December 9, 2016

Editor’s note: A version of this story originally appeared on Medium

In March, I started a new role as project manager of elections overseeing a first-time collaboration with four public media organizations: KPCC in Los Angeles, KQED in San Francisco, Capital Public Radio in Sacramento and KPBS in San Diego. We called it California Counts; collectively, we set out to boost civic engagement while reporting on election issues that matter to Californians.

It wasn’t easy herding more than 20 journalists among four newsrooms during this crazy election season. Naturally, I learned a lot. Here are a handful of problems and solutions we encountered along the way.

Challenge: We have a super-popular voter guide; how do we use it to provide better coverage?

We teamed up with MapLight and The League of Women Voters Education Fund of California on Voter’s Edge, a non-partisan voter guide. Users could type in their address and find their local ballot, study the candidates/measures and then save their choices. The guide saw nearly 5 million unique page views among our four stations leading up to the election.

When we hit our stride

After the primary, we parsed out that data to find out what pages were most frequented in the guide. We found that people were searching L.A. County Superior Court Judge candidates more than any other race in the state. That’s because it’s nearly impossible to find thorough info on those candidates elsewhere. Our voter guide was a start but we could do more.

As a result, KPCC’s daily magazine show Take Two produced a series called “Meet the Judges,” in which they profiled each of the eight candidates. The individual segment pages saw 58,901 unique users. That rivals metrics on KPCC’s voter guide, which saw 74,238 unique users during that same time period (Oct. 18 to Nov. 8).

What you can take away

We went deeper on the coverage that people were already seeking, and it paid off. Listen to the numbers and find your niche. What is your audience searching? What are other media organizations missing? If you don’t have solid analytics, ask readers on Facebook or post a survey to your website.

Challenge: Everyone is focused on the presidential race; how do we engage our audience on local issues?

We knew we didn’t want to cover the horse race but we also couldn’t completely ignore the national conversation.

When we hit our stride

Here’s a Facebook video we produced in January to kick off election crowdsourcing. We used the hashtag #whatsmyissue to find out what topics are most important to Californians. We collected around 500 responses, including 100 students who submitted videos via YouTube thanks to a partnership with KQED Education. Many listeners also spoke to us via American Public Radio’s Public Insight Network.

Over the course of the year, we’ve chatted with Californians about jobs, the economy, health care, climate change and so much more. We collected photos, written responses, videos and audio postcards. In the end, we felt this was a meaningful way to talk to our audience about issues affecting their daily lives. It was also in line with the national conversation so it didn’t sound out of touch.

What you can take away

Ask open-ended, relatable questions. Yet have a plan for what you’ll do with the responses. Here’s one example of what KPBS did. Will you look for trends to inform your reporting? Will you feature specific sources? Also, think about who you can partner with to elevate the project. What demographics do you want to reach? Who can help you get to them?

Challenge: We want to streamline coverage among four newsrooms; how do we encourage ownership of stories?

We had A LOT to tackle in terms of covering all 17 ballot propositions. And it was important to us that we didn’t overlap efforts.

When we hit our stride

We decided to do a deep dive on Proposition 64, the legalization of recreational marijuana. The topic played to our strengths because we had reporters located around the state. We spoke with small growers in Humboldt and Trinity counties, we visited the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego, and we profiled one of the most sought-after marijuana cultivators in L.A.

We didn’t ignore the other props; each had its own web and radio explainer. The basics are important but these stories on the marijuana industry let us go further and highlight nuances in this huge policy shift.

What you can take away

With collaborative work, it’s really important that people take ownership of various projects. Otherwise, nothing will get done. The series worked because one editor at KQED oversaw the planning and assigning of stories.

My advice to you: Encourage your reporters to start thinking about coverage threads early on so they’re more inclined to generate enterprise stories down the line. But more importantly, give one editor authority to manage workflow and hold each of those reporters accountable.

Challenge: We’re hosting four live events; what do we cover? And how do we co-produce among newsrooms?

We decided early on that we would host one live event in each of our markets. These would be co-hosted and co-produced among stations. The goal was twofold: To provide town halls where our audience could interact with experts. And to transform those live programs into statewide broadcasts.

When we hit our stride

Our first three events focused on voter engagement, marijuanad and the death penalty. Our final town hall was in L.A. the week before the election. Analytics repeatedly revealed that voters wait until the last minute to cram. Why focus on one topic when we knew our statewide audience needed a wide range of info?

That’s why we hosted a Voter Cram Session with AirTalk’s Larry Mantle. There was a packed audience despite it being scheduled at the same time as the final game of the World Series. The event was easy to promote because it was specific: If you come to this event, you’ll leave with an understanding of all 17 ballot props. (And it was only two hours long.)

Angelenos showed up with sample ballots and marked their choices as our panel of journalists swiftly explained what was at stake. One of our attendees told us via a survey after the event that we “moved through all of the ballot measures quickly yet covered them enough … to make a decision.” Also quickly enough to catch the eighth inning of the World Series.

The event was live video streamed; 5,000 people watched it remotely. The program also aired on six public radio stations around the state that week.

What you can take away

There were a lot of moving parts among our newsrooms—content producing, event logistics, audio engineering—and they intertwined at different stages of the planning process.

Here’s how you can make co-produced events work:

  • Get everyone involved in producing the event on a call to kick off planning (make sure you have at least one content lead and one marketing lead in the mix)
  • Create a Google doc that clearly defines each person’s responsibilities; make a timeline of slated deliverables
    Start an email chain and keep everyone on it throughout the process
  • Notify non-producing partners ahead of time on what special content is in the works; ask for promotional support beforehand; and feedback once the content has been distributed

What have you learned from newsroom partnerships? Let’s chat. (Over happy hour?). Or, you can tweet me at @kristenlepore.

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