How does a journalist know when a story is going to be big?
For Washington Post staff writer Erin Cox that moment came after some public records appeared in her email as she prepared dinner one evening with her husband.
But it started on August 5 while she was covering a Maryland Board of Elections meeting on Zoom. She learned that Maryland had received a letter from the U.S. Postal Service about delays that could impact the 2020 election. She wondered how many other states received similar letters. So, she filed “a polite records request with USPS to determine how widespread this issue might be.”
“I thought the records could be handy for identifying future trouble spots, places with tight deadlines that didn’t heed the warning and adjust them,” she said. “I emailed the request two days later, not expecting to get an answer for a while. When they came back, it was immediately clear there weren’t a few potential hotspots but that nearly every state had been warned, which shifted the news value of the records.”
We reached out to Cox by email to find out how beat reporting plus a public records request turned into a “tipping point story” about voter disenfranchisement and the USPS.
Can you share more about how your experience on the politics beat prepared you to break this story?
Cox: A lot of national political coverage starts with big, conceptual ideas that zoom into a representative community to illustrate it. I spent a fair amount of my career doing the opposite, covering communities and figuring out how their issues connect to bigger ideas. The real-life impact of policies and politics is hard to miss when you start from this perspective. When Maryland’s election board noted this letter and promptly changed their deadline to accommodate it, I wondered what would happen in all the places a change wasn’t made. I thought having all the letters could serve as a roadmap to places we might see trouble in the fall. A friend and mentor of mine used to encourage me not to be afraid of my imagination and to think about what a story could be. Rigorous journalism always finds the truth, he’d say, but your imagination helps you find places to look for it.
What was your thought process as you realized what a big story this was?
Cox: The records landed as I was making dinner with my husband, who is also a journalist. I scrolled through maybe 20 pages on my phone before I looked up somewhat stunned and said, “I think it’s possible the Postal Service has warned every state in the country they can’t guarantee ballots will get there in time.” He told me I should write that, and I immediately knew it deserved more than just me on the byline. This was the first time I’d heard of a direct connection between mail delays and disenfranchisement. It wasn’t a hypothetical, general concern from critics outside the Postal Service, but a detailed warning from within it.
The Post had already designated an entire crew of exceptionally sharp journalists to write about voting issues. I knew they could quickly help me find the facts and voices to put this in the right context, strike the right tone, and make sure we were answering all the right questions. I told the team what I found and asked if they wanted to collaborate, and each person was fantastic. By the time the story was complete, I knew it was big. But I don’t think anyone fully appreciated it would be a tipping point story until it published.
What are your strategies for covering long, local government meetings?
Cox: Never go in cold. You need an objective. If you can’t articulate why you’re there, it is difficult to pay attention. Sometimes my goal is simply embracing the challenge to find something interesting. I’ve called key people in advance to get a sense of what they expect, done research on issues on the agendas. When the conversations drag on, I sift through the backup paperwork or Google an issue under discussion. These are not foolproof strategies. Some meetings are excruciating. In those cases, I take fairly detailed notes with timestamps to keep myself engaged. I also text jokes with local officials in the meeting. They’re enduring the same monotony, so why not do a little source building?
Do you have advice for sifting through public records on a deadline?
Cox: Spend a little time up front developing your strategy, and then stick with it unless something huge arises. Closely look at a few records, but only a few. You can develop a feel for what you have and what story they might reveal. Then you can plow through them quickly, tracking what they reveal as you go. I make a lot of spreadsheets so that I can sort and categorize information quickly. I’ve never once finished a story and thought, “you know, that spreadsheet wasn’t worth it.”
What are your plans to cover the DeJoy hearing and the next phase of this story?
Cox: For me, this story was always about disenfranchisement. We have very talented congressional reporters who will be covering the hearing, experts on the Postal Service who can stay on top of USPS, savvy political writers who can capture the bigger and broader ideas about what this means to democracy. I’ll help out whenever asked, but primarily I’ll be in the trenches, back at the Maryland Board of Elections meetings, watching how democracy functions at the level closest to the voters.