“Los Angeles is facing so many critical issues – homelessness, systemic racism, and disparities around health, education, and criminal justice, to name a few. There are few places where people can go to understand the nuance of these challenges and feel informed enough to weigh in on their ballot. Campaign season is noisy and confusing, and voters can feel frustrated and disengaged. The media isn’t making it any easier. A look at recent headlines from the primary elections shows coverage framed around winners and losers, with politics as a “race” where one issue or party dominates others. People have grown weary from a never-ending cycle of bad news. As a result, engagement with local news has plummeted.” — Megan Garvey, Executive Editor, Southern California Public Radio.
In 2020, Southern California Public Radio (SCPR), a member-supported public media network, developed a set of election voting guides under its then-editorial arm KPCC (now LAist) that would break away from traditional election coverage. These early guides, now known as LA’s Voter Game Plan, dared to center the needs of the everyday voter — not the interests of institutions or elected officials — and were built around the common election questions emerging from LA’s community. Over the next three years, SCPR, in partnership with philanthropy, would be able to dramatically expand its initial bundle of election explainers into a multifaceted set of voting resources that included a comprehensive breakdown of everything on LA’s 2022 General Election ballot, debates with candidates, new digital voting tools, and many other tools to help increase voter turnout and civic engagement in the region.
The development of LA’s Voter Game Plan was not a random occurrence but rather the result of the internal evolution SCPR had been making for years. This shift came as SCPR made small but significant changes in its newsroom operations and journalism — creating a public-facing style guide called “Dialogue” that covered a wide breadth of topics, including how to report on police violence, talk about people with disabilities, and much more. Internally, they formed a DEI task force composed of staff members across the organization to create a series of recommendations to advance equity throughout the newsroom.
Even before the pandemic and the racial justice protests of 2020, the staff at SCPR were contemplating their role and responsibility as a newsroom to advance civic engagement in service of a more equitable Los Angeles. They knew it was hard for people to engage if they didn’t understand the stakes — from the basics of the jobs to be done to the mechanics of casting a ballot.
Funders also sought ways to inform the public about issues affecting their future and well-being. For some time, they had been grappling with how to get the public interested in complex problems affecting historically marginalized communities, including those addressing systemic inequality. Miguel Santana, the President & CEO of the Weingart Foundation and the Chair of theCommittee for Greater LA — a group of nonpartisan civic, business, labor, and community leaders who have come together to identify and address the long-standing systemic issues facing the Los Angeles region — contacted and immediately found alignment with SCPR, especially around its dedication to helping voters and communities become more civically engaged.
Developing the First Human Voter Guide
The concepts behind LA’s Voter Game Plan have been years in the making. Back in 2015, as part of its preliminary voter coverage, the newsroom sent a reporter to interview everyday people in Los Angeles and ask who they planned to vote for in the upcoming election. The range of responses astonished them. They discovered that many people did not even know how to vote. The information gap widened as they asked more detailed questions: What position is this candidate running for? What does the controller even do? How would you hold this candidate accountable if they were elected into office? They soon realized that the starting point they imagined for their election coverage differed significantly from what the people on the ground needed.
These insights became the basis of the first set of voter guides. Originally named the “Human Voter Guide,” SCPR set out to create a civics and democracy primer centered on the questions and needs of the everyday voter. At a foundation level, they hoped this guide would provide people with information that has not historically been accessible to help them better understand the voting process, the candidates running for office, and the responsibilities of the positions on the ballot. As a public media news organization, these guides SCPR created never endorsed candidates but gave voters all the information they needed to cast a vote aligned with their personal beliefs and values.
The evolution into the Voter Game Plan signaled a shift for SCPR on several fronts. On an editorial level, these guides compelled SCPR to apply an explanatory journalism lens to all their election coverage. It was a shift from typical voter guides because it did not post that people needed to be told who to vote for, but rather that people just needed the right resources to get started and become civically engaged. And more importantly, these guides represented SCPR’s move away from traditional political coverage that only provided a birds-eye view of an election to an approach centered on voters and strengthening our democratic processes and systems.
Partnering With Philanthropy
“If philanthropy is interested in realizing actual systems change, especially change led by those who have been historically left out, then it needs to support efforts that bring attention to systems and empower voters to ask the hard questions.” Miguel Santana, the President & CEO of the Weingart Foundation and the Chair of the Committee for Greater LA.
SCPR’s ambitions to expand its voter guides required significant resources. That meant partnership was critical. Thanks to the Committee for Greater LA, led by the Weingart Foundation and joined by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, philanthropic funding made it possible to create in-depth guides and reach target audiences. In partnership with the Committee for Greater LA, SCPR’s ambitious voter guides project came to fruition. SCPR could now conduct considerable research and the countless interviews needed to understand the roles listed on the ballots, their responsibilities, and the qualities and qualifications people seek in these positions.
