Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage

What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?

12 Jun 2019 3:47 pm 15 Comments

Part of a call to action for an alternative direction in election coverage, originated by the newsroom improvement company, Hearken, and the research project that I direct, Membership Puzzle Project

Last month I visited WBUR in Boston to talk with station leadership and the politics team about how they could bring something different to their 2020 election coverage. I was invited by WBUR’s senior political reporter, Anthony Brooks, who had read some of my descriptions of the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage.  He wanted to explore how it might work at an NPR station that reaches across greater Boston and into New Hampshire, where the first primary in the nation draws the major candidates.

Politics is a busy and important beat for them. WBUR collaborates on election coverage with New Hampshire Public Radio, which attended the meeting as well. For an academic, the opportunity to float an alternative model to people who could soon put it into practice is not something you turn down.

Here’s the whiteboard I used. On it, the citizens agenda style in campaign coverage is broken down into steps. These are the key steps:

  1. Identify — especially to yourselves — the people you are trying to inform. Your community. Your public. Your crowd.
  1. Ask the people you are supposed to inform a simple question: what do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?
  1. Keep asking it — what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? — as you find new ways to explain the project, and new people to reach with it.
  1. Interpreting what you heard, and applying your knowledge as journalists, synthesize the initial results into a draft agenda, a priority list that originates in an act of listening. (Need an example? Go here.)
  1. Test, question, and revise the agenda with the people you made it for, plus any help you can get from polling. “This is what we think we heard. How did we do?”
  1. When confidence permits, or circumstances require, you then publish the citizens agenda as a “live” product on your site. Launch and promote. Gather reactions. Synthesize and improve.
  1. Now, turn the citizens agenda into instructions for campaign reporting that connects with the issues people care most about. Around the top priorities you can do in-depth journalism. Given a chance to ask questions of the people competing for office, you can turn to the citizens agenda. And if you need a way of declining the controversy of the day, there it is. The agenda you got by listening to voters helps you hold to mission when temptation is to ride the latest media storm. At every turn, you can ask yourself, “How does this align with our citizens’ agenda?”
  1. Press the candidates to address it. When they do, tell the voters. In a way, you have “won” at campaign journalism when this happens.
  1. Build your voters guide around it. Down the left side of the grid, the candidates for office. Across the top, the items on the citizens agenda. Fill in the grid with what the candidates have done, said, or proposed; that’s a public service.
  1. Keep listening for revisions to the agenda until the campaign ends. I called it a published product. I also said it was live. That means you change it when the ground shifts, or choices narrow. Maybe there’s a a few per election cycle, or a new one every Monday. 

Notes:

WBUR has not made any decisions yet. This isn’t their plan, it’s mine.

You can have it, by the way. The plan, I mean. Just let us know how it turns out.

WBUR has a pollster who joined the meeting. He said with internet polling it’s plausible to poll for, What do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes? (This was the most interesting thing I learned that day.)

The citizens agenda style is my dorky name for it. You can call it whatever you want. The active ingredient is not “citizen’s agenda,” but that question, “what do you want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes?”

The agenda is an editorial product, a synthesis. It involves art and judgment, not just data. You should be prepared to explain your thinking and take responsibility for what you included and left out.

Look, it’s agenda-setting. You will draw critics if you do this. Ask them to join and make the listening project better.

When people suspicious of your campaign coverage say in a threatening tone, “what’s your agenda?” just send them the URL.

Good design is critical to making this work. Obvious, but I’m saying it anyway. Graphic design, interaction design, task and workflow design are among the forms required. I’m sure you can think of others.

Finally, a note about 2020 for those who will be reporting on it: You cannot keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from campaign journalists. Who cares what they think? It has to originate with the voters you are trying to inform.


Read the series:
Part One: A call for a different kind of campaign coverage after 2016
Part Two: Key steps in the citizens agenda style of campaign coverage
Part Three: Case Study: How the Dublin Inquirer set a citizens agenda

 

A current list of my top problems in pressthink, April 2019

Updated from time to time. Ranked by urgency.

7 Apr 2019 2:05 pm 17 Comments

1. Absent some kind of creative intervention, 2020 campaign coverage looks like it will be the same as it ever was. Who’s ahead? What’s it gonna take to win? The debacle in 2016 has not brought forth any dramatic shift in approach. The “savvy” style remains in place. Its practitioners are confident that they can prevail. They are probably right.

