Every year, WLRN-Miami Herald News confronts the challenge of how to cover the state legislative session, a 60-day bonanza in Tallahassee, hundreds of miles away from our audience. The task is particularly difficult in Florida, where the general population ranks among the lowest in the nation for civic engagement, according to the National Conference on Citizenship. In 2013, we took a different approach by looking at what issues are of the most interest and importance to our audience. That’s what we mean by News as a Shared Experience.
WLRN-Miami Herald News included its audience in news coverage of the lawmaking process like it had not been before. We engaged the public prior to, during and after the session. The effect created a communications loop between legislator and constituent and vice versa throughout the entire process.
Two months before the first day of session, we put out a series of Public Insight Network queries asking our audience what issues mattered to them and what they wanted to know more about. We received about 700 responses. That feedback then shaped our coverage plan. Before the legislature had even convened, we had:
a series of online workshops with state policy experts, journalists and elected officials;
a Town Hall with top state legislative leaders with a crowd of 600 people in Fort Lauderdale;
online posts on insights gained from responses to the PIN queries (for instance, many generally informed people do not know who their state legislators are);
short radio interviews with people about why a state policy mattered to them;
an online game called “Tallanasty” to make the conversation in the capitol about ethics reform more accessible.
Once the legislature convened, we had our two-person state capitol reporting team find answers to audience questions we had not had a chance to answer in the Town Hall meeting. These questions led our coverage in fascinating and new directions. For instance, one Town Hall attendee wanted to know about an obscure state constitutional provision meant to prevent Asians from owning property. Several wrote about the problems with permanent alimony, at a time when few state policy experts or reporters were following the issue. After the conclusion of the legislative session we contacted people who had submitted questions and had them share their views on our live weekly news show The Florida Roundup.
The online interactive ethics game, Tallanasty, included questions crafted and vetted by some of Florida’s top ethics experts. The game had a soft launch shortly before the Town Hall, but continued to gain attention afterward. Former state representative Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) used the game in a presentation to a group of prominent Broward County business leaders. Former Miami-Dade County commissioner Katy Sorenson, now head of the Good Government Initiative, forwarded the game to alumni of her program, a training for newly elected officials, and may use it in future trainings.
This experience has led to additional audience engagement projects such as “If I Were Mayor” as part of our political and public policy coverage.
Online chats and overview of project pre-session:
Online ethics game: