Two participants in the Bellwether Project at the Toledo Blade share their opposing political views as part of the project. Photo by Andy Morrison/Courtesy of the Toledo Blade

Note to Newsrooms: Election Coverage Doesn’t Have to Be a Horse Race

A pilot project at two small, local papers shows the power of connecting with the disconnected

What if news outlets could engage in conversations with residents in their communities who don’t read the paper, don’t watch the news, and may or may not vote?

What if, in so doing, they could forge a new path in elections coverage that might actually be meaningful to the sizable chunk of the population that journalism doesn’t typically touch?

And what if, in the process, they got beyond political sniping and looked at the deeper, nuanced issues across the ideological spectrum?

Mission, impossible?

Not to Ben DeJarnette. With the mid-terms approaching, he conceived of Bellwether—a simple project with the lofty aim of bridging the chasm between journalism and even the least-engaged citizens.

I spoke with DeJarnette both before the mid-terms, when the project was in its early, and after the election, when it was completed.

“This kind of participation can lead to smarter, more thoughtful, more helpful journalism leading up to the election.”

“The idea is that this kind of participation can lead to smarter, more thoughtful, more helpful journalism leading up to the election,” he told me in our first conversation. “Focusing less on the horse race polling and who’s ahead and who’s behind, and instead focusing on the issues people are experiencing.”

DeJarnette partnered with the Jefferson Center in Ohio and the Illinois Humanities Council to develop the Bellwether model, identify the newsrooms — The Toledo Blade and The Peoria Journal Star — define the scope of the project and secure funding. DeJarnette had worked as an engagement consultant for GroundSource—a service that connects newsrooms directly with audiences through text messaging and voice—and was keen to shape the project around it.

To help pay for the project, DeJarnette and his partners applied for grants that GroundSource was offering via the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, or CLEF, to subsidize the service and enable newsrooms to give it a try. (Full disclosure: the CLEF funding is also paying for my services at GroundSource, which include writing this piece).

“If all it does is lead to better quotes in otherwise unaltered news stories, then I’d say it’s a failure.”

“If all it does is lead to better quotes in otherwise unaltered news stories, then I’d say it’s a failure,” DeJarnette told me as the project was getting underway. The true measure of success, he said, is “if the engagement and the questions and perspectives are changing and reshaping the stories that reporters tell in the lead-up to the election and making them more valuable to the way people ultimately decide if and how to vote.”

How it worked

The Peoria Journal Star kicked off the project with a community meeting at the library, which Dennis Anderson, the paper’s executive director, promoted in a column. “We want to know: What matters to you when you’re deciding for whom to vote, or whether to vote at all? Where do you turn for information about the issues? What do you wish you had more information about regarding the campaigns?” he wrote.

“The only requirements are a cellphone with text messaging capability and a willingness to participate.”

“We’re seeking participants from all backgrounds and all levels of political engagement — Democrats, Republicans and independents; likely voters and non-voters. No prior experience is needed; the only requirements are a cellphone with text messaging capability and a willingness to participate in two community conversations and respond to a text message about once a week.”

The project, which focused on the Illinois governor’s race, launched with a dozen participants and ended with about eight. Each week, participants who remained anonymous throughout the process, received a text with an election-related question, and their responses were then published on the paper’s editorial page.

“I would look forward to seeing the answers people gave,” Anderson said. Over eight weeks, questions focused on a range of issues, including term limits, privatization of prisons, the state budget and advice for the winner.

“A lot of the concerns people had were really about their own pocketbook, and the health and welfare of themselves and their family,” Anderson said. “There wasn’t a lot of talking about the economy and bigger picture things. It was about how am I gonna pay my bills, and will I have affordable healthcare.”

Overall, Anderson said he thought the texted responses enhanced the paper’s coverage of the election, though the project had to be scaled back because of layoffs at the paper. If the resources are available to go another round, Anderson said he’d like to cast a wider net for participants, and work with a group perhaps two or three times larger.

In Ohio, Andrew Rockway from the Jefferson Center helped identify the Toledo Blade as a good partner. “They’re really invested in trying new things to build their audience and reach out to new audiences,” he said. The paper is based in Lucas County, which is “politically mixed and serves as what we see as a bellwether within a state that is seen as a political bellwether.”

Rockway bought a bundle of about 30,000 cell phone numbers in the county and blind-texted them via GroundSource, offering a $200 stipend to participate. They receive about 500 responses and of those selected 25 residents who represented a broad cross-section of the community, including 9 Democrats, 8 Republicans, and 8 “others.”

“The overall takeaway is wow, we got great response. I really feel like GroundSource is how people found out about it.”

“The overall takeaway was wow, we got great response,” said Kim Bates, the assistant managing editor at the Blade. “I really feel like GroundSource is how people found out about it.” The one thing respondents had in common? “Generally these are folks who aren’t going to reach out to a newsroom,” Rockway said.

A participant in The Blade’s Bellwether project casts her vote. Photo by Lori King/Courtesy of The Blade

Bates said the responses from participants affirmed Rockway’s assessment. One participant said, “Yeah, I hate the media, I hate the Blade and I want to participate and I want to talk about journalism and talk about national politics,” Bates said. Once they got involved in the project, she said, “they seemed to be pretty willing to speak out.”

The Blade series that was shaped around the project tackled questions about the direction of national politics as well as delving into violence, addiction and poverty.

“In the end, they could see each other’s side of things. It was really an interesting process. We were really proud of that.”

One piece that Bates said embodied the approach of the project brought two participants with opposing views on President Trump together for a face-to-face conversation. “We had them go back and forth about how they felt,” Bates said. “In the end, they could see each other’s side of things. It was really an interesting process. We were really proud of that.”

Now, DeJarnette and Rockway plan to circle back with both papers to gain a sense of where the projects worked, and what can be improved upon.

These days DeJarnette is the founder and director of Bridgeliner, a Portland-based daily email newsletter, one of four local media operations offered through Whereby.us, and he sees the potential for applying the learnings there.

“The national media coverage of this election once again illustrated the need for more public-powered journalism at the local level,” he said. “Polls and polling averages still dominated the narrative, and civics were treated as spectacle. That’s bad for democracy, but it does create an opportunity for local journalism to fill the ever-widening gap between what voters care about and what the national media feeds them. The Bellwether project was a step in that direction.”

Sara Catania is the chief storyteller for GroundSource.


This content was first featured in GroundSource’s weekly newsletter on listening and community engagement. It features successful community engagement efforts, highlights missed opportunities for listening, and offers strategies that help you engage and listen to your community. You can subscribe to GroundSourced here.