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June 30, 2022, 10:50 a.m.

Votebeat will cover local election administration as a permanent newsroom

“How do you produce journalism that strengthens elections? That’s the question that runs through my mind every day.”

With the 2022 midterms about 18 weeks away, election coverage is taking shape in many newsrooms. Some outlets are responding to new threats to democracy by shifting reporting resources to focus on voters or putting journalists on “the democracy beat.” Only one newsroom, though, says it’ll focus exclusively on the ins and outs of elections.

Votebeat launched in 2020 as a three-month “pop-up” reporting project that placed 15 reporters in 10 local newsrooms in Michigan, California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin, and Georgia. In 2021, editor-in-chief Chad Lorenz was joined by Jessica Huseman, formerly of ProPublica’s Electionland. And now, in 2022, Votebeat is launching as a permanent newsroom after Chalkbeat, its nonprofit parent newsroom covering education, raised $3.1 million.

The newly permanent newsroom has four reporters — one each in Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona — and republication agreements in place with local outlets. Votebeat also has an engagement editor and story editor, bringing its full-time staff to nine. (Votebeat can also lean on executives and revenue, operations, and strategy teams at Chalkbeat.)

Lorenz told Axios in May that Votebeat eventually plans to expand to all 50 states with up to three reporters in each. The newsroom, which originally launched with less than $1 million, hopes to attract the funds to accomplish that kind of massive expansion by demonstrating “journalistic impact” in the four states in 2022, Lorenz said.

I spoke to Lorenz and Alison Go, Votebeat’s co-founder and chief strategy officer of Chalkbeat, about what that kind of impact looks like, the growing audience for a once-sleepy area of election coverage, and the newsroom’s transition from pop-up to permanent. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Scire: Let’s start with the four states and why you decided on those.

Chad Lorenz: We chose Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona because those were the states where we saw the greatest opportunity for our journalism and the greatest need for it. There are very serious and urgent disputes about election administration in those places. These states are where we see existing problems and future problems with voting access, highly politicized environments over voting, but also where we could see our journalism having the farthest reach.

A little of that was based in part on our success from 2020, when we entered into these partnerships with some truly outstanding public interest media in the state, who also share our nonprofit and not-for-profit models. Those were Spotlight PA in Pennsylvania, Bridge Michigan, and The Texas Tribune. We were eager to renew those partnerships in our permanent model, because they worked so well in 2020. We all see this story in very similar terms, and partnering with them means that our journalism gets seen by more people. We republish on their sites and their republishing partners also receive our journalism to republish. So we were really well-positioned, specifically in those three states, to succeed.

In Arizona, it’s a little different. We didn’t do reporting in Arizona in 2020, but we were really interested in the story there, especially after the partisan election review — the Cyber Ninjas audit — in 2021. We figured there would be an aftermath to that that would go uncovered. The entire focus of that [coverage] was on Maricopa’s election results, but there are concerns in other parts of the state, too, about voting access and election administration. The other big episode in Arizona was the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brnovich case last summer. That is the one that stands to have an even longer shadow in Arizona.

But, you know, media in Arizona is at a disadvantage. You have a couple of major players that are [too] overstretched to cover the story. We saw a really great opportunity to come in to Arizona and complement some of the existing coverage and continue on the story after the focus had moved away last year.

Scire: You mentioned republication, and I would love to talk about readership. What do we know about who reads Votebeat stories, and where they read them?

Lorenz: The readership for Votebeat stories is anybody who feels they have a stake in elections, which is a wide range of people, and people who have an interest in seeing democracy work and work fairly. Now, the level of engagement that people have in those questions differs, depending on what their role as a stakeholder in elections is. We loosely see it in three categories:

One is election administrators, the people we are writing about but who also have a stake in reading our journalism and understanding it and helping to inform it. It’s their work we’re trying to elevate here. They’re the practitioners. They’re not a huge audience, but they are people who understand what we’re writing about and understand the stakes.

Next, to a much larger extent, are the voters themselves, especially highly civically engaged voters. Pople who think beyond just walking into a polling place, casting a vote, and walking out with their “I voted” sticker. People who truly want to understand how elections work, how elections can be made better, how they can be made more fair, and what their role is in advocating for that.

The third segment is the people who have the most power over election laws and election policy. These are the decision-makers in state governments or legislatures and, in some states, officials within the Secretary of State’s office and at the county and township level, like decision-makers on county boards of elections and boards of canvassers. If we’re reporting about disparities and unfairness in voting access, for instance, they should be reading that and sitting up and realizing that they have a role in helping to solve those problems. They have a role in being accountable for fair elections, and advancing solutions.

