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Minneapolis elections coverage: The fall decline

There’s a lot less coverage from traditional sources this year than in the 2005 election, and new media haven’t yet filled the gap.

You don’t have to be a Minneapolitan to appreciate Steve Brandt’s Oct. 20 piece stapling Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak for campaign finance reform hypocrisy. As accountability journalism, it was top-notch, listing fund-raising practices that Rybak opposed as a 2001 insurgent candidate for mayor, yet now embraces as a two-term incumbent planning a gubernatorial bid.

In its way, though, Brandt’s story was bittersweet.

Compared with four years ago, Minneapolis election coverage is down substantially, at least in the eyes of this Minneapolis voter. Though there are mitigating factors, 2009 election coverage seems a near-textbook case of how economic realities have punished local reportage in the four years since the last race, and how new media haven’t yet filled legacy-media holes.

The immediate losers are Minneapolis voters wondering who the hell to vote for — but more broadly, local citizens who need journalists to vet their choices at election time.

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Shrinking staffs, tougher choices
This issue smacked me in the head this weekend when I opened the city’s largest community paper, the Southwest Journal. The Oct. 19-Nov. 1 issue featured the Voter’s Guide … but what stunned me was the realization that the Journal hadn’t really covered ward, mayoral or board races before that.

Disclaimer: I edited the Journal four years ago, current editor Sarah McKenzie is a good pal, and for the past four months, the Journal has provided editorial space to a nonprofit farmers’ market I volunteer for.

Throughout the Journal’s history — well before I started editing it in 2002 — city elections have been the paper’s Super Bowl, the centerpiece of weeks, if not months, of issues. This time around, political race coverage was limited to a single issue, with many candidates getting little more than an explanatory paragraph.

McKenzie had to make some tough choices I never faced. She says last year — prior to the Great Recession — she had six reporters to cover southwest and downtown Minneapolis. Now she has four. I was able to throw multiple staffers at the various ward races; McKenzie has used only one, her City Hall reporter, Cristof Traudes.

Meanwhile, over at the Strib, Brandt has faced a similar situation.

He will cover just two of 13 ward races before the Nov. 3 Election Day, including the Fifth Ward today. In 2005, the Strib covered seven ward races, using multiple reporters.

“I suggested that it would be good to have help for some of the other ward races, but the cavalry never arrived,” Brandt says.

Trying triage
Of course, Minneapolis no longer dominates the Twin Cities; the city’s population accounts for only 12 percent of the Strib’s designated market area. But if anything, that share has increased as the paper has pulled back from nonmetro areas.

Both the Strib (whose editorial page has also cut back endorsements) and the Journal adopted similar triage philosophies. They’ve focused on citywide issues — especially Instant Runoff Voting, the new and unfamiliar method where voters can rank up to three candidates per race.

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Traudes also wrote multiple stories on a charter change that would have made the Minneapolis Park Board financially independent of the city. (The initiative, later ruled unconstitutional, won’t be on the ballot.) Strib readers will likely see coverage of a move to axe the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

Though coincidental, the three initiatives couldn’t have come along at a worse time journalistically. A depleted reporting corps was forced to spend precious time explaining reform as traditional campaign coverage went begging.

While I’m an IRV backer, the loss of the September primary also removed one major “news peg” for election coverage. Then again, my review of 2005 coverage shows only a few pre-primary stories that year. Nevertheless, primary winnowing did make general election stories simpler. 

Brandt is also trying unconventional approaches. Knowing he’d be time-pressed, he sent candidates questionnaires months ago “designed to give readers information on how well [they] grasp city-wide issues.”

Brandt adds that “despite our professed commitment to a strong online presence, the only set posted has been with the Fourth Ward race,” which also informed the Strib’s only ward-specific feature until Wednesday. “They’re all sitting in my computer waiting for the editors to assign someone to aggregate them, as they have been since late September.”

(Several hours after our conversation, the Strib published the Fifth Ward set.)

The questionnaires in part are designed to replace the Strib’s Voter’s Guide, which had been too superficial, a point the Strib’s then-ombudsperson Kate Parry made a few years back.

Instead of traditional candidate-versus-candidate coverage, Brandt focused his mayoral aim efforts on a three-part “Rybak performance series.” The finance piece is the middle stanza; the first part was on jobs.

Though Brandt has also publicized Rybak’s refusal to debate, he won’t do a piece assessing mayoral challengers’ credibility. “I expect voters to do their homework,” Brandt says. “Who is credible and who is not is evident if you attend forums, go to websites, and so on.”

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Well, yeah, readers could be a lot smarter if they did their own legwork, but that’s value journalists get paid to provide. With IRV giving voters the chance to rank three, assessing the whole field is more critical. And while conventional wisdom says Rybak’s 10 challengers have little chance (none has raised big money, and some aren’t campaigning seriously), we don’t know for sure until the voters speak.

Update: Brandt’s mayoral questionnaire also appeared Wednesday, and it does help with the credibility question.

There will likely be fewer close races this time — an objective reason for less ’09 coverage. Still, at least one race — for citywide Park Board seats — is filled with credible candidates, and has been virtually ignored.

Even if the wiseguys are right about this year’s quality, one of my great pleasures as Journal editor was being able to err on the side of taking races seriously. That’s a luxury now.

A smaller player also contributes to the legacy-media pullback. In 2005, the alt-weekly City Pages did five pre-election features; there have been none so far this year. (An Oct. 7 cover story on Seventh Ward Councilmember Lisa Goodman, while well done, wasn’t elections-driven.)

New media: Good but not yet enough
The good news is that the new media has stepped up to fill the gap — primarily Minnesota Independent.

MnIndy, which didn’t exist in 2005, covered all 13 ward races, using its entire four-person staff. Meanwhile, Twin Cities Daily Planet, another Minneapolis-based nonprofit, is putting together an online hub of community media stories.

As a voter, I’m grateful for MnIndy’s dedication, and its diligence in getting candidates on the record. They’ve burnished their credentials by covering ward debates. Still, the features rely solely on candidate statements rather than broader community sources, and there’s little independent evaluation of claims.

TCDP’s hub depends largely on MnIndy’s work, which shows how parched the Minneapolis mediascape remains. At this point, I’m compelled to note that MinnPost has done almost nothing on the Minneapolis elections (though I’m glad Doug Grow has an article today on the mayor’s race). Before 2013 comes around, we need to change that.

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Update 2: The League of Women Voters urges folks to go to their website to get information about candidate forums. You can find out more election information by entering your zip code here.