Santa Cruz Local portraits
Santa Cruz Local is running portraits in every newsletter of people responding to this question: What do you want local candidates to talk about as they compete for your vote this November?

Citizens Agenda in Action: 20+ newsrooms turning to the public to focus their 2020 election reporting

Bridget Thoreson
We Are Hearken
Published in
6 min readAug 17, 2020

A new portrait appears in every edition of the Santa Cruz Local newsletter, with a local resident’s response to this question: What do you want local candidates to talk about as they compete for your vote in November?

The responses have ranged from racial inequalities to homelessness, from municipal budgets to the human challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That question is being put to voters all around the country as newsrooms incorporate the citizens agenda approach in their 2020 coverage. Media critic and journalism professor Jay Rosen is to thank for articulating this approach, and tirelessly advocating for it each election cycle. The citizens agenda is a powerful model for reaching new audiences and deepening your existing relationships, that allows newsrooms to focus their coverage on the most important issues and demand accountability for responses from candidates. This approach centers on a key question: What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?

One hundred and six journalists across the country (so far) have participated in the Election SOS four-week engaged election program to create their own citizens agenda strategy. Even more have downloaded and put into practice the citizens agenda guide. The final engaged elections training program, which is free for participants thanks to the support of Democracy Fund, will be offered in September. Applications are due Friday, Aug. 21.

Vox is one of the organizations asking this key question to inform their 2020 election coverage.

The work of these journalists powerfully demonstrates why newsrooms are centering their campaign coverage on the issues that are most important in people’s lives.

“It’s going to focus on the public’s agenda, what we know people are interested in, and not simply the kind of soundbite campaign coverage that is so typical,” said Rockford Register Star Executive Editor Mark Baldwin. “It’s going to sharpen our focus on issues that people want answers to.”

How to create deeper relationships with the community

Santa Cruz Local, a news podcast, newsletter and website about public policy, launched last year with a staff of three.

To create a citizens agenda for the March primary elections, in January the newsroom hosted or attended 13 community events, including farmers markets, a book club and neighborhood gatherings, to listen to voters’ responses to that central question. They did more than 200 interviews with county voters, and reached about 40 more people through an online survey.

From that listening, the Santa Cruz Local staff created a list of five questions for the candidates for city council and their county board of supervisors, resulting in a six-part podcast series.

“It added so much more weight to our question, when we could say ‘The majority of the 100-plus city residents we interviewed and surveyed this month told us: Homelessness in the city is their number 1 issue. What is the problem with the way the city has been handling homelessness? What policy would you push forth?’” said CEO/Co-founder Kara Meyberg Guzman.

Santa Cruz Local CEO/Co-founder Kara Meyberg Guzman interviews county residents about their priorities for the local elections at a farmers market in July. (William Duncan — Santa Cruz Local)

Now, adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Santa Cruz Local staff is gathering responses to inform their coverage for the fall election. They set up a socially distanced triangle for quick, five-minute interviews — reporter, Spanish interpreter and resident. They’re also holding more conversations online, created a community advisory board and have partnered with the Local Voices Network.

They have 42 portraits from residents responding to the core question at local farmers markets for their newsletters, and on Aug. 25 will sift through the data from approximately 200 interviews with community members and 150 survey responses to identify the top themes to cover ahead of the general election. They plan to release a podcast series and online stories before ballots are mailed out.

“I believe our work listening to the community has really helped deepen our relationship with our listeners and our readers, and really helped them value our work more,” Meyberg Guzman said. “Having community engagement and listening central to both our business and journalism has really set us apart.”

Citizens Agenda in Action: Examples of newsrooms asking the public what they want candidates to be talking about

Santa Cruz Local is not alone in taking this approach and finding deep value, identifying topics that are a high priority for voters, and generating more responsive campaign coverage. Here’s a variety of what we’ve seen (and if we’ve missed any — let us know!).

Priorities from the public, not politicians

Northern Public Radio in Illinois, collaborating with the Rockford Register Star on their “You’re the Boss” series, has engaged with both new audiences and long-time listeners through the project.

“There is a belief that they can inform the outcome of something,” said News Director Jenna Dooley.

“You’re the Boss” is a collaboration between WNIJ and Illinois Newspapers of the USA Today Network.

Both the radio and newspaper organizations in the collaboration, which is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, are hearing similar themes emerge among their audiences, including questions around policing and mental health. Together the organizations have received more than 50 responses submitted online and on their Hearken platform.

They plan to publish five key takeaways from what they’ve heard in September, and run stories from then to the election examining those themes.

Working together and being transparent about why the public should participate in this project has been crucial to its success, Dooley said.

“Now the world is moving at a pace where I’m willing to be a little more experimental in approaches to journalism because there is an appetite for new perspectives, new voices, and they’re there in our community, it’s just having the right channels open,” Dooley said.

“It’s been way more authentic, the conversations we have had. There’s nothing to lose. There’s just so much at stake.”

Citizens Agenda in Action: Examples of election coverage informed by the citizens agenda approach

If your newsroom is open to trying a more community-centered approach to elections coverage, there’s free help to be had. Sign up for engaged election coverage training and resources at Our last training cohort on the citizens agenda approach is in September. Deadline to apply: Aug. 21.



Bridget Thoreson
We Are Hearken

Storyteller and audience advocate. Member collaborations editor at INN.