Chicago voters made history last month when they elected Lori Lightfoot as the first African-American woman and the first openly gay person to serve as the city’s mayor.
And while the mayoral race obviously captured the headlines, there were dozens of other races across the city that were also important.
To help voters navigate the challenges of municipal elections, a group of 10 news organizations created Chi.vote, a collaborative voters guide.
This week in Solution Set we’re going to dig into how the Chi.vote Collective worked, why they decided to work together, and how they managed the collaborative project.
Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one wicked awesome thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.
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Here’s the TLDR:
• The Challenge: Several news organizations in Chicago began independently thinking about how they could create improved voter guides in advance of recent municipal elections.
• The Strategy: A group of outlets joined forces to create Chi.vote, a collaborative voting guide that showcased their coverage and also highlighted live election results.
• The Numbers: Ten news organizations joined the Chi.vote Collective, and the guide received about 70,000 unique visitors over the course of the election season.
• The Lessons: The partners intentionally designed the collaboration in a way that allowed each participant to contribute in a way that emphasized its strengths.
• The Future: All of the code developed for Chi.vote is open source, and the collective is in the process of thinking about how to continue working together.
• Want to know more?: Scroll down for more examples of awesome collaborative journalism.
• Anything to add?: We’re kicking off the second cycle of our News Book Club. Scroll down to learn more about how you can participate.
Last month, Chicago’s chaotic election season ended as voters elected Lori Lightfoot as the city’s mayor.
Her victory was the culmination of a hectic campaign, which saw 14 people run for mayor and hundreds of more people run for other municipal offices.
The election was complicated and hard to follow for even the most sophisticated news consumers. So as the first round of voting in February approached, many of the city’s news organizations began thinking about how they could create voter guides to help their audiences cut through all the noise.
The Better Government Association, a nonprofit newsroom and civic advocate covering Illinois government, has been putting together voter guides for more than a decade. Last year, for the 2018 midterm elections, it created Illinois Votes, a statewide voter guide. It used BallotReady, a customizable voter guide platform. As the 2019 Chicago municipal elections approached it began thinking about how it could replicate it on the local level.
“We created a vertical, rather than it live in BGA,” said Solomon Lieberman, BGA’s VP for strategy, about Illinois Votes. “We put a lot of our search dollars in it and launched it well ahead of the general election. We offered a quiz, and some swag and did a bunch around it to see with the vertical…it was really highly trafficked. We learned a lot about what we can do and the reach that we can have, so we started conversions with others.”
BGA began discussions with outlets such as The Daily Line, an insider political site, Block Club Chicago, the recently revived neighborhood-focused site, and The Triibe, a local news site for Black millennials.
Simultaneously, Fernando Díaz, the editor and publisher of the investigative nonprofit Chicago Reporter, started thinking about how his newsroom could pull together a voter guide. He had just joined the Reporter from The San Francisco Chronicle last fall, and he wanted to similarly try something collaborative.
These guides to me represent a valuable investment in time, energy, and resources that outlast your typical news cycle. Ideally, you get them into the hands of voters well before early voting and as soon as the ballots are certified, at that point, you know who is going to be electable,” he said.
Around that time, Reporter digital editor Asraa Mustufa met Triibe editor-in-chief and co-founder Tiffany Walden at a Poynter training. The two discussed their joint interest in producing a collaborative voting guide.
Connections were made, and the efforts were combined.
“It turned out that they were literally thinking the same thing,” Díaz said. “They said they wanted to build a guide, we know we’re too small to do it ourselves, we don’t want to be redundant, and if we join forces we can distribute the load so everyone is not doing the same thing. We can complement each other in ways.”
The first round of voting was on Feb. 26, and the partners began conversations last fall before the holidays about how they could produce a collaborative voting guide. (The voting went to a run-off in some races, including the mayoral election, because no candidate got more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.)
Lieberman and BGA assumed overall project management of the initiative. It contributed development resources that helped build out the site. The Reporter had registered the URL Chi.vote, and the collective decided to use that name as the primary branding. (More on that below in the Lessons.)
The participants signed a memorandum of understanding that outlined their responsibilities and how they would work together. In the initial meetings, the partners mapped out the scope of work and divided responsibilities based on their areas of expertise.
The Triibe focused on African American-related coverage, and its designer/developer David Elutilo created Chi.vote’s look and feel.
The Daily Line, which covers City Hall, produced reporting that highlighted the candidates’ positions on different issues.
Block Club Chicago focused its coverage on various wards throughout the city.
The Reporter focused its efforts on campaign finance issues and it contributed development time with its data editor, Matt Kiefer. It also helped with social media and the group’s weekly meetings were held at its office.
As the election got closer, Chi.vote added additional news organizations, which also brought their own contributions to the voting guide.
