by Edmund Hanson & Rita Sabler
The 2020 Election Roundtable was composed of twenty-four diverse voters from Pennsylvania. These individuals participated in a series of six open, virtual conversations about what is important to them. The prompt for each conversation was often inspired by the day’s news and included such topics as filling the supreme court vacancy in the wake of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing, President Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, and the racial reckoning happening in the US.
Organization Background: The Philadelphia Inquirer is the third-oldest continually operating daily newspaper in the United States primarily serving the communities of the Philadelphia region.
The project was set to accomplish two goals by flipping the reporting process around by putting the audience at the front of the process instead of at the end. The organizers of the project wanted to build trust between the audience and the newspaper by being transparent about their process and by answering their questions along the way. They intended to turn the immediate participants into advocates for the Inquirer when they go back to their communities. Secondly, the moderators of the Roundtable also wanted to understand what was important to the voters in the 2020 election and how their opinions formed. This second goal would inform the newspaper’s coverage in a meaningful way by speaking for and representing the electorate.
The project was accomplished with resources available in-house at the Inquirer. Between the pre-planning, the design of the application and project page, the vetting of applicants and background checking and the meetings itself, the project took up substantial staff time. There were roughly 20+ staffers who played some sort of role, big or small. That group included newsroom folks and also partners from design and marketing.
Tools & Technology:
- Web forums, Slack, and social media
The Inquirer published about 15 pieces of content about or informed by the project. A safe space was created where 24 individuals could have a respectful conversation about politics and policy.
Here is how one of the roundtable participants from outside The Inquirer’s market area and representing a small town on the other side of the state described the experience: “I think every newspaper or TV station in every town in Pennsylvania should do something like this [roundtable]. And people in the communities could come closer together because of it. I think that if every community did something like this, even if it does not necessarily have anything to do with their media outlets, they could grow closer together. I’ve become an optimist because of this.”
Another participant wrote: “I’m as jaded and cynical as a person can get … [but now], I really feel hopeful for humanity because there are people actively connecting. We’re not going to change the world, but I’m hopeful that we will show people that civil discourse exists and can exist in the modern world and it’s useful.”
How it Happened
Historically, Philadelphia could be described as a “blue” state, with over 50% of PA voters voting for the democratic party–except for the 2016 election year, where the Republican presidential candidate won by 0.7%. In many ways, the 2020 Election was like no other considering the impact of COVID-19, the economic crisis, the nationwide racial reckoning and a number of other factors surrounding the candidates.
The Philadelphia Inquirer was determined to invite as many people representing the state as they could to join the Roundtable. They created an application, and invested resources to promote it in every corner of Pennsylvania. The Inquirer directed individuals to Inquirer.com and their social media channels to apply. In the end, more than 500 people applied. The idea was to build a sample that was representative of the voters in the state of Pennsylvania in terms of racial identity, gender identity, geography, and of course political affiliation.
All of the virtual conversations were led by Ray Boyd, Director of Syndication and Social Media at the Inquirer, and then senior politics editor Dan Hirschhorn. One of Ray’s goals was to break down the journalism process for the participants. To further explain journalism behind the scenes, an Opinion Editor was invited as a guest to discuss their role in creating content around elections, specifically endorsements. This led to an opinion editorial that pulled together the participants’ thoughts on the process and even allowed one of the participants to write an op-ed of her own on a topic she was passionate about. The authors were committed to ensuring reporters were in the room to participate in the discussions, explain their work, and be available for questions. This inspired several reporting lanes, and several roundtable members were interviewed for newspaper pieces.
In exchange for their time, the participants were offered a 6-month subscription to The Inquirer to cover the entire length of the project plus the time it took to get past the inauguration. No other forms of compensation were given to the participants.
1. Creating Spaces for Civil Discourse
The Roundtable was composed of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents that came from very different backgrounds. The Inquirer was committed to civil discourse between the members of the Roundtable. If a member did not respect the Inquirer’s expectations, they would be removed from the group. It was paramount that this was a safe place for the twenty-four individuals to express themselves.
2. Practicing Transparency
This was an opportunity to be transparent with the public and give them an inside look at journalism, the Inquirer’s workflows and decision-making. This type of transparency helped foster relationships rooted in trust – one of the participants stated that the opportunity to see what happens behind the scenes allowed them to share their experience with a friend of theirs that was resistant to the Inquirer, and help them clear up misconceptions with their newly gathered information.
3. Establishing Flexibility
Because of this new format, they entered discussions with a flexible approach. Rough outlines were created, but conversations had to be adaptable to the news of the day. Members were selected due to their desire to have civil, substantive conversations with people that have different views, and flexibility was a necessity.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Developing a Management System for Applicants
Developing a more robust way to store and sort applicants would have been very helpful to the process. Google docs were used for this, but it ultimately created more obstacles than necessary. In the future, the Inquirer will develop a dynamic management system for applicants that will evolve as information is gathered from each application.
2. Managing a Digital Space for Ongoing Conversations
The Roundtable organizers utilized Zoom for recurring conversations while Slack was used for postings, conversations and updates between scheduled virtual sessions. However, some individuals were unfamiliar with the application. The Inquirer believes that because of this, there were lower levels of engagement than expected. An application, or a digital space, that is more familiar would be beneficial for ongoing conversations.
3. Seeking Out Project Partners
Since this was the first Roundtable project, the Inquirer kept everything in-house. However, for the next Roundtable, there were several opportunities identified where bringing in other news organizations, especially for a statewide effort, would be beneficial. Additionally, partnering with other organizations and/or community groups would broaden the reach and impact.
What Else You Should Know
- Most of the Roundtable members could be considered regular voters, who rarely (if ever) get involved in discussing politics. However, some of the members have volunteered for, or contributed to campaigns in the past. Only a few of the members were more active than the rest of the group.
- The state’s geographic, political, and racial diversity were the biggest contributing factors to selecting the members.
- BIPOC community was slightly more represented in the sample, which the Roundtable organizers felt was important at that moment
- The participants without a college degree were slightly less represented because only a few of them applied to participate
To learn more, feel free to reach out to Ray Boyd, or check out the following to learn about the project: