News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage (page 4)

Part IV: The findings

So what came of our survey efforts?

We got 1,000 responses to our agenda and about 200 new newsletter signups. Of the 1,000, 593 were registered voters for City Council, and they skewed older and whiter than our overall responses. (This is a fairly accurate representation of who actually votes in municipal elections)

With open-ended questions and open-ended responses, I spent a lot of time tagging each response based on broad categories, like “Housing Affordability,” “Crime” “Addiction Treatment,” or “Education.” Some responses were very difficult to categorize, or fell into multiple categories. In the end, I had more than 100 distinct tags for responses.

I did all this by copying responses into a separate Google sheet and duplicating the answer where multiple tags were necessary. That sheet has more than 2,000 lines because there were so many responses that necessitated additional tags. Having separate sheets meant I could use the clean sheet with original responses to track demographics, while the modified sheet could be modified with tags to facilitate analysis. I recommend keeping multiple copies of the original responses.

The top concerns became clear within the first few hundred responses: by the time we had 400 responses, the top five categories were completely solidified. They were:

  • Development, mentioned 205 times
  • Housing Affordability, mentioned 201 times
  • Homelessness, mentioned 131 times
  • Infrastructure, mentioned 126 times
  • Traffic, mentioned 114 times.

Pulling out only the city council voters, the top concerns stay the same, but the rankings switch: Housing affordability tops the list, followed by development, infrastructure, then homelessness and traffic.

Notably, these categories can all be tied together and related. Development impacts traffic and can overload infrastructure, but it can also help drive down housing costs by increasing supply, which also helps address homelessness. These are all issues that Wilmington City Council can, in fact, address, which was quite helpful for our elections coverage. That wasn’t the case for all the top-10 issues, as city council has little role in education.

Still, our volunteers and staff did voter education during tabling events. If someone mentioned “book banning” as a major concern, we would reply, “That is a serious issue, although city council has little say over education.” Sometimes, the respondent shared additional concerns, but often they would consider such topics a litmus test for candidates: they would suggest that all politicians should be discussing the topic, including city council candidates.

In light of the many responses that weren’t relevant to the city council, I interviewed a retiring city council member, Margaret Haynes, and asked her to explain how the city council can address each of the top concerns, and when the council doesn’t play a role. In 2024, this may be an informational article that lays out the role of each office, alongside candidates’ stances on major relevant issues.

I also reported articles on the top five concerns in four feature articles and on-air stories. I used the same format for each one, laying out how many responses we’ve heard so far, where the issue sits in the ranking, and pulling in the voices of multiple community members through written responses and actual interviews.

Later, I heard feedback from listeners that they enjoyed hearing the growing numbers, and some loved hearing their own views shared by fellow residents who they didn’t know. I pulled in opposing viewpoints as often as possible, and tried to include clear views on specific policies wherever possible. The conversations with respondents were far-ranging: I asked them about every component of their response, and asked follow-up questions for clarification.

We had “Community Agenda” stories focused on our survey results, but we also used the survey responses to drive our candidate interviews and candidate forum. For our individual candidate interviews, our questions focused very heavily on the top five to ten issues brought by community members, in addition to a question about crime (which didn’t make the top ten).

For our community candidate forum, we worked with media partners to develop questions focused largely on the top ten issues, and pulled questions from audience members that similarly reflected common concerns. It was pleasing to specifically frame questions around these significant issues, knowing we had evidence they were the priorities of the community.

For example, we asked one candidate, a newcomer to Wilmington, to share his qualifications to represent a community he had only lived in for two years. He responded with his campaign’s top priorities, and said they mirrored the concerns of the citizens: housing affordability, public safety and the opioid crisis, and economic development. When we ran our hour-long special with highlights from the candidate forum, we were able to point out that his impressions of the top issues didn’t match what community members told us without prompting.

There were other benefits to running the agenda: being out in the community as reporters let us meet new possible sources and get leads on stories we’ve been trying to make headway on. I developed a clearer understanding of concerns around development, and heard a dozen or more opinions on how the city should grow. It was also fascinating to see the differences between city-dwellers and non-residents in terms of priorities and values. Those differences confirmed our knowledge that the county at large is more conservative than the city, but it refined those views and helped show the application to non-partisan issues.

Between source development, our expanded outreach to communities we don’t regularly meet, and our growing newsletter sign-ups, there were plenty of benefits beyond our improved elections coverage.

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