Primary season is in full swing across America. Every election year, news organizations face the big challenge of how to engage readers, viewers and listeners in what many citizens consider boring, even irrelevant to their daily lives: midterm elections.
Traditional voter guides, information-packed as they are, don’t always help. They are often dull, and rarely inspire voters to head to the polls or fill out absentee ballots.
This year, CALmatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the major issues in California and why they matter, set out to turn that around. With 53 congressional races, another 100 open seats in the California Legislature, heated statewide contests for governor and attorney general, treasurer, controller, and board of equalization—plus the propositions—we knew Californians needed a little help.
In 2016 we produced a popular proposition guide that generated about 2 million page views. In 2018, we have bigger ambitions for our CALmatters election guide. This is our first election year with a dedicated election reporter, Ben Christopher, who took the lead with a different approach to creating an appealing, fun, and comprehensive voter guide covering the key state races and all the propositions. All of the major gubernatorial candidates spent an hour and a half with the CALmatters editorial team, which we videotaped and shared in the guide, along with video clips of all of the candidates’ views on key issues. We also set up a new Facebook 2018 Elections Group, produced an elections quiz and an election day crib sheet. The idea was to make the races and propositions accessible and meaningful to a broad audience, including civic-minded millennials we want to attract.
Senior editor Dan Morain explained our guide in our daily newsletter, WhatMatters: “Think of yourself as chair of the hiring committee, and politicians as job applicants. Your task is to pick through the resumes and find the ideal candidate to fill the most important jobs in California. With that weighty responsibility in mind, we at CALmatters offer our nonpartisan election guide, giving you the resumes of the top candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and the other statewide offices. Our reporters and editors spent weeks, if not months, researching every race and ballot measures in the field. They interviewed the top candidates for governor and got candid responses to the most personal of questions—and the most complex ones, including education, environment, and health care. There are video clips from those conversations in the guide.”
We posted the videos on our YouTube channel and shared them with television stations. We also integrated a question module into the guide from Hearken, an engagement platform that CALmatters has used to better connect with audiences. They asked more than 50 election questions, which prompted us to create an FAQ to answer them and then integrate it into the voter guide. So far, the election guide has generated more than 214,000 page views and 162,000 unique views. CALmatters’ audience engagement manager Trevor Eischen also created a CALmatters 2018 California Elections Facebook group. It quickly grew to more than 250 members.
“We wanted the group to spark informed and meaningful conversations that include diverse viewpoints on political and policy debates during California’s election season,” Eischen said. “That is happening, and we’ve been encouraged by the positive interaction among the group’s members.”
Getting broad distribution—and sponsors which we have—for the guide were also important goals. We shared it with our network of close to 140 media partners, many of whom used it, from Fox5 San Diego, to our biggest partner, Digital First Media. DFM produced an eight-page tab with the CALmatters guide in it and distributed it to their 38 California newspapers with the CALmatters guide in it. The Cañada Cresenda Democratic Club featured the guide and shared it with their members. Nextdoor did a special promo for the guide on their more than 1,100 California sites, which generated more than 1.4 million impressions, and Patch featured it on their 150-plus sites across the state.
We are now working with La Opinion, the leading Spanish language paper, to get it translated into Spanish for them, and into Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese before the general election to get it out to other California ethnic media. We also shared the guide and all the content with other nonprofit media like the Vermont Digger, which is adapting it for their market.
“We are so delighted that CALmatters has shared their election guide with VTDigger,” executive director and founder Anne Galloway said. “The guide is beautifully designed, easy to use, and was developed with open source code. It makes so much sense to share resources between nonprofit news organizations whenever possible. We are grateful to CALmatters for their help.”
The media has long played an indispensable role in disseminating important electoral information and fostering transparency and civic engagement. In a time when the media is struggling to regain the trust of a public that is sharply divided along political lines, we hope our nonpartisan voter guide and other editorial products can be a step towards winning back that reader confidence.