As the British public prepares to head out to the polls this week in the UK General Election 2019, much of the press coverage focuses on the two main party leaders: Boris Johnson of the Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn of Labour.
This binary focus is not specific to the UK; across the Atlantic, US electoral coverage is well-known for pitching Democrat versus Republican leaders. In both countries, however, this ‘horse race’ approach often leaves the detail of local issues under-reported and regional voters alienated.
To fill this void and bring the communities back in the political discourse, the US regional website Richland Source set up a series of community events called ‘Talk The Vote’ back in November 2019, ahead of the local mayoral elections.
"There is a rule at the beginning not to talk about national politics: we don’t care about the guy in the White House," explained Brittany Schock, engagement and solutions editor, Richland Source, speaking on a podcast with Journalism.co.uk.
"The city officials you are voting for have no bearing on Washington, we only care about Mansfield."
She said that the motivation for the event was to hear from citizens about the issues that they felt were not being addressed, as opposed to the broken record of ‘Who is ahead in the polls?’ or ‘Who has made the most money?’ coming out of the standing candidates' camps.
"We just thought that wasn’t very informative to the average voter, and it especially doesn’t apply on a local level. It’s hard in this election environment to get away of the partisanship, but really on a local level, it doesn’t matter much if you are a Republican or a Democrat.
"We’ve been trying to not indulge ourselves in that type of coverage, where we are pitting candidates against each other. Instead we focus on what voters want to talk about."
From September 2019, Schock and city editor Carl Hunnell set out on the five-week 'listening tour'. They invited local residents to discuss one key question: ‘What do you want candidates to be talking about as they compete for your vote?’
Similarly to the Voting Block project in New Jersey, Hunnell was in charge of moderating the discussion, while Schock was at the back taking notes.
At the end of the tour, editorial teams produced a 'citizen’s agenda' that outlined the priorities and key concerns across the wards on the website, with a hard copy given to the newly-elected officials.
The publisher also organised a mayoral debate where candidates were asked a series of questions from a panel of media professionals based on the findings from the Talk The Vote events.
Candidates were given the chance then to make pledges to respond to those local concerns. This way, later down the line, the mayor can be held to account whether they have delivered on those promises.
"We can then see whether it’s lip service to get elected or whether they will deliver [on their promises]," said Schock.
We’re ditching the “horse race” for resident-powered local election coverage inspired by the Citizens Agenda. Proud of the ambitious reporters and editors at @RichlandSource Thanks @jayrosen_nyu for the framework. https://t.co/puKuE1beNE— Jay Allred (@jayallred651) September 8, 2019
Would such a strategy have any mileage in a politically divided United Kingdom? Rather than making the election a popularity contest between Johnson or Corbyn, could it serve as a way to drill into local struggles and be a way to hold the locally-elected Members of Parliament to account over the pledges they make?
Schock managed the project in a region with a population of 47,000. The framework could be scaled up even to a national level depending on the resources at disposal, she said.
"You might have to pick and choose, to not be as frequent or expect people to travel more. You would attract bigger crowds, but the art of moderating is one that we have had to learn.
"We had an experience at our second meeting where one strong personality was sucking the air of the room - and we panicked and thought 'What do we do?'
"So, how do you balance hearing voices but needing others to speak. That’s a skill to consider with bigger groups."
Schock’s position as 'engagement and solutions editor' is one that was created specifically to build Richland Source's membership programme and its community outreach. These discussion groups are a key part of the strategy, as they help build trust with local readers.
At the time of the podcast, the publisher had 558 members. Feedback on the sign-up form overwhelmingly reflects that this was because readers felt connected to the publisher, she claimed.
"The best is yet to come with this experiment. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with the community already but this has gone leaps and bounds to continue that relationship with your readers.
"This informs your reporting because you will be reporting on the subjects that matter to your readers. These are also ultimately your sources, these are the people you can go to for comments."
She advised news organisations thinking about trying out a Talk The Vote-style event series to carefully select hosting partners who will help drive people to the events. It is also worth inviting local candidates along to listen but not allow them to interfere and also create a safe environment to make the first step to creating a relationship with your readers.
"Jay Allred, our publisher, has made it okay to fail - and we have failed at times at some events," Schock said.
"If you don’t think you don’t have that rapport with your community to try this, this is the first step to building that relationship."
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