Case study: How the Dublin Inquirer set a citizens agenda

Ariel Zirulnick
Jun 12 · 7 min read

This is the third installment of a three-part call to action from Hearken and Membership Puzzle Project to dramatically reimagine what campaign coverage should look like.

Journalists are all too aware that the 2020 election is coming up. But do our community members feel empowered by the coverage we’re producing? Unlikely. Typically it starts with the candidates and what they have to do to win, rather than the voters and what they need to participate. We should flip that.

If we let community members’ needs drive the design of our election coverage, it would look dramatically different — and be dramatically better for our democratic process and social cohesion. At a time when the journalism industry is pivoting to reader revenue, this public service journalism model is not just good karma — it should be seen as mission critical.

That’s why the Membership Puzzle Project is teaming up with Hearken to explore what it would look like for U.S. newsrooms to put people, not polls, at the center of their election coverage.

As MPP director Jay Rosen wrote, “You cannot keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from campaign journalists. Who cares what they think? It has to originate with the voters you are trying to inform.”

We’ve taken to calling this alternative agenda the “citizens agenda.” Yesterday, Jay laid out the guiding principles. Today we’ll show you what a citizens agenda looks like in practice by introducing you to a four-person newsroom in Dublin, Ireland that used the approach during their recent City Council election.

We share their work not because we think it’s the best or the deepest or the most innovative — although it is pretty great and we find it very inspiring — but because it shows that any newsroom of any size or age can make this happen.

Why they did it

Several months ago, the Dublin Inquirer staff saw a series of tweets from Jay about a citizens agenda approach to election coverage. The local news startup already had a “policy not politics” approach to their work covering Dublin, they had already seen how involving readers meaningfully could be transformative, and they had the Dublin City Council election coming up.

It seemed like a logical next step to co-founders Lois Kapila, the editor, and Sam Tranum, the deputy editor (who are also married).

But first, they needed to find out if readers even wanted this — and if those readers would be willing to help.

That’s because the Dublin Inquirer has just four staff members: Lois, Sam, and two reporters — and Sam has a full-time day job.

The team receives an assist from a bevy of volunteers who love what the Dublin Inquirer is about and will do a lot to help it succeed. They also have a few paid freelancers.

Volunteers are what made it possible for this startup (founded in June 2015) to take on the citizens agenda approach and build a comprehensive, intuitive voter guide. (Chi.Vote and KPCC’s Human Voter Guide are others worth noting.) Dublin Inquirer sees its audience members’ passion as an asset to expand scope and impact, not a liability to manage.

“You build an audience by telling people you want to do this… [by telling them] we’re here as your representative to politicians,” Sam says.

How they got started

They first announced the effort in January, asking their readers, “Should we do this?” And “If we did, would you help us do it?”

Eleven people said they would. The Dublin Inquirer offered them a small fee, although all but two of them turned it down.

Next, Lois and Sam distributed the survey, which asked readers, “What do you want the candidates in the upcoming local elections to be discussing as they compete for votes?”

They distributed that survey in their newsletter and over social media, but they also tasked volunteers with asking 10 people in their neighborhood offline the same question.

In they end, they had about 200 responses. They tallied the mentions of issues and were unsurprised that housing and transportation topped the list. The two topics were so ahead of the others that they ended up breaking those into sub-issues: increasing the supply of affordable housing and rent control, and improving public transportation and cycling infrastructure.

(Similarly, when Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times asked readers “What’s the local issue that’s most important to your community, but which you think gets overlooked by the national media?” the number one answer was affordable housing.)

None of this was very surprising to Sam and Lois who are, after all, living and commuting in the same city as their readers. But they were surprised to see climate change show up next, given that it’s not (yet) affecting the daily lives of Dublin residents. It made them realize they should probably do more environmental coverage, Sam said.

In the end, they boiled it down to 10 questions for every candidate:

Head here for the Dublin Inquirer’s articulation of how they decided which topics were ones city council candidates should be asked to speak to.

A tweet from a candidate after completing his questionnaire

How they did it

There were 130 candidates in the local election in May — on average, 12 candidates for every electoral district. Lois and Sam knew they would need to call on volunteers again to make it happen. They gave each volunteer six candidates and tasked them with gathering candidates’ contact details (there’s no official register where you can find that information), sending along the questionnaire, and nagging the candidates until they replied.

“We designed tasks that they couldn’t mess up,” Sam said, when asked if he was concerned about handing over their election coverage to a team of untrained volunteers.

Plus, having a constituent send the request actually gave it more weight, given that Dublin Inquirer is a young startup still building a following and influence. No reasonable candidate ignores a constituent’s request during an election campaign.

Brian Flanagan, their volunteer developer, took that constituent benefit a step further, adding a contact form to the page of every candidate who didn’t reply to the questionnaire and inviting the constituent to give their candidate a nudge.

The point was to add further constituent pressure, but also to give even more casual readers a sense of ownership. Sam was CCed on every one of those emails, and estimates that about 150 were sent. When the voter guide went live, Dublin Inquirer had 68 returned questionnaires. By election day, they had 105.

Readers noticed the effort — and some appreciated it enough to become paying supporters.

Other citizens agenda approaches we’re inspired by

  • Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times began his stint covering the 2020 election with a Google Form titled “Tell me how you think I should cover 2020!” Nieman Lab interviewed him about why he took this approach and how it’s going. Inspired by Matt, New Hampshire Public Radio recently launched its own survey.
  • EdNC developed “The People’s Session” for the last North Carolina legislative session. Via a tool called Consensus, EdNC presented 1,058 North Carolinians with a series of statements about education in the state, asking them to indicate whether they agreed, disagreed, or were unsure. After responding to enough prepared statements, respondents could also submit their own policy statements to be added to the deck. At the end, edNC presented a full report to legislators and other key policymakers to give them a roadmap for policies with broad support.
  • The Broke in Philly collaborative of more than 20 local news outlets created an election database ahead of the spring 2019 election. They asked for suggested questions for the candidates via a survey, then asked respondents to choose from among the most common questions in each category. The end result was an eight-question questionnaire that was sent to all the mayoral and city council candidates.
  • Headed into national elections in October, The Tyee in Canada used the citizens agenda approach, first asking the open-ended question, “What do you want candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” Six hundred readers responded. Then they turned those suggestions into a list of questions and invited readers to rank them. Almost 2,000 readers did. The result is a top five questions list that The Tyee’s staff has promised to “relentlessly pursue” in the coming months.

Interested in joining a learning community around creating more responsive elections coverage? The Membership Puzzle Project is teaming up with Hearken to provide support for newsrooms ready to empower voters by listening to their information needs first. Sign up here.

Read the rest of the series:

Also, if you’ll be at SRCCON , Hearken’s Bridget Thoreson and I will be leading a session on how to put people, not polls, at the center of your election reporting. If you want to know more, drop me a line at ariel@membershippuzzle.org.

This story was edited after publication to correct Sam Tranum’s title. He is the deputy editor, not publisher, of the Dublin Inquirer.

Ariel Zirulnick

Written by

Leading the Membership in News Fund at Membership Puzzle Project. Before: director of The New Tropic, published by @wherebyus; Freelance journo in Kenya.