By Anju Kaur
WASHINGTON - The most unusual presidential election in history will require journalists to cover it in the most innovative ways, panelists said at Friday's APME session "Election 2008: Get Ready It's Sooner than You Think."
Although by January the media may be worn out from covering the campaigns, "remember this contest will be new to the voters," said Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA TODAY. Right now, people are just thinking of school, Thanksgiving and Christmas. "They will tune in at the beginning of the year."
And when they do, Page said, put the election in context for your state. Ask: "What are candidates looking to get from my state?"
Among Republicans, Huckabee may emerge as the "dark horse" because he has huge support from evangelical Christians, Page said. "The front runners are unacceptable to the base."
Among Democrats, "Clinton seems quite unflappable, though Obama will continue to challenge her," Page said. "Edwards is fading away."
Look for a third-party candidate to emerge, she added. Because the campaigns started so early, there is time for a well-known, self-financed candidate, such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, to emerge.
"Voters want no surprise in this election," said David Westphal, editor of the McClatchy Washington bureau. They are weary of 9/11 and weary of politicians' promises. They are wondering what President Bush's compassionate conservative promises were about, he said.
Westphal suggests media emphasize accountability and truth in candidate statements.
His paper is also developing a database, www.sunshineweek.org, which will show the truthfulness of statements about government openness, secrecy and privacy. It will also have a list of questions on these issues that he would like all journalists to ask candidates at every opportunity. "This is a critical issue for democracy."
"Be skeptical on the talk of campaigns because we were so badly led," said George Condon, bureau chief at Copley News Service. He especially remembered being spun for two hours by the Dean campaign after his "scream" moment to get the media to continue to write about him.
Don't just listen to the younger voters coming out for Obama; older people are also more likely to come, Condon said.
Presidential elections have evolved since 1976 when Condon first began covering them. Newspapers are a "shrinking news hole," he said. "Things are not getting into newspapers, but they are getting into websites."
But newspapers have to consider what people are looking for on their websites, Condon said. Readers won't go to a local paper's website for national news. Local papers should continue to cover the local delegation, but be innovative. Reporters should follow candidates around, shoot video and put it online. Reporters should do online chats and blogs for stories that don't make it to print.
"People will go for that and it will sell ads too," Condon said.
"The onslaught of media has not tired voters," Westphal said. "This election has so many manifestations, it's not just guns and butter."