Unlike many municipal elections, a Nashville transit referendum was a hot and heated subject. Here’s how WPLN cut through the noise.

Krystina Martinez
Dec 5, 2018 · 4 min read

The Challenge

The city of Nashville asked residents to vote on a 55-page program to overhaul the city public transit system. Because the referendum was so dense, the Nashville Public Radio newsroom was concerned about whether city residents fully grasped what they would be voting on, especially since the campaigns were advertising heavily.

“We had misgivings about the messaging on both sides of this referendum campaign and we wanted to help people understand what’s really part of the proposal,” said Tony Gonzalez, a reporter at the station. “We also wanted to do municipal coverage in a way that was interesting to people.”

The Approach

A few weeks before the voting period started, the newsroom decided to use Hearken to see if there were any important questions about the referendum that they weren’t already addressing in their extensive coverage. The newsroom was initially worried they weren’t many undecided voters left.

“That ended up being wrong,” Gonzalez said. “We realized there were way more undecided voters, and that the loudest voices weren’t always the majority.”

The listeners responded swiftly and the questions came pouring in. Gonzalez began answering questions as they came in, replying to many by email and then reverse-publishing some on the website. The newsroom answered most of the listener questions online through three Q&A stories. As questions were answered, Gonzalez aimed to include lots of links.

“We wanted to show our work,” he said. “We linked back to source documents and past coverage whenever we could.”

The newsroom also made a category of “really hard questions” — those that could be answered but required more effort. They also devoted air time to explainer stories and interviews with key people on the referendum.

“We had a long list of stories we wanted to get to and we got to almost all of them,” said Gonzalez.

Results

In all, Nashville Public Radio received 94 listener questions and answered 39 online. Many more were answered through one-on-one emails with listeners, which Gonzalez estimates brought that total to more than 60. Though it can be a struggle for public radio stations to balance the demands of radio reporting while creating distinct online coverage, the decision to address the questions in a web-only format paid off. For WPLN, web traffic for their transit Q&A series was high all the way up until the last day of voting.

Though their Hearken work didn’t have a large radio presence, Gonzalez said the work they were doing answering questions informed the kinds of questions reporters were asking the field.

“It helped the reporter confidently say, ‘people are saying this’ because we already heard from them,” he said.

Photo credit: Tony Gonzalez/Nashville Public Radio

Lessons Learned

Set boundaries and delegate. Gonzalez admits that his method of answering listener questions might not have been the most efficient. He often stayed up late responding to listener emails.

“But it was work I wanted to do,” he said. “We were responding to a real need [in the community], and it felt wrong to shut off [the questions].”

Though the newsroom had a plan for each reporter to take on certain referendum stories, the bulk of the work answering listener questions ended up falling to Gonzalez. He was passionate about doing the work, but he says boundaries would’ve helped decrease the workload.

Start earlier. WPLN opened up for listener questions a few weeks before election day, but Gonzalez wonders if the newsroom could’ve made more of an impact if they started sooner.

“Our work was relevant as a decision-maker for [undecided voters], but if we started earlier could we have minimized the misinformation? Or would we have had more time to question the information [from both sides]?”

The transit referendum failed to pass, but Gonzalez says he did not feel like the work he did was wasted.

“Answering emails, the radio stories and the online work — each informed the other,” he said.

And all that time spent answering emails? The listeners appreciated it.

“I got some nice responses from people.”


More about Nashville Public Radio and Hearken

Check out the transit questions Nashville Public Radio answered:

Satisfy your curiosity about Nashville and the Middle Tennessee region with Nashville Public Radio’s Curious Nashville series.

Want to learn how to better engage the public? Download our free engagement checklist guide.

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

Krystina Martinez

Written by

Engagement consultant⚡️ @wearehearken. Past: @keranews, @NPRWeekend, @AIRmedia New Voices '16. 🇲🇽 x 🇺🇸

We Are Hearken

The Hearken team's thoughts on journalism, engagement, and tech. Hearken means: to listen. We believe that listening to your audience first, not last, makes for better everything. We're here to help: http://www.wearehearken.com/

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