This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Matt DeLong, digital projects editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.
Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
Answer: At the Star Tribune, we’ve used basically the same digital elections playbook for years. And by far the biggest undertaking, in terms of labor and footprint, was MyVote: a database of candidates running for federal, state, and local offices that included policy positions, biographies and other information submitted in response to questionnaires we sent out each election season. It also included tools for readers to find their sample ballot and polling place. It was a massive undertaking that took months to pull together.
Over the last couple cycles, we began to notice a steep decline in the number of candidates that responded to our questionnaire. This made us question the amount of work we were putting into it. And the Minnesota secretary of state’s office already provides a polling place finder and sample ballot, further diminishing MyVote’s unique value. So we started thinking about other ways we could help readers find the election-related information they need to be better, more informed voters.
One of those things was a series of posts — branded as our “Be a Better Voter” series — devoted each week to a different election topic (candidates, campaign finance, polling, etc.), with links and discussion of many of the online resources journalists use in the course of reporting on campaigns and elections.
The idea was to create something that was uniquely digital in order to serve a digital audience.
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: It very clearly fits with Table Stake #1 (“Serve targeted audiences with targeted content.”). From the beginning, we were specifically thinking about medium-information voters, those who vote every year and generally pay attention to the news but aren’t obsessive about politics and probably don’t have a ton of time to spend researching all the candidates for every race on their ballots. We figured that the highest-information voters likely already had a good idea who they would support in the general election. Similarly, the lowest-information voters don’t really pay attention to the news and won’t seek out a lot of information before they vote.
So we tried to think about what resources would help these readers be more informed about the election and how to present them in a way that’s engaging, easily digestible and not overwhelming or condescending.
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: One of my colleagues, Chase Davis, had the idea to present election topics and resources as lessons, with actionable “homework.” So we pulled together a list of areas to cover (voter registration, candidates, campaign finance, polling, etc.) and the best online resources we could find for each. Each Tuesday, we published a post with three things to do related to each topic, along with a brief preview of the week’s election news.
In the edition about candidates, for example, we linked to Democracy Works’ excellent Voting Information Project, which featured much of the same information about a wide range of candidates that we would have been compiling for MyVote. We also created tools like an election calendar with key dates that readers could easily add to the calendar apps on their phones.
We timed the campaign finance edition to coincide with a federal filing deadline, and we discussed the various types of information available from the Federal Election Commission, OpenSecrets.org and the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board. The “homework” was to check out each of the sites, and we provided some deep links directly to information of particular relevance to Minnesota voters. We also timed the post about polling to coincide with the release of the Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll.
Q: What worked?
A: While none of the posts were traffic monsters, they all were among the most-clicked items in the newsletters that featured them. We also linked to our own big-ticket offerings (like our election guide, which included a lot of information on candidates in major races, and our campaign finance tracker) every week. It was a good way to keep resurfacing our stuff for readers who are likely to be looking for them on a regular basis.
Internally, they also helped provide a valuable example of what it means to tailor content specifically toward digital audiences — in terms of form, tone and overall approach.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: The posts didn’t get a lot of direct traffic from our homepage, which speaks to a need for thinking more carefully about how we promote things like this to our digital readers. We tried some experiments, such as specially tailored Instagram stories, with mixed success. But with most of our storytelling still geared toward print readers, we need to think more strategically about how we use digital-first story forms like this to impress and expand our digital audience. And while we did pick up more digital subscriptions than usual during election season, we don’t have evidence to attribute that directly to individual projects. Because of some quirks in the special templates we used for these things, we can’t analyze how this did among users at different stages of our funnel. Ironing that out would have kept the project from launching on time, so we made that tradeoff knowingly. We were content to use this to show the potential of non-traditional story forms and collect anecdotal evidence.
Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: I heard from a friend who said she was having a conversation about voting and the elections with some co-workers when one of her interns, a college student who had never voted before, mentioned this series as a reference she had used to figure out how to register to vote and find information about candidates. That was pretty cool. The Minnesota League of Women Voters also promoted the series on social media, which was nice.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: I would start compiling the information that would appear in the posts much earlier. This idea came together not long before we started publishing the posts in early October. Campaign season is always extremely busy, and while we had already mapped out what we wanted to cover each week, I would sometimes find myself scrambling to finish them while I was working on other things. Some of them probably could have benefited from more undivided attention.
Also, if and when we do this again, we’ll probably do more crowdsourcing of questions from readers. We did one callout that was pretty general, and we got some good questions but also a lot of trolls. Crowdsourcing questions weekly on specific topics like campaign finance or polling might get better results.
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Start planning early and map out each week as well as you can. If you’re committing yourself to publishing something every week, you don’t want to be winging it at the last minute and finding you’ve already covered everything you want to with a week or two left in the campaign.
Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?
A: Our newsroom has been trying a number of experiments that have been geared around a simple premise: digital readers have different expectations than print readers — and serving those readers is key to building our digital subscriber base. We learned a lot from this one, and we plan to carry those lessons forward into other projects in the near future. So stay tuned!