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How EdNC revamped a town hall format to engage with an important audience segment — high school students

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Create a town hall-style event for local candidates running for office to engage with constituents often excluded from the election cycle. The town hall hosted by EdNC, a nonprofit news outlet covering education in North Carolina, allowed high school students in a rural county to meet with candidates for state superintendent.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Mebane Rash, CEO and editor-in-chief of EdNC.org and Alli Lindenberg, EdNC’s engagement specialist. EdNC participated in the 2018-19 cohort of the UNC Table Stakes program.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: “Nobody talks to students,” wrote Cynthia Ribustello, a sophomore at Tarboro High School in a piece she submitted to EdNC. “For some reason, the experts in education are the politicians — instead of the students who observe the education system at work seven hours a day, five days a week.”

At EdNC, listening to our state’s students, educators and communities is central to our mission. We are committed to civic dialogue and civil discourse. We run perspectives from the far left to the far right, and we believe in our architecture of participation.

We cover schools and communities in all 100 counties across North Carolina — from the 23 “red” counties where more than 70% voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, to the urban “blue” crescent from Raleigh to Charlotte, and all of the very “purple” counties in between.

During these polarized, politicized times, we asked ourselves: How can we best serve our student audience, and how can EdNC reimagine election coverage in keeping with our strongly held values as people and journalists?

Using design-thinking principles, we iterated what student town halls could look like without the candidates first. Then, using what we learned, we worked with school leaders to design a February town hall for students from four high schools in a rural county with the candidates running for state superintendent.

We’d like to add a special note here: COVID-19 changed the game for community engagement.

In early 2020, we held a candidate town hall that you will read about below, and many of our engagement principles still apply for the long run.

But when COVID-19 hit, we began to reimagine what our events could look like. Since our team went fully remote in mid-March, we’ve held several online convenings, with a total of about 500 attendees.

When it comes to planning online engagement events, we’ve learned a couple important things:

  1. Know your audience — This lesson applies to in-person events. But when it comes to online events, it’s critical to know who your intended audience is. For our audience, we have a mix of policy makers, teachers, education leaders and students. Each group requires a different event structure to ensure best flow and engagement.
  2. Research your platforms — After we looked at several online streaming platforms, we ended up choosing Zoom to host our virtual events. We’ve used Zoom’s breakout rooms function and recently decided to use the webinar function for all of our online events. Although Zoom works best for us, it’s important to know your own priorities and choose an online platform accordingly.
  3. Safety first — You’ve likely heard of “Zoombombers.” We can tell you from firsthand experience, they’re real. One of our first online events was “Zoombombed.” After this attack, our editor-in-chief decided that we needed help with online security. We consulted with a company that specializes in Zoom safety and created new protocols for all of our online events.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This approach is directly related to Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: EdNC is a civic news organization covering our students, our state and our future. In thinking about election coverage from an audience-first perspective, our first decision was to home in on the election of North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction. We knew our team would cover this race better than any other news outlet in the state. Our first step was to produce a voter’s guide to the state superintendent primary election.

We focused on high school students as a segment of our audience. We asked: What would an event for students look like, and what kind of experience could we create that would engage them and foster meaningful interactions with the candidates?

From October through December 2019, Alli Lindenberg, EdNC’s engagement specialist, piloted our town hall model, holding events at five community colleges. Through a January virtual town hall, we reached even more students. The town halls were called, “Here to Listen.”

We wrote a playbook documenting how we planned and hosted the town halls, leading up to the February event with state superintendent candidates. We learned how to invite students to a town hall, how to get them to show up (hint: free food and swag), how to set up the room, what kinds of questions to ask, how to document what they said, and whether capturing and creating content inhibited the interactions.

Here’s what we learned:

The meeting venue and room set-up matters.

“Town halls held in conference-style rooms with space for break-out sessions were far more engaging than those held in an auditorium set-up,” Lindenberg wrote in the playbook. The brand-new Center for Innovation at Edgecombe Community College was the perfect space for the town hall, giving the event a future-forward feel.

