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.
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.
In the months since our first cycle, we have used what we learned from our surveys to change our editorial and content delivery strategies and made field canvassing a core part of our engagement process. The techniques we piloted in early 2022 were key to our success in our December 2022 “After the Buses” package, for example, where we collaborated with Block Club Chicago to tell the stories of a dozen migrants who had been sent to Chicago from the border as part of Gov. Abbott’s political stunt.
As the buses began to arrive, Borderless team went to Union Station and gave out flyers to newly arrived migrants that said in Spanish, “Do you want to share your story with a reporter? Send us a message or call us.” Many of the migrants didn’t have access to a cell phone and didn’t have a phone number. The idea was that when they did get access to service, Wi-Fi or a stable phone number, and were ready to talk, they might still have our information through the flyer. Through this early on the ground engagement, we were able to build trust that translated into stories that spoke to the needs of the newly-arrived migrants and their hopes and dreams for the future.
Through out our work with field canvassers, 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. Between August 2022 and March 2023, Borderless Executive Director Nissa Rhee wrote a series of blog posts for the Reynolds Journalism Institute providing guidance for other news outlets looking to work with field canvassers.
In March 2023, we launched our Field Canvasser Playbook so other news outlets could implement this technique to connect with their audiences. Inside the playbook, you’ll find sample a job description, a list of things to pack in your field canvassing kit, and suggestions of where to send your field canvassers.
Whether someone is 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.
Judges felt there was an on-the-ground practicality to this innovative project. It represents a deep investment in the community’s needs that fundamentally shaped coverage. The team then made a playbook so others could follow their lead.