Tony Marcano explains how LAist and KPCC are reframing coverage to better serve their community
Miesner: What is the new Civics and Democracy beat approach, what is changing?
Marcano: What we’re doing is breaking away from the mainstream approach. You will see stories about candidates that we will produce and you will see stories about the local races and the local campaigns. But it will be done through the lens of what’s most useful to voters, what is going to inform them and how we are going to help them make their choice for candidates.
That doesn’t mean that we’re going to do endorsements or any opinion pieces. We’re not trying to sway anybody towards any particular candidate. We’re trying to encourage them to get involved in the process and provide them with enough information to make truly informed decisions.
We have to provide value by demonstrating to them why the information that we’re going to provide them is relevant to their lives. Everything that’s coming out of Washington and the larger political system might seem abstract to them, but I think if we show people that we’re providing a service, that they’ll respond to that.
So you will see profiles for example of candidates to help inform people about who they are but you’re not going to see a lot of stories about incremental polls. Or we might make mention of a debate that somebody is doing, but we’re not going to cover debates by reporting that candidate A said this and Candidate B responded with this.
It has to be contextualized in a way that voters have expressed an interest in. If a debate is coming, what we want to do is invite the audience to submit their own questions. We want to be able to ask questions that we think are relevant to people’s day to day lives as opposed to kind of broader, grander policy issues.
And our goal with all of our covers, not just civics and democracy is to be distinctive and unique. And we will not achieve that if we’re doing our coverage in exactly the same way that everybody else is. And this is not a denunciation of what everybody else is doing.
Miesner: How are you changing the steps that reporters will take in order to shift the coverage from the theater of politics to the actual laws being implemented?
Marcano: We want to empower our audience to be able to engage their government better and to also help hold our elected officials responsible.
That’s going to manifest itself in not just the stories we do but in the voter guide and guides to government. And other content that we’ll put out that will help people understand the whole process of how the government works on different levels and how they can get engaged with it.
An important part of this is having a robust engagement strategy to reach out to audiences to let them know that we’re producing this kind of content and that we’re making ourselves available as a resource and inviting them into the process. Letting them know that we’re a place they can come to, to ask questions and to get information about their governments. It’s important to us from the beginning to have an engagement strategy developed.
Miesner: Tell me about how you plan to shift the focus of coverage to issues-first rather than politician-first with the Civics and Democracy beat.
Marcano: When we say re-shifting the focus, it means that we’re not starting at the institutional level. We’re not starting at the level where, say, a politician or like an agency or somebody puts out a press release with some new bill or initiative or motion or something like that. And then telling people why it’s relevant to them.
We’re starting from the point of view of the voter who, even if we explain that, may still not still feel like it’s directly impactful on their lives. We really want to flip the script and have the ideas for stories come from our audience. It’s important to us to be able to explain to people who’s on say an obscure board and/or agency that has a lot of authority and power. They can be mysteries to people and we want to demystify the government for them.
That means to some degree holding politicians accountable – but we also want to know what’s motivating those politicians to begin with. Who are they meeting with? Who controls the access to these politicians? Who sets up their daily calendar? Who approves their meetings and who doesn’t?
I think a lot of people focus solely on the politician, but don’t often focus on the people behind the politicians who are in a lot of ways making decisions and carrying out policies. That could be anybody from their chief of staff down to the workers in their offices who are fielding calls from the public. I think a lot of people just really overlook that. Politicians have an entire structure behind them, and we want to help people figure out what that structure looks like. So we hope that we can, again, demystify some of the ways the government works.
Miesner: Why is it important to shift traditional forms of elections and politics coverage?
Marcano: Well, we’re aware that a lot of the traditional coverage is only aimed at a small segment of the population. A lot of people who are following politics are already engaged in the process. We are trying to reach out to people who have become disillusioned or are just curious about how to engage their government.
And it really kind of came to a head I think after January 6. We had been talking long before about refocusing our coverage, to be more focused on voters as part of our larger strategy to be more audience first but after the January 6 insurrection, and after we had a change in our political reporter, we decided to shift into this this way of covering civics and democracy.
Miesner: What is the role of journalism in encouraging civic engagement?
Marcano: I think that we’re an instrumental part of it, we have made ourselves a main point of information in people’s lives. I think that we as media bear some responsibility in the undermining of the democratic process in some ways. And I think that’s because we haven’t empowered people to engage in government.
We do a lot of poll watching and punditry and opinions and so forth. But in a lot of ways that’s not relevant to people’s day to day lives. They want to know why they should care. And I think this polling and pundrity is not helping our audiences understand their direct role in a representative democracy.
