Photo courtesy of Black Voice News
What do audiences really want when it comes to campaign and elections coverage?
It’s a tough question, especially for local news organizations that want to deliver comprehensive coverage but don’t have the resources to do everything. People’s information needs involving elections are complex and varied. Some want basic nuts and bolts, like guides to candidates or where to vote. Others want political analysis. Many want both. Some people care about bread-and-butter issues, others about social and cultural issues.
One way to deliver what audiences want is by listening to them, going into the community to get first-hand answers to basic questions: What do people know or not know about their governments and representatives? What kinds of coverage do they need to be more informed members of their communities? And which kinds of political stories most engage them — or make them tune out?
The answers will help inform coverage of consequential elections on the horizon, but they also go beyond reporting on politics; they give news organizations a sense of their audiences’ knowledge gaps and interests. Listening, when done correctly, also creates important feedback loops between newsrooms and their communities. People express their views on and questions about critical issues, then news organizations report on them, ideally giving audiences the knowledge and information to become more civically engaged. But people also get the chance to respond to how the coverage changes–or doesn’t.
For several years, listening to audiences has been a key plank of the American Press Institute’s programs to help newsrooms engage their audiences, reach diverse communities and design coverage that people care most about. API affiliate Trusting News has also made audience listening a central part of its efforts to help news organizations win the trust of their communities.
As part of this effort, API in 2022 distributed small grants before the midterm elections to help fuel listening experiments led by 31 news organizations across the country, legacy and startup newsrooms across digital, print and broadcast platforms. The recipients held public forums. They set up “pop-up” newsrooms where people could stop by and engage with journalists on their own time. Some conducted surveys online. Newsrooms partnered with universities and other local institutions to host public events. Some journalists attended gatherings, like local farmers markets, where people are already congregating.
What did they learn from these sessions, and how might those lessons be integrated into their elections coverage in the future?
We spoke with several of the grant recipients to see what lessons they gleaned from these experiments. Some common themes emerged. Here are four of them.
1. Audience listening helps newsrooms — not politicians — set their coverage agenda
Most journalists have a pretty good idea of the main issues in their communities. But many who conducted deep listening said these projects challenged assumptions they had about what people cared most about, thus helping them hone their coverage.
In Hawaii, for example, Honolulu Civil Beat set up pop-up newsrooms in libraries across the state to get a grasp on what issues people prioritized in choosing a candidate. In particular, the newsroom wanted a better sense of what was on the minds of people in rural areas whose voices were often not included in the coverage, said Patti Epler, Civil Beat’s editor and general manager.
It was no surprise, she said, that people said one of their main issues was the cost of living, which is driving young people away from Hawaii and raising concerns about cost burdens for the state’s aging population. What was surprising was the degree to which people saw the cost of living as the predominant issue in Hawaii. Yet the state’s politicians, when asked about these topics, often speak in broad-brush terms, she said, not really zeroing in on the issues that resonated with people.
The listening sessions helped Civil Beat’s journalists understand highly specific cost-of-living concerns — condo fees that rank among the highest in the nation, for example, or even smaller issues like auto inspection fees that some people think are arbitrary or unnecessary.
“We were much more able to set the agenda ourselves when it came to interviewing candidates for office,” Epler said. “The candidates always have their big themes, they want to drive the agenda. But we were able to ask much more focused questions.”
That is a lesson that can be taken into future coverage. For example, she said, the candidates always talk about bringing the cost of housing down, but the listening sessions gave reporters specific issues and examples they could point to when interviewing politicians. The same is true for other issues like climate change, which is a big issue in Hawaii. Civil Beat reporters can hold politicians accountable by asking about specific solutions to the problem in ways that affect communities.
“We want our election coverage to be about what people really care about,” she said, “not what the candidates care about.”
Listening can also help journalists discover gaps in people’s understanding of their government and its representatives, which can inspire coverage meant to fill those gaps.
In Montana, Missoulian reporter Nora Mabie traveled around the vast state to visit its Native communities, where she planned to report on their top concerns heading into the 2022 midterm elections. Instead, she found that many of these residents were disengaged and didn’t feel like the election affected them very much.
She tried to draw people out, but people said they didn’t even realize there was an election. She ultimately came to the conclusion that these voters’ lack of engagement was the story. So she calibrated her questions, asking whether they were voting and, if not, why not. That led to better conversations, she said, because the questions didn’t start from an assumption that they would vote and therefore didn’t embarrass people. Asked why they weren’t voting, they often responded that the issues politicians talked about weren’t relevant to their lives. Asked about politicians, people would say, “It feels like they don’t care about me, so why should I care about them?” Mabie said.
