The Rundown Podcast - PM Show Tile
Stay in the loop with the Windy City’s biggest news. WBEZ Chicago
The Rundown Podcast - PM Show Tile
Stay in the loop with the Windy City’s biggest news. WBEZ Chicago

Election coverage doesn’t always feel very engaging; it’s more like a horse race, focusing on who’s in the lead instead of what candidates stand for. But WBEZ’s engagement team is covering the Chicago mayoral election — and much of their journalism — a little differently. They’re collecting your questions and posing them to the candidates. It’s called “engagement journalism,” and WBEZ’s Alex Keefe tells us what it is and how they do it.

The Rundown Podcast - PM Show Tile
Stay in the loop with the Windy City’s biggest news. WBEZ Chicago
The Rundown Podcast - PM Show Tile
Stay in the loop with the Windy City’s biggest news. WBEZ Chicago

Election coverage doesn’t always feel very engaging; it’s more like a horse race, focusing on who’s in the lead instead of what candidates stand for. But WBEZ’s engagement team is covering the Chicago mayoral election — and much of their journalism — a little differently. They’re collecting your questions and posing them to the candidates. It’s called “engagement journalism,” and WBEZ’s Alex Keefe tells us what it is and how they do it.

Erin Allen: Good afternoon, I'm Erin Allen and this is The Rundown. It's almost time to vote for the mayor of Chicago and the election is kind of snuck up on us, right? I think one reason for that is because its in February, it's cold, it's cloudy, the holiday merry has worn off and it just doesn't seem like any thing that important should be happening right now. We also just had an election, the midterms were back in November. And I think elections in general can feel sneaky too because they're not the most engaging process. You hear about the drama and the mudslinging, you hear about the horse racey, "who's in the lead?" but it's not always easy to know which candidate actually shares your own values. And this is where the WBEZ engagements= team comes in. They're collecting questions from the public that they will ask the candidate's in writing and at candidate forums all leading up to the February 28 election, it's called the "People's Agenda" and it's part of WBEZ's focus on engagement journalism. My colleague Alex Keefe is an engagement editor at WBEZ and he's here to share more about the "People's Agenda." But first I asked him to give me a sense of what engagement journalism actually is. 

Alex Keefe: So when we talk about engagement journalism on our team, we're really talking about a process. So step one, we pick a very specific community of people we want to be serving with our journalism and we find a way to listen to them. This could be through surveys that could be through listening sessions and then we make stuff, you know, so we'll consult with people along the way or community organizations to sort of gut check like, hey, what's the best thing we could make to serve the community that you're serving. And then importantly at BEZ when we are making something, we want to make something that has a lot of practical utility for people's lives. So like is there a think I can help you understand. Is there a thing I can help you navigate? Is there a thing that we can help solve for you with our journalism. Every day I'm coming in and I'm thinking how can our team help people with our journalism? That's what it means here.

Erin Allen: Thank you for that overview. I wonder if you could walk me through an example of that. Like for folks who are like "I need a real thing to kind of latch on to what that means."

Alex Keefe: Yeah, so like we've done a number of workshops and listening sessions in the past, we did one recently in the summer that was all about student mental health. This is something we heard a lot about from parents when we were sort of doing some surveying online, like far and away, the thing people were most concerned about their kid's in Chicago was their mental health after the pandemic and remote learning etc., etc... So we gathered questions from Chicago school parents and we put on a virtual event with some experts, it was bilingual, to basically answer people's questions and tell people how they could get resources. We made a resource guide in English and Spanish to tell people how they could be directly connected with, help for them or for their kids and mental health. So you can see like that's what we're all about. Its about listening to someone on the front end, you know, working with the community as we're making our journalism and then finding ways to distribute it and deliver it that are maximally useful to the people who want to use it.

Erin Allen: Did anyone give you feedback about any of the ways that they used that?

Alex Keefe: I mean there's one in particular that I remember that came from a school principal actually who wrote and was like, thank you so much for doing this. Like we did not have a resource guide like this in like a one pager readily available. So like things like that feel really good. Even in really small ways, there's things we can and can't do as a journalism organization, but helping people understand their world, helping people navigate it and you know, giving them information to become their own best advocates as one of my colleagues likes to say, I feel like that's totally our wheelhouse.

Erin Allen: And so before this you were a journalist in a newsroom that was not the engagement team. And I wonder how your process has changed and how your approach to your work has changed now that you're doing this engagement journalism.

