Block by block, New Jersey news organizations are hosting potlucks and telling voters' stories

Shortly after the presidential election, WNYC’S Nancy Solomon walked her child to school, then headed home. In her Maplewood, New Jersey, neighborhood, she passed the home of a neighbor she’d never met. That neighbor had a bumper sticker on her car. It read: “I don’t believe the liberal media.”

“I sort of felt a moment of rage towards her,” Solomon said.

She started thinking of what she’d say if she confronted her neighbor. And then, she said, “I sort of came to my senses and thought how ridiculous that was.”

Five houses from the bumper sticker lady, Solomon has another neighbor who’s politically active on the left. And, Solomon thought, we should have a block party and get to know each other better. 

“We should try to talk to each other.”

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Solomon, managing editor of New Jersey Public Radio and WNYC, thought of that walk and those neighbors when she sat in on a conference call with the Center for Cooperative Media and several other news organizations that cover New Jersey. CCM wanted to help those organizations work together to cover the upcoming election for New Jersey’s governor

But working together and sharing content across newsrooms, can be tough, Solomon knows. Maybe they needed to split the story up into pieces. Maybe they needed to take it block by block. And maybe they could actually get the people in those blocks to talk to each other.

That's what's happening now, as WNYC, WHYY, The Record, NJ Spotlight, WBGO, 15 hyperlocal news organizations and six local ethnic news organizations are taking the conversation to the neighborhood level with Voting Block.

Building blocks

As a former editor who has run big projects, Stefanie Murray, CCM’s executive director, knows the pitfalls of group work. Those increase when you add in different newsrooms. CCM played the role of project manager with Voting Block, figuring out each newsroom’s goals, what’s important to them and making sure they all got their input into the process.

Taking the story block by block, giving everyone the piece of a larger puzzle, was something that was easy for all the newsrooms to buy into, Murray said. And coverage across platforms wasn’t the only purpose.

Getting people to talk to each other was another. Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting worked with the group to help organize an in-person experience aimed at having a civil dialogue. 

“There is no question that the genesis of this project was born out of the heated political rhetoric after the election last fall and the political divide we see,” Murray said. “We wanted to get people together, and we thought, what better place to start than with people who live around you.”

And what better way to do that than with food?

Block party

Reveal’s work often includes telling stories on different platforms and in-real-life engagement. But they hadn't yet done a dinner party. So when Cole Goins, Reveal's director of community engagement, heard about a dinner party project from Georgia Public Broadcasting, he thought it might be the right way to get neighbors to talk to each other.

And for this project, since everyone's bringing something to the table already, the dinner party is a potluck.

CIR created a discussion guide for those newsrooms, with ideas on how to guide the dinners and how to report on them afterward. Anyone can sign up. Anyone can host. 

“WNYC had sporks, which is relevant swag for a potluck,” Goines said. 

Getting people to come to the table is the key, he said. The sites involved have promoted them online and on their social channels. Reveal's team also did a lot of outreach in the communities that are part of the project. They’ve reached out to libraries and other local institutions and can help them get the word out. 

It can’t just be people inviting their friends, Goins said. That’s the echo chamber. It has to be your neighbors. And it’s not about having a debate or winning one person over to the way you see things, either, he said. People have to be willing to listen, learn and have a productive conversation, “which, you know, seems in the general political climate to be a little lacking.”

Another key part of the project – after the potluck, CIR reaches out to the dinnergoers to find out how it went. The newsrooms involved have written about those dinners and continue telling their own stories, both on their blocks and about the election more broadly. 

The project held a game show night recently that featured comedians impersonating the candidates with real quotes from those candidates, and Voting Block hosted a bigger potluck in Trenton that featured three artists doing live paintings inspired by the conversations. 

There, Reveal's Cristina Kim spoke with a woman at the potluck about the project. 

"I think this is a good idea because more people need to get out and ... I think this is a wonderful opportunity for new people to meet and express themselves without getting too angry or upset," Zarinah Shakir told Kim. "And I think we need to do this more and not just around politics." 

Beyond the block

Voting Block's taking political coverage beyond what it normally is for news organizations and communities, and it's still pushing at those boundaries.

Student journalists at Montclair State University and Rutgers are working on Voting Block now, too. The project had several viewing parties on debate night. Homeless residents in New Jersey are getting their own Voting Block, Murray said, with a potluck night soon to come. And the project is getting ready to launch a campaign through Groundsource to collect things New Jersey residents want the newly elected governor to tackle in the first 100 days. 

Reveal and CCM are talking regularly about what’s worked, what hasn’t and how other news organizations can tell the stories of their communities block by block. 

“We really do think that there’s a model here,” Goins said. “We want to be honest about what worked and what didn’t work. We’ve tried a lot of things and there are a lot of moving parts. We really want to document the whole process.”

Even though it was her idea, Solomon wasn’t sure, when she started walking a block to get stories, that it was going to work. 

Then, she stood on the front porch of a faithful conservative. He immediately started talking. And he liked the idea. We need to be able to talk with each other, he told her. 

“The beauty of this is when you put together my block with the Bergen Record’s block, NJ Spotlight's block, WHYY’s block, WBGO in Newark's block, then you really start to get this wonderful patchwork quilt of getting to know voters and what they're thinking.”

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