To fill those gaps, she wrote a story about what’s at stake for these voters to explain the influence that local, state and federal governments have on Indian Country.
The need to be flexible, to have your assumptions challenged and to be prepared to pivot, will inform future reporting, Mabie said. She is drawing on her experience traveling to the reservations for a project she is doing now on health disparities, building on a 2013 study showing that Native populations’ life expectancies in Montana are about 20 years lower than those of white people.
2. There’s no “right” way to listen
Newsrooms embarking on listening projects can do it in any number of ways. They can hold big events, partnering with a university or another community institution that has a public space like an auditorium, and inviting people to discuss important issues on a set agenda.
Those kinds of events can capture many voices at once and help newsrooms see trends. Events tend to attract engaged citizens who have plenty on their minds and a willingness to express themselves. Events that aren’t structured to attract new people will include the same points of view repeatedly and miss important voices that otherwise might not be heard.
Listening can also happen in smaller venues. Civil Beat in Hawaii chose to partner with local libraries for its pop-up newsrooms partly because it already had existing relationships with them from an earlier literacy series it had sponsored, Epler said.
Black Voice News in the Inland Empire region of Southern California last year held a “Festival of Ideas” where organizers set up a mock voting booth in which people could “vote” on the issues they saw as most pressing. Part of the idea was to make the event fun and engaging, and to attract people of different generations, said Christen Irving, director of revenue and audience engagement at Voice Media Ventures, which operates Black Voice News.
To make the atmosphere fun and festive, the event included music and the table centerpieces included Play-Doh and puzzle books that people could take home. “We wanted to make a different and fun idea-rich environment where people could feel free to express themselves and talk about the different things that are important to them,” Irving said.
Explore More: Download API’s interactive engagement zine
Trying to engineer one-on-one encounters with people is less efficient, but can still be as — or even more — productive. The only important element is to be where people are. Some journalists reported that some of their most meaningful listening sessions happened outside the events, in serendipitous encounters where people felt free to just talk.
Events, like voter turnout itself, are subject to a number of vagaries — the weather or a Covid-19 outbreak, for example. Voter apathy can also play a role if the event is perceived as overtly “political.” Those who held events emphasized that they rarely played out exactly as scripted, an important caution for any newsroom trying them.
For example, in Alaska, reporter Anne Hillman is doing a listening project for Alaska Public Radio involving wellness among rural communities in Alaska. She recently organized a listening event in the village of Kake, in southeast Alaska. While there were a number of logistical problems and low turnout at the event itself, her travels were productive nonetheless, she said. Encounters with local townspeople, including a teacher she met on the ferry on the way to Kake, resulted in several casual conversations that were just as valuable as if she had held a listening-specific event.
In her travels to reservations across Montana, Mabie had the same experience with unplanned encounters at Stone Child College in northern Montana. “I just sat down at this tribal college and informally grabbed some people who were walking by. And that led to some of my best conversations. I had a really honest conversation with a student who I probably never would have reached before. He was just really open about why he didn’t care about voting and how he felt as a young voter.”
Well-thought-out digital listening is also an important and necessary strategy for today’s news organizations. Online surveys, socialized on Facebook or other platforms where people are already expressing themselves, can be a way of learning about what’s on audiences’ minds. The same goes for social listening — asking social media managers to watch for emerging issues that the newsroom might not yet have on its radar.
3. Listening should go beyond election years
Listening to audiences during an election year can give a sense of how engaged people are. It is when people are paying more attention to their political representatives and the issues. So if they’re not engaged during election season, they probably need more help navigating their governments in general.
At URL Media, a network of 21 news organizations that serve communities of color, Editorial Director Andaiye Taylor organized a listening experiment fueled by an API grant to determine whether URL could create shared election-year editorial services — research, reporting and content — for its partners. The listening happened differently at each news organization — some in person, some online — but some common threads were clear.
“What really leapt out at me was that the information they wanted was so tactical,” she said. People wanted reporting on information about who is responsible for fixing streetlights, how redistricting will affect them and how they would know if their mail-in or absentee ballot was counted.
That kind of nuts and bolts, basic information about government and how it operates might not seem very appealing to journalists who may see it more like a civics lesson than political coverage.
The key, Taylor said, is in framing these kinds of stories as journalism that empowers people to engage with their government in meaningful ways. News organizations, she said, need to give people “a playbook” for how to operate as members of their communities.
She used the streetlight example to show how citizens’ understanding of the mechanics of government — where to go to get things done — can help them improve their communities.
