Dateline: Ohio

Local broadcasters in Ohio can breathe a little easier: The Buckeye State wasn't Florida redux. As Election Night unfolded, Ohio became the electoral wild card, setting the stage for a potential showdown. Once Sen. John Kerry conceded, most of the national media went home. For local broadcasters, though, the presidential race still dominates local news—just in time for November sweeps.

“It's a full-court press now. Our focus is what this election means short and long term,” says Stan Sanders, news director for Outlet Broadcasting's Columbus NBC affiliate WCMH. “Election reform and the lawsuits are very big stories,” adds Julie Weindel, news director for Cox Broadcasting's Dayton CBS affiliate WHIO.

One of several key swing states, Ohio took center stage once Pennsylvania went to Kerry and Florida was handed to Bush. The tension was palpable: The final ballot in Ohio wasn't cast until about midnight ET, hours after the polls officially closed.

Earlier in the day, news crews were blocked from polling places, but around 3 p.m., an Ohio court ruled that they were allowed in. From Toledo to Cincinnati, local stations blanketed the story.

Still, the relentless coverage strained resources and staff.

Leading up to Nov. 2, news directors wanted to cover all the candidates' visits and local speeches. But their sheer number, compounded by candidates' demands that crews set up hours before an appearance for security clearance, taxed stations' overtime budgets and shifts. Many simply upped news budgets 30% for Election Day, spending $5,000-$10,000 more on overtime and equipment.

Of course, the stations' bottom line benefited from sky-high political spending. Both campaigns spent millions on TV spots trying to reach Ohio voters. In the weeks leading up to the election, Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus ranked in the top 10 in volume of campaign-related spots.

The Bush campaign gave extra attention to Cleveland and Cincinnati, while the Kerry camp zeroed in on Columbus and Southern Ohio. “With so much scrutiny on Ohio, we knew we had to be ready,” says Greg Easterly, news director for Fox's Cleveland O&O WJF.

News directors mobilized every staffer, with most working double shifts. At some stations, people from other departments, like sales and promotions, pitched in to answer phones, monitor results and fetch food. “It was all hands on deck. Every truck was on the street,” says WCMH's Sanders. Most stations kicked off the night with early newscasts, then returned with late local news.

During network coverage, the stations got local cut-ins to update races and results. The morning anchor teams came in early and stayed late; evening newscasters worked into the overnight hours.

Adding to the swing-state coverage, stations balanced the local races and results. In Ohio, there were tight congressional races, a Senate seat up for grabs and hotly contested propositions, such as a smoking ban in Columbus and a gay-marriage ban. “We had to discipline ourselves,” says Stephen Doerr, news director at WOIO, Raycom Media's CBS affiliate in Cleveland. “There is a temptation to get carried away with the national race, but all politics are local.”

And some local Ohio stories grabbed national attention, such as the determined college students waiting hours to vote. Fox's Cleveland O&O WJW sent a crew to nearby Oberlin College, where 500 students were waiting as long as five hours to cast ballots. Another WJW team found a despondent elderly man who had marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala., but was unable to vote last Tuesday because the voter registration listed him as deceased. “He was a real disenfranchised voter,” says WJW's Easterly. “It was a good example of the stories going on here.”

WJW plans to revisit the story. It is, after all, sweeps.

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