Chalkbeat Chicago, for example, focused on education coverage while the local Univision affiliate translated the guide into Spanish. (Much more on this in The Numbers and The Lessons.)
The team had weekly meetings, but it also used Slack and Google Docs to coordinate. Lieberman would upload drafts or mockups to Slack and give everyone a deadline to offer feedback.
One of the core elements of Chi.vote was that each of the participating organizations posted their election coverage to the site. There were short summaries that then linked out to each of the sites. It also showcased different candidates stances on various issues.
There was also coverage that was native to the site. There was an FAQ that answered basic questions about topics such as registering to vote and what time the polls are open.
Chi.vote used Hearken to power reader-driven coverage that answered questions voters had about the election.
And it also had a quiz where readers could test their knowledge about election basics such as how many wards there are in Chicago (50) and how many times elections had previously gone to a run-off (just once).
Once the polls closed on both the primary and run-off elections, Chi.vote’s homepage flipped to showcase live election results. The Associated Press’ live results are super expensive to access, so the team built a scraper that updated the results from the city’s election website — but on election night in February, there was an issue with the city’s site and Chi.vote was down for about a half hour.
“It was painful,” Díaz said.
In total, 10 news organizations participated in the Chi.vote Collective.
The group divided the partners into two tiers. The original participants — BGA, Block Club Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, and The Triibe — were named as the collective’s founding partners.
The groups that joined later — Chalkbeat Chicago, City Bureau, Reform Illinois, Southside Weekly, and Univision — were called Outreach & Information Partners.
The collective decided to add the second tier to try and minimize the bureaucratic management, but Lieberman said that he thinks they’d do it differently next time.
“We were trying to administer something on the fly, and we just needed to keep it moving. All of those people said, ‘O.K. that’s fine, let’s just do it.’ But going forward, we want to make sure that everyone is on the same level. This isn’t something that I can point to and say this is the money we are going to make from it, so let’s figure out how to make it democratic in spirit.”
Lieberman also said that next time he would have like to appoint a managing editor of sorts who is focused on making sure the coverage is being filed on time and who is essentially keeping the trains running editorially.
Outside of the Reporter spending $30 or so to register the Chi.vote domain, most of the costs of the project were in staff time.
BGA also contributed some ad credits it received from Google to help promote the collective. (Pro tip: If you are a nonprofit, you may be eligible for up to $10,000/month in Google ad credits.)
Over the course of the two elections, Chi.vote attracted about 70,000 unique visitors and 300,000 pageviews.
About 2,000 people signed up for Chi.vote’s newsletter. The group decided not to make stand-alone social media profiles for the collective because it would be too difficult to build up an audience on those accounts in such a short period of time.
Nearly 539,000 Chicagoans, about 34 percent of registered voters, cast ballots in the first round of the election in February. In the April run-off, 32 percent of voters, or 509,624 people, participated.
Still, it raised questions about what it means to have an effective voter guide.
“There were some people in the collective that saw voter turnout as an outcome,” Lieberman said. “Like, if we do this well, maybe we’ll increase turnout. And there are some that don’t even consider that our job because we’re journalists. We do the best we can, and democracy picks it up from there.”
He continued: “Some people were disappointed by the turnout numbers and said, ‘Ugh we didn’t do well.’ But across the board, if you asked everyone, well we’re disappointed by that because we’re idealists and we want our city to function better. But overall, the outcome of how well it was spoken of, how many people just anecdotally or objectively said how easy it was to use, we heard that all the time which was great.
Also getting a bunch of journalism operations together to work on the same thing is not common practice, especially if there wasn’t any money to be made from it. That was such a win, getting people to work together.”
• We fell in love again: One of the keys to the collective’s success was that each of the partners had a clearly defined role that played to their strengths.
“It was a great challenge and it required, from the get-go, all of us to be clear about our organizational goals,” Lieberman said. “All of us represent different missions or business models. We didn’t want to do anything that would get in the way of who we were individually as a BGA or a Block Club, but also remaining sensitive to what a voter really needs or wants…That was the key ethos: We want to provide an easy to use tool that isn’t intimidating and doesn’t feel like an old-school voter guide. We wanted to really leverage all that each partner has to offer.”
The partners were all aligned on the mission of the project: To create a better-informed electorate. Because of that priority, they were able to agree on things such as the Chi.vote branding which didn’t emphasize any individual publication over the others.
“One of the first comments I made, at the risk of ruffling some feathers, was that I’m really into this collaboration and I want it to work, but I don’t want us building the Better Government Association’s guide,” Díaz said. “It had to be brand agnostic, and we wanted it to be Chicago-specific. We wanted it to fit on a sticker, we wanted it to be sharp.”
