How KALW used crowdsourcing for insights to help reporting

This article is co-authored with Ben Trefny, News Director, KALW 91.7 FM, San Francisco.

Leaders in the news department at KALW public radio knew the election of November 2016 would be a complicated one to cover. KALW is an NPR and BBC affiliated station serving the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, and voters were going to have dozens of ballot measures and elected officials to consider. So they decided to engage the audience before the reporting began.

First, a little background. KALW is the oldest FM broadcaster west of the Mississippi, having established its signal in 1941. The station takes pride in staying in touch with its community, running a variety of training programs within the station (such as the very popular Audio Academy) and outside (including the San Quentin Prison Report). It produces several live events throughout the year, and station administrators maintain regular dialogue with the station’s audience.

In 2016, the voters’ ballots were going to be overwhelming. The state of California put forth an extraordinary 17 propositions ranging from legalizing marijuana to outlawing the death penalty. The city and county of San Francisco, alone, had even more: 24 ballot measures plus a multicounty public transportation bond to consider. The eight other counties each had their own ballot measures, plus local races for county supervisor seats, school boards, hospital boards, transportation authorities, judges, and state assembly races. The ballot guides weren’t pamphlets; they were books.

So how should a local newsroom report? What races would reporters and editors pick? Which ballot measures would garner more public concern than others? What information gaps existed on topics that could determine voter decision making?

As an experienced journalist, news director Ben Trefny had a plan. HIs team would deploy a dozen reporters to cover the most impactful ballot measures. They’d clear the air, literally, debating and discussing as many election issues as possible. It was a conventional approach, and it had been effective before, but Trefny felt this unusually complicated election warranted something more. So he and his elections coverage coordinator, Angela Johnston, decided to use a crafty, off-the-shelf form tool to run a crowdsourcing callout to the KALW community. The idea was that people with an interest in particular ballot measures would have something to say about them. And they partnered with Subbu Vincent to put their plan into effect.

Prior to this, in a pilot experiment, Vincent, during his JSK fellowship at Stanford University, had already validated that local newsrooms could surface authentic insights, nuances and new reporting angles from citizens on specific local issues ahead of reporting. The crux of this approach involves using Screendoor, the form tool, in a powerful way. The cloud-based tool lets you create complex, dynamic forms that allow what is called ‘conditional branching’. That means, if you said ‘yes’ to an earlier question, you will be shown a different question next than if you said ‘no’. An entire flow of questions may not even be visible to someone who says she or he is a parent, because those questions are for teachers and vice versa. Google Forms for example does not support this feature. Like some of the better survey tools, responses in Screendoor come through a neat back-end.

A fairly complex questionnaire targeting multiple types of citizens will still only take a minute or two, because all the respondents are not seeing all the questions. Also, no major tech is needed at the newsrooms since it runs off the cloud, or the software-as-a-service model.

In July, Johnston and an assistant, Jürgen Klemm, did the first round of data gathering about all of the ballot measures and local races. At the same time, Vincent showed Johnston how to create a form using the simple branching-on-conditionals feature. The news team decided that one thing worth trying was a dipstick call out: release a questionnaire that allowed people to select their choice of ballot measure or race and provide their insights. The team also included options to allow for full disclosure for citizens or activists involved with the campaign on one side of a measure or race.

It turned out to be a very detailed questionnaire due to the dozens of ballot measures and candidates running for state and local races. But the nature of the form allowed the department to hide whatever was not relevant for a given respondent. After some social media planning, the team embedded the form in a callout article and went live on August 22, 2016.

The team set up some email customizations in the form of personalized responses people would get. They reviewed their plans with KALW’s engagement manager, Olivia Henry, so that they could distribute the article on KALW’s Facebook and Twitter channels.

Here is how the callout article opened:

The callout article at KALW

And some screenshots from the form embedded at the end:

KALW first asked citizens to check a box that is used to determine a path for further questions.

By the end of the callout deadline, KALW had received 44 responses. To be honest, the team did not find that number to be large or impressive. However, it did provide a validation of editorial instinct. Multiple respondents pointed out that the massive number of propositions and candidates on the ballot was overwhelming and intimidating, and they wanted simple and digestible information to help them vote.