Taylor Shain, an EdNC video producer, captured how we set up the room in this tweet:

Mebane Rash, EdNC’s CEO and editor-in-chief, greeted the students as they unloaded from the school buses. Before we knew it, candidates had joined in, shaking hands with each of the students. We wanted a packed house, and we knew that principals could get high school students to show up. We ended up with about 120 students from the four high schools in the county.

The meeting format can foster civic dialogue.

For the town hall format, we didn’t want candidates showing up and giving their stump speeches. We didn’t want candidates bickering on stage. We didn’t want the students to walk away from the experience worried about the state of our democracy.

“Our priority,” said Matt Bristow-Smith, the principal of Edgecombe County Early College, “is lifting up young people as engaged members of the democratic process.”

One challenge was introducing the candidates to the students in a way that was authentic.

Abdur Gant, a senior at the Edgecombe County Early College, led an activity in which he asked each candidate one by one, “Who are you?” The candidates were each given one minute to answer. Ask any of the candidates — at about 45 seconds in, it starts getting real.

Alli Lindenberg kicks off the Superintendent Town Hall in February 2020. Robert Kinlaw/EducationNC

What resonated with the students? When one candidate answered that she was a breast cancer survivor, another that he was a veteran, another that he was a first-generation college student.

We wanted to help the students understand where the candidates stood on the issues relatively quickly, given that the event was scheduled to last two hours. Robert Kinlaw, our multimedia strategist, suggested that we ask the candidates to take a stand literally, indicating on stage where they stand on seven issues from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” We surveyed the students ahead of the town hall so that as the candidates took their stands, students could compare it to their own responses. Here is an example:

Of 181 student responses, 61% strongly agreed universal pre-K should be offered to all 4-year-olds free of cost, 24% agreed, 9% were neutral, and 6% said “other.”

We wanted to structure the conversation around the issues the students care most about. EdNC worked with the school leaders, who worked with student leaders, to gain consensus on the questions ahead of the town hall.

The six question sets were longer than our team would have crafted, but giving our audience the power to frame the conversation turned out to be key to engagement for both the school leaders and the students. Here’s one example of a question set:

Candidates participate in the line activity. Robert Kinlaw/Education NC

Many rural students live in poverty, have mental health challenges like anxiety or depression, or deal with “life challenges” that have nothing to do with school. How are we supposed to learn or to care about our futures when we need help and can’t get it? Especially in rural school systems, we just don’t have enough counselors, psychologists, and social workers to serve the needs of our students. What could be done to address this issue, and what would you personally do as state superintendent about this issue?

Then, the candidates rotated through small group discussions so they were able to meet and interact with all the students. Candidates had an opportunity to explain their policy positions before addressing the students’ questions. At the end of the rotations, candidates were given one minute to address all of the students collectively.

Candidate Catherine Truitt moves between tables during EdNC’s Superintendent Town Hall. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

The candidates were invited to have lunch with the students and team leaders. A taco bar was a huge hit, especially the queso. The lunch allowed for the students to continue to interact with the candidates.

At the close of the town hall, the students answered two questions via a text message survey powered by Reach NC Voices, an EdNC project designed to survey North Carolinians in real time.

We asked: “As a rural student from Edgecombe County, what is the most important issue that you want our next state superintendent to do something about?” And, “What is one thing you think candidates may not fully understand about your perspective as a student?” All of the student’s responses were shared with the candidates.

Q: What worked? 

A: We designed a town hall experience authentic to the people and place.

We all know it’s important for civic news organizations to embed in the communities they cover, but our town hall is a powerful reminder of our “why.”

Edgecombe County first entered our radar when the school district began a blue ribbon commission on equity. Our reporters started covering the process. Before we knew it, we were producing a year-long short documentary about a student-led school redesign (complete with buying cameras so the students could shoot their own footage).

We realized that in this rural county, schools are not the only anchor institutions — churches and restaurants and nonprofits also serve that function. One of our reporters embedded in an elementary school to study kindergarten readiness. We started a monthly convening called “Cultivating Change” at the local brewery.

