The Austin Monitor, an innovative nonprofit newsroom that covers municipal matters in detail, sought ways to engage readers on the most mundane (read: “boring”) issues imaginable. It has found success by hosting Budget Game Nights that challenge citizens to come up with their own solutions for the city’s budget, an interactive approach that the Monitor and its project partner, Glasshouse Policy, also employ for game nights focused on transportation and land-use. “This is the most boring stuff that we can possibly do,” publisher Michael Kanin says. “And it also happens to be the most important.”
The mantra for the Monitor’s IRL engagement events could be: Simple tasks, complex issues, and good times with fellow conscientious community members. According to Kanin, “With our Budget Game Nights, we offer people a series of levers. Up and down, very basic stuff. What we hope people do is think about the priorities. Texas has a very fixed tax structure, so you always have to figure out where the money is coming from. There’s not a lot of money for municipalities to figure out how they’re going to pay for stuff, and so you have to compromise and figure out how you’re going to get the money to do what you’re going to do. It’s about taking a step back (and thinking) before we start yelling at somebody. Let’s really work to understand.”
Tools and Technology
Relying on its subscriber base and the contacts of its partners at Glasshouse Policy to attract players, the Monitor dually employs real-world engagement tactics and an interactive application. The digital interface, designed by Open Austin (their local Code for America) programmers, has a simple increase-decrease mechanism, with multiple people able to play on their own team’s device simultaneously.
The Monitor is also rolling out games that take significant preparation on the data and policy prep side, but that are strictly offline and require no coding. For its game on land use (in a city that is said to have its population double every 20 years), Kanin says participants “walk in and see a Lego board filled with pieces that will represent the current density of the city.” Then “each team gets its own Lego board [and] they’ll see the options for how things can be laid out … Then they get handed the bricks that represent the incoming population up through 2042, and we’ll say, ‘accomodate them.’”
The Monitor is still very much in an experimental phase with these projects, Kanin says, but participant surveys have returned encouraging results.“We just started asking people questions about the games and how they work, and 90 percent of the people who played the [new transportation budget game, as noted below] found it fun. Sixty-nine percent said that they learned more from the game than they would from a traditional lecture,” says Kanin. “We’ve had 75 to 100 people over the course of our game nights, and we would obviously like to push that to include as many people as possible.”
The Monitor covers city issues that are barely touched by Austin’s daily, alt-weekly, radio and TV stations, or the Texas Tribune — a niche that influences the operation’s engagement strategy: “The Texas Tribune does a lot of work at the state level, and as a part of that they host a lot of special forums,” Kanin says. “I don’t mean this negatively, but [the Tribune] takes up a lot of space, so it’s a hope for us, as a much smaller organization, to get the kind of attention that engagement requires.” For the Monitor, engagement initiatives like game nights are a way for them to double down on what people already know are their strong suits—hard policy and city reporting that connects at the local level.
Regarding sources of revenue, the Monitor’s nonprofit, Capital of Texas Media Foundation, does not receive much funding from national foundations. Instead, it relies heavily on sustaining memberships/subscriptions, which range from $5.41/month for 10 posts to nearly $100/month for full access. As noted below, partnerships are also critical for them.
The Monitor has forged some valuable content partnerships, including one with a local NPR station that helps them with PSAs for events (including Budget Game Nights). They also received a Mozilla Gigabit Community Fund grant, along with their partners at Open Austin, to do similar budget game work in schools. Kanin says the Monitor’s game nights can be done on a small budget, in part because all the coding is done by local Code for America volunteers and because the space has mostly been provided by Google (although the Monitor is now starting to have game nights in different places). Supplies are also affordable: “Legos are very cheap on eBay,” Kanin says. “You can get whole bundles of them for very little money.”
Here’s what worked
- Partnerships: This can’t be stated enough—in addition to the coding muscle provided, Kanin says the Monitor has “an equal partner in Glasshouse Policy. They specialize in new methods of engagement in a specific space. I think we’re all a bunch of nerds who have played a lot of games in our day.”
- Real Interaction: “We figured we could mix it up a bit and offer folks an interactive approach,” Kanin says. “And by using an interactive approach, we’re doing more than just talking to people. The benefit there is that you want people to be able to see the truth (as opposed to just having journalists ‘tell’ them the truth), and I think what the games do is they make it a little easier to understand the compromises that go into making a decision.”
- Environment and Execution: What’s most important is to keep the events fun and simple. “We try to keep the lectures to a minimum,” Kanin says. “We stand up and introduce the concept, we talk about budgeting, we introduce the game, explain how it works, and then we let people loose. At the end we try to give out prizes to actually make it a competition. We’ve given out some pretty good prizes. And I think what we have learned is that if the game is simple enough, and fun enough, people will participate.” Also, while alcohol is not optimal for all engagement situations, Kanin says beer has worked well as a social lubricant for Monitor game nights.
Here’s what could have worked better
- The Monitor hasn’t generated any editorial media content from the game nights yet: Kanin says this is “probably a shortcoming” — but because he’s the publisher, he “doesn’t dictate any editorial content.” In any case, the Monitor is now collecting data about people’s preferences, and he hopes to eventually be able to bundle that and make it actionable.
- The Monitor’s development game has taken some re-tooling: At first, Kanin says that organizers issued a mock “Request for Proposal” to players who signed up in advance, and then instructed those players to come prepared. But the approach didn’t really work. “This stuff’s already boring,” Kanin says. “You can’t give people homework.”
Here’s what else you should know
- Branching out: The Monitor has a new Transportation Game Night that it has hosted twice now — in San Antonio and in Austin. The Transportation Game Night incorporates different aspects from the Monitor’s other engagement endeavors.