Alison Go: I would add that there is a parallel between Votebeat and Chalkbeat in that audience segmentation, let’s call it, where the voters are very similar to parents and students in the school system. The practitioners, the election administrators, are similar to the teachers and the administrators within the schools. And then the decision-makers are very similar. In some cases, they are the same people: the state legislators, the governor, sometimes down to the school districts. There are parallels because the civic structure is very similar between public schools and voting. That’s kind of the throughline between Chalkbeat and Votebeat.

Scire: Right, both can be a patchwork of policies throughout not just the country, but within individual states. I’m guessing this depends on which bucket of readers we’re talking about, but do you have a sense, for example, that more voters read Votebeat work through the local news organizations that you’re partnering with? And maybe election officials are more likely to visit the Votebeat website?

Lorenz: Not a sharp sense, no. We do know that our weekly newsletter — which takes a national look at election administration issues — anecdotally, we’ve found that we have a critical mass of election administrators who are the readers of that newsletter. That was essentially our first news product last year as we were ramping up Votebeat and making plans for a permanent newsroom. (I emphasize the newsletter because that’s where we — and there were just two of us, Jessica Huseman and myself — were really focusing on efforts and our primary way of doing journalism.) We certainly know it’s one very sturdy foothold with this audience.

I think your theory is right that it stands to reason that the wider publishing that we did through partners in 2020, and that we’re doing now, is how we reach the wide swath of voters who probably don’t know to go to Votebeat.org to read about this material. Ultimately, we would hope to see that change; we would hope to see the site and our newsletters be the way everybody — voters, election administrators, and decision-makers — engages with our journalism.

Go: Historically, at Chalkbeat, the people going directly to our site do tend to be in the decision-makers kind of category and use our coverage to do their jobs better. So it makes sense that they’re the ones who are typing Chalkbeat.org every morning to see what’s going on. And then the very active parents and students, they also know to come to Chalkbeat and read, but I think we don’t expect the busy mom or dad with two jobs to be, you know, refreshing Chalkbeat every morning. That’s not our expected behavior, and it’s not a realistic way regular people consume news.

That’s why we lean heavily on our partners — and not just the nonprofit partners, but local TV and local radio — to get the news where people are, where they organically consume the media. It’s a two-prong strategy where we put a lot of effort into making the very active people into regular readers, making them loyal. Then we separately have a set of audience efforts that are about getting in front of people where they are and knowing that they’re not going to be typing our name into their browser every morning, but that we would love to get news about education and news about elections in front of them while they get, you know, their weather update.

Scire: Can you tell me a bit about what’s changed in the newsroom structure since we last talked, and, if I can tack this on, what you were looking for in terms of experience as you built out the team? I know this is not a two- or three-person newsroom anymore.

Lorenz: We had an ambitious number of reporters that we wanted and then we had the number of reporters that we could afford, based on our fundraising and our budget. We also knew engagement was really important to us, and that we wanted someone doing that. So — four reporters, one in each of the four states, and then Jessica and myself on the editing team, our story editor Carrie Levine, and then our engagement editor Lauren Aguirre.

And then what were we looking for, as we were staffing up? We were interested in anyone who had experience covering election administration, or even just elections, assuming that it wasn’t purely political campaign coverage. We also realized that anybody who has covered local government, or anybody who has covered policy issues at a local level, would be really well-positioned to cover this topic, especially if they felt a particular passion toward it.

We weren’t terribly narrow or restrictive about what kind of reporters we thought could be good on the topic, partly because of the expertise of Jessica Huseman and her six [or] seven years of experience covering this topic. She designed a two-week training program that all of our journalists go through, which included guest speakers and a whole system for applying the training into story pitches and source development, so that reporters were really getting up to speed. We knew that we could take a reporter who might not have had experience in elections and and get them equipped to cover this beat.

Scire: I’m glad you brought that training up. It strikes me that much of this beat is brand new to many Americans, not just folks covering election administration. I mean, just the idea that a fair election could be undermined by “throwing it to the state legislatures” or something like that. Can you tell me about how you decide to put things into context and what threads you feel you’re trying to pull on? If you draw on — or consciously avoid drawing on — sources like historians, academic researchers, international journalists who have covered threats to democracies in other countries, or legal experts?

Lorenz: That’s a great question. Two of those types of sources that you refer to really stand out to me as being key to us. Academic researchers and law experts are crucial in terms of giving the context that we need to tell these stories, partly because they’re not coming at this from a political angle or an activist angle. We need some stone-cold facts here. We need some true, authoritative expertise — and that comes from people who have studied elections for decades. Some of that does involve history; you have to know your election history to cover the story because elections have changed so much just in the last 20 years.