Miesner: I’ve noticed myself consuming news differently than older generations, where I’ll see a topic is trending on Twitter, and that’s the point at which I read the news. But there’s a lot of inaccurate user generated content in that context – how can journalists work to combat that for a healthier democracy?
Marcano: We know that younger generations on our platforms are much more engaged on mobile platforms. They’re much more engaged with our podcasts. And that’s not to say that we’re going to shift everything to ignore other generations that continue to rely on us on broadcast and on our digital platforms. But we have to be aware of the landscape of how everybody consumes media and try to meet them where they are.
If we’re going to use social media, rather than having something that’s just outrageous on a TikTok, we think that TikTok can be a vehicle to do some engaging ways of explaining government to people. I don’t have a specific plan for that, but yet, but I think that our social media team will be intimately involved in how we disseminate that message.
If we’re going to put out say, guides to local government, we just can’t publish it and hope that people find it, we’re going to need to use our social media presence and other platforms to let people know the content is there to let them know why it’s important, and put it out in an engaging way.
We hope that by providing information to them, they’ll also feel welcome and trust enough of us to bring us their questions and concerns. Hopefully it’ll be a collaborative process with our audience.
Miesner: In your post about why KPCC and LAist are offering this new beat, you mentioned past social upheavals including the ‘Watergate era, post-9/11 and a tilt away from democratic principles’ Is what’s happening within media coverage now different from political moments of the past or do you think history is repeating itself?
Marcano: I think there’s a big difference between national politics and local politics. Some of those examples that I gave really were talking more about the national mood. Often, they are usually focusing it through the lens of national political issues, but we’re local. We’re a local news organization.
Even though we’re covering an area as big and as important as Los Angeles, we’re still serving a local audience. And we found that a lot of audiences will engage with us if they find these things directly relevant to their lives. But one thing that we found is that whenever people talk about mistrust in the media, some of it is deserved.
While it may be interesting to kind of engage, just read the latest tweets or whatever about somebody’s outrageous statement. It doesn’t touch directly on people’s lives. And if you tell them on the local level what’s important to know about engaging with the government, I think they’re appreciative of it. And it’s useful to them, but I think it also projects that when we’re speaking to the audience, we’re not speaking to the politicians.
We want to serve the audience and follow some of those past instances that may have changed the overall tenor of the debate and cause people to tune out. The collateral damage on the local level is that they tune us out even though we can be immensely useful to them. And I think that’s the thing to convince people of – we’re not interested in partisan sniping, we’re not interested in scolding people about the degree to which they’re involved in the political process.
I think that we are in this moment where the underpinnings of democracy are at risk, and I think what we should be doing – and when I say we, I mean my organization; I don’t really want to speak for other media – but our goal is to put people in a position where they feel like they can trust that we will bring them the answers that they need.
There’s been a lot of studies showing how local governments become more unresponsive to their constituencies as local media declines. People begin to get more and more distanced from their local officials, because there’s not people holding them accountable. There’s not a media outlet to hold them accountable and in the absence of that media outlet people don’t often know how to most effectively hold their representatives accountable, short of voting them out of office. So, it’s important that on the local level that we perform that function.
Miesner: What are some of your favorite examples of innovative work that is rethinking traditional politics coverage now?
Marcano: There are a lot of nonprofits that have been doing this kind of work. If you look at sources like Trusting News or Solutions Journalism Network, or The Citizens Agenda or Citizen University, any of those sorts of organizations.
There’s even a website in New York called The City that is providing open-source code for developing voter guides and I think there’s even a quiz that polls different mayoral candidates.
The Long Beach Post, here in our own backyard, is doing a lot of this kind of work. I think that when people look at this as new, they’re thinking that it’s not the traditional New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, CNN, etc. style of political coverage. So, again, this new way of doing things, this actually isn’t new.
Miesner: Do you have any closing thoughts?
Marcano: I guess the last thing I’d say is that this is a work in progress. Some of the things we’re going to try, we’re very optimistic that they’ll work but we’re also aware that we don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know how readers will respond, but we will be responsive to them.
If readers and listeners come back to us, and say that the way we do our coverage is not useful to them, or not interesting to them, we will adjust. But we don’t think that business as usual, in political coverage, is the answer.
The key is to try something different; to try to take a new approach to see how audiences respond. And if it’s not to their liking, we will continue to engage with them and ask them what they need from us, and then we’ll deliver it.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity by Mikaela Rodenbaugh and Kat Duncan.