Two years ago CALmatters, a nonprofit news organization, launched with four reporters and 40 media partners because we saw a pressing need for statewide explanatory journalism as well as commentary and analysis about policy and politics to fill an alarming void in coverage in California. We made it our mission to engage and inform Californians and to make state government more accountable and transparent.
Since then, the media landscape has changed dramatically, with a new administration in Washington, and California has come to be seen as the capital of blue America and leader of the resistance to the Trump agenda. The ranks of statehouse reporters have been even more depleted as news media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, McClatchy, and Digital First have been forced to do more layoffs, buyouts, and consolidation. All those news organizations are our media partners, and they are still producing much needed reporting, albeit less of it.
Today, CALmatters has more than 110 news partners around the state, a staff of 17, a $2.2 million budget, and we’re the biggest statehouse bureau in the political heart of the U.S.’s largest state, as measured by staff size or audience reach.
The need for trustworthy, impartial, balanced, fact-based reporting here has never been greater. There’s no question all of these trends have helped propel CALmatters’ growth. Resistance state stories sell and generate lots of traffic, though that’s not why we do them. They have helped us attract readers to our other work on the environment, education, fiscal and health and welfare policy in California.
But there remains an age-old challenge that we and other for-profit and nonprofit newsrooms focused on statehouse coverage are still trying to solve. How do we break down the barriers to effective storytelling about politics and policy so that Californians think differently about and want to consume news that really matters in their lives?
We set out to change the mindset of readers who see all such stories as dull and inconsequential and to find better ways to pull people in using the test-learn-iterate approach that all startups use for product development. We’re seeing promising results, and the takeaways are helping us produce work differently and interact in new ways with our audience.
Last month, data reporter Matt Levin and fiscal reporter Ben Christopher teamed up with news developer John Osborn D’Agostino to adapt Vox’s card deck to tell the complex story of why California’s housing costs are so high. They put together a graphically pleasing set of 21 cards that each answered a different question about how bad the affordable home crisis is and how it got that way. Each card is conversational in tone, stands on its own, and is packed with data bites. We found readers sharing the individual cards on social media.
With the card deck, CALmatters also debuted a new collaboration with Hearken, a media platform that helps news outlets engage directly with their audiences by inviting them to share questions about an issue and then get their questions answered. We got more than 500 questions and everyone voted on the questions they most wanted answered, including “Do regulations and fees make it much more expensive to build in California than in other states?” and “How do foreign investment and large investment firms buying single-family homes affect prices?”
We followed that up with our first story based on the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN) approach to reporting—how people are responding to problems. The CALmatters team recently did SJN training, and Levin went looking for inspiration and found it in Massachusetts, which is using some innovative strategies to solve its housing challenges. Levin and Los Angeles Times housing reporter Liam Dillon also just started a Gimme Shelter Podcast exploring housing policy that is proving to be popular. It is our best performing story since launch, not just on our site, but in stories being read on news apps like Smart News and Apple News, too.
We’re also finding that Open Reporting, in which we share progress on stories as we’re developing them and invite readers to share thoughts and comments to help inform our research, works as a great engagement tool. Education reporter Jessica Calefati used it very effectively to explain how hard it is to unravel school funding policies, and the positive response underscored for her and CALmatters that readers are anxious to engage in the reporting process. Her post focused on upcoming coverage on why researchers, advocacy groups, and many others have called for greater fiscal transparency in how K-12 districts use local school funding overall and in support of high-need students. She highlighted the challenges she had been experiencing in following and tracking the education dollars and why answers to her questions are critical as parents and schools continue to navigate the Local Control Funding Formula.
Calefati’s open reporting post sparked lots of engagement on Twitter, and she got several emails from people offering to help her track the money. Here’s what one reader, Rachel M, had to say: “Thank you for all your efforts to get financial information from schools! I can imagine the resistance you faced. It is unbelievable the way they can make money disappear without any apparent obligation to show something for it … Just in case you ever get discouraged I wanted to say thanks again. That they seem intent on keeping you in the dark is reason enough to expose more facts to the light.”
In June, when we prepared to report the normally deadly dull annual story of lawmakers passing the California budget Christopher opted to explain the $183 billion budget with an elegant graphic visualization that made all the fiscal tributaries clear, while Levin and videographer Byrhonda Lyons deciphered it with an all you need to know about the budget in two minutes video. These are now our second highest performing package of stories.
All this is proving something to us—there’s an audience for politics and policy news. We can ignore the naysayers who say you can’t break through the drabness. We just need to utilize all kinds of tools to make these stories compelling and accessible. And the audience will come.