Inside the Times: To Cover Elections, It’s All Hands on Deck

From a New York Times Insider column by Emmett Lindner headlined “To Cover the Midterms, It’s All Hands on Deck”:

Election Day for the 2022 midterms is finally here — but for the New York Times journalists who write about the campaigns, the divisions within the country and the national mood, the work began well before November. The coverage effort is newsroom-wide: Journalists from desks such as Culture and Business have a hand in the report, but “the Politics desk is ground zero for all of this,” said David Halbfinger, The Times’s Politics editor.

Mr. Halbfinger was a Times reporter and editor for two decades, covering local and national issues, before he became the Jerusalem bureau chief in 2017. In July 2021, he returned to the United States to take on his current role.

He said he initially sketched out his ideas for how to structure coverage of the midterms on sticky notes along his basement wall. Those grew into a focused plan executed by dozens of reporters and editors based across the country. The correspondents, under his direction, report on breaking news on campaign developments as well as broader stories about the major issues at stake and articles highlighting the strains in and challenges to the country’s democratic system.

In an interview, Mr. Halbfinger spoke about his preparation and how Times journalists are covering Tuesday’s elections.

How do you think about election coverage on the Politics desk?

I inherited a smaller but terrific group of reporters, but our department had to be rebuilt and bolstered for the midterms. We also had to do something that was not familiar, which was to engineer our desk both to handle classic political reporting — covering candidates, elections and campaigns — and to cover the threats and challenges to the system and the questions about the health of our democracy.

How has the coverage shifted as the midterms got closer?

Certainly there’s been an acceleration, and we’ve been running pretty hot since September. We’ve wanted to give our readers who are really obsessive about politics the assurance that we’re on top of it. So alongside our most ambitious stories, we’re also delivering shorter pieces and even sentence-long updates, multiple times a day from a large cast of reporters out in the field.

In the final days of an election, the whole newsroom really kicks into gear. I feel like I’m one of the people on the bridge of an enormous battleship. You’ve got editors above and alongside you who know how to do this extremely well and can offer pointers and spot gaps in the coverage. You’ve got reporters at the top of their game with ideas spilling over, on the ground all over the country. The Graphics and Photo and Video teams are delivering fabulous visuals that help readers understand things at a glance. Our correspondents on the National desk and in the Washington bureau are contributing; the Metro desk is fully engaged because of the governor’s race and congressional races in the New York area. And many more departments are pitching in. None of these races can be taken for granted because of the nature of the political environment. It’s a coast-to-coast, whole-of-the-newsroom, all-hands moment. It’s really inspiring and exciting to be part of.

Does that match your expectations of how you viewed the job before you started?

People warned me that it would be intense, but it’s hard to really appreciate that until it’s happening around you.

As a foreign correspondent, I was running a small bureau of a handful of people and covering basically one story at a time. Early in my career, I covered governor’s races and Senate races in New Jersey, which is about the size of Israel. And so for me, the three elections I covered in Israel felt a lot like campaigns in New Jersey.

This is not New Jersey. This is Congress and the Senate. And it’s races that we never used to pay close attention to, such as races for secretary of state — offices that, until recently, rarely were the subject of much drama or took on such national political significance. That’s another difference here. Because of 2020 and because of election denial, and because secretaries of state, as we’ve learned, can be the difference between a fair election and a stolen one, we now have to take those races much more seriously.

How is the coverage executed on the day of elections?

Across the country, our reporters will fan out when the polls open to capture what that’s looking like and we’ll be following along all through the night, and through the week, as the returns come in. And our election night coverage will be bifurcated: We have assembled a very large team of correspondents, reporters and some stringers that we’ve hired around the country to help us to do what we’re calling “vote watch.” Basically, to be on alert, and to report on any problems that arise in the casting and counting of votes. Those problems could be interference, disputes, lawsuits challenging vote totals and outcomes — we don’t know. But we need to be prepared for anything, anywhere.

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

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