No work of journalism should be focused more on what matters to the public than election coverage. Voters, after all, are the decision makers. But journalists don’t always make the right assumptions about what’s of interest to the voting public. One of the main concerns about political journalism is that it reflects the interests of those highly engaged in the political process, for whom basic information about candidates, issues and the electoral process are seen as a given. This type of coverage, sometimes called “horse-race” journalism, can alienate less engaged audiences and weaken trust in news media to the detriment of American democracy.
The unprecedented character of the 2020 election prompted some newsrooms to reevaluate their election coverage. Because of the pandemic-driven changes in voting rules and expanded use of early and mail voting, local newsrooms were forced to take a step back and provide basic information to readers about how to vote, where to vote and how the pandemic affected the administration of their election. A variety of approaches helped newsrooms better understand the informational needs of their communities.
Lessons learned — presented here as the top insights from newsrooms receiving microgrant funding from the American Press Institute’s Trusted Elections Network Fund — can inspire other newsrooms as they work to center their audiences in their coverage of elections, politics and other local issues. Three general strategies emerged from these efforts.
1. Listen to audiences to guide reporting.
The most straightforward way of determining what audiences need and want to know is to ask them.
Scalawag, a nonprofit online magazine for readers in the U.S. South, launched a text message hotline and weekly video series to complement its other election reporting and focus coverage on the issues of most interest to its audiences. Each week’s video was based on questions and themes from readers’ text messages. Written reporting then went deeper on the same topics.
“By offering the opportunity to talk directly with our other reporters, we saw that many of our readers actually didn’t have easy-to-answer questions about the voting process so much as they had concerns, curiosities and a need for ongoing conversations to tell them what to pay attention to in the chaotic news cycle. By removing the need to navigate confusing online resources on their own, the conversations we had and the tips we gathered from those texts directly informed us on what to report on — helping us with that ongoing question of prioritization in up-to-the-minute coverage.” — Scalawag
Some readers, Scalawag found, had basic questions about the mechanics of voting, which were easily answered with a “frequently asked questions” feature compiled with resources from other organizations working directly in the voting rights space.
The Beacon, a nonprofit news organization in Kansas City, connected with people in its community through a text message tipline, social media, virtual events, newsletters and partner organizations to direct its election coverage.
“This was our first major intra-newsroom effort to use engagement tools to directly determine what journalism we would create. Many of our story ideas came directly from community questions and conversations. A few important examples include our stories on voter identification for trans voters, polling place accessibility and transportation to polling sites. These are stories we might have missed if our engagement efforts hadn’t helped us uncover information needs.” — The Beacon
The Colorado Sun, a journalist-owned outlet based in Denver, asked readers to submit questions about voting through a form on its website and during a virtual event. The Sun answered as many of them as they could in both English and Spanish.
“The most important takeaway from the audience listening portion of the project is that no question or topic is too basic. The most common questions we received asked whether you needed to vote in all the races for the ballot to count and how to get a mail ballot in the first place.
This discovery reoriented our entire approach, shifting the focus to explaining the basics, such as how to fix mistakes on a ballot, whether parolees could vote and how the state compiled its official ballot guide. The stories often didn’t have flashy headlines, but we felt like the content was needed as part of our public service approach to election coverage.” — Colorado Sun
2. Survey audiences to understand their election interests.
Audience surveys are familiar tools for newsrooms looking to understand better what people want. Avant-Youth, which is aimed at serving young people in Georgia, surveyed its audience about the who, what, how and why of voting, leading the news organization to focus its coverage on why young voters might make the decision to vote.
“We asked [our audience] what type of information they’d wanna know regarding anything with the elections: (1) the “whats” of voting (this included the where and when); (2) the “hows” of voting (how do I even begin to vote?); (3) the “whos” of voting (candidates, people I should watch, etc.) and lastly, (4) the “whys” of voting (why should one vote?). The latter answer [the “whys” of voting] won, overwhelmingly by a long shot. It only felt responsible, then, that we tried to respond to this line of inquiry.” — Avant-Youth
3. Meet community information needs beyond traditional news products.
KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area made a decision to center its 2020 election coverage on communities with relatively low voter turnout. Since many in those communities weren’t regular KALW listeners, the station invested in new ways to reach those audiences.
It engaged directly with those communities by producing 5,000 door hangers in English and Spanish and distributed them in seven neighborhoods. It also produced 6,000 print voter guides with information specific to individual communities, such as where and how to vote.
“We spent a great deal of time conducting outreach to community organizations in each of those neighborhoods, building relationships and identifying information needs. We also developed partnerships with hyperlocal news media outlets, including Hoodline, SF Bay View, El Tecolote and The Oaklandside, to leverage their and our reporting, outreach and information to reach more people. Throughout our live election night coverage, you can hear conversations we had with people working in or reporting on these communities. And we’re continuing these relationships with a health and equity focus in 2021.” — KALW
The Tampa Bay Times similarly went off-platform to provide election information to its audience, launching a text messaging campaign to complement its other election reporting.
The lesson in Tampa was that engaged readers wanted more coverage of the issues rather than of which candidate appeared to be ahead or behind in individual races. Readers also expressed interest in judicial retention elections, which often don’t receive deep coverage unless there is some sort of scandal.
“There was not as much interest in broad election coverage they could get from the website. Readers seemed to appreciate the direct line to our political editor in order to converse about the issues. Texts that took a more conversational tone largely garnered more responses than more ‘newspapery’ sounding texts.” — Tampa Bay Times
The Colorado Sun launched a pop-up newsletter to make the most of the time it spent answering audience questions.
“It ran weekly for five weeks and was unlike anything we’ve created in the past. It was designed to read like a casual conversation you may have over text message and included links to resources that voters could bookmark and share with their communities. The main goal was to keep the newsletter casual and short to reach readers turned off by political content and those wary of lengthy stories.” — The Colorado Sun
But centering audiences can pay dividends beyond sharper journalism. KALW’s efforts “drew in new contributors and audiences” to help shape, produce and distribute content in the future. Scalawag’s audience-driven approach “outperformed prior election cycle work in terms of pageviews and shares” and continues to inform how Scalawag prioritizes its efforts, especially in deciding between providing informational resources versus storytelling-based journalism. The Beacon found that “participating in the text line became a good predictor of future giving.”
The Tampa Bay Times is now expanding the text messaging service to its statehouse political coverage for Florida’s 2021 legislative session.
And the Colorado Sun’s pop-up newsletter reached “an average 59,000 subscribers each week, [with an] average open rate [of] 19%,” a level of success that prompted a reevaluation of the content and tone of their other newsletters.
“The huge increase in people paying attention to the election meant that not all our readers came in with the same baseline of knowledge,” the Sun’s editors told us. “This realization helped us refine our strategy. We tackled topics we may have overlooked, focused on explaining stories clearly, and wrote headlines to answer questions for readers.”
In other words, getting in touch with their communities helped these newsrooms challenge their own assumptions about what their audiences needed, what they already knew, and what they wanted to know more about.
This article is part of a series on lessons from Trusted Elections Network Fund grantees. See the rest of the articles in the series here.