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May 13, 2019, 9:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Assigned to the 2020 campaign trail? Consider a Google form on your way out

“I represent thousands of people who have told me they want to hear about this, and I happen to be the guy who’s paid to go on planes and dig up documents and ask these questions for them, because they’re busy living their lives.”

“Tell me how you think I should cover 2020!”

This might be the start of the most earnest Google form in political journalism. While citizen journalism and engaged journalism strategies have pushed for more interaction with and involvement of readers/viewers in the reporting process, building trust and improving reporting that reflects the nuances of the people, it’s taken a while to get to this point. David Fahrenthold’s legal pad/crowdsourced reporting won a Pulitzer after the 2016 election, but Matt Pearce at the Los Angeles Times is trying to bake his readers into his campaign reporting from the beginning.

In two days, 3,000 people had filled out the form, answering questions like “What’s the local issue that’s most important to your community, but which you think gets overlooked by the national media?” (most frequent reply: lack of affordable housing) and “How much does it matter to you who a candidate’s donors are?” (two-thirds picked the top two options on a 1-5 scale). Unsurprisingly, 66 percent of respondents said policy-driven explainers were the stories they’d have L.A. Times reporters focus on most if they ran the outlet — but only 34 percent said they’d be most likely to actually read those stories, with personal integrity analyses and stories examining political influencers winning over more.

It’s not just about keeping the readers’ preferences and perspectives in mind. Pearce is hoping the survey can be used as a tool to build sources and potential Times subscribers. He’s emailed respondents who provided an email address with the results and plans to keep an email dispatch going. (That way, they can also reach out to him if they get angry with one of his articles rather than bashing it on social media or unsubscribing — hopefully.)

Pearce is in the early days of his first campaign trail reporting, but he took some time to explain his process for developing the survey in the first place — and why he would caution reporters to be mindful of how much the tech platforms are clouding their campaign trail perception. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christine Schmidt: Where did this idea came from? Had you ever done something like this before?

Matt Pearce: This is my first time really covering a presidential campaign. I did a couple stories from rallies in 2016, but I haven’t really done the full-time campaign journalism thing, which was a little daunting to me. It’s not really my world. I was looking around, thinking I don’t have any special secret sources going to give me the inside dirt on what’s happening behind closed doors in Democratic politics. I don’t think I’m any smarter or wiser than anybody else when it comes to predicting what’s going to happen. So I’m trying to think about ways in which I can actually bring something useful to campaign coverage.

I have this pretty large Twitter following [144,000 accounts], which I had gotten a significant chunk of covering Ferguson back in 2014. I have a large audience of people who have stuck with me for several years and who know me and have seen me cover controversial, complex, and sensitive topics. What if I found a way to somehow engage them a little more in talking to me about what they want and allowing me to tap into their wisdom for what they think is important in this race? Why not tap into this big group of people I have who are all across the country, who can be a sounding board for what issues are really important to them? They can tell me about their communities. They can give me an indication on which policy areas to focus on. They can tell me what they don’t like about journalism and hopefully that can steer me to something they’ll find more useful.

I think about this from the business side of things too. Out here at the L.A. Times, we’ve had this big transformation under new ownership. There’s all this investment in the newsroom. It’s very exciting to be out here, but ultimately for all this to be sustainable, there have to be subscribers who help hold up the business model. I’ve been thinking a lot more about how to provide that value to people who are actually going to pay for my journalism.

Schmidt: I saw at least one person said they subscribed based on the survey.

Pearce: What I love about this concept is that it’s useful in a variety of ways. It’s an informational mechanism where I can use this group as a focus group to tell me what they’re interested in. On the other hand, they can also be sources. If I stop in their area, they might know something about that particular town or city or county or wherever. Ultimately, also, this process hopefully will allow me to build a relationship with them which ideally would lead to them reading more of my stories and maybe subscribing.

I’ve been thinking about ways in which I can move more of the political conversation off of Twitter and onto other forums. A lot of our conversations about politics or current events are being dictated by the way they’re communicated on these platforms like Twitter and Facebook where they prioritize conflict and they prioritize very fleeting, sometimes insignificant issues. I respect there is something about that that draws people in. But just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good for people.