Alex Keefe: Yeah it's um I've always kind of done engagement journalism. I've always loved doing it, but it was always kind of on the side, like when I was a reporter, I actually did the first story for Curious City back in 2012, a long time ago when it was still a pilot. Um and I've sort of grown the type of work that really is centered on listening to people first as I've gone along in my career. And it's been, you know, during the pandemic especially we had such a great need for information especially because for a little while like no one knew what the heck was going on and there was such a need for journalism that was like just "tell me the basic stuff: can I leave my home, is this thing safe to put in my body?" And um we got big responses on surveys we did and I think me and a couple of colleagues at BEZ realized, "oh there's a lot of possibility here, like we should be working this into what we do more often" in addition to the investigations and accountability and daily journalism that we're doing. So that's kind of what what really started it off for me.

Erin Allen: Why would you say that doing this type of journalism is important for a newsroom like WBEZ to have?

Alex Keefe: I mean because we got to listen to people, I mean that's really - that sounds way too basic. I mean the thing I like to say, I don't know if I'm allowed to say this now, but I'm going to anyway is like my team's job primarily is not too serve our core audience. It's to be introducing ourselves to people in Chicago and communities in Chicago that frankly traditionally our media corps has not served as well as they should have. We're talking to a lot of folks who have never heard of WBEZ before. So like yeah, that is about um reaching more people, but it also again gets back to the core questions like, how can we help people with our journalism? As a public media institution, and I'll get on my like NPR you know, lifelong employee soapbox here, the Public Broadcasting Act says that we are supposed to focus on serving quote "minorities and children." And if we're not doing that, we're not really doing the thing that created public media in the first place. So I think like, public radio has a long way to go to lean a little bit harder into that. Um So those are just some of the reasons that I'm on the soapbox.

Erin Allen: All right, thank you.

Alex Keefe: You're welcome. And I'm sorry.

Erin Allen:  No apologies needed. I agree with what you've said so far. Um, I wanted to get into what you're working on right now, which is the "People's Agenda," which is focusing on the election for mayor coming up next month, which is like "what?" 

Alex Keefe: Yeah, it's like tomorrow. 

Erin Allen: Um, yeah. How are you engaging folks for that?

Alex Keefe: So this is basically like a two question survey we're asking people to take and it's really just wondering A: what are the top issues they care most about in the city election on February 28th and the Mayoral elections, and B: what question would you ask the next mayor if you could ask them a question? So two very simple things, some demographic info and we are, you know, going out in public, going out all over the city to talk to people on the streets, to talk to people at institutions, partnering with organizations that serve all walks of life in Chicago to try to distribute the survey and then we're going to that information and we're going to make a bunch of stuff out of it. So we'll distribute it to our newsrooms and BEZ and the Sun-Times and we're going to be doing some newsletters. We're going to have a series of radio debates. We're going to be building a digital tool to help us see where candidates stand on the issues that people raise the most about. So really, it's about having people set the agenda as the title suggests, and right now we're deep in the outreach phase encouraging folks to fill out the survey.

Erin Allen: Okay. I want to get into the, you know, where people can find the survey, of course, in a few minutes here, but first I want to go back to the debates, is that - you're going to have candidates actually come in to the station and talk on air?

Alex Keefe: Yeah, we're going to have a series of candidate forums the week of February 6th on Reset, the mid day talk show. So they'll be from - on sometime between 11 and 1. And those are actually going to be at locations all around Chicago. So at the University of Chicago, at Wright college, city college campus and at UIC as well. So this will be, you know, conversations between the candidates and our host and they're going to be driven by the questions we're receiving in the survey. So that's just one of the things we're going to be doing.

Erin Allen: OK, And then can people show up to the debates in person also?

Alex Keefe: Yes, you can. We ask you to register ahead of time because there's limited space, but if you go to WBEZ.org/events, I believe you should be able to register for those soon.

Erin Allen: Ok, great. Um let's get into this survey itself. So if someone is listening right now and they're like "Al, I didn't see you out here in these streets, but I want to contribute to this." How would they do that?

Alex Keefe: It's very easy to go to WBEZ.org/chicagoelections, the whole thing takes just a couple of minutes. Like I said, it's a digital survey and we ask some demographic information and then we'll follow up with you later. We'll let you know when we're making the stuff that you helped inform. 

Erin Allen: Oh, cool. So anything else that folks should know about this or engagement in general?

Alex Keefe: I mean if folks have ideas for where we should be, if you want us to come to your neighborhood, you want us to be doing outreach or you got an event coming up in the next few weeks here, please let us know you can drop it at WBEZ.org/chicagoelections. You can also email me at akeefe@wbez.org

Erin Allen: And that's a-k-e-e-f-e at WBEZ dot org. 

Alex Keefe: Roger that.

Erin Allen: All right, Alex Keefe is the engagement editor at WBEZ. Alex, thank you!

Alex Keefe: Thank you for having me.

Erin Allen: And that's it for The Rundown today. I'm Erin Allen I'll talk to you bright and early tomorrow morning.


WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.