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Papers enlist social media, students to keep tabs on national election news

By The Working Press

By Ryan Murphy and Carlos Restrepo
The Working Press

In an era of shrinking staffs and budgets, newspapers around the country are having to do more with less for this year’s election coverage.

In the nation’s capital, where politics is king, The Washington Post announced in February its fifth official buyout of newsroom staff in three years.

To keep up, the newspaper is using more social media and student correspondents.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is consolidating beats and relying mostly on national wire services for national political coverage.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is maintaining its single-person Washington bureau. It sent reporters to cover both national party conventions: the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

Still, some newspapers are wrestling with how to serve up a full political menu of stories on a tight budget.

Cuts at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch have affected the paper’s ability to deliver in-depth news about government, said David Sheets, incoming SPJ Region 7 director. Sheets was laid off from his job as copy editor and designer at the Post-Dispatch in July.

In 1872, Joseph Pulitzer founded the Post-Dispatch, one of his first national dailies. In 2005, Iowa-based Lee Enterprises bought the Post-Dispatch from the Pulitzer family. That’s when the cuts began, Sheets said.

“There are really important stories that require a lot of time and research,” he said. “The layoffs have cut into the ability for staff to do more meaningful stories.”

Fewer journalists covering local politics meant readers began to question the paper’s credibility.

“A gap widens between you and your audience,” Sheets said. “You become a stranger to your readers.”

Readers still demand a print publication that covers issues that matter to them, said newly elected SPJ President Sonny Albarado, who is acting city editor and projects editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The digital world, however, is the future of journalism, Albarado said.

“We are all trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but I am a realist, and I know ultimately it’s all going digital,” Albarado said. “We are all part of this big experiment.”

At the Washington Post, the politics section is a major point of pride for the paper, especially during a presidential election year. The paper takes special pains to ensure issues are covered thoroughly despite layoffs and cutbacks, using more Web-based resources to keep up with the campaigns.

“We are able to get our stories out a lot more quickly and we are also able to scan, see what other people are reporting on, see what campaigns are saying and doing,” said Natalie Jennings, manager of social media and engagement at The Washington Post.

“There are lots of digital tools we can use,’’ she said.

One of those tools is social media tracking, which enabled the Post to find an unconventional way of covering this year’s election. The staff started by reaching out to students in a class at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, who were already following the elections using social media.

The Washington Post piggybacked on the class project and tracked the students’ tweets, incorporating some of the information into the newspaper’s live blogging.

The Washington Post editors also created “The 12,” a blog where 14 college journalists report on election goings-on in 12 swing states, including Florida, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio and Virginia.

The Tumblr-based project is a way for the The Washington Post to integrate more social media into its election coverage while also having a constant presence in those places where races would be most contentious, Jennings said.

Virginia Commonwealth University senior Mechelle Hankerson reports for The 12.

“They’re using the students as a starting point for stories instead of wasting resources and sending someone out to Colorado to sit there for three months … and wait for something to happen,” Hankerson said.

The mass communications major was one of a group of student journalists who recently participated in a conference call with President Barack Obama and a nationwide selection of student journalists.

Jennings said students have more inherent advantages over campaign-trail reporters.

“There’s perspective for someone who lives there as opposed to a reporter who’s just traveling there … there may be angles that we’re coming around to that maybe state media are covering, and students can help call our attention to that,” she said. ??

College students are not replacing The Washington Post’s election reporting, but the program allows students to contribute to coverage and get an inside look at the process of working with a major media company and covering an election, Jennings said.

“They’re kind of getting their feet wet with political coverage,” she said.




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