A guide to using community organizing techniques to bring journalists closer to their audiences
This story was originally published by the Reynolds Journalism Institute.
What happens when you combine grassroots organizing techniques with journalism?
Borderless Magazine sought to answer this question when we embarked on an experiment in 2022 to use field canvassers to better understand and serve our Spanish-language audiences. We’ve learned from our mistakes and used our successes to make our journalism stronger. And we documented everything along the way in the hopes that others may learn from and be able to use our work.
I’m proud today to unveil the fruit of those efforts and our RJI Fellowship, Borderless Magazine’s Field Canvasser Playbook.
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There are large obstacles for news outlets like Borderless to overcome in order to serve our communities. People’s longstanding distrust in the media, limited Internet access and reliance on social media and nontraditional news sources (like flyers or church leaders) for information are just a few examples of the things journalists need to think about when trying to engage with their communities.
We created this guide for journalists and newsroom leaders who want to try a new way to connect with their audiences. Whether you’re in a two-person newsroom or a 200-person newsroom, we believe field canvassing can be a useful tool for both listening to audiences and distributing content.
In our first cycle, two field canvassers went out for 12 weeks and spoke to people in four predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Chicago. They did an in-depth survey with over 110 Spanish speakers about how journalists and Borderless specifically could serve them better and tested different ways of reaching Chicagoans disconnected from the news — from visiting community health fairs to standing outside of train stations to giving out free food and resources.
We start the guide explaining why we started experimenting with field canvassers and some of what we learned in doing so. We then break down working with field canvassers into eight simple steps, with tips on how to complete each step. These include, how to:
- Determine the scope of the work you want done
- Plan a realistic timeline for the work
- Decide where you want the field canvassers to go
- Hire field canvassers
- Decide which locations, events or organizations, you want to prioritize
- Document your work and learnings
- Iterate as you go
- Cross the finish line!
We tried to keep the playbook simple with the understanding that newsrooms are busy places. You should be able to read the entire guide in under 20 minutes.
Inside the playbook, you’ll also find practical things like:
- A sample job description for a field canvasser. We share everything from responsibilities to qualifications to framing.
- A list of things to pack in your field canvassing kit. Whether you’re tabling or going door-to-door, we share our favorite tools for being out in the community.
- Suggestions of where to send your field canvassers. We list 50 places to inspire you to explore your community.
This playbook was written with support from Borderless Magazine’s Diane Bou Khalil and Michelle Kanaar and would not be possible without the hard work of Borderless’ entire team, including our first field canvassers, Leslie Hurtado and Angie Lopez. We are grateful for Reynolds Journalism Fellowship Fellowship for making this guide possible and to Google News Initiative’s North America Innovation Challenge for supporting our experimentation with field canvassers
Our work with field canvassers is just beginning and we love to hear how others are using field canvassers in their newsrooms. Send us your thoughts and questions to [email protected]. We look forward to connecting with you!
Borderless Magazine’s Nissa Rhee will talk about the Field Canvasser Playbook as part of the RJI Fellows’ presentation of their newly launched products, tools, resources and toolkits on Thurs. March 16 at 11 a.m. CST. Each Fellow will give a demonstration of their resource and answer audience questions.
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