March 16, 2008

New Hampshire Public Radio has spearheaded one of the more ambitious and innovative uses of the Web during the election so far.

The station created a citizen media Web site, Primary Place Online (PPO), as a companion to a year-long radio series that followed the residents of a New Hampshire town throughout the 2008 presidential primary.

One voter told NHPR, “I didn’t use it just to vent my own view; in fact, I used it to help make my decision in the election.”

As part of this project, residents of Exeter, N.H., (population about 15,000) were invited to describe their thoughts on the candidates and the campaigns. By the end of the project, there were 187 registered users; of those, 72 posted at least once and the total number of posts and comments was 275.

The citizen media site helped NHPR’s on-air coverage of the primary, highlighting trends such as McCain rebuilding support and Obama failing to connect with working class voters.

This project is an excellent example of how citizen media can both supplement and contribute to traditional media coverage.

I interviewed Jon Greenberg, executive editor of New Hampshire Public Radio, to find out more about the project, which ended in January after the New Hampshire primary. Here’s an edited transcript of our e-mail exchange:

Dube: Why did you decide to do this project?

Greenberg: PPO had its roots in our radio series called Primary Place, so the best answer has to begin there. The idea behind the radio series was simply that it was our way of making a unique contribution within all the other primary coverage that would be going on. The reporting goal was to see how the various candidates, and we had about 17 of them, resonated with real people.

In Primary Place, we picked one town — Exeter, N.H., — and followed how the primary made its way through the people of that town. We thought this would offer a refreshing alternative to the horse race coverage that relies on the polls and the actions of the campaigns. It also made sense for us to focus on one town because we have a tiny newsroom and there’s no way we can compete with the big shops that swarm the state once every four years.

So from the start, this was an intensive, voter-centered project. I started visiting the town of Exeter in January 2007, and my basic goal was to produce a story every two weeks or so. I did not assume that Exeter was a bellwether town — as goes Exeter, so goes New Hampshire. Rather, I chose it because it has a healthy number of Republicans, Independents and Democrats, a track record of active political participation and a greater income diversity than most other towns; there are very wealthy households, a large number of very poor households and, of course, many households in between.

Dube: What were your goals for this project?

Greenberg: The goals for PPO were threefold. First, to show the rest of the country what actually happens in the New Hampshire primary and share the benefits of that process. It isn’t simply a day of voting; it is the months of contact with the campaigns and the buzz and the conversations that lead up to that day. Second, to give me insight into what was taking place when I wasn’t in Exeter (and I was there two to four days a week). Third, to give Exeter residents a fuller sense of what it means to participate in the democratic process. By writing for themselves and by reading what their neighbors had written, they could become more conscious of the primary and how it played itself out within their frame of reference.

Dube: In what ways do you feel you achieved those goals?

Greenberg: I would say that we achieved all three goals, but with greatly varying degrees of success. The unambiguous winner for me was the second goal — the insights I gained about what was taking place on the ground. A woman in a mobile home park wrote in mid-summer about her disappointment with the message of the Obama campaign. This presaged the trouble Obama would have with working class voters. After McCain tumbled in April, the posts from the summer house parties with him showed that he was reconnecting with Republicans and Independents. There were other instances in which I picked up key information, but perhaps the most surprising came the day after the primary when one woman described in detail why she voted for Clinton when her original intent was to vote for Richardson. It was the polls. About 12 hours before she voted, she changed her mind because the polls showed a blow-out for Obama. She did not want a woman to go down in flames.

The third goal of changing Exeter voters’ sense of the process was also fulfilled by the caveat that PPO probably applied to only about 150 souls. But for the people this really touched, it took them to a different place. A Huckabee supporter wrote, “Over the past few months what I came to respect was real people with real feelings.” An Independent voter explained that, “I didn’t use it just to vent my own view; in fact, I used it to help make my decision in the election.” A Democratic voter said, “It gave me a way to share what was going on here with my friends and family who live all over the country. Many of them were more engaged and interested because they knew someone living in New Hampshire.”