There are all these really smart people everywhere who live their own lives and have these big and deep thoughts about what politics means to them and what issues are most important to them — but I’m sort of talking to them through a straw when I’m on Twitter. This is one way where I can hopefully move that conversation away from a platform that works against the more thoughtful discourse about politics and into an avenue where people can have more of a complex dialogue about what’s important to them. I want to be clear I’m not saying social media is the source of political polarization in America or that the parties aren’t far apart. People have huge disagreements with each other. But I do think that I’m not getting paid to tweet either. There’s this economic issue of: What am I doing on this application?

Schmidt: Right, why do we even go to this website?

Pearce: Exactly. I just want to experiment. I don’t know if it’s going to turn out well. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve already gotten some really interesting responses. I’m very interested to see if I can talk to this group of people who have signaled to me that they are really interested in politics and this primary, journalism, and how can I build on those interests to provide them something they actually want.

Schmidt: I appreciate how multifaceted your approach to this is, because the tweet with the survey is just about getting people more involved in the process to improve your reporting. But it’s great to see there are so many different factors that are part of this process for you.

Pearce: That’s the other thing too. We just unionized our newsroom here over the last couple years. That’s been a really interesting process for me because it’s small-d democracy in action. You’re building a democracy in the newsroom. I was an organizer in that effort and it made me much more aware of the power of grassroots or people and movements. I was thinking about the way I could learn lessons from that and apply it to journalism: When I’m talking to people, when I’m playing the role of journalist and providing them news coverage or asking them questions, I’m speaking to this broad fragmented audience all over the place.

Meanwhile, I’ll be dealing with campaigns that have a whole bunch of their own avenues of transmission now. They have YouTube, they have Twitter, they have Facebook. They can build their own fandoms of audiences on the internet. They don’t need mainstream media as much as they used to to get their message out.

There was this great Ben Smith column recently talking about how the internet has helped create these political support structures for Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that act in some ways like fandoms — like you would see from entertainers perhaps — that sort of insulates them from the criticism of mainstream outlets. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything intrinsically wrong with that. There’s no law that says there has to be mainstream media that mediates your experience with politics somehow.

But I’m looking at this and thinking: If I have a group of readers that are kind of organized behind a concept or a project I’m pursuing, that’s a way in which I can build leverage to go to these campaigns and say, “Look, I have all these people who told me this was the most important issue to them. You need to answer my questions about this, because I’m not just some reporter sitting in an office in Los Angeles or a fancy building. I represent thousands of people who have told me they want to hear about this, and I happen to be the guy who’s paid to go on planes and dig up documents and ask these questions for them, because they’re busy living their lives.”

That’s one way in which you can invigorate the press as an independent check on political figures who naturally it’s in their interest to be as electable as possible and as insulated as they can be from criticism. This is one way we can bolster our own unique role as a force that exists outside the party system which tries to take a clear-eyed look at candidates and policies and take them back to people and say, “hey, this is what we found.”

Schmidt: I wanted to dig a little more into the nuts and bolts of how you assembled this survey. Did you share it with your editors ahead of time? How much input did you have in developing the questions?

Pearce: I did run this idea up the channels, from our audience engagement editor for politics to the managing editor. But I didn’t want it to be an official L.A. Times survey or newsletter. Part of the reason is I think this is something intrinsic to journalism on the internet: I have all these people that follow me that may not follow the L.A. Times. They may like or trust me, but they may not trust the L.A. Times. I think a lot of people, you’ll see in surveys and anecdotally, they have this deep mistrust of institutions and journalistic institutions, but they may like certain people who work for those institutions. I’m thinking of it as a Venn diagram where my particular audience and the L.A. Times audience may not necessarily overlap. I worried, if I broadened it out to the other L.A. Times channels or newsletters or made it official, that I’m crossing the streams.

Ultimately, the goal is to show these people the journalism that the L.A. Times and I are doing. It’s one more way to provide transparency into that process and a little bit more buy-in into the process so they feel like they have a piece of what’s going on.

