How Voting Block Used Collaboration, Potlucks to Bring Together Newsrooms and Communities

    by Heather Bryant
    December 1, 2017
    Voting Block image via the Center for Cooperative Media (Courtesy Joe Amditis)

    “The Collaboration of the Week” is a special series of feature stories and podcast segments at MediaShift highlighting one important media collaboration and explaining how they did it. The series is sponsored by Airtable, the all-in-one collaboration platform for creative teams. Receive $50 in credit by visiting airtable.com/mediashift.

    A common challenge for journalism collaborations is how to manage all the moving parts. For Voting Block, the solution was thoughtfully developed protocols for organization and communication among collaborating newsrooms.

    "The project sought to connect audiences not only to reporting about the election but to each other."

    Voting Block was an election-based reporting project focusing on the 2017 gubernatorial election in New Jersey. With a contested contest taking place during a time of intense political division, the project sought to connect audiences not only to reporting about the election but to each other.


    The project, credited as the brainchild of Nancy Solomon at WNYC, was an engagement-driven reporting collaboration based around community potlucks hosted around the state by different reporting partners.

    Solomon reported on politics throughout the 2016 election and had been thinking about the style and nature of political discourse. At protests, she started asking participants whether they ever talked politics with their neighbors only to hear that people didn’t.

    “I proposed to the group, what if we were to do a project where each one of us took one block somewhere in New Jersey, so when you took them all together they were somewhat representative, and we try to have conversations on the block about politics and tell the stories of the governor’s race through the eyes of the folks on this block. And at the same time see what does it take to have these kinds of political conversations.”


    Managing a large scope

    To manage a project of this scope, it was necessary to roll it out in stages. The project consisted of four foundational reporting partners that were brought on in the beginning: WNYC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record. The project’s coordinators at the Center for Cooperative Media, Stefanie Murray and Joe Amditis, worked with the partners to design the scaffolding for the project. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Cole Goins and Cristina Kim brought engagement coordination and support. New America Media helped with adding ethnic media to the partnership. With the core of the project figured out, the group worked out which other partners were needed for the project to ensure it was racially, ethnically and geographically diverse. An additional 21 hyperlocals, ethnic media organizations and college newsrooms were recruited for the project.

    To manage such a large and diverse group of partners Murray and Amditis ultimately went with keeping the groups separate to account for the different capacities for involvement. Murray met weekly with the larger, original partners with Amditis being the point person for those calls with the hyperlocals.

    Amditis says there was a lot of discussion about how to best manage this. One call with everyone would be to unwieldy but they also wanted to make sure that no party felt like a secondary partner.

    “That was done to ensure a sense of order and we had a debate back and forth as to whether sort of segregating those two groups would inherently make the smaller partners feel undervalued or feel like they were getting different, not special, treatment in that way and we addressed that openly on the calls with them and wanted to make sure they didn’t feel that way,” he says.

    This was managed with both Murray and Amditis sitting in on calls with both groups, as well as maintaining recordings of all calls that were created and shared along with post-call summaries distributed via email and Slack. Agendas were sent out for every call, recapping what had been discussed previously and what was expected for the following week.

    Communication systems

    “Once you start working with outside collaborators, you’ve got to create a system for communicating, you’ve got to create a way to share content, you’ve got to create a way to get audio, you’ve got to create a way to get video, you have to vet that stuff, you have to edit it, you have to get back to the person,” Solomon says.  “It turns into a lot more work than I think anybody ever anticipates.”

    Amditis credits “communication redundancy” and adapting communication styles to match the reporting partners as a way to make things work.

    “The goal from our perspective was to introduce as few or as little additional workflow steps to the partners as possible,” Amditis says. “So we decided to take on the burden of adapting our communications structure and file sharing infrastructure, just the project infrastructure in general, so that it would make the least work and involve the least amount of friction for any of the new partners involved. And that means blasting out the same communication in various mediums and methods to make sure that everyone gets it.”

    Partners also published on their own platforms instead of one collective website in order to keep friction low and to make sure partners benefitted from the traffic of their own content.

    Part of TAPintoNewark’s work for Voting Block: Ben Weber, Molly Townsend, and TAPintoNewark Editor Mark Bonamo at a potluck. (Thomas E. Franklin/ TAPintoNewark)

    Bon Appétit

    Aside from publishing stories about the races, the project is uniquely built around a significant engagement component. Cole Goins says the idea for the potluck that each reporting partner would facilitate for their block was baked into the project from the beginning.