2. The Correspondent, with which I am publicly identified, met its crowd funding goals and now has to deliver on these principles. That will not be easy.

3. With his hate campaign against journalists, Trump has been successful in isolating about a third of the electorate in an information loop of its own. These are people beyond the reach of journalism, immune to its discoveries. Trump is their primary source of information about Trump. The existence of a group this size shows that de-legitimizing the news media works. The fact that it works means we will probably see more of it.

4. Fox News is merging with the Trump government in a combination unseen before. We don’t know what that combined thing is, or even how to talk about it. The common shorthand is “state media.” But that is only half the picture. It’s true that Fox is a propaganda machine. But it is also true that the Trump government is like a cable channel— with nukes.

5. Around the world, so called populist movements are incorporating media hate into their ideology— and replicating. No one knows how to stop or even slow this development.

6. Now in its 15th year, the business model crisis in journalism is still unsolved. (But at least we know that except in rare cases digital advertising is not going to be the answer, which counts as progress.)

7. Membership models in news need to be participatory to work, but we’re falling behind in our understanding of how to make that happen. With ad-supported media, we know what the social contract is. We know how it works with subscription, as well. For membership, we do not yet know what that contract is.

8. The harder I work on some these problems (1, 3, 4, and 5 especially…) the more cynical I get. The more cynical I get, the harder it is to believe that any of that work matters.

“Hate movements” are the mobilization of resentment against a particular group of people for political purposes. When journalists are the group targeted, those of us who believe in a free press have a right to be worried, and a duty to understand.

I am going to focus on the hate movement against journalists that President Trump is leading in the U.S. But I am not saying this kind of movement originated in America. I am not claiming that it is anything “new.” Or that Trump’s methods are some kind of innovation. I’m not saying we in America have the worst case of it; we do not. I am simply describing the situation in my country because I know it best. Our purpose today is to compare.

So here are some of the features that stand out about the hate movement against journalists that our president is conducting in the United States. Tell me if any of these sound familiar:

Trump’s campaign to discredit the press comes disguised as the criticism of bias in the news media. Defenders of Trump’s attacks on journalists routinely tell me: “you brought this on yourselves.” They mean by being so biased. But what they mean by bias is not cases of unfairness or blindness that can be highlighted and corrected. They see a complete evacuation of public responsibility by journalists. From their point of view, American journalism is not reformable. It is corrupt and dangerous.

Within the frame of this movement, no distinction is made between professional journalists and political opponents. Rather, journalists are political opponents, and that is the only thing you need to know about them. It is routine within the conservative movement in the US to describe journalists as “Democratic party operatives with bylines,” or “progressive activists with press credentials.” This was common before Trump. He has weaponized it.

Hate objects need names. Before Trump, the object’s name was “the media” (or mainsteam media.) Trump has been slowly changing it to “the fake news,” but The Media is still common. That term, The Media, doesn’t refer to specific institutions like the Washington Post or the AP. It’s like saying “the banks,” or “the deep state.” The Media has no address. It is a mental construct, not an institution.

Hating on journalists the way Trump and his core supporters do is not an act of press criticism. It’s a way of doing politics, often called populism. In populism, you aggregate and mobilize for political gain people’s resentment of elites, who are described as corrupt and dangerous because they operate behind the scenes using unearned power. The leader promises to deal harshly with this despised group, and deliver justice to “the people.”

When Trump points to the reporters and camera men at his rallies, he is presenting the hate object to his fans. It doesn’t matter who the journalists are, where they work, or what their recent performance has been. Again, this is not an act of criticism. It is a potent form of symbolic politics. Like putting 20 bankers in a cage, dropping the cage into the middle of a political rally, and then pointing at the people inside. “There they are. The banks!”

The Republican Party has been practicing this form of politics since at least the time of Barry Goldwater’s run for president in 1964. It is not new. What’s different now is that mobilizing resentment is increasingly what holds the party together. And there’s another factor. The Republican Party increasingly takes positions that guarantee conflict with fact-checking journalists doing their job. The clearest example is climate change denialism. When that becomes an orthodox position within the party, conflict with the press is guaranteed— unless, of course, journalists retreat from truth telling and evidence-weighing into he said, she said reporting.

