How Dublin Inquirer set a ‘citizens' agenda’ for city council elections

The independent Irish news outlet worked with 11 volunteers to create a ten-question crowdsourced agenda that over 100 candidates responded to, driving traffic and increasing subscriptions

background

This case study was first published in Engagement Explained, a fortnightly newsletter that brings you in-depth and replicable engaged journalism case studies from news organisations across Europe. Sign up here to receive the next edition in your inbox.

In a nutshell

A list of ten election issues crowdsourced from users, which were then put to 130 prospective councillors and published as a ‘voter’s guide’ on Dublin Inquirer’s website.

Background

  • Dublin Inquirer is an independent, reader-funded news outlet providing quality coverage of local government and city policy in the capital of the Republic of Ireland.
  • Founded in June 2015, it publishes up to 10 articles a week online and produces a weekly print edition, which is delivered to subscribers by post and stocked in nine locations across Dublin.
  • It operates a subscription model and currently has 1,400 subscribers split evenly across two packages: digital (€5 a month) and print and digital (€8 a month).
  • The team consists of three full-time staff members and several regular part-time freelancers, plus 16 regular contributors and columnists.
  • The team has worked with its users before on various projects (for example, they crowdfunded research to audit emergency accommodation for homeless people in Dublin) and the organisation has also run events for subscribers (for example, a debate on cycling in the city).
  • In 2019, Lois Kapila, Dublin Inquirer’s managing editor, was shortlisted for the prestigious Orwell Prize for Journalism and the European Journalist of the Year.
  • This case study builds on this excellent read about Dublin Inquirer’s citizens' agenda by Ariel Zirulnick, fund director of the Membership Puzzle Project, earlier this year.
Managing editor Lois Kapila (right) and the Dublin Inquirer team (credit: Adrian Weckler)
Managing editor Lois Kapila (right) and some of the Dublin Inquirer team (credit: Adrian Weckler)

How did they do it?

  • In January 2019, the Dublin Inquirer team began thinking about how to cover Dublin’s city council elections, due to take place on 24 May. Lois Kapila had seen professor Jay Rosen’s pitch for a citizens' agenda and subsequently published a survey asking people whether it was something a) they should do and b) that they would help with. 11 locals from different parts of Dublin volunteered to help.
  • At the end of February, constituents were invited to send in their ideas for issues that they wanted city council candidates to outline their opinions on. People could fill in a questionnaire, leave a comment, send in an email or use social media. The 11 volunteers were asked to alert 10 other people in their area to ensure as many people as possible contributed to the citizens' agenda.
  • In total, more than 200 responses were received – some broad and some very specific. Lois and Sam Tranum (deputy editor) categorised them and found that housing and transportation were the most popular issues.
  • In April, Dublin Inquirer published its citizens' agenda, with 10 questions that people wanted each candidate to answer. Some matters were broken down into more granular topics such as ‘Making renting a home in the city more affordable’ and ‘Improving cycling infrastructure’.
  • The 11 volunteers were asked to gather candidates’ contact details, send them the 10 questions and follow up with them until they replied. 68 candidates responded to the questions before 1 May, when the online voter's guide was published.
  • Candidates that didn’t reply were prompted by volunteers via email to respond to the citizens' agenda. These emails automatically copied in Sam, the deputy editor, so he could see which users were contacting which candidates. This helped the number of responses grow to 105 out of 130 candidates before the 24 May election.
  • Alongside the voter’s guide, the team wrote stories about seven of the 10 citizens' agenda issues (for example, how those running for city council would combat derelict housing), featuring candidates from each city area and party.
  • A couple of weeks after the election, Dublin Inquirer invited the 11 volunteers to join the team for a drink to say thank you for their help and gather feedback about the process.
Screenshot of Dublin Inquirer's citizens agenda
Screenshot of Dublin Inquirer's citizens agenda

What did they learn?

Process

  • While housing and transport were not surprising topics that users wanted to hear from candidates on, climate change was an unexpected inclusion and made Lois and Sam realise there was a need to produce local coverage of climate change issues. They are hoping to scale up this coverage over the next year.
  • Most candidates appreciated the chance to put across their position on policies and give context to their opinions. However, others didn’t use the opportunity very well: one candidate simply forgot to answer the final two questions in the questionnaire.
  • Some of the candidates were very difficult to reach, despite volunteers contacting them regularly and, in some cases, meeting them in person to ask them to respond to the citizens' agenda. The team heard from several candidates that they had been asked by constituents why they hadn’t responded to the questionnaire.
  • Each volunteer was offered a small fee for their work at the start of the project; nine turned it down or asked for a free subscription rather than a payment. At the end of the project, the volunteers told Lois and Sam that they had felt like they had ownership of the citizens' agenda, and they were pleased to have pushed candidates to engage with important topics.
  • The citizens' agenda was a lot of extra work for Dublin Inquirer’s small team, because it was produced on top of the digital stories and print edition. Lois and Sam were stressed out trying to bring it all together in time for the election.

Outcomes

  • The homepage of the online voter’s guide got 37,734 visits during May, with an average dwell time of 45 seconds and a bounce rate of 27 per cent. Plus candidates' individual response pages got between 200 and 1,500 visits during May, with visitors spending around a minute on these pages. Overall site visits during the week of the election and across the month as a whole were double the average.
  • 66 people signed up for a Dublin Inquirer subscription during May, which is double the monthly average subscription number the organisation had in the last 12 months. Lois believes the project was successful in increasing awareness of Dublin Inquirer’s work and gave a good impression of what they do.
  • The seven articles inspired by the citizens' agenda and designed to drive people towards the voter’s guide had between 400-800 visits each and saw high bounce rates. However, guides about the new electoral boundaries (2,100 visits, 70 second read time) and the results of the citizens' agenda (1,500 visits, 80 second read time) were better read.
  • A reader in another council area approached the team with the view of running a citizens' agenda in its region but there wasn’t enough time to make it happen. However, the team thinks it can make this work in other parts of Ireland in the future.

In their own words

Lois Kapila, managing editor, Dublin Inquirer

"The voter’s guide was about having a place where people could go to see what the candidates cared about. The citizens' agenda forced candidates to address the same questions and allowed people to compare policy positions."

How would you improve it?
"We had plans to knock on doors to speak to people about the citizens' agenda but we didn’t have the budget to do it in the end. So I’d like to try it again with that. Also there are no live debates at local council level – it would be great to do some debates."

Now try it for yourself

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