News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage

"News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage" table of contents

  1. News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage
  2. Part II: The plan
  3. Part III: Surprises and Modifications
  4. Part IV: The findings
  5. Part V: Lessons for Next Time
  6. Part VI: Building a collaborative future
  7. Resources

By Kelly Kenoyer, WHQR

Sitting outdoors at the bus station in September, I attracted mild curiosity from those waiting for their ride: who is this lady, and will she give me some of the candy she has on that table?

WHQR’s table at the Padgett Bus Station in downtown Wilmington

It was perhaps my 10th time tabling for WHQR’s Community Agenda initiative: the alternative strategy of elections coverage that centers voter perspectives and voices. I just had one question for anyone who came up to me: What do you want city council candidates to talk about as they compete for your votes?

I wanted to know what folks were worried about, and what they wanted officials to do about it.

Responses that day ran the gamut: drugs and crime, bad bus schedules, the inability to afford basic needs, and the cost of housing. I heard from bus drivers about drug addiction among passengers, and I heard from passengers about the need for more resources for the homeless. I took notes from every conversation and tabulated it. I did the same at homeless shelters, street fairs, community festivals, and library events. We heard from 1,000 individuals from the Cape Fear Community ahead of the competitive city council elections, where seven candidates competed for three seats. Their responses guided our elections coverage, warts and all.

This outreach led to much rich, nuanced, issue-based coverage focused on the voters themselves, compared to more traditional elections coverage.

This alternative method that centers voters and community members in the midst of campaign messaging: The citizens agenda. The heart of the project is to let voters decide what an election is about, rather than allowing candidates, pundits, and journalists to make those decisions.

In the lead up to the consequential elections in 2024, my small newsroom decided to pilot the project in our 2023 municipal elections. And my experience as the project manager, data reporter, and writer for this citizens agenda was transformative.

At the start of this year’s primary election season, journalists are looking for solutions to covering elections in a meaningful, useful way. In this guide, I’ll walk you through the process step-by-step, and share my lessons learned and the limitations to the approach. There was plenty that went right, and a lot we can do better the next time around.

Key takeaways:

  • Running the agenda is feasible on a tight budget, but requires a lot of dedicated staff time.
  • Working with volunteers and partner organizations is key to success.
    Getting an appropriately diverse set of respondents is challenging, but can be achieved by attending the right events, and reaching out early to venues and event organizers.
  • An outlet’s audience members don’t accurately represent all voters or all community members.
  • Candidates and reporters are often wrong about the top issues for voters.
  • Community engagement reporting adds accuracy, increased audience, and the chance to hold candidates accountable to the community’s real needs.
  • Out of 1,000 responses, 200 of those individuals also signed up for WHQR’s weekly newsletter – showing a link between community listening and engagement.

What is The Citizens Agenda?

It originated in North Carolina, with the Charlotte Observer piloting a project in the 1990s. Inaccurate polling for a U.S. Senate race led to a result in 1990 that many observers didn’t expect, and left reporters asking themselves where they went wrong – sound familiar? The newsroom responded with a new vision: issue-based coverage determined by what the residents said was most important. The newsroom developed reader-powered coverage that gave the paper leverage with candidates to say: you’re not just dodging my questions, you’re dodging questions from your own constituents.

That year, voter turnout increased and more than 2,500 people interacted with the paper’s campaign in some way.

WHQR could not replicate the scale of the Observer’s efforts, and we’re working in a vastly different media environment from the 1990s. Still, we were determined to bring the citizens agenda to our own region and invite our audience to be part of the reporting process.

Without grants, resources or budget, a poll was out. How could we get responses from the community?

Next chapter

"News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage" table of contents

  1. News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage
  2. Part II: The plan
  3. Part III: Surprises and Modifications
  4. Part IV: The findings
  5. Part V: Lessons for Next Time
  6. Part VI: Building a collaborative future
  7. Resources