Elections test how much information a news organization can process and then quickly and accurately share it with an audience. They’re also a good time for news organizations to take stock of how far they’ve come since the last one, and to try the latest journalistic tools (or gimmicks).

Four years ago, YouTube was nascent and Facebook had finally opened up to everyone. By 2008, Twitter was taking off and web video was becoming more commonplace. This year, as Poynter noted, the iPad and live-streaming proved to be the 2010 election’s focal points for journalism innovation, but the technology and implementation obviously have a ways to go.

At the PBS NewsHour, we’d already had plenty of time to experiment with the tools we implemented this Election Day, and things went rather well as a result. Below is a look at the different strategies and technologies we used in our election coverage last week, along with some observations about what did and didn’t work.

Live-Stream at Center of Vote 2010 Plans

As was the case two years ago when the NewsHour’s web and broadcast staffs were mostly separate operations, planning for 2010 Election Day coverage began months ago at the unified and rebranded PBS NewsHour.

Over the past year, the Haitian earthquake, the Foot Hood massacre and the Gulf oil spill taught staffers to operate in a more platform-neutral manner: Information is gathered and triaged to see what works best for web and broadcast audiences, and sometimes both. Vote 2010, however, was the first planned news event to truly test how our staff could concurrently serve our audiences on TV, mobile devices and on the web, as this video outlined:

We had a monumental TV task ahead this year because we were taping broadcasts at our regular time (6 p.m. ET) and adding 7 and 9 p.m. “turnarounds” for other time zones. As in past years, we opted to host a late-night election special to be fed to PBS stations. This year, the NewsHour started taping at 10 p.m., feeding the first hour exclusively to a livestream, then continuing at 11 p.m. both as a livestream and feed to stations.

We also put more effort than ever before into spreading the word about our free live-stream. As part of pre-election social media and PR outreach, we spent a few hundred bucks to sponsor an ONA DC Meetup to kick off the sold-out Online News Assocation conference. We publicized there and to our PBS colleagues that we were giving away our high-quality election night livestream.

Thanks to a combination of outreach to established partners and cold-calling other media and bloggers that might want an election video presence, we increased the reach of the NewsHour’s live-stream by having it hosted elsewhere including local PBS stations, the Sunlight Foundation, AARP, Breitbart and Huffington Post.

We also hosted a map with live AP election data on our site and combined it with our map-centric Patchwork Nation collaboration. We used CoveritLive to power a live-blog of results, analysis and reports from the field. Extra, the NewsHour’s site for students and teachers, solicited opinion pieces from students in Colorado, Wisconsin and Florida on topics ranging from why they back specific candidates, why young people should care about voting and whether young voters are informed enough to cast a ballot.

Collaboration via Google Docs

Thankfully, many of the tools we experimented with to cover the 2008 election — Google Docs, Twitter, Facebook — have since matured as newsroom resources. Except for a few momentary hiccups, Twitter was as stable as we could have hoped on Election Day.

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NewsHour editor Daniel Sagalyn logs an election night feed from ABC into Google Docs. Photo by Travis Daub/PBS NewsHour

Two years ago, Google Docs had a clunkier feel. If two people were in the same document, both would have to click save repeatedly to quickly see updates added by the other. But upgrades have since fulfilled some of the instantaneous collaborative promise (and hype) of the now-crested Google Wave.

On election night, more than a dozen NewsHour staffers worked in the same text document in real-time — filing reports from the field and transcribing quotes from NewsHour analysts and notable guests on other networks. In a different spreadsheet, staff kept track of which races were called by other news organizations and when. We also used the embedded chat feature in Google Docs to communicate while editing and adding information.

Unlike two years ago, I could copyedit a report still being typed by my colleague, Mike Melia, several miles away at the Democrats’ election HQ in Washington. We worked out ways of communicating within the document in order to speed up the process. For example, when he typed a pound sign (#), that signaled the paragraph was ready and I immediately pasted it into CoveritLive.

The instant that major races were called by one of our senior producers, reporter-producer Terence Burlij alerted our control room via headset then added a Congressional balance of power update to our liveblog.

In-House Innovations

Our graphics department and development team cranked out numerous innovations to serve the election demands of the website and and our five hours of breaking news broadcasts. As Creative Director Travis Daub put it:

Katie Kleinman and Vanessa Dennis crunched the AP data and built a truly innovative system that dynamically generates a graphic for every race on the ticket. Thanks to their efforts, we were able to call up any race with accurate data in a matter of seconds. I venture to bet that we were the only network last night with an election graphics system running in Google Chrome.

Those same graphics of more than 450 candidates and races were available in a matter of seconds for use on the web, but we opted not to use them since the vote tallies changed so quickly.

Traffic Numbers

Creating a valuable-yet-free live-stream and quickly posting concession and victory speeches onto our YouTube channel, live-blog and Facebook appears to have paid off in terms of traffic.

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PBS NewsHour Ustream live-stream embedded on its Facebook page

Thanks to our partners at Ustream, who helped us stream 516 years’ worth of oil spill footage earlier this year, we were able to attract a sizable audience for our special election live-stream, in large part due to them posting a giant promotion on their home page for a full day. Our election live-stream garnered more than 250,000 views, more than 141,000 of which were unique.

We also notified our 73,000 iPhone app users of our special coverage plans, and more than 8,300 used the app to view our election coverage and/or live-stream. Our app download traffic tripled on Election Day, and pushed us to the brink of 100,000 app users.

As for Facebook, we were blown away by the breaking news engagement we got. It has us reconsidering that strategy to post more breaking news content for our Facebook audience. A separate two-day effort targeting NewsHour ads on Facebook pages of specific political campaigns grew our fans about 7.3 percent in that short period.

What We Learned

So what were the major takeaways from this latest election season?

  • Earlier, Wider Promotions — Our social media and promotions teams landed our elections coverage some great placements and media mentions this year. In 2012, we’ll start our outreach to potential partners and local stations even earlier, and do more promotion on-air, online and on mobile devices and with whatever new tools or services crop up between now and then.
  • Be All Things to All Visitors — Every person who visits our site seeks a different mixture of information. Some want the latest election returns, some want smart analysis of what’s transpiring and some want to watch the NewsHour broadcast or victory and concession speeches. We’ll continue to feature all of that, but we’ll improve how quickly they can find the specific information they want.
  • Practice Makes Perfect — Just when you think the staff’s last pre-election live-blog rehearsal has perfected your workflow, one tiny detail proves you ever-so-wrong on the big night. The last two things I did on election night before heading home was click “end event” on CoveritLive then check the home page. Turns out, by ending the event — instead of leaving it on hiatus as we’d done in practice runs — transformed what had been a reverse-chronological live-blog into a chronological one. At 3 a.m., we suddenly had news from 5:45 p.m. at the top of our homepage. I got Art Director Vanessa Dennis out of bed, but neither of us could find a quick-fix solution. We disabled the live-blog home page feed and I reworked some live-blog content into a short blog post summing up the night’s biggest developments that could hold until our politics team posted the Morning Line dispatch a few hour later. Lesson learned.

The tone was mostly upbeat at our election coverage post-mortem meeting. We then realized the Iowa caucuses are just 14 months away — so election planning will be front and center once again very soon.

Dave Gustafson is the PBS NewsHour’s online news and planning editor. He mostly edits copy and multimedia content for The Rundown news blog and homepage, but his jack-of-all-trades duties also involve partnerships, SEO, social media, widgets, livestreaming, freebies and event planning.