You know, people just really love process. If you look back to what David Fahrenthold was doing in the 2016 election investigating the Trump campaign, he had his sheet of paper and wrote down things with his pen and asked questions of people in his audience. He wasn’t that guy who was deeply sourced inside Trump world — he wasn’t one of those front line people like Maggie Haberman who are deeply embedded inside the White House with their sources, but he leveraged the power of the crowd and showed people how the process worked and the results were really extraordinary.

I’m trying to think about ways in which we can pull back the curtain a little bit more and personalize the institution and the process. I think that will hopefully lead people to have a little more faith and trust in journalism at a time when trust is at pretty low levels.

Schmidt: So how did you decide which questions to include on the survey?

Pearce: I wanted it to be framed as broadly as possible, to be anywhere on the political spectrum and feel like you could have a prompt that would fit your beliefs, even if the hot story is the Democratic primary. The responses were overwhelmingly Democratic, which did not really surprise me. Probably a lot of my followers are on the progressive end of the spectrum due to the nature of a lot of the stuff I’ve covered. Democrats are the people most interested in getting campaign news right now for an election happening in a year and a half. There’s strong self-selection bias there.

I wanted to know what issues people were most interested in. I wanted to know what type of stories they’d be interested in. I thought about, for a while, asking a question along the lines of “which Democrat candidate do you think deserves the most attention?” But I decided to take it out because I didn’t want the survey to be a tool for people to brute-force attention onto a candidate they prefer. There’s a risk of trolls coming on board and hijacking the process to work the press and get more coverage of a certain candidate. So instead I took that question out and asked a different question about process:

Triage time: There will be a lot of candidates in the Democratic primary. Would you think it’s fair for journalists to use metrics like polls, campaign donations and/or endorsements as a basis to decide which of those candidates deserve the most attention? If not, what criteria would you use, if you were being fair to other voters?

That was a way better question, because it goes to the decision-making issue of: We have limited resources, there are too many Democratic candidates, so you have to make decisions about who you are and are not going to cover. It’s that question of do Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden deserve the same amount of attention as Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang?

I think a lot of people intrinsically understand that the answer is probably no, but it was helpful for people to articulate why they believe it was okay. I found this in a lot of responses — that it’s okay. Using polls and campaign donations and these other popularity metrics, that is an okay reason for making these very basic decisions about who you’re going to cover and who you’re not going to cover. But some of the other responses were interesting too.

This is the part I particularly enjoyed. I found some people articulating why they were interested in seeing coverage of more long-shot candidates. They might have a defining policy issue that catches fire and becomes really popular and that makes them somewhat worthy of coverage because that could be an influence on other candidates in the field and the campaign and the future. Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All and getting corporate money out of politics in 2016 is an example of that, as is Donald Trump and his very stark positions on immigration and global trade.

People were like, “they may not be popular, but there are reasons to cover candidates like Andrew Yang who has sort of staked himself on this proposal of universal basic income, or maybe someone like Jay Inslee who has made climate change the central focus of his campaign.” That was really thoughtful and I appreciated that aspect.

Schmidt: How long did it take you to build the survey or think through the questions? What was the process like?

Pearce: It was maybe a day to draft it. I showed it to some coworkers for feedback. There are only 11 prompts and I wanted a lot of different types of prompts — multiple choice, check the boxes, short and long-form responses.

I don’t want to call it a throwaway question, but I had an oddball question in there — essentially the pragmatism-versus-purity question:

Hypothetical scenario: Which of these two primary candidates would you vote for?

  1. Candidate A, whose views closely match mine, but who seems like a riskier bet to win the general election.
  2. Candidate B, whose views don’t quite match mine, but who seems like a safer bet to win the general election.

I think a lot of people were wrestling with that question on the Democratic side in 2016, with the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders vote. I was very curious about that because I think that’s going to be a really interesting question in this election. If Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, is there going to be a Howard Schultz for the center who drains away the centrist voters and opens up the path for a Trump re-election?

Schmidt: Where did you share the form besides Twitter?

Pearce: It was mainly on Twitter. I also posted it on my Facebook and my own Instagram. It’s not really a contained environment because some people shared it on Facebook, retweeted it, sent it to people who don’t know me. It’s by no means again scientific. But I would guess the people who already follow me are the bulk of the responses.