    “We specifically had the idea to use potluck and food as a way to bring the neighbors together,” Goins says.

    Goins and Kim supported the partners in designing and implementing the gatherings for their blocks and then also helped to create a guide for people who wanted to do their own potlucks to talk about the election and then share their conversations with the project.

    Kim supported organizations through not only helping them coordinate things, but even traveling from the West coast to New Jersey to help with a few of the events and also survey and gauge how the experience was both for the partners and the people in communities attending the events.

    Kim says their focus now is on solidifying this model around connecting communities with this approach so that it’s easily reproducible and also continuing to help partners prioritize making engagement part of projects from the very beginning of a project.  One of the things that both Goins and Kim highlight is the value of the community partners such as libraries and art spaces and the opportunity that exists in those kinds of partnerships.

    The relationships built through the potlucks had a clear effect on reporting.  

    A changed approach to election reporting

    Catherine Carrera is a reporter with The Record. She says that reporting with this project changed the normal approach to election reporting.

    “I was able to see these voters evolve through the race as the race went on. We’ll talk to voters, maybe immediately before or after an election and get a sense of why they voted the way they did. But with this project I was able to understand how they came to that decision and what happened during the campaign that influenced them to vote the way that they did,” Carrera says. “I was able to watch them navigate through what issues are important to them, in terms of who they’re going to vote for in the end. Because everyone can say that high property taxes is their number one concern, but in the end what pushes them one way or another can be something completely different, like, “does this person reflect who I am as a person?”

    Murray says that a preference for Phil Murphy was pretty clear at the potlucks. The project is now assembling The People’s Agenda for the incoming governor that combines everything reporters heard from citizens at the potlucks and those who responded to a Groundsource campaign about priorities for the next governor.

    An image from Reveal’s Voting Block work: Bryce Kretschmann (left) plays Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy during Electorama at WFMU. (Cole Goins/Reveal)

    Kim Predham, Carrera’s editor at The Record, says that projects like Voting Block create the opportunity to do things outside of the traditional daily editorial scramble.

    “In terms of this project, having one news organization do it wouldn’t have had the same scope and impact as bringing news organizations from across the state to do it,” Predham says.

    “I don’t know if this is necessarily something that we would have invested the resources in had we not been part of this larger thing.”

    Predham says that something she got from the project that was valuable to her was the opportunity to work with other editors and be exposed to new ideas and tools that she could use in her work.

    Though competition and the struggle to pay for journalism is never far from mind for any organization, collaborative projects like Voting Block create a unique opportunity to set that aside.

    “I think we are competing with one another, we’re working with one another, we’re sharing content with one another, and we never did in the past. And at the same time, we’re competing. So it’s very schizophrenic,” Solomon says.

    “I think this project worked well because it is not the kind of thing that we compete about. It’s not a breaking news story, it’s not a scoop, it’s not an exclusive, it wasn’t investigative. And so I think the kinds of things that we compete around that we still to this day compete over weren’t covered by this project. So I think that cleared a lot of space for an easy partnership situation.”

    “We know that we have different capacities. We know that everyone has their own area of focus that they’re best at,” Amditis says. “ And we want to emphasize and highlight that. But we also understand that there are blind spots that everyone has, and there’s nothing you need to be ashamed of, that’s the whole point of partnerships.”

    One of the big keys to success for Voting Block was having an overall project coordinator. Other lessons include the importance and value of including engagement efforts in the plan from the beginning, developing protocols for publishing and sharing reporting – plus, maintaining multiple lines of communication to ensure that everyone is on the same page and feels informed and included in the process.

    Heather Bryant is a journalist and the founder and director of Project Facet, an open source infrastructure project that supports newsrooms in managing the logistics of creating, editing and distributing content, managing projects and facilitating collaborative relationships. She spent her last year studying collaboration between newsrooms as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.

    “The Collaboration of the Week” is a special series of feature stories and podcast segments at MediaShift highlighting one important media collaboration and explaining how they did it. The series is sponsored by Airtable, the all-in-one collaboration platform for creative teams. Receive $50 in credit by visiting airtable.com/mediashift.

    Tagged: center for cooperative media collaborative journalism election coverage joe amditis Nancy Solomon Stefanie Murray voting block wnyc

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