NJ Decides 2023: A multilingual, statewide reporting collaboration
Supporting a more informed and engaged New Jersey electorate in preparation for the 2023 legislative elections
For many years news organizations across the country have put together voting guides ahead of elections — publications with basic information about the people running in federal, state, and local races.
But as the number of journalists has shrunk, so has the number of places for voters to go to find nonpartisan information on local races, despite the push from organizations such as the League of Women Voters to fill the gap with their own guides.
That’s why this year a group of New Jersey journalists and news organizations worked together on the state’s first collaborative statewide voter guide, with a focus on the state’s 120 senate and assembly races.
The partnership was coordinated by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University and NJ Spotlight News and sought to fill Spotlight’s NJ Decides 2023 voting guide with as many additional stories and state senate and assembly candidate Q&As as possible. In addition, the group sought to translate some key articles into multiple languages. Funding for the project was provided by the NJ Civic Information Consortium.
Comprehensive statewide voter guide
NJ Spotlight News already had plans to produce a voting guide for NJ Decides 2023, but bringing in more than a dozen other news partners helped amplify that effort.
The first focus of the collaborative project were the state senate and assembly candidate Q&As. There are a total of 246 candidates vying for seats in the state senate and assembly, and the collaborative had a goal of obtaining questionnaire answers from every single one.
Aside from basic questions (name, party, website, personal/political background, etc.), the questionnaire asked the following:
- Why are you running for office?
- What is a key issue for you in this election?
- What are some solutions you are proposing to address the key issue you mentioned above?
- What’s an example of a successful program or project you’ve led or completed?
- What’s an example of something that’s been challenging for you and how did you overcome those challenges?
- How, if at all, would you change NJ’s gun laws, including the recently enacted one being challenged in federal court?
- Do you support the Murphy administration’s initiatives to combat climate change (offshore wind, electric cars, greater use of electricity in new buildings/appliances)? What, if anything, would you do differently
- How would you address the cost of rent, housing affordability and property taxes in New Jersey?
The collaborative then split the races up, with journalists from each news organization claiming the candidates they would commit to chase down.
Collaborative members sent hundreds of emails, social media messages, text messages and phone calls trying to convince candidates to fill out the form. Many did so immediately; others needed to be reminded multiple times.
Some refused to fill it out altogether — while others, such as State Senate candidate Michael D. Byrne, used their opponent’s refusal as campaign fodder.
In the end, the collaborative received responses from 101 candidates, a 41% response rate.
Once the Q&As were received, they were reviewed by former Montclair Local editor and statewide voting guide coordinator for the Center, Carla Baranauckas, before being sent to NJ Spotlight for publication online.
The digital dossier includes a description of each legislative district along with candidate responses.
Election information in multiple languages
To expand the reach of the voting guide, a selection of stories and videos were translated into Chinese, Turkish, Spanish, Urdu and Korean, illustrating a recognition of New Jersey’s diverse linguistic landscape.
The video “What you need to know about voting in NJ elections” was translated into those five languages, and the text from that video was published on the websites of Urdu News, Zaman Amerika, New Jersey Hispano, Reporte Hispano and The Latino Spirit.
That text was also uploaded by NJ Spotlight to YouTube so viewers could select subtitles from multiple languages in order to watch the video.
In addition, journalists from those publications translated the Q&As from several legislative districts where there are high concentrations of people who speak languages other than English.
The translation component of this project was meant to broaden the collaboration’s audience base and also put a spotlight on the importance of multilingual journalism in fostering an informed electorate.
Other highlights of the collaboration
- A diverse coalition of reporting partners: The project harnessed the synergies of a vast network of local, regional, and ethnic media outlets. From Montclair Local to Urdu News, each entity brought a unique local flavor to the electoral discourse, enriching the statewide narrative with localized insights.
- Freelancer engagement: Freelancers were commissioned to tackle several issue and district-focused stories, many of which will publish the week leading up to the election.
- Election reporting fellowships: In addition to the Q&As, issues stories and translations, the Center’s ethnic media coordinator Anthony “Oni” Advincula worked with three ethnic and community media fellows to produce additional reporting.
Reporting and newsroom partners
- NJ Spotlight News/NJ PBS
- Center for Cooperative Media
- Slice of Culture
- Front Runner New Jersey
- Montclair Local News
- The Jersey Bee
- The Jersey Vindicator
- Ridgeview Echo
- NJ Urban News
- Reporte Hispano (translation partner)
- Urdu News (translation partner)
- New Jersey Hispano (translation partner)
- The Korea Daily (translation partner)
- Zaman Amerika (translation partner)
- Documented (translation partner)
- Sing Tao Daily (translation partner)
- The Latino Spirit (translation partner)
Translators for this project
- April Xu (Chinese)
- Kleibeel Marcano (Spanish)
- Orhan Akkurt (Turkish)
- Mohsin Zaheer (Urdu)
- Jongwon Lee (Korean)
Broader implications for New Jersey’s local news ecosystem
New Jersey is fortunate in that it has a highly connected news and information ecosystem, with many journalists and media executives who know each other and are willing to work together. There are a handful of ongoing collaborations happening currently in the state, including Stormwater Matters, Segregated, the NJ News Commons Spanish Translation News Service and others.
At the heart of NJ Decides 2023 was its collaborative ethos and multilingual approach. The collaborative learned a lot that it will take into 2024, when it hopes to replicate and improve upon this year’s collaborative effort. Among those lessons:
- Next year the project will start earlier. Funding for this year’s statewide voting guide wasn’t received until July, which hampered the timeline.
- Freelancers will be recruited and vetted in advance. This state is fortunate to be awash in independent journalists, but finding those who are skilled in democracy and election reporting is something the group needs to handle in advance.
- We will work with partners to solicit issue stories from their audiences, using feedback from people who live in New Jersey to shape the reporting agenda.
About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a primarily grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. The Center is supported with operational and project funding from Montclair State University, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, Democracy Fund, NJ Civic Information Consortium, Rita Allen Foundation, Inasmuch Foundation and the Independence Public Media Foundation. For more information, visit centerforcooperativemedia.org.