Covering the 2020 Elections: A Proposal for Engagement and Collaboration

Jun 17, 2019

Adrienne Hill, Kelsey Proud and Jim Schachter take questions during a session on 2020 Election Coverage.
Credit Raymon Troncoso

The first round of debates in the Democratic Primary are two short weeks away and public media must decide what role it can play in 2020 election coverage. That was the central idea behind the last main session of the PRNDI 2019 Conference on Saturday morning.

Jim Schachter, Vice President of News at WNYC; Kelsey Proud, Managing Digital Editor at WAMU; and Adrienne Hill, Senior Editor of the California Dream Project all took the stage to present their vision for how public radio stations should manage election coverage.

Collaboration and engagement were two topics that came up frequently during the hourlong panel.

Schachter outlined the proposition as a two-phase plan, which he stressed had not yet been approved for funding but has been submitted as a formal proposal to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The first phase: building up local stations and engaging with the public. In the spirit of NPR's push for newsroom hubs across the country, a "virtual" hub would be set up at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. The symbolic placement in the center of the country would serve as a message that every state, every county matters.

"The project is based on the premise that we need to reach into places we don't normally reach," said Schachter.

Through KCUR, the hub would work with existing collaborations and small stations to connect local journalism to national platforms.

During this initial phase, stations would be encouraged to engage with audiences. Schacter pointed to WNYC's We the Commuters project as a model. The initiative solicits the concerns and observations of all kinds of commuters to surface questions and drive content across radio, digital and social media platforms.

Other examples of audience engagement came from several other stations. Coffee with a journalist events, call-in shows, knocking on doors in the community and asking residents what issues they care about.

"When you make engagement something you put on the calendar, on the budget," said Proud, "it becomes more consistent than occasional."

Proud said she believes it is important for listeners to feel like journalism is something that happens in their community, rather than something that happens to it.

Then comes the second phase.

Reporting based on what the audience has told stations, and engagement teams coordinating with editorial and management staff to tell the stories people want to hear.

"We can individually as stations and collectively as a system, cut through the noise," said Proud.

During a Q/A period, less concrete plans for sharing content between stations, group buy-ins for engagement tools, and providing resources to smaller stations were discussed.

Schachter encouraged PRNDI conferees to lobby CPB to fund the 2020 elections effort, so collaborators could proceed with planning out logistics.