Minneapolis elections coverage: The fall decline

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/21/2009 - 11:03 am.

    The effect of IRV on this race is not limited to the news coverage. Under the old rules, one of these underfunded and unknown challengers would have finished second in the primary, setting up a potentially meaningful general election race. The opposition to the incumbent could have coalesced around the surviving challenger, and money and effort could have been focused on that single candidate. Instead, that money and effort is scattered between multiple candidates, and as a result, there is no opportunity for a viable challenger to emerge.

    Obviously, Rybak was never in any danger, but this could have implications in a race with a more vulnerable incumbent.

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/21/2009 - 11:08 am.

    I just read Doug Grow’s article, which hits on the same points I did.

  3. Submitted by David Brauer on 10/21/2009 - 11:35 am.

    Dan – one weakness of Doug’s story is no Thune rejoinder from the pro-IRV side. While I think there are some IRV effects on this year’s *coverage*, I’m not buying the “keep good candidates out” claim.

    Look at – ironically – today’s Strib. Steve Brandt makes the point that IRV is (potentially) a big threat to incumbent Don Samuels. Different races have different dynamics.

    I think the reason Rybak has no real opposition has a lot more to do with him crushing Peter McLaughlin in ’05. The McL forces thought they could win via unions, NRP die-hards, and folks pissed off about crime. Didn’t come close to happening. All three of those bases of opposition are weaker this time around (RT already received a Teamsters endorsement for governor!) with only property tax and police brutality opposition stronger. And that’s rarely a winner in Mpls, especially since many city voters know the tax hike is fomented by LGA cuts and pre-Rybak pension giveaways.

    Lots of potential opponents holding city office (Gary Schiff, for example), considered the ’09 race, but held off in the crucial ’08 prep phase thinking RT might go to Washington. Why tap your base for a fight when the incumbent might be gone? And of course, a guv bid – which I think has a poor chance of succeeding – also opens the seat up.

    If a McLaughlin-level opponent HAD entered the ’09 race, he/she would’ve gotten plenty of coverage and it would be a contest, no matter IRV or lack of primary. And, said savvy opponents would’ve made common cause with fellow opponents, as the savvier 5th ward candidates are doing.

    I thin the “coalescing” stratagem is a primary-era relic, but it can also happen via IRV, maybe even more easily. It’s just a different method. The primary is a two-step coalesce. IRV happens on a single ballot as choices are aggregated.

    If it survives, we’ll see the real effects in 2013 with an open seat. And if you think IRV will keep tons of qualified candidates out when that happens, I’ll bet you a beer you’re wrong.

  4. Submitted by karl anderson on 10/21/2009 - 01:06 pm.

    hats off to MN Independent, but the problem is that bloggers/niche news tend to cover only what they consider to be interesting events. The Ash bore, local elections, etc – while important – are largely ignored.

    This is why tradional media – namely the Strib and PP – are so important.

  5. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 10/21/2009 - 01:42 pm.

    Thanks for the response, David.

    I don’t disagree that Rybak’s popularity and sucess in the last election is the primary reason there isn’t a real race this time, so this race is a bad example for the points being argued. I am going to disagree with you on a couple of things, though:

    First, if a McLaughlin/Schiff type of candidate had run, I still think that IRV would have hurt them even though it would be a real contest because some of their would-be votes would have gone to other “spoiler” candidates. The IRV response to this is that those votes would come back to the McLaughlin/Schiff type candidate through second choices. That assumes that those voters are making second and third choices, which is far from unviersal in jurisdictions that have IRV.

    Second, the coalescing stratagem absolutely cannot and and will not work with IRV because its not just about votes, its about the money and effort that is expended prior to the election. For example, lets say you have three viable challengers to an incumbent, all of which have similar positions and draw from similar voters. In a primary system, one of those challengers will emerge to compete against the incumbent (assuming the incumbent survives the primary) in the general election. From that point on, the money and volunteer efforts that would have been split three ways would all go toward a single candidate. That doesn’t happen with IRV. Sure, some people will make the other candidates their second and third choices, but that’s a far cry from the other two candidates ending their campaigns and endorsing the primary survivor.

