Readers shape Age’s election coverage by sharing 6 topics that matter to them

By Michael Bachelard

The Age

Victoria, Australia


By Gay Alcorn

The Age

Victoria, Australia

The Age demonstrated its commitment to putting the reader at the centre of its journalism with an innovative and bold approach to its coverage of the Victorian state election.

As we explained to readers, The Age was determined to focus on what mattered most to Victorians — not the narrow political concerns of the parties and candidates. The Age set out to determine voters’ key questions, then commissioned stories, explored policies and promises, and interrogated politicians and candidates to answer those questions.

The project became known as Victoria’s Agenda. At a time when people are losing trust in election coverage, it provided a chance to connect with and empower our readers.

The Age polled more than 5,500 readers and subscribers to direct its election coverage.
The Age polled more than 5,500 readers and subscribers to direct its election coverage.

What is the Agenda?

Victoria’s Agenda was inspired by the work of journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen of New York University. Professor Rosen has called for media organisations to take a radically different approach to campaign coverage. He calls it the citizens’ agenda. The audience-centric approach focuses on finding out what voters want politicians to address by actively seeking their opinions.

Professor Rosen spoke to members of The Age’s newsroom at the beginning of our project via video link to provide insights and advice. The Age is the largest newsroom to pursue such an approach.

How we did it

Victoria’s Agenda did not mean The Age shunned reporting on the standard news of the election campaign. In fact, our journalists broke the biggest scoops.

However, our commitment to Victoria’s Agenda meant we also dedicated significant time and resources to finding out what Victorians wanted to know by asking them: What do you want political parties and candidates to be talking about as they compete for your vote?

For the Agenda to be worthwhile, we had to canvas a wide range of views. To do this we:

  • Sent journalists to visit areas across the state to ask more than 150 voters the question.
  • Held eight Agenda lunches with experts and those with lived experience in key areas such as health and education.
  • Surveyed more than 5,500 subscribers and readers.
  • Conducted a separate opinion poll with hundreds of Victorians.
  • Recruited a pool of nearly 250 people who shared their views with our audience research team throughout the campaign.
  • Invited readers to answer the question via e-mail throughout the campaign. Hundreds of people did so.

From all that feedback, we distilled six questions that covered a range of issues from corruption to debt to health and housing. The questions that became Victoria’s Agenda were:

  1. How will you ensure people have access to healthcare when they need it?
  2. What will you do about the rising cost of living, particularly housing?
  3. How will you protect Victoria’s political system from corruption and misuse of public funds?
  4. What are your plans to deal with population pressures in Melbourne and the regions?
  5. What will you do to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions?
  6. Where would you cut spending or increase revenue to reduce the debt?

These questions drove story commissioning and were asked by our reporters at press conferences. They became the guiding light for our election coverage.

How we presented the Agenda

Each of the questions was given its own collection — a new digital format on our Web site that allows us to present stories together as an edition or series. Our product team also designed a special content unit for the top right-hand side of the home page that remained for the duration of the campaign. This feature allowed readers to slide across to view each of the Agenda’s questions and click through to the relevant collection of articles.

Readers had access to content developed for The Agenda directly from the home page.
Readers had access to content developed for The Agenda directly from the home page.

The collection for each question was regularly updated. Throughout the campaign, our audience research team continued to survey people on different issues, which in turn provoked new story ideas, angles, and insights.

The stories did not simply live in the collections: Most days we elevated them to the top of our Web site in a conscious attempt to move away from what Professor Rosen calls the “horse-race” style of political coverage — driven by polls and the question “Who’s going to win?” — and toward the issues our readers wanted us to explore.

By the end of the campaign, 130 articles had been written on Agenda topics, including an explainer on each question, editorials, news stories, analysis, and comment pieces. Voters also shared video responses, which were presented as a montage in articles and shared on social media platforms.

Voters shared their concerns about and feedback from the election in video format, which were then shared on social media.
Voters shared their concerns about and feedback from the election in video format, which were then shared on social media.

In the final week of the campaign, an editorial was produced each day that decided which political party had performed better on each of the six questions.

How readers responded

Some of the Agenda articles were the best-read of the campaign coverage, which attracted nearly 7 million pageviews. A story on a highly populated but often overlooked Melbourne suburb, Dandenong, stemmed from the Agenda question on population pressures. Apart from the live blog of the election result, this was the most-read election story.

This has inspired our newsroom to think more about the underserved communities on which we can shine a light.

Victorian election stories led to the most subscription conversions for the two months of the campaign, twice as many as the next topic during that time.

The approach was also endorsed in reader feedback that praised The Age for foregrounding voters’ concerns, typified by this comment: “Thank you to The Age for this approach to an election. You have some wonderful communicators, and I look forward to reading all the listening and learnings brought together. Personally, I am very hopeful of gaining a solid understanding of the issues and trade offs, framed in the local, lived perspectives you have gathered from across Victoria.”

Victoria’s Agenda required our newsroom to form closer ties with our readers and the wider community, allowing us to better represent the public’s interest in our local democracy.

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