As a funder of hundreds of community-based organizations throughout Southern California, the Weingart Foundation’s work, like the SCPR’s voter guide, is centrally informed by community voice. From Weingart’s perspective, low voter turnout does not indicate how strongly people feel about issues but how much (or how little) information they can access. Naturally, Weingart became interested in partnering with SCPR as it developed a tool that would simplify complex issues and demystify voting more broadly — the process, the ballot, the positions — and empower Angelinos to make decisions and exercise their democratic rights.
For Miguel, these explanatory guides also presented an opportunity for philanthropy to change how the public thinks about systems change issues and solutions. When partnering with community-based organizations, Miguel believes that philanthropy generally considers its role to be filling in the gaps where the government has failed — in healthcare, education, affordable housing, etc. However, most grants or projects do not go beyond that and do not result in changing systems. For the Committee for Greater LA, the challenge (and the opportunity) is helping people ask broader questions about why these gaps exist in the first place: How are they reflective of systemic failures? Were these policies intentionally designed not to support and include everyone? Answering these questions requires direct community investments and supporting efforts that help everyday voters converse about systemic issues and the forces upholding them.
To advance this priority of addressing systemic issues, Miguel knew that the Committee and Weingart needed a media partner that was not falling for the day-to-day traps of political campaigns — the attacks, the scandals, the misinformation, the polarizing of candidates. They needed a media partner invested in breaking down complex issues so that people could understand how the system works and how it is failing them. They also needed a partner committed to equipping people with the tools and information necessary to challenge individuals running for office, so they had no choice but to toss aside their carefully constructed political persona and answer the hard questions earnestly.
As this partnership between SCPR and the Committee grew, the possibility of creating a new media landscape became a reality. Together, they envisioned an environment that was less about the noise of a traditional political campaign and more about what people would expect from those in positions of authority. A landscape held together by the belief that issue-oriented coverage is a critical step forward for our democracy. A media landscape that recognizes that the status quo is not working and that we need new ways of thinking about the role of government in addressing our region’s most long-standing issues.
Primary Election Outcomes & Scaling for the Next Election
SCPR’s election coverage had always done well, but the reception to the Voter Game Plan for the 2020 Primary Elections was tremendous. Thanks to the ongoing promotion by the Committee for Greater LA, the Weingart Foundation, its community partners, and the immense scope and quality of the information available, the new voter guides broke the needle on SCPR’s website: they reached 1.76million page views, 2700+ concurrent visitors, and averaged ten times their daily peak website traffic. They also leveraged social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram to extend their reach to 180,000+ people, acquiring a younger and more diverse audience that likely did not listen to 89.3 radio. Anecdotally, SCPR received important feedback during a post-primary election fundraising drive, with many people citing the Voter Game Plan as a valuable resource and the reason they were donating. Others shared that they had never felt as informed about their votes thanks to the voter guides. “Our coverage of the primary elections demonstrated the tremendous impact of this approach,” stated Megan. “Our guide helped hundreds of thousands of Angelenos cast an informed vote.”
While producing the voter guides for the primary election required a significant investment of time and resources, SCPR had already built the foundation because the voting process and the positions on the ballot would not change. In effect, SCPR had created a basic template they could expand on as they prepared for the 2022 General Election. Using the lessons and framework from the Primary Election Voter Game Plan, SCPR moved to create the most comprehensive and accessible voting guide they could imagine for the 2022 General Election in Los Angeles. To start, they decided to expand the voter guides for this election beyond just major races, such as the Mayor’s position. The 2022 Voter Game Plan included various races, including the Sheriff, the Judiciary, Assembly, City Council, School Board, and other guides for county, state, and federal races. In addition, the new voter guides would shed light on little-understood government areas such as the community college system, the water districts, and information on how judges are qualified and their previous records on rulings.
SCPR’s expansion strategy for the 2022 General election also included a wide range of non-guide related tactics to increase civic engagement. They partnered with civic information hubs like libraries to assist in the distribution of materials, held listening sessions with the region’s most vulnerable populations to respond to their questions and concerns, and built a political matchmaking quiz for the Los Angeles Mayoral Race to help voters find the candidate that most closely aligned with their priorities and values. Most notably, in partnership with other newsrooms, SCPR hosted town halls and one-on-one conversations with the candidates running for Los Angeles Mayor and Los Angeles County. These in-depth conversations allowed the public to get to know the candidates and prevented them from getting off the hook with easy answers to complex questions.
Reflections on a Successful Partnership
“Historically, there’s been little interaction between funders and editorial teams,” Megan stated. “We are trying to modernize our approach. We have a shared belief that a working democracy is critical for our society. We don’t believe that’s a political position to take.”
