News you can use: Inside WHQR’s people-powered elections coverage (page 5)

Part V: Lessons for Next Time

The agenda is time-consuming.

Between scheduling tabling events, coordinating volunteers, keywording responses, and analyzing data, the community agenda took up at least 50% of my time over the summer of 2023. It was an intensive logistical process that significantly cut down on my ability to report on my regular beats.

It’s key to start earlier to give ample time to use the responses.

I set a high bar for responses, and only managed to achieve the 1,000-response goal by going a few days over my September 30 deadline and taking responses through October 3. I even went out onto the street outside our downtown radio station to collect the last eight or so responses. Hitting things harder and earlier would have worked better. We only received 360 responses in July and August, with the rest all coming in September when we truly hit our stride with tabling events, particularly with reporters staffing them.

Getting the responses earlier would have allowed us to spend more time creating effective voter guides, voter education materials, and other content based on the Agenda. (I also got married on the West Coast in October soon after completing the survey gathering section, so I had incredibly limited time to put content together. Next time, I’ll give myself much more breathing room.)

Using time more effectively

Some events were more effective than others for tabling. Concerts at bars were terrible: no one wanted to have a serious conversation at a bar during a concert. But street fairs were very effective, as was tabling at the bus station and the homeless day shelter. People were more curious and open to spending time talking in these situations, as well as the local business journal’s networking event.

Presentation-style events are extremely effective.

 I spent a lot of time reaching out to different religious organizations to see about getting responses. One Christian minister shared our link on the community newsletter, and one rabbi allowed me to attend her Shabbat service. Attending Shabbat was very effective – Rabbi Emily Losben-Ostrov at Temple of Israel gave me time to speak, let her congregation ask questions, and asked that each and every one of them share their views. That format worked very well, and I replicated it with the League of Women Voters.

At those presentation-style events, nearly every member of that community would participate and fill out a survey. But finding a diverse array of organizations willing to welcome that type of presentation was challenging. I hope that 2024 will go more smoothly, now that we have plenty of material to share to explain what we hope to accomplish. I also think these conversations are best had in person, so I plan to beat the pavement a whole lot more next year to find these opportunities.

Organizing the project was a big lift, and took a lot of my usual time for reporting.

The organizational challenge can’t really be overstated, at least with the format of the agenda WHQR pursued. With no budget to speak of, we only had people power to make it happen. Our volunteers were a big help, but weren’t always reliable. For important events, sending trained reporters was key to make sure they were staffed and that a significant number of surveys would come out of the time. Volunteers seemed better equipped for data entry.

On a personal note, I improved my multitasking skills substantially. If I was waiting for a call back from a source, I would spend that time categorizing survey responses, cleaning data, or researching new tabling sources. But my story output certainly went down because of the project, and I had to work evenings and weekends to cover tabling events where volunteers fell through. My flexible editor and colleagues made this possible, but with a less supportive editor and radio station, it would have been impossible.

Partnerships may be key for future success.

I think it may be effective to partner with a university professor to make this project happen. That would allow the station to work with young people to cover more ground, and their grades or mandatory volunteer hours may be more motivating. Ideally, we’d like to work directly with a professor to manage the logistics. Working with students would also give us more access to young voters on campus, which would help re-balance our responses to match the community’s age range better.

Thoughtful outreach is key to meet goals on representation.

We also missed the mark on demographics, albeit just barely. Our initial respondents were overwhelmingly whiter and older than the Wilmington community, which is 74.4% White and 16.3% Black. We allowed respondents to self-identify, and then cleaned the data and collated similar responses into larger categories (i.e. “Chinese” became “Asian”, and “Dominican” became “Hispanic”).

The vast majority of our Hispanic respondents came from the Cape Fear Latino festival, where staff members who tabled there made a concerted effort to reach out to POC attendees to rebalance our responses to more accurately reflect the greater community.

We can replicate that success next year, and expand our efforts to better represent the Black community as well.

Partnerships with local government (where appropriate)

New Hanover County Libraries were a tremendous help, and we didn’t try to work as closely with the City of Wilmington because of the conflict in asking city staffers to help get information ahead of a city election. But city community centers would be an excellent opportunity for us to get a more diverse set of respondents in 2024, a non-municipal year.

We got many irrelevant responses (but that won’t be a problem in 2024)

Finally, we did have a challenge in getting responses relevant to city government. Concerns about abortion and book bans came up, which aren’t topics the city council has any power over. In 2024, the logistical problem is more about categorization. Voters in our community will elect county government and school board officials, as well as state legislators, members of Congress,the governor and council of state and the president. Every element of civic society is on the ballot. That means there’s a need to develop a new program for tagging and categorizing responses, with additional complexity. Working with Hearken or a similar management system would make that much easier, but I believe it would still be manageable with Google Sheets.

If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t spend more time on it. We had such a rich data set that we could have used to create SEO- and user-friendly voter guides and more voter education content on our website. But with limited time, we left much of that work up to listeners. In 2024, I want to use the goldmine of data to set voters up for success: setting each candidate side by side, and comparing their policies on the top five issues we heard 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