By outlining these key elements at the beginning of the project, the collective was able to establish a key baseline for the project that allowed it to focus on the work while empowering each of the players to work toward their strengths.
“I’m guessing that everybody involved had some worry about how this was going to go, but everyone was so clearly invested in doing this work well because they care about fair elections and a prepared electorate,” Lieberman said.
• All things go, all things go: The collective thought of Chi.vote as a minimally viable product, or MVP.
It really only had weeks to develop it before the election, and by thinking about it as an MVP it was able to prioritize what elements it would work on to ensure that it was functional in time.
For instance, the Reporter wanted to create a questionnaire tool that would’ve asked all the mayoral candidates detailed questions on policy issues, but the group soon decided that it wouldn’t work.
“That was one where it was a huge lift…and there were legitimate concerns from the partners that by the time we send this questionnaire nobody is going to answer it,” Díaz said. “For me, it was huge because we’d at least have some answers from the candidates…and we would have had a questionnaire tool to use after the election, the group decided that the return on that feature is not going to be as high as we want and it’s going to take away from some of the other things.”
He continued: “That’s where the success of these collaborations is. It depends on your willingness to compromise for the greater good of the project.”
We’ll talk about this in the future, but there is certainly room for the partners to further develop the guide for future elections or for coverage of governance.
• Drove to Chicago, all things know all things know: I thought one of the coolest things about the Chi.vote guide was that it was able to work with the local Univision affiliate to translate it into Spanish.
“It was the first time we did something like that, so that was a victory,” Lieberman said.
However, very few people used the Spanish-language version of the site.
But the Collective learned that not every community accesses news and information in the same way. And Chicago’s Hispanic community isn’t necessarily going to visit a voter guide website.
“One of the mistakes we make is that assuming if we take our content and just translate it, it’s going to be accessible and desired in the same way that it was in English,” Lieberman said. “There is a question we have to wrestle with about what is most relevant in every community and we can’t take a one-size fits all approach in every language. I want to step back and learn from people across Chicago about what they’re really looking for in a voter guide and do it that way.”
The next municipal election in Chicago isn’t until 2023, so there’s a bit of time for the collective to assess how it wants to cover the city elections.
But 2020 is just around the corner, and the group is starting to think about whether it’s sustainable and how it could continue.
“The sense that I had, everyone said pretty clearly that they want to keep working together on some level,” Lieberman said. But the open question is what is the thread from election to election? We have 2020, but is this as applicable or necessary? We have to ask ourselves: Is our continued partnership a little different? Or do we want to figure out how to caretake this through 2023. We have to figure that out. And, at some point, people are going to start asking what is the business model here? I don’t know if people are going to keep doing this — especially with the amount of energy it requires — without clarity on how it helps their individual organizations.”
The team met recently to break down lessons and what could be improved from the project.
And Díaz said he could imagine Chi.vote as the start of a potential government accountability project.
“In my view, Chi.vote is the MVP for an accountability app for the elected council that has a record of how they got elected, who paid and contributed to them, and what was their performance,” he said. “Right now, it’s encased in amber, but the reality is that all of that code is open sourced, so anyone can just fork it. The beauty of it is that it would have all that data, it would have the modeling, and the infrastructure architecture for that next version, whatever that next version may be.”
Still, Díaz added that he considered the project a success because it set the collective up for taking those next steps and empowered them to work in a new way.
“Did it have every feature? No. Did it hit as many people as we had hoped? No. Would we have had a ton of other things if we had three months? Probably. But I almost feel like it was as successful as it was because it required us to work differently in such a condensed period. In so doing, we were able to pull it off.”
Want to know more?
• The Democracy Fund’s excellent Local Fix newsletter covered Chi.vote a few weeks ago, and it also highlighted a few other resources for collaborative best practices. (It’s at the bottom of the newsletter, so you should scroll a bit)
• I’ve shared this before, but The Center for Cooperative Media has assembled a terrific resource that shares examples of partnership agreements and MOUs. It’s a great place to start if your newsroom is looking for more detail on how to formalize these kinds of relationships. Also, if you want to learn more about collaboration, you should come to the Center’s Collaborative Journalism Summit in Philadelphia in a few weeks. Learn more here. (The Lenfest Institute is one of the conference’s sponsors.)
• For another example of election-related collaboration, last year I wrote about Verficado 2018, a 90-organization collaborative that focused on squashing misinformation in advance of Mexico’s election last year.
Anything to add?
Here are Emily’s three book choices:
• Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life by Eric Klinenberg
• Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez
• Precision Journalism: A Reporter’s Introduction to Social Science Methods by Philip Meyer
You can learn more about the books here, and you can also sign up to get Book Club updates and join the conversation.
Please feel free to reach out with any questions, and I’ll see you next Thursday!