National engagement project shifts focus from elections to coronavirus

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A CPB-funded project focused on engagement around the upcoming election has pivoted to supporting station efforts around coronavirus. 

Led by KCUR in Kansas City, Mo., America Amplified was envisioned to fund and help public media collaboratives mount engagement projects to elevate voices from underrepresented communities leading up to the election. But with CPB’s support, it will instead support collaborations “in how they’re covering the impacts on their community of the coronavirus and what’s happening,” said Donna Vestal, managing director of America Amplified. “And we’re trying to keep that focus on engagement and to offer support about how you can continue to engage in this new reality.”

The initiative is working with WABE in Atlanta and seven collaboratives: Harvest Public Media, Mountain West News Bureau, New England News Collaborative, Ohio Valley Resource, Side Effects Public Media, StateImpact Pennsylvania, and I-4 Votes in Florida, a collaboration between WMFE in Orlando and WUSF in Tampa.

All of the collaboratives and WABE have been developing engagement projects, including embedding reporters in underrepresented communities and staging events to connect with rural residents. Funds for the projects range from $50,000 for WABE to $125,000 for a large collaborative like Harvest Public Media, according to Alisa Barba, America Amplified’s senior editor.

Projects were just beginning to get off the ground when the pandemic hit, Barba said. The New England News Collaborative was aiming to reimagine its talk shows to reflect community concerns. It produced an hourlong post–Super Tuesday program that examined what’s motivating voters, their concerns and what others should know about their lives and communities. Other collaboratives had conducted surveys on issues including immigration and health care

The collaboratives are now reimagining their projects to focus on virtual engagement strategies around the coronavirus pandemic in the same communities their election initiatives focused on. The New England News Collaborative is shifting focus to air the first of four or five weekly talk shows about the coronavirus Friday, with participating stations taking turns producing shows, Barba said.

Side Effects Public Media had planned to engage audiences around health-care issues in the Midwest. So far, it has produced FAQs about the coronavirus based on questions from its audience. 

With the shift in focus, the America Amplified team is helping stations with engagement resources. It has published tipsheets on engaging new audiences when you can’t meet in person and how to use Facebook Live to stream a talk show. Tipsheets about virtual town halls and Instagram Q&As are also in the works, Barba said.

The project is also reaching out to stations and collaboratives via Zoom to discuss engagement strategies and plans to hold a webinar about Facebook Live next week. It has hired a translator to translate FAQs about the coronavirus into Spanish for station websites. 

America Amplified’s mission has been to focus “on community needs and aspirations,” Vestal said. “It’s never about the election explicitly. It’s about those community needs and aspirations. And so coronavirus is changing that in different ways all across the country.”

Later this year the projects “may shift back to reporting on the political process and political leadership,” Barba said. At the end of the year, America Amplified will share lessons it has learned about community engagement with the public media system.

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