Even in a sea of political news, local candidate surveys (and other coverage) stand out in races and campaigns that often get little attention or news coverage — if they’re done right, and if people can find them
Low tech and high touch, questionnaires posted online can offer an on-demand answer when people go looking for information on local races and candidates. Especially when the questions address at least one or two specific local issues, the survey responses offer an “in their own words” response for voters to evaluate and compare with other candidates.
Yet there’s a cost. The questionnaires take time to construct, and are intensely local. Some candidates don’t return them; others need lots of reminding, and some don’t fill out their own responses. And they need to be easy to find, both on news websites and in search results.
How can news and information providers get the most out of candidate questionnaires, for their audiences and for their missions and organization needs? We turned to three editors to share insights and advice: Jane Porter, editor in chief of Triangle-based INDY Week; Jordan Schrader, state government and politics editor for The News & Observer/The Herald-Sun, and Bill Horner III, publisher and editor of the Chatham News + Record.
Schrader says candidate surveys and information helps boost subscriptions, and web traffic shows their use by IndyWeek readers. Elsewhere in the country, a few organizations — such as KPCC/ Southern California Public Radio — have built audience numbers and financial support around being essential for local elections information.
We’ll be talking about candidate questionnaires and other ways to both inform voters and strengthen the local news franchise through election coverage, next Wednesday during our “NC Election Prep: Focus on Democracy” event, sponsored by the NC Local News Workshop, at Elon University’s School of Communications. The event has reached capacity (there’s a waitlist), but we will be sharing out tips and resources afterward via the NC Local newsletter and other channels.
The NC Local News Workshop’s senior advisor Melanie Sill emailed a few questions to the North Carolina editors; here are their responses.
- What candidate questionnaires do you do, and how long has your publication been offering them?
Jane Porter, The INDY: We send candidate questionnaires to all candidates who run in all elections that take place in Durham, Orange, and Wake counties, including municipal, countywide, judicial, school board, NC Senate + House, NC council of state, federal/Congressional, and presidential. The Independent Weekly/the INDY has offered questionnaires for 35 years.
Bill Horner III, Chatham News+Record:: We provide questionnaires to candidates in all local contested races, from statewide on down. We did them in Sanford for as long as I can remember; we’ve been providing them at the News + Record from the start.
Jordan Schrader, The News & Observer/Herald-Sun: We’ve been doing voter guides for a long time, including for all of the big elections in the six-plus years since I’ve been here. But we’ve expanded the questionnaires beyond what they included even a few years ago. This year we are doing questionnaires in both the primary and general elections, asking issue and biographical questions and covering candidates for Triangle-area judicial, legislative, congressional and local positions as well as for statewide offices.
- With so much information out there, why produce questionnaires?
Porter: I feel there are several benefits to candidates and voters who take the time to answer/read questionnaires. They’re a fairly good way for candidates to share information about themselves, their policy positions, and their platforms with voters and a good way for voters to learn about candidates and help them decide who to vote for. There’s also an accountability aspect to having candidates put their positions in writing and, for the smaller races especially, to go on the record about controversial proposals if they so choose. We’re lucky in that the large majority of candidates do return completed questionnaires to us to offer for our readers.
Horner: Well, back before the web, candidates passed out cards or brochures (always so poorly done) with information and something about their platforms. They were usually either terribly brief, way too pitchy and slick, or shared too little about what made the candidate a viable choice. These days, I like providing questionnaires because as a voter you can cut to the chase and get the most pertinent information at a glance: mainly (for me), what track record does the candidate have when it comes to service, and second, what’s the endgame for them – how do they plan to leverage the public’s trust to make a difference within the group to which they’re elected and to the constituency? (Plus, I’m always curious about stuff like “last book read” or their personal political hero, questions I don’t often see these days on questionnaires.)
Schrader: There’s a lot of information about certain elections, but it’s not easy for voters to find basic, dependable information about the candidates on their ballot, especially near the bottom of their ballot. We see this as part of our mission of giving readers information they can use to make decisions. It also helps fulfill our mission of holding politicians accountable, since we can compare what they do once elected to their promises and positions while running for office.
- What do you know about how your audience or community uses this part of your election coverage?