We took a group of philanthropists to study how hurricanes and flooding were prompting transformation in the county. We led a group of IBM executives in working with the school district on best practices in data management. We ended up with what Table Stakes would call “market knowledge” — in-depth knowledge of the county, the leaders, the patterns of communication and the place.

We built strong community relationships and included underserved audiences.

Our coverage keeps people talking across all of the lines of difference in our state: race and ethnicity to be sure, but also sexual orientation, rich and poor, old and young, urban and rural, conservative and liberal, those born and raised in North Carolina and those from elsewhere. Our work — and this town hall — models for our state the importance of building relationships and of including traditionally underserved audiences in election coverage.

“At least four questions that were asked have not been heard anywhere else in a year of traveling,” said candidate Michael Maher as the town hall event was wrapping up. “Those questions were hard,” he told the students, “because they were specific to your life and what you are going through.”

Maher said EdNC’s town hall was the first opportunity he had to talk directly to students. His takeaway? Candidates “talk a lot about policy … but we don’t always think about how policies impact students.”

We created momentum for changing how elections are covered by the media.

Our Table Stakes coach, Tim Griggs, pushed us to rethink everything we thought we knew about campaign coverage and to create content and programs — in this case, town hall events — to meet the needs of students, a segment of our audience.

Colin Campbell, the editor of the Insider in North Carolina, said, “This is an unusual way to get candidates to take a literal position on key issues, but I like it.”

“This town hall meeting was not the typical one where candidates drone on about their agendas and answer polite surface questions about their qualifications and ideas,” wrote reporter Amelia Harper in the Rocky Mount Telegram. “This was a very visual, energized, student-led process that involved personal engagement and forced candidates to listen and dig deep in giving responses.”

Student town halls can reframe the platforms and agendas of candidates and foster civic participation in younger generations.

“This is hard,” says candidate Rep. Craig Horn. “I learned a lot by watching your faces. I learned a lot by shaking your hand. I learned a lot by listening to your voices — not just the words, but how you spoke.”

All of the students surveyed said they would like to attend more events like the town hall. This is the future of democracy.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We intended to have the candidates wait in a holding room outside the event space so they couldn’t see each other answer the “who-are-you” introduction. But the candidates wanted to meet the students as they got off the buses. Next time, we will restructure the event so candidates can greet the students as they arrive.

One candidate ended up greeting the students, and it was really powerful for both him and the students. We want to include all of the candidates next time and have them welcome the students as they get off the bus.

When one candidate didn’t show up, we recruited a student to pretend to be a candidate. The student rotated through all the small group discussions, answering the questions posed by students. We’ll add this to our format moving forward.

We realized we needed to have a facilitator at each table for the small group discussions to help maintain a balance of students asking questions and candidates talking about the issues.

 Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We expected pushback from the candidates about this nontraditional format, but they were all surprisingly game. A student wrote this perspective after the town hall, noting, “How should North Carolina improve its public school system? That’s a question that, as a sophomore who has attended public schools for the past decade, I never get asked.”

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We learned that students are eager to participate in democracy –– we just have to give them the space to engage. In an exit survey, students answered a few questions for us. Here’s one that left us feeling hopeful.

Although we’d like to have continued our interaction with these students, we haven’t had much contact with them because of COVID-19. We were planning another candidate town hall for students this fall, but we are altering our plans because of the pandemic.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: At EdNC, our community is our students and our schools, and we are beholden to nothing but a better future for them.

“We truly felt the spirit of democracy in the room that day,” said Alli Lindenberg. “EdNC spends a lot of time strategizing about how to be audience-first and serve our readership’s information needs above all else. This event reminded us that we can’t learn everything we need to know about our readers from behind a screen or looking at analytics and click-through rates. Sometimes, we learn the most powerful and useful things by showing up, creating space, and listening.”

Related content: Read how nonprofit education news site EdNC built its own loyalty tracker