That dynamic — forcing conflict with a fact-checking press — was there before Trump. But he has weaponized it. Every day he makes false claims that are easily checked— thousands of them so far. Recently he announced on Twitter that Puerto Rico had received $91 billion in hurricane aid from the USA. The actual figure is $11 billion and Puerto Rico is the USA. The conflict with the press is therefore structural, built into the Trump presidency. If journalists do their job, and point out the truth of the situation, what his supporters will see is The Media attacking their guy again. This enrages them. The only way to prevent this reaction is to abandon the job and just pass along whatever Trump said, even if it’s disinformation.

Previous presidents struggled with the press, of course. They sometimes thought journalists as a class were “against” them. Obama thought reporters were preoccupied with trivialities. Nixon hated the press, but he mostly kept it private. Whatever their problems with it, previous presidents also saw the press as a crucial part of American democracy, like free and fair elections, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary.

Trump attacks all these institutions. He undermines trust in all of them. But his hate movement against the press has a special intensity and tempo. It is basic to the way he governs, even though, as many White House correspondents have pointed out, he cares deeply about his coverage in the press, calls journalists at all hours, and can be friendly and charming to them in person.

It is true that there is disgust and resentment at the press on the American left too. Some of this criticism can be quite totalizing and dismissive. The difference is that the Democratic Party has never incorporated that rage into the way it does politics.

“We’re not at war, we’re at work.” This sentence from Marty Baron, editor of the Washington Post, captures perfectly how journalists think about this situation. Don’t let Trump provoke you. Remain calm. Don’t play his game. What Baron’s remark does not do is address the problem I have described here. If you do your job, then you’re playing the role of hate object and participating in Trump’s political style. If you don’t want to be a hate object, sorry— then you cannot do your job. Detachment loses its meaning in this system, which incorporates journalists whether they like it or not.

Why does it matter? It matters because one third of the American electorate has been isolated in an information loop of its own. For this group, which mistrusts the mainstream press on principle, and as a matter of political identity, Trump has become the major source of information about Trump, along with Fox News, which has slowly been merging with the Trump government. An authoritarian news system is up and running, in the country that was once known for having the strongest free press protections in the world.

Yep. The Correspondent screwed up in its communications with members. Here’s how.

A decision not to have its headquarters in New York or the US, and to base the English-language site in Amsterdam, has drawn criticism from supporters.

28 Mar 2019 2:20 pm 26 Comments

By request, here’s my post explaining how I view The Correspondent’s decision not to have its headquarters in New York or the US, and to base the English-language operation in Amsterdam. (I am an advisor, and the Membership Puzzle Project, which I lead, is partners with The Correspondent.) You can find the background to this controversy in Mathew Ingram’s report for CJR.

First, it’s entirely understandable why people thought The Correspondent would be based in New York. At one time, that was the plan. The plan made its way into communications in a broad variety of ways. As I told Nieman Lab, “That’s not anyone’s fault but The Correspondent’s.”

Here’s how Founding Editor Rob Wijnberg put it in a letter to members that was sent today. (Bold lettering in the original.)

Members who read about this decision elsewhere have shared with me that they feel misled because they had a reasonable expectation from our crowdfunding campaign that we would open an office in the US. I am truly sorry for this. As an organization built on a commitment to transparency and trust, we recognize how serious this is. We should have communicated with you as our thinking evolved and you should have heard this from us first, rather than on Twitter or via other news outlets. We will learn from this, and do better in the future.

Now to the question of how it happened. I have some knowledge of this — and of the mistakes we made that led to today’s apology — because I was part of the campaign.

Through 2017 and much of 2018 we shared a default assumption that The Correspondent would be based in New York. I call it a ‘default’ because we never sat down to decide it, and there was no real cost study or strategic analysis behind it. Rather, we had opened a campaign office in New York (with borrowed office space) and it seemed like that would evolve into The Correspondent’s newsroom. At some point in 2018 we mentally shifted from “New York, probably” to “location: undecided” but (and in retrospect this was an error…) we didn’t think to announce this to the world because in our minds we had not announced “newsroom in New York” to the world. But we were mistaken.