Porter: The candidate questionnaires are one part of our elections coverage each cycle. We do our own reporting on many races and make endorsements in many races and we know we get the highest amount of traffic annually when there are elections going on. Our analytics indicate that people do read the candidate questionnaires in addition to our elections reporting, so we continue to send the questionnaires out and make them available to readers on our website (we don’t publish any questionnaires in print).
Horner: We get comments about the questionnaires from readers, and our audience looks for them each election cycle. So do the candidates. That’s just anecdotal feedback, but it’s consistent.
Schrader: The voter guides have brought new subscribers to the N&O, especially questionnaires for down-ballot candidates with limited information available elsewhere. That’s encouraging because it takes a great deal of our staff’s valuable time to produce the questionnaires.
- What’s the biggest challenge?
Porter: There are many. For our staff, the biggest challenges are logistical. Writing and sending the questionnaires out to candidates, keeping track of who returns them, formatting them for our CMS, uploading and posting them is labor intensive and time consuming.
Questionnaires also tend to be very dense; it’s hard to make them visually appealing online and some voters just aren’t prepared to read a bunch of long questionnaires to help them decide who to vote for. Some readers may prefer to watch videotaped interviews with candidates, for example.
We also don’t want the questionnaires to stand in for actual reporting—interviewing candidates in person, tracking records of incumbents, speaking to sources about candidates running for political office, seeing what information about candidates is publicly available is all important. Anyone can write anything on a questionnaire. So while they’re an informative tool—and ours are, as they’re free, accessible online, and most candidates tend to respond to them and respond to them thoughtfully—we don’t want to rely on them too heavily to inform our coverage or our endorsements. We want to do our due diligence as journalists in addition to offering readers/voters this resource.
Finally, writing questionnaires for some of the smaller races—for municipal races in suburban Wake County, as an example—it’s hard to know how best to tailor the questions since we don’t have the staffing capacity to do much in-depth coverage of these areas. But we know our readers live in these municipalities and we want to give them some information about candidates who are running for office in their towns.
Horner: Increasingly, it’s candidates who either don’t return them by the deadline or just ignore them. How much do you hound the candidates about getting them returned? If you set an early deadline but don’t begin publishing them until a few weeks later, what about the straggler who misses the deadline but gets the questionnaire in a few days before publication?
But really the larger issue is how often the responses get massaged by the local party leadership – so it’s not their individual voice, but largely influenced by the local party head, who rewrites bad responses. I’m sure we’ve published lots of responses over the years the candidates didn’t write themselves Sometimes it’s painfully obvious because they come back so polished. (And other times, when they’re rife with misspellings and grammatical errors, that’s painful, too. We always publish them as we get them.)
Schrader: Carving out the time to write, send, collect, edit, publish and promote these questionnaires is a big enough challenge already, but that’s compounded when we have to repeatedly remind candidates who haven’t responded.
- If an outlet wants to offer questionnaires, what are your two most important tips or lessons?
Porter: 1. I would say do the research to ensure the questions target the issues that are most meaningful to or consequential for voters, and also for your audience. Be very specific and intentional with your questions. 2. And send the questionnaires out as early as possible, so the candidates have time to complete them and so you have time to figure out how you’re going to present them!
Horner: First, think hard about the content in your questionnaires. Brainstorm it, be intentional. Make it relevant and useful and digestible. Be thoughtful about things like what biographical information to include, word limit for responses, etc., and make the questionnaire work for the voters. (For example, consider providing a hybrid questionnaire – one for print, the other, with some additional questions and more room for responses, for online.)
Second, plan them out well and stick to whatever guidelines/deadlines you create, and tell the candidates you’re doing that. Get confirmation they received the questionnaires. If the word limit is 50, cut the responses off at the 50th word. If the deadline is Sept. 30, then send out a reminder the day before and reinforce: if we don’t get your responses, we’ll publish each of the questions under your name with a “did not respond” in the answer line.
Schrader: 1. Be sure people can find them. We’d like to think voters are going to visit our homepage to read our full voter guide, but they’re more likely to Google a candidate’s name or position while trying to fill out their ballot. Our questionnaires need to show up in their search result. 2. Err on the side of fewer questions, and consider imposing character limits. Voters have limited time and may want to quickly read a series of these questionnaires at a glance.