Getting it right on Election night

NewsroomNovember 1 was an uneventful day for most people. But at Yahoo! News, editors had gathered in the newsroom on a sleepy Saturday morning to rehearse Election Night for a third and final time. Everyone was geared up for a prescribed role – following election calls by the Associated Press, mapping results as states rolled in, coordinating headlines with the homepage team, cranking out posts for our elections blog. A mock network commentator addressed the group, quickly shouting out poll results for 16 states coming in all at once. Everyone flew into action, processing swing and big-prize states and anticipating the top headlines.

In contrast to breaking news, it’s a luxury to prepare for a massive news event that falls on the calendar. And like a Guitar Hero tournament, we notched up the intensity the further we went along in the rehearsal. The goal? To create a setting as dramatic as Wolf Blitzer’s call of states on CNN to ensure that everyone was as prepared as possible to program what proved to be an historic night.

After covering the 2000 and 2004 elections at the New York Times, and watching news organizations all over the country make premature (and wrong) calls, I had just one rule for our team: “Get it right.” When you are the de facto news source for over 40 million a month, you feel a tremendous responsibility when it comes to accuracy.

To strike the right balance of keeping up with network calls without distributing misinformation, we spent time with editors from the AP before the election to understand their approach toward calling results, which is part science, part art, part gut call. You might remember the AP was the only news outlet that sent Americans to bed without a new president in 2000, saying the race was too close to call.

At Yahoo! News, our editors’ roles are to program headlines from dozens of national and international newspapers, wires, and broadcast networks. But on Election Night, we took on a more pronounced mandate as news filter. For example, if a network called a critical swing state, we would wait until at least another network called the state before announcing the news in our breaking news blog and breaking news bar. After all, we were serving what turned out to a record-breaking audience -- today, comScore confirmed that we attracted 7.5 million people, the largest single day of traffic in online news history, surpassing CNN.com, MSNBC.com, AOL.com and FoxNews.com. We couldn’t afford to be wrong.

Journalists are known cynics. But when Barack Obama surpassed 270 electoral votes, we all knew it was a huge moment. The newsroom suddenly got very quiet. The sense of history was palpable. I think we all felt honored to be standing there, passing that word along to our readers.

And in my eight years at the Times -- where I covered 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- I was never more proud of a newsroom operation.

Richard Vega
Senior Editor, Yahoo! News

Photo from jrejtman