“If I’m a resident and I’m like looking out onto a street after dark, it feels dangerous. It feels inaccessible. I’m exercising civic power if I know what levers to pull,” she said. “From a journalism perspective, we can be providing insights about how power works — quite literally. How power works involves how you get a streetlight turned on.”
4. The benefits of listening go beyond idea-gathering
While the main point of audience listening may be for news organizations to get to know their communities better, the flip side is also true: The community gets to know the news organization. That builds trust and name recognition, and it gives people a sense that journalists care because they are part of the community, too.
“We need to connect with our audiences as people, and they need to see us as people, too,” said Irving of Voice Media Ventures.
This is especially true, participants said, when the interactions feel less “transactional,” when the journalists were listening for insights and ideas rather than just a good quote.
To be sure, that kind of listening is reporting — journalists are never not reporting — but news organizations embarking on deep listening projects said they were more likely to make better connections with people when they put their notebooks down.
At Civil Beat’s pop-up newsrooms, Epler said, reporters may take notes, but they make it clear when they’re going to quote someone, and they also convey that they’re not in a hurry to get back and make a deadline. They say things like, “I’m here to listen for as long as you want to talk to me.”
Some newsroom leaders who have a paper, website or airtime to fill — and limited reporting resources — may find it counterintuitive to send a reporter out without expecting a story in return. Those who have done it say it pays off in the long term.
To get to that mentality, Hillman and others said, news organizations need a listening proponent in the newsroom, someone who understands the longer-term benefits. And not just an evangelist for listening projects but one with power to carry them out, and, as Hillman put it, one who understands that “listening is part of a long game, not a short game.”
Part of that long game is carrying these lessons forward into future elections, like the 2024 contests. Newsrooms often return to the same election coverage formula year after year. Experimentation allows them to incorporate innovations that force them to think about whether those formulas are working.
Another critical benefit of the listening experiments, participants say, is potential revenue generation, an aspect of community engagement that is not lost on those who have taken on listening projects. Engaging people makes them want to subscribe, or donate, depending on the business model.
“I work not just in audience engagement, but also in revenue. And I think sometimes we wanna hurry up and be viral and get all these new followers,” Irving said. “But I’m learning that it’s okay if things take time — quality over quantity is better than quantity over quality sometimes.”
A major payoff is that a listening exercise forces face-to-face interactions with the community. The pressure to deliver stories all hours of the day tends to leave little time for journalists to get out of the office, but when they do deep listening, the resulting stories are more textured, the voices are more authentic, and the sources are more varied.
“It forces them to look people in the eye and get a feel for who they really are,” said Honolulu’s Epler. “And I think that has really helped our journalism too, because they’re out of their comfort zone, and they’re actually seeing people who are not like them.”
API’s community engagement work
Community engagement represents a central feature within American Press Institute’s Inclusion Index.
- Engagement is one of the six key factors we measure for when we assess a newsroom’s overall commitment to DEIB principles.
- Our Inclusion Index work actively assesses how newsrooms engage communities via direct conversations with community members. We spoke with dozens of people within Pittsburgh’s Black communities, and relied upon additional research in our effort to score how local newsrooms were conducting business and viewed by local Black residents. Our work determined that the ecosystem as a whole had a great deal of work to do in engaging and building trust within these traditionally underrepresented areas.
- We also offer training on engagement practices. As a follow-up to our work in Pittsburgh, we are training six local newsrooms on best practices related to community engagement, community listening and community asset mapping. We also can offer these services to other local newsrooms.
People appreciate being heard and included
At a time when people don’t feel a strong connection with or trust in their governments, listening provides an opportunity for people to voice their opinion. They liked being asked what they felt they needed from the news outlets and what they thought the media were missing.
That inclusiveness — that people are contributing to the news process — is part of the benefit. Irving said she has seen such interactions play out at a listening booth set up at events held by a local nonprofit group in local parks.
“I can’t tell you how many times someone’s come up to the table and said, did you hear about this? Or did you hear about that? And to know that they have a place where they can literally come and connect with us and find us.”
One draw at these events is the news process itself. People often take an interest in seeing how news organizations operate behind the scenes, and interacting with journalists in person can take away some of the mystery about how the news comes together. This is especially true with the rapid change in the industry, as local legacy news organizations shrink and new, previously unknown players come onto the scene. Transparency and demystification of the news process and the people involved are key to building trust.
People’s curiosity, participants said, produces a virtuous circle of engagement: Those engaging with the process are more likely to become both sources of the news and subscribers.
“The whole point of a listening session is for people to understand that without them, we can’t make the news,” said Irving.