By Chris Hannay, for The Nieman Lab
Politics in the United States is, for a lot of Canadians, a kind of spectator sport. Our border is so porous that most Canadians have some kind of link to the United States, whether we go there for work, school, or love, or just have a family member that has.
It’s that personal connection Canadians have to U.S. issues that spurred us at The Globe and Mail to create a community project based around the U.S. election. In planning our election coverage at the beginning of this year, we hit upon an idea: what if we used Canadian expatriates living in the United States to be our cultural translators, filtering and explaining the election news to readers back home?
Nearly a year later, Election 2012: Canadians in America has wrapped up. It’s possibly the most ambitious citizen journalism project we’ve attempted and we’re proud of what we created. It was an excellent complement to the more traditional reporting our own staff provided. Here’s what we learned. (Note: I’m writing most of this in the royal we because this project was a constant collaboration between myself and Affan Chowdhry, The Globe’s foreign multimedia reporter, with support from other web staff, including globeandmail.com editor Stephen Northfield and community editors Jennifer MacMillan and Melissa Whetstone.)
What we did and how we did it
In March, we had a plan, and in April we put out the call to our readers. We set up a Google form on our website (the original is gone, alas, but it looked something like this); readers sent us their contact info and biographical details, and the results fed into a Google Docs spreadsheet. We promoted the form on our website and social media channels and contacted expat associations in the U.S. so they could spread the call among their members. Most of those who contacted us were Globe readers, but many found out about the opportunity through another network.
By the beginning of May, we had more than 400 applications. Affan and I sifted through the candidates with our first filter: Were they interesting? We shelved applications with vague or too short (or too long!) responses to whittle it down to a list of about 100 people. We sent those a more detailed questionnaire and cut down to our final list of 50 people. We tried to “cast” the group, with a range of opinions, ideologies, occupations, geography, age, and so on. We also did due diligence to verify the details they sent us.
We set up a private Google Group, which allowed all the members to chat in a forum and get to know each other. The main advantage of using Google Groups is that it’s easy to use and only requires a Google account, which most already had. The main disadvantage is that the members had to get into the habit of checking the forum occasionally, unless they were willing to turn on email alerts. We sent out a weekly email newsletter to the group to keep them up to date on the project and to remind them to check the forum.
We decided to start with a big splash and publicly launched the project on July 4, Independence Day. We chose a representative sample of 12 expats and interviewed them. We presented the videos and written profiles in an interactive on our site and a big two-page spread in our newspaper.
For the series on our site, we had two weekly features: dispatches and debates. For the dispatches, we would ask different expats to write a personal take on an important election issue, highlighting their own experiences and any Canada-U.S. contrast. For the debates, we would ask a weekly topical question in the private forum, curate the best responses, and post them on our site. Some of those weekly debate questions were also driven by readers, who we encouraged to send us questions. We ramped up our posting when the U.S. election was dominating the agenda during the conventions and the week before voting day.
During the presidential debates, we invited a few of the expats to liveblog them with our readers and our staff, including foreign editor Craig Offman.
If traffic is any indication, the stories resonated with our audiences. Many stories could break into the top 10 stories of the day, and we had a big hit early in the project when one of our expats, a lawyer in Beverly Hills, lost her job and wrote an open letter to President Obama.
The amount of work, though, shouldn’t be underestimated. Affan and I handled the bulk of it while also juggling our day-to-day jobs. It was tough at times; you could easily spend an hour a day keeping everyone happy and producing content for your readers.
Five lessons we learned
- Put in the work at the beginning. Don’t underestimate the groundwork: All the preparation we put into the project in May and June paid off big over the following months. Spending the time to get to know the members of the group and their backgrounds meant that, as different topics came up in the election, we knew which members of the group we could turn to to deliver interesting and relevant insights. For instance, after the summer shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, we turned quickly to a Sikh member of the group who had his own stories of prejudice. On the lighter side, we discovered one expat was a former Jeopardy! champion — and it turned out he was watching the first presidential debate with a group of ex-champs, which we just had to ask him to write about.
- Not too big, not too small. Just as important as finding the right mix of people is the right number. Should we go big, which would give us variety at the expense of intimacy and familiarity? Should we go small, raising the stakes on us if one member decides to quit or loses interest?
Originally, we were aiming for a group of 12. We figured that number would allow readers to get to know these faces and give each expat a higher profile. But we just couldn’t say no to the dozens of people we found fascinating. So we bumped up the number of participants to 50 to give a bigger mix of viewpoints and allow for attrition. You should plan for that, by the way: People’s lives and priorities change, and you want some leeway in case they can’t regularly contribute.
A critical mass of participants is vital. If you can hit the right number, you get the right clash of ideas and personalities that will keep discussions powered along without a journalist needing to keep prodding people along.
- Communication is vital. We communicated with members of the group often in the forum, through weekly newsletters and emails. If you’re asking people to buy-in to what you’re doing, you need to show them trust. At all times, we tried to be transparent about what was going on in the project and what we expected of them. When someone sent us a dispatch, we would walk them through what we liked and didn’t like.
Communication goes both ways. Early on in the project, we started getting complaints about the comments left on expat stories on The Globe and Mail’s website. As professional journalists, we were used to getting criticism and knew how to deal with it. But this was new to our contributors, so we took steps both to better police comments on their stories and to help our expats understand our commenting policy.
As one participant wrote us when we asked for anonymous feedback: “I really enjoyed the interaction with Globe and Mail staff. It was refreshing to see just how informed, dedicated, and engaged your team is; frankly, it’s not something I’d expect from most newspapers.”
- They will bring you value. Explicitly seeing U.S. elections through a Canadian cultural filter allowed us to get at stories in a different way than we would have through standard reporting. Here are a few examples:
- — An expat in Georgia marvels at his ballot, in which only one party has put up candidates for most positions. That would rarely happen in Canada, a parliamentary government with five parties at the national level.
- — In September, with governments and teacher unions facing off in Chicago, Ontario, and B.C., an expat shares his experiences of working in the New York system.
- — An expat in Minnesota talked about how her and her neighbors’ home values have plummeted since the recession. But her family back home in Saskatchewan are living in a red-hot market.
- You can bring them value. The answer to the question you’re probably all asking: No, our participants were not paid. In an ideal world, we likely would have wanted to pay them. But instead we found other ways to pay them back.
First, they got their voices heard by a national audience. Second, they got training and coaching from professional journalists. Some members had always wanted to write but weren’t sure where to start. We worked them on a one-on-one basis — although, in hindsight, we should have had more training materials ready for them from the beginning.
Finally, we built a community. These 50 were scattered across the United States and most didn’t know many other Canadians. We connected them and provided an avenue for them to discuss the issues that connected them both to their current home and to the birthplace they left.
Some of them got so into the group that we set up a physical meetup in Washington, D.C. — and, of course, wrote about it.
Most important, the community has lived on past the project. Even though the election is over, they’re still talking to each other — and exchanging contact information to keep in touch.
Chris Hannay is the online politics editor at The Globe and Mail, Canada’s largest national newspaper.