The success of the voter guides produced by SCPR since 2020 is partly a testament to the strength of the partnership they developed with the Committee for Greater LA and the Weingart Foundation. From the beginning, SCPR and the Committee had the shared goals of empowering voters for success and changing the media narrative to make these issue-focused elections. Similarly, they both agreed that this venture would be successful if they witnessed new communities becoming active and engaged in the elections. With a shared vision and outcome established, both parties could bring together all their assets to develop strategies and goals to increase civic engagement and strengthen our democracy.
Both parties also emphasized the importance of building a relationship founded on mutual trust and respect. “It started as a conversation and evolved into a strong relationship,” said Miguel. “What I appreciated most in this process was, as a funder, not being treated as a checkbook. It was a true partnership where we listened to each other, developed concepts together, and there was an authentic sense of wanting to get it right.” Similarly, the SCPR team appreciated that the foundation trusted their skills and expertise and never directed the team on how to do their work. They had an open communication channel and frequently came together for regular conversations. Even though there were moments of disagreement, they respected each other’s roles at the end of the day. Together, they established a comfortable ground where everyone felt respected, welcome to share ideas, and aligned on a shared goal.
Looking Ahead: Expansion & Accountability
“The election is over, but this is where the real work begins. Now we begin evaluating the approaches of people who sought office and if they are carrying out what they committed to on the campaign trail. How are they implementing and evaluating success? What are the challenges they are facing? At the end of the day, do the communities most impacted by these issues feel like a difference is being made?” — Miguel Santana, the President & CEO of the Weingart Foundation and the Chair of the Committee for Greater Los Angeles
SCPR hopes its newsroom continues to be a leader and a model for what they’ve coined “engaged journalism” — an approach founded on listening intently to people’s needs and unpacking complicated subjects to make them more accessible to the everyday reader. This editorial approach will be their guiding principle as they look to scale their current voter guide efforts and branch into new forms of civic and democracy coverage in the years ahead.
Regarding LA’s Voter Game Plans, SCPR’s expansion strategy includes creating voter guides for other major regions, such as Long Beach, Santa Monica, Orange County, Ventura County, and the Inland Empire. While the basic templates for the voter guides already exist, SCPR will need to tailor each guide to the subtle distinctions in each city. They plan to conduct significant research to learn more about each city’s unique population, how mayors are elected, and how city councils are created, among other governing differences.
SCPR has also recently hired a Partnership Producer to work more closely with ethnic and non-English media to expand its reach. This position will build on their preliminary efforts during the previous elections, where they created Spanish language materials but could not distribute them widely. Given that the highest listeners of radio stations in Los Angeles are Spanish-speaking, SCPR hopes these new partnerships with media outlets will help them share their resources with an audience base that might not necessarily see itself in SCPR’s usual channels.
SCPR has also launched a new wave of coverage focused on holding the new mayoral administration accountable to its promises. On December 12, 2022, LAist launched a 12-question survey to get a clearer sense of what issues feel most urgent to Angelenos and what they believe Mayor Bass should prioritize. The survey remained open during Mayor Karen Bass’ first three months in office, and the LAist collected responses from 4,339 individuals living in Los Angeles County. While the survey does not claim to be a comprehensive representation of how all Angelenos feel about Mayor Bass’ first 100 days, one issue was the clear frontrunner: 63% of respondents cited homelessness as the top issue for Bass to prioritize. The LAist has crafted a more detailed breakdown of the survey results, which dives deeper into all the multiple and open responses, demographic data, and more specific responder recommendations.
Moreover, the results of the survey directly informed two new articles from the LAist: “Your Guide to Understanding Homelessness in LA,” which expands on the issue survey responders feel most urgent about, and a Promise Tracker measuring the progress Mayor Bass has made on the housing and homelessness promises she made during her campaign. LAist aims to update the Promise Tracker at least every three months and ask Mayor Bass to provide an update on her goals at the end of her first year in office.
With the 2024 elections on the horizon, LAist is poised to build on and accelerate these efforts — but it will take significant resources to ensure that individuals and communities in our region get the news and information they need to thrive. “Ultimately, philanthropic partnership and support will enable SCPR and LAist to build on this work so that we can provide the most compelling elections and civic coverage for Los Angeles,” Megan said.
The team at SCG was grateful to speak to Megan Garvey (Executive Editor of Southern California Public Radio) and Miguel Santana (President & CEO of the Weingart Foundation and the Chair of the Committee for Greater LA) to learn more about this unique partnership between a newsroom and philanthropy. We are excited to see this partnership continue to evolve and realize its goal of fostering an informed and engaged voting community and creating a new media landscape. We are also eager to witness the formation of new public-private partnerships that will draw inspiration from what SCPR and the Committee have created.
We encourage you to learn more about this partnership and support SCPR’s upcoming projects by contacting Carla Wohl, Senior Vice President of Development, at email@example.com. If you would like to learn more about how philanthropy can engage more effectively in civic engagement and advocacy work, please contact Emily Michels at firstname.lastname@example.org.