Voting Block: How we brought New Jersey neighbors together to talk politics

For the past six months, 28 news organizations across New Jersey have been reporting on the election through the lens of local neighborhoods as part of the Voting Block project.

Voting Block was a collaborative effort launched to facilitate civil and impactful community conversations among neighbors ahead of this fall’s governor’s race. Ideally, we also wanted to drive more awareness about the election and ultimately get more people to the polls.

The Center for Cooperative Media coordinated editorial components of the projects, while Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting coordinated audience engagement efforts.

Our plan was simple at first: We’d gather neighbors together to talk politics over a meal, and report on what they discussed.

The depth of what we built together from that point on showed that collaboration — both between journalists, and between journalists and communities — can be incredibly powerful when done intentionally and with an open mind.

The 28 news organizations involved in Voting Block brought well over 100 neighbors together for more than two dozen meals to discuss politics in a civil and respectful manner, and produced 63 stories — and counting — from communities around the state. The stories are thought-provoking and diverse, rooted squarely in the political priorities and perspectives of the neighbors who participated.

We launched the project with four large news organizations – The Record, WNYC, WHYY and NJ Spotlight – and then expanded to add 15 hyperlocal news outlets, six ethnic media organizations, two groups of college journalists and a university-based newspaper serving the homeless. (You can read more about how Voting Block came together in this article by Poynter’s Kristen Hare.)

After we did our first round of meals, we created a Political Potluck guide to encourage anyone in New Jersey to host their own potluck and add their voices to our collective reporting. That effort seeded another series of meals and political conversations led by voters across the state.

To expand further, Voting Block worked with art galleries, libraries and students to host potlucks across the state. Montclair State University and Rutgers each had a class focus on Voting Block projects. The Wall Newspaper brought together homeless New Jerseyans in Trenton. ArtWorks Trenton hosted a potluck with the city’s artistic community. And Newark Public Library hosted a meal with library patrons in the Ironbound neighborhood.

WNYC created a campaign to collect and answer questions from voters. With help from Voting Block partners, WNYC  netted more than 400 responses and was able to respond to people’s most pressing questions.

We also partnered with WFMU to create and host a game show in Jersey City called Electorama, an event that attracted dozens of  people for a night of comedy and electoral politics in the theme of “The Dating Game.”  You can learn more about it here.

And, we’re currently in the middle of a statewide SMS campaign asking residents to text us the things they want Phil Murphy to tackle during his first 100 days in office. We’re going to compile those answers along with what neighbors told us during Voting Block to create a People’s Agenda that we’ll deliver to Murphy on behalf of Voting Block later this year.

Phew.

This isn’t the end of Voting Block, though – not by a long stretch. We’re working on meaningful ways to extend this collaborative effort around the 2018 election in New Jersey and beyond as the nation heads into midterm elections and other important races.

We’ve also been documenting our work and taking stock of what worked and what could have worked better. We plan to create a guide based around what we learned that we will share next year so more newsrooms can adopt the Voting Block model.

The bottom line: Newsrooms can better serve their communities if they get creative and invest in collaboration.

Interested in learning more about Voting Block or trying the model out in your neighborhood? Email us at info@centerforcooperative.org.

 


About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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