This last point leads to the first, and least successfully achieved, goal. I put whatever effort I could into reaching out to other public radio stations. The idea was that they would connect their listeners with PPO. In the end, only one station actually did that — WCBU-FM in Peoria, Ill. KPBS was enormously helpful with the graphics for the site, but for a variety of reasons we never fully synched up. While we had respectable usage of the site — roughly 35,000 visitors in the course of the project — I would have hoped for a broader reach. We did link the site with’s “Map the Candidates” mash-up and The Economist’s “Democracy in America” blog. Those connections, plus general Web searching and personal networks, helped bring this to people around the country. The level of that, though, ought to have been much higher.

Dube: In what ways did this project help local citizens better understand the election and provide voters information they might not otherwise have gotten?

Greenberg: I heard from a number of people that the questions I asked them to keep in mind in preparation for seeing a candidate helped them regardless of whether they posted after going to the event. They became more careful observers of the candidates and of their own reactions to the candidates. If they actually took the time to write afterward, the impact was even greater. Nothing forces you to clarify your own thoughts more than having to write them down. As journalists, we know this all too well. For these voters, it was a bit of a novelty, at least as this effect relates to politics.

Beyond the cognitive impact, those who wrote had the sense that they were taking part in something much larger than themselves. A woman thanked me for giving her a role to play in the primary.  Another person said, “Thanks for making the primary real to me.”

I was also impressed with the number of people who told me that PPO led them to have more conversations around the dinner table and among their friends than they ever had before. Sometimes those conversations included people who live outside the state, a benefit that I had always hoped would play a part in this project.

Finally, there is no doubt that PPO gave the people involved a different sense of their own community. They enjoyed reading what others had written. They saw nuances that they hadn’t seen before. They found it harder to put those who disagreed with them in tidy little boxes. They saw politics as the expression of real people, rather than the articulation of crafted media messages. In short, for these people, it humanized politics.

Dube: How did you tap the information submitted online to enhance your on-air coverage?

Greenberg: I could count on the site to help me in the way a background interview helps any reporter. You might not use a particular piece of information in your story, but what you learn improves your sense of the overall context, and this makes your story more accurate.

There were also particular instances when what I read led directly to a story. For example, several weeks before polls showed Clinton’s huge lead evaporating, I read a comment from a woman who said she travels widely in the town and felt a major disconnect between what the polls were saying and what voters were telling her. This was the lynch pin for a story on people and polls — whether we trust them, how they affect us and how we use them.

Dube: How did you guide the contributors to ensure you got the type of material you were looking for?

Greenberg: Clear guidance up front and frequent feedback were essential to this project. In the first place I gave them a very specific task — go see the candidates and tell us what struck you. As it turned out, this was a little too specific. Later I broadened it to include any encounter with a campaign, whether that was a canvasser, an ad or a conversation with a neighbor.

I backed up this guidance with three questions, which I edited and re-edited to point residents in the right direction. The questions were:

1. What did you learn about him or her as a person and as a candidate that you didn’t know as clearly before? (It might be a policy point, but typically, policy stuff can be learned in the papers or from a Web site; you might get a view into values, character, priorities, etc.)

2. What was it precisely that she or he said or did that gave you that insight? (It could be certain words, an approach to answering a question, her or his manner of speaking, or something else.)

3. Why did you notice that particular quality of the candidate? This has to do with YOU — your priorities and your values.

I sent weekly e-mails to registered users. I always included the candidates’ scheduled appearances in the state, and many users appreciated this more than anything else. Often I pointed up a post that exemplified the kind of writing that I thought was effective. Once in a while I played the role of coach, talking directly about why it might be hard to write and how to get past that. In a few cases I would do some minor editing of a post — moving the lead paragraph higher up in the post — but I always did that with full permission from the writer.

Dube: You also engaged students through the Vlog Squad. What was that and how did it work?