Instead of announcing “we have changed our default location from New York to Undecided, so please be aware…” we tried to practice message discipline during the campaign itself, which ran from Nov. 14 to Dec. 14, 2018. We spoke about expansion to the English speaking world. In our minds, shifting the way we talked about the expansion during the campaign so that we referenced the globe and the English language, rather than New York and the US, brought our campaign communications in line with “location: undecided.”

But we know now that this was a failure of imagination, especially for a site that talked about “optimizing for trust” and working collaboratively with members.

To illustrate what I mean by “we tried to practice message discipline during the campaign itself” see this paragraph from the Guardian’s story, which ran the day the campaign started:

Wijnberg, a former newspaper editor in the Netherlands, and his co-founder, Ernst Pfauth, have been based in New York City for a year planning the launch, working with media experts and researchers at New York University. If the Correspondent reaches its fundraising goal, it will hire five to six full-time correspondents focussing on specific beats, Wijnberg said. Instead of a traditional office, the Correspondent’s journalists could be based around the globe – wherever their focus may be.

But for every careful reference like that, there seem to be three more — in news reports, prior messaging, or from the team itself — supporting the impression that The Correspondent would have a newsroom in the US and become part of the American press.

Some other things that were going on might make this a little more explicable. It’s in the nature of a crowdfunding campaign with a do-or-die target and a 30-day run that all sorts of questions are put off while you are working on the campaign, because only if the campaign succeeds will there be any cause to examine those questions. That’s not an excuse for what happened, but it is part of the context.

Similarly, you can try to estimate from Amsterdam what the true costs of running a newsroom in New York are, but for the founders of The Correspondent it was the experience of moving their own lives to the US, establishing a campaign office in the city, hiring people to staff it, paying for their health insurance, getting visas to work in America and a hundred other, smaller real-world discoveries that slowly, and bit-by-bit weakened the case for a New York newsroom.

It made sense then to consider other American cities (Detroit? Pittsburgh?) but did it make sense to try to decide on newsroom location before you even knew if there would be a newsroom to locate, or what the budget would be? The feeling was that it did not make sense to decide that now. Instead we would practice message discipline during the campaign itself, so that no one felt misled about an HQ decision that was very much up-in-the-air. (Not saying it happened that way. I am saying this was our thought.)

Another factor was uncertainty around who the members would turn out to be. There is no way to know that until you run the campaign. The US has the most native English speakers, so one would expect most of the members to be Americans. But we did not know how well The Correspondent’s origin story and principles would resonate around the world, or how a Dutch-born site would be received. When the campaign concluded and the numbers were analyzed they showed about 40 percent of The Correspondent’s founding members are from the US, 40 percent are Dutch, and 20 percent are from the rest of the world.

What location does that argue for? To me it makes for a tough call.

An additional factor, of course, is costs. My sense was that a member-funded newsroom needed to put as much as possible into the journalism, especially at the beginning. This was doubly true for The Correspondent, which ran a campaign based entirely on its founding principles and its success (60,000 paying members) in Dutch. As Emily Bell wrote Dec. 16, “Particularly admirable about the Correspondent’s campaign was that it raised membership without publishing a word. It asked people to buy into the idea of journalism created in a transparent, non-hierarchical way.”

Having bought into the idea, members, I felt, are going to want to see the journalistic goods as soon as possible, not the bill for rent and health insurance. So as the prospect of a New York City office gradually shifted to “location: undecided,” I began to feel good that we would have more money to spend on the journalism, even though I had no idea where The Correspondent would eventually be based. I didn’t think we were misleading members; I thought we were respecting their hard earned cash. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.

On top of that there was another decision to make. Should there even be a central newsroom, or did a distributed model make more sense? Why not base the correspondents where it made sense for them to live and work? Why not widen the talent pool by allowing for remote work? This was particularly important because the kind of correspondents we would be looking are journalists excited about the challenge of treating members as a knowledge community and routinely integrating them into the reporting in crowdsourced (or David Fahrenthold) fashion. They aren’t that easy to find. This too argued for a distributed model.

When in January 2019 the founders of De Correspondent told me that a one newsroom strategy was the leading option, with headquarters in Amsterdam and the new correspondents working remotely, I was initially taken back. I would not have come up with that idea. But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made, especially when it came to the talent search, and to the aspiration to one day be a global brand. At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how many of our supporters had assumed there would be a US newsroom, probably in New York. Now I am.

