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News outlets hoping for engaging digital election experience

NEW YORK (AP) — One screen is no longer enough for journalists planning their coverage of the midterm elections next week. Television networks and other news organizations recognize that many people will follow the results on TV with a pad or smartphone in hand, or eschew television altogether. They're competing aggressively to provide immersive digital experiences, particularly for people impatient to know how the news affects them personally.

Cable news networks will have wall-to-wall television coverage Tuesday, while ABC, CBS and NBC have set aside their entire prime-time lineups. After ABC said last week it would start its coverage at 8 p.m. ET, both CBS and NBC — which had planned 9 p.m. ET starts — also added the extra hour to avoid being left behind.

"We have two programs, one on CNN television and one on CNN digital, and it's a very different experience," said Sam Feist, the network's Washington bureau chief. The element that makes a midterm election more challenging for television increases the importance of the online plans. A presidential election provides an overarching national story to carry the night. Although President Trump will surely be on the minds of many voters Tuesday, there is no national election.

So the digital site that can do the best job of keeping people up-to-date with real-time results in a manner that easily lets them go granular to find races in their own communities will have a big edge. That's been a focus at several networks; an ABC News app for the first time will allow viewers to look at results on a county-by-county level.

The stakes are high. CBS News' web site had its most-visited day ever on Election Day 2016 and "we're expecting a really big day this year," said Christy Tanner, executive vice president and GM of CBS News Digital.

Feist said CNN's investment in improving its digital election operation since the 2014 midterms has been "astronomical." "As an industry, we have become a lot more sophisticated in what the online experience is than we were even five years ago," said Chris Stirewalt, politics editor at Fox News.

The New York Times and Washington Post are also emphasizing up-to-the-minute vote count online. The Post's artificial intelligence system promises instant analysis of voting trends, including comparisons of past vote totals, and will live-stream video of its own election night show.

NBC News, which offers separate television shows on the network and on MSNBC, will also provide reports on its Facebook page from local journalists in all 50 states. Network executives were struck earlier this year when conversations with an Alabama reporter revealed his knowledge of precinct-by-precinct trends that proved prescient in the U.S. Senate special election, said Rashida Jones, NBC News senior vice president in charge of election coverage.

The network wanted to tap into this local experience, she said. "It really allows us to get out in America and not tell the story from the studio in New York," Jones said. More detailed local coverage will also be a feature of the CBSN live stream on election night, Tanner said. CBS' digital stream — from a studio side-by-side with the television studio in the network's newsroom — reaches an audience by average 20 years younger than the TV broadcast.

"They are looking for knowledge, as opposed to opinion, in the news coverage," she said. Fox News is touting its partnership with The Associated Press on a new system that surveys the electorate on the issues facing the country. "We have more than we can possibly share on television and the (digital) experience should be a lot richer for it," Stirewalt said.

Digital operations will double down on forecasting, even though the failure of pollsters and prognosticators to foresee Trump's victory became the media story of the 2016 election night. Fox News and The New York Times will both make election meters, which put percentages on the chances of each party to control the House and Senate, a prominent feature online.

CNN digital will rely heavily on Harry Enten to forecast races while Enten's former boss at the FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver, is getting a more prominent role at ABC News. In general, the news executives don't fault election meters for predicting Hillary Clinton had an 80 to 90 percent chance of winning in 2016, but in how people wrongly interpreted them as saying she was a sure thing.

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