How can newspapers cover elections to serve readers better?

On Saturday, I referred to a survey that I thought would send chills down the spines of journalists, but really shouldn’t. Today, the Elon University Poll reports one that should send chills down the spines of newspaper journalists, but probably won’t. (Full disclosure: I’m the director of communications for the poll.)

The poll reports that North Carolinians, when asked where they get most of their news about the May 8 primary, responded 42% television, 24% the Internet, 11% newspapers, 10% radio and 7% talking to people.

I single out newspapers because they devote a great deal of energy covering the elections, more than the other news sources. Oh, you can see a great deal of presidential coverage on television and the Internet, and that’s great. It covers one of the dozen or so issues on the ballot. But governor? Lieutenant governor? Congress? School board? Board of County Commissioners? State Senate? If you’re going to be informed about those, it’s likely going to be from information published in the local newspaper.

And about as many people get election information from the radio as from newspapers? OK, I implore television to devote more attention to the local elections than to crime and inconsequential stories that they air because they have video. But they won’t. So, let’s move on.

It may be time for newspaper editors to question some of their traditional principles.

* If only one in 10 people rely on the newspaper for election information, should editors devote their efforts to covering other issues more important to their readers?

* If the primary purpose of journalism is “to provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society,” is there another way newspapers can cover elections that is more helpful to their readers?

* This is counter-intuitive to those who still consider television news competitiion — here’s a secret: TV has won — but is there an opportunity to partner with television to take the information that citizens need (elections) where they are gathering (television)?

* 24% of respondents cited the Internet as their No. 1 source. Presumably that includes some newspaper websites. Presumably the percentage will climb in the future. Doesn’t this suggest that newspapers should provide citizens with deep, detailed election information online?

There are ways to discount the poll response. People were only talking about the presidential race. If asked about the other races, they’d say newspaper. When people were thinking of Internet sites, they were really thinking of newspaper internet sites. These are probably true of some of the respondents.

One thing’s for sure: Changing nothing is the wrong response.