Letter to My Network: Join The Correspondent

I have never asked you for anything. Until today.

17 Nov 2018 6:26 pm 1 Comment

This is for everyone who follows me on social media, or who has read my press criticism. All my former students. Fans of this blog, PressThink. Anyone who owns my book. Anyone who’s heard me speak. It is a personal statement, from me to them.

UPDATE, Jan. 1 2019: The campaign succeeded! Some 45,000 founding members from 130+ countries gave $2.6 million to launch The Correspondent. (You can still join.) And I appeared on the Daily Show Dec. 6 to make my pitch.
ORIGINAL LETTER, Nov. 14: I have never asked you for anything. Except maybe to read this, or share that. I don’t push products, or join campaigns. But now, after 32 years as an observer and critic of the press, I am breaking with that policy. Breaking it in half.

I am asking you to do what I have done: join The Correspondent. If you have ever wondered what I would recommend to public-spirited people who want a better press, this is it. Go here, read about the site’s founding principles, and if they move you become a member.

I won’t make a dime if you do. I am not getting paid to tell you this. I have no stake in the company. I am not an officer or an employee. I just believe in what they are doing, and I have tried to advise them on how to do it better.

After the shock of the 2016 election, I felt I had to find something more useful to do than criticize the performance of the news media. (I do that, as well.) So I decided to work with The Correspondent on its membership campaign, which launched on November 14. Now I am asking you to participate, for reasons I will explain.

Journalism is in a jam. I don’t think better practices are enough. Better principles are needed too. The principles I would add are visible in the design of The Correspondent, and in its membership campaign. So I’m saying something stronger than, “I endorse this.” I’m saying: This is what I would do…

The Correspondent is the extension into English-language publishing of decorrespondent.nl, the world’s most successful member-funded, ad-free news site. It launched with a crowdfunding campaign in the Netherlands in 2013. Publishing daily in Dutch, they now have 61,000 members supporting 21 full-time correspondents on a broad range of beats. (List of Dutch beats here. It tells you the kind of journalism they do.)

Their model is working in the Netherlands, but that’s not the exciting part. The exciting part is the principles that make it go. These are different from any news site you can name.

Start with no ads, the key move the Dutch founders made. Downstream from that original “no” are others, equally welcome. No click-baity headlines. No auto-play videos. No ugly promos sliding into view as you try to read the article. No “sponsored content.” (No sponsors at all.) No third party — the advertiser — in between you and the people trying to inform you. No need to track you around the internet, or collect data on your browsing habits. No selling of your attention to others.

Also: no controversy-of-the-day coverage, which happens when editors from different newsrooms react to the same data showing clicks and taps going to a few “hot” stories. These are typically the stories that trigger outrage in the most people. The people at The Correspondent have a phrase for it. “Your antidote to the daily news grind.” If that’s an idea you can get behind, then get behind The Correspondent. Join our club.

Now for the next principle, equally basic. This is not an exclusive club. It’s extremely inclusive. Two reasons I can say that. Yes, you have to pay to be a member. But you pay what you feel you can afford. The Correspondent believes you are smart enough to figure this economy out. A paying membership is the other side of the coin that reads: no ads. And no ads, as we have seen, has all those welcome effects downstream.

The other reason I can say “extremely inclusive” is that The Correspondent is not selling digital subscriptions, as the Washington Post, the London Times, and most local newspapers nowadays do. Paid subscription is a product-consumer relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership is different. You join the cause because you believe in the importance of the work. If you believe in the work, you want it to spread, including to non-members.

If The Correspondent’s membership campaign reaches its goal of raising $2.5 million by December 14, it will hire a staff and start publishing, in English, in 2019. When that happens, there will be no “meter” measuring how many articles you have read this month. No one will ever get that notice, “you have used four of your five free clicks.” Any link that comes to people in their social feeds will be clickable and shareable, without limit. In this way it is more like public radio in the U.S. Members who believe in the public radio mission support their NPR station, but everyone can listen.