This is something that could be replicated by any individual journalist or by an entire publication. There was the whole citizen journalism movement in the ’90s and Jay Rosen was a big proponent of that. The thing about this process is I’m not ceding editorial control to these survey respondents. I know the L.A. Times audience is much larger than mine and they may be more different than my particular readers. I wasn’t in a position to say “this survey response is going to dictate everything I do on the campaign trail.” It’s more of a guidepost than a highway.

Schmidt: One question you had that I liked — and it may be kind of corny to turn it on you, but it was your big question — what would be one thing you would ask other people? I was curious what would your big question be to other journalists on the campaign trail.

Pearce: People told me that prompt in particular is very difficult, and they spend a lot of time thinking about it.

[Some examples: What is your plan to stop climate change? How would you work with a divided Congress? As automation, outsourcing, and the requirements for entry-level employment continue to increase, how do you plan to stimulate meaningful employment for the millions of Americans who do not have more than a high school degree? How would your presidency prevent the next “Trump” from getting elected in, say, 2028? Would you suspend your campaign if it were shown to be in the best interest of the people? If you could recommend ONE book that best represents your values/describes your ethos, what would it be?]

My question would be what are you doing to ensure that you’re controlling the way you want to cover this presidential campaign, as opposed to letting yourself be influenced by these tech platforms that are controlled by Silicon Valley?

Deep down, this is somewhat of a tech monopoly issue right now. I anticipate during this campaign we are probably going to see over and over again these huge stories about who is Twitter going to be kicking off its platform, which news outlets are going to be featured most prominently on Facebook, which candidates or parties are going to be favored by these big powerful structures that have been created by these giant tech companies. Ultimately, there is a level to which this election is going to be decided by the business decisions of these huge companies in Silicon Valley.

Part of the journalist’s responsibility is to understand that power and to also have a check on that, as well as a check on the candidates and campaigns themselves. I think we still don’t totally understand the extent to which Facebook and YouTube have changed our entire political reality. I think it’s going to be important for journalists to try to assert some independence from that power in Silicon Valley which in some ways is just as important as the power of the parties and the candidates themselves.

Schmidt: That’s great. Is there anything you wanted to mention or that I should’ve asked about?

Pearce: My favorite thing about this process is that you can use it for a whole bunch of different things. You can it for sourcing, sharing your stories, to poke people to say, “Hey, if you really like this, please subscribe so I can keep my job.” It’s kind of open-ended too. I can go back to this group of people further down the campaign trail.

Fundamentally, the philosophy here is, because I’m so new at this, I don’t know what’s going on here. It’s very easy to comment on campaign journalism, and I suspect it’s very different to actually go out and do it. You have people watching your every single word for any sign of favoritism or unfairness. So to a certain extent, I want to tap into the wisdom of people to provide some feedback and some accountability for what I’m doing.

Not accountability in the Twitter way, where everything becomes a ratio or pile-on if there’s an awkwardly phrased headline. But if I do something on the campaign trail where I screw up, or if I don’t do a good enough job on a story, I feel like with a mechanism like this there’s a way where people can express their displeasure or disappointment with me — while at the same time knowing I spent a lot of time asking them what they thought and I also expressed an openness to hearing from them.

I’m hopeful that that can maybe build a healthier relationship between me and them when they don’t like my coverage that much. That’s going to happen, right? If I write a tough accountability story on a candidate that a lot of these readers like, they’re probably not going to be happy with that. That’s something true of journalism, and that’s one of the problems with subscriber-based business models — the tail wags the dog, because you end up going where your audience is the most interested. If they see I’ve been making an effort to be fair and just and as open-minded as possible and as receptive to criticism and feedback, that they’ll understand what I’m doing, and the rationale for what I’m doing.

Hopefully, the first response to a tough story they don’t like is not to unsubscribe, but to ask me why I did what I did. And hopefully, the answer I give is something they find understandable. That’s the goal. It’s not just about covering this one campaign. Ultimately, it’s about how we do journalism after 2020 as well.

POSTED     May 13, 2019, 9:38 a.m.
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