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Thursday, September 27, 2007
The Next Mayor

How an innovative media partnership aimed to change the way elections are covered

Dan Pohlig

By now, just about everyone in the Greater Philadelphia region knows the story of the 2003 Philadelphia mayoral race. For most people, that election can be summed up in two words: “the bug,” which refers to an FBI listening device planted in Mayor John Street’s office. The bug was part of a corruption investigation that eventually led to more than two dozen convictions, including the former city treasurer’s.

In the end, the 2003 election was not a referendum on the performance of the incumbent mayor over his first term or a choice to go in a new direction with different policy ideas. The incumbent’s ability to tap into Democratic resentment of a Republican president buried all attention to important, local, Philadelphia issues.

The media, eager to cover “the bug story” from any angle possible, played into this strategy by filling the pages of local newspapers and the top of local broadcasts with juicy stories of political intrigue and strategy. Few talked about what either candidate would do to stem the outflow of population and jobs that had afflicted the city for half a century.

Following that, some Philadelphia media veterans began thinking about a different way to cover the city’s elections. In 2004, shortly before Street’s second and final term began and long before any of 2007 mayoral hopefuls lined up, Bill Marrazzo, president and CEO of WHYY; Paul Gluck, then WHYY’s vice president and station manager; and Zack Stalberg, then editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Daily News, discussed a new strategy for coverage. They recalled the last open-seat contest in 1999 and how, aside from some subtle racial appeals, the election was an issues-based, citizen-driven conversation about the future of the city.

How could they recapture the spirit of ’99 for the 2007 race? A lot would depend on the types of campaigns run by each of the candidates. With new campaign finance limits in effect, voters could expect a level of “retail” campaigning not seen since the 1950s. Could there be a way to signal to the candidates that the people of Philadelphia were looking for a little more than the usual talking points and mudslinging? Perhaps the candidates could be thrown off their agendas and made to answer to the various concerns of the people.

In addition to changing voters’ expectations of the candidates, the project would seek to raise the bar for the media. In past mayoral elections, the media had played up the “horse race” aspect of the campaign, giving a majority of the coverage to political strategy, poll numbers and fund-raising totals.

While the project’s creators couldn’t control the type of coverage given to the race by other news outlets, they could strive to make sure their organizations did everything they could to take a thorough look at the issues. They could then use all of the various platforms at their disposal — print, radio, television, digital cable, video on demand, whyy.org and philly.com — to get this information into the hands of the public.

If “the issues” were to be the focal point of the project’s coverage, who would determine exactly what issues were the most important? Often, editors and news directors prioritize issues based on the ones that are covered most frequently. This method can fail to uncover some important but less “glamorous” problems in the community.

Polling has similar limitations in that people are often asked to choose from among a set of pre-selected topics, and their answers reflect what they see in the news on a daily basis. While these polls can be a helpful snapshot of the opinions of a large community, they don’t reveal the respondent’s level of understanding or how different issues affect smaller subgroups.

So the creators decided to engage directly with people to discover what issues were important to them and what they expected from the leadership of the city. They would also convene diverse groups of people in WHYY’s studios to discuss these questions. The only common thread among the focus group participants — block captains, community leaders, advocates — was that each of them, in some way, was committed to making the city a better place.

The question that remained was, “What would this project be named?”

WHYY had invested a lot of time and energy in building the Next Mayor brand during the 1999 election, so it made sense to retain that title. The Next Mayor would be ongoing, continually updated and citizen-driven coverage that would use the combined resources of the Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY.

Stalberg became the head of the Committee of Seventy, the city’s leading election watchdog and advocate for good government policies. The Committee of Seventy was added as a partner, bringing with it an institutional memory of past elections and years of data related to government policies. The project launched in December 2005.

The partnership

Each organization had a different way of contributing to the project. With a $300,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation, WHYY hired a lead producer for television and an additional producer/researcher who assisted in television production and handled the day-to-day operation of the project’s Web site and blog.

For the lead television producer, Gluck chose Wendy Daughenbaugh, a veteran television news reporter and producer who had started her own video production business and had produced a number of documentaries about Philadelphia history. Gluck picked me, because I had experience as a policy writer for political campaigns, to do research and assist with production. I would serve as WHYY’s main contributor to thenextmayor.com and its representative for the day-to-day operation of the project. Deputy Managing Editor Wendy Warren served that function for the Daily News, and Fatima Nelson from the Committee of Seventy was that organization’s main contact.

