Why we don’t cover all legislative races

A reader writes in the comments section of the Obama post:

I am an independent candidate for State Representative in district 58A, and though I have not had any MPR coverage, I am not writing to protest on my own behalf. I will just say that state legislative races have been very poorly covered by all of our news services, and that as a result, many incumbents who do not deserve re-election will win their races.

First the disclaimers. I am not a spokesman for MPR News. I’m just a schlep typing on a laptop. But I agree with you; I’d guess that everyone here agrees with you. And I’ve written here before about covering legislative races.

Here’s the problem.

— There are five people covering politics here…one is assigned to the Senate race…one to the 5th District race (part time), one to the 6th District race (part-time), one to the governor’s race..one to the 1st District (part-time). And, as time allows…they also produce issue pieces on the various races and cover all the other stuff on their beats. That’s reality.

— There are 201 legislative races in Minnesota.

Do the math. It can’t be done. It’s not that we don’t want to, we just don’t have the resources.

So here’s what we are doing:

— Laura McCallum has talked to the major parties to find out what races they targeted as key races and she — and others — have done profiles on those races. Those all came after the primary, so Mike wasn’t lying.

Personally, I’ve been trying to get us to do a profile of the 56B race (Klinzing vs. Swails), but neither of the parties saw it as a “key” race. I think they’re totally wrong, but that’s just me. I don’t think the DFL understands the suburbs anyway; I think someone who actually lives in these districts has a better grasp on things. But so be it. We’ll see on Election Day.

— Our VERY limited online staff (except for me) has been working on a legislative section of Campaign 2006. It was supposed to be done last week. It wasn’t. Why? Because there’s three part-time people working on it fulltime and there’s 201 races. About all we can do is tell you who’s running and tell you where the information is about their positions.

That’s all we can do now, but we’re building a system.


First, Votetracker, which is designed to give you the voting record of incumbents. It’s only been out for two years and it’s nowhere as near robust as it needs to be. But we’re working on it and we have to start somewhere.

We’re trying to get all the political databases we’ve built (election results, campaign 2006 and Votetracker, Select A Candidate) separately, to talk to each other so that we can actually build — and here’s the key words — over time a political encyclopedia of Minnesota. The guts of that is the work of a true genius — Andy Beger — in our information technology department. But Andy is just one guy and some of his accomplishments this year include a very terrific interface for Select A Candidate which has made it much easier to crank these things out. We have more Select A Candidates for races than we’ve ever produced before because of Andy. Is there one for everybody? No, not yet, but at least we’ve started taking the steps to make that a possibility.

I realize this doesn’t satisfy folks who want more coverage of legislative races. It shouldn’t. It doesn’t satisfy me and I don’t think it satisfies anybody here. We’re never satisfied; that’s why our online site is better today than it was yesterday.

But we’re talking a very small number of people doing a very large amount of work. They’re working hard, they’re working with integrity, and they’re working on behalf of you. Maybe it doesn’t show yet — it certainly doesn’t show to the extent we would like — but we have to deal with some physical realities.

I have talked to a few folks here about Dan Gilmore’s project at the Center for Citizen Media, in which — thanks to a $25,000 grant — they’re putting together a “citizen driven” legislative and congressional district Voter Guide.

This is very cool. It’s also a giant experiment that just went out 2 days ago. Is it something I would like to do? You bet. What would it cost? I don’t know. What resources would it take? I don’t know. Gilmore has a whole university full of kids working on it.

I can’t make all this happen tomorrow. I don’t even think it can happen for 2008. But the first step is wanting it to. A bunch of us want it to and we’re prepared to battle for the dollars to make it happen against other people who here who have their own ideas about things to do that aren’t about politics. That’s the way it works and while I’d like to wave a magic wand and make the future happen, I just can’t.

And I’m sorry about that and I wish you’d remain a member. But that choice is yours.

As for the auditor debate, I don’t have anything to do with programming and those things. Take your question over to The News Grid and pose it to the guy who’s in charge.

  • Perhaps the answer is with freelancers, stringers who would work from June-November then go away. You would need access to a statewide directory of working freelance political reporters and commentators, complete with samples of their work. If the goal would be to cover all 201 legislative races, border to border, you couldn’t afford to pay any one of them a lot of money — or perhaps any money, even if each reporter covered multiple races. You might have to have an editor for each Congressional District just to manage all of them.

    Of course, these stringers would be subject to the same code of ethics, editorial standards, and the AP Stylebook, just like any fulltime MPR reporter.

    Fortunately, with the Internet, they could file their reports, including photographs, audio, and video, electronically.

    Hmmm, the Internet…

    As you are certainly aware, you are in more than the radio business, you’re in the news and information business, albeit with some very substantial radio broadcasting assets.

  • Bob,

    Thank you for the post. I wish you luck in getting your state legislative coverage systems up and running, and would be delighted to offer my time and energy towards that cause between this election and the next.

    I do think I may have been unclear about my reasons for not renewing my membership, but I don’t want to belabor the point too much. I am not renewing because 1) I disagree with a “general policy” of not covering minor party candidates (cited by Mr. Mulcahy in this space in a discussion about the AG race). 2) Mr. Mulcahy indicated MPR would depart from this general policy for the US Senate and MN Governor’s races, but the minor party candidates have still not enjoyed the coverage he seemed to promise.

    It has nothing to do with my impatience with the low level of coverage state house and senate races have garnered this cycle. MPR does as well as any other news outlet in our state in this regard. I will take my beef about the Auditor’s debate over to the news grid.

    Anyway, I just wanted to clairify my position. I’m not requesting a revision of your post or anything like that. Really, best of luck with the legislative coverage, let me know if I can help (other than financially). Warmly, Justin.

  • bsimon

    Thanks for taking the time to explain all that. Noticing that its pledge week, anyone that thinks the ideas are good ones can help out the cause…

  • Now that I have met Julia Schrenkler at MPR, I have your solution in three words: Public Insight Journalism.