Saturday, November 28, 2020
Nov. 28, 2020

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From the Newsroom: Contingency plans? Yeah, we had to have ’em

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

Is it just me, or have the last couple of weeks been just crazy?

Since a lot of that craziness has involved the news media, I thought I would let you know what we have been doing here at The Columbian.

First of all, we have made and thrown out a bunch of contingency plans. When I last wrote, we had an election night coverage plan in place, and we pretty much followed it. Because we didn’t know who would win the presidential race, we had three contingency options for the front page: President Trump Wins, Joe Biden Wins, and Who Knows?

Like everyone else, we went for the third option and planned to publish an “Our Next President” package in that week’s Thursday paper. Then Friday. Then Saturday.

By the end of that week, we were coming up with strategies faster than Trump’s legal team.

Because I had never dreamed the race would take so many days to decide, we had designed a Sunday front page spotlighting a local story on homelessness going into the winter and the response by local organizations in a time when COVID-19 is spreading faster than ever. But on the Friday after Election Day, we realized we’d have to do alternative covers again, one leading with the homelessness package and another with the winner of the presidential race, should one be declared.

We also had to be ready to redo our Sunday Op-Ed page. This is the page opposite the editorial page where we publish a variety of opinions, such as George Will’s column. We put this page together that Friday. So if the election results became known on that Saturday, the Sunday page would be out of date. Luckily, we had put together a bonus page of world political cartoons about the U.S. election. We were going to offer this as an extra to digital readers, like we do our NFL page on Tuesdays or our Money and Markets page Tuesdays-Saturdays. But when the Op-Ed page became outdated, we swapped in the cartoons page for our print readers to enjoy.

That wasn’t the end of the contingency planning.

If there had been a presidential race call on Sunday, we had plans to publish a special Monday digital newspaper. These “extras” used to be seen occasionally back in the days before radio and television news, but it’s been a long time since we’ve published one at The Columbian. In this case, the extra would not have been printed on paper and thrown on your driveway, but we would have notified our subscribers with digital accounts as soon as it was available to download.

As it turns out, of course, the race was called for Biden about the time I was having my Saturday morning coffee. So, our readers got the Biden front page and the world cartoons Op-Ed page on Sunday morning.

Counting electoral votes

Throughout the week, I heard from readers about electoral vote totals. Specifically, we showed Biden leading Trump, 264-214, on the front page of our Thursday, Friday and Saturday editions. At the time, most of the TV stations showed Biden with 253 electoral votes, with 270 needed to win. Were we cheerleading for Biden?

No. The difference was Arizona, which may or may not have gone for Biden, depending on which media source you consulted. But why the difference?

I found the answer in a Washington Post story. We are members of The Associated Press, which has a service called AP VoteCast, which called Arizona and its 11 electoral votes for Biden. Working with the University of Chicago, it uses experts in data and statistics to analyze actual results (not polls) in real time and feed its projections to its clients. The service is also used by Fox News, NPR, PBS NewsHour, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. All of those organizations called Arizona for Biden.

Meanwhile, the three big TV networks and CNN use a different service called National Election Pool, which works with a company called Edison Research. National Election Pool finally called Arizona for Biden on Thursday night. On Tuesday I surfed over to the Arizona secretary of state’s webpage and saw Biden held a 14,746-vote lead. Friday’s margin was 11,434. So I am guessing that Edison’s actuaries must use a different algorithm concerning late votes.

In the end, of course, it didn’t matter. Pennsylvania put the Biden/Harris ticket over the top.

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