Last year, 25 newsrooms that cover New Jersey joined the collaborative reporting initiative Voting Block. Together, we pioneered a new way to cover elections that brought together newsrooms to use the same engagement framework to inform their reporting. The goal: to spark political dialogue in New Jersey, amplify local priorities from the public for the next governor’s agenda and deepen engagement between communities and newsrooms.
To do this, each Voting Block newsroom chose a neighborhood, convened neighbors for a meal, facilitated a discussion using our “Political Potluck” guide and reported on the gubernatorial election through the lens of these neighborhood conversations.
Coordinated by The Center for Cooperative Media, The Center for Investigative Reporting and New America Media, Voting Block brought together a diverse cohort of media organizations, including WNYC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight, The Record, Route 40, Zaman Amerika and Reporte Hispano, to collectively pilot this reporting method. The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation provided critical funding to support the project.
In the end, Voting Block newsrooms talked with more than 100 neighbors about their political priorities, produced over 70 local stories and together provided statewide coverage of the election as a network.
At a time when news organizations are losing staff at alarming rates and perceived negatively by 43 percent of Americans, collaborative reporting models rooted in engagement, like Voting Block, are a way for newsrooms to help expand their reporting capacity and build stronger relationships with their audiences.
“Voting Block was a great series for NJ Spotlight because it both helped us understand what issues were important to readers and how they were thinking about the election,” NJ Spotlight Editor Lee Keough said.
“It was gratifying for both us and our group (of neighbors) because by the time the series ended, there was better communication and a much deeper understanding of one another. The group started out very angry and defensive of their positions, with an overall antipathy against one another,” said Keough. “Six months later, they were talking about meeting to discuss issues without NJ Spotlight because they didn’t want it to end.”
We hope other newsrooms will adopt the Voting Block model for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, so we want to share how we we did it and what we learned in New Jersey.
1. Pick an election that is important to, or will have an impact on, your community.
We chose New Jersey’s gubernatorial race because it was one of the first gubernatorial elections since the Trump presidency began and an election with very little civic engagement.
Voting Block’s reporting methodology, which sparks conversations about politics across the political divide, is particularly apt for covering both divisive elections and races with low voter turnout because it gets people engaged.
For instance, Trenton artist Khalilah Sabree was apathetic about the election. After participating in a Voting Block dinner, she reflected on how the conversation affected her, saying, “I am not inspired to vote, but I am determined.”
That said, the Voting Block approach is incredibly flexible and can be applied to any election in your area.
2. Forge partnerships with newsrooms and community organizations.
No newsroom alone has the resources to fan out across a state and go deep with neighbors in dozens of communities. Collaboration takes hard work and time, but participating newsrooms found the investment worthwhile. You can see a map of the New Jersey neighborhoods we focused on here.
With support from CCM, CIR and NAM, Voting Block newsrooms collectively amplified their coverage of the election by cross-publishing each other’s stories, pooling resources and coordinating story publication dates.
We worked with non-English language media and hyperlocal news outlets to ensure the project reflected diverse communities around the state. In order to maximize our reach we also worked with local public libraries, arts organizations such as ArtWorks Trenton and other civically engaged groups such as Creative New Jersey, Free Press and Media Mobilizing Project to reach communities that we might not have otherwise.
3. Find individuals in prospective neighborhoods to participate.
Recruiting residents to participate was the most difficult part of Voting Block. All participants had to agree to meet their neighbors over a meal to talk about politics on the record – and that’s a big ask, especially for folks who might not want their name attached to their political views. We found that being able to clearly articulate what we were asking neighbors to do helped put people at ease and more amenable to participating.
Voting Block reporters conducted outreach by going into the community and meeting people where they were already gathering and organizing. We got in touch with local neighborhood and business associations and asked for their input in recommending potential participants. We kept an eye on local events in the neighborhood that could connect us to potential participants.
“I found the ‘mayor’ of the block, the person who knows how to get a streetlight fixed, the person who people ask about who to vote for on the school board and the person who hosts lots of parties at her house,” said WNYC managing editor Nancy Solomon. “She was the perfect person to take me around and introduce me to others.”
We also used online groups such as Facebook, NextDoor and other local email listservs to conduct outreach. And we made sure to knock on doors and perform in-person outreach to connect with folks who aren’t online.
4. Write a profile of each community that is part of the reporting.
The first round of stories that participating newsrooms published helped set the scene for each community, highlighting the demographics, political and social leanings and history. Reporters also focused on the core participants that we followed on each block and how they viewed the gubernatorial race and the current political climate overall. These community profiles were published in coordination with each other and helped launch the Voting Block project to the greater public.
For examples, check out WHYY’s introduction to Paulsboro, Shorebeat’s profile of Ortley Beach, “Ground Zero” for Hurricane Sandy, or NJ Spotlight’s portrait of neighbors in Long Valley.
5. Break bread with neighbors in each featured community.
We harnessed the power of food to bring people together to talk about potentially divisive issues, such as property taxes, marijuana legalization and education funding. For example, Route 40 recapped a discussion among community members in Pleasantville that stressed the state’s need for a strong leader and WHYY spotlighted how residents in Paulsboro felt left behind by politicians.
Other examples include The Wall’s potluck with Trenton’s homeless community and Reporte Hispano’s gathering with members of the Latino community in Elizabeth, and TAPinto Newark’s potluck with neighbors from Halsey Street and Central Avenue in Newark.
Using our guide, several New Jerseyans hosted their own potlucks and reported back to us with their results. Some enjoyed the conversation so much that they plan to host more potlucks around other issues. Gil Issacs of Scotch Plains told us: “I would love to do it again. Everyone was really positive and everyone said they were glad they came out and it was a good dialogue.”
6. Leverage the power of the collaborative network to engage the greater public.
We created several opportunities for voters beyond core Voting Block participants to inform newsrooms’ election reporting.
For example, WNYC invited its broader audience to submit questions about the gubernatorial candidates, which garnered more than 400 responses. Voting Block reporters grouped questions by topic and collectively answered them.
We also created a text-message campaign through GroundSource asking New Jerseyans to text us and share their priorities for the next governor’s first 100 days. We received more than 300 submissions, which we turned into a “People’s Agenda” that we ultimately delivered to Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.
7. Keep the conversation going during – and after – the election.
Voting Block newsrooms identified opportunities for follow-up stories from each neighborhood to track how voters were responding to the campaign and what they want to see addressed. Partners produced stories that sought local voters’ insights on top-level campaign issues such as property taxes and affordable housing throughout the campaign.
In order to keep the neighborhoods engaged with the issues and elections, newsrooms hosted debate watch parties and reported on their reactions to the candidates’ performances. Check out NJ Spotlight’s post-debate recap from Long Valley.
Voting Block newsrooms continued covering their neighborhoods after the election by reporting on their reactions and hopes for the new governor. Read Zaman Amerika’s follow-up with Woodland Park neighbors or CivicStory’s catch-up with Berkeley Heights residents for how to maintain engagement post-election.
We are currently working with social scientist researcher Lindsay Green-Barber of Impact Architects to evaluate this project. We will release a case study evaluating Voting Block in spring 2018.
Want to know more? Please direct your questions to the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University at firstname.lastname@example.org and The Center for Investigative Reporting at email@example.com.