The differences compared to the NPR system are important too: The Correspondent will have no corporate sponsors. No government funding. And thus no fear of that money getting cut off. Which in turns means no tendency toward false equivalence, no incentive system for “he said, she said” journalism. These are deeply-woven patterns for which I have often criticized NPR.

Built into The Correspondent are other ideas I have tried to speak up for in my work as a critic. For example: In 2003 (here) and in 2010 (here) and at other points in my writing, I have attempted to point out that the “view from nowhere” is getting harder and harder to trust.

But journalists who can say “here’s where I’m coming from,” and then combine that act of transparency with high standards of verification (reporting, digging, presenting the data…) stand an increasingly better chance of gaining trust. This philosophy is coded into The Correspondent. Number six on their list of ten founding principles says, “We don’t take the view from nowhere. We tell you where we’re coming from.”

In 2006, I wrote The People Formerly Known as the Audience, probably my most well-known post. Seven years later, the founders of De Correspondent (who had read that post) asked the people formerly known as the Dutch audience to support a new kind of journalism platform: member-funded, ad-free… and participatory. Which is another key principle. They required the writers they had hired to treat the former audience as a knowledge community, people who ought to be listened to because they know things that can make the journalism better.

I had been pushing that principle for years. They wove it into their operating style. Reporters treat members as sources of knowledge and feedback. They share what they’re working on, and ask for help.

From the moment it “jumped” to the internet, journalism has been trying to figure out how to become more two-way. The Correspondent has the best answer I have seen. Its writers are given freedom to define their own beats, and pick their own reporting projects. But in exchange for that extraordinary latitude they are expected to spend 30 to 40 percent of their time interacting with members and drawing knowledge from them.

No one else in journalism does it this way. If they did, I would know about it.

For you as a member it means this: You are not just expected to give money. You are also expected to testify when you know something the writers should know. If you have expertise, you may be called upon to share it. Members follow writers at the site, not just topics or sections. The writers are required to send their followers a weekly email updating them on their reporting projects. It’s a more intimate relationship with journalists, the opposite of yelling at them on Twitter and hoping to be heard.

One more principle. The Correspondent practices “constructive journalism.” That means no treatment of a problem is complete unless it includes what can be done about it. What we as individuals can do (like reducing your carbon footprint) and what we as a society can do (like requiring more energy-efficient products.)

Are you starting to get the idea? Hope so. There’s a lot more to why I support this project. You can read my fuller explanation here: What The Correspondent will add to the American press. (“It reconfigures how a live public stands toward the makers of journalism.”) Or check out the analysis in Nieman Lab by news industry expert Ken Doctor. It explains how The Correspondent is trying something no one else is trying. (“There is no news company I know of that builds its business — and its journalism — so completely around the reader.”)

What I want you to know is that I not only endorse what they are doing. It is what I would do if I started my own site.

So join us.

 

Election coverage: the road not taken

It's called the "citizens agenda" approach in campaign journalism. I know, dorky name. It was tried. And it worked.

7 Nov 2018 10:38 am 11 Comments

Originally published as a Twitter thread on election day, 2018.

There was a path the American press could have walked, but did not. This alternative way was illuminated as far back as 1992. Our political journalists declined it. And here we are. This post is that story.

One of the problems with election coverage as it stands is that no one has any idea what it means to succeed at it. Predicting the winner? Is that success? Even if journalists could do that (and they can’t) it would not be much of a public service, would it?

In 1992, the The Observer in Charlotte, NC teamed up with the Poynter Institute to pioneer a different way to cover elections. The idea was simple: campaign coverage should be grounded in what voters want the candidates to talk about. Which voters? The ones you are trying to inform.

This came to be called the “citizens agenda” approach to campaign coverage. It revolves around the power of a single question: “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” From good answers to that everything else in the model flows.

A few things about that question, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” Notice what it is not. It is not “who’s going to win?” It’s not “who are you going to vote for?” And it’s not “which party would do a better job at addressing…” For the whole purpose of the citizens agenda approach is to find an alternative to the horse race style in campaign coverage, which starts with “who’s gonna win?” What are the keys to winning? How close is the race? Which tactics seem to be working? What do the latest polls say?

The horse race style is the default pattern. It’s easy to criticize, and I have done that a lot. But the default has some impressive strengths. It’s repeatable in every election, everywhere. It creates suspense and thus interest. It tells you where to put your resources (on the closest races and the candidates getting traction.) 

