Blogs > Sun Insider

News and quick-hit commentary from around mid-Michigan ... from the Morning Sun.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

And what of Gratiot?

Numerous comments here kept asking the question - where are the Gratiot County results?
That's a question that deserves an answer.
But first, some background.
I covered my first election 35 years ago, in 1973. It was a city election in Mt. Pleasant, and I tagged along with another student journalist from WMHW-FM, the student-run radio station at Central Michigan University.
All that we needed was a pencil, pad, calculator, tape recorder and a pair of alligator clips to tie into a telephone. Over the next 17 years, I covered a lot of elections and did a lot of broadcast reporting from the field.
Those numbers had to be right, the journalism had to be good and the technical aspects had to come together. There were enough breakdowns in sending stuff from the field - not just election coverage, but sports events, other news events and commercial remote broadcasts - that I learned to give great respect to Murphy's Law.
The law says, "Whatever can go wrong will go wrong." To deal with that, a field producer has to know, or figure out, what can go wrong, plan as much as possible to prevent that, and have backup plans in case things really do go sour.
When I moved into print 18 years ago, it still was pencil-pad-calculator time, and the job actually became a little easier. A print journalist has the luxury of waiting until all the numbers are in.
Sure, there's a scramble to get the paper out if the last numbers are late. That's happened, but people expect complete numbers and perspective in their morning papers.
Now, it's the age of the Internet, where readers expect not only the complete numbers in the morning, but partial numbers in the meantime. We expect to deliver that, but we have to learn how.
Our first experience was in May, when we covered the library millage in the Chippewa River Library District. That was a fairly simply election: One major question, 12 precincts, yes or no.
To get the numbers up, we had to establish a high-speed Internet connection from the Isabella County Building. The county won't permit outsiders to access its network for security reasons, so we had to set up our own.
With Murphy's Law looming in the background, we made it work. We updated The Sun Insider seven times and got things wrapped up by 9:45 p.m.
But I saw potential problems. In a larger election, it would be easy to get the numbers confused, and when precincts start rolling in at a fast pace, it would be easy to get behind. And we needed a desk.
This time, we got more ambitious. Tuesday's primary in Isabella County involved 26 contested races with 57 different choices. There were lots of opportunities for error.
It was a good test.
We assigned reporter Lisa Satayut, community volunteer Andrew Ranzenberger (yes, he's my son; he worked cheap and has a good technical background) and me to the county building. I played the role of producer/technical geek/blogger/analyst, while the Lisa and Andrew collected the numbers and entered them into an online spreadsheet.
I think it's important to have two people checking the numbers. There were 585 different numbers that had to be entered, precinct by precinct, contested race by contested race. All had to be right.
There was enough vague Internet fuzziness to worry me. Sometimes numbers were entered and took way too long to show up. Lisa and Andrew caught each others' fat-finger errors, and sometimes, I noted out-of-place or missing numbers. It's called quality control.
By the time it went out to the public, we were pretty confident in them,
There were changes we made on the fly. I didn't like the way the percentage of precincts reporting showed up at first, so I changed it. I had planned to present the numbers in tables, but the HTML coding turned out to be impractical in the field. That needs to be fixed.
But overall, the project worked. I learned what I needed to learn, so I can teach it to other people. I made changes, discovered glitches, found fixes on the fly or made plans to find them between now and November.
Was this at a stage where I could have coordinated two remote sites 30 miles apart? No way. I would have been setting ourselves up to fail.
I didn't know, going in, what questions needed to be asked, let alone the answers. I do now.
Come November, we hope to be ready to provide real-time updates from both Ithaca and Mt. Pleasant, with a well-trained staff to do it.
That's what you want - and we hope to deliver it right.
Thanks for being part of our great experiment.
-- Mark R


Blogger Fuzzy said...

Now ya'll have me curious as to what kind of connection you were using to get stuff online. I know that Sprint offers some awesome data plans, but it doesn't seem like that's something the paper would spring for.

9:49 PM 
Anonymous DrMuga75 said...

...And thank you for still getting the jump on channels 5,9 and 12. I often wonder if anyone even bothers to contact the area TV stations with results on election nights. Usually I have to wait until the morning paper the next day. For years i've heard pundits trumpet that the Internet could put newspapers and TV to shame on generating election results. Never locally though, until your blog posts. Keep up the good work and I'll be watching in Nov.!

11:02 PM 

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home