How can local news help inform voters? Here are a few good examples

As the midterm elections loom, there’s a lot of talk about threats to democracy, and what to do about it. One recent poll even showed this as the issue of most concern to voters. News organizations have created teams to cover democracy as a beat. Possible stories abound, from the January 6 investigation, to gerrymandering and voter suppression, to struggles over the administration of the election machinery itself.

I want to talk about something more prosaic, but in many local communities perhaps likely to have greater impact: ways newsrooms can directly aid voters in making the critical choices they face. I hope this may be of practical use, even over the next seven weeks.

A look at eight major cities

Earlier this year, I did some research for my consulting clients at the Lenfest Institute for Journalism in Philadelphia on what might be learned from such efforts in the closely contested mayoral elections in other large cities over the last three years, including Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Nashville, New York, and Pittsburgh, as well as selected efforts elsewhere. This column draws heavily on that research. In the practical spirit, it contains quite a few links.

It turns out that sophisticated, interactive voter guides — digital turns on the work long performed by organizations like the League of Women Voters — are among the most effective techniques adopted by newer news organizations, as well as more established players seeking to engage voters and potential voters. Among the most successful of these appear to have been those published recently by The City in New York, the Texas Tribune and a consortium of Chicago newsrooms.

At the local level, the best work has almost certainly been done by The City, with its Meet Your Mayor. This was a weekly set of issue guides, structured as a quiz that enabled voters to choose the candidate whose views most closely matched their own. Elsewhere, here is a great guide to campaign coverage overall from the Texas Tribune, as well as two recent examples of other offerings from them: A guide to the state’s March 2022 primary ballots, and a look-up tool for checking on your representatives after redistricting.

Here’s a reminder from Injustice Watch that guides can particularly help voters with races for more obscure offices, including local judges. And here’s another overall guide to coverage, from another smaller organization, the Chatham [North Carolina] News-Record.

These more recent efforts draw on previous ones from around the country, notably the Human Voter Guide from KPCC Los Angeles in 2017, and the ChiVote consortium in Chicago in 2019, which included 10 news organizations coordinated by the Better Government Association.

Another time-honored technique, fact-checking, was the focus of a clever initiative by WLPN, Nashville’s public radio station. It combed through almost the entirety of the major mayoral candidates’ websites and then effectively updated the work throughout the new mayor’s first year in office, comparing governing results with website promises.

Beyond text and graphics

There have been a number of successes — at least in terms of garnering audience and driving conversations — in the use of new forms of media in and around elections.

In Cleveland, Ideastream (public media) launched an 18-episode podcast called After Jackson on the race to succeed four-term incumbent Mayor Frank Jackson. Most installments were 30 minutes long. Perhaps ironically, while the medium was unusual for current elections reporting, the substantive coverage, deep and nuanced, was highly traditional in its focus on candidates and issues, with a great deal of attention to the horserace. But the enduring value of this approach is that it capitalizes on the notion of the campaign as an evolving narrative — a very familiar approach for political reporters — and naturally translates this to podcasting.

After local controversies surrounding coverage of protests in Pittsburgh following the murder of George Floyd, local political reporter Alexis Johnson left the Post-Gazette newspaper and produced a documentary on the mayoral campaign for Vice, her new employer.

Newsletters are another key engagement tool. A number were deployed for the 2020 campaign, including Mass. Election Prep from WBUR, a seven-day series of on-demand newsletters, as well as ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy series. Both offerings were made available in both English and Spanish.

Finally, another product from Pittsburgh — not strictly tied to campaigns or elections per se — is worth spotlighting: an online course on the history of the city, “Know Pittsburgh. For Real,” produced by PublicSource. The learning is delivered in a series of a dozen emails. Knowledge of local history is almost surely a way of deepening ties to community, and initiatives like this one seem promising for enhancing civic engagement generally, perhaps particularly among new arrivals and younger voters. It would likely make sense to enable text delivery as well as email.

What happens after “community listening”?

There have been a number of efforts in recent years to shape coverage of mayoral and other campaigns in light of the results of “community listening” about the genuine concerns of voters. I am concerned, however, that the listening seems in a number of cases to have outweighed efforts afterward to re-shape coverage.

One exception of effective (even if limited) coverage as a result of community listening came from Canopy Atlanta in last year’s mayoral campaign there. It seems especially noteworthy because the focus of the listening was in historically underserved communities. Canopy secured the responses of both runoff candidates to five questions in which these neighborhoods said they were particularly interested.

Thinking about politics more like a political operative

Jim Friedlich, executive director and CEO of Lenfest, recently recommended that news organizations “pivot funding and revenue messaging from ‘saving journalism’ to ‘supporting democracy.’ If that is so, one possible approach — while not expressly yet a part of any major news organization’s playbook for engaging campaign coverage — might be structuring engagement efforts more nearly in line with how political operatives think about getting out the vote. (There are clear analogies also to how community organizers, going back to Saul Alinsky, think about their work.)

Modern engagement journalism has its own roots in the digital campaign innovations of the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008. Newsrooms should look again at what channels well-run campaigns use for communication today. Texting, for instance, is increasingly important, albeit expensive, but also crucial are analysis of internet searches as indicative of public concerns, leafleting, in-person public meetings, and even something of a renaissance in door-knocking. In short, if an important objective of our journalism is to involve more people, and a more diverse group of them, in campaigns, there may be more to learn from those who do this as the heart of their own jobs.

Richard Tofel was founding general manager (and first employee) of ProPublica, and was its president from 2013 until January 2022. This post originally appeared on Second Rough Draft, his newsletter about journalism — subscribe here.

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