Here’s how the alternative style — the citizens agenda in election coverage— works. First you need to know who your community is. If informing the public is the mission statement of every good journalist, then identifying the public you’re trying to inform is basic to the job. If you can identify the particular public you’re trying to inform — and you know how to reach those people — then you can ask them the question at the core of the citizens agenda approach. “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” 

The key is to pose this question in every possible form and forum. Interviews with reporters. Focus groups with researchers. Call and leave us a message. Email us. Tweet us. Text us. Fill out this form. Speak up at our event. Comment on our Facebook page. Talk to us! 

In addition to those inputs, the polling budget has to be redirected. Away from the horse race, toward the organizing principle in our revised approach, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” You can poll for that. It’s not normal, but it is possible. Especially with online polling beginning to come into its own.

Put it all together, and the journalists covering the campaign have what they need to name, frame and synthesize the citizens agenda. The product is a ranked list, a priority sketch. The top 8-10 issues or problems that voters most want the candidates to be talking about. The citizens agenda, an exercise in high quality public listening, is both a published product (tested, designed, packaged properly for multiple platforms) and a template for covering the rest of the campaign. It tells you how to “win” at campaign coverage. Or stop losing.

But you have to get the list right. If you can spread out and properly canvas the community, ask good questions, listen well to the answers, transcend your limited starting points (your bias) and piece together an accurate and nuanced understanding, then you have something truly valuable.

The template has multiple purposes. It helps focus your “issue” coverage and voters guide. It informs your explainers. And it keeps you on track. Instead of just reacting to events (or his tweets…) you have instructions for how to stay centered around voters’ concerns. When a candidate comes to town and gives a speech, you map what is said against the citizens agenda. When your reporters interview the candidate, questions are drawn from the citizens agenda. If the candidate speaks to your editorial board, you know what to do.

But it goes beyond that. Synthesizing a citizens agenda at the beginning creates a mission statement for your campaign coverage later on. Now you know what you’re supposed to accomplish. Press the candidates to talk about what your readers and listeners want most to hear about. 

The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage (sorry for the dorky name) tells reporters, editors and producers how they’re doing. Here’s how. If you’ve done the work and your list is accurate, the candidates will have to start talking about the items on that agenda. That’s how you know it’s working. That’s how you know you’re winning. Now you can press them for better answers, and dig deep on things you know people care about. Public service!

This I can tell you. If reporters ask the people they’re trying to inform, “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?” no one is going to answer with, “You’re down five points in the latest polls. Realistically, can you recover?”

The citizens agenda approach in campaign coverage was first tried at the Charlotte Observer in 1992. I wrote about that adventure in my book, What Are Journalists For? in 1999. I explained it again in 2010 at my blog. So it’s been out there. My own read is that it never took off because this is not what political reporters want to do. They want to hang with the pros. They want to pick apart the strategy. The best ones (and there are some very good ones) want to explain what the candidates are appealing to. In us.

Yesterday, Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post gave a grade of C-minus to the campaign press. “Too many journalists allow Trump to lead them around by the nose,” she said. “With the president as their de facto assignment editor.”  And I agree with that. But here’s the kicker: You can’t keep from getting sucked into Trump’s agenda without a firm grasp on your own. But where does that agenda come from? It can’t come from you, as a campaign journalist. Who cares what you think? It has to come from the voters you are trying to inform. 

A demonstrable public service, the citizens agenda approach puts the campaign press on the side of the voters and their right to have their major concerns addressed by the people bidding for power. That is the road not taken. Now I have to add that good reporters on the campaign trail spend a lot of time listening to voters. This happens. They ask about the issues on voters minds. But it’s pitched to who’s ahead and why. To which appeals are resonating.

For the sophisticated professionals who cover elections, the “citizens agenda in campaign coverage” sounds — let’s be honest — a little too earnest, a bit minor league. Civics class, as against drinks with the county chairman at the Des Moines Marriott. I know this. I get it.

But the only way up from the hole they’re in is to pitch their journalism at an electorate that they understand better than the politicians who are leading it off a cliff. You don’t get there with a savvy analysis of who’s ahead. Somehow, you have to represent.