The year 2000, Bush v. Gore, was a major turning point in how elections got conducted in this country. The Shelby County decision, from the Supreme Court in 2013, majorly changed how elections are conducted in this country. Those historical elements are important.

Scire: I know thinking about and measuring impact is an important part of nonprofit journalism, especially for those relying on foundations and major donors. How do you think about impact? Is that a word that gets thrown around a lot at Votebeat? Do you, for example, have a stated goal of improving voter turnout?

Lorenz: Impact is, for us, what it’s all about. It’s our number-one success metric and our primary goal. The reason for that is, we are very small and we’re very new. So that’s the play that we’re making to start out with: to produce journalism that can move the needle on election mistrust, on problems with voting access, and on the threats to elections that might make them weaker. Our impact is aimed at strengthening elections. How do you produce journalism that strengthens elections? That’s the question that runs through my mind every day.

Chalkbeat has always been impact-driven, and they define and track impact in a very meticulous way and we’ve adopted that system. I have a slogan here: we assign for impact. Every story that we think through, we apply four criteria to it all related to the possibility and likelihood of producing an impact with the story.

Go: In a world where we were omniscient and we could magically track everything, I think we would love to be able to say that Votebeat increased the amount of voting happening or the percentage of people voting. We’d love to be able to say that people’s trust in the electoral system has increased. It’s very hard to measure those things out in the world, but that’s our philosophical North Star.

We don’t care about pageviews as much as we care about impact. But the thing we actually measure internally — the equivalent of pageviews — is informed debate and informed action. Those are two specific phrases that have a definition internally. An informed debate would be something like someone came to a school board meeting and said, “I read this article and I now know that this initiative is happening and I have an opinion about it.” We would record that internally as informed debate. We count them all up quarterly and try to understand where we’re trending and if we’re having a real impact in the community. Informed action is an action, instead of talking about the thing — anything from someone filing a lawsuit to legislation being changed because of our reporting. Chad, do you want to mention Potter County?

Lorenz: Yes. So this was our clearest and most direct impact that we’ve claimed. In December, a county Republican party chair in Potter County, Texas, decided that the county party was just going to run its own primary instead of having the county do it the usual way — with the county’s equipment, voting machines, and the county’s poll workers.

He put this plan together in a way that really concerned the county election administrator and the state found out about it as well and became equally concerned — these are all Republicans, by the way, including the administrators. Jessica found out about it and interviewed this county Republican party chair about his plans and then she learned about the problems it’d cause in terms of election security and voter confusion — because he was going to change where the polling places were and the method of voting — and it just started ringing alarm bells everywhere. We published that story. The New York Times liked it so much, they chased it with their own story and credited us with the scoop. A couple of weeks later, the pressure on this party chair was so intense that he backed off and decided that wasn’t such a good idea.

I think it’s fair to say that none of this would have happened if we hadn’t published our story and had it republished through some local media in the state and had Jessica on the radio talking about it. That’s informed action. Our journalism led to a decision that made elections stronger. It’s exactly the thing that I had hoped we can do with our journalism and then we did do with our journalism.

Scire: Yeah, that’s a very good day. One last question before we wrap up. When you go to Votebeat, one of the first things that you see is this tagline “nonpartisan local reporting.” I would love to hear what that means to you, and what nonpartisan election reporting looks like in a country where attacks on voting rights and on democracy are coming disproportionately from one of the two major political parties.

Lorenz: In short, being a nonpartisan news organization means that our allegiance is simply to elections and strong elections and fair elections. In other words, we believe that voting is good, no matter who you vote for. We don’t see it through a partisan lens. We don’t think that Democrats have all the answers for strong and fair elections and we don’t think Republicans have all the answers for achieving strong and fair elections, but we want to put information into that debate so that both sides can get to the answer. A lot of times the solutions that are possible for strong and fair elections are the ones that both sides can agree on.

To illustrate that with one of our stories, we’ve done a lot of coverage of a multi-state program called the Electronic Registration Information Center, a program that pulls all voter registrations together and compares them across states to determine if they’re the same voter on multiple states voter rolls. About half the states that participate are Republican-dominated, and half the states that participate are Democrat-dominated. They both benefit from this program because it keeps the voter rolls clean and that is a goal that the left and the right can agree on.

That is the goal here: to de-politicize election administration. Almost everybody in America thinks voting is good and that people should vote. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, or who wins elections, we want elections that are strong and fair enough for everyone to be able to participate in.

Ballot box photo by Element 5 used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 30, 2022, 10:50 a.m.
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