News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage (page 3)

Part III: Surprises and Modifications

Working with Volunteers

For audiences that we’re trying to build relationships with, we found that utilizing staff time rather than our volunteer force yields better results and establishes trust

Scheduling and coordinating table opportunities at local events took time and effort. But soon it became clear that not all events were equally popular with volunteers. Out of about 40 events scheduled throughout the summer, volunteers signed up for 20. Others didn’t get coverage, or WHQR staffers filled in the gaps.

That was the first challenge, and we responded by covering those events with staff. It’s not a huge surprise, but journalists are often much better at getting survey responses at tabling events than regular volunteers. In cases where volunteers covered 2 hours of an event with a journalist taking over for the next two hours, we consistently saw reporters getting survey responses at double the rate of volunteers. We also had complaints from a volunteer who felt uncomfortable tabling at a homeless shelter, and I would certainly choose to only staff reporters there in the future. Most reporters are much more comfortable talking to strangers, but through better training, we may be able to help volunteers reach out, particularly, to people who don’t match their own demographics.

Regardless of the challenges, volunteers were an essential component of running this program. They generated new ideas, reached out within their workplaces and spread the word about the Community Agenda. Since we ran the program, our Community Advisory Board members, who largely staffed events, have spoken proudly about their achievements in getting 1,000 responses from the community. That was enough surveys for us to have a 1% margin of error.

Politics are unpopular

Convincing potential partners to let “politics” into their events may be more difficult in 2024.

 We wanted to engage regular citizens and not just the most politically motivated voters and residents. But explaining our venture to event organizers was a substantial challenge.

Partisan politics have become much more strained in recent years. It’s easy to partner with breweries and other venues to find event space for WHQR’s non-political events. But these days, no brewery is willing to host a candidate forum or anything similar.

When we asked for permission to table, many venues and event organizers were worried an election-related survey would raise tensions and bring “bad vibes” to their events.

Overcoming that resistance was a matter of carefully explaining our survey. For some organizers, I sent copies of our questionnaire to show that it wasn’t politically partisan. I also pointed out that the city council election is technically a non-partisan race, which helped smooth things over. Still, some venues and events never gave us permission to table. I foresee this problem being worse during the 2024 election, which includes a presidential race.

Demographic challenges

It took very intentional work for our survey-takers to reflect the community in terms of demographics.

We also found that our survey respondents did not reflect our community locally. Simply put, more White people were responding to our survey than any other group, and out of proportion to the White population in the overall community.

In response, we began seeking events that would specifically draw out underrepresented segments of the community. We tabled at India Day on UNCW’s campus, which helped represent the Asian community, and we went to the Northside Food Co-op’s community dinners to pull in Black residents in Wilmington’s Northside neighborhood. But the clearest success there was our tabling at the Cape Fear Latino Festival, which brought us from underrepresenting the Latine community to accurately reflecting the percentage of Latine people in the city.

Still, we fell short in representing the Black community in the Cape Fear Region by about 4%.

In future years, we’ll begin corrective efforts earlier in our campaign, and I’ll try to develop rapport with those organizers before we actually need it. Regardless, I’m proud of how far we came from the beginning, when more than 90% of responses were from White people, far outweighing the actual population of the city.

Running the agenda did make it quite clear that those who attend WHQR’s events skew older and whiter than the general population – valuable information as we try to expand our audience to those who haven’t traditionally been viewed as part of the National Public Radio audience.

Interviewee example: Sylvia Santaballa

Sylvia wrote into our online web form and included contact information, as well as checking the box that her name and answer could be published, and that we have a reporter follow up with her. This is what she wrote for her response to the question, “What do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for your votes?”:

“Address the tension between creating more affordable housing and the “not in my backyard” mindset (the data shows that homelessness rates are highest where housing is more expensive); the overwhelming presence of developers on county and city boards; the significant power of single voices on book bans in public schools.”

I interviewed Sylvia in a coffee shop in a 15-minute conversation. For each topic she mentioned, I asked an open-ended question by reading her response, then asking for elaboration, sometimes with follow-up questions. Some interviews were just a few minutes long (usually when I conducted them on the spot), but others were up to 25 minutes long. Sylvia, like many respondents, talked about her personal experiences when she explained what she valued. As a 25-year resident in Wilmington, she observed growth going out, rather than up. And she said she’d like to see that change in her own neighborhood, although she joked her neighbors might come after her for saying so. We discussed homelessness and book bans as well, and I used her comments in stories on development and homelessness.

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