    I read the article on the Samuels race and to me that underscored the weakness of the arguments of IRV proponents. Only one of the candidates offered a second choice, and that was only after being asked about it in a debate. The others did not respond. What is a voter looking for a second choice supposed to do with that? Realistically, no candidate is going to disclose their second choice or even say positive things about other candidates in their campaign advertising.

    You can argue some of Thune’s points, but when it comes to debates, its hard to refute what he says. Anyone who watched any of the SNL-worthy presidential primary debates knows the effect too many candidates has. If the old system had remained in Minneapolis, the primary survivor might not have had a chance against Rybak, but there could have been meaningful debates. With 10 candidates running and no primary election to narrow the field, it becomes nothing more than a circus.

    Thune’s concerns about cost are also valid. If St. Paul (where I live) adopts IRV this fall, we are going to have to have two sets of voting equipment. Given the budget constraints we face, I would rather see that money spent on libraries and cops than on a new voting system. I know that in some places, there have been problems finding IRV-compatible voting machines that meet election law requirements. If we end up with touch screen machines or other systems that have led to so many problems in other states just to get IRV, what have we accomplished?

  6. Submitted by Jeremy Hanson on 10/21/2009 - 05:45 pm.

    While I agree that media coverage of the city elections is inadequate, it is not accurate to report that Mayor Rybak has refused to debate. He did not participate in a debate sponsored by a blogger on an MTN program, but he is going to participate in a debate sponsored by MPR. The League of Women Voters is not sponsoring a mayoral debate, or he could have participated in that one.

  7. Submitted by Fredric Markus on 10/22/2009 - 02:00 pm.

    There’s no argument from me that the silence in this municipal election year has been oppressive. Politics, on the other hand, abhors a vacuum and I for one haven’t been particularly shy about helping to fill that void. Specifically, I’ve posted on Minneapolis Mirror any number of times, ditto for Minneapolis Issues, put fairly long comments on both the Daily Planet and Southside Pride, a tart letter to the editor of City Pages, and now the mother lode: the comments berths on Southwest Journal.

    I tend to ignore the Strib, although I agree with David that Steve Brandt has been right on. It’s also intriguing to see a narrative about my own Ward 6 on myFOX9.com related to the implications of Ranked Choice Voting.

    The medium is the message, all right, and my sometimes rather rushed commentaries have stood out as instant subliminals to the DFL hierarchy who have thought they had cornered the local political market. It’s one thing to engineer outcomes for preferred candidates in the endorsing convention process – tinker with the rules, pack the body, manipulate floor action when many delegates aren’t ready for sudden and sometimes arcane events. This hegemony in practice tends to exclude new voices, institutionalize “the usual suspects” and calcify what would be far healthier if there were fairer playing fields.

    RCV devalues the usual political labels, effectively bringing diversity that survives the entire campaign season, that isn’t killed in the crib many months before the general electorate has any say in the matter. Ah, yes. How you gonna keep them down on the farm!

    Freedom of action is a precious advantage in these most local races. Incumbents’ survival depends on their relationships in a changing electorate. Not, thank goodness, on the influence-peddling, rule-bending, old-boy insider trading that seems to emerge in non-competitive settings. It’s also pretty difficult to come into a race with a determined ideological intent because the general electorate isn’t as gullible as the neophytes on a convention floor.

    There are quite a number of new personalities now – some are candidates, some are online bloggers, some are trained journalists who prosper with the new digital tools available. Campaign management technology has also been forced to adapt, given the instant opportunities and equally instant turn-arounds proliferating on the Internet.

    There are also new students of the trade who hail from novel quarters, produce media products of interest to their target markets, and in the fullness of time stand for election.

    Because we have such a potpourri of ethnicities, RCV is very accomodating as a learning environment. One doesn’t need to grasp 20 or 20 pages of fine print and promise to be exclusively faithful to what is, after all, a voluntary association. Thus even the political parties themselves, still salient at the state and federal levels of our government, find themselves obliged to “use it or lose it”. We have arrived at a political marketplace where loyalties are mercurial and no dogmatic slogans can change that.

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