaries. This year’s Democratic convention in Boston and Republican convention in New York City are obvious covers for The Phoenix and The Voice as well as their smaller rivals, Boston’s Weekly Dig and New York Press. Less expected, however, is the Flyer’s coverage. It plans to send at least one reporter to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, according to Editor Bruce VanWyngarden.

Actually, the decision to allocate more resources to the election is not surprising given the amount of coverage the Flyer has given the race thus far. The paper sent a reporter to both New Hampshire and Iowa to cover the Democratic primaries. A reporter also tagged along with Howard Dean on the “Sleepless Summer” tour last year.

The paper’s biggest coup to date, however, was a story about Bush’s alleged service in the Alabama National Guard. The paper produced three pilots who said the President never showed up for service. The story was picked up nationally by CNN, ABC and Time.

The Voice has offered a series of insightful stories on the campaign. Senior editor Wayne Barrett led investigative teams that delved into the past and present activities of alleged GOP “dirty tricks operative” Roger Stone.

A February piece focused on Stone’s financing, staffing and orchestrating of the presidential campaign of Democratic hopeful, the Rev. Al Sharpton. Another story presented evidence that Stone is profiting from his previously unannounced work on Bush’s Bureau of Indian Affairs by getting fat consulting paychecks from in-the-works casino deals.

A third story addressed Stone’s aggressive campaign to smear 2000 Reform Party Candidate Pat Buchanan with a story about the right-wing extremist’s alleged fathering of an illegitimate child and purported payoffs to the child’s mother to keep the story out of the press.

Anti-Bush stance doesn’t leave Kerry unscathed

While the editorial voice in commentaries and editorials is clearly anti-Bush, the news coverage is being handled differently.

“We don’t endorse officially, though we are anti-Bush in every regard,” VanWyngarden says. “Our opinion columns, both local and syndicated, reflect that goal (to oust Bush).

“But our news coverage of the candidates remains neutral.”

In commentaries, the Flyer has urged Green Party candidate Ralph Nader not to run, calling his campaign “a pointless, ego-driven diversion from the real race.”

As for Kerry, the Flyer and other papers seem to be cautiously backing — or at least defending — him. A recent column in Seattle’s The Stranger was titled “What John Kerry Should Be Saying If He Wants to Win.” Another in Seattle Weekly, titled “The Problem with Kerry,” discussed the Democratic presumed nominee’s Al Gore-like excitement levels. Another Weekly column proclaimed “Attack! Attack! Attack!: Note to John Kerry: Win first, apologize later.”

Voice columnist James Ridgeway did urge Democrats to cut bait and find another candidate in a piece entitled “John Kerry must go.” The Voice also produced a news piece about Kerry entitled “When John Kerry’s Courage Went M.I.A.,” about the senator’s alleged cover-up of documents relating to prisoners of war left behind in Vietnam.

Not all papers plan to endorse a presidential candidate. Of those that do, it’s hard to imagine the name Bush appearing positively.

“We take our role as endorser very serious,” says the Santa Fe Reporter’s Goldberg. “Our approach will continue to be to write about the issues that are important right now — Iraq, The Patriot Act, the destruction of this country’s environmental laws — so that when we make our endorsement we can reiterate the reporting we’ve done all year about why this election is so important.

“Our readers won’t be voting for George Bush, so we try with our endorsements to make sure they vote and get others out to do the same.”

Charlie Deitch is a freelance writer who lives near Pittsburgh, Pa.