This year, we opened the pilot launch of Campaign Hound with the help of the Knight News Challenge award. With Campaign Hound, we hoped to improve transparency in state elections by providing a searchable archive and alert system of planned public speeches by candidates in the North Carolina gubernatorial and US senate races. We planned to work with media partners and freelancers to build our archive. In the process of our launch, we’ve learned more about North Carolina politics and how it’s covered.
We’ve seen that political candidates work hard to make sure news coverage follows their message as closely as possible. One of the main ways campaigns control how their messages are portrayed is by controlling the information that news outlets receive. Just a week before Election Day, Richard Burr’s campaign banned the News and Observer from their updates. Burr’s campaign is like many others: for Richard Burr to be reelected, he needed coverage. But more crucially, he needed the coverage to match his own message.
Other than banning news outlets altogether, what did this mean for campaign behavior? In our experience, it meant that candidates preferred private fundraisers to public events, intimate settings to large-scale rallies. And it meant that they were slow to announce appearances: at Campaign Hound, we heard about events last-minute and infrequently.
We weren’t the only ones who struggled. Other media organizations also had frustrations with campaign communication; in our survey of North Carolina journalists, 25% said their biggest frustration in covering politics was campaign communications.
Of course, campaign communications weren’t the only frustration for journalists. As newsrooms continue to shrink, 41% of our surveyed journalists reported that their biggest frustration was not having enough time. And with limited time, they had to pick and choose which campaign stories to cover. Many appearances made by the candidates, particularly before the primary election, didn’t seem newsworthy and weren’t covered at all.
What does all of this mean for Reese News Lab? It means that we’ve struggled to fulfill our goal this election cycle. Poor communication from campaigns meant that we were rarely able to send our own freelancers to candidates’ appearances; the lack of resources in the newsroom meant that many of our partners also struggled to provide us coverage.
It also means that we won’t be continuing Campaign Hound in the next election cycles. Instead, we’ll be focusing on developing other tools, and especially on developing new features to make Capitol Hound more valuable to our journalist users.
Even though Campaign Hound didn’t work out, we’re so grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and our media partners for coming on this journey with us. We’ve learned so much about North Carolina politics, political coverage, and candidate transparency over the past year; with that, we’ll be able to make better tools for journalists.