News in your backyard: An inclusive approach to covering local politics

Social media and in-person outreach efforts can help get a pulse on the issues residents care about.

Candidates Jorge Nuño (left) and Adriana Cabrera (right) answer questions at a CD9 Candidate Forum.

Los Angeles is a city that struggles with voter turnout for local elections. In 2013, just 21 percent of registered voters in LA voted in the mayoral election. Turnout was even worse within City Council District 9, which encapsulates a large chunk of South Los Angeles — the audience that our team covers at Intersections South LA.

So, when coming up with ideas on how to engage community residents in this election, we had to be strategic. Initially, we hoped to host a candidate forum at a South LA community center. But when the candidates’ schedules didn’t all line-up for a live, in-person event, we needed another way to link CD9 residents with their candidates.

This year’s local election for CD9 was especially interesting, with incumbent Curren Price facing two challengers: Adriana Cabrera and Jorge Nuño. The candidates themselves were interesting and definitely warranted a story. Cabrera was just 24 years old, and is a fierce opponent of the controversial Reef development that Price supported. Nuño is highly involved in the community through his youth development nonprofit Nuevo South.

Essentially, we wanted to foster a conversation between residents and their potential representatives, with a hope of ultimately increasing civic engagement. As a group of college students reporting on South LA, we are always striving to ensure that we’re identifying topics that actually matter to our audience, since most of us have little personal overlap with our intended readers. Our main challenge was making sure that we were asking the right questions of these candidates, and who knew better than the constituents themselves? So we decided to include community members in the reporting process by having them provide the questions we would ask.

We did this through both traditional, in-person conversations with residents and an extensive online and social effort.

1.Utilizing our social media accounts to reach a larger audience

Creating a Google form allowed us to crowdsource responses and pose questions on a variety of social platforms, such as an email newsletter, Twitter and Instagram. This maximized our reach in a minimal amount of time.

We asked residents to answer three questions:

  • What would you like to ask your next LA City Council member?
  • What is the biggest issue your neighborhood faces?
  • What would you like your city council member to do about it?

I was surprised at how quickly responses came in, and the specific questions residents had for their potential representative. Sifting through residents’ responses made me fully realize how much trust communities place in their local representatives, even as local politics is frequently overlooked by the news media.

2.Connecting with residents in person

Utilizing our social accounts, email newsletters and an online form allowed us to foster this sense of conversation between candidates and residents, but we also knew the value of reaching out to people directly.

In order to do this, we looked past traditional man-on-the-street reporting and instead set up a pop-up newsroom on a busy street corner in South LA. We invited people to come and share their questions and concerns for their candidates.

The combination of both our pop-up newsroom and online/social efforts resulted in a series of questions from community members we posed to the CD9 candidates, such as the ones below:

  • Our community is policed heavily by LAPD. How do you plan to finance increased police presence in our neighborhoods? Is that one of your goals?
  • What are you going to do improve the conditions of the area such as clean alleys, trash on street, and homelessness?
  • What is your vision for South Central LA? As a citizen of South LA of 30 years I am concerned of what our future will look like?
  • As a Guatemalan immigrant I fear Donald Trump. How will you represent the immigrant community at City Hall against Donald Trump?

As you can see, covering this local election still allowed our team to contribute to the larger national discussion of “big” topics, such as homelessness, immigration under President Trump and community-police relations, through the local lens of Los Angeles City Council District 9.

The results of these crowdsourced questions were clear, online guides and social videos of each of the candidates’ answers to the very same questions that residents themselves had asked. This ensured that community members could easily check and see how each candidate (except for incumbent Curren Price, who did not respond to our requests for an interview) stood on the issues that actually mattered to them.

After posting these interviews to our social accounts, our team was surprised to find that the readers and candidates themselves were interacting directly in our Facebook comments. Not only did our reporting allow residents to learn about their candidates, it also sparked two-way, direct conversations between candidates and residents, showcasing democracy in action.

These conversations were a direct result of our commitment to covering local politics for our audience, a topic that remains important today, even as it is often overshadowed by national stories. Larger publications might no longer have the resources to assign beat reporters to closely cover specific communities, and while interacting with audiences in person is undoubtedly valuable, there are other efficient ways to reach them as well.

Moving the reporting process to the digital sphere can help solve this. Newsrooms can utilize a similar digital crowd-sourcing technique that would allow journalists to quickly get a sense of the issues residents care about in a specific community.

Lacking staff or resources is no longer a valid excuse to minimize in-depth coverage of local politics.