Greenberg: This was a small group of students at the local vocational high school who shot video of the candidates when they came through Exeter. When a PPO blogger wrote about a candidate, I would ask the Vlog Squad member to post a segment to YouTube that would show the moment the blogger was describing. I then embedded the video into the post. The result was better than I expected. The fusion of the first person text, and the image of the full scene on video, were quite effective and wholly authentic.

I should also note that these students would probably never have gone to see a single candidate had it not been for this project. So a little citizenship training happened there as well.

Dube: What lessons did you learn from this project?

Greenberg: I think three elements must be in place for this kind of intensive effort to pay off.

1. Newsrooms must give citizens a precise task that has an obvious rationale, i.e. generates content that the citizens instantly understand would be useful in terms of traditional news coverage.

2. Newsrooms must give citizens strong guidance and frequent editorial support.

3. Both the newsroom and the citizens need to understand that a new kind of writing is called for, one that bridges the gap between pure observation and pure opinion. Achieving this new style will require time.

I’d throw in one more observation. People and organizations are extremely skittish about participating in anything that can be called politics. They remind me of Linus who said, “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.” In this case, everyone loves democracy. What they hate is the process.

With the public, you will encounter great fears of saying the wrong thing, of writing something that turns out to be inaccurate. They think they need to be experts — no matter how many times you tell them that no one can question another’s personal experience of an event. With organizations, you sense that they welcome this sort of project the way they’d welcome a visit from Typhoid Mary. They batten down the hatches against any possible charge that they have gotten involved in “politics.” I would have liked some larger employers in Exeter, such as Philips Exeter Academy, to help let employees know that they were welcome to participate online. I found only resistance.

Dube: Why do you think news organizations should do projects like this?

Greenberg: Assuming that the people in the newsroom are satisfied that they have addressed the three key requirements, the main reason to do this is that it helps the news organization do a better job in its traditional line of business. The citizen Web site is a reporting tool. It might be more than that, but that is its primary value to the news organization.

There are other good reasons. This can be thought of as an investment in human capital; you are training a group of people to provide useful content. It makes more sense to do this sort of thing if you plan to use those people for other projects down the line. NHPR did a quick interactive project on town meetings right after the primary, and Exeter made the greatest use of the citizen commenting function.

I think this speaks to a much larger goal that requires the work of many news organizations, preferably within the same market. I believe that both newsrooms and citizens can begin to define a form of writing that allows citizens to be people with values and preferences, but at the same time be capable of describing what they see. It isn’t objective journalism and it isn’t an opinion piece; it’s a hybrid that puts the citizen in the role of diarist. When we write for a diary we have no intention of persuading others, and we don’t question our interpretation of events.

The more citizens can do this, the more we will all benefit from citizen media. This is the form of writing that lies ahead for citizen media, and it will take the investment of many news organizations to develop and spread it across many media markets. I equate this work to public schools. We don’t invest in schools with the idea that a particular student will someday be our employee. We invest because we hope we will benefit from the investment made by others just as they will benefit from the investment we made. I think the same notion of shared benefit ought to inspire our investments in this kind of project today.

Lastly, I believe that a project like PPO is good for democracy. It offers citizens a pathway to be who they are, contribute to the public understanding and get a better understanding of others in their communities. It’s hard to argue against doing that.

Dube: What tips do you have for other organizations that might want to try something similar?

Greenberg: I would approach this like a political campaign. I did. I did my grassroots organizing and spent many hours in low-key, rambling conversations that built trust. I took my project to the town’s Board of Selectmen and won their endorsement, which led to a proclamation. I used that proclamation to gain entry to the local chamber of commerce and the schools. I forged a partnership with the local paper. We paid for promotional cards that area businesses put on their counters.

In short, my goal was to convert this into a community project and hit residents in the town multiple times with the same message coming from different directions. I did not succeed to the extent I would have liked because PPO was a one-man show, but I have no doubt that these techniques will work if everything else that makes this sort of project worth doing is also in place.

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Jonathan Dube is the Director of Digital Media for CBC News, the President of the Online News Association and the publisher of An award-winning…
Jonathan Dube

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