Campaigns for the November 2006 state and federal elections are already under way, a fact that I regard with some dread.
Incumbents never stop campaigning and they naturally get publicity because their actions are newsworthy, but usually not very newsworthy for a newspaper with a local focus such as the Chronicle Times.
We are constantly getting press releases to the effect that Harkin did this or Grassley did that or King did something else. Most are discarded as having no local element.
When there is a local news element, we usually eliminate the reference to the particular legislator. After all, they don't pay for some locally beneficial project out of their own pockets.
When federal or state legislators conduct a public forum in Cherokee County, we cover that as a news event. An example is a recent well-attended forum by Senator Chuck Grassley. This was not overtly political since Grassley is not up for reelection until 2010.
I prefer the forums held by state legislators from the area since they tend to provide a more local perspective to state issues.
When a non-local office holder visits the county without conducting a forum or participating in some other inherently newsworthy activity, it is in the "important person visits the county" category. We take a photo of it, if we have nothing better to do, and put it on one of the black and white pages with a caption to the effect that an important person came to a local community and talked to people about stuff.
If President George Bush came to a local community, we'd put the picture on the front page. If I had an opportunity to ask the President questions, I would since that's what reporters do, but I can't think of any good ones to ask.
I assume (I'm not absolutely certain of this) that Bush has no opinion regarding keeping full-time drivers on the Cherokee Fire Department or on making a lake in the county, so who cares what he thinks?
Some may believe small town reporters yearn to scoop the New York Times on some issue of global importance. Mostly, small town reporters yearn to get their work done before happy hour.
I follow national and world news as closely as most people. I even occasionally indulge in commentary about such things on the opinion page, but that isn't why our customers buy the Chronicle Times. They have access to metropolitan newspapers, national publications and 24-hour a day TV news, but don't have that range of sources for local news.
I received a note last week that U.S. Congressman Steve King would be at our booth at the Cherokee County Fair on Saturday at 2:30 p.m., obviously a political visit since he is running for office in 2006 and since the person in his office asked the person in our office (not me) what kind of questions King would be asked.
I have a general rule about candidate interviews. In order to be consistent, each candidate is limited to one interview and photo on the front page prior to the primary. These are "put your best foot forward" articles. I do my best to put forth the candidate's position in the way the candidate wants it put forth.
Ideally, this candidate article should be published no sooner than three months prior to the primary, which will happen in June of 2006. Keeping them close together helps the reader make comparisons and seems fairer to our readers than widely separated articles. Having them within a reasonable time before the primary minimizes the "Oh no! Here we go again!" feeling that not only I have but many of our readers as well.
However, it isn't always possible to arrange a specific time for federal or state candidates to be interviewed, so we leave it pretty much up to them. During the last congressional race we had a hard time making the King staffers as well as a Democratic opponent of his understand that we couldn't do an article every time the candidate came through town.
We believe we've sufficiently satisfied our duty by giving one article per candidate who wants to talk about matters that have little or no local focus. Yes, I know that whatever happens in national or state government affects Cherokee County, but that doesn't make it local. I'm not going to get into defining local news or why we focus on it. People either understand that or they don't.
A more important reason for limiting candidate articles is the need for fairness. Fairness to local candidates is even more important than for state and national office candidates but it is easier to talk directly to local candidates about timing. Candidates for local office and local candidates for the state legislature seem to understand the need for balance better than candidates for governor, U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate.
Another reason I was not looking forward to the King meeting, other than it being too early, was the fact that it was scheduled for 2:30 p.m., halfway between my morning photos at the fair which ended at noon and my evening photos which started at 5 p.m.
So on either side of meeting with King, I had a couple of hours to either wander around looking at farm animals or leave the fairgrounds in pursuit of some other activity that might not be as exciting.
It caused a strange combination of relief and annoyance when King didn't show up.
A dilemma for me was created by the appearance of two candidates for governor at the fair. On Friday, I took a picture of U.S. Representative Jim Nussle, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor. I didn't conduct an in-depth interview and none was expected, making this an "important person visits Cherokee" photo with a caption to be put inside the paper.
On Saturday at 5 p.m., I met with Ed Fallon, a state legislator running for the Democratic nomination for governor. He, or at least his local supporters, arranged for an in-depth interview which I accommodated.
I don't blame Fallon or his local supporters for wanting early publicity for purposes of name recognition and fund raising. My problem with that was not their problem, but it did raise something of a nasty dilemma since I had only a photo of one candidate while I had information to write an article along with a photo for another candidate.
There were two ways to deal with this. One was to publish the picture of the Republican inside with just a caption, while publishing a front page photo and article of the Democrat. The other was to create a front page article for Nussle from information on his website.
With the first option, Nussle would still qualify for more extensive publicity at a later date, but the public would assume that we were showing bias toward the Democrat. With the second option, Nussle would be denied the opportunity to address matters that are of particular interest to people of this area. It would be the less fair of the two options, although the first would have the appearance of being less fair.
I quickly decided on the first option. I could have spent hours contemplating this dilemma but happy hour was approaching.