WHYY took the lead in producing the audio and video components of the project. Video crews traveled the region and visited places where people talked about the news of the day: coffee shops, barber shops, diners, markets and special events.

The crews interviewed people about issues facing their communities, what they looked for in a leader and, if they were in the suburbs, their impressions of Philadelphia. These became a series of three-minute interstitials called “Counter Intelligence,” which aired on TV-12 and were available on the Web and video on demand.

The project also sought to bring people together who wouldn’t normally interact and observe their conversations. WHYY convened seven groups of 10 to 14 people from different backgrounds to talk about the issues and their ideas of leadership.

More than 100 people, representing all parts of the city and surrounding suburbs, took part in these moderated discussions. These groups revealed much more than any poll could about how people thought of the problems facing the city. Each of these sessions was recorded, edited and made available as hourlong programs on WHYY’s Wider Horizons digital cable channel and video on demand. The producers chose the top six issues that were discussed in each of the seven focus groups and created two-minute “highlight” pieces, which were put on thenextmayor.com.

Having identified the key issues, WHYY and the Daily News examined the public statements and policy papers of the Democratic primary candidates to find out whether the candidates were talking about what the people wanted to know. Me and the Daily News’ Warren used thenextmayor.com to highlight those points of intersection and give voters a clear and thorough look at what the candidates had to say about each issue.

In the course of their normal reporting of the election, the reporters for the Daily News and WHYY 91FM did profile pieces for each candidate and provided extensive coverage of candidate appearances. The quality of the reporting reached a high level with thorough investigations of, among other things: candidate Chaka Fattah’s plan to generate revenue for a series of social programs by leasing the Philadelphia airport; all aspects of candidate Michael Nutter’s crime emergency plan; and newcomer candidate Tom Knox’s business background, leadership style and management ability. All of this content found a permanent home on thenextmayor.com.

After the primary election, WHYY got back to the issues by convening small groups of experts to talk about all of the topics previously identified. These experts explained the issues and made actionable policy suggestions for the next administration. The videos, called “Issues Forums,” aired on TV-12 throughout the summer to keep the public attuned to the ongoing mayor’s race and were made available as a weekly podcast.

In the fall, WHYY and the Daily News reorganized and relaunched the Web site to coincide with the resumption of campaign activity. The new and improved Web site included a more prominent place for the video by WHYY and additional pieces that profile each candidate. They also explored more opportunities for interactions between the electorate and the candidates via the Web. Following the election, The Next Mayor plans on providing in-depth information about building the new administration during the transition period.

Response to The Next Mayor and its effect on the election

Citizen input drove The Next Mayor project. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with many users commenting that it was an invaluable resource for tracking down the information they needed to make an informed decision for the primary election.

Other media used the project as a resource to help research their own stories and contacted the producers of the Web site for interviews or quotes. The mayoral campaigns considered the Web site a must-read and contacted the producers of the project on a near-daily basis to give additional information or clarification of statements.

Web stats for thenextmayor.com provide a direct measure of voter interest. From June 15, 2006, when tracking began, to Aug. 15, 2007, thenextmayor.com had more than 750,000 hits from more than 282,000 unique visitors.

Several community groups used the project as their source of information for organizing candidate forums. Throughout the summer, followers of the blog provided their own commentary about the topics explored in the “Issues Forums” videos. The project gave voice to dozens of people, in city neighborhoods and suburban towns, offering ordinary citizens a chance to say what they’d like to see from their next mayor.

One could measure the impact of The Next Mayor project by the voter turnout for the election. According to the official vote count, 291,492 votes were cast in the Democratic mayoral primary. That’s roughly 2,500 more people than the 1999 Democratic primary.

While at first glance this would seem disappointing, one must also consider that the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the city’s population shrunk by nearly 70,000 people between 2000 and 2006. The 2007 election also took place under vastly different conditions than 1999, with the introduction of campaign contribution limits that severely decreased the amount of television advertising. Less television advertising may have resulted in less notoriety for the election. Under these conditions, even this small gain in voter turnout, though by no means directly attributable to the work of The Next Mayor project, is encouraging.

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