Screenshot: The searchable database of responses to KALW’s callout, in Screendoor (cloud login), seen by editors and reporters. Citizen responder names greyed out to protect identities.

This information helped redirect the news team’s content creation in two significant ways.

  1. The KALW news department created a crib sheet with simple and straightforward information regarding the pro and con side of ballot measures, including up-to-date data about campaign contributions.
Screenshot of the cribsheet. Original here.

The team distributed this information through the KALW website, through social media channels, and in paper form at live events and at Bay Area libraries. Many members of the audience got in touch with the team to say how invaluable the local and state crib sheets were in helping them make an informed vote.

2. The KALW news department conceived of and created a series of short and simple audio reports that aired every weekday in October and early November during KALW’s prime drive times. These “election briefs” gave overview information about each ballot measure, the pro and the con arguments, along with information about the biggest funders on each side, neatly summarizing the consequence of a vote at the end.

The 25 “election briefs” proved to be the most talked-about product created by KALW during the election season, and the news department plans to utilize that strategy for informing its audience in future elections. In addition, they’re considering ways to convey news outside of the election cycle through a similar platform.

KALW’s election briefs page.

In each story that used an interview with a respondent or insights from the callout in some way, the article online acknowledged the callout after the byline.

“Citizen respondents to KALW’s elections call-out contributed to this piece. It’s part of our community reporting project.”

The week after the elections, KALW sent out a thank you note from the form tool to all the respondents with a link to the stories.

KALW is a proponent of crowd-powered reporting. The station already uses the Hearken tool to let citizens drive the questions they report on in a recurring segment called “Hey Area”.

The Screendoor based approach is matched well for specific topics in which the newsroom will gather insights from local citizens to fuel multiple stories over a period of three to six months or more. In the opinion of the KALW newsroom, it will work best when a reporter invested in a subject can craft a call-out, monitor the response, and engage with respondents. The station’s experiments with Screendoor were very instructive about how best to use a new and relatively low-cost opportunity to surface collective wisdom from the crowd.

Here is a quick summary of what KALW learned:

For the journalist

  • Hone in on a manageable question to begin the engagement.
  • Create a comprehensive marketing strategy to reach out to potential audiences.
  • Build engagement, response, and article research and refinement into your schedule.
  • Audiences enjoy engagement, so follow-ups can be rewarding on both personal and professional levels.
  • Journalists often miss insights, so engaging with audiences directly is important for staying in touch with communities.
  • Crowdsourcing can provide a mine for new angles on stories.
  • Crowdsourcing can provide new sources.
  • Crowdsourcing can inspire new directions for media strategy.

Institutional memory

  • The database of sources (names, email addresses) as well as the collected insights/responses is archived permanently and digitally. It is searchable through keywords.
  • Six months or a year after a project and stories have been done, a new reporter can access the rich repository to educate himself or herself before a new plan is done. It can bring people up to speed in ways that go beyond reading stories published.
  • The sources can be exported in a raw format to import into any other CRM or source management tool if the newsroom already uses one.
  • Documents submitted via this system are also accessible.

Note that crowdsourcing insights from citizens still leaves the editorial team in control of the production side of journalism, so it is not citizen journalism in that sense. This approach allows journalists to collaborate with citizens to set the reporting agenda ahead of and then throughout the reporting process.

Coming next: An executable, do-it-yourself guide to crowdsourcing insights for your own local newsroom.

Subramaniam Vincent and Ben Trefny

Ben Trefny is KALW’s news director. His team produces the nightly news and culture show Crosscurrents and runs the KALW Audio Academy training program. He has helped the department win numerous regional and national awards for long- and short-form journalism, and he’s played a role in training hundreds of radio journalists.

Subramaniam Vincent was a 2016 John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University. He is currently prototyping a civic radar screen solution for local newsrooms and citizens in US cities, starting with San Francisco. He was previously CEO and editor-in-chief of a startup civic media venture, Citizen Matters, in Bangalore, India.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Amanda Zamora and Terry Parris Jr. for sharing their experiences on the use of Screendoor at ProPublica, via the Crowd Powered News Network. And to Ashley Alvarado, Annie Anderson, Daren Brabham, Jennifer Brandel, and Andrew Haeg for various conversations.